| Eco-Justice Ministries
Eco-Justice: "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth"
Preaching on Genesis 1
|There are six pages related to the "Preaching on Genesis 1" resources:|
to Show Structure
Sermon Themes &
|NOTE: If you have not read the section of these materials that discusses the presence of two different creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis, with their sharply different messages, please do so now! You will not be able to make full sense of this discussion about Genesis 1 without that background information.|
Some commentators have noted that the Priestly creation story found in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is one of the most intricately crafted chapters of the entire Bible. It is filled with symbolism, meaning, numerological significance and careful structure. This short examination of the chapter will not be able to unpack all of that meaning.
One of the ways that we'll approach this text is by looking at the structure of the entire story. The way the story is told gives valuable indicators about the overall meaning of the account for the Priestly writers.
If the text is thought of as a linear account, going straight through the sequence of days, the order of creation seems very odd. If, however, we recognize that there are pairs of days dealing with similar topics, the flow of the story becomes much more understandable. The general arrangement looks like this:
|Start with chaos & the movement of the Spirit|
|1. Separate light from darkness||4. Populate lights and give them authority|
|2. Separate the waters above and below |
|5. Populate the waters and the air|
|3a. Separate water and dry land
3b. Bring forth vegetation
|6a. Populate the land, and|
create humans and give them authority
6b. Give vegetation for food
The opening verse begins with a setting of chaos and confusion, with darkness and jumbled waters. The Spirit of God (the ruach Elohim) sweeps over the chaos, and begins the creative process. For Trinity Sunday, the workings of the Spirit in creation are a clear tie to the working of the Spirit in the Pentecost story of a week before.
"The heavens and the earth" -- by the way -- is a fairly common term in Hebrew that refers to "everything".
The process of creation begins with three days where God separates the various parts of the chaos into orderly realms.
Then the earth "puts forth" diverse vegetation, each according to its own kind. (In the ancient Hebrew mindset, plants were not considered to be "alive" since -- to those observers -- they did not breathe, have blood, or move.)
Then comes the section where humans are created and given their authority. We'll deal with this in more detail soon, but it is significant to note that the earth does not "bring forth" the humans as it has the other kinds of life.
Still within the sixth day, there is a section that many people don't notice or remember. This is a non-violent creation, and the humans are given the green plants for food -- and all of the other animals are also given the green plants for food.
The heavens and the earth were finished, but the story of creation is not done yet. (The confusion about where this story ends is amplified by the way the Priestly account flops over into the first three verses of chapter 2.)
On the seventh day, God "creates" the Sabbath by resting. God rests, not because of being tired from all this hard work, but because what has been created is complete and sufficient, it is whole as it is. The Sabbath says that creativity and productivity are not the ultimate goal or the end. Rest, enjoyment and praise are at the end of creation. The Sabbath is not good, or very good -- it is holy.
It is also interesting to observe that the Sabbath, as a ritual practice distinctive to the Hebrew people, separates them from all of the other people and nations. The theme of separation that was at the core of the first three days is echoed by the presence of the Sabbath.
Before we get to the humans, and the problematic parts about dominion and subduing, a few other general observations are in order.
Neither do we respect the Priestly story if we try to fit evolutionary processes into the text. In the Priestly view, the orderliness of the creation is eternal and unchanging. Those who first told the story would have been horrified by the idea that the "kinds" of plants and animals might change into new forms. Evolution is a marvelous process -- but it is not what this story describes.
This story is not trying to answer the sorts of questions raised by modern science: What are stars made of? When were they made? How did life come into being? Rather, this story is concerned about how the most important separations of the universe came into being: Why are things divided up they way that they are?
A short-hand way of describing the whole Priestly creation story is with the phrase: "A place for everything and everything in its place."
NOTE: The flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 is important because it describes how this perfect and peaceful world is destroyed and re-created, in order to allow the presence of violence and killing. The world that is created in Genesis 1 is a peaceable ideal, not the current reality. The re-created world after the flood is the less-than-perfect world in which we live. In the covenant that God sets out with all of creation after the flood, there is no mention of humanity's dominion!
The three sentences about the creation and the authority of humans must be read within the context of the whole creation story. Taking that paragraph out of context is guarateed to give a distorted meaning.
Within the orderly, structured, peaceable realm that God has created, the dominion of humans should be seen as roughly parallel to the dominion, the ruling authority, given to the lights in the sky. The task is preserve the order and the goodness of what has been made.
God has created a "very good" universe, a peaceable cosmic environment. When violence appears, or when the things that were separate get mixed together, then the earth becomes "corrupt" or polluted. (Note that Genesis 6:11-- "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence." -- is the prelude to the flood).
When we put the Priestly worldview into those terms of environment and pollution, it is not distorting the meaning of this story to say that the human role of dominion has to do with "environmental protection and pollution control" -- especially with regard to all the other living things.
To address a few of the key terms from that paragraph:
The language about human dominion over the rest of creation is found only in this passage, and in Psalm 8 (which is also in the Lectionary for this date). In the political usage of the Hebrew term for dominion elsewhere in the Bible, there is a very clear sense of control and power -- and the frequent overtone of how much that control is resented by those who are opressed.
In determining the meaning of authority and rule in this story, remember that, on the fourth day, authority is given to the lights in the sky to maintain the order of the calendar. That dominion is a for a caretaking, stabilizing function. It prohibits any sort of change or exploitation. Within the context of the story, the dominion of the sun and stars is the closest parallel that we have to the dominion of the humans.
It is hard to imagine that this story creates a beautiful, elabotate, intricately structured and very fragile "china shop" and then turns the humans loose into it to do whatever they want. It is hard to believe that the destruction and the disordering and the diminishing of life that humans have claimed based on this text is in any way consistent with the intention of God within this story.
Indeed, when violence does creep into this peaceable realm (the Priestly writer never explains how that happens!), it is such a violation of the intention of God that the "the heavens and the earth" -- the whole thing -- must be taken back to the intitial chaos, and re-established in a way that makes very tightly regulated provisions for violence and the shedding of blood.
The Priestly creation story is a closely structured whole, and the entire passage must be taken seriously to understand the meaning of any part of it, especially the paragraph that speaks of humanity's place and purpose in the creation.