I was just reading an introduction to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein written by the author when I came across a line she wrote that has really stuck with me. Describing her process of writing and how she came to pen the novel, Shelley wrote, "Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos." She was describing her process of accessing her imagination. And here we are this week considering the process of creation, or invention, as Shelley put it, in the first section of the Torah, Bereishit.
Interestingly, we Jews get two creation myths, not just the standard one typical of many religions and cultures. It's right there in Bereishit, the first section of the first book of the Torah. In the first version of creation we have a recounting of what God formed on each of the first six days of existence- light and darkness; water and sky; land and vegetation; the sun and the moon; creatures of the sea, creatures of the land and creatures of the air; and finally on the sixth day God created human beings and gave them dominion over all. Then, we learn that on the seventh day, God rested, and the concept of Shabbat, or the Sabbath, was born. Immediately following this version of creation (roundabout Genesis 2:5) we encounter the story of Adam and Eve and have a somewhat different rendition of how God created humankind. Of note, but not a subject I will take up here, in the two different renditions of creation, God is referred to in two different ways. In the first God is Elohim; in the second God is Adonai Elohim, despite the fact that these two stories are juxtaposed in the Torah. It makes one wonder what'a going on here, but again, that's a line of inquiry for another time.
I want to return to Mary Shelley's statement about invention, or creation. She said it arises from chaos, not from the void. Does Judaism concur? Well... yes and no. In the first version of creation, we read, "When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth being unformed and void, [my emphasis] with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water, God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Clearly this version indicates that there was a void; something was created from nothing, and of note, God spoke light into being. (This too is worthy of much consideration - how God spoke things into being, but that too is for another day.)
In the second version of creation, God formed Man from dust and located him in a garden God had planted. God then creates animals to accompany man, but none are sufficient, so God fashions Woman from the Man. So, first of all, in the two stories the order of creation is reversed, animals before Man in the first; Man before animals in the second, but more importantly for our purposes, in the Garden of Eden there was already dust from which to form Man, dust that swirls in the wind, not a void, but more of a chaotic, crazy situation. There's more though. As we follow the narrative a bit more, we learn that a serpent informs Eve that if she eats the apple, contrary to God's dictate, she will not die, and then the snake goes on to say, "God knows that as soon as you eat of it (the Tree of Knowledge) your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine begins who know good and bad." Now, how does the serpent know this? Is the serpent smarter than the human? And how can the serpent know the future, i.e. what will happen to humans once they eat of the Tree of Life?
I think the answer may well be that the serpent, a representation of chaos if there ever was one, was there before this world was created, and knew very well that the net effect of eating from the Tree of Knowledge would be to return us to a chaotic state.
Judaism contains a notion of worlds being created from worlds. This is one of the notions contained in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The implication could be that this world we inhabit was created from the residual chaos of previous worlds, and who knows... the serpent could be an entity from that previous world. But we don't need to go to these mystical realms. What we do know is that we come from dust and we return to dust, and that perhaps represents the truest version of creation. We know from our physical scientists that entropy is the natural state of the universe. Disorder is the default, but we can try... and try... and try to get back to the Garden.