As we stand at the beginning of 2020, the beginning of a new year and a new decade, what more appropriate way for us than by reflecting on the first chapter of the Bible that begins with the words: “In the beginning...”
Contrary to popular Christian opinion, most scholars would say that Genesis 1 is not a scientific paper giving a scientific explanation of the beginning of the universe. More appropriately, it could be considered to be a form of religious poetry that was designed to inspire those who first heard it.
The first indication that this is not a scientific exposition is that while darkness and light are created on day one, the sun moon and the stars are only created on the 4th day. Now we know that the measurement of time by days relies on the revolution of the earth around the sun, so the question remains, if the sun is only created on day four, how do we know how to count the first three days. As Rob Bell puts it: How do we know that the first three days are actually days. Most scientists would agree also that there is no vault or dome separating waters above the sky from those below. This is clearly not a scientific explanation of creation.
What then are the signs that Genesis chapter 1 is better categorised as a piece of poetry rather than a scientific exposition. The clearest sign is to be found in the rhythm’s of language created by repetitions and patterns.
The most obvious repetition is the phrases “Let there be...”
-Let there be light...
-Let there be a vault between the waters...
-Let there be water under the sky...
Another obvious repetition is the phrase:
- “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day...”
- “And there was evening, and there was morning, the second...”
But the repetitions and patterns are also more subtle than these...
The whole poem is set around the theme or the structure of seven days. For religious Jews, seven was the number of completeness and wholeness.
But what is interesting is that the number seven appears in multiple patterns throughout the poem:
- the phrases "and it was so" occurs 7 times.
- the phrase "God saw that it was good" occur 7 times.
- The very first sentence of the poem, interestingly, consists of seven Hebrew words,
- The second sentence of the poem consists of of fourteen Hebrew words which equals two lots of sevens.
- The word ‘earth’ appears 21 times: 7x3
- The word ‘heaven/firmament’ occurs 21 times: again 7x3
- The word Elohim, is the Hebrew name for God in this passage is mentioned 35 times, which equals 7x5.
In addition, there are also a number of patterns of 10.
- The phrase ‘to make’ occurs 10 times
- The phrase ‘according to their kinds’ occurs 10 times
- The phrase ‘and God said’ occurs 10 times: 3 times in relation to people, 7 times in relation to other creatures.
- And the phrase ‘let there be’ occurs 10 times: 3 times for things in heaven and 7 times for things on earth.
As Rob Bell says: You begin to think that the writer had help.
But what does it all mean? That is the question that remains:
To understand meaning, it is always important to know the context. Who were these words first spoken to? And what might they have meant to them?
By examining the language of the poem, scholars suggest that it was written during the Jewish exile in Babylon.
The Babylonian army had invaded Palestine in about 587 BC and the majority of the population was marched off to Babylon. The Jewish people lost almost everything: their Temple, their land, their homes, for many of them, their family members who were left behind. Psalm 137 gives us an indication of what impact this had on them: “By the rivers of Babylon, we wept!”
Everything that was stable in their life was taken from them. Everything that was familiar. Everything that brought stability and order was gone. The Jewish exiles must have felt like life was out of control, like they were living on the edge of the abyss, living in the midst of chaos... like a darkness had come over them as a people.
And into this context of chaos, an inspired preacher or spiritual writer speaks these words:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was over the face of the abyss, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters of chaos.”
The phrase "formless and void" or “formless and empty” used in verse 1 is a translation of the Hebrew tohu wa-bohu. Tohu means "emptiness, futility"; it is used to describe the desert wilderness – unable to sustain human life. Wa-bohu has no particular meaning but seems to have been used to rhyme with tohu suggesting a lingering or an ongoing emptiness, futility and meaninglessness.
And so firstly, for a people who felt like they were living in darkness and chaos, whose lives in exile felt empty, futile and meaningless, this inspired religious poem in Genesis 1 reminded them that over the chaos and the darkness of their lives, the creative spirit of Elohim was hovering. Darkness and chaos are not the last words in life, because over the darkness and chaos hovers One who can bring forth new patterns of life and beauty. Hovering over their lives of darkness and chaos was a presence that created out of chaos in the very beginning, and who could bring something new out of the chaos and darkness of their lives once again.
This whole world is shot through with subtle order and patterns. When frost begins to set in over night, the deeper the frost sets in, the more the frozen water molecules begin to find order in beautiful and intricate patterns.
For anyone who has lived long enough in this world, it is very apparent that God does not save humanity from disasters that happen. This life is unpredictable. At times from our vantage point it can feel futile, empty, meaningless, dark and chaotic... but this poem reminds us that whenever we find ourselves in those dark and chaotic places, the creative, spirit of Elohim, is brooding and hovering, ready to bring forth new patterns, new meaning, and new creation in our lives.
Isn’t it interesting that while we normally speak of morning and evening, the poet who wrote this poem speaks of evening and morning. “And it was evening and it was morning, the first day.”
The day begins in darkness and proceeds to light. When our lives feel like they are in darkness, there is always the promise that light will come. As another Hebrew poet writes in Psalm 30:5 “Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.”
Secondly, in the context of exile in Babylon, the exiled Jews were treated with disdain and with contempt by their Babylonian captors. In Psalm 137 one gets a sense of how Jewish exiles in Babylon were taunted: While they are weeping at the rivers of Babylon we read that their captors taunted them saying: sing us one of your songs from Jerusalem. And they reply: How can we sing the songs of Jerusalem in a foreign land.
In exile, they were a people stripped of their dignity and taunted taunted. But in this inspired poem in Genesis chapter 1 they are reminded that in fact, they have been made in the image of Elohim, and if they have been made in the image of Elohim, then their lives have supreme meaning, value and worth. They have been made for nobility.
Thirdly, the poem ends, culminates, climaxes with Elohim, the great creative force behind the entire universe resting. It is part of a healthy rhythm of life. A meaningful life requires both action and rest. It requires both breathing in and breathing out. Evening and Morning in this poem provide the basic rhythm of working and resting. But in addition to the rhythm of evening and morning, for good measure, a seventh day is created as a Sabbath. A day of rest. In addition to a six day cycle of evening and morning, working and rest, a seventh day is added purely for rest. Interesting that over a seven day cycle there is more time given to rest then to work.
When you are in exile and life feels chaotic and formless, the tendency might be there to get into a pattern of work work work, trying to bring order out of the chaos by ourselves. But in this poem they are reminded that creative strength is renewed and restored through rest. Human dignity is not enhanced by working without a break. Human dignity and the human spirit is fed by making time for rest.
And so, at the beginning of 2020, may we be reminded of the creative spirit of Elohim hovering over the chaos and darkness of our lives, waiting to bring forth new patterns of life and meaning for us. May we be reminded that we and all people who walk this planet have an inherent dignity as children of God, made to reflect God’s image. And lastly, may we be reminded that a healthy and a meaningful life comes from breathing in and breathing out, from working and resting, and may we especially be reminded that at least once a week we all need a sabbatical, to find time to be restored and renewed.
The picture below represents the Hebrew understanding of the world according to Genesis 1