I chose to read only the first sentence of this book and of the Bible this morning as I do not intend to consider the account of creation in this sermon. Rather I want us to think about the book of Genesis as a whole as the first book of the Bible. We will read the first chapter and some verses in the second next Lord’s Day morning and consider its account of the creation of heaven and earth then. But a word about this famous opening sentence. One fine scholar has written:
“Few passages from the Bible have resounded more thunderously down the centuries than the account of the creation of the world and of human beings in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, and no words from those pages are more arresting than the first: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ By comparison, other accounts of creation — Plato’s Timaeus, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Ovid’s Metamorphoses — have had but slight influence on thinking about how the world came to be.” [R.L.Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 136]
As you may know, the Hebrew name for the first book of the Bible is its opening word, bere’shit, “In the beginning,” a single word in the Hebrew Bible because the preposition “in” is attached to the noun, “beginning.” Our name for the book, Genesis, which means “Beginnings” or “The Beginning” is a thematic summary of the book and comes from the LXX, the Greek translation of the OT prepared some two-hundred years before Christ. Genesis 1 is written in prose, not in poetry as are the other ANE creation stories. But it is prose in an exalted style, nearer to poetry than most prose is. And we detect that exalted style immediately.
v.1 Verse 1 is certainly a majestic beginning to the greatest and most important book in the world. It is a beginning worthy of the Bible in its simplicity, almost an understatement, its beauty, and its power. Everything begins with God. Before him and apart from him there is nothing. The natural reading of Genesis 1:1, or perhaps better its natural implications, has been the basis of the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. This is the doctrine according to which, as we read in Hebrews 11:3, “the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” You may be aware that in modern times the sentence has been translated differently, either “When God began to create the heavens and the earth…” or “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” These translations did not originate at the time Christians began to seek to reconcile this account with the theory of evolution. They have been around longer than that, but they have become newly popular among some Christians in our modern scientific age. In these alternate translations the suggestion is that when God began to create, the matter and the world in some form already existed but in a chaotic, disorganized state. God’s creation was the bringing of order and purpose to this material chaos. Both translations leave room for the existence of the earth, the earth, that is, with or without living things prior to the Lord’s creative activity. I will not bore you with the details, but it is very doubtful for reasons both of grammar and context that “When God began to create…” is an accurate rendering of the sentence. “The first verse of Genesis briefly records the creation of the universe in its essential form, and the second verse singles out a part of this universe, viz. the earth, and describes its condition in some detail.” [Heidel in Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, 54] In other words, the translation you have before you in your ESV or NIV, which is the translation the Jews had long before given to the verse, the translation you find in the ancient Greek and Latin Bibles, and almost all English bibles, is the straightforward, rendering of the Hebrew words that begin Holy Scripture.
The word “create” as used here, by the way, is used only of God in the Hebrew Bible. For that reason lexicographers, the writers of dictionaries, describe it as a “purely theological term.” [TWOT, vol. 1, 127] It has long been pointed out that nothing is said about how God created things, or out of what he created them. Aristotle defined nothing as that which rocks dream about! We rest content with this: that God and only God is the conceivable explanation of the universe and all that it contains.
“Heaven and earth” is a merism. Merismos is a figure of speech which takes its name from the Greek word meros, which means “part.” In merismos the parts of a thing are mentioned to increase the emphasis or enhance the effect. It is a variation of synecdoche in which a part stands for the whole; “sails” meaning “ships” for example, or “souls” for “people.” If you wish to emphasize that everyone is included, you might speak of “men and women” or “boys and girls” instead of simply “people” or “children.” That is merismos. Biblical writers used merismos frequently. When, for example, it intends us to be impressed with the greatness of the Lord’s blessing, we read of that blessing falling upon the hills and the valleys, the deserts and the cities.” [Ezek. 36:4] The writer might have simply said, “upon the whole land,” but merismos is a much more emphatic way of saying the same thing. Here the point of “heavens and the earth” — the parts of the cosmos — is to emphasize that God created everything; all the parts that make up the whole. There is nothing in the entire universe that he did not make.
This morning we begin a series of sermons on the first book of the Bible. I have preached through Genesis before, but those sermons were delivered some twenty years ago, before many of you became part of this congregation; indeed before many of you were born, or, at least, before you were old enough to remember sermons. What is more twenty years is a long time for the rest of you to remember the sermons that you may have heard. In any case, some books of the Bible must appear more than once in the preaching a congregation hears. John Calvin is reported to have said that a Christian ought to be often in Genesis 3, Romans 3, and John 3, in other words, we ought often to return to the Bible’s greatest statements on human sin and its punishment, on the atonement of Jesus Christ, and on the life-transforming power of the grace of God.
