The first chapter of the book of Genesis tells the story of creation as a grand hymn, a great liturgy, a song of doxology, praising the majesty and wisdom and power of God. The second chapter tells the story much differently. From a high view of creation, almost a view from outer space, we move to a close-up view that’s firmly planted on the ground, literally in the dirt.

Yes, there are two creation stories, and, they don’t come close to agreeing on details of how it came about. I could run through the differences with you, but you are certainly capable of doing that for yourself if you think it’s necessary. I don’t think the differences should matter much to us, because they clearly didn’t matter to the people who put Genesis together.

I’ve seen many efforts to reconcile the differences, and they all involve either dangerous mental gymnastics or serious violence to the text. Best we should accept the attitude of the Genesis narrator, who essentially says: “Wow, Genesis 1 was a great story. Here’s another great story.”

The stories are complementary. Placed side by side, they silently comment on each other and complete each other. We shouldn’t focus on the differences, but on the similarities. We should listen for the echoes – and of those there are many.

You can tell that the two stories have different authors, though, because they refer to God differently. The creation hymn of Genesis chapter 1 refers to God as Elohim. It’s used as a name for the God of Israel, but it’s actually a generic name for deity, the way our English word “God” with a lowercase “g” is a generic name for deity. But God has a personal name, too, that’s used here for the first time.

We don’t know how to pronounce it. Many centuries ago – so many centuries that we really don’t know exactly when it was – Jews deliberately forgot how to say the name. That way, they could never inadvertently misuse God’s name. All we know are the consonants: YHWH. No one knows the vowels.

One attempt to reconstruct the name in English is Jehovah. Much more likely is Yahweh, which in Hebrew means “the one who is.” That’s one meaning of the name that God gives to Moses at the burning bush, so any use of the name before that time actually is an anachronism, something that is out of place in time. It’s used here to reinforce the assertion that the God of Israel is the creator of all that is.

When they’re reading the scriptures aloud, Jews don’t pronounce the personal name of God. Instead, since at least the time of Jesus, they substitute the word Adonai, meaning “Lord.” That’s why, in printed Bibles, you’ll find the word “Lord” printed in small capital letters more than 6,000 times. Whenever you see that, know that the personal name for God is being used.

Anachronism or not, the personal name for God is used here in the second creation story because this is a much more personal story than the one told in Genesis 1. This story demands a more personal name for God. Where Genesis 1 takes a cosmic view of creation. Genesis 2 literally gets down in the dirt.

In Genesis 1, God creates by verbal command: “Let there be…” In Genesis 2, God gets dirty hands. God forms new life by playing in the dirt. God creates the human from humus, from organic dirt, by molding him into shape and breathing life into his nostrils.

I say “he,” and the text says “he,” if only because Hebrew lacks a way to refer to someone as an “it.” This clay doll that God molds may be an “it” rather than a “he.” As we saw in Genesis chapter one, the text uses the term “ha adám,” meaning “the human.”

In these days of fierce debate over sexual identity, it may be helpful, or maybe not helpful, to suggest that “the human” may be androgynous, without gender, or combining the characteristics of both genders.

That suggestion is not modern, by the way. It’s at least a thousand years old. In his authoritative commentary on Genesis, the 11th-century French rabbi Rashi says that God created the human with two faces, one male and one female, and later separated them. (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, 14)

Scholar John Goldingay translates the passage this way: “Yahweh God shaped a human person with dirt from the ground and blew into its nostrils living breath, and the human person became a living being.” (John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, 39)

Goldingay’s translation does obscure a fun play on words in the Hebrew. God creates “ha adám” from “adamáh,” meaning fertile dirt. In English we keep the play on words by saying that God creates the human from humus.

God places the human in a garden called Eden. We’ll return to that in a moment. First, let’s jump to the place where, for the first time, it is said that something in God’s creation is “not good.” Remember the litany from chapter 1: Light – good. Earth – good. Plants – good. Sun, moon and stars – good. Birds and sea creatures – good. Land animals – good. Top it all off with human beings – now it’s very good.

Now God says: “It is not good that the human should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.” Only now, according to this version of the creation story, does God create birds and land animals. And God parades them, one by one, before the human, giving the human the authority to name each one. To the ancients, naming something gives you power over it. So in naming the birds and animals, the human claims power over them.

You can’t help but see this as a comic scene. God creates each critter, one after another, and brings it to the human to name and to see whether it’s a fitting companion. “What do want to you call this one? Giraffe. Hey, great name. What do you think about a giraffe as your partner? Too tall, you say? OK, we’ll try again.”

One by one, God creates and the human names, and the verdict is always negative. “No, no, that one will never do. Now that one – eh, close but not quite right.”

Never deterred, God has a plan. Before we talk about the plan, let’s talk about these animals. First, notice that when God creates “every animal of the field and every bird of the air,” God creates them the same way God created the human: “out of the ground.” So humans and animals alike are of the same substance. We all come from the fertile earth.

Here I cannot avoid thinking of the classic depiction by cartoonist Gary Larson. He shows God making snakes by rolling them in his hands out of clay, the way any kid would do it And God marvels, “Boy, these things are a cinch.”

But having rolled a snake out of clay, how does God give life to the snake? By breathing life into it, the same way God breathed life into the human. Genesis 1 tells us what this breath of life is called. It’s called nephesh.

Nephesh is frequently translated as “soul,” but that term is fraught with layers of misunderstanding. For the moment, suffice it to say that both humans and animals were created out of the dirt and animated by God’s breath. All humans and birds and fish and land animals have nephesh, or soul, or life from God. Of all living things, only plants don’t have nephesh.

This nephesh, or soul, is not just a part of you; it’s the whole you. God forms the human out of humus and makes the human a living being by breathing soul into it. Nephesh is a gift from God. As we’ll see in Genesis chapter 3, it does not make you immortal. The notion of an immortal soul comes from Greek philosophy, not from the Hebrew Bible. Immortality also is a gift from God, but it’s a separate gift from nephesh.

