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Genesis 1:1-5

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” I knew an English teacher once who had a poster in her classroom of the opening lines of famous novels diagrammed grammatically. I was thinking of that poster while studying this passage, because “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” might be one of the most gripping opening lines of all literature, and I think an attentiveness to the formal elements of this opening sentence provides a basis for several key theological affirmations.

The first theological affirmation is that God is the subject of this sentence– and the central character of the narrative. The text is not concerned with questions of how creation came into being as much as it is concerned with who brought creation into being. The text prompts us to ask: Who is God? Who is God in relation to the cosmos? Who are we in relation to God and the cosmos?

“In the beginning,” a temporal phrase (speaking of time), relates to the action of the sentence, which is God and God’s creative work. Traditional Jewish translation has rendered this phrase as: “When God began creating the heavens and the earth…” The account here in Genesis does not intend to relate the “absolute beginning,” whatever that might mean; I guess there wasn’t one, because God had no beginning. The Genesis account means to relate the beginning of God’s creative work, the beginning of the world. Relating this line as “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” avoids giving the impression that Genesis is talking about the absolute beginning of time and space. The account doesn’t pretend to know what God was doing before the beginning of the world; rather it focuses on God first, and God’s creative work bringing creation into existence.

The second theological affirmation we might make from the structure of this opening sentence is the importance of those relationships between Creator and creation. The opening lines of Genesis might even be rendered with the simplified subject-verb-object “the creator created the creature(s).” Of first importance is the subject (Creator), and the successive action (created) and object (creature) are all bound in relation to the subject. What did the Creator do? God created. What did the Creator create? God created the heavens and the earth. The action of creating involves two parties, and makes it impossible to speak of the Creator without the creation, or the creation without the creator. Walter Brueggemann notes, “The term ‘create’ asserts distance and belonging to. It is affirmed that the world has distance from God and a life of its own. At the same time, it is confessed that the world belongs to God and has no life without reference to God.” [1]

Questions of “Who?” always revolve around relationships. Whenever you’re introducing someone for the first time, I bet you mention their relationship to you: spouse, friend, coworker, relative… The same thing is happening as God is first introduced into the narrative. Who is God? The One who has no beginning, the One who is the source of all light, the One who brings order to the chaos, the One who created the heavens and the earth. This is not just any creation account about just any god; this is the account of a particular God who is forming a particular cosmos– our God forming our cosmos. This is the account of the God who creates, who saves, who is with us even now making all things new. The Creator and creation are bound together; creation comes from the mind and heart and work of God. God wills creation into being and when it goes astray, God is committed to getting it back.

A preacher might note that the Genesis account points to the power and goodness of God’s word, and that our God is a God of purpose, order, and intention, who is moving all things toward God’s ends by God’s life-giving word. “In Genesis chapter 1 God creates by speaking. Creation is to listen and answer.”[2] When we preach this text, we a declare the good news that life in God’s well-ordered world can be joyous and grateful response.