Sunday 11 June 2017
This morning we are reading the creation story. Seven days. God speaks, and it becomes so.
But in fact, this is not the creation story. This is only one of many different creation stories in the bible. There are even two different creation stories in just the first two chapters of genesis. This is the first one. The second one starts right after it, the one that features Adam and Eve.
If you read them literally, they are incompatible with each other. In the Adam and Eve story, God forms Adam out of the ground. Then God plants a garden and puts Adam in it. Then God starts forming other animals out of the ground, to make a companion for Adam, but none of them are right. Finally, God forms Eve out of Adam’s rib.
In the ‘let there be light’ creation story, God doesn’t form anything out of the ground. God speaks things into existence. And the order of creation is different. In Eden, it’s Adam, plants, animals, Eve. In the ‘let there be light’ story, it’s plants, animals, then human beings, both male and female at the same time, as the crowning work of creation. The two stories cannot be reconciled with each other. They describe God’s work very differently, and they characterize God very differently.
But there aren’t just these two creation stories in the bible. There are, in fact, dozens of them. Psalm 33 talks about how God “gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle and put the deeps in storehouses.” In Psalm 104, the psalmist says to God, “You stretched out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters… You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken.” Jeremiah 10 says, “God made the earth by his might; he shaped the world by his wisdom, crafted the skies by his knowledge. At the sound of his voice, the heavenly waters roar. He raises the clouds from the ends of the earth. He sends the lightning with the rain, he releases wind from his treasuries.” Isaiah 40 talks about God’s creation in the form of questions: “Who has measured the waters in the palm of his hand or gauged off the heavens with a ruler or scooped the earth’s dust up in a measuring cup or weighed the mountains on a scale and the hills in a balance?” Five chapters later, God says, “Are you questioning me about my own children? Are you telling me what to do with the work of my hands? I myself made the earth, and created humans upon it. My own hand stretched out the heavens. I commanded all their forces.” Job 26 says, “God stretched the North over chaos, hung earth over nothing; wrapped up water in his clouds, yet they didn’t burst out below; hid the face of the full moon, spreading his cloud over it; traced a circle on the water’s surface, at the limit of light and darkness. Two chapters later, it says, “When God gave the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when God made a path for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw wisdom and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.” In Job 38, God’s asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me, if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars san in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” In Proverbs 8, lady wisdom declares, “I was there when God established the heavens, when he marked out the horizon of the deep sea, when he thickened the clouds above, when he secured the fountains of the deep, when he set a limit for the sea, so the water couldn’t go beyond his command, when he marked out the earth’s foundations. I was beside him as a master of crafts.” Even the New Testament has creation stories, like John 1: “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.”
There are some common themes the go through many of these stories. Many of them imagine God as some kind of architect or construction worker. Some describe God as a tent maker. Some even describe God as a cook. Some describe God being assisted by other beings. Some tell how God sets boundaries. Some even describe God creating by conquering the forces of chaos, as in Psalm 74: “God, You split the sea with your power. You shattered the heads of the sea monsters on the water. You crushed Leviathan’s heads. You gave it to the desert dwellers for food!”
All of these stories tell us something about God’s creation, about the relationships between God and humans and the rest of the created world. They are different, though. There is no way to harmonize them all into one seamless story. They come from different sources and have different understandings of God.
And of course, none of them are scientific descriptions of creation. They were never meant to be. Humans didn’t even start thinking scientifically until more than a millennia after the most recent writings in the bible. They are not really meant to answer the question, “How did God make the universe?” They are meant to address questions like, “Why did God make the universe?” “What is the significance of God’s creation?” “How are we as humans related to the rest of creation and to God, the creator?”
With all that being said, what does this story from Genesis 1 have to tell us about these questions. It is not the oldest creation story in the bible, but it is the one that appears first in the edition of the bible we now have. What is interesting about its unique telling of the story of the origins of the world?
The first thing to notice is that God’s creation is all about life. Nothing is said about mountains or valleys or even rivers. Everything in God’s creation is something that is alive or something that is directly related to supporting life.
Did you notice how many times seeds are mentioned in this passage? “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seed and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it.” There is something mystical, something magical about being able to take an inert seed, put it in the ground, and have a living thing emerge. That is something that can only be explained by the action of God.
And it’s the same with all of the animals. God tells them to be fertile and multiply. It’s all about the generation and regeneration of life.
