Sermon: Unpacking Genesis 1

NOTE: This audio is a little scratchy at points. We had a (pretty hilarious) sinking podium problem, and the audio recorder eventually went into a pocket. Most of the laughs and gaffs have been edited out for the sake of the audio making sense. 

Reflection Quotes and Sermon Text below.

Reflection Quotes


NOTE: There are and have been many different ways of reading Genesis 1 in the life of the church, not without contradictions. Here is just a sampling of a few prominent voices from the past and present.

“It must be said that our [biblical] authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.”  …  “In the beginning were created only the germs or causes of the forms of life which were afterwards to be developed in gradual course.”  …  “Simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world's creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days… What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!”

— St. Augustine, excerpts from The Literal Interpretation of Genesis and The City of God

“If the Lord wanted to teach us that creation took place in six literal days, how could He have stated it more plainly than Genesis does? The length of the days is defined by periods of day and night that are governed after day four by the sun and moon. The week itself defines the pattern of human labor and rest. The days are marked by the passage of morning and evening. How could these not signify the chronological progression of God's creative work?”

— John MacArthur

 “For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? …And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.”

— Christian apologist, Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis (c. 225AD)

“The inspired penman in [Genesis] … [wrote] for the Jews first and, calculating his narratives for the infant state of the church, describes things by their outward sensible appearances, & leaves us, by further discoveries of the divine light, to be led into the understanding of the mysteries couched under them.”

— John Wesley

“As many have noted, Genesis 1’s prose is extremely unusual. It has refrains, repeated statements that continually return as they do in a hymn or song. There are many examples, including the seven-time refrain, “and God saw that it was good” as well as ten repetitions of “God said”, ten of “let there be”, seven repetitions of “and it was so,” as well as others. Obviously, this is not the way someone writes in response to a simple request to tell what happened.”

— Tim Keller



Sermon Text

How do you know that it’s all going to be OK? We say that to our kids, and sometimes we wish somebody would say it to us. The world is a scary place. There are potentially chaotic forces all around. Even in modern times, there are tsunamis and floods and storms and earthquakes that can suddenly threaten our well-ordered lives with chaos and death.

Human life is fragile, and we must all endure the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Life seems fleeting and futile, and sometimes it’s hard to believe there’s any purpose to it at all. These are the deep, existential realities of human life that live quietly in the backs of our minds, and cause us to search for answers.

Who or what has the power to bring order to the chaotic forces of nature? What can make our lives prosperous and meaningful? And what is the purpose of human life in the world? These are the questions that are of utmost concern to people in any time and place. And these are the very questions that the first creation story of Genesis seeks to answer.

So, that’s what we’re going to examine here. And we’re going to look at just two things. First, we’re going to try to hear Genesis 1 in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture, which would have formed much of the thought-world of the book’s first hearers. And second, we’re going to look more closely at what it has to say to us in the present.

A Note About Interpretation History

Let’s try to read Gen 1 in its ancient context. Gen 1 is so old, that’s hard to do.

I’ve included some quotes above that show that in the past and present, prominent thinkers in the church have read the book in very different ways. In any era of the church – you can find quite conservative, orthodox Christian thinkers who read Genesis 1 in a largely literal way and others who read it in a more allegorical or symbolic way. And now with the rise of modern science and skeptical biblical criticism, this has become a heated debate within the church.

But looking back through history, we see that the various readings of Genesis tend to reflect the thought world of their time. When Origin of Alexandria said it was obvious to any thinking person that Genesis 1 was written figuratively, that was very much in line with the scholarly school of thought in Alexandria at that time, which believed allegory ought to preempt historical accuracy when necessary in order to convey a deeper meaning.

And Christians today, who defend Genesis 1 as a woodenly literal and purely factual account do so very much in keeping with our culture’s preference for empirical facts. But what I want to do this morning, is to leave all that behind for a bit (I’m not going to weigh in on it), and to see if we can come at the text from a different angle.

Genesis in Its Ancient Context

The Bible tells us that the Israelites were always tempted to engage in the worship of foreign gods – usually the Canaanite gods. This tells us something important about Gen 1. This creation story did NOT exist in a vacuum. The Israelites were well aware of the stories and theology of their neighbors. We’ve known that for a long time, but until relatively recently, we didn’t know much about what those alternate beliefs, stories, and practices were. But now, thanks to the work of archaeologist, translators, and scholars of ancient literature, we can (for the first time in Christian history, really), read Genesis in context with its ancient cultural milieu.  So, let’s take a look at that context.

The creation myths of the Canaanites, early Babylonians, Egyptians, Akkadians, and other of Israel’s neighbors were all quite varied, but they had some family resemblance.

For one, they all saw nature as a conglomeration of forces. And they personified these forces as various deities and described the actions of nature in terms of dramas in the divine realm. Creation was the byproduct of procreation and a struggle among the gods. The storm god battles his great great grandmother, the chaos god of the primordial sea and defeats her, then tears her body in two to create the seas above and below the heavens.

We can note here that this image of separating things into parts is common in ANE creation stories. The primordial sea is separated from the primordial hillock, etc.

Also, these were not stories of gods creating the world from nothing. They were more like stories of gods putting a cosmic house in order. The oldest parent gods and the elements of nature they were associated with were thought to be preexistent but originally disordered. The creation process happens as the pantheon expands and the chaotic forces become ordered. BUT, earth and humanity come into existence somewhat accidentally or as an afterthought. They’re not in any way purposed from the outset.

