There is debate nowadays as to whether Genesis 1 teaches ex nihilo creation, or whether it implies that God used pre-existing materials to create. To some extant the answer hinges on whether v1 is a first act of creation, making a formless heaven and earth which he then organises; or whether v1 is a summary, like the subsequent toledot introductions to sections of the book, and that the formless earth is the material he begins to work on.
The two interpretations of this verse have been contested (amiably) since at least the time of St Basil, though the question of creation from something pre-existent seems only to have arisen with the modern trend to attribute primitive or even censored polytheistic theology to Genesis.
In the recent prolonged thread on BioLogos on “ancient cosmology” I had just demonstrated, I think, that there is very little correlation between Babylonian cosmic geography and Genesis, especially with regard to celestial oceans. Accordingly the claims turned to Egyptian cosmology (if at first you don’t succeed…) so I began to do some reading around that.
The usual recourse to Egypt, well-represented at BioLogos, is restricted to tomb paintings of Egyptian cosmology that supposedly show a solid heavens supporting the celestial ocean (on which sails the sun-god Ra in his boat) “just like in Genesis”. As I have shown before on several occasions, but notably three years ago here, these paintings actually show the sky as a goddess, Nut, not as a solid vault, and she is supported by the far-from-solid air-god, Shu, rather than supporting anything herself. In fact, in the particular depiction I happened to use in that post, Ra’s barque is clearly shown as sailing the “celestial river” (actually the Milky Way) below Nut. If there is a heavenly ocean in that picture, it is actually supporting the sky, rather than the reverse.
Ra travelling below the heavens is actually shown in another “modern” depiction of the Egyptian cosmos (if you look carefully!), which is just as misleadingly physical as the more prevalent “bubble universe” pictures, but is interesting because it contradicts them in almost every respect, including the absence of infinite waters either above or below the earth – they can’t both be right, but both might be wrong:
But I want to get away from all that, because my explorations showed some more important stuff. Although the Babylonian cosmos stayed broadly unchanged over millennia, it is usually forgotten that there was no single Egyptian theology or cosmology, but that they both varied widely across the regions of Egypt, and across the centuries. For example Old Kingdom Hermopolitan cosmology (from middle Egypt) has even within itself 4 incompatible creation myths in which (a) the cosmic egg was laid on the primoridal hill that rose out of the primordial waters by a goose and Re came out as a bird of light (2) Or the air that proceeded from the cosmic egg was laid ON the waters by an ibis. Or (3) Re emerged from a lotus flower (ON the water), or (4) a scarab was transformed into the child.
This matters because the cosmos depicted in the celebrated coffin paintings came from Upper Egypt (Heliopolitan theology) in the Old Kingdom. But the earliest involvement of Israel in Egypt, during the captivity, was in the New Kingdom centuries later, and things had changed radically. After the Exodus, there was little Israelite involvement with Egypt before the Exile saw Jews settling there, in the middle of the first millennium. Things had changed theologically even more by then.
It’s true that New Kingdom coffins were still painted with such scenes, but these theologically conservative funerary rites were all about invoking the goddess Nut’s protection after death, in the hope she would make one like a star in the heavens – physical cosmography was not in the frame at all:
Nut’s other important role, as sky goddess, led to her close association with the coffin lid. This lay above the mummy, just as Nut was supposed to stretch her star-studded body over the earth. In an important prayer, first found in the Pyramid Texts, the goddess is beseeched to spread herself over the deceased in a gesture of protection: ‘O my mother Nut, spread yourself over me, so that I may be placed among the imperishable stars and may never die.’ Versions of this text were commonly written on coffin and sarcophagus lids and, beginning in the New Kingdom; figures of Nut in various protective attitudes were also depicted.
But in the land of the living, theology had been completely transformed by the cult of Amun-Re:
The Old Kingdom conception of Egypt as the cosmos and uprisen land (“ta-Tenen”) in the midst of chaos (“Nun”), had been replaced in the New Kingdom by the naturalism of the Sun (“Re”) and its course (prototype of the Divine “creatio continua”). The New Solar Theology (shortly before Akhnaten’s heresy and after) explained this in terms which rejected :
“the entire mythic, pictoral world of polytheistic thought.” (Assmann, 2001, p.201.)
