Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
TEACHERS GUIDE: Lecture 14, Part 1
GENESIS: IN THE BEGINNING
The second half of this series will be concerned with seven phases of revelation, beginning in this program with that of creation. The idea of creation raises serious questions about the adequacy of our ordinary concept of time to comprehend what the Bible means by eternity. Eternity does not mean endless time: it means a condition that is free of time altogether. Consequently, the Bible insists on an absolute beginning and end of time, in contrast to what is true of the order of nature, in order to assert that the category of time is not ultimate. The metaphorical kernel of the idea of a beginning is not so much that of being born as of waking up from sleep, thereby abolishing a dark world of chaos.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
- The Biblical idea of creation is linked to an insistence on an absolute beginning. By asking the paradoxical question, what happened before that? we become aware that we grasp reality with a category of time that is completely unreal.
- Therefore, the idea of eternity as endless time is a notion that is still mixed up with the category of time, a notion that quickly becomes demonic, as in the doctrine of everlasting torment in hell (or everlasting boredom in a changeless heaven). Eternity is rather a condition transcending time altogether.
- The Bible asserts an absolute beginning and end of time in order to make clear that time is not an ultimate category, even though it may be ultimate within the limits of the order of nature, where time can have neither a conceivable beginning nor an end.
- The metaphorical kernel of the idea of beginning is that of waking up from sleep. This explains the Biblical emphasis on the day, a day which begins with darkness and ends with light: the metaphor is not so much one of being born as of dispelling a confused dream or nightmare world of chaos with the power of 'reality' and light.
Biblical Passages Cited
Genesis 1.—The Priestly narrative.
Genesis 2:4ff.—The older Jahwist account of creation.
The Teacher's Perspective
1. The Order of Types: The Second Part of This Series
This program, appropriately concerned with the idea of a beginning, marks a new beginning for this series. In the first fifteen programs, we were concerned with the imaginative elements of the Bible, those elements that it has in common with literary works, and which give the Bible its imaginative unity. For those who are, so to speak, just tuning in, we might summarize the content of our series thus far. The imaginative unity of the Bible has a structural unity of metaphor: programs 3-10 were concerned with building up a pattern of Biblical imagery on divine, spiritual, paradisal, human, pastoral (animal), agricultural (vegetable) and urban (mineral) levels of existence. It has a narrative unity of myth: programs 2 and 11-15 examined various aspects of the basic Biblical myth of fall and deliverance, of which there are several versions.
But the Bible is a unity which, as Prof. Frye says, has passed beyond unity: beyond the perfected, finished and complete, into that which is continuous, alive and always recreating itself. In programs 16-30, we will examine a series of seven phases of revelation, each one recreating in a larger context the phase before it: creation, revolution, law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel and apocalypse. The idea of a sequence of progressive understandings of the Word is an aspect of the third element of the Bible, introduced in programs 3 and 12, that of typology.
Just as the Old and New Testaments form a 'double mirror', whereby each event of the Old Testament is a type, of which an event in the New Testament is the fulfillment or fully revealed form, called the antitype, so our series follows the 'double mirror' structure of The Great Code itself, whereby 'The Order of Words' (Part I), Prof. Frye's term in the Anatomy of Criticism and elsewhere for the imaginative unity of literature, is recreated by 'The Order of Types' (Part II), which is an aspect of the Bible's human concern. We shall continue our rhythm of alternating between the literary and the Biblical in these teacher's guides, in the hope that these two aspects may recreate each other also.
2. In the Beginning
Don Juan in Shaw's Man and Superman found that all the interesting people were in hell, because they eventually all got bored with a changeless heaven of Victorian morality and interminable harp playing. It is a good work to discuss in relation to the idea of the Bible's concept of aionies, the everlasting, because Shaw makes it obvious that the static morality and the static idea of heaven are connected; and he picked Don Juan as his hero because Don Juan is one of those people that Prof. Frye speaks of, to whom we owe a lot more because they went on sinning. Shaw's Don Juan is a philosopher, and what we owe to him in the play is Shaw's philosophy of creative evolution, which is clearly an attempt to find a dynamic and recreative element in time as an alternative to popular Christianity. Whatever it may owe to Nietzsche, Shaw's creative evolution is something like a return to the vision of Biblical typology with its God become, however, an immanent 'life force' rather than the transcendent tyrant of a changeless status quo. The particular choice of Don Juan as hero points to the theme of sexual experience and self-consciousness that is traditionally a part of the Fall: see The Great Code, pp. 109-110. All of these themes are present in Byron's Don Juan also, to which Shaw's play can be compared, except that Byron does not present the evolutionary alternative. Incidentally, Shaw's view of heaven and hell is not exclusively modern: in the Middle Ages itself the hero of the old French romance Aucassin and Nicolete says that he would much rather go to hell than heaven because all the things worth living for seem to be headed for hell, whereas nobody seems interested in heaven except a bunch of old crocks who are fit for nothing else.
