Genesis, lesson 2

Genesis: Folklore of Faith   Lesson 2 – Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on September 25, 2005

Introduction:               I wish I could begin this lesson by saying “It’s been a quiet week,” the way Garrison Keillor does on the Prairie Home Companion, but the truth is that it has been an anxious week. After the devastation of Katrina and the revelation of serious flaws in our emergency response system, I know that the country watched the rise of Hurricane Rita with considerable fear. I chose Genesis for study long before I knew that we would be facing major natural disasters, but the choice has been timely.

Theological Poetry:    This week we will look closely at the opening chapter of Genesis. This is a very orderly account as well as a poetic one. Last week we talked about the origin of this text. Picture this being sung in the Temple in Jerusalem by the priests of Israel after the people were allowed to return from Babylon. Even today in church, we sometimes read it aloud this way. It has a liturgical call and response that mirrors the calling of God and the response of creation. One person recites the action of God. Another recites that there was evening and morning, numbering the days. Think what is was like 2500 years ago when the priests sang these words while the people rebuilt their society after devastating tragedy. These are words of hope in the midst of destruction.

Genesis sings the song of creation, and let the people say, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good!” I find it very helpful to recognize that Genesis 1 is a liturgical poem, not a scientific textbook. It presents some of our most important theological affirmations in a manner that is both beautiful and memorable. You can almost hear the orchestra playing in the background as you read it.

            There are great advantages to presenting theology in the form of music or poetry, as Nikolaus von Zinzendorf knew three hundred years ago. It is easier to remember poetry than prose, for one thing. Poetry engages more than just one’s reason; it connects to the heart. Plus it is a communal event rather than private reading. Poetry makes theology a matter of life, not just something to repeat on a final examination. The repetitions in poetry reinforce the central meaning of the text and help make it a part of one’s own consciousness. What is repeated is important, and in Genesis 1 that is the simple phrase: “And God saw that it was good.”

Goodness of Creation:           This is a very bold claim that was different from the perspective of many people in ancient times. Many of Israel’s neighbors viewed the natural world as an enemy. Some went so far as to declare that the world was the result of a cosmic mistake. As you probably know, around the same time that Genesis 1 was written, Prince Siddharta in India decided that the physical world, with all of its change, suffering, and confusion is actually an illusion. In Buddhism, which was founded by Siddharta, only the mind is real, and the path to enlightenment begins with overcoming the illusions that cause suffering.

            Christianity teaches something different about the world. It is not illusion, it is a creation. God is the creator of the heavens and the earth, and more importantly, Judaism and Christianity teach that this creation is good. Notice that Genesis 1 does not say that some things are good and others are evil. Every thing that God made is good and is blessed by the creator. It can be hard at times like this to affirm that nature is good. Nature remains dangerous, but the Bible affirms that nature is fundamentally good.

            It is important to remember that hurricanes, blizzards, and earthquakes are part of the working of nature. We are the ones who choose to ignore the dangers of nature. We are the ones who drain the wetlands, damn the rivers, build in flood plains and on fault lines, cut down the rain forests, and fill the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than nature can process. And then we are shocked when nature does not do our bidding.

            Part of the message of Genesis 1 that Christians have often ignored is that nature has an existence independent of humans. For centuries theologians taught that God made the universe for human use. Things that were not useful were seen as evidence of the fallen aspect of nature. But this is a misreading of the opening chapter of Genesis. God made the heavens and the earth, and humans are just one part of what God has made. My daughter often asks me why God made mosquitoes. I tell her that mosquitoes are there to keep us humble. They remind us that nature has its own existence apart from us. Of course, the mosquito has no problem answering the question of why God made humans.

