Genesis 1: Creating Order with Boundaries

With the Torah’s bursting onto the scene of history 3000 years ago, a revolutionary worldview was born.

To be certain, the Torah was not the first to offer a narrative about the earth’s foundations and it did not introduce the concept of a God who creates the world. But with its opening passage- so simple and yet so profound- it transformed the way man viewed the world:

“In the beginning, God created the sky and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1)

One God, eternal and unrivaled, brings forth the world and the cosmos.

Compare the Torah’s perspective of the world’s beginnings with that of the existing traditions of the region on how the world came to be. They feature a Theogony- an account of the origins of the gods- followed by a competition between the gods for supremacy [1]. The process by which the world and man are formed is both a chaotic and violent affair, the product of the fleeting impulses of a given deity [2].

The Creation enterprise in the Genesis narrative, on the other hand, portrays a highly organized and efficient operation, and there is little doubt as to who is in charge. There, the earth’s foundations are put in place through God’s effortless and commanding speech. God says: “Let there be light,” and immediately, “there was light.” (Ibid, 1:3) God says, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters to divide between the waters… And it was so.” (1:6-7) Each of God’s creations silently and passively takes its place in the created order just as God wills it.

There is another prevalent theme in the biblical Creation account that further attests to the orderliness of God’s world. This involves God’s dividing up and separating of His creations, through which each acquires specific form and boundaries. God separates the light from the darkness (1:4), the lower waters from the upper waters (1:7), and the dry from the waters in the lower spheres (1:9). He then causes vegetation to sprout forth from the land “according to its kind.”(1:11-12) The sun, the moon, and stars are then formed to distinguish between night and day (1:14). Finally, as with the vegetation, the living creatures are created, each according to its type (see 1:21, 24).

What we, thus, discover with the Bible’s rendition of Creation is that achieving order entails the demarcation of limitations and boundaries. And this makes perfect sense, for, without distinctions and differences the world becomes unintelligible. Imagine if objects or people were interspersed with one another. They would no longer be identifiable or functional. Indeed, there are times when we experience the breaking down of the boundaries which give the world order, such as when a hurricane or tsunami strikes, whereby, the waters and the dry become intermingled in one fluid, shapeless, and destructive mass [3].

This capacity to function is reflected in the names assigned to each creation following its acquisition of distinct form. As a result of its separation from the darkness, the light acquires a name- “day”- which alludes to its newfound function. While light is valuable as a form of energy, day encapsulates that energy and gives it a structure that provides order to the world man experiences. Day is the time when we are awake and active. Similarly, the darkness is reformulated as “night,” the portion of the day when the world rests and recharges. The same formula follows with God’s designation of names for the rakia (“sky”), the dry (“land”), and the pool of water (“seas”).

God’s naming of His creations also reflects His power and authority. To assign a name is to express authority over the recipient of that name. People name their children, their pets, and their projects, each of which points to the ownership of the one naming over that which is being named. And, once again, with authority comes structure and stability [4].

This emphasis in the Torah on maintaining distinctions and separation is not limited to the Creation narrative alone. Elsewhere, we find injunctions against planting or grafting together different species of fruit, vegetables, or grains, on wearing clothing articles made of a combination of linen and wool, and on interbreeding different animal species. We discover laws that invoke distinctions between gender, and the spiritually pure from the impure. We also find God’s dividing humanity into distinct peoples or nations, each designated with its own political boundaries.

In truth, the creation process depicted in the pagan myths very much reflects the experience and worldview of those societies in which these traditions were born. For most of humanity, life was wrought with disorder and unpredictability, where one’s livelihood, family, and very life could be taken from him in the blink of an eye. It was a brutal existence filled with savagery and thievery where each man did what was right in his eyes. Came the Torah to announce to the world that there is order and purpose to existence, that there are limitations and boundaries to be enforced upon man, and that in removing those borders man generates chaos and destruction [5].

In our own time, it is globalization that threatens to erode those essential identity-forming distinctions and boundaries which provide man stability. Social media, for example, has enabled man to connect, at the click of a mouse, with people of vastly different cultures, values, and experiences. And while, on the one hand, this has enabled us to become more broad-minded and compassionate individuals, it has also eroded our own particular set of values and beliefs such as how we define nationhood, family, gender, and even morality. And this blurring of boundaries has, subsequently, begun to strip us of our very identity.

The effects of globalization are most visible with the current state of our children and youth who are being indoctrinated with these undefined and open values. For it is during those formative years of childhood that order and structure are so crucial to one’s emotional and psychological development. And, as a result, we are witnessing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression amongst today’s youth.

The Torah’s opening message, that limitations and boundaries are essential to ensuring a healthy and well-functioning world, is as relevant as ever.


[1] See, for example, the Enuma Elish epic.

[2] In the Atrahasis epic, man is created solely for the purpose of alleviating the workload of the gods. In Enuma Elish, the earth is formed of the remains of the goddess Tiamat who is torn to pieces by the god Marduk.

[3] In Genesis 7, God destroys the world through a flood which, like a tsunami, involves the breaking down of those barriers which divide the water and the land, thus, resulting in death and destruction. In fact, Rashi explains that the word for flood- mabul– is a variation of the term balal, meaning “mixture” or “confusion,” in this case reflecting the remixing of the water and land (see Rashi on Gen. 6:17).

[4] It is noteworthy that God’s children are forbidden to address Him by name.  Rather, He is called simply “The name (Hashem)”, “My master (Adonai)” or “I will be as I will be” such as when Moses asks God how he should respond to the Israelites’ query of who sent him to redeem them (Ex. 3:13-14)

[5] Returning to the episode of the Flood, note that it is, in fact, man and not God who sets in motion the world’s destruction by destroying those boundaries (i.e. property boundaries by stealing, sexual boundaries by committing rape, and the most flagrant of them all- crossing the boundary of taking another’s life) which maintain order and stability in the world. The text reads,

“And God saw the earth and, behold, it was ravaged (nish-hata), for all flesh had corrupted (hish-hit) it ways on earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before me because the earth is filled with violence before them. And, behold, I will ravage (mash-hi-tam) them along with the earth.’” (Gen. 12-13)

The same verb (sh-h-t) appears in describing both man’s and God’s actions, thus, suggesting that the destruction of the world was really carried out by man and only brought to completion by God.

About the Author
Gavriel Lakser most recently served as Coordinator of Academic Programs at The Herzl Institute. He was the Assistant Director and Director of Recruitment at Tochnit Shalem, and has taught at numerous post-high school gap year programs and seminaries in Israel. He received rabbinical ordination from Yeshivat Hamivtar.
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