Note: See Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The first chapter of Genesis contains some of the most familiar material in the Bible. Almost everyone knows the words with which it begins, whether he or she believes them or not. Astronauts circling Earth have read the account of creation for millions to hear. It has figured prominently in the on-going debates regarding the teaching of evolution and the selection of text books.

Even cartoonist Gary Larson once made use of the text in a back-handed way. One of his “Far Side” panels assumed that we know the claim that God is responsible for the world and the heavens. Larson hoped we would laugh at an unusual perspective. He pictured God as a child, in his room with his chemistry set, trying to make the universe. Unfortunately, it has blown up in his face, and little God must try again.

But if this part of Scripture is highly familiar, it is also one of the most misunderstood and misappropriated. Biblical literalists, for example, want to turn the text into a scientific account of how God made the heavens and the earth. They bring into play the laws of thermodynamics or certain evidence from geology to show that indeed the world was made in seven 24-hour days, not so very long ago. As for when dinosaurs roamed the earth or how we are to account for numerous other fossils which show extreme age, “creation science” has an answer. I haven’t kept up with recent developments, but when I was growing up, I was taught that T. rex and his kin lived in a gap of perhaps millions of years between verse one and verse two. (This was in a Presbyterian church!) As for the fossils, they are really very recent. God “antiqued” them as one might a piece of furniture or an article of clothing.

Then there are the liberals, who want to rescue the story from fundamentalists with a rational explanation of their own. They take the text as myth, by which I do not mean a false or superstitious tale, but a statement of how things always have been and will be with the world. The purpose of that approach is to make the text compatible with whatever the current scientific theory may be. Religion and science operate in different spheres of human life, so that comparing Genesis with Darwin’s Origin of the Species is not even apples and oranges. It’s more like apples and crocodiles.

Given a choice between the two approaches, I would definitely prefer the latter, though I once believed the former. But, really, both of them are flawed, and in the same way. For all the very serious differences between literalists and liberals, when it comes to Genesis 1, they both knuckle under to the Western, scientific, technological perception of the world. Both are children of the Enlightenment, the Modern Age, which has taught us to value rationality and demonstrability as the touchstones of truth. Creationists know that people will accept scientific explanations, so they invent a religion masquerading as science. Liberals want to show that religion is intellectually acceptable, so they prefer an approach that once again takes the scientific method as its starting point and its judge.

But if neither popular interpretation of these materials is true to their intention, what are we to do? Perhaps (horror of horrors!) we are driven back onto theology and even liturgy and proclamation. For this text is concerned not with technique, but with testimony; not with how, but with who. And while it is about the past and beginnings, it is also (or perhaps primarily) about crises of the present and new beginnings. It is a liturgy of hope, of affirmation of the purpose of God for people who had lost everything, a subversive word spoken against powers that had laid claim to ultimacy. The authors of this sweeping creation story proclaim a gracious and sovereign God who alone defines what is real, what is true, what is good.

Who was able to make such determinations was an open question in the sixth century BC, when the first chapter of Genesis was penned by a group of Jewish priests. The inhabitants of Judah had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. Beloved Jerusalem lay in ruins, the Temple destroyed, the land laid waste. In those days when religion and politics went hand-in-glove even more than they do today, defeat in battle also meant the discrediting of one’s god or gods. The world of the Jews had quite literally fallen apart; every perception of what was true had been called into question; every assumption about the future proven false; every affirmation about their God now the subject of doubt and ridicule. A life that once had shape and definition was now formless and disordered; where Yahweh had lived—in their hearts and in heaven—there was now but a void. Emptiness.

How were such people to find hope and life again? That was the question that plagued the priests, who were also pastors, as they sought to offer care to their people and deal with their own anguish. The answer they found was to go back to the beginning of everything and celebrate in liturgy the God who is intimately bound with creation, yet is distinct from it, and thus cannot be defeated by any creature. He whose very Word brought the worlds into being was not bested by the Babylonian deities. He was still there, hidden perhaps, but the recitation of the great story of creation would evoke fresh hope in the people, the assurance that one day this creative, covenanting God would bring a new creation.

That is quite a claim for liturgy, for worship! But the praise of the Creator then and now is an act of subversive imagination. The Babylonians, as the superpower of their day, claimed ultimate power for themselves and their gods. “We’re Number One,” they said, “so we can do whatever we want.” The evidence seemed to support their arrogant assertions. But in the praise of the One who began it all, the Jews said “No. That’s not the way it is.”

