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Ben Zoma's query on Genesis 1:7: was it what drove him insane?

IN GENESIS RABBAH 4:7 (2), WE FIND AN INTRIGUING midrash regarding Genesis 1:7:
 God made the expanse-this is one of the verses with which Ben
 Zoma (3) shook the world. "He 'made'" [Ben Zoma said.] "I am
 dumbfounded. Were they not created by His word [alone]?" Thus (4) [is
 it stated in Psalms 33:6, which declares,] "By the word of the Lord
 the heavens were made, by the breath of His mouth, all their host."

Put another way, Ben Zoma was challenging the Bible's right to have it both ways. Either God physically manufactured the expanse, as Genesis 1:7 states, or it came into being purely on His say-so, as Genesis 1:6 declares. The midrash does not contain an answer to Ben Zoma's query, unless it is assumed that the quoted verse provides it; i.e., the Sages did not answer the question and used the verse for biblical validation, but rather stated the verse, leaving it to the listener (or reader) to reach his or her own conclusion.

This paper will contend that Ben Zoma "shook the world" because behind his question was the realization that portions of Genesis 1 were conflated texts representing two separate authors--a realization that had the potential of challenging the authority of the Torah itself.

If we assume that Psalms 33:6 is intended to be an answer to Ben Zoma's query, then perhaps [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (va-ya-as, "and He made") in Genesis 1:7 should be understood as immediate execution of God's word. Psalms 33:6, however, is unsatisfactory as an answer to Ben Zoma's query on several counts:

The text clearly says "and He made ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])" the expanse, not that it was made ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], v'na-asa). If [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is to be understood as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], why is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] not used (cf. Genesis 1:26)?

Even if Psalms 33:6 is assumed to be the answer, it still leaves unanswered why "and He made" was not used in all days of creation.

Genesis 1:6-7 speaks about the expanse ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], rakiya), while Psalms 33:6 speaks about the heavens ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], shamayim).

If "and He made" indicates immediate execution of God's word, then [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (vay-hi chen, "and it was so") is redundant.

Classical Jewish commentators do not mention Psalms 33:6 as a possible answer.

If Psalms 33:6 is not the answer to Ben Zoma's query, what is it? Many manuscripts of Genesis Rabbah do not have [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (havei, "thus"), (5) a word that most often introduces a proof of some kind, or a supporting statement) and these are considered to be the authentic version. In that case, Psalms 33:6 could be part of the query. (6) This would strengthen the premise of the query that God created the expanse "by His word." It is also possible that Psalms 33:6 is a kind placeholder for an answer. It fills the blank spot where an answer should have been, is enigmatic enough to make one think that it is an answer, but it really is not an answer.

Of the classical Jewish commentators, Nachmanides and Abarbanel refer directly to Ben Zoma's query. Nachmanides, known commonly as the Ramban (an acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), shifts the emphasis in the question from "and He made" to the unusual distance between "He said" and "it was so." Ramban explains (7):
 this upheaval ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], ha-har-asha) [of Ben
 Zoma] was not only by He made, since the term is used in the fourth,
 fifth (8) and sixth day. But it was caused by
 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (va-yomer, and He said) not being
 followed closely by [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (vay-hi chen, and
 it was so) as in the other days, to indicate that it was so
 immediately after the saying. But here after and God said it is
 written He made. This is his query. Perhaps he had a mysterious
 explanation and did not want to reveal his secret. This is the matter
 of the "upheaval."

We notice that Ben Zoma's query never mentions "and it was so." Were the distance of "and it was so" from "and God said" the essence of Ben Zoma's query, he should have more properly stated it on Genesis 1:26, for which the "and it was so" occurs only several verses later, at the end of Genesis 1:30. Ramban cannot imply that the occurrence of "and He made" in two other cases demonstrates that it is not problematic, because Ben Zoma did not mention them. This kind of an implication can be countered by the argument that Genesis 1:6-7 was its first occurrence, and it is here that Ben Zoma expressed his bewilderment.

