Much Ado About ‘Nothing’ In Two New Takes on Genesis

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nothing lately. Not the trivial “nothing” Seinfeld bores are forever citing to defend the emptiness and vacuity of that painfully overrated sitcom. Not that puny nothing, not the nothing that is the temporary and contingent absence of Something. No, I’m thinking of the Nothing that is the absence of Everything; the Nothing that came before Anything. The Grand Nothing. The Big Nada. The Nothing that is More (and less) than zero. The Really Big O.

I’m speaking of the Nothing that came before Creation Itself, the Nothing that is glimpsed in the first verse of Genesis. An ultimate Nothing that may not even exist, according to some, but a Nothing that is at the heart of the single great metaphysical challenge to the pretensions of both science and religion: the eternal, unanswerable (or as yet unanswered) question, Why is there Something-anything-instead of Nothing?

What led me into this hopeless quest for Nothing? In part, a weariness with the sleight-of-hand sophistries of physicists who pretend they’ve found the answer to the something-from-nothing question in the Big Bang or in the “inflationary universe” hypothesis. That by telling us universes just “bubble” into being from nothing, from “fluctuations in a vacuum” (the latest fad metaphor in astrophysics), they’re somehow saying something more “scientific” than the book of Genesis.

You don’t have to be a creationist to realize that those who assume savants such as Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth have actually answered the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” are credulous suckers building a house on sand. With as much credulity and as little proof as biblical fundamentalists-only they’re a bit less aware than the fundamentalists of how much their certainty depends on blind faith. How much they’re believers in what Professor Guth, the author of The Inflationary Universe , himself calls “the Ultimate Free Lunch.”

So there’s that. And then recently, I found myself fascinated by the experience of reading and thinking about two new translations of the book of Genesis-in particular, the very first “in the beginning” verses. Fascinated by the way subtle shifts in emphasis between the version by Everett Fox in the new Schocken Bible and the version by Biblical literary scholar Robert Alter in his translation of Genesis raise thought-provoking questions about the very process of Creation-and the nature of the Nothing that came before it.

You know, of course, the King James version: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light …'”

Now check out Everett Fox’s Schocken Bible version. Mr. Fox, inspired by the German translation of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, has sought to return to what he sees as the disturbing strangeness of the original Hebrew, to jolt us out of singsong familiarity and, in this case, make us experience the act of creation as if it hadn’t happened before, as if it were almost inconceivable:

“At the beginning of God’s creating / of the heavens and the earth,/ when the earth was wild and waste,/ darkness over the face of Ocean,/ rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters-/ God said: Let there be light!”

But now take a look at what Robert Alter-who believes Mr. Fox has gone too far back toward strangeness at the cost of the incantatory power of Genesis-does with the same passage:

“When God began to create heaven and earth and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.'”

There are a couple of things that struck me in hovering over these two passages. First, there is a critical difference between “God’s breath” in Mr. Alter’s verse and the “rushing-spirit” of God in Mr. Fox’s. A difference between a more personalized Deity in Mr. Alter, a Being at least metaphorically in our image, one who, in some remotely analogous way, “breathes.” As opposed to the more impersonal, inhuman, slightly scary “rushing-spirit”-one with an undefined, perhaps indefinable form, if not exactly chilling, then certainly less warm.

Then there are the subtle differences in the nature of the “hovering” each translation attributes to God in the moment before Creation. Mr. Fox has that moment of Nothingness before Something as “the rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters.” A far more dramatic onrush of God’s presence than in the calmer King James version, in which “the spirit of God” merely “moved upon the waters.” One a thrilling onrush, the other a stately royal progress.

Mr. Alter, on the other hand, has an image which expresses less forward progress than the stasis implicit in “hovering” itself, in “God’s breath hovering over the waters.” He didn’t have to rush there or move there, He was there.

Mr. Fox’s, then, is a more dramatic, a more active vision of the moment before creation. His translation of ruah , the Hebrew word in that opening verse-which he says could mean “both spirit and wind”-as “rushing-spirit” inevitably suggests a kind of temporality to the moment before Time began. A rush from one place to another, from one moment forward to another, a kind of initiating rush, one perhaps connected with the initiating words, “Let there be light.” Is this perhaps the rush that stirred Nothingness to readiness to become Something-God’s foreplay with Non-Being?

But Mr. Alter offers a provocatively different vision of the nature of God’s hovering, of what He was doing while He hovered in wait to create.

“The verb attached to God’s breath-wind-spirit ( ruah ),” he tells us in a footnote, “elsewhere describes an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurtur[ing] as well as rapid back-and-forth movement.”

What we realize now is that these two gifted translators have subtly endowed or en-gendered their respective visions of God, “hovering” in nothingness before creation, with masculine and feminine connotations.

Mr. Fox’s “rushing-spirit” has a more masculine, intrusive narrative feel-the phallic shape and direction of time’s arrow. While Mr. Alter glosses his hovering God as explicitly maternal -a mother bird hovering over a nest of eggs or hatchlings. Hovering, in Mr. Alter’s version, is suggestive of motion, yes, but not of direction-of motion back and forth in which neither “back” nor “forth” is a start or beginning but a designation for indistinguishable poles or points. No arrow rushes from one to another (unless it’s an arrow with two heads and no tail).

