Text: Genesis 1:1-3
The year was 1925. The place was Dayton, Tennessee. The occasion was the trial of a biology teacher, John Scopes. The charge was teaching the theory of evolution, which was illegal at that time. The prosecutor in the case was the three-time Democratic candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan. Using his formidable rhetorical skills, Brian fought fiercely to uphold a Tennessee law that made it unlawful, quote: “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible.”
The year was 580 B.C.E. The place was ancient Babylon. The occasion was the trial of God. The charge was dereliction of duty, having allowed the gods of Babylon to destroy Jerusalem, or even worse, having been defeated by them. The prosecutors in the case were bereaved former citizens of Jerusalem who were now being held hostage on foreign soil, living with memories of screaming children ripped away from their nursing mothers and enemy troops setting their homes and their temple aflame, memories of their women being raped and their elderly men beaten.
In 1925, the Scopes trial tried to turn Genesis 1 into a scientific treatise, but try as you might you can never turn poetry into prose. Genesis 1 was born out of that dark Babylonian exilic chaos. This first creation story from the first book of the Bible was written not for anti-science fundamentalist Jews or Christians, but for distraught hostages. This story claims that from the beginning God has fought chaos wherever it is found. And God has established new life, despite chaos, even amid chaotic exilic life in Babylon.
My late brother was a scientist who could never reconcile the claims of Judaism and Christianity with those of science. He would often cite Genesis 1 to me as an example of the primitive unscientific Bible talk that he rejected. On the other side of the philosophical divide, I had a college roommate who spent untold hours trying to defend Genesis 1 as a scientific account of how God created the world in seven days, even taking one day off.
I loved my brother and I tried my best to love my roommate, but they both missed the point of this first Bible story. This creation story is not about asteroids and amino acids; it’s not a scientific treatise. This story is a poetic theological treatise, a story all about God. When scientists read Genesis 1 and insist that it isn’t good science, they are right. It was never intended to be good either pre-modern or post-modern science. And, when fundamentalist Christians read Genesis 1 and insist that this story depicts divine science, they are partially right. It does depict the divine at work but it is not a scientific story.
The creation story in Genesis 1 is about God bringing about new life, ordered life, out of sheer chaos. And, that story is best told, and best understood, when chaos seems to have the upper hand. The ancient hostages living in Babylon wanted to know how God could have allowed such devastation to occur. They wanted to know if God was even capable of stopping it. They wanted to know where God was in the midst of their misery, if God could hear their cries when chaos was choking the life out of them. They wanted to know if there even was a God.
This is the human situation out of which Genesis 1 was crafted. It is not unlike the Apostles’ Creed that we stand and recite in worship. It is a statement of faith that in the beginning – God, in all beginnings – God, against every situation of chaos – God.
The opening verse of Genesis 1 in Hebrew can be read in several ways. In the early years of the 18th century, Edward Wells wrote: An Help for the More Easy and Clear Understanding of the Holy Scriptures, Being the Book of Genesis (1724). He translates the opening verses in this way: “In the beginning of the world which is visible to us, God created immediately out of nothing those materials, out of which he afterwards formed or made the heaven and the earth.” The problem with this translation is that it translates the Hebrew “tohu wabohu” as “out of nothing.” Actually, that phrase means “out of chaos.” Darkness is over the face of the deep says the poet; the deep being synonymous with the primeval ocean of chaos.
It is no surprise then that the first act of creation is shedding some light on chaotic darkness. For “people who walk in great darkness,” then and now, Genesis 1 tells of a God for whom the greatest forces of darkness have not and will not be overcome, of a God for whom the most daunting forces of chaos cannot withstand the creative, life-transforming, power of God.
On this first Sunday after Pentecost, the most fascinating word in the first verses of Genesis 1 is the Hebrew word, ruah, God’s breath-wind-spirit. The Genesis preacher pictures God’s ruah hovering over the futile, dark, chaotic world like a mother eagle fluttering over its young. Wherever chaos seems to rule, says Genesis 1, God’s breath-wind-spirit blows. And, wherever God’s breath blows, chaos is lessened, light penetrates the darkness and creation is born or reborn.
For those who mistakenly think that the New Testament cleans up or adds a nicer replacement God for the tough God of the Old Testament, read Genesis 1 again and again. God’s ruah brings creation out of chaos from the first story of the Bible to the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to the release of exiles from their Babylonian captivity to the crucifixion story to the ascension story of Jesus to the Pentecost story to our own story.
Whenever you and I soar above our anxieties to work for a more just society, especially for those with meager means, God’s ruah is blowing, a new beginning is at hand. Whenever you and I love our enemies even though they have given us every reason to hate them, God’s ruah is blowing, a new beginning is at hand. Whenever you and I give extravagantly of ourselves and our resources to address the needs of others even though the economy, including our personal economy, is not flying high, God’s ruah is blowing, a new beginning is at hand. Whenever you and I acknowledge the privilege we enjoy simply by virtue of the color of our skin and work to achieve reconciliation across all racial divides, God’s ruah is blowing, a new beginning is at hand. Whenever you and I pledge our lives to make sure that every child baptized at this font both knows the love of God and is safe, including safe from the epidemic of mass shootings, God’s ruah is blowing, a new beginning is at hand.
The year is 2022. The place is Covesville, Virginia. The occasion is the trial of Genesis 1. Will we continue to make a cartoon out of this first creation story by reading it literally either as unbelieving scientists or as believing fundamentalists or will we reclaim this poetic statement of faith in all its theological glory? Will we continue to debate the insignificant matters in this story or will we grab hold of its powerful truth that God’s breath, God’s Spirit still blows order out of chaos in the world and in our lives.
I invite you to read this story one more time and then join me in this daily prayer, “Blow, Holy Spirit, blow.”