The mysteries of Creation are just that: mysteries. For centuries, seekers of truth have turned to Genesis in search of answers. But I believe a more genuinely Jewish approach to these texts is to approach them with questions. The questions inspired by the Creation story open our minds to new possibilities and enrich our individual and communal quests for truth.
Questions of Truth
Three years ago, when my kids were two and four, they had some questions about the beginning of the universe. Jessica grabbed a pen and paper and started taking notes.
0. When there was no anything…
1. If God is everywhere, where can God be if there’s no world?
2. Where did God go potty?
3. Where was everything?
7. Where was the ground? Where could God walk?
8. How did he go to the synagogue?
16. How could God be real if there was no anything?
21. If God is everywhere, how can things not bump into God?
All the way to 25. How could God carry things if there were no bags?
These questions—from the sublime to the ridiculous—bear a characteristic mark of childhood. They translate into simple, familiar terms concepts far too abstract for a young mind to grasp. Emerging in response to the Torah’s account of Creation, lovingly taught to them by our wonderful preschool teachers, these questions reflect the innocent desire to understand the meaning and implications of a mysterious story.
But what happens when readers of the text—adults, this time—turn to Genesis not with questions but in search of answers?
On its surface, the story of Creation seems to offer an explanation of where the world came from. If we could turn the clock all the way back, if we could perceive the universe before there was life and an earth and a concept called light, we would find, it would seem:
וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם׃
The earth was formless and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was fluttering over the face of the water (Gen. 1:2).
In other words: No Big Bang. Sorry to disappoint.
According to our verse, the land already existed before God created light. It was formless and void, yes, but it was there (wherever “there” was). There was also a “deep” of some kind as well as water over which God’s spirit could flutter.
We can look to the Psalms for some more color commentary on this account of Creation. There we find that “God established [the earth] upon the waters, setting it on rivers” of some kind (Ps. 24:2). The “deep,” according to the Psalms, was sealed in divine treasuries (Ps. 33:7); and the primordial sea God powerfully pushed away from the earth (Ps. 74:13). Indeed, אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, the “God of gods” (Ps. 136:2) is reported to have smashed the mythical sea monster Rahab and to have asserted dominion over the council of divine beings who were themselves scrambling for authority (Ps. 89). These stories portray a violent and explosive burst of Creation emerging from a torrent of glorious divine victory.
But that’s not the only story. If we turn our attention to the second chapter of Genesis, instead of the first, the picture is very different. There, בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְיָ אֱלֹהִים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם, “On the day that the Eternal God made Earth and Heaven” (Gen. 2:4), we learn that, first of all, a flow of water emerged from the ground. Human beings were the first creatures placed on earth, and a paradise was planted for their benefit. God fashioned the animals as companions to humankind and joined them in the orchard, where God was said to walk around, perhaps enjoying the beauties of creation as much as the next guy. This portrayal is considerably gentler … even if it does end up with our ignominious expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Or again, we might turn instead to the theologies of Deuteronomy (32) or Isaiah (45). Here, the Eternal is first and the Eternal is last and there are no gods besides the Eternal. Here, God generated the heavens and the earth, forming them out of nothing and setting their courses according to divine plan. Here, perhaps, we find the biblical account that most closely resembles the findings of modern science, depicting a singular and unique origin to all that has ever been.
These varied and conflicting voices preserved in our sacred text give pause to the seeker of answers. How is one who looks for truth meant to discern the right answer from the wrong ones?
We might take counsel from Julian Baggini, the academic director of Great Britain’s Royal Institute of Philosophy. In his book, A Short History of Truth, Baggini outlines three questions we need to ask when determining whether to trust a source of authority. These questions can help the seeker chart a course to finding the answers they desire. He writes:
First we ask, is this a domain in which anyone can speak truth? …
[Then,] if we believe there are truths to be known, … [we] ask what kind of expert is a trustworthy source of truth in that domain. …
[Finally,] if we allow truth can be said about something and that there are experts on it, … then, and only then is our question about whether a particular expert is to be trusted.
So in the case of the origin of the universe, we first ask whether anyone can possibly “speak truth” about it. If the answer is “no”—if we assert from the outset that the mysteries of creation are entirely beyond our ken—then Genesis, and science as well, can offer us nothing of substance.
Perhaps, though, we can say something meaningful about Creation. Then we must ask: Who is best equipped to respond?
One path may lead us to the academy, where theorists and experimentalists design and interrogate scientific answers to the world’s biggest questions. On this path, there is assumed to be one correct answer. The universe has a particular origin, and our goal is to deduce it as accurately as we can with the estimable power of our reason. As we traverse this path, we bring ourselves into the debates of Baggini’s third question: Which experts will we follow? Some say time had a beginning, others offer that it’s always been. We do our best to lift up the sources we find to be most credible and rely on the testimony of experts we trust.
A different path may lead us to the Torah, where spiritual guides and scholars of text derive truth from the authority of Scripture alone. But I’ll be clear: this is a path wrought with confusion; for, as we have seen, the Scriptures do not speak with a single voice. It would be impossible to suggest that the Hebrew Bible can offer a single, reliable answer to the questions of the world’s beginning. In fact, its conglomeration of diverse points of view suggests that the Torah does not want us to ask it where the world came from. At least, not with the kind of curiosity that seeks a single answer to a question of fact-based, historical truth.
No, I suggest instead that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings bring us stories meant not to offer answers but to inspire questions. If God formed the universe in six days, the Torah suggests, then what can we learn about ourselves and the world we live in? If the forces of chaos threaten to break against us at any moment, then what does it mean to have faith in a God who redeems us from oppression? If the Eternal is the sole source of all being, then what does that say about us, created in God’s image?
Torah offers answers: Don’t get me wrong. But they are not ascertained by the simple acquisition of fact. The Torah’s responses to life’s biggest mysteries emerge through the process of asking questions. Our tradition instructs us to use svara—our divinely-given, human capacity to reason—to wrestle our way toward truth. Parashat Bereishit is not a record of the world’s first days. It’s a moral and spiritual challenge designed to motivate a life of openness, humility, and curiosity.
So, in the end, my kids had it right. The Story of Creation we find in Genesis serves us best when it inspires us to ask important questions.
10. Where were all the things I know? Where were the cups?
14. Where did God’s love come from?
15. Did God create love? Did it come out of the ground?
To a toddler, the creation of cups is just as mysterious as the origin of love. And perhaps there is wisdom in this for us as well. To what degree, really, are they different? And how does it matter that they are?
 See Benjamin Sommer’s “Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible,” https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/monotheism-in-the-hebrew-bible.
 In Ch. 2, “Authoritative Truths.” No page given as the text was cited from the Kindle version of the book.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”