Title: In the beginning
Texts: Gen 1:1-5, Ps 29
Date: Jan 8, 2012
Author: Tom Lehman
The book of Genesis probably reached its present text about six centuries before the birth of Christ. Prior to that it existed, at least in part, as oral tradition–stories told by one generation to the next.
The first book of the Bible is utterly without preface or introduction; the reader is plunged at once into the act of creation. It’s breath-taking. There is no indication of who is writing, or of the source of authority. It begins, “In the beginning when God created…” The writer immediately and without explanation assumes monotheism, a radical claim, at odds with everyday beliefs. The argument starts with a unique God. Even among God’s chosen people, as they were later called, monotheism, belief in one and only one God, had to win out over polytheistic beliefs, and it took hundreds of years.
“when God created the heavens and the earth” indicates that the writer thinks of the universe as a unity – the heavens and the earth resulted from the same act of creation. This is a grand concept; it is easy to imagine accounts of creation that don’t reach this profound conclusion. The writer had not the slightest idea of the vastness of the universe, billions of light-years across and billions of years old. However, the first sentence in the Bible asserts that God is the God of everything.
3””Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn’s setting of this text in his oratorio The Creation is one of the most dramatic, exhilarating passages in all of choral music. Here it is, sung by the choir of New College Oxford under Edward Higgenbottom. The words they sing appear on the cover of our bulletin. [Start at 5:10 on the CD time counter.]
Verse 5 reads: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” This suggests that God acts from night to day, from darkness to light. Today’s Jews believe that their Sabbath day begins with worship on the previous evening.
Genesis is neither precise history nor a “how to” manual for creation. It nearly ignores the “how” questions. Instead, the concern is with the acts of God and God’s relationship to humankind. By the time chapter 1 ends we have experienced God acting on behalf of humanity for the first time. What we get from a study of Genesis Ch 1 is not history but meaning, and as such it is more valuable than history.
I will say more about Genesis 1, but it’s time to bring in Psalm 29, because it adds to the Biblical view of God. This psalm, like the psalms generally, is poetry, and one should not expect to find historical statements in it. However, poetry reveals how people think, and the psalm has a lot to say about the writer’s world-view. The writer, said to be David, believes that God controls all of nature in considerable detail, including when nature turns destructive.
Look at verse 5: “the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”
Verse 7: “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.” That’s a lot of alliteration in the English translation, and the translator must have had fun doing it. But fire is destructive, and the Lord is seen as the source of fire, at least symbolically.
Verse 9: “The voice of the Lord strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say “Glory.’”
The writer of this psalm gives God credit for everything that happens, and claims that it is all to God’s glory. Somehow, after all this dramatic action, the psalm closes with a prayer for peace in verse 11: “May the Lord bless his people with peace.” Where did that come from? It is not a plea for protection from natural hazards, but a quiet acceptance of them, perhaps because the psalm makes no mention of any loss of human life.
Today we are no longer inclined to consider destructive natural acts as acts of God. That view seemed to put God in a bad light. Insurance companies now speak of acts of nature.
Now back to Genesis: Its account of creation could quite properly be called the Biblical cosmology, that is, the Biblical view of the origin of the cosmos. Physicists have long been interested in cosmology. Analysis of the light from distant stars shows that the universe is expanding. This is perhaps the most important single fact that any theory of cosmology must accommodate. Physicists have paid attention to two cosmological theories since World War II. One was called the steady state theory. It argued that the universe had no beginning and would have no end. After some years, problems with the theory caused it to lose favor. The other theory, known as the big bang, has been in more or less continuous development since that time. It explains the expansion of the universe by saying that in the beginning all matter was very compressed, and tremendously hot. As a result, matter started to expand in all directions and eventually to cool and condense into stars and planets. The expansion continues.
That’s enough cosmology; it’s time for recess. I have a brief story to indicate that science, even cosmology, can be playful. Our word “alphabet” joins alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. The third letter is gamma. This sequence of letters produced one of the craziest pranks in science. The Russian-born American physicist George Gamow helped to develop the big bang theory. Gamow had a student named Ralph Alpher. They published a cosmology paper together, to which Gamow mischievously added the name of the noted physicist Hans Bethe as second author, so that the names Alpher, Bethe, and Gamow would mimic the first three letters of the Greek alphabet to amuse his physicist friends.
Again speaking seriously, Christians and Jews alike believe that our all-wise God is the Creator of the universe, and because God called creation good, we believe the world is beautiful, and that it deserves close attention and study. So it has long been claimed that Christian (and Jewish) doctrine has supported and encouraged the study of nature. Science is not a product of reason alone. Faith plays a part, as asserted in this quote: “Behind all physics research are two great acts of faith; we believe that nature is comprehensible, and we believe that nature plays fair.” Maurice Goldsmith and Edwin Shaw, in “Europe’s Giant Accelerator.” Taylor & Francis, Ltd., London, 1977, p.2.
Now back to the Bible. John Buchanan, editor of Christian Century, asked in the December 27 issue, “How is it possible to read the first chapter of the Bible and not be an environmentalist? The stunning and unique affirmations of Genesis 1 point to a creation that is good, one that reflects the being and will of God. The first and primary human moral obligation is to take care of the place.”
The same theme was taken up by Gordon Kaufman, who died last July. He was a professor of systematic theology at Harvard Divinity School for more than 30 years. Kaufman was raised on the Bethel campus in Kansas, the Mennonite college his father served as president. In a 2004 book he put environmental concerns ahead of the great Christian concerns such as “how we can find a way to live with or overcome despair or meaninglessness or guilt or sinfulness, or human suffering generally.” Now, Kaufman writes, the chief concern of all humankind must be to stop destroying the natural conditions that make all life possible. He does not believe that God will step in and save us from environmental disaster. [In the beginning…Creativity, p 38, somewhat paraphrased]
Biologists report that “During the last thirty years we’ve lost almost thirty percent of what lives on earth.” Earth from above DVD
Today it would be political suicide for anyone running for president to worry publicly about the environment. That the environment gets almost no attention in the country’s daily political wars is a consequence of overwhelming economic worries. The challenge of re-establishing a strong economy after it was run into the ground by powerful, greedy, people has put us into a predicament that is almost without precedent. It took a decade for the country to recover from the Great Depression, and it will take more than half that long to escape the Great Recession. Today our leaders and would-be leaders only care about the environment when it is convenient to do so. We fail to learn an important lesson from Genesis 1: all nature is God’s creation.
We all need to be guided by a reverence for nature and a commitment to do no harm. We dare not think that everything has been created for us to enjoy and exploit. We are the earth’s stewards, not its owners. The planet cannot absorb infinite abuse if it is to continue to support life. It needs our help. In this new year, may we all gain new respect for the wonders of the world that God made, and resolve anew to protect it.