As in the well-loved PBS series by Bill Moyers on Genesis, we begin a journey through the marvelously rich stories of the Bible’s first book of stories. What was fascinating about Moyer’s creative roundtable conversation was bringing together artists and poets, novelists and theologians to acknowledge we could sit down together and have a deep conversation about what we find in Genesis. Since Muslims, Jews and Christians all lay claim to these same stories, they become the meeting ground to explore as a way for the stories to stir within us and among us about how we can know ourselves and our faith stories better.
It’s in this intriguing book we see God the Creator walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening. The serpent and its wily logic mesmerize us and we watch in horror at the jealous rage of Cain who violently killed his brother. We encounter Jacob as the bold liar and there is the unbearable drama of the near-sacrifice of Isaac under the raised knife of Father Abraham. These are the stories that continue to speak and there is the distinct possibility we might share a conversation about them that speaks to us at a very deep, personal level. Welcome this morning to the first story of the first book of the Bible.
In Genesis we’re told God created the entirety of the universe in six days. God took the chaos of what already existed and organized it into the immensity and complexity of the world. Beginning with near-nothingness, God had a blank canvas upon which to paint and what a masterpiece God spoke into existence! “Out of nothing, something,” we say. All those creative impulses were joined with God’s mysterious purposes and joined together into a sweeping creative flurry that words could not contain.
Before the questions of beginnings ever had voice to raise them, before there were mystics who pondered the world’s beginnings, the proclamation of Genesis spoke forth answers. Pastor and Professor Margaret Guenther wisely confessed that, “The sight of the night sky makes mystics of us all.” Anytime we pause long enough to turn our eyes to the heavens to pay attention to the wonder of the creation, we involuntarily call out God’s name. We cannot help doing so.
But modernity has not always been our friend in making sense of this account of how creation occurred. It’s now been centuries since the development of modern science and biblical interpreters have set up their opposing arguments to explain how and when the poetry of creation took place. Do we read the story of creation as a literal rendering of particular stages on a six-day schedule followed by a single day of rest built on a 24-hour day (a day that could not have even existed until the fourth day according to Genesis 1)? Or is making meaning more complicated than that? In light of the magnificence of creation, literalness seems like such a feeble language to describe what we sense God is doing.
Writer Annie Dillard reports that it was on a dry plain in northern Tanzania, that anthropologist Mary Leakey found a set of hominid footprints left on a trail 3.6 million years ago. They were a barefoot threesome, likely a primitive man, woman and child walking closely together along a trail. They walked on moist volcanic tuff and ash. Thus, we have a physical record of a few moments of existence before hominids even chipped stone tools. More volcanic ash fell and covered their hardened footprints for all this time until they were uncovered in our time. Even the raindrops were left as evidence of a moment in time before time was even measured. Leakey uncovered nearly 90 feet of the ancient trio’s footprints. We do not know where they were going or why.
We do not know why the woman paused and turned to the left, briefly, before continuing with the other two. “Perhaps,” Leakey thinks, “(this) remote ancestor experienced a moment of doubt.” Possibly they watched in horror at the explosion of the nearby Sadiman volcano as it erupted spewing ash and fire. Perhaps they took one last look before they fled for their lives. What seems certain is that none of us will leave a residue so permanent as those three nameless ancestors walking barefoot across the African plain. Nothing we might ever do will last a second on the clock that measures this story.
Could Genesis be telling such a story? Is it possible to see the connection between this story of creation that was not observed by any human witnesses but still accepted as a part of our rich faith tradition that claims God as the Creator and any attempt to tell this story pales in comparison to the act of creation itself? As creations of God, imaged to mirror the divine image, we live somewhere between the anonymity of a sea of nameless faces in a universe that cannot be measured and yet with the realization that God knows each one of us in minute detail. The problem with holding to a literal interpretation is that there’s not just one story of creation to describe what God did; there are two. Not surprising to the ever-whimsical nature of God, the Bible doesn’t flinch about laying them alongside one another, even with all their differences.
