So, Last time we opened up a conversation about what the Bible is and how we can put our minds around it for the purpose of better understanding “Authorial Intent.”
This week we are going to tear into the question of Creation, and Genesis 1 and what is going on there.
So much to say… So little time!
Let me focus on my thoughts for understanding the Bible from the last post for just a minute - Context, Genre, Author. This will help in understanding how I choose to frame up the conversation.
Context - Moses (Author) is leading the people out of Egypt. They have lost their sense of who they are as a nation. Other than being loosely connected through family lines, there is no nation here. Now to set the record straight, the life of the Children of Israel in Egypt was hard, but not in some ways. We know from archeology that these people lived very upper middle class lifestyles. Summer and winter homes, plush accommodations in the best part of Egypt and awesome farm ground. Not a bad life for slaves.
They are being treated horribly, though, and God has heard the cries of His people. Moses ultimately leads them out (more on that in awhile), and begins to record the story of this people.
The gods of this ancient world are many. It seems that even within nations there are hundreds of gods to follow. These gods are interesting and unique. They each have their twists and turns in what they expect of their followers, but there are a few commonalities among them.
First, whatever god you are serving, that god takes from you. Your job as a worshipper of this god is to “keep him/her happy.” So, our sacrifices are about a form of coercion to get the god to do what I want him or her to do. There are 2 fundamental problems with this line of thinking…
One is that this ultimately puts you in the position of god, not the deity. The other is that in order to continue to get the god to do what you want, you must continually give a bigger and bigger sacrifice. This leads ultimately to terrible acts of evil (like child sacrifice) out of fear of facing the retribution of the god.
A second similarity is that there are many accounts of how the gods began the world. And while they are somewhat unique, there is a theme in all these accounts. The gods are angry and at war, and from this conflict, the earth and humanity is born. At its very core, this kind of belief in a god meant that you began from the premise of conflict and anger. This fear in approaching your god dictated much about how far you would go to keep the god happy.
All of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian world had this premise at the core of how the world began.
Genre - It is into this world that Moses begins his account of the creation of the world. And he begins with… a poem - a song. And these amazing words, “Bereshit barah elohim.” Literally translated, “In a beginning, God created.” Wait a minute. No conflict, no anger, no animosity, and for the first time, no other gods. Just one God and this God doesn’t take, He gives (more on that later as well). This poem may be the most revolutionary thing every put down on paper up until that time period. The notion that there aren’t angry gods at the core of the universe and its creation but rather that there is one God and that He is generous and His love is without condition - RADICAL.
But what we must remember is that this story of the creation of the world is a poem. That is what it is. The idea that the Bible proves a 7 day creation or doesn’t prove a 7 day creation isn’t at the forefront of Moses’ thoughts. He is not a scientist. He is taking the time to very carefully and eloquently describe God and His agenda in the world, but not the format of creation.
Now, let me be clear… Could there have been a 7 day creation with 24 hour days? Absolutely. I have no problem with that. Further more, it could have been a 7 minute creation. Or 7 seconds.
My point is not how long creation took. My point is that how long creation actually took was not Moses’ point either. And that opens up a whole new conversation about Genesis 1 and what God is up to when the world begins.
So, let’s set the stage for the passage itself and then see if we can learn something…
In the ancient world, there are two opposing forces at work. Christians would come to call these forces good and evil. Although these are good terms, they are limited and have become so refined over the centuries that they have lost a bit of the struggle they were intended to describe. Every ancient civilization had these terms to describe the battle in the universe of good and evil. Egypt called it ma'at and isfret. And in these words we find a better rendering of the idea at work. These would be translated “chaos” and “order.”
The Hebrews picked up on this kind of thinking. Their words were tohu and shalom. Tohu = chaos and shalom = order. Now, we have translated shalom “peace” over the years. And that isn’t wrong. But because of our definition of peace as the absence of conflict, we limit shalom in our minds. To use abstract terms, shalom would be better understood as "functional reality.” In other words, things in the world are functioning the way they are supposed to function. Babies are born healthy. The crops grow and produce well. The weather is good. Sickness doesn’t kill people. Things are as they should be.