They are also present in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The fall of Stephen Daedalus from the naive piety of his Catholic childhood is due to his sexual awareness, and the enormous sermon on the everlasting agonies of hell in the center of the book is surely the definitive example in literature of the perversion of the Biblical concept of eternity. Stephen, who, incidentally, is bullied as a child for professing a love of Byron, bears the names of the first Christian martyr and of the Greek Daedalus, whose son Icarus enacted one Classical counterpart to the Fall. (There are others: for example, the fall of Phaeton or the Judgment of Paris).
Protestant versions of eternity as unending time, whatever their real nature, tend to get characterized as 'Calvinist'. The class may take a look at the original Pauline source of the doctrine of predestination, the Epistle to the Romans, chapters 8 and 9. In 9:15, Paul quotes an Old Testament precedent for the idea, Exodus 33:19. A connection of the Epistle to the Romans to Joyce occurs in Finnegans Wake, where the number 11 symbolizes cyclical return (1 to 10 and then begin over) and the number 32 symbolizes the Fall (the 32 feet per second per second at which falling bodies accelerate): Romans 11:32 is an expression of the idea of the 'fortunate fall', the felix culpa (happy fault) of St. Augustine, also a leit motif in the Wake.
The Calvinist interpretation of predestination got transplanted to America, where it had a thriving career in the 17th century. Students may compare the sermon in the Portrait to Jonathan Edwards' 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God'. The protagonist of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow finds that he is one of the Preterite, one of the 'vessels of wrath fitted to destruction' (Romans 9:22) who are the opposite of the elect: Pynchon connects this demonic idea of time to the kind of pseudo-scientific determinism found in distorted versions of behavioristic psychology.
At this point, students may be ready to ask, somewhat impatiently, whether the western world has managed to come up with images of eternity that are better than ironic distortions. An example of the continuing expansion of the Biblical vision in history that is extremely close to this series' conception of seven phases of revelation is that of Blake's 'Seven Eyes of God' (see Prof. Frye's Fearful Symmetry). Blake's Seven Eyes are themselves recreations of the visions of Zechariah and Revelation that were discussed in programs 9 and 12. The image mentioned by Prof. Frye in the seminar portion of the show, of dancing as a symbol of an unfallen telos, of time as an expression of inner energy and of a change not headed in the direction of death, is constant in literature from the Elizabethan John Davies' poem Orchestra (alluded to in Theodore Roethke's Four for Sir John Davies) to Eliot's 'Burnt Norton': 'there the dance is'. The idea of the timeless present occurs in all these writers: it is in Joyce's epiphanies; in Pynchon's idea of random sequence; in Eliot's 'history is a pattern of timeless moments'; in the past recaptured by Proust through the vivid remembrance of a single childhood experience; in the momentary insights of the characters in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts. Such visions or epiphanies often take place on a height or mountain: see program 2 and the discussion of the point of epiphany in Prof. Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. They are far from being only fictional: historical personages from St. Paul to Paul Tillich have reported experiences which have seemed to transcend the limitations of time and ordinary experience; Paul apparently describes his, modestly in the third person, in II Corinthians 12:2-4. The students may compare Abraham Maslow's concept of 'peak experiences' in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature.
The ambiguities bound up with the notion of an absolute beginning, and of a creation myth that necessitated the idea of a Fall, led early to the assumption that the Creation itself was a fall into imperfection: various Gnostic and Cabbalistic versions of this idea as they later exerted influence on English Romanticism are discussed in M.H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism. Both Blake in The Four Zoas and Joyce in Finnegans Wake accept this notion thoroughgoingly, and combine it with the theme of redemption as the awakening from a nightmare world of chaos. The Four Zoas is 'A Dream of Nine Nights' by the universal human and divine figure Blake calls Albion; Joyce's Irish variation is the drunk and sleeping Finnegan. The theme is by no means treated necessarily as sublime and cosmic: it is just as evident in Alice in Wonderland and 'Sleeping Beauty'.
The teacher may want to go into the original association of Hebrew religion with lunar symbolism: Thomas Mann makes a great deal of this in his Joseph tetralogy, and Yeats' A Vision is a cyclic vision of history as controlled by the phases of the moon, a kind of extended demonic counterpart to the lunar symbolism woven into the three-day rhythm of the Passion.