The gods weren’t only associated with nature, each god would also be associated with one or more abstract concepts – such as love, war, justice, or fertility. So, if you wanted a baby, you’d sacrifice to god A, and if you needed success in war, you might look to god B or C.

There’s also a recurring theme that humanity was created to serve the gods. The gods didn’t want to work. So, humanity was created in order to provide the gods with food. That was the thinking behind their sacrificial systems. Serving the gods through sacrifice was how humanity could feel a sense of control over their natural surroundings ­– by managing the gods, you help keep the natural world in order. That’s how you know it’s all going to be OK. You keep up the proper worship of the gods, feeding and clothing their idols.

So, these peoples didn’t tend to have a warm and fuzzy relationship with their gods. For the most part the gods were there to be pleased and appeased, and they were well known for turning against humanity for a capricious reason, or for no reason at all.

Finally, creation myths were often deeply associated with temple cults. In some examples, a god’s creative activity would be directly reflected in the establishment of the god’s temple as its dwelling place – and the god’s image would be erected there to signify its presence.

Genesis 1 is Similar & Different

With all that in mind, let’s take another look at Genesis 1, and what we notice is a family resemblance, and a lot of difference!

Like the other creation stories of its day, Genesis 1 starts with chaos, which are symbolized by darkness and a primordial ocean. And like the other myths, creation proceeds through a process of separating and ordering – light from dark, earth from water. Creation is NOT as much about making things from scratch, as it is about setting up an ordered universe and making it function. And in functioning, it functions as a temple.

But the differences are much more pronounced. For one, there is only one God, and He is not identified with any aspect of nature – that is totally unique to Judaism among ancient world religions. And the writer of Genesis is careful that the readers should know that. That’s why certain key words are avoided here. Hebrew language was a Canaanite dialect. And the Hebrew words for sun, moon, and sea recalled the names of Canaanite gods. So, Genesis describes the sun and moon as the greater and lesser light, and always uses a plural form for the sea. And the primordial sea and sea monsters which have such an exaggerated role in the pagan stories are here put in parallel with waters and fish.

Genesis has a kind of polemic in this way. The personified cosmic powers are subdued and demythologized. God has total control over them and they are part of his good creation. It’s like when your dad shows you that the monster in your closet is just his old coat.

One of the most important distinctions is that God created the world and humanity with a purpose. The temple metaphor comes in here. God creates the world as a sort of cosmic temple in which to dwell, and sets up humanity as his image bearers within it. Where Israel’s neighbors’ view of humanity is very low, humans are slaves to the gods, Gen 1 reveals a God who creates humanity in love and gives them freedom and authority to join Him in his creative process. Gen 1 thus introduces the idea of human dignity to the world.

Given this reflection, we might ask why the Israelites would ever be tempted to serve other gods. The God of Israel is just so much more attractive. I think the reason is that a God who gives freedom is a God that is free. A God who loves is a God that can’t be controlled – He’s not safe, but He’s good. By contrast, the Canaanite gods were transactional – give them something and they’ll give you something. That kind of worship gives you a sense of control. The God of Israel is never like that. Worship is never appeasement, but is always a proper response to His love, and a sign that we depend on Him for everything.

Relevance for Today

Looking at Genesis in these terms shows us how much it has say against idolatry. Idol worship promised stability in an unstable world, but Genesis 1 says no, that’s a dead end. There is a loving Creator whose power is over all – He created you and wants to have a deep relationship with you. Forget these idols and set your hope on Him.

And I think that message is still very relevant for us today, because we’ve now demyth-ologized nature, but we haven’t fully demythologized our culture. Our modern culture is replete with idols of a sort – things which we set our deepest hopes on and trust to bring our lives order, meaning, and prosperity. Wealth, physical attractiveness, romantic fulfillment, education, political control, military might, career prestige, and other aspects of modern life appear to us like demigods promising freedom from the ever-present specter of death and destruction, each with their own temples, cultic practices, and sacrifices.

I often find myself compulsively drawn to rummage through the political headlines in my news app. But I don’t feel the same urge to pray for my neighbors and the world.

The normal, everyday good things in our lives become snares for us when we start to trust them more for our security and happiness than we trust in our Creator; they capture our minds and our hearts; they turn us inward and impede our ability to love our neighbors. Ultimately, they enslave us.

To this, Genesis 1 loudly declares, “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was uncreated chaos, but even the chaos was under the power of the Spirit of God, and God said, “Let there be light!” Let there be order. And He saw that it was good.

Without God, all is uncreated disorder. And when we reject God, by serving other gods or by putting our trust in created things, we don’t gain the control over our lives that we seek. Instead we reject God’s goodness and unwittingly collude with the powers of chaos.

And of course, that is what we have all done, in various ways. But, thanks be to God, that He did not justly abandon us to our own devices. Quite the opposite, though he was wholly distinct from creation, He stepped down our world himself and took the darkness, chaos, and death upon himself in our place. The love of God for us, as seen in the cross of Jesus is love you cannot earn and cannot control. But for those who will receive it, we find our purpose and security in the one through which all things were made. So that even when all in life is not OK, we can know that we are eternally secure in the love of the God who created us according to His good purposes, and that He will bring us at the last to a renewed life in a renewed world, with Him.