Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
The Bible is like a vast national park filled with various types of terrain and impressive natural features. The park is so big that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. Is it worth making a brief visit?
In fact, a brief visit to a park, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, get a feel for the place.
You might compare this booklet to a short visit to a national park. We will read sections of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which contain the Bible’s accounts of creation and the beginning of the human race. We will be able to take a leisurely walk through each account, thinking carefully about what we are reading and what it means for our lives today. While these chapters of Genesis are only a small fraction of the entire Bible, they touch on central themes in God’s revelation to us: God’s creative purposes for us, the effects of sin on our relationship with God, and God’s continuing faithfulness toward us.
This guide provides everything you need to explore Genesis 1 through 11 in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction (page 6) will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections provide explanations that highlight what the words of Scripture mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you both to explore Genesis for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the Church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the messages of Genesis. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with God’s Word. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the Genesis accounts and examine them carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what these stories mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s Word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what Scripture has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of the discussions if you read the weekly material in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “What’s Happened” and “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they occur in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished biblical amateurs, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to be facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” before beginning (page 92).
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the text of the portions of Genesis that you will be reading, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussion. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) and individuals (page 95).
Exploring Our Beginnings
In the beginning . . .” The absolute beginning—the beginning—fascinates us. The astrophysicist is not the only person drawn to ponder the big bang, that first moment when a mysterious little gift package of particles and forces arrived from nowhere, unwrapped itself, and exploded into a universe of galaxies, planets, mountain ranges, oak trees, and robins. The beginning is a magnet for all of us because it is our beginning.
So it is natural for us to be intrigued by Genesis. Genesis is the book famous for beginning, “In the beginning.” Not only the first chapter but also the next ten chapters recount the origins of the universe and humankind. These are God-inspired accounts of our beginnings. Of course we are interested.
When we open the Bible to the first page, however, we find things strange by modern standards. Genesis is unlike modern books on cosmic or human origins. Here is no astronomer’s account of a big bang and an expanding universe, no biologist’s sketch of life evolving over a billion years. In Genesis 1 the interval from dark emptiness to human beings is spanned in six days. There is no paleontologist’s report on early toolmaking hominids, but vivid, tragic tales of creation, harmony, sin, and judgment.
Familiarity may have dulled our surprise at the strangeness of Genesis. Pretty much everyone has heard of Adam and Eve and Cain and Noah. But as we set out to learn more from these stories, a good starting point is a fresh sense of how unusual they are.
The early chapters of Genesis remind me of a contest conducted from time to time in a magazine called Biblical Archaeology Review. The editors publish a photograph of an artifact excavated somewhere in the Near East and challenge readers to identify it. A picture of one three-thousand-year-old item was accompanied by these questions: “What is it? A ceremonial axe head? an ivory earring? handcuffs? game board? pasta maker?” Looking at the picture, you could believe it was any or none of those things (it turned out to be a board for playing a long-forgotten game called Fifty-eight Holes). The editors choose ancient items that are different from anything made or used today—which is the point of similarity to Genesis. The types of writing we meet in Genesis chapters 1–11 are also different from those we are familiar with today.
The main reason for this difference is that the authors of Genesis, like the people who played Fifty-eight Holes, belonged to a world quite unlike our own. They lived before the rise of scientific thinking. They did not have modern methods of writing history. They did much of their theologizing through stories. This is not to say they were primitive or unintelligent. They were as capable of wisdom as any later people, and God guided them in a unique way to compose the work that he intended. Nevertheless, the book they produced is the product of their culture, not ours.
As a result, the Genesis accounts do not fit neatly into our categories of thought. To grasp this point, suppose the first eleven chapters of Genesis were published as a separate book and sent to a library. When the slender volume arrives, the librarian has to decide where to shelve it. First she surveys the nonfiction side of the library. Should it go with works on astronomy? biology? history? On close examination, it seems quite different from modern books on those subjects. Neither does it belong in the psychology section, despite its interesting descriptions of dysfunctional families. The librarian turns to the fiction side of the library. What about shelving the book with collections of short stories? But the Genesis accounts are documents of religious instruction, not imaginative works of art. Finally, exasperated, the librarian considers shelving the book with collections of mythology. Yet the Genesis accounts are different from myths in important respects.