1. Biblical Passages
Exodus 33:19.—'and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy'.
Romans 11:32.—The fortunate fall.
II Corinthians 2-4.—'he was caught up into paradise'.
Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
Chapter Five. Typology II.
pp. 105-06. Phases of revelation.
pp. 106-14. Creation.
Creation and Recreation, Northrop Frye, 1980.
Suggested Essay and Discussion Questions
- What might Paul's statements about the predestined and the elect come to mean if they were reconsidered as freed from the category of ordinary time?
- Discuss Tennyson's In Memoriam in light of what we have discussed in this program about eternity and time, evolution, epiphany, and telos.
- Compare Shaw's Back to Methuselah with what we said in this guide about Man and Superman. Can Shaw's 'creative evolution' be said itself to have got free of the category of time?
- Discuss Blake's short poem 'To the God of This World' in the light of this program, especially in light of what we have said about dreaming and waking, night and day.
- Compare the story of the loss of immortality in the Gilgamesh Epic to the story of the Fall in Genesis.
Lecture 14, Part 2 &
Lecture 15, Part 1
GENESIS: CREATING THE SEXES
There are two recurring forms of creation myth, the sexual and the artificial. The sexual creation myth derives from the unending cycles of nature, and often focuses upon the figure of an earth-mother who is the womb and tomb of all life. The artificial creation myth derives from the cycles of the celestial bodies, and focuses upon the figure of a sky-father. The Bible insists upon an artificial creation myth because it resists the overtones of cyclical fatality implied by the inevitability of birth and death in nature. But the problem with an artificial creation myth is that it necessitates the idea of a fall of man, because the perfect model world it postulates as the result of divine planning and intelligence cannot be the world of death and corruption that we live now. The original unfallen state is conceived in the Bible as a kind of lost sexual ideal, one of whose symbols would be an erect serpent in the tree of life, as contrasted with the cursed serpent crawling on the ground.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
- One typical form of creation myth is the sexual creation myth, based on the cycle of births and deaths among living things in nature.
- The most frequent symbol for this type of myth is that of an earth-mother, from whose body all life proceeds and to whom in death all life returns.
- The Bible, because it insists on the sense of meaning and intelligent planning implied by an absolute beginning to time, rejects the sexual myth’s implications of a mechanical and endlessly turning cycle, in favor of an artificial creation myth.
- The latter is based on the also cyclical and yet undying and regularly recurring bodies in the heavens, and focuses upon the figure of a sky-father.
- Death is built into the sexual creation myth, but the artificial creation myth finds it a problem, because it suggests that the perfect and model world God created in the beginning has been corrupted.
- The Bible’s creation myth therefore needs the alienation myth of a fall of man. The Fall is apparently conceived as the loss of a perfect sexual state that we cannot now imagine.
In contrast to the cursed serpent crawling limply on the ground, the symbol of this would be an unfallen serpent erect in the tree of life.
The Teacher’s Perspective
We said in program 3 that the paradisal garden is the symbolic place of origin, and that this accounts for the haunting recurrence of themes from the Book of Genesis throughout the history of western culture. Indeed, some writers seem hardly able to get away from them; and the early poetry of Dylan Thomas, for example, could be looked at almost as an intricate series of variations upon the story of the Creation and the Fall: the class may compare such examples as ‘In the beginning’, ‘Before I knocked’, or ‘Incarnate devil in a talking snake’ to Milton’s own creation of Genesis in Book VII of Paradise Lost. The comparison will perhaps suggest what Prof. Frye says in The Great Code (114), that ‘The essential meaning of the creation story, for us, seems to be as a type of which the antitype is the new heaven and earth promised in Revelation 21:1’. For Thomas especially, inheritor of Romantic ideas about the importance of the human creative imagination, a corollary to this seems to be that the idea of a creator God is itself a type, of which human creative power is in effect the antitype, the realized form or fulfillment. Creeping in around the edges of ‘Incarnate devil’ and ‘In the beginning’ is the suggestion that the original Creation was in some respects a Creation-Fall such as we explained in the last program. Prof. Frye’s Creation and Recreation is largely concerned with the revolutionary implications of human creativity, with the fact that human creation works by annihilating some aspect of the Creation, and as such, that book forms a natural supplement to the present program.
Just how far western culture lay under the dominance of the artificial creation myth from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century is far from being an undisputed question, with some Renaissance scholars claiming that such concepts as the Ptolemaic cosmos and the great chain of being appear so prominently precisely because they were in the process of being challenged: that creative writers were drawn to them, not because they were a secure foundation that was taken for granted, but because they were the era’s chief focus of intellectual controversy. In an age where astrology is more popular than astronomy and ‘creationism’ fights court battles with evolution, it would be well to keep in mind that the idea of a great unquestioned ‘medieval synthesis’ is probably a nostalgic illusion. Nevertheless, the presence in poetry from Dante to Milton of an artificial and hierarchical cosmos ordered more or less from the top down is clearly demonstrable, and such incidents as the persecution of Galileo suggest that the artificial creation myth still had enough clout to suppress dissension in the seventeenth century. Indeed, it is still the prevailing popular belief in our time: but the argument for a change in sensibility somewhere around the eighteenth century rests on the fact that it had list enough cultural ascendency by that time to be openly challenged on the higher levels of culture.
A surprising number of such challenges have involved the revival of some sort of goddess worship, the best-known example being Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Man Who Died’ gives us a Christ assimilated to the cycles of nature, and E.R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian trilogy attributes to his dark goddess Fiorinda some of characteristics of the ‘cruel mistress’ of courtly love poetry, the chief secular form in the goddess her tradition was preserved in the Renaissance, its religious equivalent being the Catholic cult of Mary (see Henry Adams’ Mont St. Michel and Chartes). When she appeared in more directly mythological form, the earth-goddess usually appeared in Renaissance poetry as a monstrous figure, often the mother of the elder Titans deposed by the Olympians in Classical mythology, such as the Night of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book I, canto 5. In Blake’s Four Zoas (and elsewhere), she is called Vala in her role as a nature goddess, and Enitharmon as Queen of Heaven. In Finnegan’s Wake, she is Anna Livia Plurabelle, Or ALP, who is also the river Liffey with its fertile delta.
The Freudians have naturally enough provided us with the majority of our insights about fallen sexuality: in fact, the classical Freudian Oedipus complex is a variation of Prof. Frye’s statement that the mother is the parent that we have to break with in order to get born. If something prevents the separation from taking place naturally, a neurosis develops, and the maternal image turns into what Jung in Symbols of Transformation calls the Terrible Mother, such as the Indian death goddess Kali or all the wicked stepmothers of the fairy tales. Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a penetrating study of mythology from a feminist point of view, argues that the necessity of breaking with the figure of the mother is a chief cause for the ambivalent feelings towards women in our society.
The modern world has been not exactly uninterested, shall we say, in the possibility that we might regain some portion of an unfallen sexuality. In Blake, the apocalypse begins in the loins, Lawrence, in The Plumed Serpent, is clear that this apocalyptic sexuality would be ego-transcending, not so clear about what would be a practical program for achieving it. The speculations of such books as Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and Norman O. Brown’s Live Against Death and Love’s Body are even more uninhibited. The students may read Yeat’s ‘Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop’ for its Blakean insight into what has happened to sexuality because of the Fall: ‘For love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement;/ And nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent’. This provision explains what is sometimes taken as a mere emphasis on perversity in some modern literature: in fact, it is a more or less exact gloss on the final sexual act in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Students will be likely to enjoy the gorgeous description of the unfallen serpent in Milton’s Paradise Lost; another view of him is at the end of Dylan Thomas’ ‘ Altarwise by owl-light’, as the serpent of wisdom who ‘builds with the gold straws of venom/ My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree’. The ancient symbol of the serpent with his tail in his mouth, the Ouroboros, may be either an ironic image of the natural cycle or a symbol of the consciousness that breaks free of that cycle, in which case it becomes emblematic of eternity: often a double meaning seems in fact to be intended, as when Lessingham, the hero of E.R. Eddison’s aforementioned fantasy trilogy, wears an Ouroboros emblem on his ring without realizing its full import, or as with the serpent of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Auroras of Autumn’, whose flashing scales are the aurora borealis in the night sky. The image of the cycle may also bear a double character, as it does in Finnegans Wake, whose last sentence breaks off and is finished on page one.
There is one further aspect of the subject of creation, that of the Logos, or creation by the Word. The word ‘logos’ comes from Heraclitus, where it means something like an intelligible cosmic process or order in which we all have our being. It was later picked up by the Stoics, and still later by the Gospel of John, where of course it becomes Incarnate. As Prof. Frye points out, the opening of the Fourth Gospel is a kind of antitype to Genesis. The modern career of the Logos concept descends from Coleridge, who attempted to combine its Christian meaning with some parts of German philosophy in his famous definition of the primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria: it is the ‘universal I AM’ of that passage, and Coleridge dreamed all his life of making it the subject of a work that, had he completed it, would apparently have made Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason look like a modest essay. He never began it. Two modern Logos poets are T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, which are prefaced by two quotations from Heraclitus, and in Ash-Wednesday, part V; and also Dylan Thomas: the ‘long world’s gentleman’ of ‘ Altarwise by owl-light’ is in fact the logos himself, the ‘walking world’; and there is a whole series of puns on words, letters and writing embedded throughout that complex sequence.
