“The Creation Stories,” the first of a three-part lecture series by Associate Professor of Classics Edan Dekel, took place last Sunday afternoon in front of an audience comprised of both students and community members at the First Congregational Church.
Dekel’s areas of expertise include Greek and Roman poetry, comparative epics, ancient Judaism, medieval literature and biblical studies. After receiving his BA from Brown, Dekel went on to obtain his masters and Ph.D in classics from UC-Berkeley.
Genesis is a “re-adapted text,” Dekel said. “There are two creation narratives that begin the book of Genesis.” There have been several scholarly theories surrounding the construction of Genesis, speculating that it is a haphazard combination of two different texts. However, Dekel asserted that the “explanation for the juxtaposition of this narrative is not an editor’s mistake,” but rather a deliberate and careful construction of text that is meant to achieve a specific effect.
The first creation story is organized from the top down. It has more “formulaic language, is more austere and is more remote than the second creation story. The culminating event in the first story is the creation of mankind,” Dekel said. In what is considered the “second story,” God is still the central creator, but the earth is built from the bottom up. Essentially, it is “creation out of nothingness,” he said.
Dekel went on to explain that Genesis begins with the temporal clause, “In the beginning,” and continues with “what is perhaps the most ambiguous verse in the entire chapter, if not within the entirety of Genesis: ‘When God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.’” It is unclear as to whether this background of chaos is happening during God’s creation of heaven and earth or whether it was the state of nature before God’s work. The narrative fundamentally suggests that God created the world with no resistance. It does not require “sweat or birthing out of a cosmic egg,” Dekel said humorously, but rather a repetitive linguistic structure of “God said, and it was.”
Light, as an entity, was created before the bearers of light, like the sun and the moon. Dekel explained that “[light] is everywhere but we can’t really contain it … [the sun and the moon] are restricted by nature, whereas light, particularly to the ancient observer, was not restricted in any way.”
This idea of creation through speech was brought up in a question fielded from an audience member. Dekel explained that the phrase “God said” implies that God is language. Language is the differentiating characteristic between humankind and all of God’s other creations. God gives man the power to name living creatures in Genesis 2, a powerful gift that also carries heavy responsibility. By naming someone or something, “you’re defining them … setting up their entire life story,” Dekel said.
Dekel went on to explain how God created, and thus separated, man and woman, similar to the discrete creations of the sun and the moon. In the same way that light must be created before it can be shaped and formed, “man” must have been created before “male and female.” The word “man” in Genesis 1, therefore, does not allude to a particular sexual characteristic, but rather references both genders and the greater Homo sapiens species.
Dekel recognized that there has been speculation that the second creation story is a more detailed account of the end of the first creation story. In the final lines of Genesis 1, it seems that man and woman were created at the same time, but in the midst of Genesis 2, there appears a second account of the creation of man and woman. This could be the “telling [of] the same story from different perspectives,” Dekel said. “Angle makes a great deal of difference. The first story is told from God’s perspective, and the second story is told from [the] human perspective … [The] text dwells on process in the second, whereas the first deals with schematics.”
Dekel also drew a connection between the Hebrew word for “man,” adam, and the Hebrew word for “ground,” adamah. These two words are so sonically alike that anyone would assume there is a direct connection. However, the relation is of a “material nature rather than a spiritual nature,” Dekel said. Man was made from “the dust of the ground.” The wind that sweeps over the water in the first line of Genesis is the same wind or breath of life that God breathes into man’s nostrils. This “anthropomorphic detail” suggests that God is “resuscitating man,” Dekel said.
Dekel closed the lecture with an evaluation of God’s creations, man and woman, after the fact. “God speaks, he differentiates, then he names it, usually, and then he evaluates it – ‘God saw all that he made, and it was very good,’” said Dekel, quoting Genesis. Having said that, it is important to note that God did not see man as “good” after his creation. Consequently, God provided man with a partner – woman.