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Holding Back the Waters

June 19, 2014

“Holding Back the Waters” Genesis 1:1-2:4a © 6.15.14 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The first chapter of Genesis contains some of the most familiar material in the Bible. Almost everyone can repeat the words with which it begins. And we also know the controversies in classrooms and culture surrounding this text, conflicts of such long-standing and so public that there’s no need to rehash them here.

Even cartoonist Gary Larson once made use of Genesis 1 in a back-handed way. You may recall his “Far Side” comic from back in the day. In one of his panels Larson assumed that we know the claim that God is responsible for the world and the heavens and hoped we would laugh at an unusual perspective. He pictured God as a child, in his room with his chemistry set, trying to make the universe. Unfortunately, it has blown up in his face, and little God must try again.

But if this part of Scripture is highly familiar, it is also one of the most misunderstood and misappropriated. Biblical literalists like the creationists want to turn the text into a scientific account of how God made the heavens and the earth in six twenty-four hour days, and not so very long ago, maybe as little as six to ten thousand years. As for when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I understand a creation museum in Kentucky has them living at the same time as people. When anyone questions such scenarios, fundamentalist school children are taught to respond “Were you there?”

I grew up in a church and family like that. But rather than T. rex and his kin frolicking with ancient humans, who were made as we are now a mere 10,000 years ago, I was taught that dinosaurs lived in a gap of perhaps millions of years between verse one and verse two. As for the fossils, they were really very recent. God “antiqued” them as one might a piece of furniture or an article of clothing with stain. So much for God being a God of truth! Sounds more like a big cosmic joker.

Then there are the rationalists, who want to rescue the story from fundamentalists with an explanation of their own. They take the text as myth, by which I do not mean a false or superstitious tale, but a statement of how things always have been and will be with the world. The purpose of that approach is to make Genesis compatible with whatever the current scientific theory may be. Religion and science operate in different spheres of human life, so that comparing the Bible with Darwin’s Origin of the Species is not even apples and oranges. It’s more like apples and crocodiles.

Given a forced choice between the two approaches, I would definitely prefer the latter, though I once believed the former. But, really, both of them are wrong, both are flawed, and in the same way. For all the very serious differences between literalists and rationalists, when it comes to Genesis 1, they’re the same sort of people. Both knuckle under to the Western, scientific, technological perception of the world. The fights they constantly have are family squabbles. Both are children of the Enlightenment, the Modern Age, which has taught us that something is true only if it’s reasonable and can be observed and demonstrated in a laboratory repeatedly. “True” thus means “historically verifiable” and “factual.” Creationists/Intelligent Design advocates know that people will accept scientific explanations, so they trot out a religion masquerading as science. Rationalists want to show that religion is intellectually acceptable, so they prefer an approach that once again takes the scientific method as its starting point and its judge.

But if neither popular interpretation of these materials is true to the authors’ intention, what are we to do? Perhaps instead the text is concerned with theology, liturgy, and proclamation. It’s not about technique, but testimony; not how, but who. Let’s be clear on that last one. There was never any doubt in the ancient world that the universe as people knew it was of divine origin. The big question was which god or gods and goddesses made it. Was it Enlil the wind god and Tiamat the goddess of the deep of Babylon? Baal and Astarte, from Canaan? Ra and Isis, of the Egyptian pantheon? Yahweh (or Elohim as he’s known in this text)? If a god or gods made the universe, shouldn’t he or they rule over everything and by extension, should not the nation that worshipped him or them govern on his or their behalf? So, you see, this first chapter of Genesis is really about politics and power.

And while the Genesis story is indeed about the past and beginnings, it is also (or perhaps primarily) about crises of the present and new beginnings. It is a liturgy of hope, of affirmation of the purpose of God for people who had lost everything, a subversive word spoken against powers that had laid claim to ultimacy. The authors of this sweeping creation account proclaim a gracious and sovereign God who alone defines what is real, what is true, what is good.

Again, who decided such things was up for grabs in the sixth century BC. That’s when the first chapter of Genesis was penned by a group of Jewish priests. Many of the top-tier inhabitants of the southern Jewish kingdom, called Judah, had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. Beloved Jerusalem lay in ruins. The beautiful temple had been destroyed, the land laid waste. In those days when religion and politics went hand-in-glove even more than they do today in some places, defeat in battle also meant the discrediting of one’s god or gods. The world of the Jews had quite literally fallen apart; every perception of what was true had been called into question; every assumption about the future proven false; every affirmation about their God now the subject of doubt and ridicule. A life that once had shape and definition was now formless and disordered; where their God had lived—in their hearts and in heaven—there was nothing but a void. Emptiness.

How were such people to find hope and life again? That was the question that plagued the priests, who were also pastors, as they sought to offer care to their people and at the same time deal with their own anguish, with no one to help them. The answer they found was to go back to the beginning of everything and celebrate in liturgy the God who is intimately bound with creation, yet is distinct from it, and thus cannot be defeated by any creature. He whose very Word brought the worlds into being was not bested by the Babylonian deities. He was still there, hidden perhaps, but the recitation of the great story of creation would evoke fresh hope in the people, the assurance that one day this creative, covenanting God would bring a new creation.