The major difference between humans and other creatures is that though we are all made of the same stuff and we are all animated by the same breath from God, only humans are made in the image of God, and only humans are given dominion over all other creatures. 

Here’s the way the Genesis 2 talks about dominion: “The Lord God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The command is the same one you’ll see on many police vehicles and badges: “to serve and protect.” In Genesis 2, we are given power and authority not to abuse and exploit but to serve and to protect.

We are servants of the earth from which we were created. “Humanity is made to serve the ground,” Goldingay says. “Humanity is both master of creation and servant of creation. Humanity and creation stand in a symbiotic relationship, a relationship of mutual dependence.” (Goldingay, 31)

So also is the relationship of male and female. A couple of weeks ago I said that Genesis 1 talks about the majesty of God’s creation rather than about details such as plumbing. Genesis 2 gets into plumbing, or at least one of the building trades.

Having failed to come up with an appropriate companion for the human, God causes a deep sleep to fall on the human. Then God removes one of the human’s ribs, and from it God fashions woman. In Genesis 1, God is a distant creator. In Genesis 2, God creates with hands-on intimacy.

When God created the human, God acted like a potter, molding the human out of clay. Now God constructs the woman, builds the woman, using material taken from the human. Only now, for the first time, can we properly speak of male and female. The human becomes a “he” only when God makes a “she” from part of the human.

As Goldingay says: “He becomes a male as opposed to female only when there is another person who stands over against him.” That’s the more literal reading of the phrase “suitable for him,” Goldingay says. She is suitable for him because she is so much like him and yet so much not like him. (Goldingay, 41)

The man is delighted. You might imagine him leaping for joy as he shouts: “At last, this one is just like me! She’s made of the same flesh and bone!”

It’s like the moment when you were certain that your spouse was the one for you. Didn’t you want to leap for joy and shout, “At last, she’s the one! At last, he’s the one!”

That’s what the man senses now – and, presumably, the woman, too. They were made for each other!

Hebrew designations for the pair work the same way they do in English. He’s ish and she’s ish-shah. He’s man, and she’s woman. No subordination is implied, though many men have tried to read hierarchy into the story.

God creates woman as “helper” and “partner” to the man. She complements him, making up for any deficiency in him. “Helper” in no way means inferior. If it did, the Bible would not so frequently refer to God as our helper. The biblical “helper-partner” is a strong arm you can rely on to stand with you when you get in a jam.

As Psalm 121 says: “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

In the New Testament, the first letter of Timothy has a very puzzling passage that advances a most curious argument. It implies that women are inferior and men have priority because the man was created first. If you refer to the order of creation from Genesis 1, you could use the same argument to say that all humans are inferior to birds and fish and insects and mice because they were created first, at least, by that account.

A lot of commentators, and not just feminists, see a different meaning in the creation order here. They say that if the woman is created after the man, that makes her, not him, the culmination of creation, the highest expression of what it means to be human. (Terrence Fretheim, God and the World in the OT, 60)

All such arguments are specious at best. There is a wide strand of patriarchal prejudice throughout the Bible, but from beginning to end, the strongest witness is egalitarian. As Galatians 3.28 attests, in Christ there is no male and female; we are all one in Christ. That’s not a statement about biology. It’s a statement of our standing before God and one another.

As people of God, we have yet to take that to heart. In many churches, for example, women pastors are routinely subjected to verbal harassment and worse by women as well as men – and the #MeToo movement has only begun to ferret out offenders in the secular world.

A couple of loose ends: The author of Genesis 2 uses the creation of woman to explain marriage customs. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Well, that’s usually not the way it works, is it? In most traditional societies, the woman leaves her family, and she and her husband live with his extended family working the family business, whether it’s farming or carpentry or whatever.

The point must be that the man and the woman are so committed to each other that they are like one flesh, perhaps as the human that God first created was male and female in one flesh. And yes, they’re naked and not ashamed. They’re innocent. They’re lovers. They have no secrets from each other.

Lastly, there’s this business with two special trees that are smack dab in the middle of the garden. We’ll learn more about them in the next two weeks. God tells the human not to eat from one of the trees. Because the human only later is separated into man and woman, we must assume that they both hear the command. Soon we’ll see them standing side by side while they eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree.

In other words, the creation story we’ve just heard is a setup for tragedy.

“Paradise” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Sept.29, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 100.1-5, Psalm 95:4-6, Genesis 2:4-9, 15-25


My grandson Theo lives in Omaha. His family has an annual pass to the Henry Doorly Zoo, and it’s not far from where they live, so they go often. Already at age five, Theo has an appreciation of, and real-life experience of, the scope and wonder of animal life that I got only from books until I was two or three times his age.

How creative is our God who gave us such a kaleidoscope of animal life: antelopes and zebras and giraffes and elephants and dolphins and whales and eagles and elk and moose and lions and tigers and bears – not to mention cattle and horses and pigs and dogs and cats and mice and guinea pigs and hundreds more I could name, and thousands more I could barely pronounce.

The Omaha zoo has nearly 1,000 species on exhibit, and that’s but a tiny percentage of the number that exist, even though we humans are busily rendering animal species extinct almost as fast as you could name them.

God created this vast collection of life and pronounced it all good – and God was just getting warmed up. This morning we continue to explore the hymn of creation from the first chapter of the book of Genesis, starting at verse 26.

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness…”

There is so much going on in those few words. Starting with: “Let us…” Who’s us? So far, God is the only actor in this drama of creation. How is God an “us”?

We Christians, of course, automatically think of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Israelites who first heard this story and the Jews who heard it for centuries afterward had no knowledge of God as Trinity. To them, there is no “us” in God. For them, as for the human author of Genesis, God is a singular presence.

