Torah Ecology: Bereishit (Gen 1:1-6:8)


The Torah tells us a story, imagining a world and inviting us to join in imagining.

Our ability to imagine, to create fiction and persuade others to believe it, says Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, is what gave Homo Sapiens the ability to finally move beyond a mediocre status as just another land animal in the middle of the food chain to world domination.

The profound and elegant imagination behind the first chapters in Genesis touches me deeply every time I read through these pages. Each time I find new things in the technical details of these words that enrich my understanding, for example, the structure of the first creation story. G-d creates a 3-part environment in majestic stages, then fills each part of the environment in three more stages and finally stops to survey the goodness of it all, pointing to creation with a plan and majestic order to it. But it’s not just ordered — it’s good, and the life in it is blessed.

So I am moved and awed by the form of Torah — but connecting to its imagination through my own brings me to core emotions and meanings and helps me connect to its content.

PART I: Imagining a G-d who chooses to live in relationship


Darkness so total you can’t see yourself, and you can’t see anything around you. The darkness cuts you off from any relationship, animate or inanimate, that might give you definition, make you “real.”

There are only two things, each so profound you can’t distinguish one from the other: darkness and deep.  It’s as impossible to know where one begins and the other ends as it is to know where you begin and end. Your isolation is complete.

A wind sweeps over the water. The only reason you know that is you feel it. Without light, there are no glimmerings on the water as the wind moves over it that might distinguish the darkness of the water from the darkness over it.

Two potential entities, darkness and deep, indistinguishable, unformed…and then a sudden flash of light emerges from the darkness, filling it, illuminating everything. The light provides day and night. It’s possible to differentiate between the darkness of the deep and the darkness above it. First day.

With light, other differentiations begin. A vastness (רָקִיעַ) emerges, separating the waters into those above and below it, as the primordial light separated the darkness into day and night. G-d names the vastness Heavens (שָׁמָיִם, possibly meaning “like water”). Second day.

More differentiations follow. As light emerged from darkness on the first day, the dry land (הַיַּבָּשָׁה) emerges from the deep when the waters below are gathered together (מִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם). G-d names the gathering of the waters Seas (יַמִּים) and the dry land Earth (אֶרֶץ). The earth sprouts vegetation. Third day.

These things, then, are the environment: Heavens, Seas and Earth with its vegetation. The Heavens and the Earth, including its Seas, are no longer formless and empty.

Now the environment begins to fill with life: celestial bodies, Day Four. Sea creatures and birds, Day Five. Land creatures, including Adam, “in our image, after our likeness; and let them…”, Day Six.

All the work G-d surveys at the end of the sixth day G-d judges very good. Only the work of the fifth day, though, when G-d creates fish and birds, and the sixth day, with the creation of humanity, are blessed. In addition, fish, birds and humanity receive their first commandment, p’ru u’rvu, be fruitful and multiply.

G-d appoints Adam, humanity, to domesticate the fish of the sea, birds of the air and every living thing that creeps on the earth.  G-d encourages intimacy between Adam and other creatures when he tells the human to name them as G-d named the Heavens and the Earth and the Seas.

Finally G-d assigns a vegan diet to Adam and to “and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul.” There is no prey and no predator here — all creatures live together in harmony.

Finally, G-d ceases (שָׁבַת), blesses the seventh day and declares it holy (וַיְקַדֵּשׁ), setting it apart from the other days of the week.

As the light emerges from the darkness, and the dry land emerges from the waters when they gather into seas, so this day emerges from time as something set apart. We understand the nature of each feature of creation only in relationship with that from which it differs.

Teeming with life in all its variety, in the heavens, on the land and in the seas, this creation is very different from the undifferentiated darkness, emptiness and isolation in the beginning. We have imagined our way from profound isolation to potential relationship and awareness of being. As creating is differencing, difference makes relationship possible and forms its basis.

Of course no human being was there to observe the creation of the world, and not one of us experienced that pre-creation moment when the breath of G-d moved across the deep, between darkness and darkness — but our imaginations can connect us to the moment.