The librarian is puzzled about what kind of book Genesis is because the authors of Genesis combined elements that modern authors keep distinct. The combination of ingredients in Genesis would have been familiar to people in the ancient Near East. But for us modern people, Genesis is virtually unique.
In our experience perhaps the closest parallel to many of the Genesis accounts that we will be reading is the parable. A parable is an imaginative story that communicates a truth and spurs us to think. Jesus delivered much of his teaching through parables. The account of Adam and Eve, for example, is not a historical narrative but a parable-like story that brings out certain meanings. The similarity of Genesis and parables is only partial, however. Parables are pure fiction, but some actual events lie behind the Genesis accounts, even though they are not conveyed in straightforward scientific or historical language.
It is a shame that the parable-like nature of the Genesis accounts was not recognized a couple of centuries ago, for it might have forestalled a lot of unnecessary arguments between advocates of science and advocates of the Bible. Thinking they are defending the Bible against theories that contradict it, many Christians resist evolutionary explanations of the development of species, especially Homo sapiens. But the Genesis stories do not aim to convey scientific or historical information. Consequently they cannot be in contradiction of scientific or historical findings. It is apparent, for example, that the narrator of Genesis was not concerned with how God brought humans into existence, since he offered different descriptions of the process. Chapter 1 states that God “created” us (1:27), using a Hebrew word that never refers to making one thing from another. Yet chapter 2 says that God “formed” a man from dust and “made” a woman from the man’s rib (2:7, 22). Evidently the narrator was intent on communicating that God created humans; how God did it was not part of the message.
Thus the Genesis account of human creation does not have to be defended against biological theories. Speculating about the processes by which humans developed may be comfortably left to biologists. No biological discoveries can disprove the Genesis message that God created the human race, since in creating us God could have chosen any process that biologists might ever discover.
Parables are very brief. Usually a parable makes only a single point or two. Because of their simplicity, parables raise questions for which there are no answers. Keeping this limitation in mind will save us from asking inappropriate questions as we read Genesis. For example, we may wonder what kind of legs the snake had before God cursed it (3:14) or where Cain’s wife came from (4:17) or how Noah and his family coped with the zoo-keeping responsibilities on the ark (7:1–24). These questions are unanswerable for the same reason that there is no answer to questions about how the sheep in Jesus’ parable fared after the shepherd left them to look for the stray (Luke 15:3–7). Parables are just not designed to answer questions like that.
Recognizing the parable-like quality of the Genesis accounts keeps us from getting hung up in futile controversies and insoluble questions. This frees us to focus on the meaning of the accounts. The authors of Genesis wrote to shed light on basic questions about human existence. It may be helpful to identify some of those questions before we begin our reading.
Chapter 1 deals particularly with “what” questions:
What is the universe? Most ancient Near Eastern people regarded the universe as a composite formed by three orders of beings: gods who are a part of nature, nature that is filled with gods, and human beings who are dependent on both. In contrast, the account in Genesis 1 elevates God far above nature and strips nature of any divinity.
What is the place of humans in the scheme of things? Ancient people offered various responses: humans are slaves of the gods, playthings of divine forces, intelligent work animals. Because of their worldview, ancient people thought that humans were subject to countless capricious deities and demons, whose favor had to be cultivated and whose ill will had to be warded off. As we will see, Genesis 1 gives a radically different answer to the question.
In chapters 2 and 3, questions of meaning and purpose predominate. For example:
Why is the drive for union between man and woman so strong? What is the meaning of this mystery?
What is the natural status of woman in relation to man?
Why are relationships between men and women often marked by shame and exploitation?
Why do human beings, who feel so at home in the world, meet such resistance from the natural environment? Why is getting food so hard? Why are animals strangers, even enemies?
Why does the great blessing of childbearing involve such pain?
Why do we have to die?
Why don’t snakes have legs? (Not all questions in Genesis are deep, theological ones.)
Key questions in later chapters include the following:
In light of the barbaric ways in which humans sometimes treat each other, why doesn’t God bring the human race to an end?
Why do people, who have such intelligence, often fail to understand each other?
