“Beresheit bara elohim”, our story begins. When God began to create ”.
Now Genesis is not written as a complete history of the world. It is written as a backdrop for the other four books of Moses, and the focal point of these five books is the covenant which God made with Israel at Mt Sinai. So it won’t be a surprise as we go through this chapter to find images that relate directly to the people of Israel and the Exodus from Egypt. Genesis seeks to explain the beginnings of Israel as God’s chosen people – where, why and how they’ve come to be called by God as a kingdom of priests, set aside as a nation, to mediate God’s love to His world.
This has implications in how we try to read the book. We cannot read it like an exhaustive history of how the world began, because it is only a selective history. It leaves out far more than it tells us, but what it tells us, it tells us for a purpose. And that purpose is to describe how Israel came to be chosen by God to carry out His purposes in the world, and how Israel was to be God’s new creation that finally restored the broken creation to righteousness and shalom once again.
The stories we find in Genesis were stories handed down in oral form. They were told and re-told over more than a thousand years, from the time of Adam to the time of Moses. Parents would learn them and then teach them to their children, and those children would again teach their children. So by the time that these stories came to be compiled by Moses, they had been refined, distilled and linked together by generations of story-tellers along the way.
And in this way, the Holy Spirit was guiding the final story that was going to be written, so that only what God wanted to be recorded was kept, and the rest was discarded along the way. What we have in Genesis is the DNA of the bible – a collection of stories and images that are fundamental to God’s story and which are repeated again and again through the Bible in different times and contexts. It is these images that hold the bigger story of the Bible together.
Now what we notice about Genesis is that it appears to contain several creation stories, the final number depending on how we translate certain verses.
The traditional view is that we begin with what we might call the Executive Summary in 1:1.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
In v2, then, we seem to revert back to the uncreated state in order to begin again, as we are told that the earth was formless and empty.
However, many Hebrew scholars today would challenge the traditional English translation of verse 1.
They point out that the phrase “beresheit bara Elohim et hamashayim vet haaretz” is actually an irregular construct phrase that should more correctly be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth”. The Common English Bible uses this translation. The NABRE (New American Bible Revised Edition) settles on a compromise with “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth“, as does the NRSV Catholic Edition. Young’s Literal Translation has a similar version, “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth“.
(See A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew By Jouon Paul, Muraoka Tamitsu pp442, 443)
Now due to the enduring and fruitless debate with evolutionary theory, changing the first and fundamental verse of the Bible has become so politically sensitive that most of the mainstream translators have steered away from making more grammatically correct changes.
However, this seems to be unwarranted, because adopting the better translation makes the story flow better.
Instead of having this executive summary type of introduction and then jumping back to reset the story, using this recommended translation actually makes the story flow better. We have one act of creation, starting with the “tohu v’vohu”, the formless and empty void, into which God spoke.
So the earth, we are told, is “tohu v’ vohu”, formless and empty.
“Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
Now this is one of those important images. An image of darkness and chaos that existed before God began to create anything. And so we find Jeremiah describing the invasion and exile of Israel in terms of being formless and empty.
JER 4:23 “I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone.”
It was “tohu v vohu”. Throughout the Bible, sin is associated with uncreation and God’s methods of dealing with sin always involve an element of re-creation.
Then, from v3, we have the creation story again, but filled out in more detail, describing the work God did on each day of the creation week. This concludes, for some strange reason, not at the end of chapter 1, but at the end of chapter 2, verse 3 with the first Sabbath, God’s rest.
Next in 2:4 we find another creation story, similar to the first and second, but focussing on the relationships between man and creation, man and the animals, and between male and female.
This story begins in the same way as the later genealogies begin. “Elle toldot” – “These are the generations of”. In Genesis 5 we have the generations of Adam, in chapter 10 we have the generations of the sons of Noah, but here we have the generations of the heavens and the earth. So this story is about relationships and family history, not about mechanics and cosmic movement.
Finally, some say that a fourth creation story begins in chapter 3, where we read of the chaos that sin brings into the world and the re-creation of the world which God begins as a result. And this fourth story, which forms most of the Bible, we find filled with images from the first three stories.
Now this repetition is a typical Hebrew way of writing. Something is said once, then it is repeated again in a different way, and then perhaps repeated a couple more times each in different ways again. This structure is typically used in poetry, so the Psalms and the wisdom literature are full of this type of writing.
Now what’s interesting is that we find this repetition, this poetry, even in the story of creation.
Notice Day One – what does God create? Light. How does He do it? He separates the light from darkness.
Day Two? God creates the sky, and He separates the waters above from the waters beneath by creating an atmosphere.
Day Three? He creates dry land by separating the waters.
So he creates light, then sea/sky then land by separating things.
Now Day Four, and what does God do? He creates the sun, moon and stars. He populates the light he has created on Day One.
On Day 5, he populates the waters and sky he has separated on Day 2 with fish and birds.
On Day Six? God populates the land he has created on Day 3 with animals and people.
So there is a pattern here – light, sky and water, land; light, sky and water, land.So we get a picture of God here as the One who separates and populates.
