[Editor’s Note: The following is the second part of a guest post by David Kishik, whose The Book of Shem: On Genesis Before Abraham was recently released by Stanford University Press. Part 1 is available here.]
It is unknown when exactly Genesis was written, but we can say with sufficient certainty that it was, in the eyes of whoever wrote it, a fourth-millennium composition. Put differently, it is a product of the middle of history, or a Wednesday around noon, so to speak. From this perspective, the axis around which history revolves may coincide with the very introduction of the text under consideration, along with the singular God at its center. This three-thousand-year-old midpoint is like the apex of a rainbow: the moment when thinking about the generative beginning of the world gives way to meditations about its idle ending. At this zenith, which is older than Socrates, the world begins its slow decline.
In the absence of death or a deadline, there are two main reasons to stop a creative work: because the result is very good or because it is very bad. If the artwork is merely good or bad, then there is at least a possibility of its improvement, but no justification for its abandonment. God finished his work after the sixth day because he “found it very good.” Maybe humans will say “Enough!” after the sixth millennium for opposite reasons, though some will surely refuse to make this call and will continue to try to mend the un-mendable. Millennialism, though, is not the same as nihilism. Saying no to everything is merely the negative manifestation of universalism.
The life of the world, like every life, is not everlasting. Today it has almost run its course. Although the world may seem tired, it also appears to be accelerating toward the greatest calm. Its almighty God and enterprising humans, whose first baby steps were duly recorded in Genesis, are planning their retirement these days. The two Edenic trees are already gray. Contemporary readers can look at late capitalism as symptomatic of the threshold between the sixth and seventh millennia; a Friday afternoon as it were, when observant Jews make the last frenetic preparations, readying their houses right up to the moment when the Sabbath is welcomed with a song that contains this line: “The end of doing is accomplished by thinking the beginning.” After this liturgy concludes, leisure commences.
Apologists adhering to every Abrahamic creed have accommodated into their millennial accounts the advent of their own religion with its own heroes on the world stage. But other epochal moments can be shown to parallel elements of the cosmogenic allegory just as well. For example, the creation of man and woman on the sixth day can be interpreted as a prefiguration of the recent spread of modern secularism in the sixth millennium. In this context, to be secular is an integral part of the divine plan, not an attempt to sabotage it. But such speculations about the development of civilization, as tempting as they may be, cannot be resolved in this essay, which perceives the entire history of humanity as water under the bridge, rather than the bridge itself.
While the tenure of Homo sapiens as the master of the world represents the six thousand years of recorded history, the present text only cares about its beginning and its end. The world of Genesis and the present one stand for what may be called humanity degree zero. Everything in between is the knotty story of nature’s subjugation to man’s needs and man’s subjugation of other men. If Genesis was written with a certain audience in mind, then we, today, are it. This text feels more legible now than ever.
Consider the not-yet world, in its prehistoric state, before year zero, when the footprint of the human race was still erasable. These were the unwritten and immemorial millennia, inhabited by pre-civilized humans and nonhuman organisms. Now imagine the post-historic epoch to come, which exists outside the symbolic order of the present world. There is a way to get a glimpse of the coming no-longer world: not only during the Sabbath day, but also during the Sabbath year, when the land lies fallow, since agricultural activity is forbidden during this period by Jewish law.
The true significance of these cyclical events is well known according to a mystical view called torat hashmitot: the seventh day and seventh year are merely rehearsals for the dialectical standstill or generic strike of the thousand-year Sabbath. Upon its impending arrival, some of our most fundamental concepts–God, human, world–will find themselves out of work and finally come to rest. However, there are no illusions that everyone will be able to comprehend this esoteric wisdom and enter the sabbatical millennium. For both material and spiritual reasons, eliminating both physical and intellectual work is as difficult as it is rare. For it to begin, this essay must end.