Moreover, Ramban does not answer Ben Zoma's query even as he understands it. Furthermore, even if "and it was so" is moved from the end of 1:7 to the end of 1:6, as the Septuagint does, still the repetitive nature of the "and He made" statement requires explanation. (9) Also, Ramban is not entirely accurate regarding the use of "and He made." In the six days of creation, "and He made" is used on the second, fourth, and sixth day, but not at all on the fifth. It seems that Ramban tried in this shifting of the focus in Ben Zoma's query to dilute the force of its impact. (10)

Abarbanel assumes that "and He made" in the creation story means shaping from the same material entities that are drastically different from each other. Ben Zoma, so Abarbanel argues, impressed (11) the world with his lengthy and detailed explanation of God's shaping the substantially different planets and other celestial bodies from the same material. In the other verses where "and He made" appears, such explanation was not necessary because it was more obvious what the differences were.

Abarbanel thus turns Ben Zoma's query into an impressive event. Unfortunately, his explanation relies on an interpretation of "and He made" that does not have support in the text. Moreover, the explanation does not account for the "and God said ... and it was so" anomaly. (12) Rashi circumvents Ben Zoma's query by explaining that "and He made" actually means "and He fixed it." The "making" was "fixing" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], tikkun) something that was already made. Rabbi David Kimchi offers a similar explanation.

Ramban strengthens Rashi's explanation by giving it general validity. Wherever "and He made" appears in the Bible, it means fixing a thing as it should be. A somewhat different aspect of "and He made" is introduced by B'chor Shor (13), who explains that "and He made" is not creatio ex nihilo, but bringing into being something that exists in potenia.

Ibn Ezra does not mention Ben Zoma or his problem with the text, but nevertheless presents a creative solution to one of Ramban's noted irregularities. In his commentary on Genesis 1:7, he argues that "and it was so" actually belongs to Verse 8 and that the text should be read as "when it was so, God called the expanse sky." There is thus no issue regarding the lengthy separation of "He said" and "it was so." Although apparently not intended, this defeats Ramban's comment on Ben Zoma's upheaval.

Regarding Rashi's basic explanation that "made" equals "fixed," one can obviously ask why God's word alone was not enough to set things right? Also, one might also wonder why Ben Zoma, noted for his erudition and interpretation of the Bible, did not see so simple a solution to his world-shaking problem?

The biblical scholar E.A. Speiser adopts the Septuagint's correction, moving "and it was so" from the end of 1:7 to the end of 1:6. (14) The biblical commentator Umberto Cassuto believes that the Masoretic text reflects the style of biblical narratives. The "and He made" statement in 1:7 concluding with "and it was so" refers to a separation that is permanent (in relative position), while the parallel 1:6 refers to a changing separation (in time). (15) It is certainly difficult to see what possibly could be the cause for such phase-type creation, nor is it supported by the text. The Israeli biblical commentator Yehuda Kiel considers as parenthetic the statement from "and He made" to (but not including) "and it was so", explaining how "God's word" was executed. (16) However, the parenthetic statement does not add any detail of creation. It only identifies the waters that were separated, "waters which was above the expanse" and "waters which was below the expanse," which is an inaccurate way of saying "waters on one side of the expanse" and "waters on the other side of the expanse," since "above" and "under" require a reference frame.

John Skinner, in his Genesis commentary, says, "The occurrence of the 'and it was so' before the execution of the fiat [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], ma'amar] produces a redundancy which may be concealed but is not removed by substituting 'so' for 'and' in the translation (So God made, etc.)." (17) Similarly, already Bernhard Stade (18) and Friedrich Schwally (19) pointed to the seemingly twofold conception of the creation, which runs through the chapter, suggesting composition of the passage from two distinct and contradictory recensions of the cosmogony. However, in Skinner's view, we do not have here indication of another source. (20)

