In the beginning

It is a time of new beginnings: in the secular world a new year has begun, in the academic world a new semester has begun, and in my world a new class in Old Testament survey has begun. So we begin with the beginning, in this case a meditation on the beginning, with some contemporary sidetracks in [] and some personal reflections that go well beyond survey classes..

The beginning lays the foundation for all that follows. But we must read the beginning from the point of view of the author, who was not there in the beginning, but who has an interest in the beginning. “When God began to create the heavens and the earth . . .” (CEB) there are two things: God and matter. In the beginning matter was a mess, a swirling unformed mass of all that is, useless for anything – but it was matter and it is there as the curtain goes up. We have to go to Hebrews to discover that God created the matter, for that does not interest our author (and may be outside his philosophical comprehension). What is important to him is that it is matter, for unlike the nations around them, they Hebrews, including our author, do not believe that matter was divine. This is not the body of a mother goddess, or any other deity, but just stuff, undifferentiated stuff, and God is present with that stuff: a divine wind sweeps across the deep darkness.

“And God said . . .” God is pictured as a king and the king speaks (the court will appear more clearly in the royal “we” of Gen 1:26); when he speaks things happen. It is not that there are no intermediate agents. But the agents are not important (and in the Hebrew world might have been worshipped if described, just as we worship images, powers, scraps of cloth, and even sports). They rush from his presence to carry out his will, but it is his will.  Our author is also not concerned with how God created – his worldview does not need the debates about science and Scripture that have often occupied us (I have tried to diagram the worldview model that our author is using in my commentary 2 Peter and Jude, and plan to publish another version in my Biblical Theology of the General Epistles, since it is used by 2 Peter) . For him the point is that God created, that only God created and that there is only One who is God, whatever agents or means that God may have used.  That God forms a world capable of being inhabited – that is catalogued in a three-day structure.  That God, in a second three-day catalogue, fills the world he has formed with animate creatures, starting with the heavenly bodies and ending with the creation of humanity.  No tree god, no sea god, no sun god appear.  The one God made it all. He does create humanity in his image, which means as a viceroy to oversee and run the world he has created. But the human being remains a viceroy; he/they never receive(s) independent “title” to the world. Whether the human being in Eden or Israel in Palestine, it is God who retains title. God even retains title to the life of the human being, for in the so-called second creation story we discover that the human is mortal but receives a “sacramental immortality” through the tree of life, as John Goldingay has pointed out. That human being rules all, rules as male and female (there is neither dominance nor subversion until late in Gen 3), but does this under God and is depended on God, including being dependent for life itself.

However long the human beings, that is, the two of, live in this dependent relationship, whether it be eons or centuries or years, that is not a concern of our author. His concern is that this dependent relationship did not last forever, or, perhaps, that it was not the present situation of the human race.  Genesis says that the human being chose independence, chose to take over rule for themselves. “I can make independent judgments – I can say what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. And I believe that this tree is good, even though you said it was bad.”  We have of course been judging ever since. We make judgments about what is right and wrong in the world, and we make judgments about our fellow human being, whether they are right or wrong. We have, in the words of Genesis, become like God, or at least we have made the attempt.

And so, if in the beginning God created, and if in the beginning human beings attempted to take over God’s role and throw off their dependence, then in the beginning (or at least as the story of the  beginning plays out) came alienation and violence. That is content of the rest of the “prehistory” of Genesis (as I call Gen 1-11). But of course there is another side of the story as well, for the One God will call the creation, and especially the human creation, back to himself. He will – in the end – not use violence, but instead absorb the violence of others and so break its power. Indeed, in the Christian story when the God-King returns he speaks a word rather than flashes a sword, for as in Genesis his word is enough, and by his word he reorders and re-creates the world. But that of course is the end of the story, not the beginning.

But the beginning tells us about the tensions of our world. We want to take the world for ourselves, either individually through capitalism or collectively through socialism. [The politics of the right often re-enact Gen 3 in individualistic terms, while the politics of the left do it in collective terms; both have this or that correct, but are wrong in their core assumption of human sovereignty; even Karl Marx was, in some ways right, but without God he could not go back to the beginning, so ends up with humans trying to play God, which results in violence. He seems to know, as we would expect from a man of his age, Paul’s principles, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need,” but he does not have Paul’s Spirit to work out those principles, and without the divine Spirit he gets humans playing God, with predictable results. The right side of the spectrum does no better.] But God has not given up title to the world, for he made it and it is his; we possess nothing, for we are at best viceroys, not kings.  Both of the “isms” (and reds and blues and quite a few other “isms,” slogans, and political principles) belong to the principalities and powers that Paul says rule this present age. Our other human tendency is to deify the world, to make it independent of God. So we speak of Mother Nature or just Nature or natural laws as if they existed or could exist without the creator. [Next time you want some fun, listen to a scientific naturalist, such as Richard Dawkins and see how long he speaks before verbally “deifying” one of the natural forces he believes in.]  Furthermore, because human independence leads to alienation and violence, we see our security in violence or the threat of violence, whether it be our personal security in our personal armament or our collective security in our collective armament systems. [As the Psalmist would say, there is mocking laughter from God and his agents when he hears the words “national security” uttered by some human being in some nation of the world.] We pretend we can be safe and yet live independently of God, that is, independently of the dependence in which he created us and for which he created us. This tension, of course, will be worked out in the rest of Holy Scripture, both in terms of the result of human independence and in terms of God’s solution in bringing human beings back to dependence, which solution ultimately uses a cross and an empty grave.

In the beginning of my day I want to go back to the beginning. The most important things that I do take place in my study. I do Morning Prayer, which places me under Scripture in dependence on the One who is creator.  [My wife and I complete the day with Evening Prayer, the other half of the Daily Office. We will to end our day under the authority of God and in dependence on the creator.]  After prayer, I sit in apophatic meditation, hands open on my lap. I release all to the creator; I grasp nothing for myself. I sit silently in the presence of the One who is, letting go of all images and letting the sharp arrows of love and dependence pierce “the cloud of unknowing” (although often the struggle with my “monkey mind” takes up all too much of the time). Hopefully, this will not just be a pious start to my day but will shape my whole day and how I live every moment of it. Hopefully, I am being transformed into the viceroy (or to use other biblical language, “slave of God”) I was intended to be. All too often the process is too slow (in my eyes); I again grasp for security in something other than him. But in the timing of God, whether it be the timing of eons or of years or of days, I believe a new creation is taking place in me.

In my class we spend a long time in Genesis, or so it seems in relationship to the time that we spend on the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. (There is a bit of hubris in pretending that we can adequately grasp the vastness of the Hebrew Scriptures in one semester, but we do the best we can.) In my life I try to constantly return to Genesis, to retake, by the power of Jesus my King and through the Spirit, the position God created me for. I have not yet arrived “in the beginning,” but Jesus my Lord tells me that I will. I hope to come closer in this life, but in the re-creation of the world, in the resurrection, in the renewal of this earth, I know I will, for in my resurrection I will be part of the new beginning that my Lord has already in part begun.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Account of God’s Acts in Creation Part 2 | Take These Chains

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