Over the past several months I have been doing a word by word break down of Genesis one, taking it back to the original Hebrew, looking at each word in the pictographs that proceeded the alphabet we currently use, seeing what is foreshadowed in this inaugural passage of our sacred text, and trying to understand what these words would have sounded like to those who heard it for the first time. To say the least, it has been an eye opening experience to study these verses that were presented to me in flannel graphs and the colorful picture books of Sunday school.
Something happens to our understanding of the Bible when you grow up with it being doled out in pretty little bite size pieces. When the stories all stand alone without any historical moorings to hold them in place or to give you perspective. We lose sight of the fact that these events happened to real people in a real world with a very real socio-economic-political-religious context that would have colored every word and phrase in a way that is all but lost on the modern reader.
To put it another way, Genesis was not dropped on a people whose minds and hearts were a blank slate. They were not automatons simply waiting for their programing to be downloaded. Just like us, they heard the news of creation with buttload of baggage and preconceived notions that had to be confronted, rooted out, and brought into alignment with this new revelation. (And yes, buttload is a proper and precise theological term – well, in my world anyways.)
So we ask the obvious questions: Who wrote Genesis? When was it written? And to whom was it written?
The first one is easy enough. The answer is Moses. Jesus even said so in Luke 24:44, and then Paul gives us a little more insight in Acts 7. This also answers the second and third questions. It was written after the Exodus and to the Children of Israel after they had been freed from slavery.
It is easy to brush by all that with a nod of acceptance, but we have got to stop flying through our Bible and acting as if reading the words is enough to understand what we are being shown. Think about this with me.
Moses who Paul says was “educated in all the wisdom of the Pharaohs” takes this bunch of refugees out into the desert. Refugees who had lived their whole lives in fear, who had all hope for the future snuffed out under a slave master’s whip, whose sole purpose was to toil for a people who viewed them as so sub-human that with a simple decree their children were ripped out of their arms and slaughtered. Can you imagine degradation they had endured? The sheer worthlessness that had been ingrained so deeply into their heads that they would one day beg to return to this condition because the comfort of the known held much more appeal than the rigors of the desert before them?
As we read the accounts in our comfy arm chairs, in rooms heated and cooled to our preference, and munching on our Cheetos, it is easy to proclaim that we would have never spurned God’s promises the way they did. We would never turn our backs on him after having experienced the awesome terror of the plagues or the grand wonder of the parting of the sea. How smug we can be! And yet how many of us can’t even bother with being polite to the checkout girl. Tell me again how easy it would be for a Christian today to make this walk of faith.
And yet, here they are. In a desert, carrying the only possessions they have, and wondering what is going to happen to them and their children when the food runs out. If this was not terrifying enough, there is another thought process running in the backgrounds of their minds – they may have just brought the entire world to an end.
The land they had just left was a land of cycles. Cycles of the sun personified by Ra who made his daily circuit through the sky, eaten each night by Set, and delivered from Set’s belly each morning, governing the ebb and flow of all life. Cycles of the Nile with its seasonal flooding that washed in the fertile silt and watered the crops that most of the known world depended upon for food at one point or another in history. Cycles of life, a 3000 year process of life, death, and reincarnation that only the most worthy could hope to escape. Cycles guarded and upheld by Pharaoh, the man they had just watched drown in the collapsing walls of the sea. The god-man entrusted with putting down political coups and slave uprisings so that the cycles could continue unbroken and unhindered lest the mighty Nun, the god of chaos, rise up from his watery prison and consume the world once more.
Did they not just witness the chaotic waters destroy the one charged with holding back Nun’s power? Did they not just rise up in defiance against the one the only culture they knew proclaimed to be their guardian and savior? What had they done? Was it a mistake? Could they be forgiven? Freedom? What did freedom mean to dead men?
Certainly they had experienced the fierce power of this God that Moses had claimed to follow, but hadn’t this God failed them before? What of all the years they had languished as slaves, crying out for a savior and none was given? Hadn’t they watched their own parents, grandparents, and even their children die as this God ignored their cries? What was to say that this time would be different? And Moses, where was he? It seemed like so long ago that he had left them here in this barren waste and disappeared into the clouds that surrounded Sinai. Perhaps he had brought them here to die.
So many questions, so much fear, and so little to cling to as they waited their fates.
Then one day they seem him as he walks down the mountains, still radiant from his time with God. Moses who carries back the tablets of stone, the laws by which they are to live, but he carries back something more – the stories of a time only dimly remembered, the time of their forefathers, and the times of creation.
And the story begins with these life changing words – IN THE BEGINNING!
No more cycles to be defended or guarded. No more endless loops of time imprisoning humanity in never ending toil and hardships. No more wheels crushing them into oblivion. No! There was a beginning! A point where it all started, a point where God acted, and a God did not conquer the chaos – he redeemed it! Fashioning and shaping it according to his desires, not reliant on a man, even a god-man to defend his cycles of life. He stood above it all.
And with the declaration of beginning came the promise of an end. Hope, purpose, and meaning! For now all of humanity would take part in the culmination of time so that the glory of God might be revealed to all men and women who walked this earth. A God who stood in power and glory above the chaos of this world, not with the need to conquer but with the desire to redeem.
I can only imagine the wonder that filled them as they heard this word we brush past. I can only imagine how the pillars of the world they knew shook and crumbled under the weight of this new revelation as they rose again. This time not as runaway slaves, but as a nation, holy, set apart, with a mission and purpose decreed by the God who defied every truth they had been trained to hold dear.
Can it mean any less for us? Even in our comfy chairs? Is the word any less vital or true for us? How many times have you felt like a rat on wheel, that life had no purpose, no meaning? That the chaos of this world had overwhelmed you, consuming all that you gave security and peace? The world does not have to be as we have been trained to see it. It does not have to be limited by the truths that everyone wants us to hold dear. For we are not slaves to this world, we have been freed so that we to might be a holy nation, set apart, with a mission, and with a purpose. We – you and I, not some person on a pedestal, not some spiritual guru, we have been set apart holy unto him! And he still the God who redeems all of creation to himself, we just need to hear the words anew.