April 23, 2017
One of my most “liked” Facebook posts was a picture of a Bible on display at a bookstore. It had a tag proclaiming it to be a “Signed Author Copy.” Unfortunately, I never got to see the Bible in real life, so I have no idea who has signed it. Assuming God is too busy to sign autographs these days, I wonder whose John Hancock possibly graced the pages of that Bible : Paul, Matthew, John? Micah, Hosea, Moses?
The Bible contains 66 books and was authored by at least that many writers. Theoretically, Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible—but observant, learned scholars have pointed out that these books contain stories of things that happened after Moses died. Which, among other reasons, makes it rather unlikely that Moses is, in fact, the author.
Within the book of Genesis alone, we have writings from at least two—if not three—ancient traditions, with the definite possibility that more than one individual wrote and edited the various pieces attributed to each tradition. In seminary, I learned to lovingly refer to the writers of Genesis as J, E, and P. (Perhaps one of them signed that Bible.)
One thing scholars often point to in making the case for multiple authors of Genesis is the fact that there are two distinct creation stories. We heard one this morning. It’s the first one in the Bible, but the second one to be written. The first creation account written is the one found in chapter two, where Yahweh forms man from the dust of the ground. Then God creates the animals, but no “suitable helper” is found for Adam, so God puts him to sleep, takes a rib . . . you know the story.
That’s the first story written—by the Yahwhists, or J tradition, which was associated with Jerusalem’s royal court. It’s a story that does affirm God’s role in creation, to be sure. But as a story, it’s really about people. The creation piece of the story is relatively brief, and then we move into the part about the snake and the fruit and the curse. This first-written creation story is focused on how humans act within God’s creation.
But this second-written story from Genesis 1 is all about God. None of the humans—or animals—are given names. God is referenced by title or pronoun 44 times in these 35 verses. This story is all about God, about all the things God did: God created, God said, God saw, God called, God made, God blessed, God rested.
It may not surprise you to learn that this second creation story is generally attributed to the P tradition—that is, the priestly tradition. Makes sense, right? That the priests would be the ones focused on God. Preachers can be annoying that way: God this. God that. God, God, God. . . .
For sure the different authors have something to do with the different emphases of these two stories. It makes sense that the royal court would be interested in talking about humanity’s place in creation. And it makes sense that the priestly writers would focus on God’s role. But the differences are not just due to the different authors. These stories also come from different times in the history of the Israelites. The historical context in which the story of Genesis 1 is told proves to be very significant.
The context is the Babylonian captivity. Perhaps you remember it—or remember me talking about it. The Babylonians decimated the northern kingdom of Israel, destroyed the temple, killed indiscriminately, and took many of the Israelites into captivity in Babylon. It is for this traumatized people that the priestly tradition records this foundational faith story: “In the beginning . . . “
That was a time when Israelites were in danger of turning to other gods. During that time, nearly all people—even the Israelites—believed in multiple gods. Religion was not a question of finding some deeper, spiritual, existential truth. Religion was about picking the winner. Casting your lot with whichever god you thought would come out on top. Perhaps you remember the battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal? With the big pyres and calling down fire from heaven? That was proof to the Israelites that their God, Yahweh, was the best, most powerful God. Because Yahweh won the fire battle.
But the Babylonian captivity? Well, that seems to be proof of something quite different. The military victory of the Babylonians seems to suggest that it is Marduk, the Babylonian god, not Yahweh, who is the strongest, most powerful god. In the midst of the Babylonian captivity, many Israelites no doubt faced a crisis of faith: Are we worshiping the right God? Does our God care about us? Is our God able to protect us?
Do these questions sound familiar? I think we, too, are living in a time where we are in danger of turning to other gods. Certainly some of have turned to the gods of nationalism. Others to the gods of intellectualism. Most of us, if we’re honest, are sometimes afraid that our God is not strong enough to get us through this current, frightening situation.
In the midst of this faith crisis, we are given a story that re-affirms the power of our true God. A God who created the world. A God who is active in the world. A God who considers the creation of people “very good.”
That was a time when most Israelites’ lives had been thrown into chaos. They were either captives in a foreign land or left behind in their decimated homelands. Their homes had changed, their relationships had changed, the political reality in which they lived had changed.
I imagine the chaos sounds familiar. When we don’t know from one day to the next what our president’s position is on significant national and international issues. When we hear of bombs being dropped, agency budgets being cut, healthcare reform maybe coming to a vote again.
In the midst of chaos, we are given an orderly story. I know the scripture reading this morning was a bit long—more than an entire chapter—but I think it is worth hearing the entire passage for us to understand the careful structure of the story. “There was evening and there was morning . . . There was evening and there was morning . . .” This story assures us that, despite the chaos of our lives at this moment, the world is ultimately perfectly ordered according to God’s design.
That was a time when the Israelites were living in fear of scarcity. It seemed that there was not enough of anything to go around. Not enough food. Not enough shelter. Not enough power. Not enough safety.
That same fear of scarcity can be heard all around us today. It is the basis of the “America first” rallying cry. If there is enough to go around, then it doesn’t really matter who is first. But if resources—oil and money and power and respect—are scarce, then we want to be first. Scarcity is at the heart of our tax battles. And it is certainly fueling anti-immigrant sentiment and the wall-building impulse. Because there just aren’t enough jobs to go around.
Into this obsession with scarcity, the priestly story of creation speaks of God’s generous abundance. God controls and creates within the vastness of darkness and light and sea and land and sky. God creates fruit trees of every kind that not only bear fruit, but also seeds to create even more trees and fruit. God creates swarms of living creatures, and every winged bird of every kind. Wild animals of every kind. Cattle of every kind. Bugs of every kind. And people, presumably of every kind. And then, after all of that creation, God says to all of these creatures of every kind to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Plus, God makes the stars. . . . Just imagine the night sky. In the desert. Before electricity. This is a story of abundance.
And, finally, that was a time of hard, back-breaking work. Those who were taken into captivity participated in an extended forced march and may very well have been forced to work in Babylon. Those left behind had to re-build their homes and communities with very few resources at their disposal.
Some of us here worked a grueling 2-3 hours yesterday during our church work day. But, more to the point, we live in a culture that highly values work. The technology that theoretically helps us with our work also makes it possible to do work at all hours of the day or night, to be constantly available, constantly productive. There is so much work to be done.
Into this atmosphere of over-work, we are told a story of a God who rests. It’s amazing, really.
And on the seventh day God finished the work and rested on the seventh day from all the work.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work done in creation.
This priestly story of creation came to the Israelites at a time when they needed this story. When people were feeling overwhelmed, when despair threatened to take hold, when faith was fragile, the priests pointed the people to creation as a sign and proof, not just of God’s existence, but of God’s presence and God’s goodness.
Old Testament scholar Beth Tanner writes: “When doubting God’s power, the writer(s) know to look to the wonder of God’s created world, with all of its lights and stars, all of its plants and animals, all of its symmetry and seasons and wonder. The answer to fear and doubt is actually all around us.”
I suspect that we are, once again, in the midst of a time when we need this story. This Word, the story, reminds us of God’s faithfulness in times of despair. The story assures us that God is worthy of our worship, that God’s order structures the world that feels chaotic, that God’s abundance is a greater reality than what seems like scarcity, that we can—and must—rest regardless of how much work we think needs to be done.
And I suspect that it is not merely the biblical story of creation that points us to these truths, but that creation itself is a testament to God’s faithfulness.