But Mr. Alter’s nurturing maternal image does something more than hover: It seems to be gestating, suggesting that Being is not brought out of nothingness with a flip of the Let There Be Light Switch. Rather, it develops, evolves from a kind of loving, maternal hovering over Non-Being. That Nothing is pregnant with Something that needs hovering attentiveness to be brought to term. It seems to forge or imply a continuum between Non-Being and awakening, stirring Being.

There is something about the image of hovering-the suggestion of pulsation, of flickering in and out of phase, in and out of Being at any one point, that powerfully evokes the contemporary quantum-Uncertainty vision of the being of a particle: a hovering cloud of probability-waves, flickering in and out of being on the face of a sea of Nothingness.

Read strictly, there does not seem to be in either translation (nor in most others) any necessary connection between the process of preliminary hovering and the subsequent moment of Creation. But Mr. Alter’s maternal image suggests there is one: as if Being were being gestated by God out of Nothingness, had to be quickened with His breath before the Cosmic Egg could be hatched, as if words alone-“let there be light”-were not enough to create something out of nothing.

Which raises the metaphysical chicken-and-egg question: What was that something which God’s breath, his rushing-spirit, whatever you want to call it, hovered over in the timeless moment before creation? And if God created that which he hovered over before Creation, when and why did He do it? And if He didn’t create it, who did? How did it get there, to become the Nothing out of which creation was brought to light?

Hovering over these two translations of Genesis reminded me of how much of something there was in the nothingness before creation. There was, arguably, a landscape, at least a seascape: There was an “earth” and a “deep.” However “void” and “without form” they may have been in the King James version, it was a something that lacked form. “Wild and waste,” Mr. Fox calls that something. “Welter and waste and darkness” Mr. Alter calls it. Tohu-bohu the Hebrew calls it. Chaos, yes, but chaos is a disordered Something. Not quite Nothing.

Again, there are subtle differences: Mr. Fox separates the “darkness” over the water from the “wild and waste” of the formless earth. Mr. Fox glosses tohu-bohu as mere “emptiness” in his footnotes, but Mr. Alter goes further in saying tohu-bohu connotes “emptiness or futility [emphasis mine], and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.”

Mr. Alter has, in effect, emotionalized his empty landscape of nothingness. His futile void almost seems to express a longing, a dream of the coherence it can’t imagine but knows it is not.

The more you think about it, the more the Nothing before the Creation takes on a somethingness, if not a life of its own. The landscape of Nothing begins to look like Lear’s turbulent heath in the storm, rather than a primordial Nothing, utterly empty of phenomena. One comes away from these translations of Genesis with a sense that neither science nor the Bible offers us a vision of absolute Nothing. Of a nothing before even wild and waste and welter, before earth and ocean deep, before tohu and bohu came into being. It raises impossible questions of the sort that got medieval theologians in trouble when they wondered what God was doing before the Creation. (And what was Nothing doing before the Big Bang?) To take it one step further, what was He doing before tohu and bohu were created? Certainly he had to pre-exist even formlessness and chaos, or we must imagine they came into being through some other means without His agency.

Which may leave embedded in Genesis a deeper mystery than creationists realized: the mystery of the pre -Creation creation. If God didn’t create it, who did? And if He did, what purpose did it serve? And, finally, is there-can we imagine-something more like Nothing than the nothingness before Creation? An utter absence not only of form and void, but of any aspect of Being?

I know I probably spend more time thinking about these questions than is strictly practical. But I’m not alone in my preoccupation with the question of utter Nothingness, as I was relieved to learn recently when I came upon a remarkable essay by a brilliant American philosopher attempting to prove that Nothing, strictly speaking, cannot exist. A 1721 essay penned by one of the least known, most powerful and original thinkers in American history: Jonathan Edwards. He’s the Yale-based theologian most remembered for his religious writing, especially some terrifying attempts to imagine the nature of Hell and conjure up the painful texture of eternal torment. But his work as a metaphysician and philosopher has earned him lasting and increasing respect outside of strictly theological circles.

And here, in an astonishing paper deceptively entitled “Of Being,” he takes on the entire notion of Non -Being, the idea of an ultimate Nothing, the really big O, and claims to prove there is no such thing as Nothing.

I feel I have a kind of notional relationship with Jonathan Edwards, having spent three undergraduate years living in the residential college at Yale named after him. But I hadn’t read him in a long time, probably not since I was an undergraduate, when I came across, in a New Haven bookstore (while attending The Game), an extremely valuable new edition of Edwards’ philosophic and theological writings, A Jonathan Edwards Reader . It was put together by three professors who are now engaged in the monumental task of producing a complete edition of Edwards’ works at Yale, John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout and Kenneth P. Minkem.

The more I studied Edwards’ “Of Being,” the more I found myself grateful that, in that vast output, they had selected this particularly powerful and imaginative philosophical effort, Edwards’ disproof of Nothingness. I will elucidate and interrogate his novel argument, which structurally bears some relation to the recent proof, by negation, of Fermat’s Last Theorem. I will try to poke holes in his conception and deconstruction of Nothingness, but it will take another whole column to do it justice. There’s a lot to say about Nothing, much ado about nothing, one might say, and I believe Jonathan Edwards has done Nothing best. Much Ado About ‘Nothing’ In Two New Takes on Genesis