Monday, 8 August 2022

A Linguistic Theory of Creation

by Thomas Scarborough

Creation of the Earth, by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)

Perhaps it has been obscured through familiarity. There is an obvious curiosity in the opening chapters of Genesis (the creation of the world). Step by step, God creates the world, then names the world—repeatedly both coupling and separating his* creating and his naming.
Would it not be more natural simply to describe God’s creative acts without embellishment? Would not a description of his creative acts alone suffice? Unless God's naming has some special significance in the narrative, it may seem quite superfluous.

Under any circumstances, the opening chapters of Genesis are supremely difficult to interpret. Bearing this very much in mind, the purpose here is to present an alternative view—unfinished, unrefined—as a new possibility.

Existing interpretations of Genesis include the following:

  • Heaven and earth were created in six days
  • The six days were six (longer) periods of time
  • The earth’s great age was ‘created into’ a six-day sequence
  • Genesis represents the re-creation of the world
  • Genesis stitches various creation stories together
  • Its purpose is to glorify God, not first to be factual
  • It is a synopsis, which may not be sequential
  • It is a myth
  • It is a spiritual allegory
  • It describes a dream of Moses

Here, then, is a new alternative—presented merely as a possibility—for greater minds to examine the rough edges and (possibly) inadmissible ideas on an exceedingly complex text.

We begin with a simple linguistic fact. Names, in the Bible, were often commemorative. The ATS Bible Dictionary sums it up well: ‘Names were assumed afterwards to commemorate some striking occurrence in one’s history.’ Therefore, an event took place—then it, or the place of its happening, was named: Babel, Israel, the Passover, and so on. In fact, often with a pause.

If we assume that the creation account in Genesis includes, similarly, a commemorative naming, then the account may separate a stage-by-stage creation of the world from a stage-by-stage naming of it. With this in mind, there would then be four stages to each act of creation in Genesis. For example, in the NASB translation of the Bible (abridged):

  • ‘Then God said, Let there be light.’
  • ‘And there was light.’
  • ‘And God called the light day.’
  • ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day.’

One may reduce this to two stages:

  • God created.
  • Then God named it.
And with some nuance, we may possibly say:

  • God created, within unspecified periods of time.
  • God named his creation during equal pauses (days), as commemorative acts.

In this case, Genesis could be viewed as a series of linguistic events. Its opening verses could set the tone, as a linguistic announcement: ‘And the earth was formless and void’—reminiscent of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, ‘In itself, thought is like a swirling cloud, where no shape is intrinsically determinate. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure.’ 

Further, one may see a major linguistic shift in Genesis 3:7: ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened …’ We have, from this point, the language of ‘ought’, as the first rational creatures ostensibly discern right from wrong. Then, needless to say, Babel represents a major linguistic shift in Genesis chapter 11, as languages (plural) appear.

From this, two major issues arise.

Firstly, is God's creating, in each stage of creation, coincident with his naming of it? In other words, did God name things on the same day that he created them, or did he name them afterwards? 

If it was on the same day that he created them, then the theory suggested here would presumably unravel. But arguably, in its favour, each naming is preceded by the word ‘And … ,’ which in the creation account is mostly used to indicate sequences in time. ‘And God called ...’ may represent separate periods of time in which namings occurred, after acts of creation.

A possible problem lies in Genesis 5:2, ‘God named them … in the day they were created.’ However, the word ‘day’ may here encompass every day, as we find in Genesis 2:4. ‘In the day’ may not refer to the separate stages of creation of Genesis chapter 1.

A second issue arises: God's naming does not seem to appear in the text consistently. ‘God called …’ appears only three times in Genesis 1, in connection with the first three days of creation. 

However Genesis, in general, liberally makes use of related words. Take the key words ‘God created ...’ Alternatives that we find in the text are ‘made, ‘formed’, ‘brought forth’, and so on. The same is true of the key words ‘God called …’ Alternatives are ‘saw’, ‘blessed’, ‘sanctified’. An act of commemoration may be implied in all of these words.

