Genesis 1:1-2:4a - link to the NRSV text
Before I begin the humbling task of trying to offer commentary and reflection on this portion of Scripture, first and foremost I want to encourage us to stop and to go and read the text. Read it closely, carefully, allowing our minds and hearts to be opened to the wondrous mystery of the Creator God who speaks all things into existence, who brings order to chaos. Read it aloud, hear its rhythm, its resonance, its beat. See its imagery, hear its sounds; enter deep into this text and allow the Spirit to sweep into us, much as the Spirit swept over the face of the waters. Before you too quickly move on to sermon and preaching, let me encourage you to hear this magnificent confession and testimony about God anew.
The reason I encourage these things is because of the very poetic nature of Genesis 1:1-2:4a, for it is just that. It’s poetry. In my honest opinion, part of the problem of the modern evolution/creation debate is one of category or genre confusion. For too long, the modern Western world has read this text with its own assumptions and through the lenses of its own categories.
We read a text like the creation story in Genesis 1 as if it is claiming to be history or science in the modern understanding, when the reality is that the this text cannot really be placed in such neat, clean genre classifications in ways that we would prefer, especially considering its poetic style. The author’s purpose is not to outline history or a scientific theory, but to offer a poetic theological reflection on creation, on the nature of its creatures, and on the God who brought it all into being.
Pope John Paul II clearly recognized this idea when he shared these thoughts on science and Scripture:
The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationships of man [sic] with God and with the universe. Sacred scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how the heavens were made but how one goes to heaven (as quoted in “Evolution: Religious criticism and acceptance” at Brittanica.com).
This text is not science, it’s not history, but it is poetry that expresses joy, wonderment, and awe in creation. It confesses full trust in God’s power and authority; rejecting ancient divine combat myths as the source of the world’s origin, like with Marduk creating the heavens and earth out of the carcass of the slain goddess Tiamat, the author instead sees a God that just speaks and all creation bows to God’s bidding.
In fact, this act of God speaking provides the basic framework for the text. Verses 1-2 act much like a prologue, setting the stage; then a common refrain structure book-ends each section: “God said…And there was evening and there was morning, a xth day” (NJPS). And when this God speaks, things happen. “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light” (v.3). Multiple times the phrase “And it was so” follows God’s speech. God declares what reality shall be and it thus becomes reality.
God speaks, and in doing so God simultaneously acts. And at the heart of this speech-act is God’s declaration about the creation, namely that it is “very good” (v. 31). Creation is not an after-thought or by-product; the universe and all things that are in it aren’t slime beneath God’s notice. Instead, God creates and takes pleasure in the creation. God’s creation is judged by the one who made it and it is seen as very good.
As Walter Brueggemann describes it:
God and his creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation. The binding which is established by God is inscrutable. It will not be explained or analyzed. It can only be affirmed and confessed. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relation with earth…The binding is irreversible. God has decided it….The mode of that binding is speech (Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, 23-24).
Lastly, God creates humans, makes them in God’s image, and creates them male and female. Far from the image of man and woman in Genesis 2-3, in Genesis 1 male and female are created together, as if they were equal but distinct reflections of God’s nature. Thus there is a sense that you cannot properly conceive of God without the masculine and the feminine.
One could easily get bogged down in the cosmology, in the order of creation, in all the details, but that is somewhat losing the forest for the sake of the trees. Instead, from a homiletical standpoint, the most proper approach to this text is to speak like the text. Or to paraphrase Fred Craddock, to preach the Bible we need to preach like the Bible. The text is poetic, majestic, awe-inspiring, emotional, full of images and movement. To try and pare the text down to science or to pick apart words and phrases, to focus on the trees so much that you lose the majesty of the forest does a disservice to the flow and rhythm of this kind of text.
As you study the text, and as you preach it, invite yourself and invite your congregations to hear and see the mystery of creation, the wonder of the heavens, the beauty of the earth. Ultimately, let the text be the text, let it speak and move. Give the brooding, hovering Spirit room to move in your midst, sweeping over the dark waters of our hearts, ready and waiting to be made a new creation, restored just a little bit more to the image of God we were originally created in, finding anew God’s creative and nourishing love for us as we ponder “the story of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (2:4a NJPS).