In all the best stories, beginnings and endings matter. The opening and closing images of a movie. The first and last sentences of a novel. Where we begin and end provide deep clues about what the story is all about. If this is indeed the case, then Genesis 1 is the most important chapter in the Bible.
Storytelling, at least as we in Western culture understand it, follows a pattern of three movements. I’ve heard these described as 1) stick your hero in a tree, 2) throw rocks at your hero, and 3) get your hero out of the tree. In other words, as the writer, you introduce a problem, you complicate the problem, and you solve the problem.
We can see this movement in the story of the Bible. And when we do so, we find the the story of the Bible isn’t about us. It isn’t even about humanity in general. The story of the Bible is the story of God: 1) The relationship between God and humanity is broken. 2) Despite God’s provision of the Law and the Prophets, Israel fails and fails again to be a light to the nations. 3) God, through the work of Jesus, heals the brokenness of humanity.
But first, we often see a glimpse of the hero before this sequence begins. It establishes the baseline character of our hero—who they are, what they want. Think of the iconic scene in Star Wars: A New Hope of Luke Skywalker watching the twin suns set on Tatooine as the music swells. Now imagine that music playing as you read Genesis 1.
One theory about this chapter is that it functions as a prologue, not only of the book of Genesis or even the whole of the books of Moses (Genesis thru Deuteronomy), but the entire Bible. If this is the case, then how we understand the whole of the story hinges on what we make of this chapter. Genesis 1 tells us how to read the whole story.
These are just a few of the characteristics of God in Genesis 1 that are crucial for understanding God’s character in the rest of the plot of Scripture.
God is joyfully, creatively present in messy places.
“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
The creation story of Genesis 1 is not a story of creation-from-nothing. Rather, it is creation-from-something. Whatever the something is, it isn’t good. It isn’t right. It is tohu (formless) and bohu (empty). And darkness covered everything.
And right there, that’s where God is. Right in the middle of the chaos, the mess, the very not good. The chaos isn’t a result of God’s absence. No, the chaos is the canvas upon which God will make his good, very good, holy creation.
And this is the story. A tabernacle in the wilderness among a nation of ex-slaves. The boy prophet who will grow up to anoint kings. The returning exiles putting the temple back together. A carpenter-rabbi in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire announcing the Kingdom of God. The Resurrection.
Messy places aren’t godforsaken places. The are places pregnant with the possibility of new creation about to break out.
God makes order in chaos.
Herein lies the rhythm of the great story. God acts to put things together. Humans take it apart. Order. Chaos. Holy God making things. Broken humans breaking things.
God makes a good world. Humans unmake it. God rescues Israel at the Red Sea and provides the Law. Israel builds a golden calf. The book of Joshua, Israel receives the Promised Land. The book of Judges, Israel abandons Yahweh. King David and the golden age of Israel as a political force. King Solomon and the decline that leads to the divided kingdom and later the exile. The ministry of Jesus and the announcement of God’s Kingdom. The cross and the death God’s Son. But then God’s definitive act of creation, the Resurrection of Jesus. God’s work of Genesis 1 creation all over again.
When we pay attention, the see the whole stories is an ongoing series of “Creation stories” and “Fall stories.” God making order in chaos. Humans undoing God’s work and causing more chaos.
God brings light in darkness
The first words any character utters in a story go a long way in revealing to the audience what kind of character in this story. God’s first words in the Bible? “Let there be light.” Any thing in all the world that the biblical writers could offer as God’s first words, and they choose, “Let there be light.”
Imagine God toe-to-toe with the darkness, speaking into its depths, into the tohu and bohu, “Let there be light!” And as John the gospel writer goes on the say, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
The great story is about a God who turns the lights on, who makes the unknown known, who makes the darkness shudder, shake, and evaporate. It’s the story of the Exodus. It’s the story of Advent. It’s all embedded right here in the story of Creation.
God makes people to participate and flourish.
The Bible is full of beautiful metaphors for God. But before we hear about God the shepherd, God the king, God the father, God the judge, we first see God the creative. The God who makes stuff. God the tinkerer. God the inventor. God the architect. God the designer. This is the God of Genesis 1.
It’s important noting the place of humanity in this creation account. Humans are not the first. They aren’t the last. They have an appropriate place in the context of God’s creation. The first three days of creation are devoted to separating specific spaces—light from darkness, sky from ocean, land from sea. Days four through six are then given to making things that will accordingly call those spaces home—celestial bodies, fish and birds, animals and humans.
Finally, on day seven, God initiates the Sabbath, the great rest, where everything that was chaos is finally in its right place. But men and women—in this account, co-equal the image of Almighty God—have the place of tending to and caring for this creation and are invited to multiply and thrive.
God puts everything in its right place.
The popular theory about how we get the Old Testament as we know the Old Testament is that it was compiled during the exile. Most likely it was offered as a gift to Persian King Cyrus’ library as an apologetic for the Jewish faith and way of life.
The prevailing creation myth in that part of the world told the story of two deities locked in an epic, violent conflict. One tears the other in half and out of that bloody mess the world as we know it began.
The Hebrew used for God throughout this chapter is elohim, which describes a generic functionary role, like “dad” or “president” or “boss.” Literally, it means “the deity.” I had a professor suggest that if this is indeed an introductory prologue, then perhaps we should it as “the deity who I’m going to tell you about in this whole story.” When we then get to the creation account in chapter 2, the name changes to “YHWH elohim” (“the LORD God” in most English translations), or better yet “Yahweh, this God I’m telling you about.” Yahweh, the God who does things wholly different, backwards, and upside-down from the gods you’re familiar with.
According to the creation story of the Jewish people, progress does not justify violence. Counter to the creation story of Babylon, the world is born out of God’s goodness and creativity and not out of antagonism and conflict. The world exists because God wanted it to. God spoke and it was.
Genesis 1 is the most important chapter of the Bible because it shares with us everything we need to know about the God whose story unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible. It reminds us the story is not about us but about God.
If you want to go deeper into the world of Genesis 1, be sure to check these out:
The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter
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