While the Septuagint moves "and it was so" from the end of 1:7 to the end of 1:6, the Samaritan Bible, Peshitta and Vulgate follow the Masoretic text. Thus, the Septuagint's text should be considered a harmonizing emendation of the Masoretic text. That text, however, has the markings of being conflated. I concur with the biblical scholar Frank Zimmermann that
 for a brief short-lived period in the transmission of the Hebrew
 text, a school of proto-Masoretes attempted to imbed in the text
 variant readings. For the most part, it was probably assumed that the
 reader would tacitly recognize that a particular verse had variant
 readings. Of course, these proto-Masoretes could not conceive or did
 not indulge in the footnotes or apparatus of which a modern editor
 avails himself. By and large, however, their method of marking
 variants consisted of assigning them the following position in the
 1. at the end of a verse
 2. at, or as close as possible, to the cesura (the later official
 etnachtah (21))
 3. side by side in the text. (22)

It appears that Genesis 1:6-7 is a conflated text. One text read: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (va-yomer elohim y 'hi ra-kiah b'toch ha-mayim vi-hi mavdil bein mayim l'mayim vay-hi chen; God said, "Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water." And it was so.) Between "water" and "it was so," another authoritative version was added close to the Etnachtah (23) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (va-ya-as elohim et ha-ra-kiah va-yav-del bein ha-mayim asher mitachat la-ra-kiah u-vein ha-mayim asher me-al la-ra-kiah; God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse).

A similar conflation of a "God said ... and it was so" version with an "and He made" version can be found in Genesis 1:14-16 and in Genesis 1:24-25. One might be tempted to extend this notion of conflation also to Genesis 1:26-28. Certainly the "and it was so" at the end of Genesis 1:30 is senseless. The formulaic structure requires it to be at the end of Genesis 1:26. Moreover, the plural [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (na-ase, "let us make") in Genesis 1:26 is unusual in the creation story in which there is a single creating agent. It seems that Genesis 1:26 went through a consistent change from singular to plural for theological reasons. We prefer not to delve into the possibility of conflation in Genesis 1:26-30 because it would detract from the main thesis. The conflations that were suggested do not occur in Zimmermann's extensive lists. (24)

Additional support for the existence of two authoritative versions, one highlighting "and He said" and the other "and He made" in the creation story, can be found, perhaps, in the use of the verbs "to say" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and "to make" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). These verbs occur 11 times and 10 times respectively in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, perhaps depicting an intent to give equal standing to both versions.18 Indeed, if one adds Genesis 2:4b to the mix, the verbs are of equal number. (25) In any case, it does appear that the "He made" of 2:4b is an attempt to catch up, as it were, with the number of "He saids" in the creation story (26). While the Masoretic text seemingly gives preference to the "said" version, perhaps to highlight God's power and minimize anthropomorphism, it must be noted that the "and He made" version provides the critical rationale for the Sabbath day. (27)

The biblical scholar Nahum Sarna sensed in the "and God said, 'Let there be'.... And it was so" formula intentional distancing from the notion that the "pronouncement of the right word, like the performance of the right magical actions, is able to, or rather, inevitably must, actualize the potentialities which are inherent in the inert matter." In his view, the Bible introduces a version of creation that is based on the word, but not a word of magic: "Creation comes about through the simple divine fiat: 'Let there be!'
 ... not to the utterance of the magic word, but to the expression of
 the omnipotent, sovereign, unchallengeable will of the absolute,
 transcendent God to whom all nature is completely subservient. Such a
 concept of God and of the process of creation added a new dimension to
 human thought and marked a new stage in the history of religion. It
 emancipated the mind from the limitations of mythopoeic thinking, and
 it liberated religion from the baneful influence of magic. (28)

The God described by Sarna would fit the "God said" version of a magnificent but somewhat distant and aloof God. The God of the "and He made" version is more involved in the manipulation of matter and thus closer to the world. Perhaps the redactor who fused the two versions was guided by a theological intent of fusing these concepts of God to create an ideal balance. (29)

