I’ve been thinking lately of the ways that the psalter and Genesis think about creation, specifically the roles of the water. The belief that the cosmos is watery and the heavens and below the earth are water are found in Genesis 1 and in psalms. The watery substance of the heavens and below the earth makes the great flood of Noah possible, because the endless waters of the heavens can merely drain into the endless waters below the earth – sort of like a great terrarium.
This is based on observations:
- Heavens are where water comes from in rain and the sparkling sky most resembles light reflecting off water. Think of moonlight sparkling off nearly still water.
- Watery underworld because water soaks into the ground, water springs up from the ground in natural springs; if you dig a well even in the desert you can find water underneath.
- There is so much water underground that wells up and collects on the surface. Land floats on the surface like islands.
Now this is not entirely inconsistent with science, water is one of the components of the atmosphere and there is an aquifer, or water table, under at least most of the land. Of course it doesn’t look like anything biblical writers had in mind. Water in the atmosphere is a minor component and the aquifer is more like a soggy sponge than a vast sea or river. The land actually does float but on a sea of magma.
The importance of water in creation comes from two, I think equal, thoughts. First, literal observations of the world around them with the tools (or lack of tools) that they had. Therefore, it reflects the scientific reasoning of the day. Second, the vital importance of water to early humans. You don’t need to live in a desert to understand how important water is to human existence. No matter where you live: savannah, temperate forest, desert, mountains, you can only travel as far as you can go with your fresh water supply. To walk off in a new direction without a map and a limited water supply is quite a risk. Water is life everywhere on planet Earth. Indeed as we begin to look for life on other planets, we start by looking for water.
Biblical use of ‘the waters’, ‘the Deep’, is a poetic way to refer to the beginning of creation using the material which is most vital for life. When I think of the waters of chaos these days, I think of the Big Bang, which was neither big nor a bang (no sound in a vacuum). I’m not a physicist but from what I have heard (here for example), in that first fraction of a second the material, plasma, created flowed as a perfect fluid – no friction, essentially no viscosity. From that perfect fluid, the first subatomic particles formed beginning the road toward matter as we know it. This fluid that became the gaseous plasma of the cosmos that eventually spawned the first stars is what I think of as the waters of chaos. In a way that gaseous plasma is still the waters of chaos; stars are still being born.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. (Gen 1:1-3)