Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 11, 2017
Genesis 1:1-2:4a Commentary
Questions about the age of the universe, earth and the human race intrigue at least some 21st century Christians. Some wonder just how God guided the development of creation and its creatures. So God’s people sometimes turn to passages like this Genesis 1 and 2 for answers to those hard questions.
However, it’s important to ask if Genesis is even interested in those sometimes-divisive issues. To honestly answer that question God’s adopted sons and daughters need to ask just why God inspired someone to write the book in the first place.
Texts like 1 Timothy 3:16 at least suggests that God inspired someone to write books like Genesis in order to, among other things, teach us about our gracious God who creates and sustains life. After all, once we know about God, we’re better equipped us to thankfully respond to God’s grace with our good work.
Confusion about God was rampant in the ancient world. Not just the Israelites but also virtually everyone believed gods existed. They believed those gods had all sorts of different roles. The Acadian creation story, for example, mentions gods that are tired of all the work they have to do. So they create humans out of clay and the flesh of a god in order to lighten their workload.
So how could God teach an Israel that had spent millennia enslaved in spiritually confused Egypt about God’s true nature? How could God prepare Israel for life in spiritually chaotic “neighborhoods” like the land of promise and the Babylon into which God later exiled her?
How does the Church prepare its children for life in a world that samples from a perhaps even bigger buffet of gods? How does the Church prepare its members to live and work in a world that has so many different ideas about God?
Genesis 1-11 is in part God’s inspired response to the plethora of gods in which people have nearly always believed. In fact, it’s, among other things, perhaps even primarily, a passionate argument against the false gods we naturally and eagerly worship.
Our text, for example, insists right from its beginning that only one, not many gods exists. The sun, moon and stars are not, as Israel’s neighbors assumed, creators, but creatures. The planets are part of God’s creation and so do not, as some of our contemporaries believe, shape our destiny. Even “the great creatures of the seas” (21) that Israel’s contemporaries assumed were gods are only creatures.
So while God is intimately involved with what God creates, Genesis reminds us that creation isn’t itself divine. As a result, things like the sun and moon can’t destroy us because they’re not gods. The “creature” that is the seventh day of the week brings not bad luck, as the Babylonians assumed, but an opportunity for rest.
Genesis divides its description of God’s work of creation into six “days.” Each follows the same pattern. Every “day” begins with an announcement: “And God said …” So Genesis 1 reminds God’s people that while our world’s origins may look random, its design isn’t accidental. Creation is what it is because God both somehow both speaks it into existence and guides its development.
Our text then insists that on each “day” “there was,” or “God made,” or “God created.” When, after all, God speaks, things happen exactly as God commands. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, from whose commentary Genesis (Zondervan, 2001) I drew many ideas for this piece, notes, God’s word is finally irresistible and creative.
So while many religions believed that creation emerged from a battle among the gods, Genesis insists that God fights no one to create the heavens and the earth. God simply speaks, and creation somehow happens.
Yet when God speaks, things also begin to separate: light from darkness, water from land, and fish from birds. Boundaries are, after all, as Waltke points out, important in both creation and society. When everything does what God created it to do within those boundaries, there is order. When, however, creatures blur boundaries by failing to fulfill the purpose for which God made them, there is chaos.
Our text notes that once God creates, God also “grades” God’s handiwork. The narrator repeatedly tells us that “God saw that [it] was good.” In fact, verse 31 reports that when “God saw all that he had made, it was very good.”
Yet when God evaluates God’s creation, God is assessing not its moral quality, but its fulfillment of the purpose for which God created it. So, for example, God calls the sun “good” because it emits light and warmth. Humanity is “good” when it increases in number, subdues the earth and rules over other creatures.
Yet while our text speaks of God doing such good work on successive “days,” those days weren’t necessarily 24 hours long. Studies of God’s creation at least suggest that God’s creative work lasted longer than 6 24-hour days.
So to understand what Genesis wants to communicate by talking about “days,” we look at verse 2’s, “the earth was formless and empty.” This suggests that before God’s creation of days, that creation was a chaotic place that didn’t produce life.
Verses 3-13 then report that on creation’s first three “days,” God gives “formless” creation form by creating various functions. On those days, after all, God creates things like light, the sky, dry land and vegetation.
