I sometimes like to imagine the first sentences of my favorite novels bonding together at a bar.
“Middle-of-the-story sentences have it so easy,” Pride and Prejudice’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” would mumble, sipping a drink. “They can laze about, convey no ideas whatsoever, describe nary an action… And who would even notice?”
“You are so very right,” would sigh another first sentence, maybe “It was the best of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. “They can hide their sloth in the shadows of exciting plot lines and compelling characters. What do they know of the lonely limelight of a story’s beginning, before any plots or characters can step in to steal the show?”
For indeed, the opening sentence of any story stands alone and exposed. It will either spark our interest or it won’t. It will either set the tone or it won’t. It will either lure us in, or — you guessed it! — it won’t. And if it fails — if we stop reading — that poor, overburdened sentence will have nowhere to hide its weakness and its shame.
The opening sentence of the Book of Genesis does this job without beating around the bush or betraying any insecurities.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
Boom. The protagonist: God. The subject matter: The creation of the world. Can it get any bolder than this?
But instead of sallying forth from this story to the next with the same direct attitude, Genesis stops after its very first story, and starts again.
“These are the ‘Toldot’ (histories or offspring) of the heaven and of the earth when they were created,” states Genesis 2, turning the object of the previous chapter (the created world) into the subject of the next. Only then, and almost as an afterthought, does it bring God into the picture, adding, “in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.”
Wait, why is God — our Protagonist — suddenly relegated to a clause? And what happened to the straightforward, get-to-the-point-and-use-the-active-voice tone of the book’s very first sentence? And why do we even need a second creation story in the first place?
Many commentators and thinkers have written at length about the differences between the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and how they portray humanity’s nature and roles. But as we are about to reread the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible this Shabbat, and a beginning that starts with the words “In the beginning,” no less, I want to focus on the beginnings of these creation stories. What tone does each of them set? What do they make us, the readers, expect from the rest of each story?
And do the stories deliver on these expectations?
Let’s start with Genesis 1: The opening words focus our attention on God’s actions and intentions. They successfully convey God’s prowess through their simplicity. There are no caveats, delays, or deliberations. God did X, c’est tout.
The second creation story shifts our attention to the heaven and the earth. Or does it? Perhaps we’re supposed to focus on their “toldot,” which are technically the subject of that sentence. But what are those, exactly? What can we make of a word that usually means “offspring”/”generations” when we talk about the heavens and the earth?
Perhaps the complicated and meandering nature of this second first sentence indirectly tells us something valuable about its subject: while God can act directly and clearly, the created world is complicated, confusing, and often opaque.
With this in mind, does each of the creation stories in Genesis deliver on the expectations they respectively set? Is the first story a tale of unchallenged progress and action, and is the second a story of complications and delays?
I leave that question to you, but with a friendly reminder: all stories must meet some expectations to feel cohesive. But stories that fail to surprise us aren’t often retold, and some surprises hide deeper than others.
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I would like to finish with a Parasha Prompt.
Had the Bible been a novel, we could have described the second story of creation as a shift in points of view. After hearing God’s version of creation, the Bible lets us hear what the world itself experienced “behibar’o” — as it was created.
So let’s try something similar in our own lives. What did you recently create (my answer, for example, would be this blog post)? And how would your creation describe the experience of being created, in its own words, and from its own point of view?
We can also take the opposite approach, of course. Think of the last time something or someone changed or affected you. Now reimagine that experience, from that something’s /someone’s point of view.