St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Jersey City
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
When people read the Bible, they always read for a purpose. When you are studying the Bible, you are looking to understand something about it: historical background, its development at a text, or its meaning in a variety of ways. You can read the Bible devotionally, looking for guidance, or to develop your faith. Or you can read the Bible for evidence, seeking proof that the world was created in seven days, or that there is - or is not - a God.
It may not be all that often that people sit back and read scripture for its beauty. But this chapter is surely one of the most beautiful in the Bible. While not formally poetry, it is poetic. Immediately you notice phrases which catch the ear, true in English as well as the original Hebrew.
Listen to those repeated phrases:
“There was evening and there was morning...;”
“Let there be...;”
“And it was so;”
“And God saw that it was good.”
Each one serves as an echo or amplification of the ones previous.
Those phrases also help point to the structure of these Days of creation. Those phrases repeat in each day. But notice also how the lesson is printed. The first three days parallel the second three days. Day One and Day Four deal with day and night; Days Two and Five are about the waters and the sky; Days Three and Six bring forth the land and the things which live on it.
Genesis 1 paints a picture and tells a story of the way God gets involved in the unruly, disordered state of the universe, and carefully, decisively, speaks a Word and creates a world, a world which makes sense, where there is an order, where there is a certain rightness to where things belong. Even if all the details aren't yet sorted out, the direction is clear. God is interested in the world, and God is willing to be engaged to bring order out of chaos, blessing out of nothing.
When you read through, or better yet, let your imagination wander through these seven day, they are wonder-ful, and it is easy to be filled with: awe, admiration, amazement that the world is brought into being in such a way.
But to truly appreciate this story's beauty, you need to hear another story, still more ancient, and also told with poetic beauty. The Enuma Elish is the Babylonian creation story, more ancient than Genesis 1 by 500-1,000 years. You see, ever since humans have been telling stories, we have wondered about how the world began and our place in it. We tell stories of how the world began... to explain how the world works.
That's just what they were doing in ancient Babylonia. “When the sky above was not named, and the earth beneath did not yet bear a name, and their waters were mingled together...” Sound familiar?
As a finishing act, Marduk goes on to destroy Tiamat's husband, Kingu, and uses his blood to create humankind, so that we might do the work of all the other gods – who, at the end of the story, can live a life of leisure. They rest. Sound familiar?
The stories share many themes in common, yet are completely different. In Enuma Elish, the world is created from the corpse of a murdered god. Humans are fashioned from the blood of a murdered god, and made not to keep order on earth, but to serve as the gods' slave labor force.
In Genesis, the other gods are gone.* The violence is gone, the murder is gone, and our slave status is gone. In Genesis 1, the great sea monster Tiamat has become merely “the waters” or “the deep,” the process of creation is no longer warfare, but God speaking a Word which orders the world. Humans are now made in the image of God, and are not assigned work to feed the gods, but are given gifts to feed ourselves.
It matters which story you know, which story you tell, which story you believe. The two worlds they describe are incompatible. The gods of Enuma Elish cannot live, do not live in the world that Israel's God is creating.
It is all the more remarkable when you consider when and where this story is first told. In the year 586 BCE, the kingdom of Judah came to an end. The land of Israel had been the battlefield between the Egyptian and Babylonian empires, its leaders chose the wrong ally, and Babylon invaded and destroyed the nation.
When I say destroyed, I really mean destroyed. The Temple was burned, and those leaders who were not killed were taken into slavery and exiled to Babylon, which is where they first told this story. In the home of these violent gods was born a vision of a God creating a very different kind of world.
So why am I telling you all this stuff about Iraq? So we won't invade it again? So we can be good Christians and pray for peace in a part of the world that we, through our government, has helped un-create?
I'm telling you because this beautiful story of God's creative action contains something we might take to heart. Those wonderful words in the text – “And God saw that it was good” – call for a little more attention. The Hebrew words behind them are “ki tov.” There are at least two ways to read them, and I'd suggest we might listen to both. Literally, they mean “how good.” You can hear them as God looking at the works of his hand and taking delight: “How good!” But you can also understand them as God looking at what she has made and asking the critical, evaluative question: “How good?”
I am sure that the end of the story is unambiguous. On the sixth day, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” But I am also sure that God continues to evaluate the world and name adjustments. Creation was not finished on Day Six, because the Bible has many subsequent chapters which tell how the story develops. These unruly humans need a little work – as we all know! Still to come are the great journeys, the Law and the Prophets, and the Lamb who redeems the world.
The Day Six world is not done, because God is not done with us. How good!
I'm telling this story because God's story of creation in Genesis 1 is a radical vision of hope spoken in the midst of a chaotic, unjust world which actively seeks to demolish hope, and hide or drown out the very thought that the world might be just, might be fair, might be peaceful, and might be organized for the benefit of all people, rather than some people.
It is precisely when the world was most chaotic that God spoke this word of creative faith straight to the heart of the people’s desolation, confusion, and hopelessness. We don't have to experience the desolation of invasion and exile to need a good, life-creating word. Every life has its chaos and crisis. Anyone can be sucked into the delusion of the myth which says that we are worthless and need to accept our place, while others run the world. We don't have to believe the story that violence and coercion is the way to solve every problem. We don't have to buy tickets to “Die Hard,” when Genesis 1 is ours for free.
We speak of creation as the world, all these things we see around us, but in the Bible, creation is not really the stuff that makes up the universe. In the Bible, creation is the process by which God fashions the world into something more just, more loving, more peaceful, more holy than creation's elements would be on their own. Creation is the imagination of God loose in the world.
Can we do the same?
God's story is beautiful not just because of the stately phrases and the wonderful language. This story is beautiful because the world it sees is righteous, touched by God in a beautiful way.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...
“God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light....
“God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply'...
“God saw everything that she had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Can you imagine being able to look at the worlds we make and say the same thing? Whether it's in our work, our neighborhood, our family and other relationships, in our church, let us be able to say “How good?” and “How good!”
Trust in God and speak a better word. Seize onto the best story you know, make it your own and share it every day of your life. God said “Let there be light,” and gave us a world. Let us live in that light.
* There are still linguistic traces of the older stories. Tiamat has become the de-personalized “deep” (Hebrew tehom), and the council of gods echoes in Genesis 1:26 “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
1. Unknown image.
2. "Earth in Hands," attribution unknown.
3. Combat between Tiamat and Marduk, from the bas-relief on the walls of palace of Assur-nasir-pal.
4. Reuters stringer, Iraq
5. Moonrise, Siskiyou Range, Oregon
There are some texts you will forever associate with people. For me, Genesis 1 and Phyllis Trible is such a pairing. When I learned she was retiring from Union Seminary, I rearranged my work schedule to be able to take one of her last seminars there, a semester on Genesis 1-11. We never got past Chapter 3, and spent perhaps the first half of our time on Genesis 1. I remember her practiced opening to the class - she was, after all, a student of rhetoric. "If I had to go to a desert island for the rest of my life and could only take one book, it would be the Bible. And if I could only take one book of the Bible, it would be Genesis. And if I could only take one chapter, it would be this one." She went on to say that it had always rewarded further study.
I have not yet exhausted its mysteries, or tired of what it has already brought to me.
It was Dr. Trible who directed my attention both to the text as linguistically beautiful, and to the dual sense of ki tov. How good is that?