In the Beginning
In the Beginning
by William Klock
Last week we began our study of the book of Genesis by addressing the issue of how we should read, how we should look at Genesis. (If you weren’t here, I encourage you to read or listen to last Sunday’s sermons, because we dealt with some important foundational questions.) In short, I made three basic points: First, God communicates his truth to us in Scripture, but that he does so through human writers and through their language and understanding of the world. God spoke to them in the language they knew. Instead of correcting their understanding of the world’s structure, he simply worked with it. All human language has its limits and all human language is enculturated. That doesn’t hinder God communicating his truth. The second point was that ancient people, including the Israelites, thought of creation and existence in non-material terms—something very foreign to our modern scientific way of thinking. To them creation and existence were about function and purpose. And finally, my third point was that to interpret the Bible responsibly means that we have to first ask what it meant to the people to whom God originally spoke before we ask what it means to us today. That means that we can’t impose our way of understanding the world or of understanding existence and creation on the text. A lot of people do that and call it the “literal” interpretation, when in fact it isn’t literal at all. It’s imposing our ideas on the text rather than letting the text speak for itself.
Today I want to start a more details look at Chapter 1 and especially the first two verses. In Genesis 1:1 we read:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Chapter 1 goes on from there to describe how God took what was formless and void, what was without purpose and function and made heaven and earth. And over these six days we see God creating and making a place fit for human beings to live and calling it good. And yet it’s not just a home for human beings, as we saw last week, the cosmos is God’s temple. His Creation serves him and gives him glory. The language of Chapter 1 is interesting; it’s not poetry, although it does show some poetic elements, but neither is it the language of straight-up historical narrative. Genesis 1 has it’s own style. It’s a sort of liturgical style, which is why some Old Testament scholars think that it may have originally been a litany that was used each year in the tabernacle or the temple to remind the people that the place where they worshiped on earth was just a model meant to teach them about the cosmic temple that God had created for himself and in which we serve as his priests. It’s after this affirmation that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all that we get into the rest of the story. In Chapter 2 Genesis tells us more specifically about the creation of human beings and our role in God’s plan. In Chapter 3 Genesis tells us about our sin problem and how we abandoned our Creator. From there we read the story of God’s redemptive plan to save us from our sin. Most of Genesis is the story of Abraham and his children—of one man whom no one had ever heard of when he was alive and this little band of people who were descended from him. In the big picture of history Abraham and his family are nobodies. But these first chapters of Genesis remind us that this is God’s story, that he has a purpose, and that as he works out his purpose he uses ordinary and everyday people; fallen and sinful people; by the world’s standards, small people instead of great people.
What did this mean to the people who first heard it? For that matter, who were the people who first heard it? The internal evidence in the Bible attributes Moses as the author of these first five books of the Old Testament and as much as it’s been disputed for the last 150 years, there’s no good evidence to reject the ideal that Moses was at least responsible for the core material that makes up this part of the Bible. And that means that this was originally written to God’s people as they travelled through the wilderness of Sinai. They had just been delivered from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. From the warning that Joshua gave the people (Joshua 24:14) before they crossed into the Promised Land we know that while they were in Egypt they had adopted Egyptian religion and Egyptian ways of looking at the world. Ezekiel reminded the people twice (20:16 and 23:1-4) that they had prostituted themselves to Egyptian gods. The historical evidence we have would also suggest that along with the descendants of Abraham and Jacob, there were other slaves who came out of Egypt along with the Israelites—people who had never known the God of Abraham.
Think about what that meant. The worldview of these people was steeped in paganism. While they evidently still recognised the God of Abraham, he was just one god amongst the whole pantheon of Egyptian gods. And consider what the Egyptian gods were like. Have you ever read about them? Maybe you’ve read stories from Greek and Roman mythology—about Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Aphrodite and the whole lot of them. Those gods were capricious and immoral, constantly fighting amongst themselves. The Egyptian gods were no different. Add to that that pagan peoples tended to think of their gods as being subject to human manipulation. Contrast that with the God of the Bible. He establishes right and wrong by his very nature and character. We know what is holy and righteous and just because those things are who he is. In contrast think of the pagan gods. They did whatever they pleased; they had no moral code. And consider that the God of the Bible is not some volcano god to be placated by throwing him a virgin when he seems angry. He’s a God who works with purpose. He establishes covenant relationships based on his election of people to be holy as he is holy and what he decrees always comes to pass. It’s a difference in worldviews that’s like the difference between night and day.