At the opposite end of this spectrum is tohu - chaos. Things don’t function as they should. Babies die. Drought kills the crops. The weather is too extreme. Sickness takes people’s lives. Things are not as they should be. The Hebrews even had an extreme version of this word. If something was completely and totally and utterly chaos, they used a phrase to describe that - tohu va vohu = total and utter chaos.
With that in the background, let’s look at the text:
Genesis 1English Standard Version (ESV)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Notice in the opening lines we see so much that the story is trying to tell us already. First, something we have already touched on, God isn’t mad. That is so critical. God is creating the world from a whole new place. I would submit that this is going to create a much larger ripple than you might initially think. This will have profound implications on who we believe God is and how we believe God sees us. And we will be referring back to this again and again.
But notice something else here that is profound: “the earth was without form and void.” This statement has confounded biblical thinkers for years. What does that mean? Well, what if we let the original language speak into the original way of thinking about the universe? Would that change anything? Let’s see…
The hebrew phrase for “without form and void” is... (drumroll please) tohu va vohu. What is Moses saying? I would submit that Moses is trying to make a case that before God got started about the business of “ordering” things, they were utterly and completely chaos. This makes total sense. Without God, things are chaos. With God, they function properly. This is a great way to open a story about who this new “one God” is and how He relates to the world.
Moses’ invitation is not to decide whether or not God created “Ex Nihilo” (from nothing) or not. And yet this was the conversation that I had in my bible college classroom (and at one level this is a good conversation). Moses’ invitation is to an assumption that without God, things are chaos. But God can bring order to the chaos of the universe - and the chaos of your life.
Now, the next part of this is to set about answering the question of how God does this. How does God order the chaos of the world?
Well, God speaks (maybe God’s “Word” is important) and order comes to chaos. Furthermore, the more God speaks, the more order comes to the chaos of tohu va vohu. In other words, God’s Word brings shalom - order. This is true in the universal order of things. And it is true in your life as well. God creates the world with a proper way in which it is supposed to function. When we line up with that agenda, we have peace (order), but when we do not, we have chaos. We move further and further away from the One who gives peace to begin with.
Now to the ordering of the days…
Remember genre!!! This is a poem. The goal of this is not to be a science manual. Nor is it a historical record. It is a poem - a song about a God that is not angry or selfish. This God seems to be very interested in giving the world He is creating everything that it needs to function properly. Furthermore, He seems to write an owners manual that helps those of us that didn’t create the world understand how to function in and steward this world according to the One who put it together in the first place.
An aside: I think He probably knows how it functions better than any of us. After all, He made it. So, maybe we should pay attention.
Now, anytime that we see a poem, we want to initially look for themes, repetitions, things that stand out. This would be the writer trying to make a point that we should all pay attention to. So an initial survey of the creation story gives us some important things to grab ahold of.
Evening and morning - I am not going to explore this for the sake of space, but there is a lot of material out there on this.
The order of things is weird. Light and dark are made in the 1st day. But the Sun, moon and stars aren’t made until the 4th day. There are MANY explanations for this. Any one could be as valid as the next. I like the way the Rabbis teach this. On the first day, God separated light and dark. And now, this has become our task.
Remember me talking about this as a poem? This is technically a “Chiasm.” That is not a familiar structure to many of us. So let me explain briefly. Just like the structures of poems that we learned in English class in school, a chiasm would have been very familiar in the ancient Hebrew world. The structure of a Chiasm goes like this: A B C D C B A. So, the outside lines mirror each other in some way and this holds true as each end works towards the middle. The letter “D” is the point. So, in the center, we find the point of any chiasm. There are many of these in the Bible. And they can be very complex. But this is a central literary tool of the ancient biblical writers.
Why does this matter? Because the order of things is not important to the structure. As westerners, we are consumed with linear progression. This way of thinking is secondary to an eastern thinker - which the Hebrews are. So, while westerners debate how God could have created light on one day and the sun on another day, Moses was trying to make another point entirely. And if we don’t allow the Context, Genre, and Author speak to how we interpret the passage, we run the risk of missing his point entirely.