The experience I had this year as I read those first words of Bereishit, Genesis, was a sense of profound loneliness. What if it had been my breath that moved over the deep, between vast darkness and vast darkness, where all was empty, where there was no environment, no teeming and varied life in it? How does that feel? It feels lonely.

I wonder if G-d created life because S/he was lonely?

PART II: Imagining the first humans exploring the meaning of relationship


No more does G-d’s breath hover over the undifferentiated deep between profound darkness and profound darkness. Now G-d walks in the heat of the day in the Garden S/he created. G-d blesses, commands, feels anger, loves. G-d can relate to creation.

“In the beginning” of this imagining, G-d creates the human being, the “ground being” from the dust (עָפָר) of the ground (הָאֲדָמָה), in G-d’s likeness and image. Here is the entire phrase in Hebrew with my translation/interpretation/imagining of it:

וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.

G-d formed the-Adam (ha-Adam), the “ground being,” from dust G-d took from the ground (Adamah, a grammatically feminine noun that means “ground”), breathed G-d’s own breath into the-Adam, the breath of life; and the-Adam was a living being.

The-Adam is both male and female. This intricate word play suggests that the-Adam is like G-d, body and soul, an expression of wholeness, containing all possibilities.

Returning to the twin themes of loneliness and relationship, G-d knows “It is not good that the-Adam should be alone…” How does G-d know that? G-d experienced it.

So G-d separates the-Adam into two beings, male and female. Not until G-d separates Eve from the-Adam does Adam become a man. Ish (man) and Isha (woman) come into being simultaneously.

With this differentiation, G-d creates the possibility of relationship for the-Adam because relationship between human beings depends on difference. In the same moment, G-d creates the possibility of relationship for G-d’s self. The-Adam is no longer an extension of G-d’s self but is a differentiated being in body…and as we will soon imagine, soul.

The separation of the-Adam into Adam and Eve is both blessing and challenge. While it makes room for relationship, it also makes the world more complicated. Differentiated beings in relationship may not always see the world in the same way or make the same decisions. They are no longer necessarily of one mind just as they are no longer one body. The majestic order of Genesis 1:1-2:3 starts to get a little messy in Genesis 2:4-3:24.

Chapter 3 concludes with G-d locking in another critical difference between G-d’s self and humanity: when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, attaining for themselves G-d’s capacity for moral judgment, G-d prevents them from eating from the Tree of Life and Death, gaining G-d’s power over life and death.

So Adam and Eve enter the human frame, taking all of creation, now subject to life and death like them, with them. They learn that in relationships, actions have consequences, not only for oneself but for others.

The story explores another relationship, the one between these first human beings and a beast of the field, the-Snake (הַנָּחָשׁ).

The snake is more עָרוּם, arum, than any other beast of the field. But what does arum mean? Used infrequently in the Bible, it is most often translated “prudent” or “cautious,” which has a positive connotation. In Job, it translates “crafty,” with a more negative connotation. It also means, “naked.”

In just a few verses of chapter 3 of Genesis, the word arum appears several times, describing both the snake and the first humans — and yet because our translations select different words, crafty or shrewd for the snake and naked for the humans, we miss the parallel. How does it change the way we imagine the story if we use the same word for both humans and snake?

As a beast of the field, the snake is not domesticated by the humans. It is free and independent — yet it is also “more arum (עָרוּם) than any beast of the field.”

Reading this, I hold all possibilities in my mind while I imagine the story. The snake, like the human, is somehow superior to all the other beasts of the field, captured in the word, arum. Like the human, the snake is “naked,” without a coat of fur. The snake, however, is also “crafty” or “shrewd,” capable of imaginative manipulation — or perhaps the prudence to manage its life skillfully, planning the best strategy for its own advancement.

Prudence also implies that the snake is capable of anticipating the consequences of its actions, a capability that requires imagination, but the snake also fails at that sometimes just as the humans do. Surely the snake hoped for different results when it told Eve the truth about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In my imagining, when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree, they realize they, like the snake, are naked. Or crafty and manipulative. Or prudent, meaning they have the imagination to understand that their actions have consequences. Tragically they attain this understanding too late, realizing with horror the disastrous consequences of their action not only for themselves but for all of creation.