In the second three “days” God then fills the “empty” earth with things that carry out those functions. So on days four through six, God creates things like the sun, moon, stars, birds, fish, and animals and, finally, human beings. This movement from verse 1’s chaos and formlessness to verse 2 and subsequent verses’ “days” may least at least suggest that “day” largely refers creation’s proper functioning on it.
Yet while God spends those days somehow speaking all of created things into existence, God graciously speaks to only to human creatures. God addresses our first parents in order to bless us by giving us work to do in God’s creation. What’s more, while verse 25 reports that God creates other creatures according to their “kinds,” to resemble each other, God creates people, according to verse 26, to somehow resemble God.
So while we’re not gods, God creates us to imitate God in fundamental ways. Among those ways, much like God fills the earth, people “fill the earth” by bearing children. What’s more, just as God rules over the earth whose chaos God subdued, people carefully “rule over” every living creature that God makes.
Our text closes its description of God’s creative work by noting that God graciously gives people food to eat. After all, in order for us to be “good” in the sense that we do what God created us to do, we need the energy that God provides through food.
At the end of those creative six days, Genesis 2:2 reports, God “rested from all his work.” Yet were God to completely rest, we’d die. What’s more, passages like Psalm 104 use present tense verbs to describe God’s ongoing creative activity. So we’re not surprised that when we read the “book” that is God’s creation, we see God still creating things like babies, streams and valleys.
How, then, might we understand God’s “rest”? It suggests that God recognizes that the initial work God had set out to do is finally complete. What’s more, God now has people and creatures that can help with some of the ongoing work of not just of caring for what God makes, but also of creation.
So how might we invite students and worshipers to think about Genesis 1? It doesn’t teach science in the way we usually understand that term. After all, the kind of scientific writing with which some of us are familiar is only a few centuries old.
What’s more the Israelites simply didn’t know as much about the “hard sciences” as we do. So had the Lord spoken to them in modern scientific terms, no one would have understood what God was talking about.
Nor is Genesis history in the exact way we think of it. It certainly does tell about God’s creative acts. Yet there are no human eyewitnesses to those acts to record the kind of history we record in, for example, textbooks. What’s more, Genesis 2’s order of creation differs from Genesis 1’s.
Yet Genesis does teach extremely important things. It teaches a culture that suspects that matter is eternal that God created matter. Genesis 1 and 2 teach a world that can’t agree on what God’s like, to say nothing of whether God even exists, that God is a loving creator and caretaker.
In a society that increasingly lives largely for its own pleasure, Genesis 1 reminds us that God created us to fill and take care of the earth. In a culture that finds it hard to rest, it insists that God created us for weekly rest.
That rest provides God’s adopted sons and daughters with, among other things, opportunities to bless the Lord in praise. Our text, after all, reports that God blessed “living things,” human beings and the Sabbath.
So in order to know God you and I study the two “books” that are creation and the Scriptures. Yet Christians don’t study things like Genesis and genomes, Song of Songs and cell biology just to learn more about them. We also see classes in science or history as opportunities to learn more about what God’s does. Peeks into telescopes or solving physics problems help us to understand what God makes. Even our time with other people brings praise to our lips because they resemble the God who created us.
Sometimes it’s easier to notice a creature than its creator. One of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web’s special creatures is a pig named Wilbur. He’s enjoying his new home until one day he learns that eventually farmer Homer Zuckerman will probably kill him and turn him into bacon and ham.
So Charlotte the spider hatches a three-step plan to save Wilbur. First, she writes the words “SOME PIG” in the middle of her spider web. This makes everyone think that Wilbur is something special. In fact, they think he’s “some pig.”
Charlotte then launches the second slogan in her Save Wilbur Campaign: “TERRIFIC.” This convinces Zuckerman that Wilbur is so terrific that he should take him to compete in the county fair. Finally, Charlotte weaves the third catchphrase into her web: “RADIANT.” This summons the whole county to visit the Zuckerman farm to see this radiant piggy.
Charlotte has definitely convinced people that Wilbur is a special little guy. Yet once the Zuckermans get to the County Fair, the spider has one more chance to show off her friend. So Charlotte weaves her final sign. This time it says: “HUMBLE.” All the fairgoers agree: that’s one humble pig.
E.B. White adds: “Everybody who visited the pigpen had a good word to say about Wilbur. Everyone admired the web. And of course nobody noticed Charlotte … Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.” [Italics added]
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