“Beresheit bara elohim”, our story begins. When God began to create ”.
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. I have argued elsewhere in support of this change. See my blog post here
But 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 the more grammatically correct changes.
However, this seems to be unwarranted, because 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 the foundational images we find in the Bible. An image of darkness and chaos that existed before God began to create anything. And this primordial chaos takes on an evil nature, it is not neutral towards God, but directly opposed to God’s purposes. All the creative acts of God are designed to reverse this chaos and darkness. God introduces light to destroy the darkness; He brings structure, limits and purposes to destroy the chaos.The tohu v’vohu must be defeated if life is to be possible.
Jeremiah takes up this image by describing the invasion and exile of Israel in terms of reverting to this evil void; he sees the earth again being formless and empty. Israel is being un-created, being plunged back into the evil void.
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, or undoing creation’s work, 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.
In the following posts, I will look at each of these stories in more detail.