They might assume that God is consulting a council of heavenly advisers, a team of angels or the like, the way God does later in the Bible in the book of Job. Or perhaps God is using the royal plural, famously employed by kings to make themselves feel more regal. “We shall dine on the veranda.”

However you explain God’s use of the plural, God says, “Let us make human beings.” Some Bible translations, get it way wrong here. I’m talking about the King James and older editions of the New International Version, among others. They say, “Let us make man” – and that is precisely what the text does not say.

The Hebrew text says “ha adám.” The “ha” is a definite article, like our word “the.” So “ha adám” means “the adám,” the human. “Ha adám” is a generic term for humanity. If the writer wanted to specify that “ha adám” was male, the writer could have used a different word. “Ha adám” is generic. No gender, male or female, is specified or necessarily implied.

(Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, and other works)

You might argue that when the King James came out, the word “man” may have been considered generic. Perhaps, but it was a sexist generic in which being male was considered the norm and females were strictly tag-alongs. Other terms could have been used besides “man” but were not.

Ha adám” also is not a name. Later, it will become a name – Adam, without the article “the” in front of it, for a male individual – but right now it means simply “human being.” Actually, in this context it means “human beings,” plural, because soon the story will say that God creates “them,” both male and female. So when God says, “Let us make,” God definitely does not say, “Let us make man.”

But you can see, can’t you, how that bit of mistranslation really changes the meaning of the story? God does not make man. God makes human beings, male and female. That’s the truth. Anything else is a lie. We’ve been fed a lie for centuries, and there are forces in all the churches that want to keep telling that lie because it keeps them in power, in control of others, specifically and especially women.

God says, “Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion” over all the fish and birds and animals.

Whoa. Whatever does that mean? How are we made in the image and likeness of God? Some interpreters draw a distinction between the two. They say that we are made in the image of God, but we must live into the likeness of God. That is, we have to grow into the living likeness of the one in whose image we are made.

Terrence Fretheim, one of the great contemporary interpreters of Genesis, puts it this way: “Human beings are not only created in the image of God (this is who they are); they also are created to be the image of God (this is their role in the world).”

(Terrence Fretheim, God and the World in the OT, 49)

I appreciate what he’s saying. Our lives have a purpose, and sometimes we don’t live up to it.

At the same time, I agree with those interpreters who say that image and likeness are the same. Hebrew poetry works through repetition rather than rhyme. For example, Psalm 8 asks God, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.3-4).

That’s poetic parallelism. Image and likeness are, too. They’re the same thing, poetically expressed twice. So what are they? Specifically, what is the image of God, the imago dei, that theologians have obsessed over for centuries?

Straightaway, note that it cannot be a physical likeness, because God has none. We don’t image God by looking like God, because God cannot be seen. Michelangelo and others frequently portray God as a male, and that’s colorful picture language, but it can’t be taken literally. God is above and beyond sexuality, so, to be blunt, God does not have the proper equipment to qualify as male.

The imago dei also is not an ability or capability you can name, such as intelligence or reason or will. “Image” refers to the entire human, not just some part. Therefore, it most likely refers to the relationship we have with God. Our relationship with God is such that this relationship authorizes us to represent God to the rest of creation.

We are created to mirror God to creation, to reflect God’s image to creation. We image God when we act the way God would act, if God were in our shoes. We image God when we accurately represent God and when we act on God’s behalf in the world.

(Douglas A. Knight & Amy Jill-Levine, The Meaning of the Bible, 206)

This is a radical notion that we’ll return to in a moment. First, let’s ask: how do we act on God’s behalf in the world? Verse 27 lists two ways. First, God gives us “dominion” over all living things. Second, God commissions us to “fill the earth and subdue it.”

“Dominion” is the authority to rule over and determine the fate of those dominated. There’s an interesting translation debate here. Some translations give humans dominion not only over all living things, but also over the earth itself. Others limit human dominion to the animals.

Either way, we are to exercise this dominion in a Godlike manner. We are to act as God would act. As Fretheim says, dominion is nurture, not exploitation. We do not have permission to rip things apart willy-nilly and wantonly destroy the planet. We are supposed to use it, not abuse it.

(Terrence Fretheim, The Book of Genesis, New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 1, 346)

The shepherd is the best illustration here, according to scholar Walter Brueggemann. He says: “…the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.”

(Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation commentary, 32)

As for “subduing” the earth, Fretheim says that basically means to cultivate it, to make it grow food. If you think that’s a stroll in the park, ask any farmer how easy it is.

“Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells the first humans, and God blesses them. All who are stuck on the concept of “original sin,” please note that sin is not original. God’s blessing is original. Sin comes later.

Also not original, according to this account, is the eating of meat. God gives humans and animals alike “every green plant for food,” But no meat. Yep, humans are intended to be vegetarian. Animals, too, apparently. Humans don’t get permission to eat meat until chapter 9 of Genesis, in the account of Noah and the great flood.

What is original, and revolutionary, in this account, is the idea that every human being is created in God’s image. Racists and nationalists still deny that truth today. Historian Jill Lepore makes the helpful point that patriots love their country, but nationalism is “less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries” and their people.

(Jill Lepore, This America, 23)

Both nationalism and racism are systems of hate, and hate flourishes best when you deny that those you hate are fully human. Genesis affirms that all humans are blessed by God and bear God’s image.

When Genesis was written, the idea must have been mind-blowing. People were used to saying that kings were created in a god’s image. That’s how kings claimed authority to rule. They represented the gods. But Genesis says, no, no. Every human being represents God.

That’s huge. Ancient Sumerians believed that the gods created humans to be their slaves. Ancient Egyptians believed that humans were the not even slaves of the gods; they were more like cattle. Genesis firmly says, no! Humans are of great worth because they are made in God’s image.

