In the pockets of research time that I have left this summer, I am working on the role of rhythm in the doctrine of creation. This is an interesting doctrine to work with because in one sense it’s obvious that rhythm is a dimension of creation. It is everywhere in nature. But what is less clear is what difference this makes for how we conceptualize the doctrine itself. Rhythm is part of creation. So what? This is what no one has yet shown, and what I am working to figure out.

One interesting line of investigation that I have been following is simply noticing how many different ways rhythm is implied in the creation account in Genesis 1. Here is a partial list:

  1. The general structure of Genesis 1 is obviously poetic in the sense that it is a very neatly constructed piece of text including repetition with variation, juxtaposition, and several different interlocking patterns.[1] Particularly note-worthy is the call-and-response oscillation between God and creation: “God said let there be…and there was…and God saw that it was good.” It is almost as though a conversation between God and creation is being set up here. Most commentators agree that Genesis 1 was written by someone in the priestly tradition since it shares many of the forms and concerns of the Israelite priesthood. It’s therefore unsurprising that creation is depicted through the lens of the repetitions of ritual, and the call and response of priest and people.

 

  1. In the first few verses, God is represented as being present to an as-yet formless and inhospitable creation in various ways. All of these images of presence imply rhythm. The first is the Spirit hovering/vibrating over the face of the deep. Spirit itself here is the same word for “breath,” which is itself rhythmic, and this rhythmicity is reinforced by the fact that this Spirit-breath hovers or vibrates.

 

  1. God then speaks. Now, I don’t want to make too facile a connection here between human speech and the image of divine speech, but it is interesting that this speech follows directly after the image of the hovering Spirit-breath. Several early Christian writers (Gregory of Nyssa, John of Damascus) describe Word and Spirit-breath as always working in concert and this occasionally appears in Scripture as well (Psalm 33:6). The Word is the form of the power of the Spirit and vice versa. While this is not the same thing as rhythmic, human speech, God’s speech, paradigmatically represented in the Word through whom all things are made, is a Form that always works with a Spirit-breath, just as human speech works by giving form to the rhythmic power of the breath.

 

  1. The first “Let there be” is “Let there be light.” There is much discussion about what exactly this light is, since there are not yet any heavenly bodies. While not many interpreters equate it with God’s presence directly, many (especially early Christian thinkers) do think of it as a representation of God’s presence, since this is often an image of God’s presence in scripture, particularly in the prologue of the Gospel of John, in which the incarnate logos, through whom all things are made, is also represented as light. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that anyone at the time of writing associated light with rhythm, but the fact that the form of light, the way in which it is present, is a wave (a form that re-appears throughout all of nature) is nevertheless interesting.

 

  1. Once light is created, there is evening and morning, the first day. This is another pattern that is repeated throughout the text. Again, notice that the oscillation between day and night precedes the existence of sun and moon. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an interesting point about this, suggesting that this rhythmic form is more basic than anything else. It is the cradle in which the rest of creation emerges. Only after this rhythm is set up do the heavenly bodies appear and along with them, fixed and measurable number.[2] The reason that this oscillation is more primal even than number itself is that the oscillation between the form that the day gives and that the night takes away represents God’s own giving and taking, and is thus another representation of God’s presence to creation.[3]

 

  1. This polarity is then repeated in the first three days of creation, in which two poles are separated from one another: day and night, sky and sea, land and water. Only once these polarities are established do they bring forth particular inhabitants: heavenly bodies, plants, creatures. Perhaps, one way to think of the significance of this polarity is that the opposites act as placeholders within which the various movements of creation take place. They set up space-time as that which gives pattern to movement and relationship.

 

  1. Finally, of course, the rest of the final day sets up the rhythm of six days of work punctuated by a seventh day of rest, which is the basic form of Israelite civilization.

 

So, what is the significance of the complex layering of rhythms? It seems to me that at the very least its rhythmic form reinforces the basic message of the passage – that the presence of God is the presence of configuration and peace in the midst of a violent and chaotic world. The rhythmic form means that even the act of reading the passage opens a space of peace in the midst of a violent world. This is perhaps something that is often overlooked in arguments about the “meaning” of Genesis 1 as an origin story.

 

[1] See for example Robert Miller, “What the Old Testament Can Contribute to an Understanding of Divine Creation,” in The Heythrop Journal (2014): 5f.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 31.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 29.

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