Sermon Ideas For Genesis 1:1-5 Part 1
It is hard to imagine that much is left to say on this familiar passage that has not already been said by over two thousand years of Jewish and Christian commentators. Yet as Brueggemann points out, "this text has been caught in the unfortunate battle of `modernism,' so that `literalists' and `rationalists' have acted like the two mothers of 1 Kings 3:1628, nearly ready to have the text destroyed in order to control it."1 Perhaps some sanity can be restored by reminding ourselves of the way in which two of the greatest commentators in history—St. Augustine in the fifth century and Rashi in the 11th century—have approached this oh so familiar passage.
The first words constitute the opening theological statement of Scripture: That before Creation was, God was. The text properly should read, "At the beginning of God's creating heaven and earth, the earth was formless chaos." Both Augustine (Confessions, Chapter 12, sec. 40) and Rashi (to Genesis 1: 1) observe that the text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation—to state that these were created first, for if this were its intention, it should have been written "BeRishonah" instead of "BeReshit." Rather the opening words inform us that God was doing other things before beginning to create the order we perceive, and that the Genesis account is not a chronology. It is a stage setting for the story of the many ways in which God calls order out of chaos. God does so by hovering over it, as a bird hovers over a nest, seeking a place to be present and to nurture [compare Dt 32: 11]. The NRSV translation is unfortunate, for its use of "Spirit" sounds too Trinitarian; "breath" would be better, the same breath that would later enliven humanity. The phrase "swept over it" destroys the nuance of nurturant parenting.
We can praise orderliness without being obsessed with sequence. At Confessions 12.3, Augustine describes the chaos out of which God creates as "invisibilis." He does not mean " invisible" so much as "confusing to the human eye," for he also describes it as "incomposita," disordered. In the same way, the sage Abraham ibn Ezra remarks that the Hebrew "evening" (erev) means "the time when the shape of things appears confused," whereas the Hebrew "morning" (boker) means the time when "we can distinguish various forms from each other." When the text tells us there was "evening and there was morning," we learn that first there was confusion, then God brought out of it clarity and discernment. We thereby understand that chaos does not signify the absence of God, but simply that God has not yet finished "speaking" matter into clarity.
Much energy has gone into the debate over whether the "days" numbered in the Creation story mean a literal six days . Both Augustine and Rashi refuse such an interpretation. Augustine asks how "day" could possibly mean 24 hours, when 24 hours is a human measurement and humans weren't created until the last day! At Confessions 11.16, he points out that if the Son is eternally begotten by the Father, then applying "Today I have begotten thee" to Christ makes "today" and "eternity" synonyms. If today = eternity, then God's time is not our time. God by definition transcends all human measures of time.
Ultimately, Creation's design is ordered so that Creation might calm down enough to listen to God's voice and to respond in wonder. God would not create by speaking if it were not the intention that someone listen and respond. Creation is not careless, casual, or accidental. Rather, it is the other partner in God's ongoing dialogue. Creation is the only partner God has who can respond to God's will and wishes. By scriptural witness, humanity repeatedly gets into trouble when it doesn't listen, either because it forgets, or because it doesn't want to hear what is being said.
Listening to the present controversy between "literalists" and "rationalists," Augustine would have refused any idea that the Genesis story should be a battleground for differing Christian interpretations. To quarrel over a biblical text, he says at Confessions 12.34, is to prove how un-Christian we are. No one group of Christians is allowed to assert that it alone has the truth, for God has inspired the biblical text in such a way that many interpretations of the one meaning can be heard, all of which are part of divine intention.
Rather, the Genesis account is a hymn of confession that Creation's purpose is to manifest God, and of praise that God' s control and God's ways supersede our human ways. Brueggemann is correct (26) when he claims this text is neither scientific history nor rationalist mythology. This text proclaims very good news; it is Gospel. "The good news is that life in God's well-ordered world can be joyous and grateful response." Genesis 1:15 is a cause for celebration, not an excuse to quarrel.
According to an ancient Jewish source, a certain heretic came to Rabbi Akiva and asked, "This world—who created it?" R. Akiva replied: "The Holy One, blessed be He." The heretic said, "Show me clear proof." R. Akiva relied, "Come back to me tomorrow." The next day, when the heretic came, R. Akiva asked him, "What are you wearing?" The heretic replied, "A garment." R. Akiva asked, "Who made it?" The heretic: "A weaver." "I don't believe you," said R. Akiva; "show me clear proof." The heretic: "What can I show you? Don't you know that a weaver made it?" R. Akiva then asked, "And you, do you not know that the Holy One made His world?" After the heretic departed, R. Akiva's disciples asked him, "But what is the clear proof?" He replied, "My children, even as a house proclaims its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy One, blessed be He, that he created it."2
1. Walter Brueggemann, The Interpretaton Series. (Atlanta: John Knox Pressc, 1982), p. 25. 2 Translated by William Braude, The Book of Legends: Sefer HaAggadah, (New York: Schocken, 1992), pp. 67.