That’s quite a claim for liturgy, for worship! But the praise of the Creator then and now is an act of subversive imagination. The Babylonians, as the superpower of their day, claimed ultimate power for themselves and their gods and goddesses. “We’re Number One,” they said, “so we can do whatever we want to whomever we want however we want, and no one can stop us or hold us accountable.” If we want to take land, we take it. If we want to torture and kill, we do it. If we say black is white, it must be so. The evidence seemed to support their arrogant assertions. But in the praise of the One who began it all, the Jews said “No. That’s not the way it is.”

Walter Brueggemann has called such action the dismantling and delegitimation of pretentious power (Power, Providence, and Personality: 111). “This liturgy cuts underneath the Babylonian experience and grounds the rule of the God of Israel in a more fundamental claim, that of creation….” he writes. “Its affirmation is this: God can be trusted, even against…every human experience of abandonment” (Genesis: 25).

“Things fall apart,” said the poet. “The center does not hold.” So, suppose someone has lost his or her job, unjustly accused of wrongdoing or incompetence or else the victim of outsourcing and cutbacks. He or she is crushed, depressed, unsure where to turn now. Nothing seems to be happening for him or her that is positive and good. Or say there is a couple who have lost their home through foreclosure. They trusted the lender when they were told they were pre-qualified, but now their home is worth less than they owe. Then there are the folks who have suffered this spring or other years the ravages of tornado, flood, fire or drought and have lost their homes and their livelihood, even a loved one. Or how about the man experiencing a radical change in lifestyle following surgery; the woman whose only child has turned his back on her; the teenager who has been bullied by friends and/or rejected by family and is thinking about suicide; the older person who’s had to surrender the keys to the car and his or her independence after yet another accident; the sexually active college student who finds out she’s pregnant, but her boyfriend doesn’t care and he puts that in a vulgar way; the sandwich generation adult child faced with decisions about and for an aging parent whose life is lost somewhere in the fog of Alzheimer’s.

Surely these are folk whose world has fallen apart, who are experiencing chaos and disorder, discontinuity and disorientation, the sense that the world is a terrible place to live. But there is good news for them and for us in the liturgy of creation, just as there was for sixth-century Jews. Within the very fabric of creation, woven into it by the gracious Creator, is continuity. Season follows season. Day follows night. The species reproduce after their kinds. Life goes on.

And there is goodness as well. God has pronounced it so, and all the terror and turmoil of our world today cannot rob his creation of its fundamental character. He pronounces his blessing on what he has made: it is “very good.”

Finally, there is order that subdues chaos. We tend to think with the New Testament that God created out of nothing. And that has become the dominant view. But this text disputes that notion. For the priests, God imposed order on a swirling, threatening chaos. And for the Jews, the ultimate in disorder was the sea—the waters, ever-moving, ever-changing, threatening to overwhelm the land. They never were a seafaring people; it’s a wonder any of them ever became fishermen!

So for the Jews, when God harnessed chaos, he dealt with waters believed to be above the flat earth, waters that were on the earth, and waters under the earth. It was in this subterranean sea that the pillars that held up the flat surface of the world were sunk. As for the sky, it was a shelter, a thin brass dome containing the sun, moon, and stars. It kept chaos at bay. So, too, with the land. It limited the power of the waves.

Writer Paul Bowles captured this notion in his 1947 novel The Sheltering Sky. His character Katherine Moresby has endured great heartache and deprivation in the Sudan, and has gone nearly insane. About to board a plane, she has a vision. Bowles writes: “The sudden roar of the plane’s motor behind her smashed the walls of  the chamber where she lay. Before her eyes was the violent blue sky— nothing else. For an endless moment, she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone had once said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed on the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment, the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed” (328).

Sometimes there is a rip in the sheltering sky, and chaos breaks through. The waters pour down with all their disorienting, destructive fury, inundating everything like a tsunami, a flash flood, an avalanche. But the claim of the priests, put forward to exiles then and exiles now, is that in liturgy, the tear is sealed again, and the waters held back. In the praise of God the Creator, we come to know somehow within our deepest being that there is and will be continuity, order, goodness, and blessing. We say that the same God who created is the God who keeps on creating as he sustains the creation, including us. In turning aside from our normal activity to this strange occupation known as worship, in resting from our labors, we affirm that the order and continuity of the world do not depend on our ceaseless striving, but on a God who is so confident in what he has done that he can rest. Because of the resurrection, we do that now on the first day, not the seventh. And in work, fulfilling our calling as God’s image-bearers, we worship as well. For we join God in bringing in that day when chaos will be subdued, when saints will all join together in praise around that calm, glassy, sea.

And through it all, we express our faith that:  In the beginning there was God; in the middle there is God; in the end there will be God. Alpha and Omega. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


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