The land comes into view as the terrestrial waters are further organized into the seas and oceans separated by land masses. And here we have the first instance of Elohim delegating creation to the earth, commanding it to bring forth vegetation. But the earth’s creative activity does not produce the results for which Elohim asked. The earth, unable to produce fruit trees that meet Elohim’s wishes, brings forth a close approximation instead. Elohim may be omnipotent, but nature is not.
And Elohim thought, “Collect the waters from below the skies into one place and let the dry ground appear.” And it was so.
collect the waters: (יִקָּווּ הַמַּיִם — yiqqaru hammayem): The objective of this verse is to show that dry land was not created as a separate act of creation, but rather was made visible by moving the waters aside so that the underlying earth would be exposed. In other words, a pre-existing substance becomes the dry land when the waters recede and uncover the earth underneath. Of the English translations available to me, the LXA translation of the Septuagint gets it right:
And Elohim said, Let the water which is under the heaven be collected into one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so.
And it was so: Creation by separation ends with this verse.
And Elohim called-out to the dry land, “Earth”. And to the collection of waters He called, “Seas”. And Elohim saw that was good.
And Elohim called-out to the dry land… As noted above, the presence of the lamed (לַ) preposition — meaning ‘to’ or ‘toward’ — is normally never translated because it is understood (correctly) as an accusative denoting the dry-land as an indirect object of God’s naming action. However, the use of this preposition literally describes God as assigning names by speaking the name directly to the entity being named. We noted this earlier in 1:5 and 1:8 in which God also assigned names by proclamation.
And Elohim saw that was good: Again, God judges his creation and thereby signals that there must have been some uncertainty in the outcome. As implied earlier (cf the discussion of the judging of light) this uncertainty resides in the fundamental nature of the universe. When God delegates creation to the forces of nature, the outcome possesses some degree of uncertainty.
And Elohim said: ‘May the earth, by itself, bring forth vegetation, herbs yielding seed, and fruit-trees making fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.’ And it was so. 12 And the earth, by itself, brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree making fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; And Elohim saw that it was good.
May the earth, by itself, bring forth: In this verse, God relinquishes and delegates His creative authority to the earth. Normally, this text is translated along the lines of “the earth brought forth”. While nominally correct, the Hebrew grammar reveals a much clearer picture of the author’s intention. The Hebrew verb translated as “brought forth” (NRS) or ‘produced’ (NIV) is וַתּוֹצֵא (vattotzie) , a verb in the hiphil((The Hiphil is not always so cumbersome to translate. For example, “she caused him to eat” could also be written as “she fed him”. Approximately 13% of the verbs in the Hebrew Bible are in the hiphil stem. The meaning is often quite subtle, however, such as making something possible or the granting of permission to take an action.)) or causative stem. Verbs in the this form are often used to express the idea of making something possible or granting permission. In this case (and in 1:24 as you’ll see later), God makes it possible for the earth to “bring forth” plants and trees, but the exact nature of what is brought forth is not completely certain. As previously noted nature’s creative power is constrained by natural law — the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology as established when God created light and, presumably, the principles of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern the universe. Accordingly, the author does not use the divine verb (bara), but a worldly one, asah to express nature’s creative activity.
Why is this important? Recall that the cultures surrounding the ancient Hebrews all were pantheists. As such, they viewed nature as the source of all creation. In this verse, the author explicitly rejects pantheism by describing nature as a tool, a proxy for a transcendent God – an entity doing God’s bidding, not its own – and an entity that, while it can create, is limited by God through the agency of physical law and does so not by its own accord but by God’s.
Vegetation: The Hebrew word, here translated as ‘vegetation’ is subdivided into two categories of plants: (1) plants of every kind and (2) fruit trees (cf Leviticus 27:30). The significance of this division will come later in verse 1:29.
fruit trees making fruit: עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי (etz pəriy oseh pəri) Literally “trees of fruit making fruit”. This is a curious construction because in the very next verse, we learn that the earth produces something entirely different, “trees making fruit” not “fruit trees making fruit”!
trees making fruit: וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה־פְּרִי (vəetz oseh-pəri) Literally “trees making fruit”. In the previous verse, God had commanded the earth to produce “fruit trees making fruit”, but evidently the earth was unable to comply producing instead, “trees making fruit”.
Rashi claims that these two verses reveal the earth as failing to meet God’s command((“trees of fruit making fruit” were understood by Rashi to be trees that were themselves edible fruit. Gerald Schroeder, following Rashi, argues that earth’s failure to produce trees that continually bear fruit was a deliberate rebellion against God – a bridge too far for me. As with Rashi’s interpretation, I see nothing in the text to suggest that the earth was (or could be) in any way portrayed as a moral agent. Indeed, such a suggestion seems counter to the anti-pantheistic polemic of the the story.)). Rashi further argues that the curse God later levies against the earth (Genesis 3:17 “…cursed is the ground”) is punishment for its disobedience. This makes little sense to me because the major thrust of the creation story is to position nature as being without will. In all of Genesis 1, the author is very careful to present nature as acting under the purview of God’s physical law. Nature is everywhere depicted as bereft of independent will. Nature is no more a moral agent than is a computer that is instructed to launch nuclear missles at an unsuspecting nation.
In this verse, God delegates creation of vegetation and fruit trees to the earth. Accordingly, the earth, limited by the laws of science, of which God was the creator, can only produce an approximation of God’s wish. From this we conclude that, while God may be all powerful, his creations are not. To this end, the biblical witness is explicit: nature is not divine((This is another example of how the Creation Story functions as a polemic against the pantheism of the surrounding cultures)) and does not possess God’s power of divine creation (bara). Unlike divine creation, nature’s creative power (asah) is constrained by physical principles – the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, established by God earlier in 1:3.
Second, the inability of the earth to comply with God’s demand can be explained as a consequence of the underlying indeterminacy of the universe – especially evident at the quantum level. Looking back with the benefit of an understanding of quantum physics, this verse suggests a creation entirely consistent with physical law. God indicates a desire for a certain kind of tree and nature responds with a close approximation. Here we see that God did not create a completely predictable world; one that rigorously and always conforms to the law of cause and effect. His creations, at their core, are governed [and constrained] by unpredictable events. By definition, even God can not predict an outcome that is inherently random((If He could, the outcome would not be random!)).
These two verses, 1:11-12, convey a critically important truth about God’s creation and what God most values in His created order. While a perfect all-powerful Creator is surely capable of producing a completely predictable universe, He chose not to do so. More specifically, such a God would certainly be able to produce a universe in which He really does play dice, contra Albert Einstein.
We can not know why God created and shaped an indeterminate universe – maybe because predictable outcomes are seldom delightful and never surprising. But this we do know: free will can not exist in a universe that is completely determinant. And, as the larger biblical narrative testifies, God desires mankind to adopt His values of their own free will (Deut 30:19).
God does not desire the work of drones or the adulation of sycophants. He desires beings whose worship and fealty are freely chosen. The indeterminancy of our universe, a small piece of which is illustrated in these two verses, is the lynchpin underlying the mechanism by which God chose to create a universe in which mankind was free to choose its own path.
And there was evening, and there was morning. A third day.