If you read the Bible long enough, you begin to see patterns. Certain themes keep repeating themselves. Sometimes an archetype or instance found in the Tanach will repeat itself much later in the life of Yeshua or his apostles, or one small chapter or selection will say much about the meta-narrative of the whole Bible–which is to say the meta-narrative of the whole universe. There is a kind of fractal aspect to Scripture. Seemingly divergent and disconnected parts resemble each other, and a part resembles the whole. Scripture is fractal. Nature is fractal. This indicates that the same God who inspired the Bible also created nature.
If you read the Bible long enough, you begin to see patterns. Even numerical ones. This post does not permit a lengthy explanation of the origins and applicability of biblical gematria, but suffice to say, Hebrew letters have numerical values and Hebrew words and phrases total to certain numerical values. Numerical value of words have been used to discern meaning from Scripture and events and were even used that way in the apostolic writings. People can go overboard with gematria, though. Talmudic commentary says that its best enjoyed only as a exegetical “dessert” and does not replace the basic diet of more fundamental methods of study. But gematria does yield some interesting results and it works to fuel an imaginative reading of scripture.
For example, Exodus 12:40-41 reads “Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt.” A gematrial word match for 430 yields a match for Rameses (רעמסס) where the people of Israel labored. It also matches the phrase for God has Judged (אלישפט). Perhaps most relevant, 430 is the numerical value for the ominous phrase in Genesis 1:2 “tohuva’bohu”, which has been translated in such ways as “without form and void” or “waste and welter”. The phrase presents some interesting questions as to the cosmology described in Genesis 1. For instance, compare the way Genesis 1 has been traditionally translated with this equally plausible translation by Robert Alter: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” The image here is not necessarily of creation ex nihilo, not God in an empty expanse and creating something where there was nothing. Rather we have the story mysteriously starting with the world in the state of mess and ruin. There’s some sort of backstory here that we are not privy to (despite some intriguing hints throughout Scripture and some ambitious attempts by extra-biblical authors over the millennia to imagine what happened). Nevertheless, God in Bereshith is taking this Tohu va’bohu and reforming it into something very good. In the same sense that Hashem brings humanity out of the waste and welter of the primordial chaos he brings Israel out of Rameses and Egypt and us out of the chaotic world system. The sinfulness of Egypt and the world, its greed, its human exploitation, its envy, its lack of love, its perversions and decadence, its hatred and violence, its desire always to aggrandize more and more, its refusal to recognize the authority of Hashem or the limits he sets on human behavior . . . it all leads one direction, back to the grey goo chaos from which God rescued us and is still trying to rescue us.
Creation is our exodus from oblivion. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, we are made from chaos stuff. The earth we were formed out of was a chaotic, formless, undifferentiated mass that wanted to be everything and nothing at the same time, the scarred battleground of some unknown battle and defeat of a nameless evil. God would have had every reason to ignore or destroy the Tohu va’Bohu and start over again, but instead he loves it, forms something good out of it, and eventually merges with it and sanctifies it through the person of Messiah Yeshua. Can you image someone so full of love that he would love and pity a garbage dump? Yet such is the sublime Chesed of Hashem.
This theme is recapitulated in Exodus when we see Hashem falling in love with a motley pack of slaves whom one might think may be best left to the dustbin of history. Exodus 12:28 refers to them as “erev rav”, traditionally translated as “mixed multitude” but which is more accurately translated (and matching the Hebrew onomatopoeia) as “rabble” or “riffraff”.
The gematrial value of this phrase is 474, matching the Hebrew words for “knowledge” (“da’at”) or “signet ring” used e.g. at the end of Haggai. Hashem loved this “riffraff” not just enough to rescue them, but to share intimate knowledge of himself and make Israel his unique identity marker in the world, to the point that this “riffraff” became the people into which Yeshua was incarnated.
We make a mistake when we look at the actions of Hashem in Scripture and split them up between his creative work, his salvific work, and his work to judge and destroy evil. They are all the same work, an attempt to rein in the chaos and rescue from it something he can love, live with and imbue with his Presence–to get an Israel out of an Egypt. By God’s grace, may you and I share this fate.