Even if creation story isnt exact, it helps us find order in chaos

Genesis 1:1-6:8
I Samuel 20:18-42

The familiar biblical story of creation is majestic in scope and magnificently crafted. It remains one of the most well-known, beautiful and controversial narratives in biblical literature. Those who choose to read the Torah literally must contend with the conflict that arises in comparing the Torah’s account of creation to what is scientific fact. For some, the biblical account is immutable and its emphasis on the intelligent design of the cosmos is touted as “a reasonable alternative” to evolutionary science. Once again schools have become the battleground where religion and science clash. Other believers discount the controversy by arguing that the Bible suggests an evolutionary approach to the creation of life, and that a biblical “day” may in fact have been hundreds of millions of years.

It has always seemed to me to be a mistake to assume that the Torah, and the creation narrative in particular, was intent upon teaching scientific theory. In fact, the Torah’s primary concern is our relationship to God and to “the other” who is also God’s creation. The creation narrative reads very much like a poetic epic, utilizing poetic structures and techniques to create profound spiritual meaning.

Consider, for example, that the entire narrative is built around the number seven. Of course creation takes place in seven days, but the emphasis on “sevens” goes far deeper than this. The biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto discovered that multiples of seven appear consistently throughout the narrative. The first verse of Genesis consists of seven words; the second verse has fourteen words. “God” appears in the story thirty-five times. The words “heaven” and “earth” appear twenty-one times each. The passage devoted to Shabbat consists of thirty-five words. The heart of the passage consists of three core phrases (demarcated by the etnachta trope), each with seven words, and each of which includes the phrase “the seventh day.”

With this magnificent structure the author, whether Divine or human, dramatizes the foundational place of Shabbat in the structure of the cosmos, placing it at the very heart of Jewish life.

The power of the Genesis narrative is magnificent. It depicts an orderly world, created in wisdom, established on a conscious separation of natural domain and differing species, with clear boundaries to create a structure in which life might thrive. Finally, it contains a vision of human life that expresses both blessing and challenge. The startling revelation that human beings are created in the image of God provides the basis for imagining that we might actually be capable of learning to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Surprisingly, the narrative of Genesis chapter 1 is not the only creation story in the Bible. There are at least half-a-dozen creation narratives, including the second chapter of Genesis, which describes a variant order of creation, and the poetic retelling of the story in Psalms 104 and 74. What makes the Psalms particularly intriguing is the dramatic element they introduce: “It was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters … You fixed all the boundaries of the earth” (Psalm 74:12-17). In this retelling, God must battle against the forces of chaos before creation is possible.

The creation drama of the Psalms hints at a world in which chaos survives, struggling against the structured order of God’s creation. This poetic image is far more in keeping with human experience. We see the damaging of the global ecology and the crumbling of societies when war unleashes chaos. We fear the rumblings of chaotic feelings within us, causing suffering to others and ourselves. We fear the chaos of irreversible illness.

The point of creation is the emergence of a stable society within a life-sustaining order. When we feel overcome by the surrounding chaos, we can be encouraged and comforted by a commitment to be partners with the Holy One in standing between the chaos and creation.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.