Genesis 1-3, Psalm 1, Matthew 1
Opening a library full of many kinds of literature
“In the beginning…” these words will be echoed in the opening verse of John’s Gospel, which we shall read later. What follows is not a scientific account or a journalist’s reporting. What follows is some of the greatest literature known to humankind breathed through with the Spirit of God that can teach us vital principles for living.
One of the first things that any reader of the Bible should learn is that the Bible is a veritable library of 66 different books written by a wide variety of authors. Scholars, for example, believe that at least three authors helped to write the Book of Isaiah. The word “Bible” literally means “books.” Hence, while the Bible is called “the Good Book,” it is actually a library of books written over a period over more than 1,000 years.
In it we find a variety of forms of literature – history, hymns, songs, poetry, prose, prophecy, myth, legend, biography, autobiography, genealogies, dietary codes, building and design instructions and apocalyptic literature. To read all of it as though we were reading the front page of the New York Times would be a serious mistake.
Even a newspaper is full of different genres of literature – hard news, editorials, feature articles; movie, theater and restaurant reviews; comics, obituaries, classified ads, advertisements and sports and business writing. Just as we are not meant to read the comics with the same expectation for serious news reporting that we expect to find on the front page of the newspaper, so we must also avoid reading parts of the Bible such as large sections of Genesis as if an eye witness were reporting each matter.
Genesis 1 informs us that the universe was created in an orderly manner. This not only does not conflict with our knowledge of science, but it affirms what science has revealed to us. The account, however, is given to us in a literary manner, not a factual manner. As scholars have noted, God said, “Let there be light” and light was created on the first day, but the source for the light was not created until the fourth day.
So, this material must be read more in the form of a legend or myth than a factual reporting by someone who was present to witness the moment of creation. No human was alive at this time. Hence, there can be no “eye-witness” account. What is important to take away from the initial three chapters of Genesis is that God created an orderly world, where things are meant to function in an orderly, peaceful and coherent manner.
In Genesis 1, we read that “…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word for “wind” is ruach. It is the same word used for “spirit” and “breathe.” When God’s breathe or spirit fills us, we have life. When it leaves us, we die. If you have ever sat with someone and watched them draw their final breath, you will now the power of what it is to receive the “breathe of God” or have the spirit leave them.
“Water” is often a symbol of chaos throughout the Bible. God’s “spirit” or “wind” or “breathe” moved over the chaos of water and brought order. Throughout our lives, God’s Spirit can move powerfully in our lives to bring order out of chaos. This is the invitation that we receive in today’s reading.
God spoke and things came into being. God’s “Word” is powerful and creative. This “Word” will ultimately become manifest in “the Word made flesh” or Jesus Christ. We shall revisit this as we read the opening prologue of John’s Gospel later.
In Genesis 1:26, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” Some scholars have said that this is the first indication of the Holy Trinity. So, God creates “humankind” in God’s own image. In Genesis 1:27, we read that God created male and female in God’s image. Hence, God must embody not only the image of mankind but also the image of womankind. The unique gifts of men and women are a reflection of the holistic nature of God. Each person has been created in the image of God. As the Quakers note, “There is that of God in every person.” It is our vocation to look for God’s image in each person and to point it out and let others know what we have discovered.
In Genesis 1:28, we are told that God ordained humans to “subdue” and “have dominion over” the birds, fish and animals of the earth. This does not mean that humans were to rape and pillage and exploit the earth for their own purposes, but rather to be stewards of creation and take care of it as God’s own. As Genesis 2:15 notes, God “…took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” We are indeed called to be stewards of creation. “Eden” represents paradise. It is a peaceful, orderly world, which is what God initially intended for humankind to experience and enjoy.
In Genesis 2:7, we read a second account of the creation of humankind, which differs from the first account. In the Greek mindset, there can be only one truth. In the Hebrew mindset, a variety of truths can be accepted, each offering a different interpretation and different insights for us. Hence, instead of selecting only one creation narrative, the author or editor of Genesis allowed for these two contrary views of the creation of humankind to co-exist.
In the second account, starting at Genesis 2:7, we read that God created Adam out of the dust. Adamah literally means “dust ball” or “mud ball” in Hebrew. God created the first human out of the humus of the earth and brought him to life by filling him with the “breath” or “spirit” of God. It is the Spirit of God which animates us and gives us life. When this leaves us, we die and pass from this life to the next.
Man was lonely, however, and so God created him a “helper as his partner.” In the first recorded surgery, God extracted a rib from the man’s side and fashioned a woman from the rib of the man’s side. This is legend and myth, not factual, scientific reporting. To think of this as literally true, is to read the Bible with ignorance and to miss the beauty of ancient story-telling.
In Genesis 3, we read the story of the “Fall,” where humankind sins and creates a breach with God that could only be overcome by the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Here again we encounter story, legend and myth. Serpents, for example, do not talk as the serpent in this story does. Here the serpent speaks to the woman, tempts her to eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden. While artists throughout history have depicted this fruit as an apple, the Bible never mentions the word “apple” when describing this.
What do we take from this? The key point to glean from Genesis 1-3 is that God created an orderly world for humans to thrive in and enjoy. There were boundaries created for our own good that we were not to violate. We humans, however, have a way of violating boundaries, and when we do so, there is always a penalty to be paid. That is the vital teaching of this story, which endures for each generation, and which each human has to learn for him or herself.
