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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.

“Now the earth was formless and void… And God said, let there be light…” Biblical scholars regularly note the ways the creation account in Genesis demonstrate God parting the primordial waters of chaos, carving out a space to establish God’s good order and filling that space with good and abundant life. Some of the ancient rabbinic traditions have asserted that the God’s purposes in pushing back the waters of chaos were always about more than just the creation of the world, but also about the creation of a people. “Rashi cites the ancient rabbinic opinion that the Bible should have begun with Exodus 12:2 because he wants to reinforce that larger theological judgment about Genesis 1 as a whole: God’s plan for the people of Israel is the most elementary, most fundamental aspect of creation.”[3] The creation account points not only to the God who creates, but also to the people God calls into being.

Here a note about the genre of the passage would be helpful: “This text is a poetic narrative that likely was formed for liturgical usage. It is commonly assigned to the Priestly tradition, which means that it is addressed to a community of exiles. Its large scope moves in dramatic fashion from God’s basic confrontation with chaos (1:2) to the serene and joyous rule of God over a universe able to be at rest (2:1-4a).” [4]

It’s important that we hear this passage the way the exilic community would have heard it: as well as telling them about something God did way back then, it affirmed for them that God could be their creator now. “When this creation drama was read in the exile, this would be really good news to the people in the audience. Their own life had turned into empty waste. It was enveloped in darkness. They had fallen over the edge of the abyss. The light had gone out in their lives as a community. The events they had gone through could seem to show that the Babylonians were right.”[5] Even with the exilic community in a season of deep lament, when they affirm that God pushed back the waters of chaos to make a place where God’s people could thrive, they also affirm that God continues to do that creative, protective work for them. The Genesis creation account (along with other creation psalms like Psalms 74:12-17 and 89:3-18 used in liturgy) is literally “world-making,” forming and establishing their worldview and cementing their trust in a faithful and powerful God who is at work in the world despite the perceived forces of chaos. The good news for us today is that this is our God too, and maybe we can see the chaos of our lives as raw material from which God will fashion something good. [1] Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 17). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. [2] Ibid., p. 18 [3]  Reno, R. R.. Genesis (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (p. 31). Baker Publishing Group.  [4] Brueggemann, p. 22 [5] John Goldingay. Genesis for Everyone: Part 1 Chapters 1-16. Westminster John Knox Press.