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Genesis 1:1-2:4a

I need you to do something that may not be easy or comfortable. I need you to gather up all of the cultural baggage you may have built up around questions of material origins, evolution, and just about every other question you’ve ever asked or heard asked about the creation poem in Genesis 1. Also, if you speak Hebrew well enough to be pedantic about the use of the word ‘poem’ in regards to Genesis 1; I need you to take a breath and chill out. Its form lacks some common characteristics of Hebrew poetry, but its function is squarely in the quarter of ancient near eastern poetic prologue, so the differences in form are irrelevant.


Anyway, I want you to try your best to let Genesis 1 set the stage, define the terms, and control the narrative. The poem begins; “In the beginning of God’s creating of the sky and the land…” No, that’s not good English, that’s why none of your translations worded it that way. “...the land was without form or function, and a great darkness covered the chaotic deep.”


That’s our starting point; the poem assumes that, however it may have happened, the material out of which the earth will be formed has already been made; but there’s a problem. That basic material is ‘without form or function’. In the minds of the ancients ‘nothingness’ is not the absence of material, but the absence of form and function. That’s what God’s creative work is centered on; giving that nothingness both form and function, turning it into… something.


First things first though, something needs to be done about the darkness and the churning chaos waters (Side note: ‘tehom’, the Hebrew word translated ‘deep’ in Genesis 1 is the depersonalized Hebrew cognate to the name Tiamat who is the personification of the chaotic primordial ocean in Semitic myths across the Ancient Near East. Most likely the Hebrew word is meant to retain the chaotic and primordial traits while also removing the personality and deification). God’s first act of creation, before He even says a word, is to replace the ruling power of darkness over the deep; hovering over it instead with His own Spirit, and in doing so, calming the chaos leaving only mundane waters (after the Spirit hovers over them, the text uses the typical word for waters, ‘mi’im’). And that ‘hovering’ word is one of the reasons why English needs better words. It appears only 1 other time in that form; Deuteronomy 32:11 (NASB95) 11“Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions.”


So reading “then God’s Spirit hovered over the waters”, think less ‘delicate little butterfly fluttering over a flower’, and more ‘protective mother eagle swooping into a hovering position over her nest to chase away a predator.’ God’s Spirit parts the darkness from the deep, and the waters grow calm.


Then God speaks. John expounds beautifully on Jesus as the embodied ‘Word of God’, and he draws heavily from Genesis 1 as he does so. Through God’s Word, the now settled base materials of the cosmos now begin to gain both the form and function which they had lacked.


Having overcome darkness, God’s first command sets boundaries upon it by separating day and night. And with that first evening and morning, the first ‘day’ of the creation poem closes. On the second ‘day’, God turns His attention to the newly stilled waters, and He creates a… thing… to separate them. Yeah, ‘thing’. More literally ‘pounded out thing’, and it’s most likely related to a word for hammering out a sheet of metal. The antiquated English word ‘firmament’ is actually a really good translation, because it also just means ‘that solid thing up there’. In premodern concepts of the world, including the conception about the world held by the author of Genesis 1, there is an ocean above our heads, held up there by a… thing. Yeah, it really doesn’t get much more specific than that.


Moving on: evening/morning, day three. God divides the waters below further, allowing land to form, and He fills that land with vegetative life. So by the end of day 3, the once formless cosmos now has 3 fully formed domains: The day/night cycle above the firmament, the skies and sea below the firmament, and the land in the midst of the waters; next He turns His attention to populating those domains in the order in which they were made.


Day 4, God fills the day/night cycle with the heavenly bodies, and He makes them to be signs of His dominion over the dark and the light. But He also invites these heavenly beings to rule over the darkness, and the changing of time and seasons. These sky rulers represent the sun, moon, and stars, but they also represent the other spiritual forces in our cosmos besides YHWH. All ancient cultures associated their deities with the Heavenly bodies; most often the sun, moon, and planets, which move differently through the night’s sky than the stars do. The internal logic for these other cultures surrounding Israel is that these specific bodies move independent of the rest of the night sky because they are more powerful. The way that the creation poem in Genesis 1 plays out, it’s insinuated that the spiritual beings represented by those planets, the ‘gods’ which other cultures worshiped, are in rebellion against God, hence their failure to signify time or seasons the way the rest of the stars do.