Well, daring to improve on Calvin, we might say that there are three entire books that ought to be regularly studied and regularly preached. Those are Genesis, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and the Gospel of John. This is not to suggest that any portion of Holy Scripture is unimportant, but it remains the case and, I would think obviously so, that any Christian who knows those books inside and out and has absorbed their teaching is going to be well-grounded in the Christian faith and clear about how a Christian ought to live and why. Those three books, and Genesis first among them, are essential to the creation of a Christian mind. But I have other reasons for returning to Genesis, a large book that will require at least several years of sermons.
1. As I have already suggested, Genesis is a fabulously important book of the Bible. It lays the foundation not only for a biblical worldview or philosophy of life, it provides the foundation for the entire edifice or system of Christian doctrine as that doctrine is taught throughout the rest of the Bible. You will certainly have noticed this in your own reading of the Bible. Everything looks back to the first book of the Bible and to its account of the creation, the fall, and the first workings of the grace of God in the life of mankind. Biblical theology, ethics, and spiritual experience is all first taught and illustrated in this first book of the Bible. The nature of human life in sin — the corrupting power of sin — and the redemption and transformation of human life by the grace of God, this is the great story of this first book of the Bible. The fall of the world into sin and death and God’s plan to redeem the world of which we read in Genesis are the grand assumptions that lie beneath everything else we will read later in the Word of God.
Indeed, the opening of the Bible, Genesis, and its conclusion, the book of Revelation form an inclusio, or bookends. The end matches the beginning. In the first the creation of the sea is recorded and then the power of the sea is restrained — in the ancient world the sea was an image of chaos, of dark power, power that threatened the life of mankind — in the last book of the Bible there is no more sea. In Genesis 3 and 4 we have a description of a humanity alienated from both God and one another, at the end in Revelation God is wholly at one with his people and they are at one with one another. Death begins in Genesis 3 it ends in Revelation 21. All humanity becomes twelve tribes in Genesis; at the end of Revelation the twelve tribes have become all humanity; and so on.
When, for example, Paul wanted to demonstrate that the only way sinners can be put right with God is through faith in Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, he turned in both Romans and Galatians to the story of Abraham. The classic biblical illustration of Paul’s NT doctrine of justification by faith turns out to be the account of the life of Abraham that begins in Genesis 12.
When the author of Hebrews wished to assure his readers that the way to get to heaven was by persevering faith in Jesus Christ he reminded them that what was true in their day had always been the case and illustrated his point with the life of some of the prominent figures of the history we read in Genesis: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and so on.
The transformation of the sinful heart, the on-going struggle of the believer with sin, the need to live in hope of the fulfillment of promises, even promises that one will not see fulfilled in his or her lifetime, including the resurrection of the body; it is all there in Genesis before the same truth is made the subject of massive amounts of teaching in the rest of the Bible.
The Christian life, your life and mine, in a way utterly unique among the religions of the world, is a life built upon memory, upon the collective memory of what God has done in the past; not only in our individual lives but in the life of the world and in the life of the church in the world. It is, to be sure, a life oriented to the future, to heaven and to eternity, but that is only possible because believers find themselves en route, and the only way they know that they are going somewhere else is because they have already been somewhere else. No Greek or Roman was ever told to remember what his or her gods had done. But it was the duty of every Jew and is now the duty of every Christian to remember, very carefully to remember, to remember in detail, what God has done, because what God has done is the foundation and the explanation and the guarantee of what he has said he will do.
Listen to this from William Kirk Kilpatrick, one time a professor of psychology at Boston University.
“It is the point of Christianity that we each do play an irreplaceable part in a cosmic drama, a story in which some of the strands only come together in eternity. In such a story, what you do counts infinitely. But even non-Christians and pre-Christians have shared this sense of storied lives. They all believed that the best incentive to moral behavior was this conviction that we are part of a story that begins before us and goes on after us, but whose outcomes we may influence.
“The main reason — and it is a difficult one for non-Christians to grasp — that you cannot extract ethical principles from Christianity and set them up on their own [i.e. make Jesus into simply a teacher of morals] is that Christianity is not an ethical system. It is not meant to be a prescription for good behavior, although good behavior is one of its side effects. It is a story. Christians believe that it is a true story, but a story, nonetheless.” [Cited in Collins, Genesis 1-4, 17]
And that story begins in Genesis and the general outlines of the plot are very clearly laid down in that first book of the Bible.
2. A second reason for returning to Genesis and studying it again is that it continues to be, and in some new ways, a highly controversial book. Its teaching, so beloved by Christians, is increasingly spoken against in our time. The truth the book is intended to convey offends some of the principle prejudices of modern western culture.