The first story is an experience of hearing God speak the world into being. God’s words shoot off into the darkness and the nothingness and the nothing becomes something. The second story isn’t auditory; there are no verbal commands making the world. Instead, the story is more like a drama. God is less a preacher and more a sculptor, bending down to scoop up a lump of clay to shape a new being into creation. God is in God’s studio doing whatever and however God wishes according to the mystery of God’s creativity. And then God picked up the sculpture and “breathed into its nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”
Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree, a 19th century freed slave who explained her adopted name: “The Spirit calls me, and I must go,” making her the poster child exemplifying the spirit of Pentecost in the church. Although Sojourner had been freed from slavery, at one point decided to return to her former owner because her slave life had been easier than her free life. She “looked back to Egypt” as she described it. Most of us would probably agree that freedom is usually harder than slavery. Responsibility is more demanding than dependency. But just as she was about to go back to her old life, she had a vision from God. In her vision she saw that God “was all over, and that there was no place that God was not.”
“O God,” she cried, “I did not know you were so big!” She felt overwhelmed and terrified and in her vision she thought she was in danger of annihilation by the all-consuming God and couldn’t even bring herself to speak. But just as quickly as she was swallowed up by the bigness of God she felt a mysterious presence between her and the Almighty. At first she didn’t recognize him because until now Jesus had been a just another famous person to her along the lines of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. She had not known Jesus as a personal presence. Suddenly she sensed someone with her who was there for her so she might bear the immensity of God’s nearness. She felt a sense of trust with Christ’s presence and later learned his name.
In her testimony, we have a description of an experience of both the transcendence and the immanence of God. Like all mind-expanding moments, words were inadequate to describe what she experienced. But surprisingly, it was the immanence of God that helped her understand God’s transcendence buffering her from feeling she might be swallowed up. It was in God’s immanence that she perceived God’s character to be loving and kind.
Abraham Heschel, the twentieth-century Jewish philosopher once said: “(Humankind) is ‘a little lower than the angels,’ and (yet) a little higher than the beasts. Like a pendulum they swing to and fro under the combined action of gravity and momentum, of the gravitation of selfishness and the momentum of the divine.”
Thus while Genesis 1 and 2 tell two vivid stories of creation, the mischief doesn’t take long to begin. Like a pendulum swinging to and fro, we marvel at the exaltation of God and the mystery of creation and we humbly accept the divine gift of the imprint of God’s image on our souls. We accept both the dignity and the dust and hear God whispering in our ears, “It is good … It is very good.”
How is it then that we read the first few chapters of Genesis and come away overtaken in domination language? Even with the affirmation of God echoing in our ears, we take our freedom as an excuse to hold others in bondage. We’re just a singular part of God’s creation; we’re not the one who brought it all into being.
But over the ages since, these words have been used to endorse the notion that men are dominant over women. Worse yet, humans are dominant over creation. We’ve spun the stories of beginnings into convenient truths that have suppressed women as beings who are “less than.” We’ve built a whole way of living and thinking that suppresses women from finding their true voices blocking them in living out their gifts in the image of the One who made them. Likewise, we’ve lived as though the creation was meant to be used, spoiled and abused, exploited until it’s used up and tossed aside. The work of God in creation as told in Genesis is that God created out of nothingness, then took the materials and began shaping the world according to God’s great mystery of meaning.
It’s likely you don’t know this, but Holmeswood helped shape the theological and spiritual world of John Buehrens, a teen who grew up to become one of the leading Unitarian ministers in America. After serving as the President of the Unitarian Universalists, John now serves a parish in the Boston area where he continues to lecture and lead in that tradition.
In his book, Understanding the Bible, John tells of the man at a cocktail party, a known rationalist, who approached a woman at the party who was both a poet and a theologian. In his inebriated state, the man thundered loudly, “Why did God make so much of everything? There’s just too much! Too many stars, too many species, too many people, too many languages and religions! Wouldn’t just one language and one religion have been enough?”
“Perhaps God was a little drunk,” the woman calmly replied.
“Drunk?” said the rationalist. “What could get the creator of the universe inebriated?”
“Perhaps it was love,” she wondered curiously.
And thus we have our clue as to what the story of Beginnings may be trying to tell us: Why the world came into being and why we were created. To stir us even further, we are left to ponder it all and the happy assurance that God added the word of divine blessing that, “it was good.” Admittedly, the story of the creation is beyond the words that describe it. Even in the indescribable, we cannot help ourselves in trying to paint on an enormous canvas using mere words. The Psalmist struggled to find words and images in describing what was observed about the created world:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
How majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens …
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars that you have established;
What are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
And crowned them with glory and honor.
(Psalm 8:1, 3-5, NRSV)