Sunday, October 7, 2007

Bereishit I: The Purpose of the Creation Story

עתה אפרש פירושי הראשונים בפסוק זה להודיע לבני אדם למה לא ראיתי לפרש כמותם. יש מפרשים בראשונה ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ. אי אפשר לומר כן שהרי המים קדמו כדכתיב ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים. ועוד שאין כתוב כאן בראשונה. אלא בראשית דבוק הוא כמו ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל. והמפרש כמו תחלת דבר י"י בהושע, כלומר בתחלת ברא אלהים את השמים, כלומר בטרם ברא שמים וארץ, הארץ היתה תוהו ובהו וחשך על פני תהום ורוח אלהים מרחפת על פני המים, נמצא שהמים נבראו תחלה, גם זה הבל, שכן לא היה לכתוב והארץ היתה תוהו ובהו, שמאחר שעדיין לא נבראת לא היה לו לקרותה ארץ קודם יצירת המים מאחר שהמים קדמו. אך זה הוא עיקר פשוטו לפי דרך המקראות שרגיל להקדים ולפרש דבר שאין צריך בשביל דבר הנזכר לפניו במקום אחר. כדכתיב שם חם ויפת וכתיב וחם הוא אבי כנען, אלא מפני שכתוב לפניו ארור כנען ואילו לא פורש תחילה מי כנען לא היינו יודעין למה קללו נח. וישכב את בלהה פלגש אביו וישמע ישראל. למה נכתב כאן וישמע ישראל? והלא לא נכתב כאן שדיבר יעקב מאומה על ראובן? אלא לפי שבשעת פטירתו אמר פחז כמים אל תותר כי עלית משכבי אביך אז חללת יצועי עלה, לפיכך הקדים וישמע ישראל, שלא תתמה בראותך שהוכיחו על כך בסוף ימיו. וכן בכמה מקומות. גם כל הפרשה הזאת של מלאכת ששה ימים הקדימה משה רבינו לפרש לך מה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא בשעת מתן תורה זכור את יום השבת לקדשו [וגו'] כי ששת ימים עשה י"י את השמים ואת הארץ את הים ואת כל אשר בם וינח ביום השביעי, וזהו שכתוב ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום הששי, אותו ששי שהוא גמר ששה ימים שאמר הקב"ה במתן תורה. לכך אמר להם משה לישראל, להודיעם כי דבר הקב"ה אמת, וכי אתם סבורים שהעולם הזה כל הימים בנוי כמו שאתם רואים אותו עכשיו מלא כל טוב? לא היה כן, אלא בראשית ברא אלהים וגו' כלומר בתחילת בריאת שמים וארץ כלומר בעת שנבראו כבר [ה]שמים העליונים והארץ, הן זמן מרובה הן זמן מועט, אז והארץ היתה, הבנויה כבר היתה תוהו ובהו, שלא היה בם שום דבר, כדכתיב בירמיה ראיתי את הארץ והנה תהו ובהו ואל השמים ואין אורם, ראיתי ואין אדם, מעוף השמים ועד בהמה נדדו הלכו. וזהו תהו ובהו, חורבו מאין יושב. וחשך על פני תהום זהו ואל השמים ואין אורם. ורוח מנשבת על פני המים. והוצרך הרוח למה שכתוב לפנינו ויאמר אלהים יקוו המים מתחת השמים אל מקום אחד גו', כי על ידי הרוח נקוו המים, כמו בקיעת ים סוף שנתראית היבשה על ידי ויולך י"י את הים ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה וישם את הים לחרבה ויבקעו המים:
Here Rashbam tackles the famous problem of the first verse in the Torah, noting that he will depart from two main interpretations that preceded him. He first cites the interpretation that sees this verse as sustaining the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which claims that God created the world out of absolute nothingness. This notion is already present in II Maccabees 7:28 and seems to be implied in the Septuagint's rendering of this verse as "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth." This interpretation wants to emphasize that God created heaven and earth, rather than merely forming them. Rashbam rejects this as unfounded in the text, since it does not solve the problem of the primeval water mentioned in the next verse, nor does it fit with the word בראשית, which means "in the beginning of" something, as opposed to בראשונה, which would be the appropriate word to signal a first point in time. He then cites a second interpretation that tries to contort the verse such that it implies that before God created the heaven and earth, God created the primordial water, thus preserving the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, while attempting to address the grammatical problem highlighted above. But this solution doesn't work either, since then there is no point in the text commenting on the state of the as-yet-uncreated earth as being in a chaotic state before describing the creation of water. Indeed, as Rashbam notes, and as did Rashi before him, we are fortunate in this case to have a verse in a totally unrelated context of the Tanakh that hews to the same grammatical form as this one and clarifies what is going on here. Hoshea 1:2 states:
תְּחִלַּת דִּבֶּר ה' בְּהוֹשֵׁעַ וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל הוֹשֵׁעַ...