You are well aware, of course, of the widespread disbelief in the sentence with which the book opens, at least in the elite culture of our day. That God created the heavens and the earth and that human beings were his special creation and that men and women were made uniquely in God’s image for relationship with him, I say all of this is widely denied if not positively scorned in the American academy and media today. You will hear scientist after scientist assure the listening or viewing audience that the evidence for evolution — the creation of everything by bio-chemical accident — is overwhelming. But ask them to what evidence they are referring and the answer will be either vague or profoundly underwhelming. Do we know that life can spring from non-life? No; we know nothing of the kind and, so far, the evidence seems to suggest that such a thing not only did not happen but could not happen. Do we know that the astonishing complexity and magnificent functionality of the individual living cell could have developed accidentally? No; far from it. The almost unbelievable ingenuity of the bio-chemical machines that cram the interior of the cell and serve so many functions necessary to life seems entirely beyond the reach of chance. And on and on it goes up the chain of life. Can personality arise from the impersonal by accident? Not by any means so far suggested or even imagined by the supporters of evolution. Even as the evolutionary community becomes more strident in its refusal to face criticism of the theory, the reasons to reject it mount up with wings like eagles.
When life-long atheist philosophers such as Antony Flew and Thomas Nagel, immensely influential in their fields, go into print with their rejection of evolution as a theory of origins, you know the science isn’t as settled, isn’t nearly as settled as you are led to believe. When intelligent criticisms of the theory — offered by competent scientists — are met with personal disdain rather than serious debate, you know the defenders of evolution are more insecure than they let on. Evolution is the great creation myth of the modern world, but like most such myths, it demands a great deal of faith, which is why comparatively few people even in our scientific age accept it as the actual story of life. Malcolm Muggeridge, before his death, wrote, in his book The End of Christendom :
“I myself am convinced that the theory of evolution, especially to the extent which it’s been applied, will be one of the great jokes in the history books in the future. Posterity will marvel that so very flimsy and dubious an hypothesis could be accepted with the incredible credulity that it has.”
But it is not just unbelievers, secularists and atheists, who argue about Genesis. The interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis continues to be a matter of bitter controversy among Christians as well. Indeed, we argue about these things even in our own Presbyterian Church in America. We argue about the length of the days of creation, about the age of the earth, about the extent of Noah’s flood and so on. You may be aware that there are presbyteries in our denomination in which I would not be likely to be admitted to the ministry because of the views I have about some of these matters. That is how strongly people feel about the interpretation of Genesis.
And that leads me to the third reason why I have no hesitation to preach through Genesis again.
3. A great advance in the interpretation of Genesis has been made over the past generation as scholars have come to appreciate the literary artistry and sophistication with which it was written.
I need always to be careful about making a statement like that, for fear that people will think I mean to say that, lo and behold, after all these ages, we now know that Genesis has an entirely different message than Christians have thought it did. I don’t mean that at all. Indeed, what the newer scholarship has demonstrated is that the doctrine we always took from Genesis was not only the teaching of the book, but more powerfully and comprehensively, beautifully and persuasively the teaching of that book than even we had recognized.
John Robinson, the pastor of the New England Puritans when they were still in England and Holland, once said, “The Lord hath more truth yet to bring forth from his Word.” He didn’t mean that we were going to learn exotic new doctrines about God and salvation that no one had discovered in the Bible before. But he certainly did mean that the Bible is a book that no one had got to the bottom of in Robinson’s day. It repays study. We will see more the more we look. And that has proved true in our day and perhaps especially in the study of Old Testament narrative, the kind of writing we find in Genesis.
Genesis is mostly narrative, the telling of a story, a true story as it happens. But in that narrative theology and ethics are woven into the fabric of the account in ways we did not fully appreciate before. It is, for example, hard to find a commentary written in the past, that is, before this current generation and stretching all the way back to the beginning of the writing of Biblical commentaries, I say, it’s hard to find an older commentary on Genesis that appreciates the extent to which the narrator of the history of Joseph in Egypt focuses on the figure of Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, Joseph’s older half-brother, or the role that Judah’s spiritual transformation plays in the reconciliation of the brothers to one another, or that the climax of the entire history is Judah’s offer of his own life for the life of his brother Benjamin — the first instance of loving human sacrifice in the Bible. None of this is explicitly pointed out by the narrator. He draws our attention to Judah in subtle ways, the more powerful for their subtlety. But it was a subtlety we missed for centuries until developments in OT scholarship in the second half of the 20th century drew attention to the way in which the history was written, the literary techniques that the biblical authors used to communicate their message, and so on. I imagine that most every one of you adults in the sanctuary this morning who has known the story of Joseph from the time you were a child always thought that Joseph was the hero of that story. I did. It wasn’t until very recently I learned that while Joseph was a hero, but he wasn’t the hero of that story. That was Judah.