- Biblical Passages
Judges 6: 25.
The ‘grove’ or wooden poles (asherah) of the fertility goddess Asherah.
Jeremiah 44: 15 ff.
Asherah as Queen of Heaven.
Diana of the Ephesians, many-breasted goddess of fertility.
- Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
The earth-mother and the cycles of nature.
Creation and Recreation, Northrop Frye, University of Toronto Press, 1980.
‘The Revelation to Eve’, in The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Literature and Society, Northrop Frye, Cornell University Press, 1970.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions
- Despite the presence of a second creation story from the Priestly or P source, most of the first eleven chapters of Genesis come from the J Material, from what has been called the ‘Jahwist epc’, composed around 1000 B.C. during the period of the monarchy. What features from literary form known as the epic does the presence of this material add to the Bible? Consider that such materials as the Flood story derive from non-Israelite sources: compare the story of the flood of Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic. How would the meaning of the Bible have been changed if it had begun where the E or Elohist narrative did, at the covenant with Abraham? What tension exists between the cosmological and the ‘political’ elements of Genesis?
- When the Apollo astronauts were cut off behind the moon from the sight of the earth, they read the account of the Creation in Genesis over the radio. What meaning still lies in that account that made it an appropriate passage for that moment?
- Explain Blake’s poem ‘The Mental Traveller’ in light of what this program has discussed of the idea of the cyclical fatality of fallen nature.
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 14
GENESIS: IN THE BEGINNING
Last term, I was concerned with trying to build up a unified picture of the narrative and imagery of the Bible, and the emphasis consequently was on its imaginative unity, the unity as revealed by the myth and metaphor that form its structure. But the Bible's disregard for unity is quite as impressive as its observance of it: it's just as possible to look at it as a large miscellaneous heap of badly established texts. Everything that could possibly go wrong with a book has gone wrong with the Bible at some stage or other in its history. So the Bible, therefore, is a unity which has passed beyond unity. It's not a matter of its having failed to achieve it, but of its having got past it to something which includes it.
There are two senses, in other words, in which we can use the word 'imperfect'. We can think of it as a limited or inadequate quality which falls below perfection, or we can think of it, as the tenses of the Hebrew language suggest, as the difference between the perfected, that which is finished and complete, and that which is still continuous and alive. The Bible has tried to present its unified message in that deliberately imperfect way: I'll try to show you something of that in the ending of the Book of Revelation, which as I said, is a remarkably open ending for a book of that length.
Now what I want to do this term is to examine a series of what seem to me to be phases in what the Bible has to say, phases of what is traditionally called revelation. It's a rather tricky business to try to understand what the Bible means by revelation, because in the course of centuries, we have eventually realized that its revelation is not the communicating either of historical know ledge or of scientific and natural knowledge. At the same time, revelation does seem to imply the communicating of some kind of knowledge, and the real nature of that knowledge is what I want to examine.
It seems to me that there is a progressive sequence in the Bible of stages, not so much of revelation itself, as of the understanding of it. First, creation; then revolution, which is the Exodus from Egypt; then law, which follows the Exodus; then wisdom, or the individualizing of the law; then prophecy: those five stages all have their center of gravity in the Old Testament. There are two others with their center of gravity in the New Testament: the gospel, and the Second Coming or apocalypse. That will be our general outline for this term, which means of course that we have to begin with the conception of creation in the Bible as it's set out at the beginning of Genesis and referred to elsewhere.
There are certain questions that obviously come to mind when you're reading the Biblical account of Genesis. One is, why is there such an insistence on days of the week, and why does the Bible talk about the first, the second and the third day before the sun was created to measure time? Another one is, why is the account of creation in the Bible so intolerably patriarchal? The creating God in the Bible is assumed to be male, which obviously must be a metaphor, because he is the creator of both male and female. We are also told that at the beginning of things, the first woman's body was created out of the body of the first man, in a violent reversal of everything that has happened since. For questions like that, there are always immediate answers: the emphasis on the seven days was put in to rationalize the law of the Sabbath, and the emphasis on the maleness of the creating agent was put in to rationalize the doctrines of male supremacy in ancient society. Now I have no doubt that those answers are true as far as they go. They don't go far enough to be very interesting, so I'm going to ignore their truth and try to get a little further.
