Silent Running

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  Genesis 1:3  NASB

Let there be – I suppose this is a bit better than Paul McCartney’s version (“Let It Be”), but it still sends us in the wrong direction.  The English suggests that God was involved in some kind of command bringing light into existence.  But the verb “to be” doesn’t work that way in Hebrew.

Very seldom in the ot is hāyâ used to denote either simple existence or the identification of a thing or person. This can be illustrated by a quick glance at almost any page of the KJV on which one will find numerous examples of words such as “is, are, was, were,” in italics, indicating that these are additions by the translators for the sake of smoothness, but not in the Hebrew itself. In such cases the Hebrew employs what is known grammatically as a nominal sentence, which we may define most simply as a sentence lacking a verb or a copula, for example: I (am) the Lord your God; the Lord (is) a sun and shield; the land (is) good; and in the nt, blessed (are) the poor. This almost total lack of hāyâ as a copula or existential particle has led some to use this phenomenon as confirming evidence that “static” thought was alien to the Hebrews, the latter thinking only in “dynamic” categories (see Boman in the bibliography below).[1]

In other words, the verse really says something like “‘Light!’ And Light!”  But this isn’t the most interesting aspect of this Hebrew sentence.  If we read it in the context of the prior verse, we discover something quite astounding.  It is God’s voice that creates, and this creation is not from nothing at all.  It is out of the murmuring deep.  The voice breaks the murmur, making a space for light.  Consider Zornberg’s comment following Slavoj Žižek’s insight:

Sheer voice, without words, plays an uncanny role in communication.  In the biblical narrative of creation, ‘ . . . the earth was without form and void, and there was darkness upon the face of the tehom—the murmuring deep.  And God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:2).  In this translation, the watery deep is full of murmuring; God’s first word interrupts a murmur, neither speech nor silence.  The English murmur amplifies the complex harmonics of the Hebrew tehom (usually translated simply as ‘deep’).  These include the roots, hamah, hamam—hum, murmur, coo, reverberate, roar, growl, groan, stir, rush, tumult, sound of a great throng.  Slavoj Žižek suggests that something beyond silence precedes Creation.  Before the first word of the world, there is a background noise, desolate, alien, full of potential life, but lacking in form or meaning.  When God first speaks, then, He creates silence.[2]

“Oh, no!” cry the Creationists.  Nothing means “no things at all,” not “no ordered things.”  But what does the text say?  After the introduction of “darkness on the face of the deep,” and “formless and desolate emptiness,” God does something that organizes.  He creates silence so that His word can be heard as a performative utterance.  What was once cosmic noise, chaotic, without structure, whispers of emptiness, now has distinction.  There is form and there is void, and in that form-space, light appears. So, if hāyâ is almost never used to designate existence, why should we think it does so here?  What if the whole point of this verse is to describe the divine intervention into ontological chaos?  That would make perfect sense to ex-slaves from Egypt.  Existence rested on the sea of chaos, according to Egyptian cosmology.  God opens the space needed for a world of order, and He does so by first interrupting the murmur.

Don’t let the first few words of Genesis 1:1 (which, by the way, are not nearly as clear as most translations suggest) suppress your reading of the “deep.”  Think Egyptian!

Topical Index: hāyâ, to be, creation, silence, murmuring deep, light, Genesis 1:3

[1] Hamilton, V. P. (1999). 491 הָיָה. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., pp. 213–214). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,  Moses: A Human Life, p. 54.

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Gayle Johnson

What a perfect post for this day. I wonder if His voice would have sounded (to human ears, if there had been any at that time) like a trumpet? I cannot think like an Egyptian, because my brain is already full of images and definitions I was taught throughout my life, and they have skewed my thinking.

Nevertheless, if we are image bearers, what happens in the cosmos, when we vocalize praise to Him? I sometimes picture the entire earth, with voices sending praise from all over, and wonder if it is pleasing to Him. May it be so today.

Richard Bridgan

Emet! “He creates silence so that His word can be heard as a performative utterance.”