In the beginning…


One of the most well known preambles of all time. America’s “When in the course of human events…” is a distant second.

The first two Hebrew words used are Be-reshit Elohim. literally: Beginning God.
The rabbis through the ages remark on the austere language, the parsimony of words and the symbolic order given to these first few chapters detailing the creation of the world. One of the best Jewish commentaries on Genesis – cited below – contains this reverential analysis of the text:

The mystery of divine creativity is, of course, ultimately unknowable. The Genesis narrative does not seek to make intelligible what is beyond human ken. To draw upon human language to explain that which is outside any model of human experience is inevitably to confront the inescapable limitations of any attempt to give verbal expression to this subject.*

As we approach this book of Genesis – one of the first things to note is what is NOT there: there are no warring gods. We know there are other cosmologies (creation stories) around the Near East at this time, many containing an epic struggle from which one god asserts power over the others. In contrast this great Hebrew narrative of Genesis contains one who asserts his will over everything and does so in an orderly and deliberate fashion.

The second thing to notice is generally lost to us in our rush to just move along but for those with a bent toward really getting into the text there is a numerical ordering and a syntax ordering that is particularly beautiful. I’ll leave it to the commentary of JPS (Jewish Publication Society) and simply quote it in its entirety:

“[Throughout the opening sequence] The Narrator employs the device of number symbolism, the heptad, to emphasize the basic idea of design, completion, and perfection. The opening proclamation contains seven words; the description of primal chaos is set forth in twice seven words; the narrative’s seven literary units feature seven times the formula for the effectuation of the divine will and the statement of divine approval; and the six days of creation culminate in the climactic seventh.”

While other creation stories of the time are very interested in God’s origins, the Hebrew text is not. God simply is. There is no attempt to determine how or why God came to be. That is accepted on faith.

That seems important to note at the beginning as well. This is a document of faith. Remarkably and delightedly we of the 21st century have the ability to see a glimpse of this beginning which the narrator wisely knew was beyond the realm of human words. I urge you to spend a few minutes here

It’s the Hubble telescope – which so far has been able to look back in time more than 13.5 billion years. What you are watching is the creation of a new galaxy. Amazing! Awe inspiring! For an even more amazing experience, read Genesis chapter one while you view this.

Genesis one boldly declares: This is the One who creates the heavens and the earth. Elohim. The one who was, is and forever shall be.

*Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

4 thoughts on “In the beginning…

  1. I am struck yet again by the serenity of this account: creation stories in surrounding cultures are spectacularly violent–and in those stories humanity is utterly insignificant. I read something recently arguing that these stories, as assembled-and-edited after the Babylonian Captivity, are in various pointed ways a narrative disagreement with Babylonian creation stories. The Jews came back quite appalled by Babylonian culture.

    And thinking about your sermon challenge on Sunday–what are the stories we tell about ourselves?–I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with Dan McAdams, the psychology professor at NU who wrote “The Stories We Live By.” It’s a great book analyzing how different stages in our growing up contribute different elements to our life-narratives. It’s fun reading–really thought-provoking in its invitation to rethink your growing up stage-by-stage. But toward the end he says, “We do not know who we are, nor why we are here. We are free to define ourselves. Our freedom is a condemnation because of the anxiety we go through in constructing our personal myths. . . . If we forget the possibility that our lives are meaningless, then they will indeed become meaningless. But if we make it our ‘fundamental project’ in life to create, redeem, and sanctify ourselves and our world, then we will find meaning, and we will become like God. . . .Whether we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, or ‘other,’ we are each alone responsible to engage in the heroic battle for meaning, waged on a precipice above the void” (p. 165-166). On this particular day, toward the end of an interview with him I was doing with him for “Christian Century, I reminded him of this passage. I asked if he had ever re-considered the sweeping assumption he makes that life is objectively meaningless battle to assert a private meaning–and furthermore lived out on that precipice above the void.

    My question startled him. He stared at me in amazement. I looked back at him steadily, but as mildly as I possibly could. “It seems like a sweeping assumption,” I shrugged.

    “It’s true!” he insisted.

    I shrugged again and let it go. He continued staring at me for a moment. Then the conversation moved on.

    Whatever my particular identity story, my-story-of-Cate, at least I know I’m on some ledge above a meaningless void. My story-of-me is framed by the fact that I matter to God–no matter what anyone else might think about me. In that regard, maybe we all carry a bit of the primordial garden with us.

    • Cate, thanks for sharing this. What an interesting thing to meditate on. I’ll have to check out that book!

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