Sunday, September 03, 2017

Genesis: a phenomenological reading

1. I'm going to offer a neglected interpretation of Gen 1. A phenomenological interpretation. I'm not suggesting the account is merely about appearances. The account is constitutive. But it visualizes creation in phenomenological imagery.

The account has a few basic structuring principles. The seven-day progression gets the most attention, but other structuring principles include borderline conditions, progression from invisible to visible, and general to specific. 

2. In many respects, the opening scene is reminiscent of a world right after a flood. Down below, the land is submerged in standing water. Up above, rainclouds block the sunlight. 

3. Some scholars think the account doesn't represent an absolute beginning; rather, creation begins with preexistent matter. Water and darkness. That interpretation depends in part on the syntactical relationship between v1 and the following. Is v1 a summary statement, or part of day 1? For one interpretation:

4. Another question is whether darkness is metaphor for nothingness. If so, that wouldn't be a preexistent something. 

5. What's the relationship, if any, between water and light? On the face of it, these may seem to be unrelated substances. However, the combination of water and light may foreshadow the rainbow (Gen 9:13-17). And that, too, would fit the diluvial imagery or connotations. A rainbow is a borderline phenomenon, briefly existing between sunshine and rainclouds, as the sun begins to emerge from behind the clouds. And emergence from invisibility to visibility is one of the motifs in the creation account. 

6. Another example is the emergence of dry land. The description is reminiscent of flood waters abating. The dry land resurfaces after the floodwaters recede. 

7. A further example is the emergence of foliage. In a desert, the land may seem to be barren and deluded, but after a flash flood, there's a burst of foliage. The invisible seeds were dormant, waiting for water to spring to life. Conversely, flooding can produce an underwater forest. 

8. Then there's the paradoxical relationship between day 1 and day 4. How can there be dawn and dusk, and how the diurnal cycle be in place, before the creation of the sun?

There is, however, a very familiar condition, indeed, it happens twice a day, when you can see sunlight without seeing the sun. And that's when the sun is below the horizon. Before sunrise or after sunset. 

In addition, in winter, there's the polar twilight at arctic or antarctic latitudes, when there's daylight and sunlight even though the sun is invisible because it remains just below the horizon. So there can be a diurnal cycle without sunrise or sunset. (Of course, an ancient Near-Eastern audience would not be privy to that phenomenon.)

9. Sometimes light and darkness are opposites. That's the dichtomy between day and night in reference to sunlight. In that case, light is present when darkness is absent while darkness is present when light is absent.

But sometimes light and darkness are complementary. That's the relationship between darkness, moonlight, and starlight. It requires a darkened sky to see the stars. In that situation, light and darkness are simultaneous rather than successive. 

Likewise, hills, mountains, and shade-trees cast shadows, blocking the sunlight. Patterns of light and darkness can be spatial as well as temporal. 

8. You also have borderline conditions at twilight where Venus and the moon are visible in the waxing or waning sunlight. If it's dawn, they fade. If it's dusk, they brighten. 

9. There's a relationship between general partitions of space (land, sky, sea) and their specific occupants: land animals, aquatic animals, birds, the sun, moon, and stars. 

There's a relationship between generic light and darkness, and specific light and darkness (day and night, dawn and dusk). 

I think these aspects of the Genesis account are usually neglected because commentators aren't very observant about the natural world. Yet Genesis was revealed to people who were very attentive to their natural surroundings. 


  1. Doesn't the vocalization of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 being בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית and not לָרֵאשִׁ֣ית give more credence to it being "When God began"?

    1. The short answer is no.

      I wish scholars would be a bit more careful and honest. Reshit is a noun whose semantic range is quite often inherently definite. When you are talking about "a beginning" it is always "the beginning" of something. In fact, reshit only occurs vocalized with an article once in the entire Hebrew Bible in Nehemiah. Now, more often than not it occurs in construct and in such syntactic environments you cannot have an article, but in the few cases where it is not in construct there is still no article and it is still clearly definite in context.

      Furthermore, the "when God began to create" assumes that reshit is in construct. However, that means that it wouldn't have the article anyway. Literally: "In the beginning of God's creating . . ." = "When God began. So the real question is not the presence of the article, but the state of reshit.

      In one sense, the temporal clause translation is a completely legitimate translation. The real key question is whether reshit is in construct. The fact of the matter is, we do not have to take it in construct. It always occurs in that vocalization in the Hebrew Bible, and its vocalization is exactly how we expect a construct to look, and it is in fact almost always in construct. Hence many people assume it must be in construct in Gen 1:1. However, when it is not in construct it is still vocalized the same way. So it is not as if it must be in construct.

      Also, although it is not impossible for a perfect to follow the temporal word "beginning" to form a dependent temporal clause, the more usual way for that type of clause to be formed is for the verb form to be an infinitive. Take the comparable noun "after." In all of its occurrences forming a dependent temporal clause, 55 or so use an infinitive, only 2-3 use a perfect.

    2. On analogy, the LXX has no article on arche, but it translates Generally 1:1 as clearly an independent clause and not a temporal clause. In other words, though the LXX interpreted the first clause as "In the beginning God created" they felt no need to include an article. Arche/reshit simply doesn't need it.