Too often readers of this text feel compelled to make modern scientific assertions about how the earth was created. We often lose the focus in a battle about science and faith. The ancient author of Genesis 1 likely did not have this in mind when he penned this poem of creation. While this chapter may not tell us exactly how matter began, precisely how the days of creation translate to our calendar, or how light could be created before the sun, the passage does offer many truths about God’s character and God’s relationship to creation.
There are two Hebrew words in these verses that are worthy of note. The first is the Hebrew word used in this chapter for God’s act of creating. It is the Hebrew word bara. Bara is used just shy of sixty times in the Hebrew Bible, but what’s interesting about it is through the Scriptures it is only God that can bara, only God who is capable of this type of creative work. It’s used in passages like David’s cry in Psalm 51 “create in me a clean heart O God,”. David acknowledges in this verse that he is not capable of taking the contents of his own heart and bringing renewal; it is only the Lord God who can take what seems broken and dark, what seems to be worthless and transform it into something new, something good. In Genesis 1 we learn that it is only the Lord God who can create the heavens and the earth. It is only God who can form and fashion.
The second set of words to note is the pairing of tohu vebohu in verse 2. Not only are these words fun to say, they offer a glimpse into the character of god. These words together are typically translated as “formless and void” (NASB, NIV), or “without shape and empty” (NET). Elsewhere in Scripture we see these words often used to describe an object or location as meaningless, empty, utterly uninhabitable and uninhabited. The earth, the author here tells us through these words, is not a welcoming place.
To the Lord God, the tohu vebohu is not a worthless wasteland; it may seem uninhabitable but not for long. The Spirit of God sweeps into the tohu vebohu to hover over the darkness of the deep.
The original hearers of this story had heard creation tales like this before from the other cultures around them, tales of the god of the sea engaging in an epic battle with rival gods. They would have been waiting on bated breath for something to jump up out of the water to confront the Spirit of God (cue the Jaws movie soundtrack). But the darkness of the deep doesn’t stir. The Lord God is not rivaled by the powers of the deep darkness; God is in control of even the deep unknown. And it is the Lord God who makes the next move, and decides to transform the darkness of the tohu vebohu, and light it up. Everything changes as God begins to separate and bring order to what was once void and uninhabitable through words- “Let there be light.”
Genesis 1 is a beautiful Hebrew poem of God’s good creation, written using rhythm and repetition. One of these rhythms emerges in verse 4 as God calls God’s creation good. When it comes to the word good, we tend to think of a Likert scale with answers ranging from poor to excellent, and good sits somewhere in the middle. Good is ok. But to God, good is complete, good is as good as it gets. This pattern will continue through creation of plants, animals, the separation of land from water, all of it is good leading up to the creation of humanity which God calls “very good”. All of God’s creation, including us, is good, before it ever has the opportunity to do or work or earn anything.
Another rhythm in the poem is found in verse 5 in the refrain “There was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” God sets in motion a pattern for how to live out our days in the creation of evening and morning. This rhythm begins in the evening, in a time of rest and restoration. You’ll see this pattern repeated through the creation account, a call and invitation into a rhythm of rest. Rest that isn’t earned through a day of work, but a rest we are invited to participate in before the work even begins. An invitation to trust God and trust in the story God is creating and unfolding before our eyes, in the way that only God can do. Genesis 1:1-5 summarizes the hope and promise contained in all that is to come after it in Scripture. These verses tell the story of a creative God with power to govern all space and time. A God who through the word brings order in chaos, light and hope to that which was once dark and hopeless. A God whose Spirit continues to sweep into our deepest darkness and through the Word that is Jesus Christ light it up. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness still does not overcome it.