“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.