And not just some humans. All humans. And not just men, but male and female alike. And neither of them individually, but only together. Read it again: “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” That can be understood to mean that God’s image is never present in a male alone, or a female alone. God’s image is present only in men and women together. Exclude one sex or another from your group and you also exclude the image of God. If we really believed that, wouldn’t that change the way the world works?

Having created the world, and animals and humans to fill it, God closes the sixth day of creation by announcing that it’s all very good. Not just good, as God said already several times, but very good. So on the seventh day, God rests, and God blesses it and dedicates it as a day of rest. That’s a Saturday, by the way, and that’s why Jews and others make Saturday their day of rest. Understand, it’s not just God who rests on the seventh day. All creation rests.

God does not rest because God is worn out from creating everything. God rests because it’s the right thing to do. Rest is God’s shalom. Shalom is the state of peace and fulfillment that God wishes for all creation. To rest means to stop work and enjoy yourself. God models it for us from the very start.

It’s another radical idea that Genesis gives the world. Quit working one day out of seven to do nothing? You’ve got to be kidding! What kind of craziness is this?

How does God rest? Isaiah 66.1 gives us a wonderful image. “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.” You can’t take it literally, of course. But let your imagination savor the image of our creator, feet propped up on earth, leaning back to admire it all.

And, oh, there’s so much to admire! And, yes, it’s very good.

Next week we’ll hear another version of how God created things. Yes, there are two versions of the story, and if you mix them up, or get the details entangled, you’ll misunderstand both of them. Before we go to the second story, be sure to take delight in this one. The hymn of creation in Genesis 1 is one of the great marvels of human literature.

“Image” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Sept.22, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 104.24-33, Genesis 1.26-2.3


“Creation” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Sept.15, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 104.1-5,10-15, Genesis 1.1-25

In Hebrew, the first word of the first book of the Bible is Beresith, meaning “beginning.” So that’s how the book is titled in the Hebrew Bible. The first Greek translation preferred another word, meaning “origin” or “generation,” and that’s how we get the English title “Genesis.”

The first chapter of Genesis is poetry and liturgy. It’s a hymn of creation. It’s doxology. It’s a proclamation of faith in the God of creation and a declaration of the good of God’s creation.

Throughout this account, God is the leading actor, the prime mover. Genesis confidently asserts that God created all that is. The Hebrew word for “create” is bara. It always refers to an act of God. It never refers to an act by anyone but God. Only God is creator.

Throughout this account, God is called Elohim. Just as God is a generic name for deity, so is Elohim. Still, Elohim is commonly used as a name for the God of Israel. By using the name Elohim, Genesis is telling us that the God of Israel is creator of the world, and only the God of Israel, not any other gods you might name. Elohim has a personal name, too, that we’ll encounter later in Genesis.

Many of us are used to hearing the opening words of Genesis as, “In the beginning, God created…” There’s great gravity in that. “In the beginning, God…” How else could it be? God is the prime mover, so it all begins with God.

However, most modern translations word it differently. They say, “When God began to create…” The Hebrew allows for both translations, and there’s debate among scholars as to which rendering is best.

The question is whether God creates the universe out of nothing – ex nihilo, as the Latin has it – or perhaps God makes it out of something that already exists, though you might presume that God created that, too – perhaps right before this story starts.

The New Revised Standard Version tries to have it both ways. It says: “In the beginning, when God created…”

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.

The word when does seem to imply that God starts with something. That something is a formless void. In Hebrew, that’s tohu wa bohu. That expression is so much fun to say – tohu wa bohu – that the English language has taken it in as a loan word, tohubohu.  It means chaos or confusion. Work it into a party conversation, and you’ll amaze your friends: tohubohu.

When God starts to create the earth, it is a formless void: a vast, bottomless, expanse of water called the Deep. Hovering over the Deep is ruach Elohim – a wind from God, the breath of God, the Spirit of God. Commentators say it broods over the Deep the way a hen broods over her eggs; it flutters over the Deep the way an eagle flutters over her young. There is tension implied, a sense of expectation and anticipation. Something big is about to happen.

God says, “Let there be light.” And there is light. Just like that. God’s word is that powerful. God speaks, and it is so. But God’s word is more than speech. God’s word is person.

The gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and “All things came into being through him” (John 1.1-3). This is the Son whom the Apostle Paul says “is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him … and through him and for him” (Colossians 1.15-16, CEB)

God sees that the light is good. God does good work. It’s exactly what God intended it to be. Now God separates light from darkness, calling them day and night. Because night came first, the people of Israel have always marked the start of each new day in the evening, at sunset rather than at sunrise. That first evening and morning complete the first day. It’s a Sunday, by the way.

You may ask, “How can there be day and night when the sun hasn’t been created yet?” Genesis does not say. Nor does it seem to care. Poetry has its own logic.

God says, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And it is done.

Instead of “dome,” some translations say “firmament” or “vault” or “expanse.” The word “firmament” comes from Latin and is the least descriptive of all the terms. What God is doing here is inserting a hard dome into the waters to create space between the waters above and the waters below. The Hebrew word suggests a hammered-out metal bowl. Think of this dome as a big metal mixing bowl turned upside down.

God calls the dome Sky. In other accounts, we’ll learn that the sky has slots or doors in it that swing open to let the waters above fall down as rain. But there’s nothing solid for the rain to fall on yet, so on the third day, God rolls back the waters under the dome so that dry land can appear. God calls the dry land Earth and the waters Seas. God declares these things to be good, too.

Having prepared proper space for life, God creates life, starting with vegetation of all kinds. God gives these plants and trees the freedom to reproduce after their own kind through seeds. They now become God’s sub-creators, subcontractors in creation.

On day four, God hangs lights in the dome of the sky. The two great lights – the sun and the moon – separate the day from the night. They travel across the dome of the sky and return, day after day, night after night. Lesser lights – planets and stars – rule the night. The movements of these celestial objects mark the passage of time and are signs of the passing seasons as well.

