Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, June 11, 2017
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Reflect with me for a moment on our Gospel accounts. In the early years of the Christian movement, many accounts about Jesus circulated across the Mediterranean world: down the length of Palestine, crossing over into northern Africa; up and across the northern arc of the Mediterranean Sea, over into Greece and Italy, and some think even over into Spain. Throughout the Roman Empire, church leaders wrote down their versions of what they knew and understood of Jesus and his Gospel.
Among all those accounts, the writings of four teachers emerged to shape the entirety of early church’s understanding of Jesus and his Gospel. We know them today, of course, as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
So, why am I reviewing that with you? Because I want you to keep that more familiar process in mind as we turn to the opening chapters of the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Genesis.
The stories of our Christian beginnings were told within a few short decades. For the ancient Hebrews, their beginning stories endured across many centuries for nearly 1,500 years before this final sifting and sorting began happening. Of those countless stories, two accounts—just two—emerged to shape the entirety of Hebraic understanding of how it all got started.*
These two accounts have come across four millennia to become your understanding and my understanding of how it all got started. Long before Jesus, long before Abraham–before there was even a “before” that had begun: “In the beginning of it all, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s how it all started according to the first of these two accounts in Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1. Our second account begins in a similar way in chapter 2, verse 4: “In [that] day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”
On the surface, these two opening sentences look to be pretty much the same. Yes, in English, they’re similar, yet they are significantly different in the Hebrew tongue. Within these brief, opening sentences, the two accounts already are letting us know they’re writing from two differing perspectives. Our first account uses only one word to describe God. It’s the Hebrew word that means, “God above all gods”, “Elohim”. When you read the word, “God”, in Genesis 1, verse 1, through chapter 2, verse 3, it is always this single word, “Elohim”…”God above all gods”: In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth.
Our second account names God differently. Our second account uses the unique Divine Name which God revealed to Moses, when God first encountered Moses in the wilderness: “YaWaH”: “YaWaH Elohim”. Never just “Elohim” by itself, but always, “YaWaH Elohim”: “In that day, YaWaH Elohim made the earth and the heavens.”
We don’t really notice that difference in our English translations, because our English translations write out “YaWaH Elohim” as “the Lord God”, and we English readers see “God” and “the Lord God” as saying exactly the same thing. So, what if the first account speaks of God only as “Elohim”, the God above all gods, and the second account only uses “YaWaH Elohim”, the Divine Name entrusted to Moses…what does it matter? We all know who we’re talking about, right?
But, there is a real difference—it’s a difference of purpose–in using one name in one account and a different name in the other account. To go back to our more familiar Gospel accounts, for example. There’s a real difference of purpose for why Mark begins with Jesus already as an adult, while Matthew and Luke start off with a lot of information about Jesus’ birth. And John’s over there doing something totally different in his chapter one.
If we just had Mark’s Gospel account to go by, we’d have to assume there was nothing particularly noteworthy about Jesus’ birth. But, we know that’s not so because of the other three accounts of Matthew, Luke, and John. So it is with our two accounts of how it all got started; there’s a real difference of purpose in why they chose two different ways of naming God.
The name a person allows us to use when speaking with them, or the name we allow ourselves to use about that person, says something about our relationship to that person. When my sister got married in 1970, my Dad’s mom and my Mom’s dad had already died. So, at the wedding, my two surviving grandparents were seated together as a couple. There was my father’s father, O. P. Dalton, and my mother’s mother, Bessie Motley.
Friends of my Papa Dalton could address him by his initials, O.P. He allowed a very few intimate friends to call him by his nickname, “Pet”, which was short for his middle name, “Petra”, as in “rock”. My Granny Motley, though, wouldn’t even address Papa Dalton by his initials, O.P. My Granny Motley would only speak to and about my grandfather as “Mr. Dalton”.
It was a formality that reflected the difference she felt in social status between the Dalton family and her own family, the Motleys. Her daughter may have married up into the Dalton family, but my Granny Motley could never allow herself to cross that social barrier; even these many decades later, at my sister’s wedding, he was “Mr. Dalton” to her.
There is a distance implied in that first name, “Elohim”. This is the God above all gods, the God down before whom lies all these forces unformed, chaotic, roiling in absolute darkness, forces which have no meaning, no integration, no purposeful movement, forces which have no standing whatsoever before the God above all gods.
Even today, we ourselves sometimes glimpse into the abyss of this terrifying reality which then lay before Elohim. For us, it is an awfulness that defies naming. It is a morass of darkness that would suck us back down into its vortex of absolute destruction. It is the subterranean dread that haunts the human psyche with the possibility that there is no meaning, there is no purpose, there is no beauty, there is, ultimately, no reason for anything.
