One of the coolest things about the Bible’s text is that the first book literally starts “In the beginning…” I mean, of all the things it could start with, it just makes perfect sense that it would start with the beginning. And when you finish that sentence you find that the “beginning” is eternity past – before time itself was created. In the beginning, God created. You learn so much about God in that phrase – his distinction over against all created things, his omnipotence over the same, his very being belonging beyond not only physical existence but also beyond time. I’m really into science fiction, especially Doctor Who, which deals constantly with the ins and outs and paradoxes of time travel. So it’s kind of strange, in a marvellous way, to find a truly “timeless” deity proclaimed in the opening words of Sacred Scripture.
But then you get through the first couple chapters and the debates start flying thick and fast – how did God create the world? Are there conflicts between the various pieces of the text? Are these writings meant to be taken literally? What, even, is the literal meaning? All this and more quickly rises to the forefront of a Bible Study, sermon, or discussion on the opening chapters of the book of Genesis; it’s almost inescapable. So let’s side-step that direction of argumentation and look at Genesis from a birds-eye view.
“In the beginning, God created…” (chapter 1, verse 1)
- This is the Genesis of the heavens and the earth (2:4)
- This is the Genesis of Adam (5:1)
- This is the Genesis of Noah (6:9)
- This is the Genesis of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10:1)
- This is the Genesis of Shem (11:10)
- This is the Genesis of Terah (11:27)
- This is the Genesis of Ishmael (25:12)
- This is the Genesis of Isaac (25:19)
- This is the Genesis of Esau (36:1)
- This is the Genesis of Jacob (37:2)
The word in English is sometimes rendered “generation” or “generations” or “family” or “descendants”, but the underlying word is the same. It’s interesting to note that there are ten such Genesis Statements, mirroring what will be found in the giving of the Law of Moses in the book of Exodus: ten commandments. This highlights the essential unity of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), and reminds us that Genesis is functioning as a prologue to the books of Law. Genesis, after all, is never officially classified as an Historical Book, but as Torah – law, teaching, instruction. Its job in the biblical canon is to give the necessary background context to prepare us for the content of the Law that would follow, starting in the middle of the book of Exodus.
Anyway, what we’re invited to see here in this conspicuously symbolic arrangement of the book of Genesis is that God is no “clock-maker god” like 18th century deists believed, setting the world in motion and then sitting back to let it run its course, but a God who is actively involved in every aspect of creation and in every time. He created the cosmos before man, he was creating in Adam, he was creating in Noah, and Terah (Abraham’s father)… he’s even at work in Gentile family nations outside of the initial Abrahammic Promise such as Ishmael and Esau. I’m writing this in Epiphanytide which has a particular attention to the in-gathering of the nations – the Gentiles – to worship Christ and form what the New Testament calls “the Church”, so it’s fresh on my mind to note that the “dead end” stories of Ishmael and Esau, and their descendants, are justified precisely by their inclusion in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which was prophesied by a few Old Testament divines like Isaiah).
In that light, it’s rather a shame that so many of us spend so much time and energy arguing over the nature of the first Genesis Story, to the potential neglect of the other nine. Isn’t it interesting that Adam and Eve feature in both the prologue of the book (1:26-30) and in the Genesis of the Heavens & Earth (chapters 2-4), before getting their own actual Genesis Story in chapter 5? Isn’t it interesting to see how the entire flood narrative in chapter 6-9 is actually the next Genesis Story, in which God (re-)creates the entire world? Isn’t it interesting to note in the Genesis of Terah that God creates something new by making a covenant with Abraham to extend through his offspring (singular) to the entire world?
You can even explore other parts of the Old Testament and find this reality continuing throughout. I read from Jeremiah a week ago (or thereabouts) this text:
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
There, in 4:23, Jeremiah tells us that God is looking at the world in a state of uncreation. Using the same language of the opening verses of the book of Genesis, Jeremiah speaks of the sinful state of Israel as a sort of nonexistence, an empty chaos, a darkness or death. What is needed is creation, light, life, anew. The Gospel implications here are staggering! But let’s save that thought for a moment longer.
Each and every Genesis Story is a real Genesis, a Beginning, a Creation. We do the book of Genesis (and ourselves, and the rest of the Bible) a disservice if we get overly hung up about one of them at the expense of the others. Some will say “yes, well and good, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger issue: the historical framework in which all of these ought to fit!” Historical accuracy is a big deal, sure, and some are more strict about it than others. Personally I’m not as concerned about it as the average conservative interpreter, though I also have little patience for the haphazard manuscript-hacking that modernists are prone to carry out. That being said, there is an all-important summation of the Genesis Stories that I would argue is the overriding truth governing not only the Book of Genesis but pretty much the entire biblical corpus.
Turn to the fourth gospel book, John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…”
In a way it’s a shame that John has ended up the fourth instead of the first gospel. Yes, this was the fourth one to be written, so it makes chronological sense. But theologically it’s got an amazing beginning, written intentionally to match the opening of the book of Genesis. The prologue of Genesis is a beautiful picture of the ordering of creation; the prologue of John, however, is a beautiful picture of God Himself! I dare to say that that is far more significant for us to think on than the historical or poetic or imagistic or literal senses of Genesis 1. The Gospel is built upon the person of Jesus, not the age of the Earth, after all.
What’s more, if you follow Genesis 1-2:3 and John 1-2:2, you’ll find that both walk through a seven-day period of time. Genesis’s seven-day prologue culminates in a day of rest (prefiguring heaven and salvation) and John’s seven-day prologue culminates in a wedding where Jesus performs his first “sign” or miracle (again prefiguring heaven and salvation).
I’m not saying that all discussion of the historical-versus-symbolic meaning of the creation of the heavens and earth is a total waste of time; it does have its place. But we really ought to be spending our primary interpretive efforts looking at Jesus and the Gospel he brings about. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth; this the Genesis of the heavens and earth, this is the Genesis of Adam, this is Genesis of Noah… but really, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The age of the earth and the process of creation are interesting academic question that have some bearing on biblical interpretation, but this – this! – the pre-existent Word-who-is-God, this Jesus-before-all-time, this is divinity, this is Gospel. Of all things, it is Jesus whom we seek when we read the book of Genesis, and indeed all of Sacred Scripture, the God who was, and is, and is to come.