This is a message I preached at Seed Church on January 15th, 2017. Here is the link to the audio.
New Year everyone. I thought we would go back to Genesis here toward the beginning of the year. Check in on the beginning of beginnings a couple of weeks after the onset of 2017.
As I was thinking about Genesis, and specifically Genesis 1 where we will be this morning, I have been considering various messages and sermons I have heard on the passage throughout my life. I cannot think of one example where I did not hear Genesis 1 spoken on in the context of the creation/ evolution debate. Not that there is anything wrong with having a discussion about that but it struck me that the interpretation of Genesis as something akin to a scientific play-by-play book has really not been around that long.
Charles Darwin, of course, published ‘On the Origin of the Species’ in 1859 and Christians reacted by kicking off a defense of Genesis. Science versus faith. Before Darwin though, how was Genesis 1 interpreted? How has the church read this creation account throughout the ages and even more importantly, why did the ancient Israelites feel it was important to write this passage describing God’s creation of the cosmos down and preserve it for generations of people to read and experience?
My belief is that Genesis 1 is a poem and is not meant to be a scientific play-by-play. Some of you may disagree. Here at Seed Church I’m sure we have young earth creationists, old earth creationists, theistic evolutionists and people who may be somewhere in between any of those views. If Genesis 1 is a poem, that does not take away from the passage’s ultimate truth that God created the universe and everything in it. Also, the theological meaning of this passage still holds true such as that people bear the image of God, the world is beautiful and good and that we have a 7-day, ordered week with a Sabbath day.
We are going to dive into this passage this morning and I’m going to try and stay away from the creation/ evolution debate as much as possible to simply get at the incredible understanding and truth we can mine when we really dig into the words of Genesis 1.
1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The Hebrew word for God here is Elohim (other places in the Torah, it is Yahweh). This means ‘Power of powers’ or ‘God of gods’. The writer of Genesis does not use any apologetics or arguments for God’s existence. Rather, the existence of God is self-evident. He is announced as the Author and Creator of all created reality. He is transcendent, beyond the creation including space and time.
1:2 And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. When Scripture says the earth was without form and void, this means that things had not taken shape. There was chaos and God was bringing order to this chaos. The Earth was an empty place, unproductive, inhospitable to life and God was shaping His creation so life could come about. The text talks about ‘darkness being over the surface of the deep’ which sounds like a dark abyss. The Spirit of God (Hebrew word: ‘ruah’ which can be translated wind of God or perhaps mighty wind) was hovering over the waters beginning to form and shape the creation.
Verse 1:3-5 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. Now, you will notice that we have light being created on day one and then a separation of light from darkness. All of this is happening when the sun had not been created yet. The sun comes on Day 4 in this chronology. ‘Light’ in Scriptures as a term also symbolizes life and blessings of various sorts. The earth was barren and void and lacking form. With God introducing light, life and everything that we know on this planet is now coming forth.
God separated the light from the darkness. These are two things that do not and cannot belong together. However, they both have their distinctive tasks in the creation. God saw that this separation was good. Commentator Bruce Waltke explains the term ‘good’: ‘Although the eggshells of the precreated state, darkness and seas of abyss, are still present, they can now be called ‘good’ because they are bounded by light and land, respectively, and serve useful tasks. Creation is imbued with God’s goodness…’
Then we come to the end of the first day. The Hebrew word for ‘day’ is ‘yom’. The word ‘Yom’ in some contexts can mean an extended period of time and not a 24 hour period. Psalm 90:4 is a popular verse to illustrate this point. It reads: ‘For a thousand years in Your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.’ That is the ESV. The NIV reads: ‘A thousand years in Your sight are like a day…’ It is truly trippy to try and contemplate God as being above time and space. Transcendent to those things that bind us as people. God is not confined in time like we are and so periods of time can get extremely hazy when we are talking about God being the only One in existence prior to any other life coming forward.
Some of these phrases are common to the remainder of the passage so I thought I would explain them at the outset here so we have the foundation to build upon. Verse 1:6-8 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.
God creates an expanse between waters. This again communicates an idea that the earth was a watery abyss and on this day, God separates the waters. One of these ‘waters’ is the oceans and seas of our world. The other ‘waters’ reference is declared to be ‘heavens’ by the ESV but can also be translated skies.
The Hebrew word for expanse is ‘raqia’. The expanse separating the skies from the seas of the earth is apparently a part of the sky. Interestingly enough, this word for expanse can be translated ‘firmament’, ‘dome’, and ‘vault’. More than likely, the text is referring to the skies where water/ rain falls from clouds.
Verses 9-13 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.’
On the third day, we have another separation. This time between the lands and the seas. Vegetation and fruit trees come upon the land. Plant life. What is the issue here? We do not have a sun yet. Have you ever heard skeptics point this out?
Verses 14-19 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens toseparate 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.’
God creates the sun and the moon on day 4. These lights to help measure seasons, days and years. They give light upon the earth. There is another separation (notice the repetition of language being used throughout the passage and recalls of verses all throughout the stanzas of this passage). This separation is of the sun and the lesser light (the moon) which separates the light from darkness.
Now, the writers of Genesis were not dumb people. They were human beings like you and me. Their brains had the same mass and weighed the same as ours. These ancient Israelites who wrote the Genesis account planted crops and knew about fruit trees. They may not have understood the complexities of photosynthesis but they knew about the connection between vegetation, fruit trees and the sun. Most certainly they did.
So, we have some sort of light on Day 1 and vegetation and fruit trees on day 3. Then we have the sun on day 4, instrumental to life on earth. If these writers knew of this connection (no matter how scientifically limited in that day and age), why would they have vegetation go before the sun ? Not only that, but the moon and stars were created on this day. I’m still going to leave you hanging just a little bit longer but with the way that this is written and the Genesis authors crafting the narrative in the way they did, this is intentional and is driving at the deeper point and meaning. Stay tuned.
