When God Began...
January 11, 2015, Genesis 1:1-5, 26-27
That’s the first word in the Bible. And it’s what Jews call the first book of the Bible. It is a hard word to translate into English. In seminary I remember hearing that entire books had been written about this one little five letter word. I’ve never read any of those books and don’t think I’ve ever seen one, but isn’t that an amazing idea, a book written about a word. Of course this is a really, really important word: the first word in what we consider the book through which God speaks to us. And the first word in the book that has shaped so many nations and cultures and religious traditions for thousands of years.
In the most literal sense, this word means “in a beginning.” And that’s not what we’re used to. We’re used to “In the beginning…” “The” the definite article in English means there was only one beginning. But that’s not what the word says. The first sound in the word “b” is a preposition. Now those who have studied languages know that prepositions are some of the hardest words to grasp. For example, we say, “I’m interested in astronomy.” And “I am standing in the sanctuary.” And I’ll call you “in ten minutes.” Same word, we’re used to it, we know what it means. We know that no one can be physically in astronomy for example. How is that one little letter “b” used in this word?
Now the next two letters: “r-sh” in Hebrew only one letter makes the “s-h” sound. You might be surprised that you know a little Hebrew at this point. The New Year that Jews observe each autumn is called “Rosh Hashanah,” which literally means “the head of the year.” Those two letters together mean “head” or “top.” Maybe a musician might think of the first word of the Bible as “When God took it from the top.” A baseball fan might think, “At the top of the first inning.” Now it’s clear that this word is telling the reader when this happened. And so in English it makes sense for us to use the word “in.” If you’re locating a moment in time, that’s the word we use. “When will you call me? In ten minutes.” This word appears a few other places in what we call the Old Testament, at the start of the reign of a king, for example. We might use a word like this when a new president is inaugurated, or a new pastor is installed. It indicates a new, decisive start.
But in this case, it does not locate that moment of creation in history. It does not say, that Creation began on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. There was a 17th century church official, Archbishop Ussher, who sat down with the chronology of the Bible and worked backwards and set that as the date of Creation. The first word of the Bible, and the rest of the account of Creation that we find in Genesis is not anywhere near that precise. Still, if you’re interested in this calculation, you can take a look at this book after worship. It’s beautiful and fascinating, even if the scholarship is not accepted.
At the top of creation, at the moment in time when, when God began…. Here’s another thing in this text that you might not have noticed because it’s so familiar. It begins with God. There is not a word arguing for the existence of God. God is simply present and assumed and taken as a given.
Last week when we looked at the start of John’s gospel, which begins “In the beginning…” I pointed out that Christians believe that the triune God is eternal. That is that God has always existed and God will always exist. Eternity stretches infinitely into the past and the future. God has always existed, and at some point, God started to speak, and make what we know as Creation or the Universe.
When Albert Einstein’s research that led him to his Theory of General Relativity which concluded that the Universe is expanding, rather than being static, that is that there must have a moment in time, or something like time when things were set in motion. There must have been a beginning, a “top of creation,” a “when God began…,” he delayed publishing his conclusions because he feared that religious people, Christians and Jews, would use his work to support the concept of creation as found in the first verses of the Bible. And in fact, it was a Jesuit by the name of Georges Lemaître, who first described what we now call the “Big Bang Theory.”
The first words of the Bible say that there was a discreet starting point for the Universe and God is the one who made everything by speaking. That’s awesome, in the true sense of that word.
I want to get past the first two words of the Bible this morning though. And address a question that came up at Bible study at Evergreen Retirement Community last fall. We were looking at this very text, as we did in Confirmation a few months ago. The question was “Where did God get the raw materials for creation?” It’s a great question. [Do I saw that about every question?] There are some people who believe that God started with nothing. That the universe was a vacuum until God started speaking. The term for this is “creation ex nihilio,” that is “from nothing.” Well, that’s not what the Bible says. When God began there was a formless void and God’s spirit was hovering over the waters. There was stuff here, building materials, but it was all mixed up and confused. It was chaos. God didn’t starting making things, as much as God started organizing what was already here. Last month right before worship I was running around, running late, seeing to last minute details when I joined the choir breathlessly. We have a prayer together just before we walk into the sanctuary. I began that prayer, “Lord, we are mindful this morning that the very first thing you did was to bring order out of chaos….” It’s hard to imagine, but when God started, light and darkness were mixed together. What would that look like? I mean, what did it look like before God separated light from darkness? It almost sounds like a Zen riddle, to imagine light and darkness mixed up together and indistinguishable from one another. That’s what God started with. And God’s Spirit was hovering over the watery chaos. There was Spirit, water, light and darkness. And one way to imagine the process of Creation is as a process of separating, or distinguishing the most elemental things we know. Water from land. Earth from the Heavens. Different kinds of plants. Different kinds of animals. All different. All distinct. All starting from God’s speaking and separating primordial stuff into specific things.
And as you go through the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, the one that starts at the top with God, there is a sequence, or logic, to how things are made and the order in which they are made. Plants only come after land has been separated from water. Animals come after plants, otherwise what would they eat. The sequence, in my opinion is one of increasing complexity, and increasing preciousness to God. And after each span of creating, God call the result “good.”
But only at the last creative time, did God make something in God’s own image and likeness: humankind. And as I look at this familiar, mythic story today I see the creation of humankind as a sort of completion of the whole process, even the pinnacle and end and goal of creation.
Some people reject this account of our origin because it does not square with a modern, scientific world view. It doesn’t. But I cannot believe that the Bible should be read in the same way as a geology or biology text book. This is an account of God’s acting and God’s intention for the world. It is an account that points to God’s power, that at a word everything we can see, even everything we can imagine, was created by God. Other people can struggle to describe the physics and chemistry this entailed. In fact, I really really hope that people who have been created in God’s image do struggle to describe and understand the mysteries of creation. I read this as a way to imagine the heart and intention of God. Look around this morning. Everyone here was made in the image of God. And next time you look into the mirror, look take a moment, look closely and see the image of God that God has made you into. Amen.