It begins with nothing, a formless void, a deep sea of nothing.
This is different from other creation stories.
In most ancient cosmologies the gods emerge from some primordial something, and their creation is the result of these gods’ escapades and accidents, even brutal acts of divine violence. This is not the God we meet in Genesis. In Genesis we get a God who predates all things, who creates all things from nothing, and not with violence, but with artistry.
This God comes off as some combination of Bob Vila, and Bob Ross, with a side of Marie Condo. This is not a violent creator, it’s an artistic one who constructs the cosmos with the precision of an architect, and arranges all the creatures with delight, portraiting things to life with sparks of joy.
But among all these things to notice, we mustn’t lose sight of this one: the primary purpose of Genesis 1 is not to introduce us to creation. It is to introduce us to God. This is the Bible’s main character. Here and onward as we read the Old Testament we will be blessed to remember, this is not a story about us. This is a story about God.
That’s why God gets all the good verbs. Did you notice that? All the action words in this story belong to God. God creates. God separates. God calls. God names. God forms.God blesses. The creatures? The cosmos, the formless void, the sky, the sea, the plants, the animals? They don’t do anything.
The only verb the creatures really get here is the verb “to be,” and even that has to come from God. They don’t exist, we don’t exist in this story until God gives us existence. And how is it that we come to exist? God speaks us into existence.
One of the very first things the Old Testament says to us about God is that our God is a God who speaks. The meaning is clear: we are what God says we are because God says we are.
My daughters are blessed to come from a long line of strong and smart women; but there’s a story told about my wife that suggests maybe she was a little too smart for her own good. As the story goes she and her father were in an argument when he’d had enough and told her to follow his directions immediately. Neither of them can remember the directions. It didn’t matter. Allie ignored them. She started to walk away when her father said, “Young lady, what did I just say?” and Allie whipped around and smartly said “You just said ‘what did I just say’” and she darted for her room and locked the door.
There is a way to read the entire Old Testament just by following what the Lord says. This is a God who speaks, the phrases “thus saith the Lord,” or “and God said,” the Word of God, the power of this God’s speech, it is the power that sustains the narrative of the Old Testament. It keeps the Bible’s story going.
It begins here with God speaking into existence things that did not exist, ordering nothingness and chaos into life and love, but the problem comes when God’s creation doesn’t sit still, doesn’t obey. The creatures talk back.
Chaos, nothingness, sin, and death, they, we rebel against God’s ordering Word. God says “Let there be light,” but darkness persists. God says, “You can eat from any tree in the garden except this one” but our appetites persevere. God says, “be fruitful and multiply,” but instead we, God’s creatures, hoard and divide.
God speaks us into existence, but we talk back. We resist our own maker, and the Old Testament testifies that we do it at every turn.
On a whim I decided to google the question “how many times does the phrase ‘thus saith the Lord’ occur in scripture”? And I got a lot of different answers. How dare the internet not be conclusive! The lowest tally was in the hundreds of mentions. When you add the phrase “And God said…” you get into the thousands.
It’s true the Old Testament tells a story of a creation that rebels, that talks back, but remember, ultimately this story is not a story about us, the creatures. It’s a story about the creator, about God. In the face of our rebellion, what does God do? God chooses to keep speaking. God speaks again. And again. And again. No matter what we say back, this is a God who does not stop speaking to us.
God speaks again to this rebellious creation saying things like “Fine, I will never again flood the earth. I promise,” and again “Look, I will be your God and you shall be my people,” and again “I have heard the cries of my people, and I have come once again to rescue them.”
The Word of the Lord doesn’t always come in sweetness, it’s true. This we can read in both Old and New Testaments. The word of the Lord comes often as a word of judgment. But as the story progresses, over and over, even the most virulent of divine speeches has a tendency to end with lines like “Nevertheless, I will restore my people,” “Though your sins are like scarlet I shall wash them white as snow,” “When you pass through the fire, I will remain with you, and the flames shall not consume you for I am the Lord, your God, your savior. Do not fear.”
It’s funny, this fatherly question, “What did I just say?” This is actually how we use the Bible. When the powers of sin and death, rebellion and chaos, when they start to overwhelm us, we are invited to turn to God’s Word and ask “Okay, God, what is it that you said again?”
What the Christian witness adds to this story is the news that the God of the Old Testament continued to speak beyond the story of the Old Testament, that the Word that God spoke at creation, the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that was God, was made flesh and dwelt among us, that Jesus is what God has been saying all along, and what God has now said once and for all.
“Verbum caro factum est” the old Latin hymn says, the verbum, God’s verb, God’s Word was made flesh in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In him the creator’s speech joins creation. In fact at his baptism when he emerges from the water the skies are separated. They part, and a voice from heaven speaks and says “This is my Son the Beloved. Listen to what he has to say!”
As in the beginning, though, even God’s incarnate Word is met with rebelion. The forces of chaos, of sin and death, they, we resist God’s Word even to the point of silencing him on the cross. But, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, even our worst cannot drown out the Word of God, and Christ is raised to speak again. In the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn the Risen Christ continues to speak, “and listening to his word, new life the dead receive, the mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.”
Hear the Good News: the powers of chaos, of nothingness, of annihilation did not and shall not prevail against this God who speaks. In his resurrection Christ has revealed the good news that as in Genesis 1, so in Romans 8: neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor chaos, nor nothingness, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God our creator, and the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord.