Forming the Formless
Forming the Formless
by William Klock
We left off last week with Genesis 1:2. The earth was formless and void—a great, dark, chaotic watery abyss. Everything about it was antithetical to human life, but God was getting ready to create—to bring order and to make the earth not only ready, but perfect for human habitation. Verse 2 ends by telling us that the Spirit of God—the great architect—was hovering over the face of the waters. Remember that Genesis 1 describes God building a temple for himself. Just as his Spirit was given to Bezalal to build the tabernacle, God’s earthly temple, here his Spirit is the architect of his cosmic temple.
Before we go any further remember the context of Genesis 1. Remember the original audience. The core of Genesis was written for the Israelites as they were leaving pagan Egypt and preparing to conquer pagan Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham, their father. For them the story reinforced that their God, Yahweh, was not just the personal God of Abraham, but he was also the Creator and Sovereign of all things. And the story reminds them and assures them of God’s covenant promise to them: that he has called them to be his holy people, that he has promised to make them a great nation, and that he has promised them the land they’re about to enter. And then remember that the various parts of the story were put together as we have them while the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon. As a people they had nearly been destroyed. The ten northern tribes no longer existed as a people and the southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah were separated and decimated. The Babylonians had destroyed the temple—the place where they worshipped God and made sacrifices for their sins. And on top of that they had been exiled from the land that God had promised them. And so there by the waters of Babylon they gathered together their history: the books of the law that had been given to Moses by God and the records of their judges and their kings; and with the Spirit’s guidance they put together the story—the story that starts here in Genesis 1. It was a story to remind them of God’s covenant promises to them; a story to remind them that God was still in control; and a story to remind them that despite their sins and despite their having been punished, they were still God’s people.
Now, back to Chapter 1. Right here at the beginning these assurances hit us between the eyes. It doesn’t come across in English, but verse 2 uses a very important word when it talks about the “earth”. It’s the Hebrew word eres. In English we translate it sometimes as “earth” and sometimes as “land”, but this is the same word that’s used later to describe the land that God promised to his people. There’s a sense here, then, in which this isn’t just about God preparing the entire planet for general human habitation—he is doing that—but the Israelites would have seen that this is a parallel to God’s preparing a very specific land for them. So this isn’t just about God’s loving care and provision for everyone; this is also the story of Israel—of God’s people—and so it’s a story of redemption. And right here at the beginning God’s Spirit is waiting and ready to give God’s good gifts to his people.
Before we get into today’s text we should address the “days” that are described in Genesis 1. First we should address the issue of what the “days” are. Lots of Christians have made a big deal out of these six or seven “days”. On one hand there are Christians who insist on taking these days “literally” as six twenty-four hour days. They’re often called “Young Earth Creations” and they usually insist that the earth is about 6,000 years old—based on what they call a “literal” interpretation of the text. Other Christians see the compelling scientific evidence for the cosmos and the earth both being billions of years old and try to accommodate the text to that; they see the “days” here as symbolic. For them each day could have been a billion years.
Let me address the “day-equals-an-age” idea first. This is a good-intentioned attempt to reconcile the Bible with the scientific evidence we have for an old earth. The problem is that the words and grammar in Genesis 1 simply don’t allow for this interpretation. The days here really are actual days. If we try to accommodate them to long ages or periods of time we’re twisting and abusing the text. In contrast, the first group gets it right in terms of what the days are. The problem with the “literalists” isn’t their understanding of the days, it’s that they impose a modern, materialistic way of thinking onto the text when they assume this means that God actually created in six twenty-four hours days. They forget that these six days are part of a story told using ancient cosmological language and that it’s a story meant to tell us about the function and purpose of the Creation, not a story meant to tell us about the material origins of the cosmos. The real significance of the days—and we need to remember that there are sevendays here, not just the six that are so often the focus of our attention—the significance of these days is that they express the ideas and language of temple building. Genesis 1 is an account of God building his cosmic temple and it’s told in the functional language of ancient cosmology. He took six days to create it, shaping it and filling it with the implements of worship and creating a people of priests to worship him within it, and then finally on the seventh day he moved in, he took up his “rest”, which in the ancient world meant he took up control and supervision of this cosmos he had created. So long as he was there everything was ordered, everything ran as he designed it, and life was good for his people.
