1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that your 2015 is off to a great start. I’ll just say it because I know that everyone here is thinking it: Ohio State won their bowl game on January 1, and will be playing for the national championship in just over one week. And all of you Virginia Tech fans out there should be cheering for Ohio State to win on January 12 because if OSU wins, that means that Tech will be the only team to beat the national champions this season! So really, I’m cheering for the Buckeyes for you Tech fans.
Can you believe that it is 2015 already? It seems just like yesterday that we were all worked up over Y2K and the fear that all of our electronic devices were going to stop working, our power grids would be shut down, we would be left without electric, and maybe even find ourselves under attack by other nations. That was 15 years ago! How many of you remember the “Back to the Future” movies from the late 1980’s? The movie was about a time-traveling teenager named Marty McFly who was able to go back and forward in time in a fancy car called a “DeLorean.”
In original movie, released in 1985, Marty McFly went back to the year 1955, when his parents first met. Four years later in the sequel, Marty once again jumped into the DeLorean and went forward twenty-six years to correct a few events. And if you are quick with the math, you know that twenty-six years after 1989 is 2015. That’s right, when Marty McFly goes forward into the future, he lands in our present.
When writing a movie about the future, you have the opportunity to be creative. What will the future hold? And now that the future has arrived, we have the chance to look back at that movie to see if they got it right. The movie was right about things like wearable technology and video calling. We now have things like Google Glass and smart watches. But they got more things wrong than right. The movie expected that fax machines would be everywhere, and you would be hard-pressed to find a fax machine anywhere but in offices today. Of course the movie included flying cars, but those never really “took off,” did they? But my biggest disappointment in the year 2015 is that we do not have “hoverboards.”
The 1989 “Back to the Future II” featured a futuristic skateboard without wheels. It hovered over the ground, whether the ground was smooth, grassy, or rocky. I was nine-years-old in 1989, so you better believe that this was interesting to me back then! And I’m rather disappointed that we still do not have hoverboards in 2015.
However, what we do have is a God who hovers.
What better way to start 2015 than to start “In the beginning?” We often call this passage “The Creation Narrative” because it is the story of God creating the world as we know it. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this text and you may be familiar with the fact that this is passage of scripture that causes some debate in the church as well as between the church and the secular world. Often these debates are about the issue of creation versus evolution. And those are interesting conversations to have. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, today I want to challenge us all to think about something that you have probably never really thought about. We are also going to be learning a lot of vocabulary today as I will be introducing you to “new” words in Latin, Hebrew, and German. If you are like me you probably ate a little too much junk food over the last few weeks, so we need to purge our brains of all of that processed sugar and fill that space with some knowledge. Today we are going to ask the question, Did God create the world ex nihilo or ex materia? The question, in English, Did God create the world out of nothing or did God create the world out of something?
Let’s make this an official quiz. Don’t answer out loud and don’t feel like you need to raise your hand. But answer in your head the question of how God created. Did God create the world as we know it out of nothing? Was there a time when nothing existed but God and God simply spoke the world into existence? Or did God take something, something disordered and chaotic and make something else out of it?
In all honesty, if you know the answer to that question, you are probably the smartest person in the world or you have some kind of unique insight that nobody else has. Because this question has been debated for centuries. You may have a pretty good idea of how the world came into being, but I’m going to guess that your concept of creation is shaped more by tradition than by the Bible. That isn’t to say that what you believe is wrong, but it is debatable.
I have always assumed that God created the world out of nothing, and I assume that you have assumed that as well. But assuming can be dangerous! Look at Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” God has not yet spoken the world into existence, yet we are told that the earth was “formless and empty,” and that there was “darkness over the surface of the deep.” The deep what? I’m not sure, but the text then says that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
God then goes on to make night and day. The Bible tells us that God speaks them into creation by “separating” the light from the darkness. God then makes the sky and the waters by separating the two. Then the land and the seas are made when God gathers the dry ground in one place and the seas in another place.
So when did God make the land and the seas? Did God create the land and seas, or did God simply separate them? I think that Genesis 1 reveals that at the time of creation of the world as we know it, certain things like water and darkness were already in existence.
The reason most of us have never given this any consideration is because we have grown up “knowing” that God created the heavens and the earth by simply speaking. But it turns out that this idea of creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, is a theory that was developed well after Jesus walked this earth, perhaps even as late as the middle of the second century. Some believe that creation ex nihilo is a concept that was developed to confront a particular heresy that developed a “dualistic” perspective on creation (http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2012/05/21/creation-out-of-nothing-is-overrated-for-tony-jones/).
The reason that this matters to theologians is because to suggest that there was something else that existed before the creation of the world helps to explain problems like evil. If everything that exists does not have to be the creation of God, then God does not have to be the creator of evil. Perhaps evil is the creation of some other spirit, a fallen angel or demon?
Or maybe creation took place in steps. Maybe God created the waters and the darkness, the formless void, before the creation of the world that we know. It has been said that the first verse of Genesis 1 could be translated “In ‘a’ beginning,” rather than “In ‘the’ beginning.”
But as fun as all of that is to consider, I don’t think any of it is really the point of Genesis 1 and the creation narrative. I think that to understand the point of the creation narrative we have to consider what God was trying to communicate to the Israelites when God inspired the author of this text to write these words. And that simple word “inspired” is important. I don’t think that these words are here by accident, but by God’s intention. The words of Genesis 1 matter.