Thus Genesis declares that all the sun gods and moon gods and planet gods of other nations are nothing but lights in the sky, created by the one and only true God, Elohim. They’re not even creatures with a will or consciousness. As the Isaac Watts hymn says, “The moon shines full at God’s command and all the stars obey.”

This isn’t the first time the Genesis story pushes back against the religions of other nations. Israel shares with all ancient nations certain beliefs about how the universe is put together, including the sky as an inverted bowl and waters above and below it. But Genesis offers a different take on how the universe got this way – specifically who did it and why.

The word we heard earlier translated as Deep is in Hebrew tehom. It’s not so much a description of something as it is a name of someone. Her name is Tiamat. In the creation myths of many ancient peoples, she’s a primordial sea monster. She is slain by a young god who’s variously named Baal or Ba’al or Bel or Hadad or Marduk. Whatever his name, this god splits her watery corpse in two and places the dome of the world in between to create the world.

Not so, Genesis says, without bothering to even mention the other stories. God created all this by God’s powerful Word. Still, references to other creation stories occasionally creep into the biblical accounts, where Tiamat is given the name Rahab. Isaiah 51.9 says, “Was it not you, Lord, who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?”

Now you see one of the reasons some scholars insist that God must have created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. They want to avoid the idea that creation involved God slaying a sea dragon. On the other hand, some scholars want the sea dragon to be there, because they can then argue that God didn’t create evil; it was there all along.

One off the things that makes theology so fascinating, and so frustrating, is that not only are there layers of meaning in the biblical texts themselves; there also are layers of intent and mistrust and deception in each interpreter. Including, of course, you and me.

On the fifth day, God fills the seas with swarms of living creatures and fills the skies with flocks of birds. The sea creatures include sea monsters, though not the primordial kind, like Rahab or Tiamat. These are ordinary sea monsters like the whale and the shark and the octopus.

Other biblical texts give some sea monsters names: Leviathan and Behemoth. It’s uncertain whether these refer to a primordial sea monster or your ordinary sea monster. The popularity of the legend of the Loch Ness Monster testifies that a couple thousand years after these texts were composed, we’re still fascinated by the idea of mysterious dragons from the sea.

Anyway, having created fish and birds and sea monsters, too, God blesses them all. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God says, again giving them freedom to reproduce after their kind.

On the sixth day, God creates land creatures of all kinds: wild animals that can’t be tamed and creeping critters and cattle and domesticated animals, too. And God announces that it’s all good. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. It means that it’s what God intends, what God had in mind in creating it.

Everything has a purpose. Everything works together the way God purposed. And, as Hebrew thinking will later tell us, everything is connected. Everything is related. And all things are supposed to work together in harmony, in shalom.

But God isn’t done creating yet. Next, God will say, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness…” Very soon, things will start to get sticky.

That’s where we’ll pick up the story next Sunday. But before we leave today’s account, there are likely some stray thoughts we ought to corral.

First, what can we make of this story? It has great beauty and spiritual power. It declares emphatically that God is creator. God created all there is, obviously with great care and love. But…

Is it true? That’s what we children of the Enlightenment want to know. That’s the question we’ve been trained all our lives to ask. Is the story true? Well, true in what sense? This is not a scientific account of creation. If you insist that it is, please explain to me this business with the metal dome and waters above and below the earth. Call it a metaphor, if you like, but you can’t take it literally.

No, Genesis has other things on its mind. When we ask it to provide a scientific explanation of the way things are, we’re missing the point. Genesis wants to talk about the majesty of God’s creation. We want it to talk about plumbing and wiring. About those things, this creation hymn cares very little

There are ways you can harmonize Genesis with the science of any age at any time – and they all involve standing on your head while performing great feats of mental gymnastics and the kinds of contortions that you normally see only at a show by Cirque du Soleil.

Still, consider this thought. Today we think the dome is a fantastic notion. We know there’s nothing hard and metallic up in the sky because we’ve been up there many times. We’ve gone to the moon and back, and we’ve sent satellites far beyond. There is no metal dome.

But have you ever seen pictures of the earth from space? There is a domelike thing that’s very visible. It’s called the ozone layer. It protects us from harmful radiation from the sun. Alas, our use of certain chemicals and gases have poked holes in the ozone layer. An international treaty in 1987 greatly cut back the use of one kind of fluorocarbon gas. But we’re replacing it with another kind of fluorocarbon gas. This one doesn’t destroy ozone, but it does trap heat.

So we’re living in this greenhouse, where heat can’t escape, and now we’re threatened by global warming that by the end of this century could kill half the world and make the surviving half wish they were dead.

God created the world, and God called it good. God’s creation is still good. But we’re destroying it. As we’ll see next week, we are commissioned to preserve it, not destroy it.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I look at the sky, the work of your hand, and the moon and the stars that you have placed there, I wonder how it is that you care so much for me and others like me. But I am so thankful, Lord, so thankful that you do care.



“Prelude” is the first message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Sept.8, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 8, Isaiah 40

Today we begin an adventure of discovery. We’re going to explore the origin of all things, as recorded in the Bible. Our chief guide will be the first three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis.

You may think that you already know a lot about the Genesis accounts of creation. I certainly thought I did until several months ago. Then a book I was reading* challenged me to dig deeper. The deeper I dug, the more I realized how little I really knew, and the more I was challenged to dig even deeper.

In this series of messages, I’ll share some of the results of that digging. I hope you find this tale as fascinating and fulfilling and ultimately as faith-building as I have found it.

I guarantee that you will learn a few things. Learning some new things may require you to unlearn a few old things. You may be challenged and sometimes even angered by some of the things I suggest. I ask you to keep an open mind and prayerfully listen and prayerfully study on your own.

