God tames the waters (Horizons 1)

Lesson 1 – Genesis 1:1 – 2:4

My family went to the Outer Banks when I was a teenager. There is nothing quite as much fun as body surfing, catching the ridge of a high wave. When the tide was going out, we had to swim out farther to get a wave before it crested. One day I had gone out beyond the breaking waves; I realized with panic that, even though I was swimming as hard as I could, I was being pulled farther by a strong undertow. Somehow I was able to get out of its powerful hands and made it back to shore.

There are times in our lives when we are pulled by powers out of our control. The bottom drops out of the economy. Our home is “under water,” because we paid more for it than it is currently worth. An epidemic, like the Ebola virus, sweeps through a country. A loved one faces a life-threatening illness. A spouse walks out, never to return. Our child is diagnosed with a mental illness that dashes any hope of a normal life.

For ancient people, there were many powers that gripped, threatening to destroy them. Intense storms could batter and break a ship like a twig. Children often died young. Droughts brought widespread famine. Ethnic groups and super powers laid waste to land, crops and people.

The people of Israel knew chaotic and terrible powers that brought appalling destruction. In 587 B.C., the Babylonian army breached the city walls of Jerusalem after a three-month siege and destroyed the temple and the city. Many of the citizens of Jerusalem were deported to Babylon. In exile, grave theological questions were raised. As a defeated nation, what did it mean to be God’s chosen people? Was the Babylonian God, Marduk, more powerful than the God of Israel? Why had this happened? Personal tragedy can make us question the goodness and power of God. It is difficult for us to imagine the devastating loss Israel faced. Psalm 137 speaks of the depth of their distress and hatred of Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon —
there we sat down and there  we wept
when we remembered Zion.
… There our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay
you back for what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your  little ones
and dash them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:1,3-4, 8, 9)

In the crucible of exile, Jews searched sacred texts and the words of the prophets. They came to realize that it was they who had brought the exile on themselves. They had followed other gods, abused the widow, the orphan and the poor, and circumvented what was just and right in God’s eyes. Out of this soul-searching came a renewed commitment to be God’s faithful people and an astonishing theological affirmation that God, not the Babylonian god Marduk, was the creator of the heavens and the earth.

In his commentary on Genesis, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, notes that Genesis 1:1 to 2:4 was written during the period of exile. This first creation story makes the extraordinary claim that God masters chaos with words, not with armies and horrible destruction. The overwhelming power of the water is easily tamed by God who separates the watery abyss into land and seas. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the people of God proclaim that God is the source of life, light and goodness. Unlike the gods of other nation, who were said to create the world through war and devastation, God created the world effortlessly, joyously.

Genesis 1:1 to 2:4 is not about science and evolution. It is a litany of praise. These verses are placed at the beginning of the Bible as an amazing affirmation of faith. Despite what we see around us, God is good and powerful. People may cruelly abuse us and tell us that we are nothing, but we are made in the image of God.

A man recently told me about a Christian prison ministry with which he is involved. The inmates come for a weekend program because they get as many cookies as they can eat. Many leave changed because they have heard that they are not forgotten and that God loves them. Do you believe that God’s spirit is still hovering over the chaos to bring new life? What difference does or could this affirmation of faith make in your life?

RosalindBanburyROSALIND BANBURY is associate pastor for adult ministries at First Church in Richmond, Virginia.