The text we are studying for Sunday, September 2 – the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, which just might be significant – is Genesis 1:1-13, the first three days of the story of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth.
This is a familiar text – so much so that sometimes I think I forget what a breathtaking statement it is making about God. We are so used to referring to God as “Maker of heaven and the earth,” it functions like a formula or a title, instead of like a statement about the world, that means something concrete. I was looking out the window of the office the other day and suddenly it hit me, “Wow, if you really stop to think about God having made all this …” You have to stop thinking, because that is awe-inspiring power and ability.
Technically, really, it’s “sublime,” something so great that it exceeds our ability to comprehend it.
It’s not that I don’t know this already. I just forget to notice it a lot.
When I worked a lot with statistics, a couple of aeons ago, I used to say things like “Hey, God made the normal distribution” and “God made random variables,” because “the normal distribution is a thing of beauty, inscribed in the orders of creation.” In all seriousness. This is not stated explicitly in the Genesis 1 account of creation, but I think we can take it as implied.
So here are my very few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: From a literary point of view … this IS the context, for everything else in Scripture (although we might want to compare Proverbs 8 and John 1).
From a historical point of view, the going view is that the version of the creation account in Genesis 1 is the Priestly version, composed during the time of the Babylonian exile, under the influence of creation myths circulating in that time and place, concerned to document the understanding that the God of Israel was the Creator God par excellence. The Priestly author is obsessed with genealogy. In a sense, Genesis 1 represents the genealogy of the natural world. (But this is a more than usually dramatic genealogy, in that case.)
From a cultural point of view, the question of what mental model of the heavens and earth the author of this text was using is evidently (evidence of the internet, that is) controversial in some circles. I was taught that the Ancient Near Eastern author simply assumed what “everyone knows,” which is that the earth is flat, covered by a dome, and surrounded by water above and below. This is different from how we (people with at least an elementary school education, at least since 1968 when I was in 6th grade and was taught earth science) think of the heavens and the earth when we are doing earth science or astrophysics. This doesn’t bother me, personally, because I do not use Genesis as my Earth Sciences 101 textbook, so I don’t hold the Priestly Poet to those particular empirical standards.
[Aside: the notion that Genesis would need to be an Earth Sciences 101 textbook to be acceptable as divine revelation does not seem accurate to me. I don’t see why we should expect God to reveal things to people that they wouldn’t be able to understand or even have vocabulary to craft into poetry and communicate to their friends and neighbors for several thousand years. In other words, the idea that revelation comes in a form that’s intelligible in the socio-cultural-historical context in which it arrives makes more sense to me. Calvin has the theory that the Bible is “accommodated” to our human understanding, the way mothers talk to their children in baby talk. If God were to describe in precise technical detail the process of creation … my guess is that we don’t know enough physics for that yet, even today.]
The text for Sunday takes us up through day three of a seven day account.
[Again … another matter that is internet-evidently hugely controversial, the idea of the creation having been the work of a few days. Or “days”. Of whatever permissible – according to whom permissible? – length. Some people are convinced that a “day” cannot be longer than a thousand years, for instance, because there is a Biblical text that says “to Him a day is as a thousand years,” so a thousand years is the most human time we are allowed to think a divine day can hold. As if, when it comes to Earth Sciences, the Creation itself were not, in a profound sense, as much the Word of God as the special revelation we have in Scripture. God made the data.]
CLOSER READING: There is more here than I can talk about. So, two things:
The phrase translated a wind from God swept over the face of the waters uses a verb that literally means something like “brooding,” the way a bird broods her eggs, or “hovering” – very much the image of the “wind” (which also means “spirit” or “breath”) of God as giant mother bird. It’s Hebrew, so every word means a lot of things at once, and this verse alone feels like it means more than a person can say. Which makes sense, because it contains everything in the heavens and the earth, before it even is the heavens and the earth …
The third day is the day that the waters (in this cultural world, typically a symbol of chaos, even death) are pulled back and contained, and the first signs of life appear. For Christian readers, this is one of those places where “the third day He rose again” seems to be “in accordance with the Scriptures.”