The sun is the source of life - even the ancients recognize this. No sun = no life - period. So, for ancient gods, the chief gods are always connected to the sun, moon and stars. Moses takes a huge stab at this idea by claiming that this one God isn’t just connected to the sun, He made it. Which has many implications, but I would submit one for the sake of time…
God gives life.
Life itself is a gift from God. Not that He holds it over your head, but that this life is a gift from a God who is not angry or selfish. And that changes everything!
One more point to make about this cursory overview of the creation poem. There is a repetition found in the poem that we need to make note of. The phrase “it was good.” We see this over and over again. Why do we see this over and over again? Because it is something that the author wants us to pay attention to (authorial intent). Apparently, it is important to the author to reaffirm the goodness of creation. It is important for the author to begin his account of how things got started with a couple of fundamental prepositions. One - that God brings peace and order and that He isn’t mad. And second - that what God made is good. It is blessed. Not because it produces or because it achieves, but because God made it. This theme is critical to the rest of the story that God is telling with the Bible.
The creation of man and woman is not a separate event in the story that stands alone or separate of the rest of the story. It is part of the poem. Which means that whatever boundaries we put on understanding the rest of creation are also true of how we understand the beginning of man and woman. This is critical. In a couple of weeks we are going to wrestle with this much more deeply. But for now, let’s understand this truth at the surface. When God made man, God was not upset. When God made man, it was the culmination of an amazing process that built on itself. When God made man, God looked at everything He had made and said, “Tov meod!” It is very good.
The applications of this are endless. But for now, we must understand that this is where our story starts. And this is how God sees us - good, blessed, made from love, not anger. There is no place here for God to feel anything but love for man and woman. And that is critical to know at the beginning.
Now, before we run down the road of, “Well, sin changed all that!!!”
We will talk about what sin changed. And what it didn’t change. but let me leave you with a story…
My wife and I adopted a girl from China 7 years ago. It has been a great gift to our family. Her story started in her life very different than this Bible story. It started without a home, a family, or any worth for that matter. She had no one to love her or call her precious. So when she came home with us, I began immediately to teach her this story. For a very specific reason.
As we go through the days of creation, she has a tendency to get more and more amped up. She knows what is coming.
“And on day one, what did God create?” I will ask.
“Light and dark,” she will respond.
“And day two?”
“And day 3?”
“Sun, moon, and stars!”
“And day 5?”
“Vegetation!!” (We are getting close now!)
"And day 6?!?!?”
“Animals and MAN!!!!!!”
“Nice,” I will say. “And what did God say about all this?”
“It is VERY good!!!”
“Right! And what did God say when he made you?”
That is right!!! She is perfect. Although the story of her life started out telling her something very different, God wanted her to know that she was not a mistake. That she was created perfect. Exactly the way He intended. And we will learn later that not only did He create her exactly the way He wanted, but He put a piece of His own image in her. She must be amazing!!!
And maybe once we get past the unsolvable argument of how long it took God to make the world (which is not the point of this part of Scripture anyway), we find an amazing truth that does more to transform my heart than any scientific evidence could. The One who made my little girl made her with more beauty and value and worth and wonder than I could have ever imagined.
Wait a minute! That is my story, too. And yours! When we talk to our children about the truth of who they are (or anyone else for that matter) do we begin with this truth? This is where God begins the story of the world. So it MUST be where we begin our retelling of this amazing story.
My daughter always begins to sing and giggle at this point. And sing she should! This is worth being excited about. And the creation story is a song after all.
So may you sing creation just like the first writer of this story did. And may you see the value and worth that God sees in all of us. Stop focusing on your sin and mistakes for a minute. And just revel in the truth of what God made you to be. Celebrate it! God does.
How does He celebrate your amazing-ness???
He rests. But that is for next time.
QUESTIONS TO START THE DISCUSSION:
What does it change to see God’s creating of the world as good and full of love?
How hard is it to accept this truth?
Who do you know that needs to know this truth right now?
What questions do you have about understanding the story this way?
QUESTION TO GET YOU THINKING ABOUT THE NEXT LESSON:
- Why does God choose to celebrate all His creation by resting? And what does that mean for us?
One Person at a Time!
Aaron Couch Lead Coach Real Life on the Palouse