This change may have been prompted, the scholars think, by the political and social upheavals that ended the Old Kingdom certainties. The Old Kingdom theology of Heliopolis in Upper Egypt was polytheistic, with a prominent role given to the King as an actual divinity, the intermediary between the gods and mankind, responsible for maintaining cosmic order (ma’at). But the “New Solar Theology” elevated the importance of the Sun in his various guises, pursuing his daily course, into a virtual monotheism under the banner of Amun-Re. Amun-Re not only governed all that happened day by day in the world, but he was the Creator of both the cosmos and all other gods. Accordingly, although the gods still nominally had their allotted roles, in practice they were marginalised in favour of the all encompassing power of Amun. Strictly it was henotheism – practically it was “virtual monotheism”. It also relativised the unique role of the Pharaoh, making religion a far more individual affair.
Modern egyptologists like Jan Assmann point out how this development makes sense of the famous and shortlived Armana period of Pharaoh Akhnaten. His “heresy” consisted not of monotheism itself, but of making monotheism absolute (by abolishing all deities except the face of the Sun, the Aten), and of making himself the sole mediator between the Aten and mankind, in a kind of throwback to ancient centralising practice. What was restored after his death was not polytheism, but the “moderate” New Solar Theology in which Amun-Re was all in all, yet the other gods were still acknowledged:
Hence, oneness characterized all possible transform-ations of Amun-Re :
- before creation : Amun (here “Re” should not be added, because there was no Sun god in existence yet) is a primordial god, “existing” before existence (like Atum in Nun) ;
- during creation as sole creator : Amun-Re is the creator, transforming the primeval word into the cosmos (as Atum hatched out the primordia egg by himself) ;
- after creation as pantheon : Amun-Re is “hidden” behind all other deities who are his images, forms, manifestations, transformations and names.
Now, it is in this kind of Egypt that a man like Moses would have grown up in the royal court, and in which Israel would have been enslaved. If Egyptian religion influenced Israel’s faith at all (and it has proven dangerous to speculate on such borrowings), the strict monotheism of Genesis is not an implausible anachronism, but something “in the air” at the relevant period. Furthermore, the non-naming of the sun on Day 4 of the creation narrative as simply “a light” made by God is very pointed indeed as a rejection of of something much more sophisticated than primitive polytheism: it states graphically even Amun-Re in all his glory is not the true God. Yahweh, then, is not just a theological or philosophical concept, but the immanent, yet utterly transcendant, individual God who acts for, and legislates for, his chosen people in a unique way.
But there’s more. At the time of Moses, Memphis was a hugely important centre in Lower Egypt, even after Rameses II built his new capital at Pi-rameses:
In the New Kingdom, Memphis became a centre for the education of royal princes and the sons of the nobility.
Its patron deity was Ptah, and at this time it had its own theology very much parallel to the cult of Amun-Re. Indeed, Ptah was seen as the original deity from whom Amun came, rather than his arising from Atum as the Old Kingdom Heliopolis theology had held. Furthermore, and highly significantly for the Genesis account, unlike Atum, whose creative activity was an almost accidental result of the god’s self-pleasuring, Memphite theology held that Ptah created all things through the power and wisdom of his spoken word.
Additionally Van den Dungen explains that, although Memphite theology retained the belief that order was created from disorder, Ptah himself was seen as the originating power behind even the primordial chaos, rather than simply existing alongside it:
The Memphis Theology attempts to supersede the Heliopolitan doctrine on three accounts :
- Ptah is all-encompassing : he is the Great One of pre-creation, first time & creation ;
- The Great Word spoken by Ptah creates the Ennead, whereas in the Heliopolitan view, Atum creates the deities through onanism ;
- mind in the heart and creative speech by the tongue are like the semen and the hands of Atum, i.e. the Great Word spoken is the first cause and not Atum’s mythical & pre-rational initiatoric act of taking semen in the hand and in the mouth.