Obviously, these questions concern us too. While Genesis was written in a culture different from ours, it deals with universal human issues. We can grasp the point of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God, even without knowing a lot about the Galilean fishing and farming that he referred to. Just so, with a little study, we can grasp the basic messages of the Genesis stories without being experts on the ancient Near East.
While the Genesis accounts deal with God’s creation of the whole universe, they focus on his relationship with his human creatures. Taken together, the accounts in Genesis 1–11 create contrasting portraits of God and humans. God emerges as a lover of good, a patient judge, a fatherly figure who wants what is best for his human children and is willing to make a new start with them when they mess up. Humans, on the other hand, show themselves to be a mixture of nobility and vice. They are intelligent and creative, capable of doing right, but inclined to transgress their creaturely limits and fatally attracted to the mirage of autonomy from God.
The early chapters of Genesis were the outcome of a long development process, and they have been the subject of centuries of interpretation in Israel and the Church. Reading these accounts at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are heirs of a tradition of writing and interpretation that stretches back more than three thousand years. Having some notion of this tradition is useful for understanding the accounts and seeing how they apply to us.
By studying the writings of other peoples in the ancient Near East, scholars have come to see that the origins of many Genesis stories go far back, to a period before the formation of Israel (Israel’s exodus from Egypt happened around 1250 b.c.).
In other words, both the Israelites and their neighbors who did not believe in the God of Israel inherited many of the same mythic descriptions of the beginning of the world from older Near Eastern culture.
Over centuries, as the people of Israel interacted with God, they came to a view of reality different from that of their neighbors. Consequently they reshaped the inherited stories to convey their distinctive picture of God, the world, and human beings. The result was stories that were still similar to those of their neighbors but that now carried new, divinely inspired messages.
The flood story is an example of this process. The Israelites and the Akkadians (in present-day Iraq) both drew on very ancient traditions of a catastrophic flood. In the Akkadian version of the story, the gods bring the flood because people were bothering them with noise. The Israelites, however, had discovered that God is not bad-tempered but just, and they reflected this knowledge in their version of the story. In the biblical telling, God brings the flood because he is saddened by people’s violent oppression of each other. In the Israelite tradition, the story became the vehicle for conveying a portrait of a God who is righteous and compassionate, rather than capricious and self-concerned. Thus at one stage the accounts of the beginning served to sketch a truer portrait of God than that held by Israel’s neighbors.
The accounts acquired another level of meaning when they were incorporated in the growing book of Scripture. Contrary to what we might expect, the accounts of the beginning were not the first part of Genesis to be included in the Bible. The narratives of God’s dealings with Abraham and his family and of the exodus from Egypt were composed earlier. Later the accounts of the beginning were placed in front. Joined to the history of God’s dealings with Israel, the early accounts now showed that the God who had been unfolding a merciful plan for the people of Israel was not just the tribal God of Israel; he was the God of the whole universe. Thus the Genesis stories implied that God’s activity on behalf of Israel must be part of a larger plan for the entire human race.
The Genesis stories reached a third stage of meaning with the coming of Jesus. God achieves his original purposes for the universe through his Son, who has now taken on human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Since God’s creative purposes find their fulfillment in Jesus, the creation accounts in Genesis reveal their deepest meaning when viewed in relation to him. Now that God’s Son has come in human flesh, the Genesis accounts provide background against which we can perceive who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
The stories of Adam and Eve, of their sons Cain and Abel, of the people who provoked the flood and those who built the tower of Babel—all these display our human tendency to overstep our creaturely limits, to take control of our lives apart from God, to treat one another unjustly. The Genesis accounts diagnose the human condition: our unhappiness stems from our failure to trust and obey our creator. Against this background, Jesus’ life and death emerge as a deliberate reversal of the deep-rooted human tendency to distrust and disobey God. St. Augustine writes that Jesus “did not come to do his own will but the will of God by whom he was sent. In this he differed from Adam who chose to do his own will, not the will of his creator.” Jesus’ death and resurrection become understandable as the divine means of putting an end to our rebellion—symbolized in the Genesis accounts—in order to give us a fresh start in relationship with God (Romans 6:3–10). Just as Adam was the first human being, through whom we have received our human life flawed by sin, so Jesus is the new Adam, through whom we receive a life cleansed of sin and enlightened by the presence of God’s Spirit (Romans 5:12–19; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22, 45).
