In the Beginning[i]
The story goes that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
This is a story of Israel and it was written down, so it seems, about 26 centuries ago, while the Israelites lived along the streams of Babylon, captives of the Babylonians. They were far from home. And when you are far from home, the big questions crop up. How did everything that is, come into being? Where do we come from and where are we going? Is there a God who wanted us to be, and made us? Why do we live on this earth, which is sometimes so much like paradise and sometimes so vile and empty? We are exiles, away from home, and homelessness is our fate. Is there a God who sees this, or are we defenseless victims of fate, of the sun, the moon and the stars? The water is up to our nostrils, our breath is taken away, – is there something to hope for? Isn’t there any one, in God’s name, who can create light in our darkness?
Listen, Israel tells a story. A priest tells it. He’s a priest without a temple. He is far from home, too. People can’t come to him to bring him goats and doves for him to offer for them. But they may come to him with their questions. And so the priest becomes story-teller. He uses the resources of long ago as well as sources of now. So this story is born, with which he comforts his people: in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…
Don’t think for a moment that this priest is talking about the beginning of the world, because this guy doesn’t know anything about that, and he isn’t interested in that either. He doesn’t tell any stories about how the world came to be-, he sings a believer’s ballad about the creation’s goal. So doing, the priest gives an answer to the question which really has no answer. The question is never satisfied, and yet the priest risks an answer.
So the priest is not going to give his despairing people a geological explanation about how God began to be involved with the heavens and the earth. Even if he knew this, he would not bring comfort to them by such teaching. No: he tells a theological story, and to the best of his ability he talks about what God intended with his heaven and his earth, with what God’s deepest intent is. Israel has been thinking about those fundamental questions of life for many generations, and especially now, in captivity, the people thinks about those questions, just like their neighbours, the Egyptians and the Babylonians thought about these things. And all the good things the priest has gathered together from far and wide, from long ago and from now, he offers the captives in the form of a song, a teaching poem. In Israel, they never teach abstractly. They always make a story, or a parable, or a song.
In the beginning … bereshit in the Hebrew language.
But what was there before the beginning?
The rabbis of Israel wondered about that, too. There is no end to the question concerning the beginning! But, so the rabbis said, the Good Book does not begin for nothing with the letter Beth. In the Hebrew language, which was written from right to left, this is how you write that letter:
The Bible begins with Beth, the Rabbis said, so that we wouldn’t be bothering ourselves with what is above, under or behind, but that we would listen to what is to come. Israel does not know any stories about how God was born, or how God came to be. He is the totally Other. In distinction from the heaven and the earth which he created, he stands above that which is created. That’s why you have the mysterious Beth at the beginning.
It’s just like a little house, that Beth, and that’s what Beth means in Hebrew, too: house. The rabbis know that very well: “My child, even though we are far from home, we have solid ground beneath our feet, a roof over our heads, we have protection behind our backs, and we have a future before us. There are those who tells us that we are ruled by mysterious forces. Others tell us there is nothing at all, just emptiness. Don’t believe it, my child. Always remember the first letter of our big Book-, it contains our entire faith.”
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth—The heavens and the erets. It can’t be translated, that little word erets, because it means both the entire earth as well as the land of Israel, erets Jisrael. The fact that this is true has to do with the faith of Israelites. You see, they somehow got the feeling that in God’s concern with Israel, God’s concern extends to the whole earth. Israel, God’s chosen people. But Israel does not think of itself as chosen on its own (except for unguarded moments). Israel sees itself, (in its best moments) as chosen by God for service. It is to serve the nations of the world. Seen from the perspective of history, Israel is not much to look at, but in the Good Book it represents all of humanity. From the point of view of geography, Israel is not much to look at either, but in the stories of faith which it tells, it that little erets which is at it were the experimental garden for the whole erets. The little history of God with this people therefore stands for the larger history of the world. Non-Jews, pagans, those who belong to the nations, the goijim, are invited to participate in its history. If you consider it carefully, that is the only reason why we sit down at the feet of the priest beside the rivers of Babylon, who is now going to tell us his story. Because, just imagine if those people there in Israel really are on to the Creator of the heavens and the earth!
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…
Heaven and earth will be the stage on which soon the story of God and human beings will take place. They belong together, heaven and earth, just like God and people belong together. The story concerning heaven can be brief, because that’s the realm of God. The story teller prefers to direct his attention to the earth.
