Is an anatomy textbook more true than a C.S. Lewis novel?
These are not questions we can answer. An anatomy text book and a novel are trying to do two completely different things. An anatomy textbook certainly has lots of facts in it, (Did you know an adult human body contains 206 bones?), but a textbook tells us nothing about our soul. A C.S. Lewis novel has not one fact in it, but it tells us an enormous amount about what it means to be human.
So why people look to the first chapter of Genesis for scientific information about the beginning of our world is a mystery to me. The first chapter of Genesis is not a scientific text. Remember, it was written somewhere between 950 and 500 BCE, and Descarte did not write about the scientific method until 1637 CE. That is more than two thousand years later! If the authors thought modern Christians were using their writings to argue scientific points about how and when the earth was created, I think they would roll their eyes. After all, the authors did not even understand that the world was round. The dome they refer to in this passage is the sky. Their understanding was of a flat earth, with a bell jar of a sky laid upon it. If you read Genesis with a scientist’s eye, you miss the point.
So, if the authors of Genesis were inspired by God to write this passage, but is not a scientific text, than what is it? Our reading today is part of what Biblical scholars would call mythology literature. Now, we hear the word myth, and we think it means the same thing as a lie, but that is not what mythology means here. Mythology is a form of writing that a people uses to describe a mysterious event that they did not witness. The creation of the world is a common subject of these stories. The Sumerian cultures that surrounded the Jewish people had their own version of the same story. By writing this story, the authors are trying to understand who they are, what the earth is and who their God might be.
And just like a poem or a C.S. Lewis novel, the creation story contains an abundance of truth and beauty that can teach us about God and humanity.
First of all, let me just brag about the literary beauty of this passage. Genesis may have been written three thousand years ago, but the author uses a very sophisticated parallelism here. Notice that the first and fourth days are both about light. The second and fifth days are both about water. And the third and sixth days are both about the earth. See, the motivation of the order of Creation in this passage is not scientific-the order is literary. The stars and the sun and the moon were not created after plants and trees, but it is more pleasing in a literary sense to have the balance of the parallelism.
And this passage does not have parallelism for parallelism’s sake. This literary choice tells us something about God. The entire arc of the Creation story is the idea that God turns this chaotic, formless, watery nothingness into an orderly, fruitful, life-filled something, and the parallelism echoes that. In the Creation narrative, God pushes the chaos out beyond the confines of the dome, and forms boundaries that enable light to shine, plants to grow, and animals to walk the earth. God does not eliminate the chaos; he establishes boundaries to protect us against it. Through both the form and the content of this passage we learn that God is always moving from chaos to order.
But the chaos still breaks through occasionally, doesn’t it? In the last two weeks the chaos has broken through in the form of tornadoes across the United States, a cyclone in Myanmar, and that horrific earthquake in China. This occasional, deadly and terrifying breaking through reminds us that we live in tension, and that the world can still be wild and wooly.
But chaos is not what God desires for us, God seeks to protect us and guard us and encourages us to seek order, as he calls for us to have dominion over and be stewards of this wild and wooly creation. We are to subdue the chaos and bring order. And we have. We have cultivated fields and domesticated animals and pruned trees. Unfortunately, we’re learning that too much dominion, too much subduing can lead us right back into chaos. Finding the balance, finding the tension between chaos and order is difficult business. Our adult forum class on the environment today, should help us with this balance.
As we go deeper in the passage, we learn even more about God, and about ourselves. We are told that “God made humankind in his image: male and female he created them.” We are made in the image of God!
What does it mean to be made in God’s image? None of us knows exactly. Perhaps it means that we are creative like God is creative. We have the capacity to imagine and act on what we imagine. We can paint and sing and sculpt and build. Or, maybe being made in God’s image means that we are relational, like God is relational. In the very first chapter of the Bible, God refers to himself as “us”. We don’t know if the “us” refers to cherubim and seraphim or whether God was already hinting at his Trinitarian nature. In any case, God chooses to act and reflect in community rather than as a solitary being. There is a reason that a fundamental part of experiencing both Judaism and Christianity is community. We gather together, because God calls us as community, not as individuals. We worship together, because God knows it is not good for us to be alone.
And when God is done making us, he looks us over and says, “Indeed, it was very good.” This is about the most exciting thing I’ve ever read! This image of creation is so different from the story in the second chapter of Genesis, when humanity immediately starts disappointing God. So much of religion is focused on our sinfulness and our need for salvation, but in this glorious-and brief-moment, before we start lying and fighting and murdering each other, God looks us over and approves of what he has made. In fact, he not only approves of us, he also gives us his blessing.
And God never sways from his commitment to us. From that first blessing he remains committed to being in relationship with us. He sends us leaders, kings, prophets, poets and finally Jesus and the Holy Spirit so that we can remain in a loving relationship with Him. There is no way to measure or prove this love of God’s. This love cannot be titrated or weighed or computed. But this love is truer than any historical fact, any scientific treatise or mathematical equation. This love is as true as the light in the skies, the water in the seas, and seed bearing plants on the earth.