First of all, in the beginning—the Hebrew simply says, in beginning, beresheth, God created the heaven and the earth. Now one of the first questions that's likely to come to a child's mind is: what happened before that? Or, more accurately, what was God doing sitting around all that time before making the world? Saint Augustine said that what God was doing before creation was preparing a hell for those who asked questions of that kind: which perhaps tells you more about Saint Augustine than it does about God. But to be told that we should not ask a question of course merely increases its urgency in any healthy mind.
So what took place before the creation? Well, in the first place, that question has got fouled up with the category of time, because the category of time is the fundamental way in which we perceive reality. Considering that the category of time is divided into three dimensions, the past, present and the future, that none of these dimensions actually exists, because the past doesn't exist any longer, and the future doesn't exist yet, and the present never quite exists at all, it seems a funny way to grasp reality. But that's the way we do grasp reality: we grasp it with a category which is totally nonexistent.
Further, you will see if you try it that it is entirely impossible to think of the beginning of time. You can talk about a beginning of time, talk about it forever, but you cannot actually think of the notion. A beginning of time is unthinkable. Consequently, all notions of the eternal in religion which mean endless time are notions which have not got clear of the category of time. Popular Christianity tells us that after death we live forever either in heaven or in hell, meaning endlessly in time. But in saying eternal when you mean endless time, you are not getting clear of the category of time at all. Jesus uses the term aionios, which the King James Bible translates as 'everlasting'; and if you think carefully about that word 'everlasting' as a translation for aionios, you'll see that it's a little masterpiece of question-begging. 'Everlasting' means persisting indefinitely in time.
However, early Christianity discovered that Christianity would be much more salable if you perverted its good news into bad news, and in particular if you put at the center of your teaching the doctrine that after death, unless you did what you were told at this moment, you would suffer tortures for eternity, meaning endlessly in time. Every system of organized priestcraft has had a doctrine of that kind, and the only thing to be said in favor of it is that it makes sin creative: that is, we owe a great deal more to the people who went on sinning in spite of it than we do to the people who tried to restrain sin by threatening it. But that is merely an example of what John Bunyan says, that the mouth of hell is open at the gate of heaven, and that turning God into the devil is one of the commonest of all theological errors. So whatever the word 'eternal' means, try to think of it as something that transcends the category of time altogether, and then you'll get a little closer to what the Bible is talking about.
So, negatively, that brings you to a partial and tentative answer to the question, why does the Bible insist on an absolute beginning? Clearly, it is trying to assert that the category of time is not the ultimate category, and that the activity of God as the Bible understands it in Genesis cannot be put on the same level as this moving belt of past, present and future that we experience as time. The doctrine of an absolute beginning, which is something you cannot think as long as you are talking about the category of time itself, is there to indicate that the creation comes out of a world which is above time.
In the seventeenth century, the age of Galileo and Newton, Biblical scholars, including Newton himself, were gravely explaining to each other that the creation probably took place in 4004 B.C., probably at the spring equinox, probably around ten in the morning. So the discoveries in the nineteenth century in geology, which eventually pushed the age of the earth back to about two billion years, if not three—but as the government will be saying in the future, what's a billion?—made an impact that was out of all proportion to its importance. But scientists, of course, like anybody else, find that they can't get along without creation myths; and eventually we have a Big Bang creation myth, which says that the world exploded, oh, say fifteen billion years ago or thereabouts, and has been scattering in all directions ever since.
Well, that's fine: what happened before that? And you immediately are up against the fact that as long as you are thinking of the order of nature, the conceptions of beginning and end do not apply. But we begin and we end, and because of what Thomas Pynchon calls creative paranoia in the human consciousness, we insist that because we begin and we end, beginnings and endings must be much more deeply built into the scheme of things. And so we start out the Biblical creation myth with an absolute beginning, associated at the end of Revelation with an absolute end.
The first phenomena of creation were light and sound; and in one of Chaucer's poems, an eagle picks up the poet and takes him on a flight to the House of Fame, and keeps talking the whole time, which makes Chaucer very nervous because he is held in the eagle's mouth, and he doesn't want the eagle to drop him. The eagle gives him a long speech on the nature of sound and of words, and he says, among other things, 'Sound is naught but air abroken', that is, words are air. It's a traditional enough association.