The earth was a formless void…
This,.,something the Israel can talk about, chased around and exhausted as they are, captives along the streams of Babylon while far away their erets lies in ruin. Life is a formless void. Void and empty. Nothing can put into words more clearly how bitter life has become for the captive. The primordial flood is everywhere. Who can divide the flood? Who can cross this water?
Listen, the priest is telling a story.
He is inspired and tells his story.
A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
As an eagle that hangs shuddering and trembling in the air above the nest of its young, so God’s spirit flew over the primordial flood. When one of its young stretches its wing for the first time, and threatens to fall, the eagle takes a dive, catches its young on its wings, and returns it to the safety of the nest. Protecting, watchful, guarding, the eagle hovers above the nest of its young. So the breath of God hovers over the dark waters, hatching a plan.
And God said…
Who said that God said something? What are we to think of when we hear of this speaking of God?’ Can this really be any more than that God speaks ‘by manner of speaking’?
I was going to give my first bible lesson at a public school. “And God said,” I said, but what God said I did not get a chance to say, because at once a finger was raised and a little pagan asked: “Does God still say something once in a while?”
This boy has never left my mid since. What a wonderful question! He wanted to know what kind of stories I was going to tell. You see, back on the farm he never heard of a speaking God. Maybe that guy in the classroom heard God speak! And what was this boy to make of that? Or could it be the case that in the good old days God spoke, but that he quit now? Or is it all just so much fantasy?
I do not recall what answer I gave that boy of long ago. Now I would say to him: “Of course it is fantasy, my dear boy. Fantasy about Israel’s God. No one has ever seen God, and no one ever spoke with him. There is a cloud cover between where we live and where God lives, just like there was a curtain in the temple between the holy where people come to pray, and the holy of holies where God lives, among the cherubim. We can only fantasize about God. On the screen of the cover of clouds which hangs between heaven and earth, we project our images of God, our thoughts about God: Mother, Father, Creator, Completer, Eagle, King, Judge, Shepherd, Salesman in second-hand goods. They are images from reality as we know it, but is there anywhere else we could go to find images for God?”
Is God than just the result of our projections? Instead of saying: “God created people,” shouldn’t we then say that “people created God?” Who can guarantee us that those projections reflect reality? Maybe there is only emptiness on the other side of the screen.
That’s possible. But it is also possible that God indeed lives on the other side of the clouds, beyond our thinking, the God who created these projecting creations. All words about the above are from below-, it could not be otherwise. In the experience of Israel, people on earth every once in a while get a glimpse of heaven, and from these experiences they create stories. Of course God is different from what they had imagined. Nevertheless, they trust in all boldness that someday, when they get the chance to see on the other side of that curtain, they will see face to face, and that it will be clear that with their thoughts and their dreams and their fantasies, — they were close!
All the peoples of the world project on the screen of the cloud cover their thoughts about God. Is there any people that has done this so beautifully, and so deeply as the people of Israel? Could this be the reason God chose Israel? Did God wish to reveal himself to us by way of erets Israel on our erets?
And God said… the priest said.
And so he tries to focus on God and himself. He means to say: I think of God as someone who spoke… And the children of Israel, before the captivity, during the captivity and after the captivity, whenever the spirit of God came to hover over them, told these stories, handed them down, and told them again. They wrote them down, rewrote them and at last they gathered the fruit of their labour into a book. What they had been given, Israel gave to the people, the gojim. A gift from God.
And God said…
Let me interrupt the priest one more time, with a legend of the rabbi Susha. Susha was a student of the great rabbi of Metternich, but he was a student who never handed one word of his teacher on to those who followed him. He never listened to one of the lectures of his master through to the end. At the beginning of his lecture, when the rabbi of Metternich had read the Scripture lesson that he wanted to explain, he always started with: “And God said…” No sooner had he spoken these unmeasurable words, when it became too much for Susha, and he would be totally overcome. Then they had to bring him to the woodshed. There they heard him banging on the wall, while through his tears he yelled: “and God spoke…” “and God spoke…” What God said, rabbi Susha never heard from the mouth of his teacher. Only that God spoke.
[i] I have translated this from Nico Ter Linden, Het Verhaal Gaat…Volume I Chapter 1. Allan Groen. The page numbers do not coincide with those in the book.