If our reading of Genesis 1:7 as a conflated text is correct, it would explain Ben-Zoma's grand upheaval. Of course, the talmudic Sages were well aware of textual variants and even were "documentary theorists" after a fashion, suggesting, for example, that Joshua, not Moses, wrote the last eight verses of Deuteronomy (30), or that Numbers 22:2-24:25 (or perhaps merely the parables in Numbers 23-24) was once a separate work, albeit written by Moses (31). It is highly unlikely, however, that they would have conceived of the kind of textual manipulation required to conflate texts. If this is what Ben Zoma realized--and his query implies that he did, at least as far as Genesis 1:7 is concerned--then it is no wonder that he shook the world. After all, rabbinic authority is built on the premise that every word of the Torah, from the first word of Genesis to the last word of Deuteronomy, appear exactly as God dictated them to Moses (32). While "minor" textual variations do not topple this edifice, its foundation is in danger of crumbling under the weight of two distinct versions.

No wonder that Ben Zoma, whose exegetical efforts focused on the "mystery of creation" (33) believed embedded in the first chapter of Genesis, supposedly went mad. (34)


(1) I am indebted to Professor Larry Zalcman for his critical reading of this paper.

(2) In some editions, the passage is found in Genesis Rabbah 4:6.

(3) Shimon Ben Zoma, usually called Ben Zoma, was a Tanna (mishnaic sage) of the 2nd century.

(4) The midrash uses the word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (havei), indicating that what follows is meant as support for an argument. The argument itself--that the firmament was created by God's word alone, without physical intervention, is unstated here, leading to an ambiguity that is only compounded when [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is removed from the text. See further on in the article.

(5) See Note 3.

(6) Bereshit Rabba, ed. Julius Theodor and Chanoch Albeck (Jerusalem, 1965), 30. Without [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the verse could be seen as being brought by Ben Zoma as proof of his point. "After all, does it not state this as well in Psalms, etc.?"

(7) See Ramban' commentary to Genesis 1:7.

(8) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (va-ya-as) does not appear anywhere in the Fifth Day of Creation. The word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], va-yivra, He created, does appear (verse 21) and it is assumed that Ramban considers it a synonym for [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. If that is so, however, Ramban should also have said that the word appears for the First Day, which begins with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], bereishit barah, "When God began to create." This opens the possibility that he had another motive in mind, as will be explained further on.

(9) Yehuda Kiel, Sepher Bereshit, I. (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook (1997)), 11-12. Kiel takes a similar approach in 1:24-25.

(10) Abarbanel argues, "We also can say that Ben Zoma did not shake the world on account of 'and it was so' coming after the doing and not immediately after the saying, as Ramban has it. For, were it so, he would have shaken on the phrase 'and it was so' and not on 'and He made,' as it is written in the explanation for his shaking." In Ramban's defense, he does not exclude "and He made" from being the cause of Ben Zoma's shaking ("this upheaval was not only by 'and He made'"). Moreover, his approach deflects Abarbanel's following question: "If Ben Zoma shook the world on account of the 'and He made,' why did he not likewise shake the world regarding 'God made the two great lights' (Genesis 1:16) and 'God made wild beasts of every kind' (Genesis 1:25)?"

(11) Rather than shook, as others would interpret [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

(12) Yehezkel Kaufman, Mikivshonah shel Hayetzirah Hamikrait. (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1966), 217 note 3. In Kaufman's opinion, the difficulty is that "and it was so" in the story of creation usually seals a "and God said" statement while in Genesis 1:7 it seals a "and God made" statement.

(13) Most authorities accept the identification of Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac of Orleans as the author of the B'chor Shor commentary.

(14) E.A. Speiser, Genesis, AB 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 3-4. Speiser makes a similar emendation in v. 20.

(15) Umberto Cassuto, The Book of Genesis, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1986) 19.

(16) Kiel, 11-12. Kiel takes a similar approach in 1:24-25.

(17) John Skinner, ICC-A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930) 8.

(18) Bernhard Stade, Biblischen Theologie, Vol. I (Tubingen: Mohr, 1905), 349.