My point here is that the Creed speaks of God as having made all things visible and invisible, and there are systems of thought including some Christian ones, which assume that there are two orders of existence, one invisible and the other visible, and that the invisible world is a higher order of reality. That doesn't seem to be the way the Bible thinks of things at all. As soon as you start trying to think of things that you can't see but know exist, the first thing you would think of would be the air. You can't see the air. If you could, you could see nothing else. You'd be living in a dense fog, and fog is in fact an extremely important metaphor in the Bible, as we'll see when we get to the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's the basis of the word which is translated in that book as 'vanity'. And in a sense, paradoxical as it sounds, we don't really see light either, as distinct from seeing a source or a reflection of light. What we see is symbolically and metaphorically fire, the source of light, rather than light itself. So the Bible doesn't think of the invisible world as a superior order. It thinks of it as that by means of which the world becomes visible: that is, the invisible world is the medium of the visible world. It is the emptiness that permits things to exist. The twentieth century philosopher Heidegger says that the first question of philosophy is, why are there things rather than nothing? And he eventually winds up with the answer that, if there were not nothing, there would be no things.
God is invisible for the same reason that air is invisible. If he were directly visible, well, then he would have been an entirely different metaphysical setup: but when Isaiah says that he saw the Lord high and lifted up, or when Ezekiel has the vision of the chariot, they mean that they see a source of visibility, just as when we look at the sun we see the source of visibility. That's what I mean by the doctrine of the invisible in the Bible, that the invisible is the medium by which the world becomes visible. If God were not invisible, the world would not be visible; that is, God would not then be a Creator.
Now I've said that myth and metaphor, rather than the historical and doctrinal, are the basis of literal meaning in the Bible. So the question arises, what is the metaphorical kernel, let us say, of this conception of beginning? It might be, as I suggested a few moments ago, the metaphorical kernel of getting born: we begin when we join a continuum of living creatures, and we end when we drop off it. But actually, a much clearer metaphorical basis is that of the experience of waking up in the morning, where you dismiss a dark, chaotic, confused world. You simply abolish that world, and with the help of your alarm clock, you enter a world which you consider for practical purposes more real, though any philosopher could tie you in any number of knots about its reality. Still, as far as you're concerned, it's the real world, and you get up and get dressed. This metaphorical kernel of abolishing a world of chaos and finding a world which for practical purposes is your real world in front of you is as close as we get to the experience of an actual beginning.
Now, I previously said that many creation myths begin with a hero-god killing a dragon, who represents the chaos of the world before the creation, and I've cited the Babylonian poem, enuma elish, where Marduk, the hero-god of Babylon, kills the sea monster, Tiamat, chops her in two, makes heaven from half of her and earth from the other half. We have tried to suggest that this dragon fight, which is referred to many times in the Old Testament, lies closely behind the account of creation in Genesis. One reason why it is not mentioned there is that the dragon by this time is being conceived in negative terms as pure inertness. That is, you don't have to kill the dragon: the dragon is death, and to kill death is to bring to life.
And I suspect that it is this immediate connection with the experience of waking up that accounts partly for the metaphor of days in the creation. Of course, there are historical and cultural reasons. There's the law of the Sabbath. The law of the Sabbath itself derives probably from an original lunar cult, and in a sense, the symbolic or metaphorical moon is older than the sun. A tribe of desert wanderers would find that the sun was a killer, and that the moon was a friendly guide on their night journeys, and hence they would be very apt to make a friendly deity out of the moon. There are many traces of a very early lunar cult among the Hebrews in pre-Biblical times, and one of these traces is the emphasis on the numerical unit of seven days of the week, which marks the phase of the moon. In the Gospel of John, the Word of God is spoken of as a light shining in darkness, and of course a light shining in darkness suggests the moon, or a bright star like the star of Bethlehem, rather than the sun. So the moon is to that degree a more eloquent symbol of beginning even than the sun. We're told that the words like 'hallelujah', which have to do with the praising of God, were in pre-Biblical times connected with new moon festivals and with the greeting of the new moon in the sky. The three-day rhythm of the old moon, the dark night, and the new moon has woven itself very intricately into the Christian Passion symbolism.
And so, as I say, I think it is the metaphorical connection between the idea of a beginning and the experience of waking up that accounts for the emphasis on the day, which begins, you'll notice, with the evening: 'And the evening and the morning were the third day', and so on, even though the machinery to regulate days did not appear until the fourth day.
So far I've been talking about the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. That comes from what scholars call the Priestly narrative, which is much the latest of the major documents that make up the first five books of the Bible. A second and much older account of the Creation begins in Genesis 2:4: 'These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens'. The one that comes first is the later, the more philosophical account, where Creation is thought of metaphorically as the creation of dry land out of the waters: that is, chaos is metaphorically identified with the waters or the face of the deep, and practically the first act of the creation is a separating of the dry land from the sea. In the older account, you begin with a universal drought, and the creative act starts with what the King James Bible calls a 'mist' in verse 6 but which in the Septuagint is pege, 'fountain', which makes a great deal more sense.
