September 2, 2014

Creation Is a Many Splendored Thing (2): Genesis 1:1-2:3

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Crucible of Creation: Orion Nebula (detail: Hubble)

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.

• Psalm 93:1-2, NRSV

As the Bible’s first creation account, Genesis 1 enjoys pride of place. Positioned as the cosmogony of cosmogonies, the Priestly account is also the most carefully structured text in all of Scripture. Its intricate arrangement reflects something of creation’s own integrity . . .

. . . As creation unfolds “daily,” it becomes constructed in the imago templi, in the model of a temple. What took Solomon seven years to complete (1 Kgs 6:38), God took only seven days, and on a cosmic scale no less! In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests.

• William P. Brown

In our first post reflecting on insights from William P. Brown’s book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, we noted Brown’s observation that the story of “creation” is found not just once, but seven times in the Bible:

1. Genesis 1:1-2:3
2. Genesis 2:4b-3:24
3. Job 38-41
4. Psalm 104
5. Proverbs 8:22-31
6. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 12:1-7
7. Isaiah 40-55 (excerpts)

The first of these accounts, of course, is in Genesis 1. Brown’s interpretation of this text is close to my own (with some significant differences — see My View of Genesis 1– a post I will update soon). In particular, let me mention the following seven points, with which I am in full agreement:

First, Genesis 1 may have the polemic purpose of contrasting the Jewish view with that of the Babylonians and others in the Ancient Near East, but it does so subtly. Whatever hints of cosmic conflict it may contain are muted, with the overall effect of portraying God as One who is majestically above all other so-called gods.

Second, the account is intricately structured, primarily by the number 7. This is not always appreciated by English readers, but it is  key to understanding that this is not merely prose reporting of events, but “exalted prose” that is written this way for effect. It is not poetry, but if not, it comes close to having a poetic effect on the reader. Some suggest it may have been liturgical in nature, but whatever its precise genre, it is magnificent in its numerical complexity while at the same time it speaks with profound simplicity of language. “. . . the order inscribed in this account imparts a remarkable mathematical aesthetic, the quantifiable order of a fully stable, life-sustaining, differentiated world.”

Third, the narrative also follows a symmetrical order by which God addresses the conditions spoken of in 1:2 — “without form” and “empty.” God forms his creation on the first three days and then fills it on days 4-6. These days are essentially parallel to each other, with some variations, so that on Day 4 God fills what he formed on Day 1, and so on. Day 7 stands alone as the day of completion, answering “Day 0″ when creation was uninhabitable.

Gen_Pattern_convertedFourth, Brown notes that this pattern is consistent with the three-fold arrangement of sacred space in ancient temples. Genesis 1 is a portrayal of God the King creating a cosmic temple in the world.

Orion Nebula (Hubble)

Orion Nebula (Hubble)

Fifth, this gives us a clue as to the place of humans as creatures made in God’s image. “Many an ancient temple contained an image of its resident deity within its inner sanctum. In Jerusalem, however, the physical representation of God was expressly forbidden . . . . Genesis 1, however, does not jettison the language of divine image but recasts it by identifying the imago Dei with human beings, created on the sixth day.” This suggests that humanity’s role is to rule as priests in God’s good creation, to embody the imago Dei in the world.

Sixth, in creation God works with its material elements, not simply over them and without their free cooperation. The idea that creation is “good” includes its fecundity and ability to generate and sustain itself. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive.

As a whole, creation takes place in Genesis 1 from the top down and from the bottom up. God commands from on high for creation to happen, yet much of the creative process emerges from below. Both the earth and the waters contribute to the emergence of life. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive. The creative process is no singular event; neither is it a unilateral process. The result is a creation that exhibits structure and variety, a cosmic living temple, a creation deemed “extremely good” (1:31).

Seventh, God is portrayed as a beneficent Ruler who builds his temple as he commanded Israel to build hers: led by Moses (who spoke the word of divine instruction), Aaron (who served as priest), and Bezalel (the artisan who crafted the temple by the Spirit). All these roles are filled by God in Gen. 1.

• • •

One more thought in closing. Brown gives us an important reminder about the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This story came to Israel in an important socio-historical context.