The six days on which God does his work break down into two sets of three days—two triads. And each of these triads addresses the original state of the earth. Remember verse 2 tells us that before God created, the earth was tohu wabohu—it was formless and void. In the first three-day set God addresses the formlessness of the earth. In the second three-day set he addresses that it was void. And in each set of days we see Creation moving from heaven down to earth. The first three days move from the creation of light to the creation of the sky to the creation of dry land. God gives shape to what was formless. The second three-day set moves from the creation of the heavenly bodies—sun, moon, and stars—to the birds that fill the sky to the animals—and finally human beings—who fill the dry land. God fills what was void with life. In the first triad he creates domains; in the second triad he fills each domain and gives dominion over it to the functionaries he’s created to fill it. The sun, moon, and stars have dominion over the heavens; birds and fish have dominion over the sky and sea; animals have dominion over the land; and, finally, human beings have dominion over all of Creation.
This morning we’ll be looking at the first set of three days, which begins with verse 3:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5)
Both Christians and Jews have struggled with this text for thousands of years. How could God create light on the first day when he doesn’t create the sun until the fourth day? We looked at this in our first sermon two weeks ago. We need ask: “Why does God call the light he created “day”? And the answer to that question leads us back to the conclusion that what God is creating here isn’t light and dark, but day and night—more specifically the cycle of day and night that we call time—the system by which we measure life. This underscores what I’ve been stressing the last couple of Sunday: We need to see Genesis not as a description of material creation—which is how our modern scientific mindset pushes us to think of it—but as a description of functional creation—a story that describes not where things came from or how God made them in technical or scientific terms, but a story that tell us why God made things and what function and purpose God has given them. This is the interpretation that makes the best sense of the text itself, but it’s also the way we know the ancient Israelites thought—it was their mindset or worldview.
So here on Day One, God creates time and then the text tells us that God saw that it was good. And God’s seeing that it was good is important. We’ll find this idea of God “seeing” throughout Genesis, because “seeing” is at the centre of the author’s concept of God. The very first title that is given to God in the Bible is by Hagar, Sarah’s slave. She calls God El Roi, which means “God who sees”. Abraham calls the place where God provided a lamb in place of Isaac for the altar “The Lord will see”. God sees the needs of his people. Now, what’s really interesting is that the Hebrew word for “see” is also the word for “provide”. God sees and provides. God saw Hagar in the desert and provided for her. God saw Isaac on the altar and provided an alternative sacrificial lamb. God also sees evil and brings judgement. In Chapter 6 God sees the depraved nature of human beings and provides a flood to wipe their evil from the earth. But brothers and sisters, God also sees the same sinfulness in us; he sees our need for a Redeemer and so he provides his own Son. But it starts here. God sees the chaos, he sees that it’s not good because it’s antithetical to human life, and so he provides form and as he provides that form and purpose he sees that his provision is good. Creation glorifies its Creator and shows his goodness.
Now, Day Two. Look at verses 6 to 8:
And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
This has been another difficult passage. What’s this “expanse” (or “firmament” in the older translations)? Ancient people believed that there was a solid dome over the earth that held up a heavenly sea. That’s why the sky is blue and that’s where rain comes from. And yet for hundred of years we’ve known that there’s no solid dome over the earth. Just as some Christians have tried to accommodate the “days” of Genesis 1 to account for the old age of the cosmos, many also try to reinterpret what the Hebrew word here means, but again we need to remember that to do that is to twist and abuse the text. We just need to remember that God spoke in the language of his people, even when it came to how they understood the structure of the cosmos. So what we see here is God taking control of the waters of the abyss. He separates the waters with this “expanse”—some below and some above. This was the sky as ancient people understood it, but more specifically here God’s creating the mechanism for weather. Life can’t survive without rain and so here God puts that important system in place.
