As Disciples of Christ…
We rejoice in God,
maker of heaven and earth,
and in God’s covenant of love
which binds us to God and to one another.
Before beginning, I want to say a brief foundational word about the bible and how we understand it, since this sermon is based on the first three stories from the bible. You are about to hear that the two creation stories are markedly different, and that their timelines are irreconcilable. This is evident from even a cursory reading of the text. By faith we say that these stories are true, and that they are a gift to us from God through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Through them God is able to speak to us a Living Word. Their truth is different, deeper and more profound than that found in a newspaper article or a history textbook.
It is worth us asking the question, “Why would we have two different accounts of creation, except that they each had something meaningful to tell us that a synthesis of the two could not say?” If God’s interest were in giving us one clear explanation for how the world came to be, then surely that is what we would have, but it is not. Instead we have two profoundly beautiful stories that invite us to dwell in the presence of God’s goodness and mystery and grace. We are invited to be with God in a place where some important questions go unanswered, and that is ok. If you want to read more about how the bible itself understands the notion of “word of God” see my notes entitled: Some Thoughts Regarding “The Word of God”. For now, let us consider what these first three stories in the bible tell us about God, ourselves, and creation.
- God created all that is
- God loves and unites us in covenant
God created. For most of human history this basic premise seemed fairly widely shared. Who, how and why were questions with a vast diversity of answers, but what does seem apparent from most ancient traditions is a shared belief that a god or gods were responsible for the existence of the material world. This was not a novel proposal put forth by the Hebrews about their God. What does seem revolutionary, at least among the ancient traditions with which the Jews were familiar, is that a single God was responsible for all that we know, and that this creation happened in joy, as a blessing, and for relationship. When we examine our Genesis creation stories, we soon realize that they are very different.
Story 1: The first (GEN 1:1-2:3) lays out a methodical process of developing order from chaos, framed through the schema of a seven day week. The first three days include establishing difference – light from dark, sky from planet, water from land. Then vegetation comes forth on the land in the third day. On the fourth day the sun is created, along with the moon and the stars. Day five saw the creation of fish and birds – water and air creatures – followed by land creatures on day six. The final act of day six was to create more creatures, but this time they are described differently, for God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. In this creation story, humans are made as a group, as the last of all that God created.
Story 2: In our second story, beginning at GEN 2:4, the scene is set with the heavens and the earth already being created, and with a flowing stream. The next thing we see made is a human – literally a dirt creature from the dirt. This happens before the creation of vegetation, fish, birds or other land creatures. Next God plants a garden framed by the four great rivers, and places the human there. Everything in the garden is good, but one of the trees is also dangerous for the human, and therefore its produce is prohibited as food. The story proceeds with God’s statement that it is not good for the human to be alone. So God sets about making all sorts of creatures, but none of them is suitable as a comparable companion. These other creatures are made the same way as the human – from the dirt. Finally God makes one more creature, but this time not from the dirt, but from the human. The vocabulary in Hebrew is telling: the first human is adam (human/earthling) from the adamah (humus/earth). The second human is the ishah (woman) from the ish (man). And this one, the story says, is received by the first human as a suitable companion.
To get a better understanding of our creation stories in Genesis, it may be helpful for us to look briefly at one other ancient creation story with which the Hebrews were intimately aware – the Babylonian story called the Enuma Elish. It is 1500 words long – more than our two Genesis stories combined. Much of it is actually the story of how the Babylonian pantheon of gods came to be. This in itself is a remarkable difference – generation after generation of these divine beings being born and giving birth before the creation of the world. The Jewish people held no such belief. Over several generations of divine beings we meet Tiamat and Marduk, who are something like grandmother and grandson. Here’s an excerpt:
Then joined issue Tiamat and Marduk, wisest of gods,
They swayed in single combat, locked in battle.
The lord spread out his net to enfold her,
The Evil Wind, which followed behind, he let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him,
He drove the Evil Wind that she close not her lips.
As the fierce winds charged her belly,
Her body was distended and her mouth was wide open.
He released the arrow, it tore her belly,
It cut through her insides, splitting the heart.
Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life.
He cast down her carcass to stand upon it…
The lord trod on the legs of Tiamat,
With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull.
When the arteries of her blood he had severed,
The North Wind bore (it) to places undisclosed.