The Babylonian exile of 587 BCE had left the land of Judah more than decimated. From the perspective of those most affected, imperial conquest and deportation rendered the land “void and vacuum.” The survivors experienced such national trauma as nothing less than a resurgence of cosmic chaos, leaving the land “empty,” stripping the community of its national identity, and leaving the temple in ruins. The good news of Genesis 1 is that God can work with such chaos to bring forth new creation. Heard in the time of exile, the message of imago Dei in Genesis would have been a “clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity and to take seriously their royal-priestly vocation as God’s authorized agents and representatives in the world.”

For Labor Day: Gene Veith on Vocation

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The Harvest, Pissarro

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that God give us our daily bread, which He does. He does so not directly as with the manna to the Israelites, but through the work of farmers, truck drivers, bakers, retailers, and many more. In fact, He gives us our daily bread through the functioning of the whole accompanying economic system — employers and employees, banks and investors, the transportation infrastructure and technological means of production — each part of which is interdependent and necessary, if we are going to eat. Each part of this economic food chain is a vocation, through which God works to distribute His gifts.

God heals the sick. While He can and sometimes does do so directly, in a spectacular unmediated miracle, in the normal course of things God heals through the work of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. God protects us from evil. This He does by means of the vocation of police officers, attorneys, judges — also through the military vocations. God teaches through teachers, orders society through governments, proclaims the Gospel through pastors.

The Gleaners, Pissarro (detail)

The Gleaners, Pissarro (detail)

Luther pointed out that God could have decided to populate the earth by creating each individual and each generation separately, from the dust. Instead, He invented families. God ordained that new life come into the world — and be cared for and raised into adulthood — through the work of a man and a woman who com together into a family. Husband, wife, father, mother are vocations through which God extends His creation and exercises His love.

All of this simply demonstrates that, in His earthly kingdom, just as in His spiritual kingdom, God bestows His gifts through means. God ordained that human beings be bound together in love, in relationships and communities existing in a state of interdependence. In this context, God is providentially at work caring for His people, each of whom contributes according to his or her God-given talents, gifts, opportunities, and stations. Each thereby becomes what Luther terms a “mask of God”:

All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government — to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things. (Luther, Exposition of Psalm 147)

• Gene Edward Veith, Jr.
The Spirituality of the Cross

Spiritual Formation Talk: Sacred Reading

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The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.

• Psalm 119:130

• • •

In our second post on Fr. Charles Cummings’ book, Monastic Practices, we take up the first of the three basic practices of monastic daily life, in order to consider how they might inform the spiritual formation of those who follow ordinary callings.

Sacred reading, manual work, and liturgical prayer constitute the threefold footing of our daily life. (p. 7)

The first practice is sacred reading (lectio divina). Cummings notes that St. Benedict devoted two to three hours each day to this practice in the warmer months, and four to five hours in the winter months.

As Fr. Cummings describes this practice, sacred reading is a conversation with God.

The monk or nun would sit with the text of Scripture and begin to read attentively and reflectively until a word or phrase struck the imagination or the heart. At that moment the reader paused, put the text aside, and gave himself to prayer. The prayerful pause might last less than a minute or might be extended for a number of minutes. When attention faltered, he or she would resume reading until the next moment of insight or movement of love. The rhythm of reading and pausing would continue peacefully, unhurriedly, until the bell announced the next exercise of the monastic day. (p. 8)

The alternation of reading and pausing for contemplation or prayer is key to this practice and makes it conversational. It is about listening and responding, just as we do when we have a talk with a friend. It also gives us space to focus on small passages of text so that we might draw deeper meanings and implications out of them.

These are the words the author uses to describe this process: assimilation, impregnation, interiorization, personalization. It involves “savoring” and “relishing” the words we read, tasting, digesting, and drawing nourishment from them. And like taking meals, the effects may not be evident immediately. The goal is not to have spectacular “experience” every time, but to maintain a good diet that promotes long term health and well being.

Fr. Cummings warns us that we will run into obstacles as we pursue this practice. First, the texts we have before us may not always lend themselves to sacred reading. This is true of the Bible itself — though all Scripture may be “inspired,” a given passage may not be inspiring in a way that lends itself to this approach. Some texts may be beyond our present capacity to understand. Certain questions and issues may distract us from the conversational purpose of our reading. If we are reading devotional materials from another author, the style may be unfamiliar to us, the language or idioms difficult to grasp. “At some point the reader has to make an honest decision about whether a particular text is worthy staying with for sacred reading” (p. 10).

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