Given the inner connection between God’s initial purposes revealed in Genesis and the fulfillment of those purposes through Jesus, it is not surprising that the early Church drew heavily on the Genesis accounts to help explain Jesus. For example, the early Church viewed the cross on which Jesus died as a “tree” corresponding to the tree in the garden of Eden. At the first tree the human race lost its original relationship with God by distrust and disobedience; it regained this relationship with God through Jesus’ trust and obedience at the second tree.
As centuries have passed in the life of the Church, Christians asking questions about God’s plan have returned again and again to the Genesis accounts of beginnings. St. Augustine, who died in the early fifth century, investigated Genesis as he tried to understand how there came to be any evil in a universe created by a perfectly good and powerful God. Augustine and later theologians have scrutinized Genesis for help in understanding the destabilizing effects of Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience (what theologians refer to as original sin) and the means by which these effects are passed from one generation to another. In the late twentieth century, Pope John Paul II intensively explored the account of Adam and Eve to shed light on the relationship between the sexes and on the “nuptial meaning of the body.” The author of Genesis did not directly address these subjects, yet Genesis will always be part of Christians’ efforts to deal with such issues.
Scripture is the soul of theology, the bishops of Vatican II pointed out. It is meant to be the soul of our own reflections. Just as the greatest Christian thinkers have repeatedly pondered the opening chapters of Genesis, so may we also read and reread them, seeking to understand God’s relationship with us and his purpose for our lives. As we read, the Spirit who guided the narrator of Genesis to write will be with us, guiding us to understand and to act, to wonder and to praise.
Let There Be Light!
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 For you, this last week has been ordinary unusual boring great a time of grace a week to forget
2 Describe a memorable beginning in your life. How did it turn out?
3 If you could make a fresh start in some area of life, what would it be?
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
The Reading: Genesis 1:1–31
The Universe: Act One, Scene One
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
Creatures of Sea, Air, and Land
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 How does God’s evaluation of his work in verse 31 differ from his previous evaluations? What might be the significance of this difference?
2 What are animals and humans given the freedom to eat? By implication, what are they restricted from eating? What might be the significance of this restriction?
3 What picture of God could be drawn simply on the basis of this reading from Genesis?
4 Most ancient Near Eastern people thought of the sun, moon, and stars as gods. What would verses 14–18 say about such a belief?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
Picture a movie scene that includes the use of cartoon-type animation. An artist sitting at an easel begins to paint. She sweeps her brush in broad strokes back and forth across the canvas. Through animation, at each stroke objects magically appear. With one stroke of the brush, a tree springs into view. Another stroke and a meadow surrounds the tree. Two dabs of the brush put a sun in the sky and a child beneath the tree. Suddenly the picture comes to life. The tree’s branches sway in the breeze. The child runs across the meadow.
Genesis 1 is like that. God calls forth the universe in six days, each day an effortless stroke of an artist’s brush. The account does not describe the processes by which the universe took shape and life developed, any more than the animation shows how an artist actually paints a picture. But Genesis teaches us things we cannot learn from astronomy or biology.
A narrator must say when and where the action begins. This requirement poses a problem. Before creation there was no time or place. Nothing had been created. Yet verse 3 cannot stand as the beginning of the account, so the narrator describes the “situation” before creation: a shapeless emptiness, a watery darkness whipped by storms (verse 2; “wind from God” is probably a Hebrew way of describing an extremely violent wind). The narrator describes what cannot really be described, because it did not exist. (While Genesis probably had several authors and editors, for the sake of simplicity I will refer to “the narrator” or “the author” in this booklet.)
The author does not describe creation from nothing in quite the way that later theologians have come to understand it. Yet neither does he say that anything existed before God created. When the author describes God performing operations on the watery darkness (1:6–10), he does not mean that God formed the world out of preexisting matter, for the dark ocean of verse 2 is not neutral matter in our modern sense. It is chaos, sinister nothingness, absence of any possibility of life. The account of God’s illuminating darkness and dividing waters (1:3–10) is a way of conveying that God called into existence an orderly universe.