So here in the desert, having come from pagan Egypt and as they prepared to enter Canaan which, if anything, was even worse than Egypt, God gives his people a grounding in who he is. And he does it by speaking in the language they understood. He speaks in the cosmology of the Ancient Near East as we’ll see, but as he deals with each part of Creation—things the pagans often thought of as gods themselves—he shows that they’re just “things” that are under his control. The sun, the sky, the primordial waters aren’t gods—they’re just “things” that he controls in order to give us life and to bring himself glory. I find this point particularly interesting. As modern people we have a materialistic point of view. We want God to speak in materialistic language, whether it’s to describe creation in terms of the Big Bang or to read Genesis as a six-day even of material creation. Not only did the Israelites not think in those terms, but the fact that God was able to speak to them in their cosmological language meant that he could confront the pagan gods of Egypt and Canaan on their own turf and on their own terms. With each day of the story, God not only gives function and purpose to the world and makes it fit for human beings, he also crushes the gods of the pagans and demolishes their false religion. We miss that if we don’t read this with the right lens.
But in terms of an “original audience” it doesn’t stop with the Israelites in the wilderness. There was no written Hebrew language when Moses was writing, at least as far as we can tell. He might have been writing in Egyptian or one of the older Canaanite languages that evolved into Hebrew. And Moses only takes us up to the doorstep of the Promised Land. The rest of Israel’s history was written later—much of it in court records and the like. It wasn’t until the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon almost a thousand years later that the history we have running from Genesis through 1 and 2 Kings was finally put together in more-or-less the from we have it today. There’s a good chance that Genesis 1 was put where we have it as a prologue to the story at that time. The Jews knew that they were God’s people and that God had made promises to them, but how were they to reconcile that with being exiles in Babylonians, removed from their promised land and their temple destroyed. Part of their getting a grip and a restored perspective on who they were as a people and remembering God’s promise to them was to organise their recorded history. Here at the very beginning God reminds them that regardless of what things may look like, he is the Creator, he is the Sustainer, and he is always in control.
That’s the big picture. Lets look at the text again:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
We looked at some of this last week too. “In the beginning” points not to a single moment in time when God suddenly turned nothing into something. The context and the Hebrew language behind the statement demand that we see this “beginning” as referring to the coming seven days. The beginning is this period of creation. This is the prologue to the story of God and his people and it all starts with him building and establishing his cosmic temple—heaven his throne and earth his footstool—“in the beginning”.
Again, we saw last week that “create”—the Hebrew word bara—is a special act of God. Human beings never bara; only God does. And we saw that as the word is used about fifty times in the Old Testament, when God bara-s it’s not about materialistic creation; it’s about giving things function and purpose in his creation. We see this especially at the end of the chapter when God bara-s human beings, but not in physical or material terms; he bara-s human beings in their roles as male and female.
One thing that points to this being a prologue that gives the big picture before we start to narrow in on Abraham and on Israel is the fact that verse 1 tells us that it’s “God” who is Creator. There are all sorts of titles that the Bible gives to God, but throughout the Old Testament there are only two basic words used to address him. One is the Hebrew word Elohim and the other is Yahweh (or some older translations read it as Jehovah). Elohim is sort of a generic term for deity, which is why our English Bibles translate it as “God”. In contrast, Yahweh is the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Moses asked whom he should say sent him and God told him, “Tell them that I AM has sent you.” Yahweh equals I AM. In that sense it’s not a proper name like Osiris or Baal or Zeus. God doesn’t have a name in that sense and so when Moses asked who he was, God told Moses to refer to him by who he is. God defined himself in terms of his own existence. He is Existence itself (yes, with a capital “E”). He is the “Supreme Being” and every other being that exists owes its existence to the supreme and eternal existence of the Creator. That’s what’s behind Yahweh, but because the Jews were so protective of the name, when they saw it in the text they would replace it with the word “Lord”. Most of our English Bibles carry on that tradition. So when you see “God” in your Bible, you can assume that the Hebrew behind it is Elohim and when you see “Lord” in all capitals you can know that Yahweh is behind that.