Genesis may be familiar to us all, but that very familiarity can blind us to its truth. Without doubt, Genesis is one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, mistranslated and misapplied books of the Bible. That’s why it’s so important that we study it deeply and carefully and prayerfully.

Today’s message is mostly introductory. Introductions are important, you know. You may be like me and forget a person’s name 30 seconds after you hear it. But looking someone in the eye and saying, “I’m glad to meet you” is an excellent way to begin a relationship. You can relearn the person’s name later. First, you meet the person, and in that introduction learn just enough about that person to intrigue you and make you want to learn more.

To introduce you to Genesis, I’ll tell you a few things that it is, and something that it isn’t.

It’s foundational

Genesis is the first book of the Bible. That placement gives it great prominence and great authority. It is a foundational text. It’s one of the foundational texts of our faith. You could call it one of the pillars of our faith.

Genesis sets the stage for the rest of the Bible drama. It sets a tone that will influence how we react to and how we understand all future scenes in the drama.

Genesis is meant to introduce and provide an interpretive lens for understanding everything that follows. What happens in Genesis is meant to flavor our understanding of everything that happens afterward. We interpret all other events in light of these first events.

It’s formational

We are not meant merely to be informed by this story. We’re meant to be formed by it. Genesis is a formational text. This is not just a good story. It’s a life-changing story. It’s intended to help form our character. It’s intended to tell us who we are as human beings and how we relate to God, how we relate to other humans, and to animals, and to the world we live in.

It’s relational

In other words, Genesis is very much about relationship. It is inherently relational. Scholar Walter Brueggemann says that the fundamental issue in Genesis is the relation of creator and creation. “Upon that issue,” he says, “everything else hinges.” [ Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation commentary, 12.]

It’s theological

The relation is never one-sided. A true relationship never is. But God is always the prime actor, the prime mover. And God’s prime motivation is a – in fact, God’s only motivation – is love.

As 1 John 4.19 reminds us, “We love because God first loved us.” We cannot even know what love is until God shows us by loving us. Sometimes we experience God’s love directly. Most often, we experience God’s love indirectly, channeled through the love of others.

So these early chapters of Genesis are deeply theological. They tell us about the nature of God. They tell us that God created our world for God’s purposes and for God’s glory.

Creation is a free and selfless act on God’s part. But God creates because God wants to be involved in creation. God wants to be involved with us.

It’s evangelical

Genesis also is evangelical. It’s proclamation. It’s gospel. The word “gospel,” means “good news,” and Genesis brings good news. It tells us not only that God loves us but also that we were created for God’s good purposes. This means that Genesis is not just a statement about the past. Rather, as Christian philosopher Jamie Smith says, “it’s a calling to a future.” It’s a proclamation about who we are becoming. [ James K.A. Smith. You Are What You Love. 171 ]

It’s essential

That means it’s essential for our understanding of everything, starting with God.

Thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas once said: “Any mistake we make about creation will also be a mistake about God.” [ Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II.3.1, ii.3.6 ]

And if we view God wrongly, we will view ourselves wrongly, frequently with tragic results.

It’s controversial

Because we do often view God and ourselves wrongly, we often read Genesis badly. That means it’s controversial. There are few things you can say about these creation stories that will not set the fur to flying. People can get really touchy about these things.

I hope you don’t get touchy as we turn now from what Genesis is to what it is not.

It’s not a textbook

I said earlier that Genesis is formational. But it is not, strictly speaking, informational. That is, Genesis is not a textbook. It’s neither a history nor a biology book; nor a chemistry or geology book; nor a paleontology or archaeology book; nor an astronomy or physics book.

Some people insist that Genesis is a science textbook. If you think it is, I suggest that you have never read a science textbook.

Your Bible does not have a fold-out sheet displaying the periodic table of elements. It has little interest in such things. It was written long before the age of modern science. You are looking in the wrong place if you expect to find science in it.

Tell me, if you wanted to rebuild the carburetor in a 1979 Chevy Camaro, would you look in the Bible for instructions? If you wanted to repair a mitral valve prolapse in someone’s heart, would you look in the Bible for instructions?

No, the Bible is neither a car repair manual nor a guide to heart surgery. You know that. So why would you look to the Bible for a scientific account of the creation of the universe?

Genesis has no interest in science because it is pre-science. Science, as we know it, came long after the Bible was written. Galileo, who died in 1642, is often called the father of modern science. For proposing that the earth revolved around the sun, Galileo was persecuted by the church, which insisted that the Bible places earth at the center of the universe.

For the most part, the church has been at war with science ever since. It should not be. God is the author of all truth, and science is the pursuit of truth about how the universe works. Science cannot talk about God because God cannot be proved scientifically. Nor should we even try. If we could “prove” God scientifically, what we proved could not be God, because God is bigger than all our proofs.

Of course, the biggest fracas over Genesis involves biological evolution – specifically, how human beings came about. Anti-evolutionists frequently say that evolution is “only a theory,” as if it were mere speculation, such as, “I believe that the moon is made of green cheese.”

Scientific theory is not about speculation, or a random guess. A scientific theory is an explanation of how things work that is supported by mountains of evidence accumulated over a long time. Gravity is as much a theory as evolution. If you think gravity is only a theory, you are welcome to walk to the edge of a cliff and prove it wrong.

Two recent competitors to scientific theory are so-called “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design.” Both are pseudoscience, scientific imposters.

“Creation Science,” or “young earth creationism,” says that the earth is only 6,000 years old. It arrives at this date by compiling the years given in all the family histories listed in the Bible.

James Ussher, the archbishop of Ireland, did this in 1658, and confidently stated that creation began at 6 p.m. Saturday October 22 in the year 4004 before the Christian era. Using the same method, ancient Jewish tradition set the date of creation as October 7 in the year 3761, hour not specified.

