In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3)
These words will be heard in synagogues worldwide this coming Saturday when the annual Torah reading cycle begins.The Torah begins with a powerful revelation and deep implications about our existence: God created the universe.
This means that there is purpose and meaning to life and creation. The rabbis pondered if there were any deeper implications to this revelation. They observed that in addition to the creation narrative in Genesis testifying of God’s powerful creative actions, it also contained deep esoteric secrets about his nature and the nature of the Messianic Era and the World to Come. As a result, numerous highly creative interpretations have been given by various rabbis throughout the centuries on the first verse of the Bible. Rashi, perhaps the most famous Jewish medieval commentator on the Bible, comments on Genesis 1:1 “All this verse is saying is ‘Explain me!’” What Rashi means is that this verse is packed with nuance and depth, and the LORD wants us to use it to understand him and his ways more deeply. Why not take this further and say that we can find deep meaning in the entire creation narrative? This is what we will do for the rest of this blog. We will see how each day of creation was interpreted in rabbinic literature and early Apostolic-era writings to be a proleptic revelation of the World to Come.
Day 1: Separation of Light and Darkness
God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5)
The rabbis pondered if God first created a spiritual or a physical light. They concluded that God began creation by bringing forth a spiritual light, which is the Messiah. The light of Messiah was stored away as a reward for the righteous in the Messianic Era:
This is the light of Messiah, as it is said, “God saw the light, that it was good.” This teaches that before the world was created, the Holy One, Blessed is he, looked forward to the generation of Messiah and its deeds. He hid (the primordial light) for the Messiah and his generation beneath his throne of glory. (Yalkut Shimoni 11.499)
Through the light of Messiah, the righteous will understand the depths of God’s ways and his ability to make “All things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). By contrasting this light to the Messiah, the rabbis teach that creation’s purpose can be understood only through the Messiah’s revelation.
Day 2: Separation of the Waters
On the second day, God separated the waters to create two firmaments: The ocean and the atmosphere (Genesis 1:6-8). Isaiah compares water to the knowledge of God: “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
The knowledge of God in the Messianic Era will result in perfect harmony between God and his creation. This knowledge of God is not a mere intellectual feat but is also experiential knowledge. The difference between intellectual and experiential knowledge of God is at times as wide as the upper waters are from the lower waters. This was the central debate between two giants in Jewish philosophy, Maimonides (1138-1204) and Yehuda HaLevi (1075-1141). Maimonides believed that a combination of robust logical deductions and rationality was the ultimate way to know God. Yehuda HaLevi, on the other hand, saw immense importance in experiencing God in a way that transcended the intellect. Just as God created the upper and lower waters to coexist, likewise in the Messianic Era, our intellectual and emotional experiences of God will coexist in perfect harmony.
Day 3: Creation of the Dry Land and Oceans
On the third day of creation, God created the dry land and oceans by separating them from each other (Genesis 1:9-13).
In addition to creating the dry land and oceans, the LORD also commanded the dry land to produce abundant vegetation. According to an ancient early Apostolic-era tradition, the Messianic Era will be marked by immense agricultural plenty:
The days will come in which vines will grow, having each ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each twig ten thousand shoots, and in every one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and in every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five-and-twenty metretes of wine. And when one of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, ‘I am a better cluster, take me; bless the Lord through me.’
In like manner, (he said) that a grain of wheat would produce ten thousand ears, and that every ear would have ten thousand grains, and every grain would yield ten pounds of clear, pure, fine flour; and that apples, and seeds, and grass would produce in similar proportions. (Fragments of Papias, Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord 4)
Day 4: Sun, Moon, and Stars
God created the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of creation (Genesis 1:14-19).
Isaiah prophesied that in the Messianic Era, God’s light would overtake the light of the sun and moon (Isaiah 60:19-20). Similarly, John tells us that in the new Jerusalem, the light of the sun will be replaced with the light of Messiah and God:
The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:23)
According to Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593), the sun and moon’s light were a physical example of God’s glory and presence. In other words, in the Messianic Era, the true nature of God will be as clear and evident to us as the light of the sun and moon.
Day 5: Fish and Birds
After creating vegetation and the luminaries, God created the birds and sea life, which he commanded to teem with life (Genesis 1:20-22).
The teeming ocean life points to the proliferation of human life in the Messianic Era. The rabbis teach that in the future, God will miraculously cause humans to prolificate abundantly like fish. This is because God loves people, so the more humans there are, the more chance for God to demonstrate his love for us.
Day 6: Man and Animal
On the sixth day, God created the animal kingdom and man (Genesis 1:24-30).
Genesis presents us with a world where man and beast coexist in harmony. This mirrors the unity within creation in the Messianic Era:
The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy. (Isaiah 11:8-9)
This harmony between man and beast was lost due to Adam’s sin. A further result of Adam’s sin was the degradation of creation into cycles of turmoil, death, and decay. In the Messianic Era the harmony found in the Genesis account between man and creation will be restored.
Day 7: The Sabbath
On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:2-3)
God rested from his work on the seventh day and set it apart as holy. By distinguishing the Sabbath as holy, God created sacred time. We experience this time once a week on the Sabbath. However, we can also say that every time we set aside our desires and come together on the Sabbath to focus on God and to study his word that we are proleptically anticipating the World to Come when every moment in time will be entirely holy and free of mundane striving and desire for things of a fleshly nature.