Here are the opening verses of Genesis from The Message: ‘First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. God spoke: “Light!” And light appeared’.
And this is a contemporary Jewish version: ‘In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and earth – when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters – God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light’. (1)
‘Genesis’. In Hebrew it’s called B’resheet. ‘In beginning’. A book of beginnings.
In Genesis we see the dawning of our universe, our world and ourselves. We see the first faltering steps of the people who would become Israel. And we learn about these things by stories. Stories that tell us truths regardless of how old or how young we are. Stories that have meaning regardless of where we come from or what age that we’ve been born into.
In Exodus (19:6) Israel is called a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. Most religions have an elite. A special few who have particular access to a hidden knowledge. But Israel was to be different. A nation, a society, who all had equal access to religious knowledge. By extension that means us too, you and me.
But ‘access’ to knowledge doesn’t mean ‘understanding’. And that’s the wonderful thing about being given stories, instead of a scientific textbook. There are many layers of meaning and we learn something new and different each time we hear them or read them. As we grow, as our circumstances change, we see something that we didn’t see before. Even the most well-known tale will contain a surprise if we don’t prejudge what we’re going to find there.
Just like you and me
Unlike other ancient accounts about creation we don’t see heroes and heroines in Genesis. We see people who are just like ourselves. Like them we too have the freedom to do good as well as bad. The freedom to obey and to disobey. To eat what we shouldn’t eat. To hide when we’re embarrassed. The freedom to blame someone else. To have meddling parents – and meddling children. To get into family arguments. The feedom to have dreams, to forgive, to show compassion. To face the disappointment of childlessness. To have difficult relationships with the neighbours. The freedom to go on a cruise with other guests who may be noisy and smelly… To have things not happen quite as quickly as we thought they should.
So, Genesis is profoundly real and current and meaningful, thousands of years after it was written.
Look again at the long passage that we read today, from chapter 1 into the start of chapter 2. Look again at God’s verbs, his ‘doing’ words. He said, he saw, he created and he made. He called, he blessed, he separated and he gathered. And he hovered, he set, he finished and, finally, he rested.
Like the first humans we are dust of the earth. Like the first humans we also have the breath of God inside us. As well as sharing his breath we share God’s verbs too. Or most of them. Like God we ‘gather’ and ‘separate’, we ‘make’ and ‘bless’. Most of us haven’t mastered ‘hovering’ yet, but ‘saying’ and ‘seeing’ we’re well practised at!
Do we use his verbs wisely? Do we use them for good or for ill?
And the verb that we don’t share very much? In Genesis 1 verse 1 the Hebrew word used for ‘create’ is ‘bara’. It’s the very first verb, the very first action. Throughout the Hebrew bible that word bara is primarily used only of God. There are 2 or 3 exceptions but for the most part we may be creative in other ways – but this one is special to God. (2)
Making and creating. Two words. Both of them used in the same opening verses. Where God ‘makes’ it’s as if he’s fashioning something new out of what’s already been created. How often do we do that? We have so many good things around us but sometimes we need to make something new from them. There’s a new purpose, a new need, a new vision – and we have the wherewithal to make it from what’s already around us.
And that word ‘bara’ for create. One of the few times that it’s used of human beings is in the book of Joshua (chapter 17) where the sons of Joseph want more land. They’re told to ‘create’ that land by clearing trees in a forest. Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees! Perhaps we need to be more creative in how we tackle what seem to be insurmountable problems?
It was good
God saw that it was good, indeed very good. I wonder – do we? Do we see that it’s good? Do we see the same things that God sees? Whilst we’ve been poor in our stewardship of what God’s given us – both of his creation and of ourselves and of others – I wonder if he’s better at seeing our potential? Is God better at seeing what he made us to be, than we are able to see ourselves?
In the beginning God gave us freedom. Freedom to choose how to act and how to behave. And that makes things unpredictable. We don’t know what will happen next because it’s the result of multiple choices, of us all being human.
Our own ‘Genesis’?
What would a book of our life look like? What would be in our version of Genesis? Would there be as many twists and turns? Joys and disappointments? A crazy idea? Yes, maybe. Who the heck would want to write a book about us? Or even less likely, who would read it? But I think Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and the rest would be equally surprised at their lives being studied and read about thousands of years after. None of them were paragons of virtue but we learn from them anyway. We hear sermons about them and go to Bible Studies on them. What would someone learn from us, from you and me, from a book of our lives if it was written down and made into ‘scripture’?
The interesting thing about that Hebrew word ‘resheet’ is that it doesn’t just mean ‘beginning’ it also means ‘foundational’, the most significant element. The book of Genesis is fundamental, foundational, to understanding how we fit with God. It teaches us about our relationship with God. I invite you to read Genesis again. Fundamentally, what does it tell you about you and your relationship with God? Which character in Genesis are you most like?
And resheet also means ‘finest’ and ‘first fruits’ – the best choice (3). In the beginning, God made his finest creation. Despite all their flaws, failures and disobedience, God still describes Israel as his resheet, his first fruits, his best choice, the finest offering. A sweet aroma. (4)
The same is true of us. Despite our failings we are his first fruits too. His present-day resheet. His new beginning. So, each day is a fresh opportunity to bring new fruit.
What do we choose?
If we hadn’t been so close to Lent our reading today would have been from Deuteronomy 30. In it, Moses asks the people of Israel to ‘choose life’.
And much of Genesis is about choice. What do we choose? Like Eve, Rebecca, Jacob and the rest, God has given us freedom – and we can choose to do good or to do bad. So, how do we choose to use the verbs that we’ve been given? Those ‘doing’ words that God has shared with us. Do we build-up? Or do we destroy? Do we encourage or discourage? Bless or curse?
If I was to ask your nearest and dearest, your friends and family, what your verbs were, what would they say I wonder?
What we decide doesn’t just reflect on us. As the body of Christ, with God’s very breath inside us – what we decide reflects on God too to the outside world. So, do we, you and me, portray and embody a loving and creative God to those that we meet? Or do we not? It’s our choice. Let’s choose wisely (5). Amen
‘In the beginning’ was given by Ian Banks at St James Heywood on Sunday 16th February 2020. It’s based on Genesis 1:1–2:3. For last week’s talk on Isaiah 58:11, ‘a well-watered garden’, please press here. For more by Ian please go to the archive.
- Bereishis: The ArtScroll Tanach Series.
- https://hebrewwordlessons.com/2019/06/02/bara-being-creation-defenders/ and thanks to Sarah for her separate correspondence on this
- Amos 6: 6-7, Ezekiel 20:40-42 and Jeremiah 2:3.
- This talk was inspired by Anna Carter Florence and her book ‘Rehearsing Scripture’. Also Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in this article https://www.thejc.com/judaism/books/the-chief-rabbi-on-genesis-1.12309