Things like the sun and moon and stars—we don’t think of them as being alive—but the ancients did. Those were living beings. And God says in Genesis 1 that their purpose is to mark out seasons and festivals. Times for planting and harvesting and celebrating. They are alive and they contribute to the continuance of life.
Another thing that is important in Genesis 1 is order. God is constantly bringing order out of chaos. It’s almost as if God suffers from OCD. God separates light from darkness, makes sure that they stay in their places. God separates the heavenly waters from the subterranean waters, keeps them apart. God separates the water from the land, makes sure everything is where its supposed to be. God makes order out of chaos.
And that’s because order is needed to allow for life, at least human life. If the world is a constant thunderstorm, a constant tsunami, a constant hurricane, or a constant drought, then life can’t flourish. Things need to be in their place if life, particularly human civilization, is going to grow. And so God brings order out of chaos.
Another thing to notice is that everything in God’s creation is good. This story doesn’t explain the existence of evil. It explains the existence of life. And life, in all of its many shapes and forms, is good. God makes it, and God declares it good.
Which brings us to human life, and our role in creation. Humans are made as the capstone of creation. And we are made in a special way and for a special purpose. We are made in order to tend creation on God’s behalf. We are made to look after the created world in the way that God would.
And in order to be able to do that, we have to be made in the image and likeness of God. “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”
All humans are made in God’s image. People of every sex and gender and orientation. People of every skin tone and every national origin. People of every language and ethnicity. All are created in the image and likeness of God. All are needed in order to tend the earth. All are blessed by God. All are commanded, “Be fruitful and multiply.” There are no distinctions here. None are excluded. None are placed above or ahead of anyone else. Every person is marked with the same core identity. Every person is made in the image of God. And when God sees that great diversity, God does not just call it good, God calls it very good, exceedingly good, supremely good.
This is a famous passage of scripture. It’s even famous to people who aren’t Jews or Christians. It’s famous in large part because of the political controversy that surrounds it. In the modern world, real truth is defined as scientific truth. And so, in the face of that, Creationists, knowing that the bible must be true, began to insist that the bible must be science. And so, we end up being faced with questions like, “Is the bible true, or is science true?” “Do you believe in science, or do you believe in the bible?” “Do you believe in Genesis, or do you believe in the Big Bang?”
Every one of these questions is a false dichotomy. It’s like asking “Do you believe in history or in poetry?” “Do you believe in technical manuals or in music?” Those are absurd questions. History books are not trying to do the same thing as poetry, even if they are written on the same topic. The technical manual for this keyboard is not trying to do the same thing that the music that comes from it is trying to do. Creation stories from the bible are not trying to do the same thing that scientific theories are trying to do.
The bible does not care in the least how old the universe is. Genesis 1 doesn’t say the earth was made in six days because it is trying to give an accurate measure of the time involved. How could it? The sun and moon aren’t even created until day four. Genesis 1 says the world was created in six days because it wants to teach a lesson about keeping the sabbath. It wants to say that even God rests from work on the seventh day.
Likewise, the bible does not care about how the universe was made. It uses metaphors to talk about why the universe was made, what the significance of the universe is. Did God stretch out the sky like a tent or did God hammer out the sky like a giant metal bowl? The bible says both. Did God measure out the boundaries of the sea with a ruler, or did conquer the sea like a warrior fighting a sea monster? The bible says both. Did God create humans before animals or animals before humans. The bible says both. These are not the questions the bible is asking.
Why did God make the world? In order to nurture life. Why did God create humanity? In order to bridge the gap between God and the rest of creation, in order to tend the world on God’s behalf. How are humans related to God? We are made in the image of God as God’s own children. What does God think of the world? God declares that the world is good. These are the questions of significance, the questions of meaning, the questions the bible is addressing.
Is the bible scientific? No, it most certainly is not. Is the bible true? Yes, most definitely it is. It is as true as the seed that sprouts new life. It is as true as the fish that fill the sea and the birds that fill the air and the creatures that crawl upon the earth. It is as true as the poetry that changes our consciousness, as true as the music that lifts our hearts. It is as true as the love a parent has for a child. It is as true as the life God has given us, as true as the love God has for us, as true as the dreams God plants in our hearts. It is as true as our joy, as true as our pain, as true as our care for one another.
Do you believe in science or in the bible? I reject the premise of the question. Science can explain how things work, how chemicals interact, how long it takes for light to get from the sun to our eyes. But it cannot explain who you are. You are a beloved child, made in the image of God, placed here as part of God’s family in order to live and to love. And that is the truth.