Saturday, February 17, 2007

Theodicy in the Priestly Creation Myth?

One of the ideas I've been kicking around for my eventual MA Thesis is a continuation of some of my ideas here about theodicy. That is, perhaps my Thesis would look at the moral and religious implications of theodicy, while also perhaps expanding the concept of theodicy to include other kinds of religious attempts to wrestle with the problem of evil. Evil, suffering, pain, and the like are, after all, not just philosophic, theological, and especially logical problems for a particular brand of theism that asserts God's unlimited perfection and goodness. They are experiential problems for all persons.

For my Intro to Judaism class I'm currently reading The Divine Symphony: The Bible's Many Voices, by Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In it he notes the problem that evil poses for all forms of monotheistic religion, not just the philosophic theism that sticks to a strict concept of divine omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence:

The most crucial problem facing monotheistic religion is the source of evil. In polytheistic religions, evil can be blamed on wicked divinities. But if there is only one God and God is perceived as good and merciful, how can we explain the existence of evil in the world?

This question, Knohl asserts, was burning in the minds of the Priestly editors of the Torah. It can even be seen beneath the text of the first Creation Myth of Ancient Israel, found in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. That myth, in Source Theory, is traditionally attributed to the Priestly Source, a source that is seen by many scholars as a later voice from the post-exhilic period, but is seen by Knohl as a pre-exhilic voice. In fact, Knohl argues quite convincingly that the what he calls the "Priestly Torah" can best be dated to "the period between the building of Solomon's Temple (tenth century B.C.E.) and the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah (second half of the eight century B.C.E.)."

This is important for him, because he argues that the Priestly Torah was a response on the part of the "elite priests in Jerusalem" to a crisis in the social and religious climate of Ancient Israel - a crisis spoken to by the great prophets of that time.

That there was a socio-religious crisis in Ancient Israel at that time is beyond dispute: the texts of Amos, Isaiah and Micah all speak to it. Knohl succinctly describes the crisis in a single sentence:

People thought that they might acquire sanctity by meticulous performance of the cultic laws, ignoring at the same time the social-moral commandments.

In response to the attack on the Temple cult that followed the prophetic articulation of this crisis, Knohl argues that the priests made public stories and traditions that they had long guarded, and the result was the formation of the Torah text. This, of course, was an ongoing process - they didn't just publish a single, definitive manuscript. But, at its heart, according to Knohl, the Priestly Torah - that is, the parts of the Torah that are attributable to the Priestly Source - are a response by the priests to this socio-religious crisis.

Anyway, the first creation myth in Genesis is part of what Knohl calls the Priestly Torah. In addition to responding to the contemporary crisis that Knohl sees as responsible for the Priestly Torah, Knohl argues that this myth is also in part a response to the problem of evil as it might have been understood at the time.

The problem of evil is, after all, not exactly a new problem. In previous posts we have discussed this a little, when looking at one of Augustine's theodicies from the 4th century CE. However, it wasn't a new problem in Augustine's day, some 1650 or so years ago. In fact, it was an ancient problem even in antiquity; perhaps as old as monotheism, or even old. Human beings have, as best as we can tell, been wrestling with the experience of pain and suffering for as long as there have been both human beings and pain and suffering. And, at some point, every religion must account for the origins of this experience, which we label "evil."

So it should come as no surprise that the Priestly Torah, in its creation myth, struggles with the nature of evil; particularly since, as Knohl notes, in Judaism as with all other monotheistic religions, there is no evil deity for the problem to fall back on.

After providing us with a reading of Genesis 1:1-3, and a brief discussion of the syntax, Knohl writes:

The most striking conclusion that follows from this observation of syntax is that before the formation of light, which was the first act of God as Creator, there were already entities that predated God's creation. These primordial materials consisted of unformed and void earth (tohu v'vohu), darkness (hoshekh), and deep waters (tehom). Thus we do not have in Genesis 1 a claim for creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihlo).

Before we go any further I should note, for those of you who may feel threatened by the idea that there is no Biblical support for creation ex nihlo, that Knohl is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who takes the Biblical text very, very seriously. In other words, he is not some radical like me who seeks to overturn the religious apple cart. His work is his attempt to come to terms with the text of his Bible, a text in which he sees the Word of God. This reading, then, is one that comes out of the Biblical text itself, and not a radical reading that somehow manipulates the text. In fact, this reading is much, much more faithful to the Biblical text than any reading that would see creation ex nihlo in this story. Creation ex nihlo is an extra-Biblical concept that has been read back into the Bible by those who sought to see the Greek philosopher's God in the God of Ancient Israel. That it has become "orthodox" in the Christian tradition demonstrates that even the most "orthodox" of Christians have sought to re-interpret their scriptures in light of their cultural setting, just like we "liberals" do today.

But, the question before us is not one of "orthodoxy" v. "heresy" in the contemporary Christian context. Rather, it is one of what Knohl makes of these three pre-existing primordial entities, and how they relate to the problem of evil as understood by the priestly editors of the Torah.

We cannot interpret tohu v'vohu as a designation for formless matter, as it is often interpreted; rather, it is a reference to some primordial entity that preceded divine creation and that was used in that process. Elsewhere in the Bible, the word tohu means "desert," "waste," "devastation," and this is also the meaning here. God begins Creation assuming the presence of this primordial tohu. On the first day, God created light as a contrast to the preexisting darkness. On the second day, God separated the preexisting water by forming the expanse of heaven. On the third day, God gathered the original waters that were left under the expanse, and distinguished the earth from the seas.

