Knowledge of Four Elements Pre-Dates Empedocles
Genesis 1:10 (BHS/WIVU)
wayiqra – elohim – layyabbashah – erets ulemiqweh – hammayim – qara – yammim – wayyareh – elohim – ki+tov
and (he) called – God – to the dry ground – earth and to collection – the waters – (he) called – seas – and (he) saw – God – for+good
Genesis 1:10 marks the last time in the creation narrative that God himself names things. Take a look at what he’s named: day & night (in 1:5), sky (in 1:8), earth and sea (here in 1:10). Are these meant to correspond to the four primal elements fire, air, earth, and water? Fire is perhaps a leap from day & night. But if the correspondence is intentional, God is shown to be the creator and fashioner of what was understood to be the substances from which everything else was formed until relatively recent history.
This is a pretty nifty observation, but it presents a small challenge to the historical-grammatical interpretation of Genesis 1. The problem is that the four primal elements idea is normally attributed to a Greek philosopher by the name of Empedocles who lived in the 5th century B.C. – about 1,000 years after Moses and the traditional date for the recording of Genesis. The Wellhausen hypothesis posits later dates for Genesis but is still 400 years before Empedocles.
We show our Western bias however when we focus on the Greeks. The Egyptians actually had a similar concept dating back to the late 3rd millennium B.C. (about 1,000 years before Moses and closer to the days of Abraham). The Egyptian idea was embodied in a group of deities called the Ogdoad, and the four primordial substances were darkness, air, the waters, and infinity/eternity.
All of this is to say that even from a purely secular standpoint it is not unreasonable to grant that the Greek primal elements concept existed in the Ancient Near East well before the Greeks. Is the periodic table a revolutionary modern invention or simply a late refinement in a long history of examining the structure of the universe? Of course, where Genesis 1 breaks with modern materialism is where it breaks with 3rd millennium B.C. Egyptian mythology. Those primal substances – whether they be the Ogdoad, or Empedocles’ four, or the 118 elements of the periodic table – did not always exist and should not be confused with the creator.
Here’s my translation: “And God called the dry ground ‘earth,’ and the collection of waters he called ‘seas’ and God saw that (this was) good.”
Extra credit: Note the first word of the second line transliterated ulemiqweh above. This is ule (“and to”) + miqweh (“collection”). In modern Hebrew pronunciation, miqweh becomes mikveh. This is the term for a ritual bath (see Leviticus 11:36), and the practice of immersing in a mikveh for ritual cleansing forms a basis for baptism in the New Testament. The baptisms that happen in churches around the world every week have a root in a word that goes back to the creation of the sea itself!