Traditional Christianity teaches that God created the universe ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” As explained by one scholar, “the most widely accepted theistic explanation of initial creation is the theory that God created the universe from absolutely nothing. . . . Most major theologians in Christian history—for example, Irenaeus, Augustine, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Karl Barth, and Paul Tilich—believed that God initially created the universe from absolutely nothing. . . . Many influential Christians throughout history have affirmed the theory.”1
By contrast, Joseph Smith taught that God created the universe ex materia, or out of preexisting matter. “The learned men who are preaching salvation say, that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing,” the Prophet acknowledged in a sermon on April 7, 1844. However, he maintained, the word bārā in Genesis 1:1 actually “means to organize” in the similar sense that “a man would organize a ship.” Accordingly, the Prophet reasoned that “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos; chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory.”2 This teaching is also found in the Book of Abraham,3 and the Prophet’s later teachings about Creation may well indeed have been influenced by his translation of Abraham’s record and his study of Hebrew related thereto (although without the ability to check against an original Abrahamic manuscript, we should be careful not to assume too much about the nature of the Hebrew terminology in the text).4
According to the Book of Abraham, there was one in the premortal council “like unto God,” who proclaimed: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abr. 3:24).5 In the next chapter, the text says that the Gods (the members of the heavenly council) “organized and formed the heavens and the earth” as opposed to creating them (Abr. 4:1).6 The verbs organize and form are used throughout the Book of Abraham’s Creation account instead of create, clearly indicating some kind of divine activity or fashioning of material as opposed to creating all matter ex nihilo.
Scholars now recognize that the ancient cultures of Egypt, Syria-Canaan, and Mesopotamia did not seem to countenance ideas of creation ex nihilo but rather envisioned creation as the emergence of an ordered cosmos out of preexisting chaos. This preordered chaos is often personified as a primordial cosmic ocean or as a primeval cosmic combat between gods in ancient Near Eastern creation myths.7 For instance, in ancient Egyptian mythology, the earth first emerged as a primeval hillock, springing out of a preexisting, chaotic, and unorganized primordial ocean called Nun.8 In the Mesopotamian myth known as Enuma Elish (from the opening lines of the text meaning “when on high” in ancient Akkadian), the evil goddess Tiamat is defeated in battle by the god Marduk, and her body is split in half to form the cosmos.9
Although not obvious from reading the King James translation, Creation is similarly imagined in the Bible as order emerging from a state of disorder. As the biblical scholar Marc Zvi Brettler has noted, “The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that [Genesis] 1:1–2 describe primeval chaos—a world that is ‘unformed and void,’ containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1–2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a[n account] about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world.”10
This may hold significance for the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the Gods “ordering” the elements of the cosmos, which “obey” when so commanded (Abr. 4:7, 9–12, 18, 21, 25). This language ultimately “conjures [imagery] typical of the Near Eastern creation mythology . . . of kingly dominion establishing order over a previously chaotic cosmos.”11 So while the Book of Abraham’s teachings about Creation might be out of place in the typical Christian thinking of Joseph Smith’s day, they are not out of place in the world of the ancient Near East.
Ball, Terry B. “Creation.” In Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, edited by Dennis L. Largey, 93–97. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017.
Barney, Kevin. “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.” BYU Studies 39, no. 3 (2000): 107–24.
Gee, John. “The Creation.” In An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 129–42. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017.
Smoot, Stephen O. “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.