We see here a progressing process of ordering, making distinctions, and building up from preexisting substances. This movement from chaos to order in the myth is important, because it presents us with a both progressive and ongoing picture of Creation. Creation is not a one time event in the past, in which God made everything ex nihlo. Rather, it is an ongoing story that takes place in time, in which God shapes that which already existed, while adding to it, ordering it, and making important distinctions between "light" and "darkness," water "above" and water "below," and between "sea" and "land." These distinctions correspond to the three primordial materials that Knohl translates as "darkness," "deep waters," and "unformed and void earth."

In positing these primordial substances, in overtly saying that "some elements of the universe were not created by God," Knohl sees the priestly editors as both attempting to explain the existence of evil and as placing "limits" on "God's force and authority as Creator." He argues, in fact, that this aspect of the creation myth is an overt attempt to solve the fundamental problem of evil:

The primeval elements tohu, hoshekh, and tehom all belong to the evil sphere. Hence, the Priestly claim that these entities predated God's Creation is really a claim about primordial evil. The three elements comprising the preexistant cosmic substance are the roots (put another way, the substance) of evil in the world. At the conclusion of the Priestly account of Creation, it is written: "And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good" (Gen. 1:31). All that God had made was very good. Evil was not made by God. It predated Creation in Genesis 1!

This reading presents us with a much more religiously and morally satisfying kind of theodicy. In it God, rather than explaining evil away, takes the preexistant substance of evil and shapes it into something good.

This is very similar to the way in which Process Theology in the Christian tradition looks at the relationship between God and evil. In both accounts God is somewhat limited, in that there are things beyond God's creative power. And, in both cases God actively works, in an ongoing process, to address the problem of evil. This divine activity demands our participation, calling us to co-create with God; that is, to work with God to help alleviate suffering by shaping evil into good.


Bea said...

This has nothing to do with your post, but I wanted to say HI HI HI! Heather and I have talked about you several times in the past few months, and I kept meaning to email you or something. Well, here I am finally! I've missed talking to you!

crystal said...

placing "limits" on "God's force and authority as Creator.

this was the idea in the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner ... that God is not all powerful.

but does this answer work if one is trying to find a way out of the paradox of a good, all knowing, and all powerful God allowing evil?

Maybe I'm mixing up the poweful part with God being the author of all creation?

Sandalstraps said...


Good to hear from you. I've missed talking to you, too. Please do email me. I'd love for you to finally meet Sami and Adam.


As best as I can tell, a good, all powerful and all knowing God could not, would not, allow evil. As such, something has to give: either evil or God, or at least God's unlimited perfection.

This is not a theodicy in that it does not defend an unlimited God - there are limits placed on God here. But it is a theodicy in a broader since, in that it is an attempt to reconcile faith with the experience of suffering, the fact of evil.

It is, in other words, a faithful reponse to evil, and that can be seen as a kind of theodicy. I do not, however, object to this kind of theodicy, for reasons that will be explored in more depth (I hope) in future posts.

Tyler Simons said...

Creation ex nihlo is an extra-Biblical concept that has been read back into the Bible by those who sought to see the Greek philosopher's God in the God of Ancient Israel. That it has become "orthodox" in the Christian tradition demonstrates that even the most "orthodox" of Christians have sought to re-interpret their scriptures in light of their cultural setting, just like we "liberals" do today.

I'm certainly sympathetic to the thrust of your comment, but I'm pretty sure some very "orthodox" Christians would have some kind of argument that an absolutely sovereign God (which, I think, is rather different than Hellenistic theist models -- correct me if I'm wrong) must, somehow, have created the universe ex nihilo. Maybe there's some kind of argument possible that the orthodox understanding of God is a holdover from some Hellenized notion. That's certainly what Schubert Ogden would say.

Catherine Keller wrote a book called Face of the Deep where she advocates for a Creatio ex tehom and connects it with feminist theory and, as you suggest, Whitehead's process thought. It's a really neat book.

crystal said...

I see. I haven't found a theodicy that really works for me so far, but I like David Hart's effort at it in his book, The Doors of the Sea. He has an article online that encompasses most of it, and discusses natural evils (the tsunami) - link

Anonymous said...

Tyler, I'm in agreement with you that, whatever the origins of the absolutely sovereign creator-god ex nihilo, they aren't clearly from within Hellenic philosophy. Certainly neither Neoplatonism (Plotinus, Proclus, and the like) nor Stoicism had a God like that. In fact, the Christian belief that God creates out of nothing is significantly un-Greek. I take nothing to be different even than the "void" of atomistic Epicureanism; it's literally nothing, not just "empty space." I would be interested in hearing Schubert Ogden's argument otherwise, however.

I think that creation ex nihilo is one of that small handful of distinctively Christian theological developments. It's not just a holdover from 1st-century CE Judaism, and it's not clearly (pace the "demythologizing" theologians" an extra-Christian import from the Greeks. It's not in the Bible, really (at least, not in any clear way), but pretty early on Christians began thinking of creation that way. I have my own pet theories about why early Christians began talking that way, but they wouldn't alter the substance of what the Sandman is saying here.