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Paradox is built into the Bible’s first words

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“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”

That is the first sentence in the Bible (King James version). It sounds straightforward, but in those ten words are contained the seeds of every philosophical conundrum, every cosmological question, known to humans.

Consider: If there was a “beginning,” then what preceded the beginning? We do not know, and the Bible does not tell us. Nor does it tell us why God decided to create anything in the first place. Was he bored?

Who is the “God” who created the heaven and the earth? Who created God? Who created God’s creator? This infinite regression has been the bane of philosophers forever; they’ve been—and remain—unable to resolve it.

What is “the heaven” which God created? It could not have been the sky, which God did not create until the third day. Nor could “heaven” have been the stars, Moon and Sun, since those were not created until the fourth day. Ancient peoples in the Middle East seem to have thought of “heaven” as the roof of the world, the firmament; but Genesis 1:7-8 says God created “the firmament” on the second day and called it “heaven.” So “heaven” could not have been created “in the beginning.” Nor could “heaven” have been anything physical.

For that matter, why did God create two things (heaven and earth) instead of one thing? The Bible does not tell us, but we can make inferences. Had God created only one thing, it would have been co-equal with God. Since nothing can be co-equal with God (“There is none like you, oh Lord,” said Jeremiah), God could not have created only one thing.

So God created two things, and in so doing, he established the yin-yang duality that seems to pervade the universe. He created also the psychic split that man has suffered from since the Creation. Is man mind (“heaven”) or body (“earth”)? A little of both? Philosophers have wrestled with this dilemma, too. Today, man and woman—all of us—continue to try to understand the mysterious interplay of mind and body. Was this God’s intention in creating a world of duality, to puzzle us?

That duality also fuels the split between science and religion, a tug of war that continues to have dramatic repercussions across the world. Science (“earth”) is one way of understanding reality. Religion (“heaven”) is another way. Often the two cultures are irreconcilable. Science says the Earth is billions of years old; religion—at least, the Orthodox Jewish and conservative Christian version—says the Earth is 5,800 years old. There can be no compromise between “heaven” and “earth.” (America finds herself on the horns of this dilemma at this very time, with a faux-Christian science denier in the White House.)

It’s enough to drive a person crazy, which is why the Book of Ecclesiastes is worth a read. The authors (and there were probably multiple authors) acknowledge the impossibility of making sense of anything; and besides, even the quest to make sense of things is “vanity.” “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Why bother, then, to try and understand? Yet we’re programmed to do exactly that, which leads to another question: If “wisdom” equals “grief,” then why did God give us the curiosity to inquire, and the mental ability to reason? Surely we would be happier if, like dumb beasts, we didn’t second-guess everything in our fruitless search for understanding. Surely our contentment would be greater if we could revert to a pre-Tree of Knowledge innocence.

The Bible is curiously silent on this topic of why Man is homo sapiens sapiens: He who knows he knows. Was it that bite of the apple that made us self-conscious? Why do we think so much? It just gets us in trouble. Yes, our so-called “intelligence” has invented penicillin, gotten us to the Moon, given us the Internet. But it also, as Ecclesiastes explicitly states, ensures that “vanity and vexation of spirit” is the inevitable lot of mankind.

So those ten little words contain within them the entire panoply of what it means to be human. Why did the men who assembled the Old Testament Canon permit Ecclesiastes to be part of it, in the first place? Such an odd book: so depressing and weird, so un-religious: a splash of cold water on the otherwise optimistic Torah. Here man is depicted, not as the Crown of Creation of a benign, progressive God, but a hopelessly muddled, confused creature, given the capacity to understand nothing but his own incapacity to understand anything.

Let us allow Ecclesiastes to answer this question in its own way: Its final words—“the conclusion of the whole matter”—are these: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

All well and good, but it sounds as if the men who ended Ecclesiastes with that admonition had a debate that went something like this: “We can’t end with ‘all is vanity.’ That’s such a negative downer. We have to reconcile Ecclesiastes with the other Books, or else we shouldn’t include it in the Canon at all. So let’s end it with the same message of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Exodus: ‘Keep God’s commandments.’”

There’s something desperate in this: Since we can’t get to the truth of anything, we might as well give up trying and just put our noses to the grindstone and obey God’s 613 commandments. There is something to be said for this; at the very least, it is an approach to life. But it’s not really satisfying, since we can’t get rid of the impulse, the drive and obsession to know and understand (and besides, it’s impossible to obey all the commandments—another expression of the universal duality). But that drive to understand is, of course, itself a curse, since it is fundamentally unachievable.

And this, too, is an example of the duality God wrote into the world. We are forever yin-yanging between conclusions, unable to land safely, to get to the bottom of anything, until Death ends the whole game. “Dust [will] return to the earth, the spirit will return unto God who gave it,” but even this—let us lament!—is meaningless. “All, saith the preacher, is vanity.”

Incidentally, given the fact that God made a “beginning,” it is logical he will make an “end.” I’ll be writing on Biblical eschatology, or end-of-the-world scenarios, and how Trump’s biggest supporters, evangelicals, hope to bring about a massive worldwide war, in which millions will die, so that they can get their Rapture.

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