THE DARKNESS OF GENESIS 1.2* It is commonly observed that in cosmogonic accounts, darkness precedes light, and is in opposition to it: it represents the chaos which precedes the cosmos. There is a half-truth in this. It is certainly the way in which mythology may express a creation story in its choice of surface language. But to stop at this point, concluding that this is what the myth is about, is perhaps to miss the deeper levels of meaning that are available merely by asking simple questions of the precise vocabulary used, its affective ranges, the order in which words occur in a text (or oral narrative), and even the simple question, are we dealing with prose or poetry? The account of creation in Genesis 1.1-2.4a begins with perhaps the most discussed verse in the entire Hebrew Bible. The only aspect of it which need detain us is the precise nuance of the term ’eres. Its Ugaritic counterpart, ars , is notoriously difﬁcult to pin down, which is perhaps understandable, given the mythological nature of much of the literature. At times it simply means (1) the ground on which we stand. At others it refers (2) more speciﬁcally to what lies underneath the ground, that is, the realm of darkness and death, the abode of the dead. And sometimes it is (3) ambiguous, carrying the overtones of both senses. Context alone guides us in the right direction when trying to interpret it. A good example of the second use in Ugaritic is the formula yrd (b)ars, occurring for instance in KTU 1.4 viii 7-9 and 1.5 v 15-16. The former passage reads:
The key phrase used here, yrd ars, corresponds to the Hebrew yrd š’wlh (Genesis 37.35) or yrd bwr (Psalm 88.5 [EVV. 4]). ’eresclearly has the same sense of ‘underworld’ in such passages as Isaiah 14.12, 1 Samuel 28.13, Psalms 71.20, 143.6,2 Job 4.23 and 15.29 (Dahood 1965-70: III, 305). More
relevant to our present context is the threefold division occurring in Psalm 89.12 (EVV. 11):
The term tēbēl occurring in the third line of this tetracolon represents the habitable and culture-orientated world lying between the heavens above and the underworld below, and separating them. This is in effect a ﬁgure for the world-constructional role of culture, keeping apart as two separate parts those features of reality which, allowed to come together again (as for example in the ﬂood story), would involve a reversion to chaos. The same threefold division may be discerned in 1 Samuel 2.8, where the opposition between the bicola in a (the dust || the ash-heap) and b (enthroning || a seat of honour) is that between the condition of the underworld and that of the land of the living, and anticipates the opposition within c:
Dahood suggested (1965-70: II, 232) that we have the same division in Psalm 77.19 (EVV. 18):
This is part of a description of Yahweh’s ﬁght with the sea, and of relevance to our present discussion is the fact that the entire universe, on Dahood’s approach, in all its three levels, responds to the divine manifestation of power. That is, even the underworld is subject to Yahweh’s inﬂuence. It may be argued, however, that his interpretation of glgl as ‘vault of heaven’ is less than certain. I think it likely that ’eresin Genesis 1.1 may be an example of the ambiguous use of the term, allowing for the ’eresas the environment of the creatures who later appear and belong to neither the sky nor the sea, while at the same time inviting the sense ‘underworld’ in the implicit opposition of the merismus haššāmayim we…hā’āres. The obvious sense of the word in its use in v. 2, where it is qualiﬁed as thw wbhw, ‘chaotic and empty’, conﬁrms the line I have taken. Indeed, whether or not we follow the interpretation of v. 1 as a subordinate clause, there is a sense in which the ’eresof v. 2 at least logically, if not temporally, precedes that of v. 1. For it is
not yet deﬁned by opposition to the šāmayim, but is instead characterized precisely by the quality of chaos. Like ’eres in v. 1, however, it remains ambiguous, and may therefore be translated as ‘earth’ (as distinct from ‘[habitable] world’ – exclusively the upper dimension – or ‘underworld’ – exclusively the lower dimension). It may be considered to contain undifferentiated within it the later oppositional senses (1 and 2) of the word. Apart from my discussion and the conclusions reached so far there is another important reason for understanding ’eres in v. 2 to be ambiguous. This is that the verse is poetry.3 This can be seen by grouping the text according to its cola:
At ﬁrst glance it appears to be a tricolon, but the second and third cola are structurally distinct, and may alternatively be analysed for the sake of argument as a classic bicolon with synonymous parallelism, linked to a preceding monocolon by the w of whšk, which demands an antecedent. This also seems a satisfactory analysis of the prosody, though in fact the structure of the whole verse is more subtle than this suggests, as we shall see. The structure of the bicolon (ll. 2-3), to follow this line of reasoning, is ab, acb, an unexpressed copula being implied in the ﬁrst colon (or even the hiatus due to the lack of a verb anticipating a double-duty use of mrhpt in the second). Recognition of the structure is important for purposes of interpretation, since it brings to the fore a hitherto unrecognized feature of the verse – the signiﬁcance of hšk – as well as resolving a problem in the interpretation of a second item of vocabulary, rwh’lhym. The two b items in the bicolon, thwm and mym, both refer to the primordial condition of the waters which after the cosmogony is complete will continue to exist above the ﬁrmament and below the netherworld, ready to irrupt and bring destruction to the cosmos in any breakdown of the system, but at the same time ready to be harnessed by proper cultic procedure for the nourishing of the world. At the same time they are evocative symbols of the underworld, as Tromp has shown (1969: 59-69). Death always contained in ancient Semitic religious thought a greater or lesser fear that it constituted total annihilation. Such a fear surely lies beneath the choice of vocabulary of a literary composition that reached its ﬁnal form in the heart of the exilic experience.