Walter Brueggemann has called such action the dismantling and delegitimation of pretentious power (Power, Providence, and Personality: 111). (No one ever accused Brueggemann of using small words!) “This liturgy cuts underneath the Babylonian experience and grounds the rule of the God of Israel in a more fundamental claim, that of creation…. Its affirmation is this: God can be trusted, even against contemporary data. The refutation of contemporary data may include sickness, poverty, unemployment, loneliness, that is, every human experience of abandonment (Genesis: 25).

So, perhaps there is a woman who has lost her job, unjustly accused of wrongdoing. Courageously, she had gone out on her own, escaping an abusive spouse. By sacrifice and hard work, she learned a marketable skill. But now all of that seems for naught. She is crushed, depressed, unsure where to turn now. Nothing seems to be happening for her that is positive and good.

Or say there is a man who has lost his home after many years. The victim of cutbacks in his company—so-called “outplacement” and “downsizing”—he has been without a steady job for some time. He takes whatever might come along, just to put bread on the table, but a debilitating health condition means his options for work are more and more limited. And, he has no health insurance. Finally, he can no longer forestall foreclosure by the bank, and he is on the street.

“Things fall apart,” said the poet. “The center does not hold.” Surely these are folk whose world has fallen apart, who are experiencing chaos and disorder, discontinuity and disorientation, the sense that the world is a terrible place to live. So, too, with the man experiencing a radical change in lifestyle following surgery; the woman whose only child has turned his back on her; the teenager who has failed an important test, or, more importantly at that age, has been rejected by friends; the adult child faced with decisions about and for an aging parent whose life is lost somewhere in the fog of Alzheimer’s.

But there is good news for them and for us in the liturgy of creation, just as there was for sixth-century Jews. Within the very fabric of creation, woven into it by the gracious Creator, is continuity. Season follows season. Day follows night. The species reproduce after their kinds. Life goes on.

And there is goodness as well. God has pronounced it so, and all the terror and turmoil of our world today cannot rob his creation of its fundamental character. He pronounces his blessing on what he has made: it is “very good.”

Finally, there is order that subdues chaos. We tend to think with the New Testament that God created out of nothing. And that has become the dominant view. But this text disputes that notion. For the priests, God imposed order on a swirling, threatening chaos. Perhaps we imagine the violent storms of a gas giant like Jupiter as a portrait of chaos. Or maybe it’s just our home on a typical morning! But for the Jews, the ultimate in disorder was the sea—the waters, ever-moving, ever-changing, threatening to overwhelm the land.

So for the Jews, when God harnessed chaos, he dealt with waters believed to be above the earth and waters that were on the earth. The sky was a shelter, a dome that kept chaos at bay. So, too, with the land. It limited the power of the waves.

Writer Paul Bowles captured this notion in his 1947 novel The Sheltering Sky. His character Katherine Moresby has endured great heartache and deprivation in the Sudan, and has gone nearly insane. About to board a plane, she has a vision. Bowles writes: “The sudden roar of the plane’s motor behind her smashed the walls of the chamber where she lay. Before her eyes was the violent blue sky—nothing else. For an endless moment, she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone had once said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed on the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment, the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed” (328).

Sometimes there is a rip in the sheltering sky, and chaos breaks through. The waters pour down with all their disorienting, destructive fury, like a tsunami. But the claim of the priests, put forward to exiles then and exiles now, is that in liturgy, the tear is sealed again, and the waters held back. In the praise of God the Creator, we come to know somehow within our deepest being that there is and will be continuity, order, goodness, and blessing. We say that the same God who created is the God who keeps on creating as he sustains the creation, including us. In turning aside from our normal activity to the strange occupation known as worship, in resting from our labors, we affirm that the order and continuity of the world do not depend on our ceaseless striving, but on a God who is so confident in what he has done that he can rest. And in work, fulfilling our calling as God’s image-bearers, we worship as well. For we join God in bringing in that day when chaos will be subdued, when saints will all join together in praise around that calm, glassy, sea.

And through it all, we express our faith that:

In the beginning there was God
in the middle there is God
in the end there will be God.

Alpha and Omega.

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Copyright 2008 by Tom Cheatham

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