He separates the light from darkness on day one, and then populates the day and night with the sun, moon and stars on day 4.
He separates the sea from the sky on day 2, and he populates the sea with fish and the sky with birds on day 5.
He separates the land from the waters on day 3, then populates the land with animals and humans on day 6.
When God begins to create, he does so by separating and populating. This is another powerful image that we find throughout the Bible where God is creating new things.
Let’s have a look at Genesis 12, the call to Abram.
GE 12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
When God creates Israel, he says to Abram “leave your country” – separate – and “I will make you into a great nation” – populate.
Let’s go to Mt Sinai, the focal point of the Pentateuch.
Ex 19:3 “This is what you are to … tell the people of Israel: `You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I … brought you to myself. … Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
God has separated the people of Israel from all the other nations, and is populating it with priests and people set aside for God. They are to be a light to the Gentiles – the beginnings of a new act of creation by God.
Now let’s go back to the beginning again and notice some other things that God is doing.
If we look back at day one, we read that God said “let there be light”, and when God sees the light He sees that the light is good. Before God spoke this first word, there was only blackness, only chaos. Now God speaks light into existence and he calls this light good. In all the acts of creation, this is the only element that God calls “good”.
On the other 4 days, God’s statement that “it was good” does not refer to anything in particular, but rather the whole scene. Note that on day two, God doesn’t call anything good. Maybe that’s why we still have trouble coming to terms with Mondays.
So right from the fourth verse of the Bible, we find God preferring light to darkness – which is logical, I guess, because darkness is the sign of uncreation; the swirling chaos, the tohu v’ vohu darkness that existed before God began to create. And it’s no wonder we see the theme of light and darkness used constantly through the bible, because light is a sign that God is creating something good.
We get a great example of this just before Israel crossed the Red Sea.
“EX 14:19 Then the angel of God, who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.”
God is separating His people from their enemies, so that He can create something new. God uses the light to show favour to one people, and leaves the other in the darkness of uncreation and chaos.
And you can read through the rest of the Bible and see how time and again, the entry of light is a sign of God’s favour, a sign that God is re-creating His world to be very good once again.
In John’s gospel, we find a lot of images about light. “In the beginning was the Word… In him (Jesus) was the life and that life was the light of men. The light shone in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it”. John is using creation imagery to describe Jesus and his mission.
Jesus later says “I am the light of the world”. A new act of creation is in progress. Heaven and earth are being united once again and the light of heaven is living on the earth.
Peter writes “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” God has separated His people out of darkness and into the light of a new creation.
Now we can also see the introduction of a management or governing role. On day 4, the sun and moon are given the charge to “govern the day and night, and to separate light from darkness”. We are told that they are to serve as signs that mark the seasons and days and years. So the passage of time on earth is ruled by the heavens. Humanity has no control over this.
On day 3, the last day in the first series, we see that the ground is to produce vegetation, plants and trees with seeds that will grow and reproduce. Then on day 6, the last day in the second series, there is much more development.God creates humanity in his image, and the first thing we are told about what that image means is that humanity is to rule over God’s creation. Part of what being made in the image of God entails is the mandate to rule over the whole creation.
Now what we want to notice here is that there is a distinction between heaven and earth. The sun and moon govern the heavens, but mankind rules the land, sea and sky. Two distinct realms exist, but the heavens are dominant, they govern the earth. The lights which govern the heavens also govern mankind, because they set the times and seasons which regulate man’s existence. To the people whom Moses brought out of Egypt, this had special significance. God had given them a whole calendar of feasts and celebrations by which they were to worship Him. Israel’s religious life was governed by seasons and days and years.
So this is another powerful image that recurs through the Bible, this division between heaven and earth. When Adam was created, heaven and earth were in perfect harmony, with God walking with Adam. But when sin enters the world, heaven and earth are separated and the two are set against each other. The Bible then deals with how heaven and earth are being brought back together again, until that beautiful picture in Revelation, where heaven comes down to earth and the two are united perfectly once again; where there is no longer any darkness, but only the light of God’s presence.
So at the end of day 6, we have a picture of God’s perfect creation. God has separated the light from darkness, the sky from the seas, the land from the water. He has created sun, moon and stars to govern the upper atmosphere, and created humans to rule the fish, birds and animals on the earth and in the seas.
And God looks at this creation with pride, enjoyment and satisfaction, and he calls it very good. You get the real sense that God loves this creation, and he is keen to see it grow and develop on its own. He has given it the authority to manage itself, to reproduce itself and to develop itself into something even more wonderful than its original state. It has a power and vitality all of its own, it has all the bits it needs to go somewhere on its own and reflect the loving creativity of its creator. It is a picture of absolute beauty.
God has created the world like we all know it should be. A place where people can live in love and harmony, in a deep friendship with their creator.
It really is very, very good.
But in the whole story of Genesis we have looked at so far, we have missed one important day. Genesis 1 finishes at day six, and for some reason the people who inserted the chapter breaks must have thought that was the end of creation. But it was only the beginning.