On day 5 God fills the parted waters; making birds to swarm in the skies, and fish to swarm in the waters, and though He does not delegate authority to them, He nevertheless blesses them with the gift of procreative life which was not given to the sky rulers.


On day 6 God makes a bunch of dirt creatures to live on the land and eat the vegetation. And these too He withholds authority from, but blesses with procreative life. And just as day three had two parts; the creation of land and vegetation; its corresponding day 6 has two parts. In the second part, God creates a different kind of dirt creature. This one, similarly to how the heavenly bodies are a sign of God’s authority, will be God’s image in the world below the firmament; His idol in the temple of creation. There’s a reason God tells His people not to make images of Him, and that’s because He’s already made one, one which lives and breathes, thinks and creates, and most importantly, one which is made to live in community and love. Genesis 1’s description of the ‘image of God’ makes clear that God’s image is held not just by each individual human, but by humans collectively. God is Father, Son, and Spirit living from eternity in perfect unity, while still being distinct from one another in ways which we can’t fully comprehend. Humans need other humans if we are to properly image God; we need to live in loving community with each other; not collapsing together our differences for the sake of unity, but rather amplifying each other’s best qualities, and honoring our distinctives.


The poem set the stage for the power struggle that will come in the following chapters in that, where previously God had only delegated authority to a singular domain to the sky rulers, He delegates the remaining two domains, as well as the life that is in them to Humans. And where the birds, fish, and other land animals were given the blessing of procreative life but not authority, and He only gave the sky rulers authority but not procreative life; to Humans He gives both.


The serpent in the coming chapters is a sort of universal representative for all the other animate life of creation besides humans. Different kinds of snakes inhabit both land and water, and in the curse of the serpent in chapter 3, it’s insinuated that this serpent is one of the flying snakes of ancient near eastern legend. So the serpent is a creature of land, sky and sea; but more than that, one of the most famed winged serpents of Semitic folklore is Tiamat, the personification of chaos, and the winged serpent in general is a type of spiritual being (like the heavenly bodies) in most ancient texts. That includes the bible by the way, the word ‘Seraphim’ means ‘fiery serpent’, and they’re depicted as winged dragons in Isaiah 6.


But that’s a story for a different time; our reading ends after day 7. God gave form to the cosmos in the first three days of the poem, then in the subsequent 3 days, He gave it function as the habitation for the creatures He made. Then on day 7 He rested, and ordained that all of creation would live in submission to the need for rest; a kind of forced blessing. Nothing is meant to go without stopping, all of creation needs this holy space in time; it’s literally baked into how we’re made.


I realize this has been a bit sprawling, and I haven’t drawn it down to a single “and now Christian, this then is how you should live” sort of point. But I hope this was helpful to you nevertheless. Remember, this poem is about why the world functions the way it does, not the material origins of it. The poem assumes the material has already been made before it starts. If you get too hung up on the day/night cycle starting before the Heavenly bodies are made, then you’re focused on concerns foreign to the text, and missing what the text is saying about the origin and original function of the now wayward spiritual powers in our world. If you spend too much time laboring over semantics to try and explain away ancient concepts of a sky ocean held up by a thing, you’ll miss what the text is trying to tell you about how Chaos obeys God’s command, and how God’s life-giving presence sustains the ordered function of the cosmos against the disordered, entropic forces of darkness. Let the text be what it wants to be, you’ll find it a much richer source of meditation and spiritual depth that way. And most importantly, remember that we image God best when we bear the image of the triune God by living in loving community with one another, and when we are obedient to not only our own need for rest, but to our responsibility as stewards to give all of creation rest as well. God bless, have a good week.


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