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