All imaginings that use the same descriptive word for the snake and the human draw a parallel between them and cause us to consider their natures and relationship. Unlike all the animals the humans domesticate, the snake remains independent, an untamed beast of the field but superior to them, human-like in appearance, discernment and perhaps imaginative and manipulative ability. The snake is consigned to go on its belly and eat dust all the days of its life, but the human lot isn’t much of an improvement, coming from and returning to dust.

And the snake, with its capability to regenerate, associates to what is denied humans, eternal life: “As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing.[7] The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life.”

The humans and the snake are competitors in this brave new world they enter post-Garden. Interestingly, this imaginative, suggestive story, like so many others in the Torah, turns out to correspond to recent research: “Snakes are predators on, prey of, and competitors with primates.”

Part III: Imaging how life gets messy and relationships run amuck

Imagine once again.

You are a tenant farmer. Your days in the fields are long and backbreaking, tilling, planting, watering, weeding and nurturing, harvesting. At the end of a day you have no more energy. You just want a few hours of sleep before you go out into the hot sun for another day like the last. Still, you know it’s appropriate to say thank you for what you have, so you quickly gather some fruits of your labor, thinking the whole time about how you just want to get home and sleep, and you take your bundle to the landowner.

Your brother herds sheep. Instead of back-breaking work in the fields under a hot sun, he is off hiking in the hills, watching over his flock. In the heat of the day, he, like his flock, finds a shady area for rest. He probably knows each animal he tends, their names, their personalities, possibly even loves them. Your brother also knows he must thank the landowner for the life he has, and he carefully and with complete attention selects the very best from his flock, the one he loves the most, and takes that animal to the landowner.

The landowner responds to this special care and attention, this heartfelt sacrifice, in kind, turning to your brother with complete, focused attention: וַיִּשַׁע (va-yisa).

Aware only of the backbreaking hours you spend every day tilling the hard earth, lifting and hauling, planting and weeding under a hot sun, you don’t notice the subtle but immense difference between your gift to the landowner and your brother’s.

Your brother’s offering wasn’t just any animal of his flock. It was the choicest of the firstlings of the flock with its fat, a coveted delicacy (מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ, וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן). It was the best of the best. Your offering was whatever you gathered from the field, not necessarily the best nor the earliest. It was just something you pulled from the harvest as you thought about going home to sleep before another day.

Focused only on your hard work and your desire for attention and recognition, though, that detail escapes you…and you feel anger that your gift receives as little attention as your selection process got. In your anger (and again, without thinking, just as your gift was without much thought), you lash out. The result of your ill-considered, imprudent action is the death of another, your brother.

And so the first story beyond the borders of the Garden, beyond the ideal world G-d intended, a world with no death, where all of creation lives in harmony nurtured by the abundance of creation, is a fratricide.

The fratricide occurs for much the same reason as the exile from the Garden: it is the result of an imprudent moment, a moment without thought, without considering the disastrous consequences of an action. And in both cases the result is the same, although in different ways: Cain’s act, like Adam and Eve’s, brings death into creation, Adam and Eve in a future they cannot yet imagine, and Cain in the here and now for his brother.

As Eve’s (sexual) desire (תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ) after her thoughtless act is for her husband while her husband rules (יִמְשָׁל) over her, directing her life, sin’s urge (sexual connotation?) is for Cain (תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ), but Cain has the potential to rule (תִּמְשָׁל) over it. Sadly he doesn’t, allowing sin to direct his life (compare Gen 3:16 and 4:7).

The parallelism between the creation story and Cain shows up elsewhere as well: Genesis 4:17-24 recounts the generations of Cain, seven of them. In the course of those seven generations, not only does Cain murder his brother, but Cain’s great-great-great grandson, Lamech, murders a boy who “wounds” him. As Lamech says to his wives, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:24).

The play on seven parallels G-d creating the world in seven days. Through seven, G-d creates life, and through seven, Cain and his descendants destroy it.

One more thing about Cain’s story: it is vague, and it dead-ends. The story of Cain’s generations is told without specifying the age at which children are born and without death notices. After this chapter, Cain and his line are never again mentioned. They disappear into emptiness and void as Cain came into creation, absorbed with himself and disconnected from any greater relationship or purpose.