Now, back to the text. In this first chapter that tells us about the Almighty Creator of the cosmos, it’s Elohim who acts. Chapter 2, in contrast, zooms into the Garden and shows us the Creation of human beings. There we see the personal Yahweh acting—Israel’s God. And there’s a reason for that. Chapter 1 teaches us that there is one almighty Creator God—not a bunch of petty, squabbling gods, but One who is sovereign over all things. Since he isn’t named, people might ask: Who is this great Creator? Chapter 2 answers the question: This one almighty Creator is Yahweh, the God of Israel.
Now look at verse 2:
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
This is yet something else that points us to this being about the functional instead of the material and that only makes sense if we understand that God is speaking in the cosmological language that the ancient Israelites knew. God is getting ready to create, but verse 2 tells us that the earth was already there and that it was formless and void. Remember tohu wabohu from last Sunday? Formless and void refers to having no function or purpose. It’s like the desert or the wilderness—hostile to human life. More importantly that words tohu is connected with the Egyptian word for chaos. This is how most ancient peoples understood the world to be in its uncreated state: some kind of chaotic primordial water or sea. Moses was schooled in Pharaoh’s court and so his understanding of the world’s structure was Egyptian: Before Creation the world had been a chaotic sea. Creation resulted in a flat earth with a sea below and a great dome to holdback the sea that was above. God didn’t try to correct Moses here, he simply worked with what Moses knew to communicate his truth. In ancient myths those primordial chaotic waters were usually associated with a god or goddess of chaos. Not here. And where other ancient people saw the chaotic waters as a sort of eternal opposite and enemy of the god who creates and brought order, Genesis uses language that makes it clear that these waters are a temporal reality—that they’re not eternal. In fact at the end of the story in Revelation we read that darkness and the abyss will be gone from the new heaven and earth.
The text says that Creation began with the “deep”, the “abyss”, with chaotic primordial waters. This is a place we have to be careful and where we have to understand the language of the text. Interpreters who assume this about material creation argue that God created the chaotic waters as the first step in creation and that he then went on to give it shape over the next six days. The problem is that this dark abyss is bad; it’s formless and void, which means that it’s completely antithetical to God’s purpose of creating with function and purpose. God doesn’t create chaos; he creates order. This isn’t a problem if we recognise that God is speaking in cosmological terms that the Israelites understood—he’s speaking in ancient terms of function, not in modern materialistic terms and in those terms the question of where the abyss comes from is irrelevant. Remember that for these people existence depends on having function and purpose. The abyss represents chaos, the polar opposite of purpose and order, so from their perspective the abyss represents non-existence. (Remember I said last week that it’s hard sometimes to wrap our heads around their way of thinking.) The point is that before God created, human life was impossible. When we set aside our materialistic worldview one of the things that jumps out at us here is the fact that even in Creation God is working out his redemption—making order out of chaos so that we can live.
And even though nothing has been created yet, we see God in control. His Spirit hovers over the chaotic waters of the deep. There’s a sense in which we see that even the chaos is under God’s supervision, but more importantly we’re reminded that God’s Spirit is something like an architect when it comes to creating the cosmic temple. Think of the building of the tabernacle—God’s earthly temple—in Exodus. God gave Moses the plans, but then he appointed Bezalel to be the builder and we’re told that God gave Bezalel his Spirit for the task. And her we see God’s Spirit hovering or brooding over the waters of chaos, ready to make a world fit for human life and that will give God glory.
That’s as far as I want to go this morning. We’ll get into the first three days next Sunday. But let me ask: What does this mean for us? Let me make two points as we close. First, Genesis tells us that God created an ordered cosmos. I think that’s an uncontroversial given for us as Christians, but we don’t always fully understand the implications of God having created an ordered cosmos. There’s a contest that’s been going on for the last century between the “Bible” and “Science”. There should be no such contest. The point of the scientific method is to observe the world around us and, by trial and error, to develop hypotheses, theories, and laws about how the cosmos works. The fact that the scientific method works is evidence of the order that God has built into his Creation. The scientific method means that our scientific understanding will always be growing and evolving and changing, but as Christians we should be affirming what scientists do and there should be no conflict between us and them. As we’ve seen, the Bible deals with the question of purpose. Science is about the material world; purpose is outside its scope. Other than those times when an atheistic agenda is being pushed—in which case scientists are overstepping their bounds—Christians should be happy to see the order of Creation being revealed by human observation and we should see our growing knowledge of the cosmos as greater reason to praise God for his majesty and wisdom. If our observation of the order of the cosmos tells us that it’s billions of years old we can acknowledge that such observations are probably right or are at least on the right track, rather than asserting that the Bible has a different view of material origins and that God has dishonestly perpetrated a great “fake-out” by creating a universe that appears to be old but really isn’t—that he created a universe that has the appearance of order, but that any such appearance is false or only reliable to some arbitrary point. Would the God who openly reveals himself in the pages of Scripture, would the God who wants us to know him and to know him well and who tells us that he offers a general revelation of himself in his Creation, build a cosmic lie into his Creation? He could, but it goes against everything we know of him.