The grammatical structure here is clear. The verse means, "When God began speaking to Hoshea, God said to Hoshea..." Accordingly, our verse should be rendered: "When God began creating heaven and earth, the earth was wild and waste..." This reading returns us to the fairly straightforward read, if interpreted without any preconceptions. The narrative begins here with a variety of preexisting matter: heaven, earth, water, an abyss and some form of divine wind. The process of creation here is of the transformation of chaos into order, not necessarily of nothingness into existence. So why do the two interpretations cited and rejected by Rashbam avoid this seemingly obvious interpretation? The answer is theological and cosmological, not exegetical. The notion that God created the world from nothing attains dominance over time--most strikingly in Christian thought--as a natural outgrowth of a monotheism that asserts that there can be no force in the universe other than God. Once God is supposed to be the source of all power, the notion of preexisting matter becomes potentially troubling, such that earlier texts will be read in ways to avoid that implication. This transition from the monolatry (worship of one God alone, but openness to other potent, albeit weaker, forces) of many of the sources in the Tanakh to the monotheism (belief in a single God who is the Creator of all) in Second Temple sources is a phenomenon beyond the scope of this post, but the doctrine of creation ex nihilo seems to be the logical extension of that process. [Note, however, that Rambam, among others, despite his assertion in the Commentary on the Mishnah that one must believe that God preceded all created things, acknowledges in the Guide for the Perplexed that the Platonic notion of creation--which held that God only formed preexisting matter but did not create it from nothingness--was not antithetical to the essence of the Torah's narrative of creation. He clearly preferred the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and presents this as the Torah's view, but he displays in the Guide sensitivity to the fact that the Torah itself never actually asserts this doctrine.] Back to Rashbam. A good medieval Jewish monotheist thus wants to see God as prior to all things. Many are willing to contort the text to fit this notion. But what is a peshat-focused exegete like Rashbam, who cares deeply about what the text actually means, to do? He asserts that God is prior to all creation, the heaven and the earth included, but that the Torah begins mid-scene, detailing the events of creation part way through their unfolding. The heaven and earth, along with the water, were already created at some unspecified time in the past; their origins are not the focus of our text. So what does our text care about? Here Rashbam introduces us to his notion of הקדמה, the ways in which the Biblical text introduces us to details that are critical for setting up a later passage. Just as we must learn the seemingly irrelevant fact that Ham is the father of C'na'an in Bereishit 9:18 in order to understand Noah's curse of his son through his grandson in 9:25-27, so too Moshe here wants to make intelligible the command of Shabbat that is to come eventually in Shemot 20. That text will speak of the fact that God created the world in six days, resting on the seventh, and therefore we must follow suit. But that command only makes sense if we have that story as part of our narrative. The creation story thus becomes a prop for understanding the Torah's central concern about time, which is not about what happened when the universe began, but what is to happen in contemporary human societies once a week. He uses this model to explain the cryptic הששי that is different from all the other day designations, which lack the definite article. This, says Moshe in telling this part of the creation story, is the sixth day, that one you keep hearing about as the last in a string of work days before the weekly rest kicks in. This interpretation obviously solves an exegetical and a theological problem at once, allowing a philosophical commitment to coexist with a close reading of the plain sense of a sacred text. But this resolution opens up much more. It provocatively suggests that the only reason we care about the creation story in the first place is as a way of anchoring the type of religious world we are trying to create today. As opposed to reading Shabbat as a response to the facts of creation, Rashbam inverts this: the creation story is the sustaining narrative for the prior command to create a holy society that respects the world as having a transcendental, non-human origin. The implications of this sort of approach can be unpacked much further, as it empowers us to view many of the Torah's narratives as being in service of its central normative claims on human beings, moving us away from speculation on the historical origins of the universe and towards contemplation of the ramifications of those origins for how we behave today. [For other instances of Rashbam's notion of הקדמה, see: Bereishit 1:5, 8, 9, 10, 27; 29:31; 38:22]

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