Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5
In the opening verses of Genesis, God exhibits a certain creative style.
On the one hand, it is an orderly, light-filled moment (hence the choice of this text for Epiphany). On the other hand, God’s creational work exhibits a certain messiness, with the wind sweeping across the face of the waters. And who knows what will come of that! The wind blows where it wills (John 3:8).
Creation is not a sudden one-day affair; God doesn’t snap the divine fingers and immediately bring the creation into being. God takes time in creating: There was evening and morning, one day, two days… and given that God has been creating through the millennia, I wonder what number today is for God. Bringing the creation into being over time signals that creation is a dynamic process and not a finished product.
Moreover, this Creator God chooses not to take an “I’ll do it by myself” kind of approach to creation. God catches up the creatures along the way to participate with God in ever new creations: let the earth bring forth; let the waters bring forth… Let us create humankind. God invites the earth and waters and microorganisms and you and me into the creative process.
And, then, at the end of each day, God makes an evaluation of what God has observed: it’s good. The word “good” includes a range of meanings, but one sense of the word is aesthetic — like looking at Rembrandt’s Jeremiah or hearing Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Yes, that’s just right!
But, pray tell, why would God ever need to evaluate what God has done? Wouldn’t it inevitably be perfect? Well, apparently not (see 2:18). God commanded the humans to “subdue” the earth. The verb is here used in a pre-sin context and no enemies are in view; it has the sense of “to bring order out of continuing disorder.” The command assumes that the earth was not fully developed at the end of the seventh day.
God’s creation is going somewhere; it is a long-term project, ever in the process of becoming (as the history of nature shows, with the earth-changing activities of such creatures as glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis). There is continuing disorder in God’s good world that needs to be subdued — yet, that very disorder is also evaluated as good. As Sibley Towner (Genesis [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001] 21) explains: “If there were no freedom in this creation, no touches of disorder, no open ends, then moral choice, creativity, and excellence could not arise. The world would be a monotonous cycle of inevitability, a dull-as-dishwater world of puppets and automatons.”
God’s observations of the creation lead to the conclusion that something is not good (Genesis 2:18). And so God has to make further creative moves before that part of the creation could be called good. Whereas God had done all the evaluating in Genesis 1, God now gives to the human being the evaluative role in the next stage of creation. The animals: No, they won’t do. The woman: Bingo!
And, similarly, along the way God certainly will evaluate each of us. Almost certainly at one time or another that evaluation will be: not as good as it might be, improvement is needed here or there, or perhaps a lot. But certainly many times that evaluation will be: very good.
Your writing, your speaking, your actions, or your way of being with others may be revealing of creative activity that God treasures and honors. Indeed, God so values you that God will confidently entrust you with creative tasks and responsibilities beyond your present knowing. That evaluation may run something like this: what you do and say is good, but the way in which you say it and do it may make the “what” even better. Style counts with God.
Some details. This text does not refer to the absolute beginning of all things, but the beginning of the ordered creation. Following the Revised Standard Version, but unlike the New Revised Standard Version, 1:1 is likely an independent sentence in view of the pattern of other genealogies (5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10).
Verse 2 describes the conditions before God began to order the cosmos. The “formless void” is not “nothing” (earth, waters, wind, and darkness exist), but that which awaits further creative work.
God’s speaking in 1:3 is a personal, deliberate divine act. God’s speaking does not stand isolated from God’s making (or separating, 1:4); God’s word is not the only way of expressing God’s creativity. God often speaks with that which is already created (1:11, 20, 24, 26, 28), so creatures participate in the creative activity initiated by God: The recurring divine evaluation of God’s own work implies an ongoing process, within which improvement was considered possible (as in 2:18). God’s naming in 1:5-10 is a part of the creative process, discerning the place of creatures (parallel to human naming in 2:20).
This evaluation “good” is not taken away when sin enters the world. Sin negatively affects the life of human beings, certainly, and through them the life of other creatures. But nowhere does the Scripture take away the evaluation “good” from any creature. In fact, many texts in the wake of sin will reinforce that evaluation. With respect to human beings: “you are precious in my sight, and honored” (Isaiah 43:5) and “crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).
The image of God’s spirit/wind that “sweeps over” the face of the waters (1:2) suggests creative action that has an ever-changing velocity and direction. Even more, the spirit/wind works with already existing matter such as earth and water; in fact, much of what is created in the balance of Genesis 1 is created out of material already present in Genesis 1:2.
Out of the mess of Genesis 1:2 (understood as chaos/disorder, not evil) comes the orderliness of 1:3-31 — though not without continuing disorder, evident in the omission of certain words and phrases in its normally regular structure.
In sum, God takes the ongoing creational process into account in shaping new directions for the world, one dimension of which is engaging creatures in creative activity. Divine decisions interact with creaturely activity in the becoming of the world. Creation is process as well as punctiliar act; creation is creaturely as well as divine. God’s approach to creation was and continues to be communal and relational.