GE 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Now isn’t this incredible. The very first job God gave to people was to rest. On day six God created male and female. The very next day, God says to them “Now just stop and rest with me. I want you to enjoy what I’ve created.” This whole world is a gift from God, and so the first thing we are to do is to rest and bless God for His goodness.
This rest that God took on the seventh day is an incredibly important image, and one that continues to be repeated throughout the Bible. When the people of Israel received the ten commandments at Mt Sinai, the fourth commandment was to remember God’s Sabbath.
Exodus 20: 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The Sabbath was a powerful reminder that God was re-creating His world through Israel.
You see the world had been ruined by sin, and because of that, Israel had become a nation of slaves, oppressed by Egypt’s Pharaoh and subjected to hard labour for 400 years. But God had rescued Israel from Egypt and given them rest. So we find a picture of God re-creating the world, restoring it to how it was meant to be; and so he commands His people to rest. This is a God who rules the whole universe. His people are able to rest because God is in control. In Deut 5, we find this link strengthened when the fourth commandment is given a different ending.
“Deut 5:15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Again, Hebrew poetry, repeating the same thought but from a different perspective. Remember the Sabbath day, because God rested from creating the world. Remember the Sabbath day, because God has re-created you by rescuing you from Egypt. The Sabbath now becomes a picture of God’s work of re-creating the world – it shows a picture of what God intends for all of His people. A life of rest, where they can enjoy the beauty of the creation in perfect harmony with each other and with God.
But you can’t rest when you have no certainty about the future. You can’t rest when you’re insecure about your life or ability to provide food, shelter and clothing for yourself and your family. You can’t rest when there are people looking for you to harm or to kill you. You can only rest when the living God takes you into His family and tells you to rest, because he has everything under control.
If we look at our world today, we don’t find a lot of rest about. In fact the word that is far more common is “unrest”.
And it’s no wonder that there is not much rest, because what you believe about creation will influence the way you live. Where your story starts will determine where your story ends.
There are many alternate creation stories around, as there was in the days of Moses. The most common theory today is the big bang/evolution story. This story suggests that we grew out of nature by means of a colossal explosion which created the whole universe. This universe then settled down somewhat, and increasingly more complex structures and life forms evolved in a totally random and unplanned manner over billions of years until here we sit today.
Now apart from the inherent scientific contradiction (see Entropy) in this scheme of things, life as defined by this worldview is random and transitory – you live then you die. And while you live, the fittest survive the longest and the weakest die early. It’s a dog-eat-dog world where exploitation, abuse and brute force occupy the positions of power. It’s a logical outworking of a worldview based on the survival of the fittest.
And there is no rest in these stories. You have to work hard to survive. We talk about the need to get ahead in life. And who are we getting ahead of? Everybody else. We are taught to elbow and shove so that we can get ahead and live the dream. You have to claw and clamber over everyone in your path so that you get the prize before they do.
It’s really a rat race. And even if you win, you’re still a rat.
So there is no rest in this worldview, there is only constant pressure to achieve. And even if you don’t get to the top of the heap, you have to look as if you’re there. So people try to stuff whatever shiny distractions they can into their lives to give it some semblance of fulfillment, but when the chrome peels off and the newer models appear in the shops, our lives suddenly lose their meaning. And so feelings of inadequacy and failure take over. As a loser, we feel unable to participate in a society filled with winners. And so people move either to depression and despair, or violence and vengeance against all and sundry.
But it’s into this void of hopelessness and despair that Genesis 1 speaks. There is a loving God, who Himself exists in community, who has created this world in an orderly and purposeful way, so that people can enjoy it and have a loving relationship with each other and with their creator. This is what Eden, or Paradise, was all about.
It’s what we were created for.
We all know this in our bones, that we were created for love and community – but for many people it’s only a dim echo in their minds.
We need to listen to this echo carefully, to hear the voice of the one who says “It is very good – now come and rest with me; enjoy what I have created”.
We hear that voice in Jesus, when He says “I am the light of the world”. I am re-creating this world to make it good and perfect again. And He says “come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” My Sabbath has been made for you.
We don’t need to live like rats in a treadmill any more. We don’t need to copy the dog-eat-dog violence we see around us. The sort of random destruction and violence that goes under the name of entertainment, the sort of thing that fills our movie theatres, should make us sick in the guts. It’s the total opposite of what God intended for this world. And it’s the total opposite of what God is doing in His world today, re-creating it piece by piece, until that final day when He brings it all together and banishes darkness forever.
Our God reigns – He is re-creating the world, putting it back the way it should be. And he invites us to separate ourselves from the violence of trying to be the strongest and fittest and richest and smartest, and to become a citizen of His kingdom of peace and wholeness and beauty and rest. We don’t need to be frightened or lonely any more. We don’t need to fight and struggle to achieve success in life. God has given us rest. And he invites us to enter that rest.
Where we start determines where we finish. If you take sin out of the bible, you are left with four chapters – two at the beginning and two at the end. The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city of gardens. We are stuck in the middle bit at the moment. But we know how the story ends, and God is inviting us to come and rest with Him when He finally brings heaven and earth together again.