Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Beautiful Song - Genesis 1


In many creation stories of the ancient near east, the capricious, self-absorbed, quarreling bands of gods and goddesses make our world and humankind almost as an afterthought - a byproduct of the tricks they are up to, or as slaves to do the work for which they themselves are too lazy. With this as a foundation for reality and human identity, we're not left which much room to hope.


Genesis 1, by contrast, is a beautiful song. Written in a poetic, liturgical style it tells a lovely and subversive story. The opening chapter of the Bible claims that the world is not made and ruled by the forces of nature or the all-intimidating Babylonian or Near Eastern gods, but by Israel’s God. He, the story declares, is the true and ultimate God, who creates not out of whim or weakness but as part of a powerful and wonderful plan.

The song tells of a loving, rejoicing, intimate Creator who is proclaiming and creating; who takes the chaos and forms it into something functional, beautiful, and life giving. It tells of a relationship that under-girds reality: power belongs to the Creator, and we are not merely nature but creation. This idea imbibes everything with purpose, hope, and possibility.

For the Israelites in the ancient near east, this creation song was a subversive political and theological statement - a small and relatively powerless nation claiming an identity and reality which the invading powers could not touch. The song beautifully insists that we exist not by accident or by the whim of lazy, quarreling gods, but are called forth by a loving Creator with a long term plan for relationship, goodness, and life. We are not (ultimately) under the thumb of the gods and rulers of Babylon or Egypt, but image bearers of the Creator who has not for a moment lost track of his creative, redemptive plan.

The song ends with the Creator resting on the seventh day. This rest implies not exhaustion after much work, but a deity or king 'coming to rest' in the place where he will dwell and reign. In other words, what the Creator has made is not only a good home for His creation, but for Himself as well, and he is present here in a permanent sense.

Today we are so far removed from the questions and assumptions of this ancient world that we see little of this political and theological stake in the ground when we read chapter 1 of Genesis. We bring our own questions and needs to the text, assuming it is written with them in mind, and confused when they are not addressed.

When Old Testament scholar John Walton teaches on Genesis 1 he tells the story of building a house. He discusses blueprints and foundations, framework, plumbing, and wiring. He talks about the construction contracts and legal codes. It is quite boring, to be honest. All true no doubt, important and necessary, but factual rather than poetic.

But then he tells a second story, a story about a home. It takes place in the same physical space as the first story, but this is about a family moving in, years after the building itself was constructed. We imagine furniture and decorations being arranged, children making sure their favorite blankets and bears are in place, meals being eaten together, memories being made, a new family identity being formed.

Both stories are about the same building. The first, about the origin details of a house. The second, about the creation of a home. Likewise, Walton says, Genesis 1 is not about the scientific details of the origins of the universe, but the creation of a home that God forms within it. And more shocking still - a home in which he intends to dwell with us. Yes, God is the ultimate cause of all we see and know but the revolutionary message of Genesis 1 is theological - God has taken the house and given it a sacred function for both creation and Creator, a home in which he will dwell with us. 

As modern readers of these ancient texts, it can be difficult and even impossible to see and hear what an ancient listener, reader, speaker, or writer would have seen and heard. But Genesis 1 is a beautiful, hopeful story that sets the tone for the book of Genesis, the Tanakh or Old Testament, and finally the Gospel itself. In this first chapter of the first book we hear a powerful proclamation of Good News - it is the God of beauty, order, purpose, function, hope, intimacy, and relationship who has charge of the universe.  It is His - and so are we.

If you're interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.  Otherwise, stay tuned for next week!

3 comments:

Aubrey Travis Sampson said...

This is one of my favorite thing about Genesis-- how the author, or teller, contrasted God to the other creation narratives and the childish whims of the gods. It makes Genesis all the more powerful, and Israel's God all the more amazing. Thanks for sharing this Catherine, and reminding us that God created a home...both for us and His presence--lovely lovely lovely!

Suzanne Cross-Burden said...

Shared on twitter. Thank you, Catherine!

Catherine said...

Thank you, Aubrey and Suzanne! I'm glad you are both reading and chiming in!