Genesis 1: A Sublime Hymn

May 4, 1997


Genesis I: The Sublime Hymn

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. I have taught many of the western world’s great epic stories: the Greek Odyssey, the Latin Aeneid , Dante’s Divine Comedy, the French Song of Roland , the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost — and not a single one of them begins with the scope and sublimity of the first sentence of Genesis, the Bible’s Book of Beginnings. I would not argue for a moment that Genesis maintains that level of eloquence, only that I have not encountered a grander introduction to any epic of the western world. This “In the beginning” is not about a single country like Rome or Greece or England, no matter how great they supposed themselves to be, but about the creative ordering of the whole world itself when it still lay dark and shapeless with great winds sweeping across its primeval ocean — or, in some translations, the breath or spirit of God, since in Hebrew the same word may mean any of those three things.
I am beginning this morning a series of sermons on the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, starting with the first creation story, continuing next Sunday with the second creation story which is strikingly different, and then going on to talk of the Garden of Eden, the first homicide, Noah and the ark, and how quaintly the story of the Tower of Babel explains the existence of different languages. After the great formal creation hymn of Chapter 1, the other famous stories come from a different author who writes more like the way we talk — that is, everyday prose, which is good enough to do its job, but is certainly not sublime poetry.
Those of you who recently watched Bill Moyer’s Genesis tapes on Sunday morning are well aware of this, but it may help to remind others that the book of Genesis contains material from at least three different writers, whose work was combined later into a single account by editors. The editing was not all done in the same way. For example, faced with two obviously different and even contradictory stories about creation, they solved the problem by keeping both and letting one simply follow the other. First creation story [make a fist], second one butted up against it [bring second fist up under the first]. But faced with two different flood stories, they chose to intersperse lines from the two authors — like this [entwine fingers of both hands].
When you do it that second way, of course, you end up with a single story which has internal discrepancies, instead of two separate stories consistent within themselves but differing from one another. This can be demonstrated convincingly in any critical commentary or in any good seminary, but it is certainly not subject matter for a Sunday morning sermon. Anyone who cares enough to know for herself need only sit under the detailed analysis of a textual scholar for a few weeks in class, or read the same material in books about the different sources in Genesis , to know that the word simple is not adequate to describe how the Bible was composed.
Back now to Creation Story No. 1, which is our specific concern for this morning. Its 34 numbered verses in our English Bibles are — as I have said — magnificent poetry, carefully arranged as a formal hymn complete with stanzas, rhythm, elevated rhetoric and choral refrains. What it is not, is a piece of literal history or an effort to be scientific. It is poetry, and it uses the poetic license of poetry. It is also polemical, a high-falutin’ word which means that it intends quite deliberately to make certain points on controversial topics. So not only is this first creation story a highly sophisticated hymn, but it is purposely arranged to counter some of the religious beliefs held by Israel’s neighbors — beliefs the author considered to be false. I will point some of these out as we come to them.
I should like to say, before this series gets any further underway, how wonderful it is to be the minister of a church where perhaps not a single member reads Genesis , Chapter 1, as journalism instead of poetry, as a factual report instead of a song of praise. The long, sad history of trying to impose a literal interpretation on these early Hebrew stories has turned millions of intelligent people away from taking either the Bible or the church seriously. Our two differing creation stories were not written by men with scientific knowledge of the origin and nature of the physical world, but by authors whose thinking was imaginative and whose expressions of thought were pictorial, emotional, and poetic. It is a naive and futile exercise to try to reconcile the biblical accounts of creation with the findings of modern science. They are statements of faith in an ultimate meaning and purpose for human life, and as such they are not diminished by the findings of science.
When that opening line says that in the beginning God created sky and land, the Hebrew author has already set himself apart from most other ancient creation stories, because in those stories the gods themselves had to be created first. They then fought for power among themselves, and when one or more of them acted to create the world or human life, there were often great battles with the forces of chaos before order could be brought into existence. For the author of the first Genesis creation story, this is all nonsense. His God does not come into existence, but has been, is., will be. No point in starting out with the birth of that God, or a struggle against some chaos monster. Creation will be easy for this sovereign and transcendent God, who has only to say the words “Let there be” and the world as we know it falls sequentially into place — a process deliberately different from the creation stories of Sumeria, Babylon, Canaan, and Egypt.
So the act of creation by divine fiat begins: God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. We recognize the sun as the source of light, so we are surprised to have the author bring us light before the sun is created on the 4th day to be the source of light. But he is a poet, not a scientist, and the creative work of God must be done in light, sun or no sun. And now in the hymn the choral refrains begin: God says over and over “Let there be,” followed by “and it was so,” followed in turn by “and God saw that it was good” (seven times we hear it, the sacred number of per-fection that expresses the author’s delight in the world), and the final pattern: “Evening came, and morning” — sunset to sunset, in keeping with the way the author’s people marked off their days.
When the poet has God say, “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate one body of water from another,” he really does mean that the sky is like a burnished, metallic bowl suspended above the earth to keep sky water separated from the waters beneath. It has to be solid to hold all that water that falls as rain when God opens windows in the dome. It may sound quaint in a scientific age, but the poet had no other way of explaining how such enormously heavy volumes of water could fall from the sky.