Science:                      Genesis 1 is a profound and important part of Scripture, but in recent years, it has been the subject of much controversy in America. I doubt that any passage of Scripture has been debated more in courtrooms and classrooms than this story of creation. The issue is generally presented as one of science versus religion or faith versus reason, and both sides in the debate have made some pretty extreme claims through the years. This is too big a topic for one Sunday School class, and we’ll probably be coming back to it from time to time. But first of all, let me say that as far as I can tell, the Moravian Church has never had a problem with science or the pursuit of knowledge.

            Secondly, I want to put Genesis 1 into its original context so we can see that it played an important role in the development of science. The Israelites had heard many stories about the origins of the universe from their neighbors. Egyptians, Canaanites, and Babylonians all had their myths about the beginning of the earth. In fact, the account in Genesis 1 is very similar to the Enuma Elish, the creation story of the Babylonians. That myth actually gives the same basic order of creation as we find in Genesis 1 but in a different way. It tells about the god Marduk who slew his mother, Tiamat, who represented chaos. He divided watery Tiamat in two and placed a dome in the middle to separate the waters above from the waters below. Then he made dry land appear, and so forth.

            Genesis uses some of the same ideas as the Babylonian story, but is quite different. Nature was not formed by some bizarre struggle between the gods; it was created by the word of God according to a rational order. God’s word in the Bible represents the will and mind of God. In other words, the natural order reflects the thinking of God. Christians have no trouble affirming an intelligent design to the universe as a statement of our faith. Since humans share in the nature of God, we believe that we can understand our world.

            This idea of the predictability and orderliness of the universe is the fundamental faith conviction of all the natural sciences. The universe has an order that humans can perceive. When Einstein made his famous quip “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was making a statement of faith about science that reflects the Bible’s statement of faith about creation. For over a thousand years, Christian theology and natural science went hand in hand. One reason Christianity became the dominant intellectual force in Europe was because it offered a more rational explanation for the universe than pagan religion and even pagan philosophy.

            Things gradually changed as the Church gained political power and as the universities became entrenched in their commitment to Aristotle’s writings. As you know, when Galileo challenged the scientific theories of his day, he was accused of heresy by the Inquisition. He defended himself by pointing out that God had written two books: Nature and the Bible. We need to read them both carefully. As you know, the Catholic Church did not accept Galileo’s arguments. In fact, his writings were condemned by the Vatican until the late 20th century, but Protestant thinkers like John Amos Comenius embraced Galileo’s idea of two books of revelation and actively encouraged the development of modern science. Newton’s laws of gravity were hailed by many preachers as a vindication of the biblical view that the natural world is made by a rational deity.

            After 1800 though, it was increasingly obvious that the two books of revelation differed on a number of points. Geologists learned that the planet earth is hundreds of millions of years old, not thousands of years. Astronomers discovered that the heavens are more vast and wonderful that dreamed of in ancient times. Biologists learned that there are millions of species of animals and millions more that are extinct. Archaeologists learned that human society is about 6000 years old, just as Genesis says, but that human beings have been around for millions of years.

            By 1900 Westerners were divided over reading Genesis 1. Fundamentalists began to stress the literalness of the account in ways unheard of in previous ages. Some even argued that God intentionally left deceptive information in nature in order to tempt people into rejecting the Bible. For some Americans rejecting scientific evidence became a sign of faithfulness. They defined faith as a rejection of plain reason, something Christianity had never done before. I find that preachers who shout the most about “the truth” are the most willing to ignore plain facts they don’t like!

            For their part secularists rejected the Genesis account as mere myth-making. Some philosophers argued that religion was always opposed to science, which is simply untrue, and that faith must be abolished. Yes, there are fundamentalist versions of atheism! The Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee was the most celebrated skirmish in this previously unheard of war between faith and science, but the truth is that most Christians in America in the 20th century had no trouble seeing Genesis as metaphor rather than scientific fact. By the end of the century, the Vatican also adopted this point of view. Genesis and science offer separate, but equally important, views on the natural world.