Because Adam and Eve violated the boundaries that God created and clearly informed them about, they were punished and driven from the Garden of Eden by a cherubim carrying a flaming torch. Many an artist has depicted this famous scene.
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.” (Gen. 1:26)
There are 150 psalms and Psalm 1 is said to be the key to interpret all of them. It tells us that “Happy” or “blessed” are “those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread…” Instead, they “delight” in God’s law and “meditate day and night” on God’s teaching. As a result, they thrive and grow “like trees planted by streams of water.”
This is the key for understanding all of the Psalms and in a sense all of the Bible. If we give ourselves to reading prayerfully and meditating upon the Scriptures each day, asking God to give us a Word of Life to guide us this day and inform our day and help us to be a holier person, God will always respond to this prayer. God longs for us to grow and thrive “like trees planted by streams of water.” To do so, however, we must be rooted in prayerfully reading the Word of God. As a result of doing so, our lives will yield abundant “fruit,” and what we do shall “prosper.”
This is not so with the wicked. They will be “like chaff that the wind drives away.” On the day of Judgment, they will not succeed before God. God will find them gravely lacking. “…the way of the wicked will perish.” God does judge, and our actions do matter. What we do here and now on earth will always be taken into account by God. God’s ultimate desire for us is to thrive and prosper like “trees planted by streams of water.” It is one of the most beautiful and inspiring images of the Bible.
In Matthew 1 we encounter our first genealogy. Genealogies can be boring, and after reading a few of these, it is easy for a reader of the Bible to put the Bible down and say, “I will read now more.” Here, however, is a fascinating account of the lineage of Jesus broken down carefully into three units of 14 generations leading from the time of Abraham, the spiritual father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a common root that these three “Abrahamic “religions share.
Along the way, we meet what one of my daughters would call “some sketchy characters.” Indeed, they are people like us, full of sins and warts and far from perfection. We read that “Solomon,” the legendary king whose wisdom was unsurpassed, was fathered by King David and “the wife of Uriah.” The author of Matthew’s Gospel chose not to use the name “Bathsheba.”
Here also we see that Jesus is traced to the lineage of “Joseph,” even though Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary, but Mary begot Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Only Matthew and Luke give us the birth narrative. Without these two gospels, we would not have knowledge of how Jesus came to be born and no Christmas pageants. One of the sources for an infinite amount of Western art would not exist.
We read the tender story about how Joseph and Mary were betrothed as teenagers and how Joseph when he learned that Mary was pregnant was going to “dismiss her quietly” rather than to subject her to public ridicule and no doubt punishment by stoning. Then an angel spoke to him in a dream and warned him not to dismiss Mary, but informed him instead that the baby was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.
All this is hard to believe by people who want to function solely by the teaching of science. It requires a leap of faith, a belief in things unseen, which indeed are the most important things in life. We cannot measure love or honesty or patience or truthfulness or kindness, charity and compassion or forgiveness. Yet, these are the very substance of what makes life worth living. All of us live by faith, believing in and relying upon things that are unseen and cannot be replicated in a scientific experiment, yet which give life its ultimate meaning.
Throughout the Bible God speaks to people in dreams. I have no doubt that our dream life can richly inform us, if we pay attention to it. Angels are almost always human beings, rather than fairy creatures that hover about with wings. I believe in angels as well, and like most people have been blessed to have had many angels enter my life.
The angel warns Joseph saying, “…do not be afraid.” (Matt. 1:20) This is the second most common expression found in the Bible. The most common expression is “God is with us.” This expression appears more often in the Bible than any other expression to be found. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel.” From Mozart to Handel to Bach and countless other musicians and artists, this magical moment has been the inspiration for some of the greatest pieces of music and paintings ever created.
“Emmanuel” literally means “God is with us.” It is the refrain that sounds throughout the Bible, and it is the refrain that provides an antidote to human fear. As John Claypool, one of my mentors used to say, “Human beings are never more loving than when we are least afraid, and we are never less loving than when we are most afraid.” Knowing and trusting that God is with us as all times is the ultimate source of overcoming and casting out the fear within us that we cause so much damage to our relationships and cripple us from becoming the people that God longs for each of us to be.
Read the Bible first thing in the morning before you read the newspaper or anything else. This helps your reading become a priority and insures that you are more likely to do it each day. Even more importantly, it communicates to God that God is the priority of priorities in your life. The fruit of your reading will also bless and inspire the rest of your day, helping you to be more centered, compassionate, peaceful, patient, kind and generous throughout the day.
What are the sources of “chaos” in your life at this time, and how can you imagine God’s Spirit moving over your life like the breath or wind of God bringing calm to the chaotic waters of creation?
What causes you to fear the most at this time in your life? What prevents you from accepting the powerful notion that “God is with you” now, so that this fear may be driven from your life?
How do you plan to “meditate” upon the teaching of God each day so that you may be like a tree planted by streams of living water?
Gracious God, grant that this day we might entrust ourselves more fully into your care, meditating quietly upon your Word and letting it take root deep within us. Help us to accept that you are with us at all times so that irrational fears that dwell within us might be cast out and we might be freer to express your love to everyone around us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie