< June 19, 2011 >

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-2:4a

 

It is easy to miss the wonder of a well-known biblical passage.

This is certainly the case with the opening creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Few passages have endured as much scrutiny for a variety of purposes. Yet, one must not allow familiarity to breed indifference. This account highlights God's care for the cosmos and its human inhabitants.

Condescension
It is important to note that this is a creation account from the ancient Near East. Its ancient perspective includes the primordial presence of water, the separation of water to create a potential living space, and the location of water above and below the dividing dome (Genesis 1:2, 6-8; see Job 26:10; Psalm 104:3; 148:3).

This dome is solid and named "sky" (see "dome" in Ezekiel 1:22-26). God puts luminaries in it like lights set in a ceiling (Genesis 1:14-19). But before the lights are inserted, God commands another movement of water so that the land appears as a plane called "earth," enclosed by the sky as a clear, concave lid (Genesis 1:9-10).

Obviously, this view of the sky and earth cannot be harmonized with present day knowledge. It is not the view properly taught in a modern science textbook for middle school. Yet, this is not a fact to be denied or belittled, despite the protest of many. Instead, it is a cause for praise as it illustrates God's willingness to communicate with humans in terms appropriate for a particular place and time.

God inspired this description because it conveys important images about God's fellowship with humanity, the goodness of creation, and human dignity. Yet, these images are expressed in undeniably ancient terms, not in an unattainable universal form. Thus, this text is an example of God's accommodation for the sake of covenantal communion. This is divine condescension.

Communion
Indeed, this covenant communion is the ultimate point of this creation account. God carefully constructs a world for the sake of human flourishing. Each of the first three days prepares the space for an aspect of creation later filled in the final three days. This meticulous attention indicates creation's importance. Repeatedly, God views creation as "good" (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Accordingly, God creates humanity as the apex of this process. Humans are the image of God in the new habitation.1

Day 0 -- Void and Vacuum (1:1-2)
Day 1 -- Light (1:3-5)
Day 2 -- Firmament, Waters above (1:6-8)
Day 3 -- Land, Vegetation (1:9-13)
Day 4 -- Lights (1:14-19)
Day 5 -- Aviary and Marine Life (1:20-23)
Day 6 -- Land animals, Humans, Food (1:24-31)
Day 7 -- Creation Completed, Holy (2:1-3)

This importance for humanity is echoed in another text for this Sunday. Psalm 8 describes humans as a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:3-5). Yet, we know that sometimes people do not experience life in these terms. In fact, Job turns this psalmist's praise on its head when he pleads for relief: "What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?" (Job 7:17-19).

Christ
Further, Paul tells us that sin has ensnared creation and humanity: "For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (Romans 8:19). Yet, Paul also informs us that just as sin, suffering, and death entered through human agency, now forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation re-enter through the human life of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:17).

Likewise, the book of Hebrews describes Jesus Christ as the human who redeems his siblings. In fact, the writer cites Psalm 8, but now applies it to Christ: "As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:8b-9).

Thus, Christ's incarnation is the culmination of God's condescension begun in creation. This confirms that there is no end to God's grace. God created humans in the divine image as creation's caretakers. Yet, when humanity proves irresponsible, God accommodates in the person of Jesus Christ.

Now, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit's power, human beings are called again to represent God's mission in the world. Indeed, Christians are called to model God's grace in their expressions of congregational communion, thereby attracting outsiders to a new identity. For the minister, this expression is encapsulated by imitating God's condescension through the proclamation of Holy Scripture. May each sermon address its listeners where they are, calling them to a renewed life in Christ for the sake of the world.


1 For this schema of the days, see William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Wonder of Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 38-39. Brown ends the first creation account at 2:3, instead of 2:4a.