Second, when God spoke through Moses he spoke to a people steeped in pagan ways of thinking. Here God gives them their own Creation story that kicks the pagan gods in the teeth and that shows them that he’s in control. On the first day the gods of light and dark are dismissed. On the second it’s the gods of sea and sky that are show to be not gods but just things in God’s control. One the third day it’s the gods of earth and vegetation. On the fourth it’s the gods of sun, moon, and stars. On the fifth and sixth God takes away any ideas we might have of gods connected with the animals. Finally, on day six, God shows us that human beings are just creatures too—we’re all the same before him, whether Pharaoh or slave and yet he reminds us, too, that he has given his image to each of us, from the lowest to the highest.With that in mind consider that we confront paganism each day too. We live in a mission field. Today’s paganism isn’t the same as the paganism that confronted the ancient Israelites, but it’s not all that different either. Consider this:
(1) I’ve been talking these last two weeks about our material worldview. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the world that way, but consider how so many people today take it to the point that only the material matters—a worldview in which there is no room for God or the supernatural. And (2) since everything is material, we then get the idea that we eventually can know everything there is to know just by observation of the world. Again, there’s no need for God. Lesslie Newbigin wrote: “The most obvious fact that distinguishes our culture from all that have preceded it is that it is—in its public philosophy at least—atheist. The famous reply of Laplace to the complaint that he had omitted God from his system—‘I have no need of that hypothesis’—might stand as a motto for our culture as a whole.”
(3) From there we fall into a deterministic mindset. If everything can be ascribed to natural, mechanical processes life no longer has any value and morality becomes completely irrelevant. This is how we wind up with a culture has no problem killing the unborn. And all this together (4) leads us to secularism. No longer is there any place for religious faith and worship in the public sphere. The only purpose of nature, society, or government is the fulfilment of our material desires and even if those desires are immoral we baptise them by calling them human “rights”.
(4) Increasingly now we couple that secularism with humanism. Not only is there no room for God, but because there is no room for God the ultimate goal and purpose of everything is humanity and our interests. No longer is God the Creator who owns his Creation. It all belongs to human beings and rests in our control.
But of course not everyone in our mission field is a secularist. Increasingly the polls show us a growing number of people are “spiritual” or “religious”—they just aren’t interested in traditional spirituality, the Church, or the God of Scripture. People are moving back into paganism—the very same false religion from which God rescued his people. No longer is God the Creator, God is the Creation. No longer is there any objective truth or morality, but only what “works for me” and what “makes me happy”.
Brothers and sisters, this is why the message of Genesis is so important. It confronts secularism and paganism head on and reminds us that there is, in fact, a Creator and that he is sovereign. And this is the basis for the Gospel. The God of Genesis is a God who loves and who cares for his Creation. He’s also a God of justice and righteousness, which means that when we reject his love and when we reject his righteousness we are guilty of sin. And that’s when we remember again that the God of Genesis is loving and sovereign. He doesn’t leave us in our sin, but becomes one of us, takes our sin upon himself, and offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins so that we can be restored to his fellowship. The God who conquered chaos to give us a home, the God who lovingly created us, the God who continually sustains us, now offers his own life that we might live eternally.
Let us pray: Almighty Creator and heavenly Father thank you for your Creation. We praise you as Sovereign over all. Open our eyes to the reality of your kingship all around us, to your love that is evidenced not only in our creation but in our redemption, that we might be moved to give you glory, to worship you, to be obedient and to show your love, and to declare your greatness to the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.