(19) Friedrich Schwally, "Die bilischen Schopfungsberichte" Archiv fur eligionswissenschaft IX (1906): 162-3.

(20) Skinner, 8.

(21) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (etnachtah), an Aramaic word designating a "rest stop" in between two parts--not necessarily actual halves--of a biblical verse, according to the official cantillation system. Its symbol is like an inverted wishbone; in the earliest cantillated texts, an etnachtah was symbolized by an inverted v. The Babylonian Talmud tractate M'gillah 32a makes chanting the text a requirement of its public reading. The existence of a cantillation system is affirmed in various talmudic and extra-talmudic sources. See, for example, BT M'gillah 3a, the Jerusalem Talmud tractate M'gillah 4:1 (74d) and Genesis Rabbah 36:8 (or 36:12 in some versions).

(22) Frank Zimmermann, "The Perpetuation of Variants in the Masoretic Text." Jewish Quarterly Review 34 (1943/44): 460-61.

(23) See the place of etnachtah in 1:2, 9, 11, 16, 24, and 30.

(24) Zimmermann, 459-474.

(25) Scholars are divided over where Chapter 1 actually ends and where Chapter 2 begins. While virtually all agree that 2:1-3 more appropriately belong to Chapter 1, the status of 2:4 is not so certain. Some ascribe all of the verse to Chapter 2; others divide it-at the etnachtah--between the two chapters.

(26) Skinner, 8.

(27) That is certainly the implication of Genesis 2:1-3, but it is the explicit assertion of Exodus 20:11, which states, "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it." "Rest" perhaps should be read as "ceased," which more correctly reflects the meaning of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (shabbat) and also avoids an unfortunate and likely unintended anthropomorphism.

(28) Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History, (New York: Schocken, copyright 1966, The Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), 12. Elsewhere--The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis. Philadelphia: JPS (1989) 8-Sarna explains, "This verb '-s-h, used again in verses 16 and 25, simply means that the divine intention became a reality. It does not represent a tradition of creation by deed as opposed to word." Sarna essentially assumes that (Psalm 33:6) is the answer given in the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 4:7) on Genesis 1:7. His explanation is therefore subject to the questions that we raised.

(29) This certainly is how some try to explain the differences between the depiction of creation through Genesis 2:4a--said by the proponents of the documentary hypothesis to be the work of the priestly source, P--and its depiction in the remainder of Chapter 2 (supposedly the work of the Tetragrammaton-favoring source J). Assuming acceptance of the conflation model offered here, it would be interesting to investigate whether the "He made" portions of Chapter 1 were originally a part of Genesis 2:4b-25. Such an investigation could shed some light on whether Chapter 2 represents a completely separate creation story, even as it also would understandably call into question P as the sole source for Chapter 1.

(30) BT M'nachot 30a; also BT Bava Batra 15a.

(31) BT Bava Batra 15a.

(32) BT Sanhedrin 99a.

(33) This is referred to as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ma'aseh bereishit).

(34) So BT Chagigah 14b. Ben Zoma and three colleagues--Ben Azzai (who died young), Elisha ben Abuya (who became an apostate), and Rabbi Akiva--are said to have entered the "pardes," with only Akiva emerging unscathed. Some define "pardes" here as paradise itself; others see it as a euphemism for delving into "secret" matters that, perhaps, are much too secret to delve into safely, if at all. Indeed, a statement to his students by Rabbi Joshua Ben Chananiah that Ben Zoma is "outside" (BT Chagigah 15a and elsewhere) is often interpreted as saying that Ben Zoma had gone beyond the limits of acceptable biblical research.

ARON PINKER has a M.Sc. in theoretical physics and mathematics from the Hebrew University, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Columbia University. He was a professor of mathematics at Frostburg State University, and a principal operations research scientist at ANSER. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, among them The Atom and Theory of Relativity. Whatever free time he has is dedicated to Judaic studies. Dr. Pinker resides in Silver Spring, Md.
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Author:Pinker, Aron
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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