I cannot explain the 243-year difference in their calculations, or why October figures into both. It doesn’t matter. Scientific dating finds the earth to be 4.5 billion years old, and the universe more than 9 billion years older than that. For these numbers there are huge amounts of evidence. For the notion of a young earth, there is no evidence.

Young earth creationism is a statement of belief based on a certain narrow interpretation of Genesis as a textbook. Young earth creationism is not scientific, and it is not true.

Intelligent Design is an idea cooked up mainly to poke holes in the theory of evolution, and it’s not even very good at that.

The idea goes back to Aquinas, who said that if there is a complex design, there must be a designer. It was one of his five “proofs” of the existence of God. But logical proofs cannot make God exist, and more than they can make God cease to exist.

Intelligent Design says that God is the grand designer that Aquinas says is necessary. But it offers no evidence, because, of course, there can be no such evidence. God is much too elusive to be captured in a test tube or seen in a microscope or even hinted at in a particle accelerator. You can intuit the presence of a design, but you can never prove it.

And saying “God did it” advances our practical knowledge of how the world works not one bit. It won’t contribute to a cure for cancer, or for a solution to global warming, or for much of anything else.

Many scientists do, however, embrace one sort of intelligent design. Many scientists believe that God created life as we know it – through the process of evolution.

I won’t belabor this anymore. If you want to discuss this afterward, I’m happy to listen to your views. You don’t have to agree with me on everything – and I don’t have to agree with you on everything.

Theologian Marva Dawn says the biblical accounts “are not intended to ask the What? and How? of biology or astronomy or the When? of prehistory.” Rather, they ask Why? and Who? “And the answer is, for the glory of God.” [ Marva J. Dawn. In the Beginning, God. 17, 24)

The glory of God is a major reason the Bible was compiled in the first place.

Understand, please, that just because Genesis is the first book of the Bible doesn’t mean that it was written first.

Certainly parts of it are ancient. Some of the songs and narratives recorded in Genesis are among the oldest known in human history. But most historians think that the book did not reach its final form until the time of the Babylonian exile, which began 586 years before the time of Jesus.

That’s when the Babylonian army destroyed the city of Jerusalem and hauled the elite of Jewish society into exile in Babylon. The exile created a fundamental identity crisis for Jews. Why did God allow this tragedy to happen? Or was God simply too weak to prevent it? Does God, in fact, exist?

In the years during and shortly after the exile, Jewish scholars gathered their sacred texts and shaped them into the coherent narrative that we know today, starting with the creation of the world. They needed this narrative to restore their sense of identity. A full generation of Jews grew up in Babylon and never knew their homeland. They had to know their story. They had to know where they came from and what God had in mind for them.

Psalm 137 captures the unease of the time. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.1,3)

Genesis sings the Lord’s song in a new key. It tells the story of God’s relationship with humanity, focused on God’s relationship with this one people that God chose as representative to the rest of the world.

In one sense, the opening chapters of Genesis tell the entire saga of Israel in terms of a simple drama set in a garden called Eden. That story ends in exile, too, but the return of Israel from exile in Babylon lends hope that God will act to redeem God’s people, for God is always faithful, especially when God’s human partners are not.

You may have noticed that neither of our scripture readings today is from Genesis. They are introductory readings from the many other references to creation woven throughout scripture. The Psalm proclaims God’s majesty displayed throughout creation. Isaiah lectures those who presume to question God’s power.

God’s power and majesty are fully evident in these early chapters of Genesis. They tell a fascinating story about who God is, and who we are. If you don’t understand already that you are a beloved child of God, you will before this story concludes. Next week we’ll begin to tell it, with those memorable words, “In the beginning…”

** ** **

* The book was The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can be Made Right, by Lisa Sharon Harper.

Step down

“Step down” is a message in the series “Good counsel for a good life,” preached Sept. 1, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Luke 14.1, 7-14.

Many people who have read the gospels have noticed that in Luke’s gospel especially, Jesus seems to spend a lot of time eating. Maybe it’s because he’s an itinerant preacher who has no place to lay his head (Matthew 8.21), but he sure gets invited to dinner a lot.

In the tradition of Psalm 23, he’s often invited to eat in the presence of his enemies – and they are often looking for a way to trip him up. Perhaps because he’s so often on guard, Jesus sometimes responds by being a very rude guest. You wonder why the dinner invitations keep coming.

In today’s gospel story from Luke, Jesus is sharing a meal with a prominent member of the religious group called Pharisee. Now, we tend to think negatively of Pharisees, for some fairly good reasons, but we also need to remember that of all the varieties of Judaism in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees probably are the ones closest to Jesus’ way of thinking. They try hard to live out their faith. They just get so tied up in their own personal piety that they tend to lose sight of God.

Pharisees are not exactly allies of Jesus, but they are not always opponents either. Just a little while before this story, some Pharisees approach Jesus to warn him that he needs to be careful because the local big man, Herod Antipas, is out to arrest him.

On this Sabbath day, we’re told, the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely – some with genuine interest, surely, but others ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. Jesus pounces first. He notices that immediately after arriving, some guests don’t wait to be escorted to a seat but head straight for the places of honor near the host.

You know how it works. People who think they are big shots always arrive fashionably late, so that they can be seen by everyone, and they head directly for the prime spots, daring someone to challenge them.

Seeing this, Jesus tells a story. Luke calls it a parable – a story with a built-in zinger.

Jesus says: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, don’t sit at a place of honor, in case a more distinguished guest arrives, and your embarrassed host has to ask you to go sit over their by the kitchen door.

“No, go sit at the lowest place, so that when your host sees you, he may say, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored rather than disgraced in everyone’s sight.”

That sounds like sound advice doesn’t it? Especially in a culture that is so heavily invested in notions of honor and shame, it makes good sense to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you might look bad.