Verses 20-23 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 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.’
Sea creatures and birds are created on this day and given the charge to reproduce which is in the DNA of every animal.
Verses 1:24-31 And God said, ‘Let the Earth bring forth living creatures according to the 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 morning, the sixth day.’
God creates animals and there is a contrast between domesticated animals and wild animals (livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth). And it was good.
Then God declares ‘Let Us…’ which is probably similar to a royal decree, a plural of majesty from a ruler. Having the New Testament now and being aware that God is a Trinity, many Christians read the ‘us’ as the three persons of the Godhead shaping the creation and forming humanity from the dust.
God makes male and female in His image. The ‘Imago Dei’. The animals were not given this designation. Humanity specifically was. It means that we are God’s representatives on the earth. He charges us (the first command) to take care of the earth (have dominion over the creation). God had just got done shaping and forming the creation. God brought order out of chaos. He creates humanity to further shape creation and bring order out of chaos. Bearing the Image of God is why all people are sacred. They are loved by God- all people, all races, both genders. We may not physically look like God, that is not what this necessarily means, but it does mean we share characteristics with Him. God hears so we have ears. God sees so we have eyes. God has fun so we have fun. God laughs so we laugh. God pursues justice so we can pursue justice. God gets angry so we can get angry without sin. God loves and bestows grace so we can love and bestow grace. All of these characteristics are a part of our lives and are a part of bearing the image of God.
Transition: This is the creation account. The very beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures and the beginning of our Bibles. If this passage was not read as a scientific play-by-play for most of history, what is this passage’s purpose beyond communicating the deep truths of God creating the universe and breathing the breath of life into humanity? To explore this, we should talk a little bit about when Genesis was written, who it was written by and the cultural context that scholars believe the account was written in.
First off, the authorship of Genesis is hard to determine. Traditionally, Moses has been designated as the author of the Torah. This could very well be the case. There is virtual unanimous scholarly consensus that there was a lot of oral tradition passed down by the Israelites and probably some writing as well. A lot or most of this may have had a source in Moses. At some point, ancient Israelites put together these teachings and writings into the Scripture we have today including Genesis 1. There may have been a few editors. By the way, this does not at all change our commitment to the Bible being the inspired Word of God. God worked through all the personalities who wrote the Bible down through history via the Holy Spirit and preserved His Word.
When was the Torah including Genesis compiled and put together? A great number of scholars believe (although this is certainly debatable) that the Torah was put together during the Babylonian exile and post-exile period. Israel, the chosen people of God, were again going through hardship but they longed to remember the relationship they had with the True God, the One who had rescued the from slavery in Egypt.
Now, what does this have to do with Genesis? We are talking about the cultural context that Genesis was first written or the account was compiled together. When the Israelites were in Babylon, they probably had heard different creation accounts. Those creation accounts involved many gods. One of the most famous archeological discoveries related to Old Testament scholarship was done in 1847. They dug up King Ashurbanipal’s library and found 7 tablets. On those tablets was the Enuma Elish. This is a Babylonian account of creation involving the gods Marduk and Tiamat at war.
In this account, Marduk rips Tiamat apart and from the two halves of her body he creates the world. One half of her body is the heavens and the other half is the earth.
Now, the Israelites probably heard that account in the Babylonian captivity and said, ‘No. That is not what happened and those were not the gods involved.’ In the beginning, there was one God- monotheism (virtual unanimous consensus again that the Israelites were the only tribe who believed in one God). And there weren’t wars between gods and violence. There was the. Mighty wind of God shaping and forming creation. There was peace, harmony, it was good and this God- the true God- delighted in His creation.
The Genesis creation account is a polemic against other near eastern religions. It is a beautiful poem but it also is subversive. The text challenges the religions of that time and calls people to worship the true God that is depicted in the creation account. Do you see that when we treat Genesis as a mere scientific play-by-play book, we completely miss the point about why it was written? The point is not science here or stating exactly how God created the world in step-by-step format. It is establishing Elohim as the only God, who alone should be worshipped, and is throwing all the other gods of the age under the bus.
Genesis challenges not only the account of Enuma Elish but other Mesopotamian myths as well. This is why we see that the sun and moon were created in Day 4 with light and vegetation preceding this day. In ancient times, the religions around Israel worshipped gods based on the sun and moon. The Sumerian god of the sun was Utu. Nanna was the god of the moon. For Egypt, Ra was the God of the sun and Khonsu was the god of the moon.
The writer of Genesis was correcting the record. The author was communicating that the true God’s light (Day 1) was all the creation needed. Subversively, they argued that vegetation and plants came before the sun and moon (on day 3) as if the ancient Israelite author was suggesting that sun gods and moon gods are nothing compared to the true God who sustains everything. The Giver of life who is One and the ultimate power in the universe and in all creation is more powerful than any gods that human beings can create.
We could go on and on with all the ancient civilizations around Israel. They all were polytheistic believing in many gods. The creation myths that these other civilizations come up with are violent and involve war among the gods. Notice the difference of Genesis 1. It was radically different. Gods, war in the pantheons, bodies being ripped apart. In Genesis, Elohim is bringing order out of chaos. His mighty Spirit or wind is shaping and molding creation. There is peace, harmony and joy. There is an intention and a purpose that is glorious.
Israel, always claiming to have a special connection with the true God. One God created the heavens and the earth. He alone is to be worshipped and sought after and He alone is the sustainer of life, of reality.
-To be Continued…