In short, the time periods which are described in Genesis may be attached, not first to the creation of the world, but to God’s naming of it—and, incidentally, to man's naming of it. On the sixth day, ‘the man gave names …’

Such a theory would potentially remove major problems of other creation theories. In particular, it could possibly move beyond both literal and liberal readings of Genesis, without colliding with them.


* I follow Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: “We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience’s sake.

Also by Thomas Scarborough: Hell: A Thought Experiment.


Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas. A fascinating and provocative read. Just one thought, though, for clarity: I’m trying to reconcile Genesis — in particular, the timeline and naming scheme rendered here by the biblical origin story — with the remarkable new observations by the more capable James Webb telescope. Which, by extrapolation from the farthest galaxies, sees back to within a whisker (in astronomical terms, anyway) of the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago. Metaphorically, anyway, it being astrophysicists’ version of an origin story. Might, then, the references here to terms like ‘liberal readings’, ‘It is a myth’, and ‘It is a spiritual allegory’ — referring directly, I presume, to the storytelling of Genesis — be key to actual interpretation and understanding of Genesis-based creationism? All the while providing critical contemporary context?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. A linguistic theory of creation essentially bypasses other theories of creation, some of which I list at the beginning of this post. The possibility described here is that the physical creation is not related to time, but the naming of it is. Alternatively, the creation account is all about naming, with an unknowable creation behind it, something like the Ding-an-Sich.

With regard to the Big Bang theory, what should result from a Big Bang is complete disorder (Stephen Hawking) or complete simplicity (Stuart Kauffman). How much order would there need to be to present us with a problem? Apparently, almost none.

Stuart Kauffman: ‘We have no adequate theory for why our universe is complex.’

Stephen Hawking: ‘Why is it not in a state of complete disorder at all times?’

Keith said...

Interesting, Thomas. For clarity, I believe that the Kauffman and Hawking quotes reflect our current state of relatively limited knowledge about the universe, rather than some (even unintentionally) implied shortcoming or, worse, quirk of the universe itself. For the cause of our puzzlement, perhaps we should look into a mirror — and then have our astrophysicists, philosophers, and assorted others get on with the business of acquiring knowledge.

I’m of the mind that we should take the universe for what it is, then changing our models as we gather understanding, and keep plugging away at trying to explain what we see. Something the Webb telescope will supremely aid, by the way — a remarkable tool intended to inspire questions all the while getting us to answers, until the rollout of the next stunning tool. To that point, another quote by Hawking, which provides great grist for philosophers, is this: ‘Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?’ Indeed.

As for Kaufman’s comment, I see no reason for the universe not to be as ‘complex’ as it is. Besides, simplicity rather than Kaufman’s ‘complexity’ within the makeup of the universe would be far more head-scratching — at least, for me — if that had been the case, instead. And as for Hawking’s question, I see no reason for the presence of order over ‘disorder’ within the universe. Though, for sure, it’s fun to ask why it’s not the other way around.

One might wonder if the ‘complete disorder’ Hawking sought better characterized the ‘inflationary’ phase immediately after the Big Bang, where it’s presumed our current laws of physics did not apply. Only afterwards for the universe to begin the eons-long process of coalescence, to get to all the lumpy bits (including remarkable ‘star nurseries’) we see through telescopes. Besides, entropy will eventually and irresistibly get us closer and closer to the ‘complete disorder’, even the ultimate cosmic demise, that Hawking asks about.

One of Hawking’s other (popular) quotes, of the kind that the Web telescope inspires us to scratch our chins about, is this core query: ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe’. Maybe the causation the quote hints at is misplaced — the answer might reside, for instance, in a universe that’s self-caused — but Hawking’s words strike the right inquisitive, inspirational tone. Left for others to gather answers, with Webb strapped on their hip.

Martin Cohen said...

Keith says " the answer might reside, for instance, in a universe that’s self-caused ", our author says the universe is "something like the Ding-an-Sich"… I say it's not getting any clearer to me … The piece I think is anyway on a linguistic theme… about the relationship of concepts / names and things / reality. To say God creates by naming is surely to say something comes into existence when it is imagined. A little like Bishop Berkely's idea that to be is to be perceived… ?

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