In the Beginning

Lesson: Genesis 1:1-2:4

Apollo 8, the first mission to the Moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968. That evening, the astronauts, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders did a live television broadcast showing photos of the Earth and Moon from space. Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” The astronauts ended the broadcast by taking turns reading the ancient poetry of the first chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I was a teenager, and I remember listening along with the rest of the world to those poignant words coming through the crackly radio transmission, punctuated with NASA beeps. Planet Earth never looked so beautiful, so mysterious, so much a whole, perfect organism. So good.

The exquisite poetry of Genesis has been dismissed by critics and distorted by believers. As Diana Butler Bass tweeted earlier this year, “Most of the time when there is a supposed-conflict between faith & science, bad theology is at fault.” The bad theology in this case is treating Genesis 1 as anything other than what it is: a story. Not science. Not history. As David Steele wrote, it is a “B.I.F.” story: “Before the Invention of Fact.” The lesson of these verses is not how or when the world was made, but who made it, who called it good. The science in this passage, if you can even call it science, is about three thousand years out of date. The writers of these verses believed the world was a flat disk held up on pillars – standing on who knows what – and surrounded by a large, clear dome that held back the waters that filled the universe. That explained to the ancients why the sky looks blue – because you could see the waters through the clear dome.

This story is one of two quite different versions of creation in Genesis. The other, older version follows in Chapter 2. The Chapter 1 version probably was written in about the 6th century B.C., when the leaders of God’s people were in exile. The writers weren’t trying to answer the sorts of questions raised by modern science. Rather, this story is concerned about how the most important separations of the universe came into being: Why are things divided up they way that they are? A shorthand way of describing the Genesis 1 creation story is, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”[1] The exiles also had to be asking, “Is our God still in charge?” This creation story affirmed that the God of Abraham and Moses had shaped the past and still holds the present and future. It was a source of hope to the exiles, and to us, today: God will not abandon creation. It was created by God; it belongs to God.

These verses in Genesis have been criticized by environmentalists, and exploited by those who’d rather view the Earth as simply a stockpile of resources to be used in whatever way we please.  The problem arises in verses 26 through 28, where God says, “Let humankind have dominion over all the other creatures,” “Let people fill the earth and subdue it.” Dominate and subdue are not environmentally friendly words, but Eric Elnes, a Lutheran pastor and author of the Phoenix Affirmations, explains the context: “When the Book of Genesis was written, there was no environmental crisis. Or rather, the environmental crisis was not about the environment being threatened by human beings. It was about human beings being threatened by the environment.”[2]

This is easier to get your brain around if you think about camping. When I was a child, my family camped several summers in Tuolumne Meadows, at about 8,700 feet in the High Sierras of Yosemite. This was when tents were canvas, sleeping bags were lined with plaid flannel, and air mattresses were likely to go flat in the middle of the night. Nighttime temperatures would drop into the thirties, and some mornings there’d even be a thin layer of ice on our campsite picnic table. We’d line each sleeping bag with one or two blankets and still need to sleep in flannel pajamas, thick socks and hooded sweatshirts. We brought a Coleman stove and lantern, and flashlights. We fished for trout with the rods, reels and salmon eggs. The best sun protection in those days was Ski and Ski, which had a measly SPF 6, but we slathered it on because of the thinner atmosphere. To protect your food from bears, either you could hang your food high in a tree or do what my dad did: put it in the trunk of the car, being careful to run a gasoline-soaked rag along the seam of the trunk, then leave the rag hanging by the lock. We heard the bears rattling through the campground from garbage can to garbage can every night.

We went into the High Sierras with all that preparation and all that gear, not to rape and pillage the wilderness, but to appreciate it – and, to survive it. Without all that equipment, the wilderness would be a pretty inhospitable place. Our tent allowed us to “subdue” the cold, the driving rains and the swarming mosquitoes. Our flashlights, lantern and camp stove let us “dominate” the powers of darkness and cold. We worked hard to practice no-trace camping even though we didn’t use that term in those days. We did all that subduing and dominating to survive, not to harm. So it was for the people in the ancient world.

Many people say they feel closer to God in nature than church, and there’s nothing scandalous about that. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had that sense of awe and wonder that feels like the presence of God when watching a meteor shower, the waves crash against the beach, the murmuration of birds. Martin Luther is thought to have said, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on the trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Ninth century Celtic Christian scholar John Scotus Eriugena[3] summed this up when he wrote, “God speaks to us through two books: the ‘little book’ of Scripture and the ‘big book’ of creation.”

We gather in church not because God is in here and not out there, but rather, because we’re called into community to worship and serve God. That’s what’s different about faith-based ecology. It’s about worshiping and serving God. People of faith certainly can join hands and work fruitfully with people of no faith at all for the sake of the planet. But the motivation behind faith-based environmental activism is our love for God, not simply for the Earth. This doesn’t mean that love for God is primary and love for the Earth is secondary. It means that love for God includes love for God’s Earth, and vice versa. We look at the Earth and God and say, “I love you both with the same love.”[4] Care of creation isn’t just another issue for us. It goes to the heart of what it means to be faithful. The biblical writers would have been aghast that their words, “dominate” and “subdue,” have been twisted to mean, “disrespect” and “exploit.” They would have called that blasphemy, not faith.[5]

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is not a scientific statement. This is a theological confession. These verses in Genesis are about God, first and foremost.  In the beginning, God created the world. In the beginning, God drew order out of chaos. In the beginning, God breathed life into every living creature. In the beginning, God crafted and made the world[6] and called it good.

In the end, humankind seems driven to dismantle the world. In the end, we are opting for the chaos God held at bay as an act of grace, love, and power. This is a theological problem.

Writes Eric Barreto: “In our efforts to enhance our comfort and ease our work, we have mistaken what is good with what is merely advantageous …. Our ravaging of natural resources reveals our arrogance. We think that the world’s water and air and many precious resources are due to us, recompense we have earned by the sweat of our brow or the ingenuity of our efforts rather than gifts from God meant to enhance the life of all, not just the extravagance of a few. We have turned the world upside down, served the forces of destruction, and declared them ‘good.’”[7]

So let’s go back to the beginning. Let us join with God, honoring God and worshiping God, in keeping God’s creation good.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Eco-Justice Ministries, http://www.eco-justice.org/Gen1b.asp.

[2] Eric Elnes, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 32-33.

[3] Latin for “John, the Irish-born Gael.”

[4] Elnes, 37.

[5] Elnes, 33.

[6] Eric D. Barreto, “In The Beginning & In The End: Christians & Climate Change,

Genesis 1:1-5, A Reflection,” http://religioninsights.org/articles/beginning-end-christians-climate-change-scripture-feature.

[7] Barreto.

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