On the third day in this series of creations, the poet has God say, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation,” and it happens: the earth brings forth plants and trees — without the help of the sun which is not yet created in this story. . Our science tells us plants live because the sun’s energy makes life-quickening photosynthesis possible, but the author of the first creation story is not writing a textbook for Biology 101. Not until the next day, the fourth day, does he have have God make “two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars.”
We are so far removed from the ancient world of Genesis that we can hardly comprehend how revolutionary this statement was in a world where people worshipped the sun, the moon and certain stars as gods, and thought their lives were governed by them. Israel herself was always tempted by this idea, so the author of this late creation story deliberately demotes those celestial bodies. Far from being gods, they are simply other created things meant to govern day and night. Unlike Day and Sky and Earth, which the poet has his God name, these lights in the dome are not given the dignity of names. Israel’s neighbors, in order to worship them, had named them long before this poet wrote his creation hymn, but he refuses to do so, and calls them merely the greater light and the lesser lights.
The greater light is to govern the day, as indeed the sun does, but it sounds a bit curious to modern ears to have the poet say that the lesser luminary, the moon, is to give light at night. It is no interest to him that the moon does this rather poorly or not at all during three-fourths of its monthly life. His real interest is in pointing out that the moon is a servant of Israel’s God and not a god itself. It’s not science….but it’s not meant to be. Even more fascinating is how he handles the stars almost as if they were an afterthought. “God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars.” We would reverse that emphasis, of course, knowing how trivial our sun and moon are in a universe filled with billions of giant stars that make make our sun seem more like a grain of bright sand. But our poet did not know that, and it fits his plan perfectly to mention the rest of the universe as if it were a kind of afterthought. Let the pagan world worship those little distant lights if they wish, but they are not gods. They only provide a tiny bit more of utilitarian light for earth, which is the apple of God’s eye. This is a priest-poet of Israel writing religious argument designed to set the world of Jewish thought apart from that of the rest of the world.
On the sixth and final day of creative labors, the poet has humanity created in the image of God as the crowning glory of the whole creation story. We should not be thinking in this story of two individuals named Adam and Eve; that comes in the second creation myth which was written by someone else. For this writer, the human group is created just as the birds and fish and animals have been created before them. This is clear in the Hebrew word the poet uses, and modern English translations make it clear for us by saying: “So God created humankind.”
Once created they are told that they are lords of the earth, quite unlike the status of human beings in some of the other creation stories known to this poet, where people are the playthings of demonic forces or slaves to the capricious deities of a god-ridden sky and earth. Israel had by this time a superior vision of humanity’s place in the universe, made as it was in the image of the one transcendent God.
In this primeval paradise there is no mutual slaughter so that man and beast can be fed. A fruit and vegetarian diet is prescribed for both. Only later, in Noah’s time, was this commandment relaxed (9:2-3). The great Jewish prophet Isaiah has this ideal world in mind when he dreams of paradise regained, of the world as it was meant to be, when the wolf and the leopard would not harm even the little lamb, nor the lion kill a calf, when a child could safely play around poisonous snakes, and the lion would eat straw instead of living flesh. Our poet’s Golden Age, unfortunately, will not last long before human beings begin to kill animals for food and clothing, and begin to kill one another out of jealousy and anger.
On the seventh day, we are told, God rests “from all the work that he had done.” I got into trouble once by asking the Sunday School teacher, “How could he be tired? He’s only said a few words each day!” I was told that we do not question Scripture, and later that day my father suggested it might be just as well not to have a smart-mouth in Brother Lawing’s Bible class. If Brother Lawing’s approach to Genesis had been less rigid and literal-minded he might have told me that God is pictured as going about his work for six days and then resting on the seventh, because that’s how the poet and his friends were doing it when this poem was written. It’s the only time in this great hymn that God is described in anthropomorphic or human terms, and it’s almost certainly done because the poet wants to push the sanction for the Jewish Sabbath all the way back to the creation of the world. He couldn’t call that seventh day of his creation week the Sabbath, because it had not been invented yet in the Jewish religion, but he has a marvelously clever way of hinting at it. The Hebrew word he uses for “rested” is shabat , basis for the later word Sabbath which will designate a religious duty so rigid that the God of the book of Exodus is represented as ordering anyone killed who fails to observe it (Ex. 31). Our poet was no fool; he knew God needed no rest, but he wanted to picture a divine action that would later become part of the Jewish regulation of life.
Overall, what the author of this hymn of praise means to say is this: placed on an abundant planet, with everything necessary for life, we are to take care of it as a gift beyond our power to duplicate. I was in the midst of preparing this sermon when I read a fascinating article in Time about the the huge Antarctic polar ice cap and the disastrous effect it can have on our climate. I wondered how the Genesis poet would have dealt with that inhospitable aspect of earth life if he had known about it. But he didn’t, so he concludes his song by saying that God looked over the finished work and declared for the seventh time (surprise!) that it was good….and not just “good” but “very good.” Enjoy this high and beautiful optimism while you can, because sin, sex and rebellion are only another page away in the stories of a different writer who will tell us that we were no sooner made than we began to misbehave.
Next week, the strange but charming story of forbidden fruit, a talking snake, and the very first evidence of the male chauvinism which is so prominent a part of the Old Testament.

Gracious God, in all our searching to discover who we are, help us
to remember what we are: a community sustained by your spirit
and challenged by your love, through Christ our Lord. Amen.