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Genesis 1:1–2:4a

June 9, 2014

One could argue that this is the most important chapter in the Bible. It sets the stage for all that follows. It gives us the worldview assumed by the rest of the biblical writers. It is also beautifully sublime and profound. Scholars and believers will never finish plummeting the depths that are here.

As I now re-read it, a few aspects catch my attention:

First, I am struck by how poetic and lyrical it is. Clearly this is not meant to be a scientific description of the beginnings of the universe. The author is not at all bothered that this chapter contradicts (on a literal level) some of the things that are said in the second chapter (for instance, when plants, animals and Adam were created). Those who try to make the opening chapters of Genesis conform to scientific knowledge of the world are misguided. The author’s purpose is to tell us the relationship between God and the world, not literally how and when everything got made.

I am struck by the name of God: Elohim (this is the Hebrew word translated as “God” in our English Bibles). Elohim literally means “gods.” It is a word in the plural form. Why would the author use a plural word/name for God? Two possibilities come to my mind. First, the author wants to use the broadest word for God possible, a word that encompasses everyone’s concept of God. This is not just the God of the Israelites; this is the God of everyone and every culture. Second, it may be that the author thinks of God as being plural as well as one at the same time. God has within God’s self a plurality, an internal dialogue and relationship (for instance, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”).

I am struck by how God creates: by speaking. Words create reality. There is something profound here that is hard to grasp. Perhaps one way to say it would be: language creates reality; until we can name things, they do not exist. Even the stories we tell each other–true stories as well as fictional stories–create reality. They order chaos. They make sense of the constant moments of jumbled experience. To say that all that exists came into being through speaking is perhaps as close to the truth as we can ever get.

I am struck that verses 29-30 make humans, as well as all animals, into vegetarians. The author wants to picture primordial reality as having no violence at all. The breath of life is not to be taken from anything. Only plants (which in the author’s view do not have the breath of life) may be eaten. Human beings eating animals, and animals eating each other, is not described until after humanity has brought disobedience into the world. Again, this is not literal history. Lions were never vegetarians. But the author’s point is that God’s creation ought to be and ideally is nonviolent. (Interestingly, Israel’s neighbors described the creation of the world as being the result of a war between divine forces. Israel rejected this view of the basis of reality and chose nonviolence as the basis of reality.)

I am struck that all of creation is good–very good–but it is not divine. Israel’s neighbors considered nature itself to be divine. Each thing in nature had divinity (a god) living within it. But the Israelites saw reality differently. God is beyond nature. God is the ground of all being without being nature itself. This is an extremely important point (which we are constantly forgetting). This means that we humans are not God, nor are we in any sense divine. We reflect God, and carry out God’s work of caring for and overseeing creation, but we are not divine. Nor is nature divine. This means we have no power to manipulate God. God is with creation, suffuses it with life and sustains it in every moment, but is not contained within it. Incidentally, such a view of nature allowed science to develop.

I am struck that God rests. Resting is part of the “nature” of God, and God has put rest within creation itself. When we do not regularly rest, we are at odds with nature, and no longer reflect God. Those who do not properly rest make themselves into false gods.

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