Atum, in contrast, had somehow created himself from the primaeval waters, which therefore pre-existed him and made him a product of the universe. Israelite monotheism, surely, cannot have been less pure than the Memphite theology Moses would have been taught, probably in Memphis itself. Not only are we reminded of Yahweh’s divine fiat by the power of Ptah’s word in creation, but the problem with which I introduced this piece, whether God created ex nihilo or from chaotic primal matter, is dissolved at once by comparison with lower Egyptian New Kingdom belief, in which Ptah was before even the chaos. If the world, and text, of Genesis begins from disorder (tohu wabohu), it is a disorder spoken and willed by God, not of itself – or else Yahweh would prove inferior to Egypt’s Ptah:
Now what do we read in the theology of Memphis ? Nun [the chaos waters] and Atum are manifestations of Ptah (who, like Atum, is also depicted as human). Although the meaning of his name is unknown, it might be derived from the verb “to make”, “to create”. He creates All with his words and takes on the form of everything, for Ptah is Nun, is Atum, is all gods & goddesses and so his work is happening all the time in all of creation and also outside of it, i.e. in the pre-existence of chaos. Hence, there is no outside of Ptah.
Here, in fact, there is a difference from Yahweh in that the cult of Ptah is panentheistic in a way that Yahwism was not. Yet taking that difference into account, this summary is more “Christian” than some forms of scientistic deism and semi-deism: creation is God’s continuing activity, not merely a highly-tuned big bang with “natural” consequences. “In him we live, and move, and have our being.”
The way that Memphite theology, like Amun-Re theology, assimilates and sidelines the old gods is shown in this Hymn to Ptah:
Hail to You, You who are great and old, ta-Tenen, father of the gods, the great god from the first primordial time who fashioned humanity and made the gods, who began evolution in primordial times, first one after whom everything that appeared developed.
He who made the sky as something that his heart has created, who raised it by the fact the Shu [God of air] supported it, who founded the Earth through that which he himself has made, who surrounded it with Nun [god of chaos] and the sea, who made the Duat [place of the dead] and gratified the dead, who caused Re to travel there in order to resuscitate them as Lord of Eternity and Lord of Boundlessness, Lord of Life.
He who lets the throat breathe and gives air to every nose, who with his food keeps all humanity alive, to whom lifetime, more precisely, limitation of time and evolution are subordinate, through whose utterance one lives.
He who creates the offerings for all the gods in his guise the great Nile, Lord of Eternity to whom boundlessness is subordinate, breath of life for everyone who conducts the king to his great seat in his name : “King of the Two Lands”.
Papyrus Harris, British Museum, XXth Dynasty, ca.1150 BCE, painted papyrus, from Thebes, height 42.5 cm., in : Morenz, 1973, p.182.
It is remarkable that the God of the Exodus, and the God of the Genesis creation narratives, considers even such a sophisticated conception of deity to be one of the false gods of Egypt. Yet though to Israel Yahweh is real, and Ptah is not, it is useful to our understanding of the Genesis account to consider that in Ptah’s lordship over everything, including primordial chaos, and in his creation by divine logos, he is like Yahweh. Israel wasn’t simply promoting their primitive divinity in competition to the crude idols of the nations: if there is historical truth in the Covenant of Sinai, the God of torah revealed himself in an already sophisticated theological context.
I would also argue that in the marginalisation of the “cosmic gods”, and the physical realities they represent, through the actual Egyptian theology Moses grew up with, we have some good indicators that Genesis is unlikely to be over-concerned with “ancient science”, for even Egyptian texts of that late period are not. Still less is Genesis likely to be teaching beliefs about theoretical physical mysteries (like a hard heaven or a cosmic ocean) that might lie behind daily experience, because they were of little interest even in Egypt: remember that hymn to Ptah, in which the whole stress is on how Ptah made Shu to hold up the sky, and not on what the sky is like.
Genesis theology, then, was radical enough without the need for things in which even the Egyptians had lost interest in their contemplation of God himself. Van den Dungen points to how the older egyptologists failed to notice what the texts were really about:
Early 20th century egyptology was modernist, positivist, antiquarian, Hellenocentric (if not Europacentric) and reluctant to accept the fact Ancient Egyptians were also able to speculate, think and be truly spiritual and philosophical. Hellenocentrism, Europacentrism and a refusal (and/or inability) to understand figural and analogical thought by its own standards, compromized the understanding of ancient religious, philosophical & spiritual texts. This mentality is not extinct, although the old crocodiles are nearly all gone to meet the Balance.
The same has to be true of “early 20th century Old Testament Studies” with respect to the Ancient Israelites and their supposed “ancient science”. That mentality, likewise, is not yet quite extinct amongst Evangelicals of a scientific bent.