It seems strange that God creates light on the first day, while sun and stars appear only on the fourth, but the narrator is pursuing a logic of his own. The purpose of the light is to inaugurate time, as indicated by the naming of what is created: “Day” and “Night” (1:5). Next God creates space. He establishes vertical space by engineering the sky, which ancient people thought of as a hard, transparent dome holding up a vast, blue ocean (1:6–8). God makes horizontal space by clearing away water to expose the land (1:9–10).
Calling earth “Earth” and seas “Seas” (1:10) seems an exercise in the obvious. But in the culture of the time, name-giving indicated possession (see Isaiah 43:1). Thus the account shows that the universe is God’s property; it belongs to him. Notice that God does not name the animals (keep this in mind for next week).
After creating various creatures (1:20–25), God reaches the climax of his efforts. Here he does not merely utter a “Let there be.” God deliberates with himself—“Let us make” (1:26)—carefully considering his greatest undertaking.
God creates humans in his “image” and “likeness” (1:26–27). In the ancient Near East, kings were considered images of the gods. Thus for humans to be made in the image of God means, as scholar Nahum M. Sarna says, that “each person bears the stamp of royalty.” God has made us with the intelligence and freedom required to carry out a royal assignment. God assigns us as his viceroys to govern the earth and its creatures (1:26).
Being made in God’s image means even more than this, for it also means that we correspond to God. We are made like God in order to interact with him. There is a fit, a match, between God and us that makes a relationship possible. Scholar Claus Westermann writes, “The creation of humanity has as its goal a happening between God and human beings.” In our entire physical and spiritual nature we are created for a relationship with God. As soon as the first human couple stands before him, God activates this relationship. We read for the first time, “God said to them” (1:28). Among earth’s creatures, with humanity alone can God carry on a conversation.
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Where is there disorder, disintegration, or absurdity in your life? What are the dangers and threats posed to you and those you are close to? Where do you long to see God bring order, peace, and protection? What effect can this week’s reading have on your trust in God in these areas?
2 What difference should knowing that the universe belongs to God make in how we treat the earth? If you were to consider the tiny part of creation that God has put in your hands as his personal possession—your house, your car, your bank account, your yard, your dog—how might you relate to it differently?
3 What might this week’s reading say about the belief that the movements of the stars and planets determine the course of people’s lives?
4 When have you become particularly aware that God is seeking a personal relationship with you? What do you intend to do to respond more fully to his invitation?
5 God gives the whole human race the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (1:28). How could parents and those who are not parents work together more effectively to foster the development of the children God has given your church community?
“Clarifying the members’ motivations and expectations early in the life of the group saves you from countless aggravations.”
Neal F. McBride, How to Lead Small Groups
Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use this approach—or create your own!
Now that you have read the repeated divine declarations that “it is good,” it is your turn to reflect them back to God in a litany of thanks:
First recite Genesis 1:31 together: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Then allow participants to mention things for which they are grateful, pausing after each item for the group to pray together, “Thank you, Lord, for the goodness of your creation.”
Recite Genesis 1:31 together again, and close by praying Psalm 8.
Saints in the Making God and Our Chaos
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
Genesis 1 depicts creation as an ordering of chaos. God shatters the darkness of nonexistence by creating light, then joins darkness as a subordinate to the light in the alternating rhythm of night and day (1:1–5). God rolls back the life-negating deep; assigned now to a place beside the land, the tamed waters become the bright sea (1:6–10).
While God imposes order on chaos, tendencies to disintegration and absurdity are not entirely eliminated from creation. In the Israelite view, night and ocean continue as zones of danger, symbols of the destruction that lurks at the edges of life. Creation constantly needs the creator to keep bringing the dawn, to keep holding back the floodwaters from the dry land.
The sense that life is not a neat, ordered whole is probably common to all of us. Bernadette McCarver Snyder suggests that chaos is as near as the kitchen sink. “For many of us across the land,” she writes, “the dawn does not come up like thunder. It comes up with the rattle of dirty dishes. No matter how late you stay up sanitizing the kitchen at night, the next morning there will be DIRTY DISHES somewhere. Either they regenerate themselves, or somebody up there wants me to have dishpan hands.”
