Twelve Scriptures project
Text #1: Genesis 1
The Hebrew Scriptures, and our Christian Bible, begin this way:
In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.
And the earth, it was welter and waste,
And darkness was on the face of the deep,
And a wind from Elohim hovered on the face of the waters.
And Elohim said: “Let there be light.” And there was light.
— Genesis 1:1-2
The selection round for our Twelve Scriptures project has come to a close, and we have our finalists. Unlike reality TV, we will not be forced to eliminate one of these scriptures each week until we arrive at a singular favorite. Playing CMC Idol with passages from a book that isn’t too keen on idolatry doesn’t seem like all that good of an idea. So unlike that and the World Cup, these scriptures get to enjoy group play all summer without having to worry about who is in and who is out of the final tournament.
This summer we’ll be walking through these twelve scriptures – beautifully displayed here – thanks Adam Ruggles and Seth Trance – and pondering what they have to say to us as a congregation and as individuals. After each sermon time, we’ll hear a short reflection from one person on the significance of that scripture for them. You’ll notice that the passages are grouped by theme rather than the order that they appear in the Bible. But with Genesis 1 as one of the scriptures, it only feels right that we start there, at the beginning. “In the beginning,” as Genesis, and the entire Bible, begins.
Perhaps moreso than most parts of the Bible, what we bring to this Genesis 1 text by way of personal background and experience affects how we read it. Some may feel that their primary relationship with this passage is the need to escape from a literal reading they have been taught and now find unhelpful or even oppressive. If this is you, you may feel disoriented when hearing this passage and perhaps even alienated from the rest of the Bible in general because of this. If this is you, Genesis 1 is most likely not a part of your personal top 12 scriptures. For some the primary interest might be whether or not we can synchronize Genesis into the scientific evolutionary narrative that has been expounded in the last century and a half. It kind of works, but not very well, especially when you get into Genesis 2. Abbie and I enjoyed watching the new COSMOS series that has been showing Sunday evenings and just wrapped up, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He was eager, a little too eager sometimes, it felt, to point out any time he got the chance that science can now do what religion failed to do in giving an accurate account of the material evolution of the universe. One wonders if this is what the Hebrew mystics were really going for in the first place when they were putting these words into script.
Some may find the most helpful way to approach Genesis 1 is to hold it up alongside creation myths from cultures around the world, noticing similarities and differences, looking for the unique insights this one provides into who we are and the nature of the Divine. Some may find deep meaning and beauty in a particular part of the passage – God speaking the world into being, the goodness of creation, the poetic structure of the verses; humanity, male and female, created in the image of God. We come to this passage in different ways, depending on where we are at in life and where we have been in life. And our perspective changes over time.
Being positioned at the beginning of the Bible gives this chapter a unique and privileged place. Like other pieces of literature, or story forms of art, what happens first sets the stage for everything that follows. The opening scene of a film is often a metaphor that propels the viewer into the rest of the story, its significance only becoming apparent in that story’s unfolding.
We may not look to Genesis to answer all of our scientific questions about material reality, but it sure would be nice if it could give some insight into what in the world it means to participate in material reality.
We can refer to Genesis 1 as myth, not in the sense that it is not true – an unfortunate connotation the word “myth” has taken in our language. It is myth in the sense that it is more than merely true. It speaks of more than simply an event, a particular happening in a particular time and place that one can believe either did or didn’t happen. Rather, as good myths do, it tells a story which speaks to the pattern of reality itself, the ongoing and continuous nature of the world. It has its imprint on every time and every place. It speaks to our basic assumptions regarding meaning.
How would you tell a creation myth to introduce humanity to the meaning of its existence?
Perhaps, you could try this:
Use poetry. Use repetition. Create a rhythm, and allow for endless variation within the structure of that rhythm. Like Jazz. Start with the drums – and there was evening, and there was morning, a first day. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. Keep that going, then add a bass line. And God spoke, and it was so. And God spoke, and it was so. And it was good. And it was good. Keep that going in step with the drums, now bring in the melody. And there was light. And there was sky. And it was good. And it was good. A third day, a fourth day. Trees, shrubs, seeds, and fruit. Sun, moon and stars. And it was good. And God spoke, and it was so. And it was good. Fish and water creatures. A fifth day.