No wonder that a few chapters after Judah’s offer of his own life to save that of his brother it should be to Judah, not to Joseph, that the promise is made of a king who would come from his line.; the king who would later be referred to as the lion of the tribe of Judah. We knew long ago that the promise of a coming king had already been made in Genesis; we knew that the promise of Christ and his death and resurrection had been made in some form in Genesis. What we did not see was that the death of Jesus had been prefigured in the life and self-sacrifice of the savior’s great ancestor Judah. There are a great many such “aha” moments that await us nowadays in our study of Genesis.
The last time I preached through Genesis I was most of the way through the book before I became aware of much of this new scholarship and this new appreciation of how the book was written, for how the author laid his message into the narrative itself and how he helped his reader, or in those days his hearer, to detect his message as the book was read out and heard. I’m looking forward to making our way through the book with this perspective firmly in place from the beginning. Our own Jack Collins, who has written an illuminating and highly regarded commentary on the first four chapters of Genesis, writes of developing what he calls “ancient literary competence.” The long and short of that competence is the ability to appreciate the way the story was written to communicate what the author wanted us to learn in the literary fashion of the time. Through the years we have become acquainted with some of the features of OT literary style: the use of key words, for example, or its penchant for understatement, for dramatic contrast, or for the indirect rather than explicit communication of the theological or moral lesson. We’ve noted how the author often puts the evaluative viewpoint or the lesson in the speech of one or another of the characters of the history, and so on. OT narrators show more than they tell. [Collins, 11-12]
We will find that the narrative of Genesis has been very artfully composed. Indeed it has been described as a “masterpiece of meaning.” It is the Bible’s theology and ethics presented in the form of a story, an historical account. Israel, unlike the other people of the ancient world, was obsessed with history not with myth. God was not for her an invention of her imagination or a projection of his own life on a larger screen. God was the Lord of history. So history, which is the outworking of God’s plan, has meaning woven in, under, around and through it. And in the telling of that history we are meant to learn the meaning of life.
So, back to Genesis1:1 and the first sentence of this fabulously important and wonderful story, a true story as it happens. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is a fact with implications so tremendous that it is impossible to overstate or exaggerate them.
“In 1990, the popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, asked NASA to point the cameras on the spacecraft Voyager at earth, in order to take a photograph of our planet from a distance of almost four billion miles. The resulting image is iconic, showing the earth as an insignificant speck in the midst of a sea of empty blackness.”
In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Sagan wrote:
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” [Cited in M. Baruzzini “Lost in Space,” Touchstone (Sept/Oct 2010) 14]
But, of course, that outlook is explicitly contradicted by the opening statement of the Bible. Accept the truth of that one sentence and the world we live in at once becomes not Carl Sagan’s island in an ocean of meaningless darkness, but a world dominated by personality, filled with purpose, shot through with meaning and hope. That first sentence means that this world was made by a person, a person of great power and genius, who manufactured a world to reflect his nature and character and to suit his purposes.
It means that our lives came not simply from somewhere, but from someone! As the apostle Paul would later put it, we live, we move, and we have our being in God. The promise of all that sinful man fears — accountability before God — and all that man hopes for — a life of meaning in this world and a better life beyond the grave – is found in that opening sentence.
We are not alone. We are not an accident of nature. We do not have willy-nilly the characteristics of human life — consciousness, intelligence, morality, emotion and will — we have them because they have been given to us by the one who made us. The utterly remarkable differences between us and the rest of the natural world, especially the rest of the animal kingdom, and the transcendent qualities of human nature are not the random products of mindless chemical and biological forces, but the conscious purpose of an immeasurable intelligence, of a person. What we are as human beings is the artifact of divine manufacture!
And all the words in all the world cannot adequately describe what a difference that makes! Our secular culture has marginalized God. If his existence is not denied outright, it is ignored to the point of irrelevance. He has been removed from effective engagement with society. [Cf. D. Wells, God in the Wasteland, 38] But the Bible puts paid to all that in its very first line. As his creatures, we have to do, every one of us, with God! He gave us this life; we owe our existence to him and the nature of that existence. And so it is our first obligation and our last to know him and to know his will. Begin there and the rest of the Bible will make sense to you. Deny the truth with which the Bible begins and not only the Bible but human life itself becomes an impenetrable mystery. Human beings know that their lives are not dark and meaningless mysteries; how they know it they may not be able to explain, but that they know it they prove every day with the opinions they express, the judgments they render, the feelings they give way to, and the choices they make. At last all of what we know as human life requires an explanation and the first part of that explanation is and must be this: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”