At a friend’s suggestion I am reading the excellent Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible by John Walton. It is a textbook treating the cognitive environment of the ancient near east, i.e., the environment in which the Hebrew Bible was written. There are many interesting thoughts, but there were two observations that jumped out at me from the chapter on cosmology and cosmogeny. The ancients conceived of the earth as a flat disk, surrounded on all sides by water (i.e., above and below the disk). Water was a symbol of chaos (presumably because sailing on a ship was such an uncertain business five thousand years ago!). The earth was formed by separating the waters, both in Genesis and elsewhere. Then, creation stories focus not on the creation of matter (ex nihilo or otherwise), but to the assignment of roles and functions.
One doesn’t typically read stories about the world being created from the bodily fluids of gods and then find links to contemporary thought. But these two things jumped out at me. First, the opposition between chaos and order, which is more or less identical to how we would describe creation, if we were to do it in modern terms. Life is differentiation: a persistent energy gradient. (Even “where the matter came from” is, as I understand it, less of a focus of inquiry in physics today, compared to the question of how a homogenous mass of particles clumped together to form galaxies, etc.) Second, the assignment of role and function strikes me as particularly divine: the necessary personal intervention to assign a teleology to these fantastic molecular assemblies.