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Beginnings, new and otherwise

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 10th of First Month, 2021

Speaker: Brian Young

Scripture: Genesis 1:1–5, NRSV:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 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. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Good morning, Friends!

The name of this message is supposed to be “Beginnings, new and otherwise”; that was its name on Tuesday. At what is still the beginning of a new year, our text from Genesis seemed appropriate. And at one point the Worship Committee had discussed “new beginnings” as a theme for one of the Sundays in January, and since that idea had later been laid aside due to other developments, I thought I could pick it up. Great! A good Scripture passage, an appropriate message theme, a lovely hymn, and all early in the week—which doesn’t always happen, for this preacher.

And then there was Wednesday. I am still flabbergasted by an insurrection at our nation’s Capitol. I don’t really have the words to sum it up adequately, and so I’m not going to try. Certainly I can mourn the loss of five lives, and the damage to our democracy that has been done by this mob action—and I appreciate Ben’s lifting up the health of our democracy as a prayer concern this morning. But I really have no idea what it will look like to recover from this chaos. I don’t know if impeaching the president who called for the rebellion, and then praised those who carried it out, will do that. I have no answers, other than continued prayer and a renewed thirst and hunger for justice.

Not only were there Wednesday’s events in Washington, but on Thursday morning we heard that Bernice Wisehart, a beloved friend and an important part of West Richmond, had died on Wednesday night. Bernice lived a long and full life, and blessed many of us in and through her living. Yet hers is one more passing that our meeting won’t be able to mark properly for some time, until some future point when it’s safe to gather again. And so the pandemic wears on, marking our daily lives in all sorts of ways that become increasingly hard to bear.

So this year, thus far, feels exactly like 2020, the year that all of us were hoping to escape—just one digit different. Now, of course, the division of our years is arbitrary, and it’s foolishness to expect that something magical happens when the clock ticks over from 11:59 PM to 12 AM on the last night of the year. It’s clear that whatever we hoped to escape from the preceding year is still with us in the current one. Cursing 2020 isn’t going to make 2021 any better. Instead, we might try to focus on what we can do each day, in that one day—or even in an hour or a minute—to look for new beginnings; to invite God in to the details of our lives; to look for opportunities to bless and not to curse; to bring light to bear on darkness.

The passage from Genesis that Jesse read also focuses on just one day—the first day ever. To be precise, the account begins before there even was day, for the passage ends with God naming the day and the night, having divided the light of one from the darkness of the other. Before that, there was “a formless void”, and “darkness covering the face of the deep”, and a sweeping wind from God.

This initial state of creation has always puzzled me, and maybe you, too. Biblical scholars point out that the first two verses of this passage are quite difficult to translate, and there are a number of possible ways to parse the Hebrew into English. The traditional route, what many of you who know, if you know the King James Version, and can probably recite, is to make verse one a complete sentence: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Full stop. Verse two then follows as a description of the results: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Now, as you might know, things like sentence beginnings and endings, and many of the conjunctions and other connecting words that we like to have in English, aren’t there in the Hebrew, and so translators have to impose them on the text, and make their best judgment about where those things should go. And in more recent scholarship, there’s the idea that verses 1 & 2 are all one sentence, as in the version that we usually read at West Richmond: ”In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth [comma], the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” It’s also the case that the verbs in this passage don’t have to be rendered strictly in the completed past tense, so some suggest “when God began to create the heavens and the earth...” or “when God was creating the heavens and the earth

Some scholars take all of this to say that the creation here is not what is called creation ex nihilo(in Latin), creation “out of nothing,” which the more traditional translation, with that full stop after verse 1, seems to assume: that God, out of nothing, creates the heavens and the earth, and then, it was like this… Rather than creating out of nothing, it’s possible that the Hebrew is saying that the earth and the deep were there at the beginning as God began to create, as God began to speak into being the order that was to be.

So perhaps the earth, formless and void, was already there. Now, why is this important? Why should we care?

This has to do with that phrase, “formless and void”: what does it mean for the earth to have been formless and void, perhaps as God began to work on it as raw materials? Part of the reason that this may be important is that we may here be hearing an echo of the creation myth of an another Near Eastern culture—of the Babylonians. Biblical scholars often contrast the creation story of Babylon, which is written in a book called the Enuma Elish, with the creation story of the Hebrew people that we see in Genesis. There are great differences, and there are some similarities. One of the huge differences is that creation in the Babylonian history and culture is a history of conflict. It’s a history of a war between gods that is waged in the primal chaos of the ocean, of the sea—which to many of the Near Eastern cultures was a dangerous and unpredictable place. You could never tell what was lurking beneath the waters; you could never tell what would happen when you went out on the ocean in your boat. So it was a dangerous and unpredictable place.

So the creation story of the Babylonians is characterized by unpredictability and chaos and danger, and a struggle between two rival gods. And creation actually doesn’t happen until Marduk, the victorious god, defeats Tiamat, the goddess against whom he is contending. Marduk then imposes order upon the creation, but it’s not without this victory over chaos that must happen; and in that creation story, there’s always the possibility that that chaos is going to come back and destroy all of this order that has been created.

So in the possibility that the earth, formless and void, was there when God began to work, is an echo of this Babylonian creation story, with a big difference: which is that that formlessness and void-ness, if you will—which in the Hebrew is tohu va bohu, a lovely rhyme that doesn’t translate into English at all—that that formlessness and void-ness represents that primal chaos, but not in a way that is threatening. Because God very easily, or so it seems, takes that formlessness and void-ness and works on it, and imp