Chapter 5 returns us to Adam. The generations of Adam mention both births and deaths of the firstborn male in each generation, assigning specific ages to each and citing the number of years each man lived after the birth of his firstborn son. Some students of Torah (and much better mathematicians than I could ever dream to be) find progressions in these numbers, and I suspect they are there. There is a clear mathematical progression in the ages of the patriarchs. The specific progressions, though, have little meaning in themselves.

Numbers in the Torah are regularly used, however, as a literary device, suggesting order and regularity — a plan. Here they indicate that despite the forces of violence and death and evil in the world, G-d’s plan for life emerges victorious. G-d’s creation and plan for history parallels Cain’s violence and destruction, and the force for good prevails, building relationships, meaning, significance and a place in our imaginations, as the seven generations of Cain disappear into oblivion and meaninglessness.

Part IV: What I imagine as I read these chapters

My focus in my Torah Ecology study is to understand the worldview of the Torah, its vision of G-d, humanity and the rest of creation and the relationships between them all. Noticing literary and structural details and imagining myself into the story are the best ways I have to understand the Torah’s story from its own perspective, to let the text, as much as possible, speak to me.

Having imagined, and noted a few technical details, these are things I see:

  • The stories of Genesis 1-3 are aspirational, an imaginative exploration of what G-d wants for creation, an ever-present potentiality.
  • Beginning with Genesis 4, we enter the human frame, a world of sexuality and birth (Gen. 4:1-2) and death (Gen. 4:8).  It is a world of differences that offers the possibility of relationship but also the possibility of violence when those differences are not managed “prudently” (עָרוּם – arum), anticipating consequences of actions, and harmoniously.
  • All creation suffers from Adam and Eve’s imprudence, their inability to consider consequences of their actions, the environment and the animals right along with them. The ground is no longer necessarily rich and fertile. Soaked with blood, it returns thorns and thistles. Animals, along with human beings, procreate in this world. They kill and are killed. They are both prey and predators.

The first three chapters present a vegan ideal in accord with the aspirational idea that G-d “intends” all of creation to live in harmony and abundance, nurtured by the love of its Creator and in turn nurturing the earth and other life.

This ideal extends to the animal world, who receive the commandment, along with humanity, that they eat plant food: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” (Gen. 1:29-31)

G-d requires of both animals and humanity that they not take life for food; and consequences fall on every living creature, whether human or other, when humans choose the wrong food (the fruit of the Tree in the middle of the Garden).

The parallelism between the snake and the humans (עָרוּם – naked or prudent) on the one hand, and the vegan ideal set out for all on the other hand, points us to the idea that in this ideal world, humanity in is on a plane with all other living creatures, receiving the same life-giving instructions and consequences for all when one fails.

Shared responsibility and shared consequences remind us that in our real world, the things we do, great and small, always impact our world in ways we can hardly imagine but must learn to do, for we are all in relationship, everywhere and always, with everything.

The Torah story tells us we humans are very important. We have the capacity to build relationships, meaning and significance with all of creation and with a G-d who cares…and we have to capacity to be imprudent and thoughtless, ignore our connection to G-d, to other human beings, other life on the planet and to the planet itself, bringing catastrophe to all, fading into oblivion as we return everything to formlessness and emptiness.

Our choices to sustain life bring us life…different choices return us to that space where there are only two things, each so profound we can’t distinguish one from the other: darkness and deep. A space where it’s as impossible to know where one begins and the other ends as it is to know where we begin and end. A space where we disappear into isolation, without meaning.

* * * * *

Note: Nicholas Petersen discusses Hebrew cosmology and a word pattern in Genesis 1 that elaborates the theme of an overarching plan, a creation neither accidental nor haphazard in its origin but rather majestic and purposeful.

Petersen shows how each of the three realms is named only after G-d creates its “essence: “The term ‘rāqîaʿ’ perfectly conveys these notions of expansion and enlargement (of the skies and universe). This use of a simple-technical word to describe the ‘cosmic region’ of sky / heavens fits precisely with the pattern in Genesis 1, in which the other major cosmic ‘regions’ (seas and earth) were first described with a simple-technical word, before being given their common name.”)

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