On seeing this, his fathers were joyful and jubilant,
They brought gifts of homage, they to him.
Then the lord paused to view her dead body,
That he might divide the monster and do artful works.
He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up and ceiled as sky,
Pulled down the bar and posted guards.
He bade them to allow not her waters to escape.
He crossed the heavens and surveyed (its) regions.
…To impart the plan he had conceived in his heart:
“Blood I will mass and cause boned to be.
I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name.
Verily, savage man I will create.
Marduk slew Tiamat, his grandmother. He stood on her body. He cut her in two and used one half to create the sky while with the other half he created the earth. And he used her blood to create “savage man”. That is a very different story indeed. Let’s reflect for a moment on how the Hebrews chose to describe their God in contrast to the god of their conquerors.
The Babylonian creation story portrays an adversarial relationship among divine beings which results with the death of one, and the subsequent creation of our world and ourselves from the remains of that dead deity. In contrast, the Hebrews told a story of one God who was responsible for all of creation. This God was a unity, a whole and singular being, and yet was somehow also perceived as a multifaceted, diverse, complex matrix of divine being. When deciding to create humanity, God says, “Let US make human kind in OUR image.” We get not even the slightest clue here about who this “us” is – the Hebrews do not seem to know, nor do they seem interested in asking or exploring this question. They simply acknowledge a paradoxical truth that is beyond them – God is both one and also more than one.
While the Genesis story does not use the words love, joy, or delight, it is common for us to read these notions into the stories. In both accounts we see a God who does seem to revel in this creative process – it seems to have meaning. Whether that meaning is bringing order from chaos, or creating a wonderful environment for shared life, the Creator acts with purpose, and seeks and finds good in what is made. This is in stark contrast to the Enuma Elish which seems to portray creation as the raving acts of a bloody battlefield victor.
The creation of humanity is also important to examine. A possible parallel might be found in that Marduk makes the humans from the blood of Tiamat, while in Genesis God wills to make humans in the divine image. These could be reflect similar impulses. But the similarities end there. The Babylonians believed that destruction was needed for human life to arise. The Hebrews proclaimed instead that God took what had already been created, and from and through it brought forth something more, something new, something related and connected to God and to one another. In one view, humans arise from and represent division. In the other, humans arise from and represent unity embracing distinctiveness. The male and the female are different, and both are made in God’s image. The male and the female are different, and both are “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” – they share a common humanity as an ultimate unifying force that continually calls us back to itself. In one account, the humans are savages and adversaries just like the gods. In the other, the humans are companions, stewards and partakers in creation, after the image of their God.
What difference might all of this make for us today? I would like to suggest a couple of things.
- The Bible, and our Faith, are not in conflict with scientific curiosity or theory. The two disciplines of science and theology are asking different questions about the same reality – not unlike how the two creation stories in Genesis address our existence very differently. These different perspectives benefit from being in conversation with one another. This dialogue will not undermine or destroy either endeavor.
- Our faith, informed by the Bible and church teaching, tells us that God is the source of all that is. We do not have to understand this in order to believe and live it, any more than I need to understand electricity in order to turn on a light and read by it.
- Our faith, informed by the Bible and church teaching, tells us that we are an integral part of creation, not separate from it. We survive, thrive, or are destroyed together. The incarnation and resurrection proclaimed in the Gospels, and the renewal of heaven and earth proclaimed by the prophets, bear witness to our faith that creation matters and is a co-participant in the salvation story.
- Our faith, informed by the Bible and church teaching, tells us that we are united to God and one another as a part of our essential created nature. When we reject God or another human, or creation, we are only rejecting ourselves, as we are of the same stuff, share the same life, and reflect the same image. Turning our back on another is like looking in the mirror and saying, “I hate you. You disgust me. I wish you didn’t exist.” And this is the greatest blasphemy of all.
- We didn’t read on into Genesis 3, but perhaps you are familiar with it – a serpent, a fruit tree, and the desire to be like God at any cost. The pursuit of Godlike knowledge by humans creates a chasm of shame between the humans, and between humanity and God. The earlier story tells us that we are already like God, and that we are all we need to be just as we are. Genesis 2 ends with the proclamation that in God we do not need to hide from each other – we can be fully who we are with each other and not be ashamed. And this may be the greatest truth of all.
I hope you will explore the rest of the series, and that you will share your insights in conversation with others and with me.