Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5
Genesis 1 is a grand symphony of a text: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
It is majestic, liturgical, epic prose.
“And God said … ”
“There was evening and there was morning … ”
“And God saw that it was good.”
It is a beautiful passage. Like many well-known biblical passages, however, the very familiarity of this text may lead people to skim over it, nodding in half-somnolent agreement with the pleasant rhythm of the words. Its familiarity is a challenge. How does one preach on such a text?
And what does this very-familiar passage have to do with the baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate in these early January days? Well, perhaps more than a first reading.
We encounter elemental things in both the Genesis and Mark readings for today: water, wind, darkness, light. The Spirit of God (ruach elohim) that broods over the face of the waters at the beginning of creation descends on Jesus as he comes out of the waters of the Jordan. The voice that says, “Let there be light” at the beginning of time now declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
There is an element of wonder and wildness in both texts. I’ll concentrate on Genesis 1, of course. The first few verses could be translated, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was wild and waste, utter darkness covered the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light.”1
This is a story not so much about creation-out-of-nothing but about creation out of a world that is wild and waste, formless and void (tohu va-vohu in Hebrew). There are biblical texts that support the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (like Hebrews 11:3 and Romans 1:20), but Genesis 1 is not one of them. In Genesis 1, the world as we know it is created out of formless matter and out of the watery abyss that lies below the earth according to the cosmological worldview of the biblical writers.
To be sure, Genesis 1 does not describe the world of ancient Near Eastern creation myths, where the gods have to defeat the sea or the sea dragon in order to create the earth. There is only one God in Genesis, and that God is the Creator of everything, including the sea monsters themselves (Genesis 1:21). There is no chaos-monster in Genesis 1 that must be defeated. Nevertheless, there is “the deep” (tehom), the watery abyss. These primordial waters described in Genesis 1 are the symbol of chaos in many ancient Near Eastern stories, including some biblical accounts. In the flood story of Genesis 6-9, the waters of the deep (tehom) well up to return the world to primeval chaos (Genesis 7:11). In Isaiah 51:9-10, the deep (tehom) is the setting both for the defeat of the sea dragon and the dividing of the Red Sea.
In the creation story of Genesis 1, then, the raw “stuff” of creation are these primordial waters and the formless “wild and waste” of the earth in verse 2. But over these waters broods the Spirit of God. The NRSV reads, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This is certainly a possible translation, but “wind” and “spirit” are the same word in Hebrew (ruach), and the verb translated “swept” is used in Deuteronomy 32:11 to speak of a mother eagle hovering or brooding over her young ones.
The fourth century church father Ephrem the Syrian picked up on this image of a brooding bird when he wrote of Genesis 1:2:
“[The Holy Spirit] warmed the waters with a kind of vital warmth, even bringing them to a boil through intense heat in order to make them fertile. The action of a hen is similar. It sits on its eggs, making them fertile through the warmth of incubation.”2
The Holy Spirit as a brooding hen, incubating her eggs — it is an unusual image, to be sure, but it is also compatible with the later image of those same waters bringing forth life at God’s command, teeming with creatures of every sort:
“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:20-21).
Whales and walruses, sea dragons and squid — the waters teem with life and it is wild and varied and wonderfully free. These primordial waters (as we know not only from Scripture but also from evolutionary science) are the birthplace of life. And that life comes forth at the command of a God who creates it all out of sheer joy and delight. Annie Dillard is certainly right when she claims, “the creator loves pizzazz.”3
Here’s the thing to remember, as you preach this wild and wonderful text on this Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord: The God who calls forth life from the primordial waters is the same God who calls us to new birth in the waters of baptism. Ephrem the Syrian saw this connection, too, with Genesis 1:
“Here, then, the Holy Spirit foreshadows the sacrament of holy baptism, prefiguring its arrival, so that the waters made fertile by the hovering of that same divine Spirit might give birth to the children of God.”4
The Spirit who broods over the primordial waters descends on Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and names him “Beloved.” That same Spirit then drives him out into the wilderness, the wild and wasteland (Mark 1:12). In the waters of baptism, God names us “Beloved,” and then calls us to live out our new birth in this wild and beautiful world that God loves so much. We do so as children of God, in the name of Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
1 My translation, though the phrase “wild and waste” is borrowed from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (The Schocken Bible; New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 13.
2 Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis 1,” cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11. Ed. Andrew Louth (Intervarsity Press, 2001), 6.
3 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper & Row, 1974), 137.
4 Ephrem the Syrian, “Commentary on Genesis 1,” 6.