We know from the Bible itself that God gave much of what we call the Torah to Moses. We also know that Moses wrote some of this down and much of the Torah existed primarily as oral tradition. It was memorized and passed on from one generation to the next. We also know that Moses did not write everything in the Torah, because the Torah tells us about Moses death and burial, which is kind of difficult to record after you have died. Most scholars today believe that the Torah as we have it was not actually written down in its entirety until the period known as the Babylonian Exile, when the Israelites were taken into captivity by Babylon.
This is where things get really interesting. In 1849 an archeologist found a series of clay tablets in what is modern-day Iraq. Iraq also happens to be the headquarters of ancient Babylon. These tablets are inscribed with the creation stories of the Babylonians, which date from about somewhere between 18 and 11 centuries before the birth of Jesus. So these are ancient stories of creation dating back to the same time as our creation narrative. But these are the creation stories of a pagan nation telling the stories of their pagan gods.
The Babylonian creation stories involve many lesser gods. Two of the main gods are Apsu and Tiamat, who are the gods of the fresh water and salt water, respectively. But these are not gods over the water, they are the water. Another god, Marduk, grows to be the most powerful of all of the Babylonian gods.
Marduk and Tiamat soon find themselves in a disagreement, as gods are wont to do, and Marduk kills Tiamat. Marduk then tears Tiamat’s body into two pieces and makes the earth and the skies. Marduk then kills Tiamat’s husband, Kingu, and makes humanity out of Kingu’s blood.
Imagine that you are an Israelite living among the Babylonians during the exile and you are hearing these stories about the creation of the world and people through the violent acts of the Babylonians and God gives you a message: write down our creation story. Think how they differ. The Babylonian story begins with these deities who are the water, the fresh water and the salt water. And land is only made when one god kills another god and tears her in half. But in Israel’s creation story, there is only one God. And this God hovers over the water in a position of power and authority. The waters are never called a god, but if you happen to think that the water is a god, know who is over that god and in control.
Rather than having to kill one of the other gods to create land, the God of Israel speaks the earth, the skies, the light, and the stars into being. Where Marduk needs to kill another god to create humanity out of his blood, the God of Israel forms humanity out of the clay of the earth and breathes life into humanity. Marduk has to take life to give life. The God of Israel can breathe life into a lump of clay.
We can talk about creation ex nihilo or ex materia, but I don’t think that is the point of Genesis 1. The point isn’t whether or not there was ever a time before creation as we know it when water and darkness existed. The point of the creation narrative is to draw us to the Creator. The point of Genesis 1 isn’t “how” the world was created. The point of Genesis 1 is “who” created the world. While the Israelites experienced exile, separated from their homes, their families, and their temple, they were reminded that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their God, is the one true God over all the world and the creator of the world as we know it. Their God, our God, is a God who gives life.
I want to come back to verse two for a minute. We are told that the earth was “formless and empty” in the NIV. This is actually a difficult and uncommon set of Hebrew words that translators find challenging to bring into the English language. Which is sad, because it is one of the most enjoyable Hebrew phrases to speak. The words are “tohu vabohu.” Tohu means that something does not have a definite shape. It is sometimes translated as “chaos” or “confussion.” Bohu is only used three times in the Hebrew Bible, and means something like “nothingness” or “emptiness.”
So we are told that the earth was a “chaotic emptiness.” But it does not stay like this because our God is right there, hovering over the chaotic nothingness. Our God brings order to disorder. Purpose to the purposeless. Life to the lifeless. Hope to the hopeless.
This last week my family and I made the trip to Ohio to celebrate Christmas. The kids did pretty well in the present department. By the end of the day there was wrapping paper, boxes, and ribbon all around the house. You might even call the scene a bit chaotic. One of the gifts my son received was a set of colored pieces of clay; four or five differently colored pieces of putty. There were also tools included for the shaping and molding of the clay. At first these lumps of clay looked like nothing. But soon, puppy dogs, kitty cats, and of course, snakes were being formed by taking these lifeless pieces of clay and making them into something resembling a live animal.
This reminds me of Jeremiah 18, where we are told that God is the potter, and we are the clay; God will form us as God sees fit. Interestingly enough, there are only two places in the Hebrew Bible where the words tohu vabohu are found side-by-side: in Genesis and Jeremiah. And in both cases, we find examples of God taking disorder and chaos, and forming it into something new, something better.
If you are an old-school Mennonite, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with our last vocabulary word for this morning. The word is “gelassenheit.” Gelassenheit is a German word that has been used in Mennonite churches for centuries. Gelassenheit means something like “yieldedness.” Gelassenheit means to yield your own will in favor of God’s. Another way to understand gelassenheit is to think of it as submitting one’s self to God’s will, no matter the cost.
I’m wondering, as we begin 2015, how many of us feel a sense of tohu vabohu in our lives? Do you sense a chaotic emptiness? A lack of purpose or meaning? Perhaps life has been excessively hectic and troubling. Maybe you have experienced great loss. For you, for me, for us there is reason to hope.
We serve a God who operates in the midst of the chaotic emptiness to form new life. Out of the chaotic nothingness God made the sun and the earth, the land and the seas, the moon and the stars, the animals and the fish of the sea. Our God takes chaotic nothingness and gives it reason, gives it purpose. Our God took the clay of the soil and formed humankind.
With a dose of gelassenheit, yielding to God’s will, God will take the tohu vabohu of our lives and make something special out of it. Because the Bible doesn’t just tell us that God creates out of thin air. No, sometimes God creates out of chaotic nothingness. And when he does, he looks at it and says, “It is good!”