Make it like a liturgy, a call and response. One speaks – “Light!” The other joyfully responds “Yes, light.” Make it beautiful. Send it all the way up to a seventh day, a week, so we know it doesn’t stop at the end of the story, but keeps on cycling and growing through the calendar, keeps on creating. And there was evening and there was morning. And there was evening and there was morning. And behold, it was very good.
Although you have your own name for God, use a universal name. You call God Yahweh, a special name revealed to your people, your tribe, but this is a universal story, and it includes everyone. So use Elohim, the name that the nations surrounding you use for the Most High God. What’s important is that everyone who hears it knows that they too are a part of this story. This is not about a tribe, a sect, a nation, this belongs to all of us. In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.
Remind the people of the power of language. The creative, evocative force of a word. Remember Leonard Cohen’s line in his ballad, Hallelujah: “There’s a blaze of light in every word.” Have Elohim create the world not through slaying the dragon or conquering another god, not through hammering or fashioning or forging, but by speaking it into being. Make them ponder what it might mean for all of this, all of us, to be the speech of the God. That creature by your side, or outside the window, is a word from Elohim, just like you. Don’t explain what all this could mean.
Use repetition in case they didn’t get it the first time. Keep repeating the astonishing refrain: And it was good. And it was good. They have heard of original sin, that things were broken from the very beginning, fractured and fragmented. Now tell them of original blessing. When you get to tell the first story, you get to set the stage for all the other stories. Before sin comes on the scene, say as often as you can, And it was good. And Elohim blessed the creatures. And Elohim blessed the humans. And Elohim blessed the Sabbath. When they look back, before the wounds, before the upheaval, before the wars, show them what they will find in the inner most depths of their being. Blessing. And it was very good.
Lest they take the story too literally, throw in something impossible. Have the earth, hovering and chaotic, existing before light. Have the trees and vegetation and all their photosynthesizing cousins (day three) existing before the sun (day four). Have your story end with humanity created very last, and follow it up with another story (Genesis 2) in which humanity is created first, before there are any plants and animals. These impossibilities might make them laugh, and this is very good.
Tell the people that they are created in the image of Elohim. They have a tendency to create a god in their own image, make their god a larger version of their own personal aspirations. Their god ends up liking the same people they like and hating the same people they hate (Thank you Anne Lamott). They tend to make god a projection of themselves. Turn this around on them and tell them that they are a projection of God. A divine dream that takes form amidst the water and clay. Remind the women that they are just as much a reflection of the Divine as the men. They both tend to forget this. Male and female in the image of Elohim they were created. They will look at each other in wonder. You also, an image of God?
Let these human creatures know that they have responsibility. They are created in order to create. In order to keep, and guard, and tend creation. They are creation become conscious of itself, evolution become aware of its own unfolding – free to learn, and explore, and influence its direction, making choices that matter and impact the whole.
End with something that is the most funny and the most serious of all. Finally, after all this creating, have Elohim, the Almighty, take a rest. On the seventh day, Elohim ceased from work, kicked back, and took a Sabbath. And Elohim blessed and hallowed this day. Perhaps they will get the message that the purpose of creation, of existence, is not merely to create more things, to produce more products, to work more hours. The culminating act of creation, the climax of creativity, is pure enjoyment of what has been created. A reveling in the reality of reality. A long, intentional, regularly scheduled pause, to enjoy the abundance and goodness of this world. Take a breath,
take a walk; have a party, have a life; make up, make love; call a friend, turn off your device and don’t call anyone. Get up early and watch the sunrise. Sleep in late. Rest weekly. Repetition not merely as a literary device, but as a way of life. Holy Sabbath. If Elohim can do it and still keep the universe running and in good order, then perhaps the people will be enticed to give it a try. It could be good. It could be so very good.