Now if you examine creation myths across the world, you will find that certain recurring types seem to sort themselves out, and one very common kind of creation myth is the sexual creation myth, which says essentially that the world came to be in the first place in the same way that it still comes into being in the springtime, when lambs are born from sheep, and new seeds sprout out of the ground. You have in that kind of myth a sexual creation myth, and it is essentially a myth which accounts for the origin of life, for the beginning of things that live, animals and plants. They first came into being in the same way that they still do. Now in the world that we know, everything that lives has been born from a female body, and so in mythology the sexual creation myth is very frequently and very naturally associated with some kind of earth-mother. This earth-mother has both a cherishing and a sinister aspect: cherishing because everything comes to birth from her body, and sinister because everything that dies returns to her body. She is both the womb and the tomb of all forms of life, the mother of life and the mother of death. There is no rule without many exceptions in mythology, but that is a very common type of creation myth.
Now you'll notice that that creation myth has underlying it the notion of an endlessly turning cycle. The new life comes in the spring. What was before that? There was the winter. What was before the winter? The last spring, and so on back. It's a myth which conforms to the facts of nature to the extent that it does not try to answer the question about an absolute beginning. Sexual creation myths turn on the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg, and there is no answer to that question. You simply go back in an endless cycle of time.
I've tried to show in my analysis of its imagery and narrative that the Bible strongly resists this conception of cyclical fatality. It talks more about absolute beginnings and absolute ends, and this tendency goes back to the particular kind of creation myth that it has. In the Bible, the creation myth is an artificial one. That is, the world originally was made. In a play of Bernard Shaw's, somebody quotes the Horatian tag that poets are born and not made. Somebody says that that's a silly thing to say because everybody's born and not made. But not according to the Book of Genesis: everything at first, including the first man and woman, was made, and the cycle of birth was instituted later. Just as it is natural to associate a sexual creation myth with an earth-mother, so it is natural to associate this artificial creation myth with a sky-father. It is easy to think of God as a father because he's a mysterious being who goes to his work in some office to which you can't follow him, and doesn't nurture his children. I've spoken of the Biblical resistance to the idea of cyclical fatality, and the mother is the parent that we have to break from in order to get born. The creation myth of the Bible associates this conception of the break from the mother, in this case the earth-mother, with that cycle that goes around and around forever without ever stopping.
Then again, I said that the sexual creation myth was a myth about living things, whereas, if you put some kind of mythmaking Robinson Crusoe into a landscape by himself and took all his social conditioning away from him—it isn't possible, but we could think of it experimentally—and said, now you produce a creation myth, the kind of creation myth he would produce would depend on whether he was looking up or looking down at the point at which you've released him. If he were looking down, he would see the cycle of animals and plants coming out of the ground in the springtime, the sap moving in the trees, the new lambs being born, and so forth; and that would condition him in the direction of an earth-mother, a sexual creation myth. But if he looked up, he would see the sun going across the sky, and what was unmistakably the same sun coming back again the next morning. So if he looks down to the cycle of animals and plants, he sees what Plato would call the cycle of the different, because the new life is never the same as the old life. The flowers that bloom in the spring are never the same flowers that bloomed the previous spring. But up in the sky, there is the sun with its daily recurrence, the moon with its slower recurrence, and eventually the planets with theirs; and that suggests something more like planning and intelligence. Hence, the artificial myth tends to become associated with the upper cycle, the cycle of the same rather than of the different.
The cycle of the same suggests a sense of planning and intelligence and ordering; that is, this sexual creation myth suggests what Spinoza would call the natura naturans, nature as a living organism. Whereas, what you collect from the movements of the sun and moon in the sky is rather the sense of natura naturata, of nature as a structure or system, where all things return to their sources. It depends, of course, on the social organization that man belongs to. The notion of a sky-creator is said to be an extremely ancient one, but in early or primitive societies, this sky-creator doesn't do anything. He leaves the government of the world to inferior beings, a pattern that reflects a kind of tribal organization of society. But when you get into more highly developed societies like the late Roman Empire, you find that all the effective gods have retreated into the sky, and that there then becomes a connection between the sense of a natural order and a moral order.
If you are in a cycle that goes around without stopping, then you are in a sense an embryo: there's a bigger womb that you never escape from; and what's more, this endlessly turning cycle is, when you analyze it closely, a mechanical symbol. The Hebrew word for embryo is golem, and in Jewish legend the golem became a mechanical monster like the one of Frankenstein's. This means that Jesus' emphasis on the Father has a great deal to do with this sense of an order higher than that of time and with the sense of the urgency about waking up into this order above time and above the area of mother nature. That's what Christianity calls resurrection.