With a little self-knowledge, we recognize that disorder is within as well as without. Dom Helder Camara, bishop of Recife, Brazil, told an interviewer, “At two in the morning, I always wake up, get up, get dressed, and gather up the pieces I’ve scattered during the day—an arm here, a leg there, the head who knows where. I sew myself back together again; all alone, I start thinking or writing or praying, or I get ready for Mass.”
At times, the hammer blows of loss smash our lives into meaningless fragments. Antoinette Bosco writes, “Divorce made me yearn for the miracle of reconnection, the gift of being able to pick up the pieces of a shattered life and build a new, radically different one.”
At every stage of our journey, the Genesis image of a chaos-ordering God stands before us as a sign of hope. The God who spoke light into being, who divided water and land to make a beautiful world, is with us each day as we make our way toward wholeness in his presence.
Let’s suppose that friends from New Jersey have come to visit me in Minnesota, where I live, and they ask me about the state. In response I tell them about the Twin Cities, the Scandinavian background of many Minnesotans, the Vikings football team, and the Mall of America. My East Coast friends might not notice, but if I stopped there, my list would lack some pretty obvious features of life in Minnesota. Any of my Minnesota neighbors who were listening would wonder why, for example, I hadn’t mentioned fishing, since virtually all Minnesotans love to fish, no matter what city they live in, what country their ancestors came from, what teams they support, or where they shop. And how could I have forgotten to say something about our Siberian winters?
We modern readers may not immediately notice, but the narrator of Genesis has also left out some features that his non-Israelite neighbors would have expected in a creation account. Most notably he has purged his account of any notion of a multiplicity of gods.
Many ancient Near Eastern people imagined that the world came into existence as the result of a battle between gods. They tended to think of creation as a laborious process in which gods made some things from other things. Genesis 1 has none of this. God creates without needing to overcome the opposition of other deities because, quite simply, there aren’t any. He summons things into existence instantly by mere command.
In one ancient creation myth, a certain god slays another god, called Sea, who has the form of a sea monster, and uses the corpse to construct the world. The author of Genesis knew this story—and rejected it. In Genesis the sea is not divine; the “deep” in 1:2 is simply an image of chaos, of nonbeing. The sea does not emerge until the third day (1:9–10) and is merely an element of creation. Sea monsters are just the biggest, oddest pets in God’s global aquarium (1:21).
Ancient readers would have been struck especially by the Genesis narrator’s treatment of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies (1:14–18). Near Eastern people saw these things as gods who ruled human lives. Genesis 1 firmly demotes them from divine status. First, God creates them. Second, they do not appear until the fourth day. They have no light of their own but merely transmit light already created (1:3). They serve to mark the passage of time and the occurrence of holidays (1:14); that is all. Far from being gods, they are nonentities: they do not even have names (see 1:16).
Writing in a period when people conceived of a universe crowded with conflicting divine beings, the narrator of Genesis offered a simpler, yet deeper, view: one God has created all. This God is not a power within the universe—a power of sun or sea or storm or sex. He is the power that has brought every other power into existence. Therefore we humans should worship, revere, listen to, and love this God alone. There is no need to worry about pleasing or placating any other gods.
In many places in the world, this is a very relevant, up-to-date, and countercultural message. Think of India, for example. But what about we who live in Western societies? Our public spaces and institutions are secularized. We do not meet statues of gods in schools or supermarkets or courtrooms. In our society, people look for scientific, rather than mythic, explanations of the origin of things. On the other hand, many people in our society believe that human lives may be influenced by stars, by magic, by supernatural beings of various kinds, by spiritual forces working through places or crystals, by the minds of the dead channeled through human teachers.
Genesis 1, then, carries a twofold message for us. First, in the face of burgeoning beliefs in manifold spiritual powers, Genesis declares absolutely that God is the only deity in the universe. From top to bottom, the universe is God’s creation, inhabited only with the creatures that God has put there. Second, as we conduct our lives in secularized settings—in business, in recreation, in government—Genesis reminds us that no time or place exists apart from God. The universe is not meaningless matter; time is not an emptiness filled only with human sound and fury. All places and times, and we ourselves, are the handiwork and possession of a personal God.