In Genesis the first six days of creation can be divided into two groups of three days through which God overcomes the “formless” and “void”.
I love the Hebrew Scriptures, and I also love the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. This frequently leads me into problems and unsolved conundrums, as I try (as with many others, both past and present) to harmonize the two. Often times, this is not possible, or at least not to the extent that I would like, but recently I have found what I think is a nice connection between the two systems: creation and the four elements.
The oldest recorded reference we have to the four elements of fire, air, water, and earth only goes back to Empedocles (mid-5th cent. BC). However, they are assumed in older contexts such as various pre-Socratic attempts to reduce reality to one element such as water, fire, or air, and their similarity to Hindu thought (which actually has five elements) makes it possible that they go back to a (proto) Indo-European origin. Whatever their origin, their acceptance by Plato and Aristotle assured their authoritative reception in the Western philosophical tradition. (1)
The order of the four elements —fire, air, water, earth— was important, which was reflected in their distance from, or nearness to, humans or the gods. Being the closest and most like us, earth was seen as the basest element (2). Water was able to travel upward, and thus was of a higher order than earth, but eventually fell back down, showing its baseness as well. Air was above both earth and water, but could never reach the fourth level, which was the domain of fire and the celestial bodies.
Turning now to Genesis, as many commentators have noted, the first six days of creation can be divided into two groups of three days through which God overcomes the “formless” and “void” mentioned in Genesis 1:2: in the first three days God “forms” the universe, and in the second three days he “fills” it.
If we look at the first three days in the light of the Greek philosophical tradition, we notice the parallels right away: the “light” of day one (which God will “fill” with the celestial bodies on its parallel day four) corresponds to fire (3), the “heavens” of day two corresponds to air, and the “sea” and “earth” of day three correspond to water and earth. The amazing thing is that not only is there overlap in the four elements themselves, but also in the order: fire, air, water, earth.
For the moment, I am not prepared to argue that there is any direct or indirect dependence, either of the Bible or the ancient Greek tradition (or the [proto-] Indo-European tradition). While that may have been the case, it could also be true that both sources go back to an even earlier common source, or that God has composed nature in such a way that humans naturally arrive at the conclusion that the universe can be divided into four elements. What I hope to have accomplished in this brief article is to draw attention to the parallels, and thus allow others to continue the investigation.
Andrew Messmer is Professor of theology in Spain.
1. They also included a fifth element, called “aether”, which was seen to be the domain of the heavenly bodies (“outer space”). It was confused with fire even in antiquity, and their precise relationship remains unclear.
2. While different pre-Socratics suggested that fire, air, or water (or numbers or atoms) were at the base of all reality, none ever suggested earth.
3. As Philip Ball has said, “In experiential terms, fire is a perfect symbol of that other, intangible aspect of reality: light” (The Elements: A Very Short Introduction), ch. 1.