This vast unformed, purposeless mass is what lay there under the gaze of the God who is above all. Verse two says “God hovered over” or that “God moved upon” or that “God swept across” this primordial mess. The verb there in verse 2 the Bible writers used elsewhere to describe a mother eagle stirring up her eaglets in the nest, preparing to launch them out of the nest in order to fly. (e.g., Deut. 32:11)
Here, in verse 2, God is preparing to launch this “stuff” into a creative flight infused with God’s purpose and God’s meaning and God’s glory. At the word of Elohim, this vast nothing is about to become a vast something.
How differently our second account describes how it all got started. We don’t have it printed out in our bulletin today, but you can read it for yourselves in Genesis chapter two. “In the day that YaWaH Elohim made the earth and the heavens”, all the earth lay barren as one big, dry and dusty patch of ground. YaWaH Elohim looks over it all and decides to plant a garden.
The Lord God causes a mist to envelop the earth so to water the ground. Then, the Lord God out of this wet ground, the “ah-dam-mah”, YaWaH Elohim forms an “ah-dam”, a two legged, two armed, form. Then, the Lord God puts Divine lips up to mortal nostrils, says chapter two, verse 7, and blows a puff of life into those nostrils and that dirt creation comes alive.
Do you see where this is headed? This account introduces us to God, using the intimate personal Divine name which God entrusted to Moses. That would be like my Papa Dalton turning to my Granny Motley at my sister’s wedding and saying to her, “what’s this ‘Mr. Dalton’ business? Why don’t you start calling me ‘Pet’ from now on.”
This YaWaH Elohim touches dirt and works dirt and then imparts something of God’s own animating life to animate this creature of dirt, this man. Why, that’d be like my Papa Dalton saying to my Granny Motley, “you know, now that we’re on first-name basis, how about we hold hands and maybe, we might even enjoy ourselves a kiss.”
YaWaH Elohim plants a garden and puts the man, ah-dam, in the garden to take care of it, along with all the creatures the Lord God has made. But, the Lord God sees the man is lonely and the Lord God feels for the man, that there’s no other creature suitable to be with the man. So, the Lord God reaches right into the side of the man’s chest cavity and pulls out what’s needed to make a woman, and the man sees the woman and shouts, “Yowzer!”
In contrast to our first account, this second accont is some kinda different telling of the story of how it all got started, isn’t it?
The Garden itself becomes the source of life for all the earth, as four great rivers flow out of the Garden, each river flowing to one of the four corners of earth, one flowing eastward, one flowing westward, another flowing to the north, and the fourth flowing to the south. In the middle of the Garden, YaWaH Elohim plants two special trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
All physical life, and all wisdom for life, this second story tells us, originates in the Garden which the Lord God planted in the midst of an otherwise barren planet. It’s here, in the Garden in the midst of the earth, that the Lord God walks with the man and woman, teaching them of life and of wisdom, to know the good and to turn from the evil. It’s the Garden meant to nurture all of human life, including your life and my life. It is the Garden into which we, too, are invited to walk with God.
The first account, the “Elohim” creation story, has its own invitation. The first story in Genesis chapter 1 invites us to find in God’s work the template for our own work. That’s why the story is structured around the work-week. In this telling, God works each day as we work. Each day has twenty-four hours as measured in the Hebraic way: there is the evening for sleep, then wake-up to do the work of the day until the sun goes down…Day One. Sleep, wake-up, do the work of the next day until the day’s done…Day Two.
And so on, and so on, until the work of Day Six is done, then sleep, wake-up into Day Seven, and spend the day knowing the satisfaction that the work you have done throughout the previous six days, you can bless and call, ‘very good’, ‘well done’, just the way Elohim did.
But, there’s something curious about this Seventh day. Did you notice? It’s missing the words that closed out each of the preceding six days. There is no, “And there was evening and there was morning, a seventh day.”
The seventh day of God’s pleasure that all the work of creation has been done and that it has all been done very well…that day never ends. What could that be about, as we consider the purpose of our lives?
In all this talk about creation, you’ll notice I haven’t said a word about science. That’s because these two accounts have absolutely nothing to do with science. Neither Genesis 1 nor 2 are scientific theories nor are they scientific observations and proofs; they are testaments of faith that proclaim the pure and Divine love that got us all started here on this good earth put in this glory-filled Universe.
These two accounts invite us to know God in this life, on this earth. They assure us, even as they demand of us, that we can find our purposeful daily living as we mesh our days with God’s own creative purpose. These stories welcome us to know God who entrusts us with the Divine Name, whose touch forms us, whose breath enlivens us, who welcomed us into this earthly Garden to walk all our days as intimate friends with God.
* Exegetical notes are from J.J. Owens, Genesis: Analytical Key to the Old Testament (San Francisco: Harper & Row Pub, 1978) pp. 1-15; and Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973) pp. 11-85