In fact, there’s an ancient proverb that says much the same thing. Proverbs 25:6-7 says,

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

But Jesus has more in mind than simple advice. He ends his parable with an aphorism that many of his followers will find familiar: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Similar counsel comes from the Talmud, an authoritative collection of Jewish teaching over hundreds of years. Jesus is part of that tradition, of course, so it’s no wonder the sayings sound familiar.

The Talmud says: “Anyone who humbles himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, exalts him; and anyone who exalts himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, humbles him.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)

It should be obvious now that that Jesus isn’t merely offering advice on wedding etiquette. He’s not offering advice at all. He’s telling us how God responds to certain behavior, and how we should respond to God. He’s offering us divine counsel – and that’s a whole lot better than any human advice you’re ever going to get.

This series of messages is titled “Good counsel for a good life.” It’s not called “Good advice for a good life.” These are not pithy sayings about how to get along in the world. These are some of Jesus’ prescriptions for fruitful and fulfilling life in God’s kingdom.

This is not advice from some seasoned sage who has seen it all and done it all and wants to help you avoid the pitfalls of life that he encountered personally. No, this is good counsel from the one who is named Wonderful Counselor. This is holy guidance from one who offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Paraclete – that is, our counselor, our advocate, our intercessor and helper.

Be humble, Jesus says. He’s not talking about the kind of humility that says, “See how humble I am.” He’s talking about radical humility, kingdom of God Jesus-following put-the-other-person-first humility.

To illustrate, Jesus lectures his Pharisee host.

“When you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your relatives or your rich neighbors, because they could invite you in return, and you could be repaid for your effort.

“No, when you give a banquet, invite the poor and the sick, the hurting and the untouchable because they can’t repay you. But you will be blessed, and you’ll be repaid at the great feast in God’s kingdom.”

That’s true humility. By inviting those who can’t possibly repay you, you are inviting from the purest of motives: concern for their welfare without concern for your own personal advancement.

We in the church do that frequently through various outreach and mission efforts. In this church, specifically, we offer the weekly Grace Café or our annual Thanksgiving dinner, and we are major supporters of the community food bank operating out of our former parsonage.

We don’t expect any kind of repayment for these acts. We don’t even expect our guests to return on Sunday morning for worship and maybe one day to become members. Besides being unrealistic, such expectations are self-serving rather than other-serving. We would be looking at those we invite with an ulterior motive, a concealed agenda, dollar signs in our eyes.

On the other hand, note that we invite people into our building. It is, after all, our ministry center. It’s designed for such a purpose. Only rarely do we invite those who are poor and marginalized into our homes.

Part of the difference is cultural. In the time of Jesus, all households are expected to extend hospitality to any person in need. Typically, the poorest people extend the most hospitality to those in need, and the richest people extend the least. That’s because the poorest people recognize the value of being hospitable to others, and the richest people imagine that they are self-sufficient so everybody else ought to be, too.

We don’t have that culture of hospitality today, except on special occasions or in a few isolated communities. The very notion is considered insufferably old-fashioned, not to mention dangerous. Who knows what kind of people might come into your house, and what they might steal on the way out? No, best confine such efforts to the church building, where we can keep an eye on people.

It’s ironic that we today so often condemn the strict social hierarchies of Jesus’ time, while pretending that we live in a classless society where social hierarchies don’t exist. We can pretend they don’t exist because our social status offers us privilege. Being privileged, we can “live above” such notions. That is, we can ignore certain social rules because they don’t apply to us.

But Jesus says a reversal is on its way, and it’s called the kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “Those exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20.16).

So what seat do you take without thinking? Where do you sit when you’re operating on autopilot? Are you first or last? Are you humbled or exalted? Do you assume that you somehow “deserve” a good seat, or are you willing to defer to others? To put it another way, do you sit at the back of the bus when you’re not required to sit there by law or social custom?

On December 1, 1955, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama, headed home work. When the bus got full, and the driver told her to give her seat to a white person. She refused.

She was tired, she says. She was no more tired physically than she usually was, but she was tired of “giving in.” She was tired of having to endure the constant humiliations she was subjected to under the harsh Jim Crow laws of Southern society. Her arrest and conviction led to a long bus boycott and a Supreme Court ruling that doomed all such segregation laws.

(Did you know, by the way, that later in life Rosa Parks became a deaconess in the African Methodist Episcopal Church? If you’re looking for a Methodist saint, she’s one.)

This may seem contradictory, but it’s not. By refusing to give up her seat on the bus, she embodied the spirit of radical humility. The big shots could arrive fashionably late and hope to claim the prime spots, but she’d had enough of that. She’d been held down long enough. She just wanted to be recognized as human, and treated the way Jesus says we should treat all fellow humans – with respect and, yes, with love.

Be humble, Jesus says. He’s not offering practical advice to avoid embarrassment. He’s offering good counsel for a good life. If you’re not humble, you will be humbled, Jesus says. You may, in fact, be humiliated. You may find yourself being treated in the same shoddy manner that you treat other people. O the shame of it!

Jesus is a bit like the TV game show host who issues the loud invitation: “Come on down!”

Come on down, he says. Step down. Step down to the lowest level.

He did, after all.

He never regarded equality with God as something he could exploit to exalt himself and humiliate others.

Rather, he emptied himself, taking the lowest human form.

And being born in human form, he was humble and obedient even to death, even to death on a cross.

Therefore, God also highly exalts him and gives him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all, to the glory of God the father. (Philippians 2.6-11)

And all who bend the knee and proclaim him as Lord try to follow him, try to be like him, thinking as he does, doing as he does. Remembering his counsel to be humble, we are mindful of where we sit, and why we sit there

We don’t take the first seat on the bus.

But neither do we take the last seat available.

We don’t take the best seat.

Instead, we take the worst seat.

We take the back seat.

We sit right next to Jesus.

And wherever he goes, we go with him, knowing that however low we go, he is always willing to go lower, and when he is raised up, he will raise us up with him (1 Peter 5.6).