17 June 2019Genesis 1:1-4
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth ...” (v.1)
Psalm: Psalm 29
The passage today comes from the very beginning of the Bible, from the book of Genesis, whose very title means ‘beginning’ in Greek (genesos). The book itself contains material from a number of different authors and periods, edited together at a later date. Its authors were undoubtedly aware of, and influenced by, contemporary creation myths from across the Ancient Near East. However, they reshaped their material to make important theological assertions about the God whom they knew and worshipped.
These verses come from the first of two creation accounts we find in the opening chapters of Genesis: 1:1–2:3 and 2:4-3:24. In this first story, the writer describes God’s work of creation as a seven-stage drama, culminating with the day of rest. Many commentators believe this reflects the writer’s priestly origins, and his concern to demonstrate the importance of the sabbath as a sign of God’s covenant with Israel (Exodus 31:12-17). There is also an important emphasis on the orderliness of creation, and the separation of elements one from another (v. 4), which are also reminiscent of priestly concerns and functions.
The translation of verse 1 has proved controversial. It is possible to read the original Hebrew as suggesting that God created the world out of some sort of pre-existing matter, bringing order to the “formless void” (v. 2). This is more reminiscent of other creation myths, which speak about gods making the world like a potter shaping a pot. However, it is also possible to read the verse as stating that God created the world out of absolutely nothing. This is how most Christians have read the text over the centuries, and It has helped shape the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). The latter reading seems to be supported by the abundant power displayed by God in being able simply to speak creation into existence (v.3). Whichever reading is preferred, it is important to note that the natural world, including humanity, is repeatedly referred to as “good” by God during the process of creation. This contradicts one aspect of Christian thought, which has often seemed to devalue the physical nature of our created bodies and world.
- How should we read these verses in the light of modern understandings of science and human development?
- Does it matter whether God created the world ‘out of nothing’?
- What, if anything, do these verses have to say to our contemporary ecological and environmental crises?