In the Beginning
Based on Genesis Chapter One
Over the past few years we have developed the pattern of exploring a section of the Old Testament through the fall. Three years ago we did Exodus, two years ago we did King David, through 1 and 2 Samuel. People said they enjoyed it because they got to know a story from beginning to end, to see how those Old Testament stories impacted Jesus' faith and still impact our faith today.
This fall we're going to explore Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Genesis means “beginning” in Greek, and indeed for Christians, and for Jews and Muslims as well, Genesis is where our faith begins, where our story as the people of God begins.
In order to truly understand what is happening in this amazing book, you do need to have some “technical” background. And you know me, I love teaching you about the history and culture of how the different parts of the Bible were written. Genesis is part of the Pentateuch, which is a fancy name for the first five books of the Bible. They are viewed as a group because they are believed to have been put together as a whole and later divided into five sections, probably based on being written on 5 scrolls of approximately the same length. These books follow the story of God’s people from creation through to preparing to enter the Promised Land.
For centuries people believed the whole Pentateuch was written by Moses, but beginning in the late 1800's scholars began to question this. It was clear there had to be several authors as there were obvious stylistic differences, sometimes even in the same chapters, some stories were written twice with very different perspective and so on.
Initially scholars saw two “narrative sources” as they are called. The Yahwistic source, where God is referred to as Yahweh (called J because the idea was developed by Germans, who pronounce J as Y) and the Elohistic source (E) where God is referred to as Elohim. I'll tell you more about these two another Sunday.
Later, scholars could see there was a third source, Deuteronomic, meaning second law, and finally P, Priestly, which is the newest, with most of its material written during and after the Babylonian Exile. Each source has a distinct overall style and theology. Understanding that there are four sources present in Genesis goes a long way to explaining many of the stories and many of the quirks of this wonderful book. And rest assured, we'll be exploring some of the more challenging stories, like Cain and Abel, and Sodom and Gomorrah.
Today's reading is from P, the Priestly source. My Jerusalem Bible describes P as the “tradition of the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem; it preserves ancient elements, but was codified only during the Exile.” P generally focuses on legislative and institutional texts, but does have some beautiful poetry and narrative sections, which is what we see in today’s reading.
As Wayne mentioned when he did the scripture reading, there's no Adam and Eve in today’s story! No snake or tree of knowledge or even garden of Eden.
That's because as he said, there are actually two creation stories, this one and then the one found in Genesis chapters 2-3. Sometimes people assume the second story is just a sequel to this one, but no, it's a separate story from a separate source, the Yahwistic, J. It has an entirely different author and purpose. We'll look at it next week.
The fact that this first creation story was written while the Jewish people were in Exile is important. In 587 BCE Judah, the southern part of Israel, was conquered by the Babylonians. The northern part of Israel had been conquered 200 years earlier, so this was the end of an independent Jewish nation.
The Babylonians took the elite of Jerusalem – the nobles, the wealthy, the upper classes – and forced them to move to Babylon. The point of exiling the elite of a nation like this was to absorb them, assimilate them. This policy enriched Babylon and usually spelled the end of the conquered nation.
The Jewish people were treated well in Babylon because of this policy. But instead of being assimilated, the Jews sat down and had long, hard look at who they were and what God was calling them to be and do. You could say they had a visioning process.
They realized -- we are God’s people, but we haven’t always acted like it. That’s why we ran into trouble, invasion, exile. So what do we need to do differently? One thing they did was significantly expanded their laws. That’s when all the detailed cleanliness laws were developed. The idea was that every little action showed they were God’s people. From washing their hands, to eating, to clothing, to getting up in the morning, every action was prescribed to be done in a particular way that honored God and set them apart.
We see that same sense of order in this creation story. This is one of the things that makes it very different from the creation stories of other cultures of that time and place. Most other creation myths begin with the formless void, just like this one, but things change almost right away in Genesis.
In this story, God is there hovering over that formless void. God exists before creation, the spirit of God is sweeping over the water before anything is created. And tellingly, the Hebrew word we translate as “hovering” is the same one used for a mother hen hovering over her chicks, so there is a strong sense of love and concern.
In other stories of that era, gods are created out of the void or after the void, they aren't present in and before the void and certainly there is no sense of love and concern from the gods towards creation. And that’s another key difference, there is only one God in this story, not many. So no conflict, no fighting between gods, just one God, hovering with love and compassion.
Where other cultures portray humanity as constantly battling against impending chaos, this creation story says that right from the beginning God is overseeing everything, there is order even if it seems like chaos. There is a sense of balance to story, Day one divides chaos and darkness into night and day, Day 4 sees the creation of sun moon and stars, which rule over night and day. Day 2 is water and sky, Day 5 is creatures of the water and sky. Day 3 is land and plants, Day 6 is creatures of the land who eat plants.
It's all about order, all about connectedness. Every creature has a place and a purpose, there is no chaos, no random chance. All is done with thought and care, with love. Right away God empowers creation, plants and animals are all given the power of procreation, it is the first thing God tells them, “be fruitful, multiply.”
In other cultures of that time, the king was created in the image of a god, but not ordinary people, they came from mud, from dirt. In this story, all humans are created in the image of God and they are specifically named as male and female, both are equally created in the image of God. That is huge, it sets us up for Jesus and his belief in equality, his view that all people are equally worthy of God's love and attention.
At the end of the story creation is “complete,” finished. It is whole, which is part of the meaning of shalom, peace, wholeness. This is the foundation of the concept of the kingdom of God, the heart of Jesus' teachings. It tells us God created the world to be a place where there is wholeness, connection, and mutual respect.
This creation story has a lot of wisdom for us today, in our rather unusual circumstances of a global pandemic. It reminds us, not that God is “in control”, but rather that God is part of all that we're dealing with, that God has given us everything we need to live in this world. Even during a pandemic God is with us, part of us, helping us find the resources we need to manage.
The creation story reminds us that we are all in this this together, not just all people, but all of creation. And if we keep in mind those key creation concepts of wholeness, connection and mutual respect, God will help us find our way through this time that sometimes feels like chaos and darkness.