Cosmos from Chaos

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) 188.

Actually many scholars maintain that Philo gave more weight to the narration of [Plato’s] Timaeus than to that of the Bible, and that in a certain way he considered matter eternal (at least implicitly) and had hence reduced in the ultimate analysis the creative activity of God to a demiurgic activity, that is, to an organizing activity of a pre-existent material. In point of fact such is not the case. Philo pushed well beyond the Timaeus, even if he did not achieve and even if he did not ground the theory of creation with all the clarity that we might desire (having been the beneficiaries of successive elaborations by Christian thought).

For Plato, the Demiurge was someone who fashioned the cosmos out of chaotic matter. As far as Plato was concerned, the Demiurge did not create the matter out of nothing, but he organized it into the world that we see today. Plato holds that this explains why the world is good yet imperfect: the Demiurge fashioned the world in an orderly manner, but the material that he used was flawed.

Reale seems to distinguish Plato’s idea from the biblical accounts of creation, but many biblical scholars would say, “Not so fast!” One interpretation of Genesis 1 says that God created the heavens and the earth out of tohu and bohu, which is chaotic matter. And such is the model of “creation” that we encounter in other ancient Near Eastern writings, such as Enuma Elish. A religion professor of mine once said that this model presents God as a CEO who heads and organizes things, not as an omnipotent creator who made everything out of nothing (creation ex nihilo).

The rabbis held fast to creation ex nihilo, as we see in Genesis Rabbah 1:9: A certain philosopher asked R. Gamaliel, saying to him: Your God was indeed a great artist, but sureIy He found good materials which assisted Him? What are they, said he to him? ‘ Tohu, bohu, darkness, water, wind (ruah), and the deep, replied he. Woe to that man, he exc1aimed. The term “creation” is used by Scripture in connection with all of them. Tohu and bohu: I make peace and create evil (Isa. XLV, 7). darkness: I form the light, and create darkness (ib.); water: Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that are above the heavens (Ps. CXLVIII, 4)-wherefore? For He commanded, and they were created (ib. 5); wind: For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind (Amos IV, 13); the depths: When there were no depths, I was brought forth (Prov. VIII, 24).

(The translation is the one on my Judaic Classics Library.)

Here, a philosopher is saying to Rabbi Gamaliel that the universe is so awesome because God was using good materials. It has little to do with God’s greatness! Indeed, Genesis 1 presents tohu and bohu, darkness, water, and the deep existing before God said “Let there be light,” and that could lead one to conclude that they always existed, even before God’s act of “creation” (or, more accurately, organization). But Rabbi Gamaliel shows from other biblical passages that God created these materials out of nothing, even though the rabbi kind of stretches things when it comes to tohu and bohu.

On another occasion, a rabbi is embarrassed by the materials God used in creation. Genesis Rabbah 1:5 states:

In human practice, when an earthly monarch builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, if one says, This palace is built on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, does he not discredit it? Thus, whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and bohu and darkness, does he not indeed impair [God’s glory]! R. Huna said in Bar Kappara’s name: If the matter were not written, it would be impossible to say it, viz., GOD CREATED HEAVEN AND EARTH; out of what? Out of NOW THE EARTH WAS TOHU AND BOHU (I, 2).

In Genesis Rabbah 1:9, Rabbi Gamaliel was countering those who said that God had used good materials. In 1:5, however, there is an acknowledgement that the materials are pretty bad. Tohu and bohu are chaos, after all! What kind of king would build a palace on a site of garbage? Doesn’t that undermine the majesty of God? Rabbi Huna in the name of Bar Kappara seems to resort to “Let’s have faith” in response to this puzzle.

Personally, I think that organizing chaos into a life-sustaining cosmos is a remarkable feat, whether or not God created the raw materials that he used. Also, I’m inspired by the notion that God brings order out of chaos, since there is a lot of chaos in this world, including in my life. God’s activity and laws can hopefully lessen some of that. That’s why many in Alcoholics Anonymous say that “God” stands for “Good orderly direction.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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