Day 1:             There have been many creative attempts to reconcile Genesis 1 and modern science, but a close reading of the text shows that would be a mistake. Let’s look carefully at the story itself. But first I need to note that one of the most controversial points of biblical translation is how to translate the first words of Genesis. We say usually, ‘In the beginning, God created.” But it could be “When God began to create.” Most scholars are convinced that this verse refers to an on-going process of creation. Creation did not end with seven days, but is a continuous process guided by God. Also, it is not clear whether Genesis 1 refers to creation “out of nothing” or that God brought creative order to the pre-existent chaos. In either case, the second verse indicates that the earth was watery at the beginning.

            Then comes the creation of light itself even though there is no source for the light. There was light before there was a sun. In fact, there was day and night before there was a sun. Many people miss this when they read. The early church fathers recognized that this was not literal language. They read this passage symbolically, and emphasized that light comes first because God’s word always illuminates. Interestingly, modern science has given a little support for the idea that light as energy preceded the origin of the universe.

Day 2:             On the second day, God divided the waters. The King James Version says that he placed a “firmament” between the waters and called it sky. In the Revised Standard Version it is a dome. The New International Version is a little too clever in calling the sky an “expanse.” The Hebrew clearly means a solid object. In ancient days, when children asked, “Why is the sky blue?” the answer was, “Because there is water up there. “Why does it rain?” “Because the windows in the sky open and the water falls down.” As late as the 1960s there were people who believed that space travel was impossible because the rockets would have to break the dome above our heads. When Genesis 1 was written, this was the scientific knowledge of the day. There are waters above us and waters below us.

Day 3:             On the third day the waters receded at God’s command, and dry land appeared. This is hardly the account given by geologists about the formation of continents. Nor does it help us predict earthquakes and tsunamis. I think most of us watched NOAA for predictions about Hurricane Rita rather than relying on television preachers! After land appeared, plants sprang out of the ground. Notice that this was before the sun was created. If we read Genesis 1 literally, as some ask us to, we have to teach that plants existed before the sun and moon, which would make no sense really.

Day 4:             This is hardly scientific, but what was important for the litany was that the sun and moon appear in the middle of the week as a repetition of the creation of night and day. This is poetry. If you read carefully, you’ll notice that the importance of the sun is not photosynthesis or heat; it is to mark time. Remember, the priests were in charge of keeping track of time so that the community could observe the necessary religious festivals and make sure that crops were planted on time. More important, in contrast to the Greek philosophers, the priests of Israel proclaimed that the sun and moon are inanimate objects made by God, not gods themselves. Again, this is a step toward modern science away from mythology.

Day 5 and 6:               After the creation of time comes the creation of sea life, the birds of the air, and on the sixth day, land animals were created, each according to its kind. Notice that humans are created on the same day as other animals. I don’t know why people are offended that science indicates that humans have a great deal in common with other mammals. Genesis 1 agrees.

In concluding, let’s take note of the fact that Genesis 1 was not written 2500 years ago to combat modern science. It was written to combat ancient mythologies. The point of the story is that the universe was created good and is rational. The priests of old Israel, guided by the spirit of God, used the scientific knowledge of their day to communicate the message that God is the creator and that God’s creation is good.

            Once we recognize that Genesis 1 is metaphorical rather than scientific, it becomes revelation for us again. It reveals important things about God, human existence, and the world. Along with our ancestors in faith, we can proclaim that God has created all things in an orderly fashion and that all God has created is good. We can celebrate the fact that the universe has its own relationship with the creator independent of humans. Ordinary believers can join with scientists in expanding our understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of the natural world.

We can stand in awe as we contemplate the true immensity of the universe and the billions and billions of stars and planets. We can rejoice in the beauty of the earth while worshiping the creator rather than the creation. And we can rejoice that God has made us out of stardust and given us minds to study the wonders of his creation. Let the people say, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” And let us dedicate ourselves as believers to the daily task of keeping creation good.[1]


[1] The major resource for this study of Genesis is the commentary by Terence E. Fretheim in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).

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