What’s interesting is that God doesn’t make a declaration about this day being good. All the other days we see that phrase repeated: “God saw that it was good”, but not on Day Two. Why is that? God’s created the sky, but there’s still no habitable dry land. After the second day the land was still formless and void and so it’s only after the third day, when God separates the seas and calls forth the land that we see his pronouncement of goodness.
Look at Day Three in verses 9-10:
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
God separated the waters and called forth dry land—a place for human beings to live. Have you noticed that on each of these three days God separates something? Light from dark, waters below from waters above, and now land from water. God’s provision and sustenance by separation is a key theme in Genesis. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Israelites feared the sea. To them it represented the original chaos of the uncreated world. Like the wilderness or the desert it was “formless and void”—it did not nurture human life. In Noah’s flood God reverses this separation and allows the waters to flood back over the land and that flood results in the destruction of life. In the Exodus we see God separate the waters of the Red Sea, giving dry land to his people and saving them from the Egyptians—whom he then drowns by reversing that separation—another mini-flood. This theme of separation points us to God’s covenant. He called Abraham out of Ur, separating him from a pagan people in order to make him into a holy nation; he called the Israelites out of Egypt, again, separating them from a pagan people, and at Sinai he gave them his law so that they could be a holy people; and brothers and sisters, through the Cross, God calls to us; he separates us from sin and death and makes new life to grow in us.
And notice that God gives life through his Word. Here in Genesis it’s his spoken Word that has creative, life-giving power. God speaks and we have time; God speaks and we have a sky and weather; God speaks and we have dry land; again, God speaks and we have sun and moon; Gods speaks and we have fish and birds; God speaks and we have animals; and finally, God speaks and we have human beings. The full realisation of the significance of God’s Word was given in the Incarnation—God’s Word made flesh in order to give fullness of life to those who had rejected it. St. John tells us:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
And yet the Word himself is known, his mission of redemption is known as God speaks to us through his Word written. His Spirit was the architect of Creation who worked through the life-giving power of his Word; his Spirit leads us to life as he unites us to Jesus Christ; and his Spirit teaches us the way to the Cross as he speaks to us through the written Word. God’s Word gives life!
Back to Day Three. Notice that it doesn’t end with barren dry land. Look at verses 11-13:
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
Human beings need dry land—we need a place to live—but we also need something to eat, and so we see God providing for that need. The emphasis here is not on plants or vegetation in general; it’s on edible plants and on a system of agriculture. The Hebrew words used here are specifically the words associated with fruit trees and grasses that produce grain. This isn’t talking about the creation of fir trees or rose bushes, oaks or ivy, it’s about sources of food. It’s not that God didn’t create firs and oaks and roses and ivy—those are as much a part of his Creation as olive trees and wheat, but the point of the account here is that God has provided human beings with the things we need for life. That’s why he saw and declared it good.
That’s as far as I want to go today. As I said, there are two “triads” of days here. In these first three days we’ve seen God give form to what was formless. Next week we’ll watch as he takes these static spheres he’s made and fills them with life—taking what was void and filling it full. But again, we’ll see the emphasis of the text is on God’s provision for life; we’ll see God taking into account the needs of human beings—he sees—and then we’ll see him taking the necessary steps to make the land good by providing to meet that need.
God is good. Genesis 1 teaches us that the Creation is an outpouring of God’s love and generosity. God isn’t just the Almighty Creator, the great King and the great Sovereign over all things; Genesis shows us that he is just as much a loving Father who sees our needs and provides for us. As Jesus reminds us: If our Father so beautifully clothes the lilies of the field and if he cares for the little sparrows, will he not even more see the needs of his human children and provide? If we ever doubt his provision we need only consider that while we were sinners, even when we had rejected his love and become his enemies, he saw our need and spared not his only Son that we might have life. Our God is truly Hagar’s El Roi, the God who sees, the God who provides. Our response should be to lift our praises to him. I’d like to you to join me in the closing prayer as we stand and sing the Doxology:
Praise God, from whom all blessing flow;
Praise him, all creatures here below;
Praise him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.