By Miguel De La Torre
On Sunday, Oct. 23, 4004 BCE, some 6,000 years ago, God created the heavens and the earth — at least according to James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, who made his calculations during the mid-17th century.
Taking the biblical text literally, Archbishop Ussher was able to determine the precise day creation took place. He also demonstrates for us how problematic it becomes when the text is read contrary to the intention of the original authors — i.e., literally. Using the biblical text to scientifically explain how our cosmos came into being does harm to the creation stories. The purpose of these texts is not to elucidate the how — the mechanics of creation — but rather, seek answers about the why — the ultimate questions facing humanity.
The author(s) of Genesis is not interested in pinpointing the exact moment of creation; rather, the author(s) is attempting to convey certain metaphysical truths concerning the faith of its readers, in the hope of answering certain cosmic questions that arise from human existence. What then is the fundamental truth that the opening verses of Genesis wish to convey to the believer?
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. With this simple declaration, several cosmic questions are answered. How did we get here? Is there someone or something greater than us? Who made all that I see? How did existence begin and who began it? And more importantly for the original readers, is my God powerful and capable enough to sustain me in the midst of dislocation and disenfranchisement?
These are the questions with which the author wrestles, seeking answers to these cosmic mysteries. To ask of the text “how” the earth was created, or the “process” by which reality came into being, is to ask the text the wrong questions. Not how but who, not process but purpose; these are the concerns of the author.
The text tells us that the earth was a formless void and there was a great darkness over the watery deep. Like a mother hen brooding over her nest waiting for life to spring forth, God’s spirit hovered over the waters.
The good news is that God’s spirit still hovers over the formless void of broken lives and the great darkness in which the marginalized find themselves. In the chaos that reins — sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and all the other “isms” — God’s spirit still hovers. In the darkness of oppression we may not be able to see, feel, detect or recognize the presence of God’s spirit; still, the good news of the opening verses of the Bible is that God accompanies us. In the darkness when we wonder if our prayers go any higher than our ceilings, we can take comfort in knowing that we are not alone. The God of Genesis is not a distant deity; it is a God who is present, brooding over us like a mother hen.
Failure to understand the purpose of the opening verses of Genesis can lead to interpretations that have nothing to do with the author’s intent. The opening words of Genesis are meant to be theological and pastoral for real people living exiled in Babylon wondering if this God of Israel is more powerful than the surrounding Babylonian gods. The message that the author of these first verses in Genesis wishes to convey is that their God is indeed the Almighty who created all that is and, as such, is the God of life.
For those of us who have experienced exile from our homeland, we understand what it means to exist in a formless void stuck in a great darkness. These two opening verses remind them, and us today, that our God is hovering over us, ready to begin a new work. The intention of the author was not to be descriptive about how the universe came into being, but rather, affirm the power of God.
Besides comforting us, these verses also challenge us. The Hebrew word used for create, bārā’, is exclusively and sparingly used to describe God’s act of creating something out of nothing. From the spirit comes the physical manifestation. Out of the deep watery chaos comes order and harmony. Because God is presented in the text as the first cause, existence has meaning. Although God’s creative activity is different from human creative activity, to create provides a model for us based on a God who created in the darkness with nothing. We, too, who may have nothing, are called to create.
The importance of creation from nothing is picked up by Christians in the opening verse of the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). If we read this passage in Spanish, we discover, “En el principio era el Verbo …;” literally, “In the beginning was the Verb.”
For Spanish readers, Jesus is not the Word, but the Verb. Divinity as noun presents us with a static God; but divinity as verb — an action word — is a God whose very nature is praxis, to create. Rather than reflecting on a noun, which becomes the basis of how we understand God, those reading the Bible in Spanish concentrate on God as Verb, as action — as in “doing” theology. The act of creation defines for us a God whose character can be expressed by God’s free activity of creating matter which is good. This creation becomes possible because our God is a Verb, not a noun.
Because there were no eyewitnesses to creation, the belief that it was God who brought order to the dark chaos becomes an affirmation of faith, meaning that it can only be known and attested through faith. Neither God’s existence, nor God’s creative act as the author of all that is, can ever be proven. It is ludicrous to attempt placing God under a microscope to prove God’s existence. Only through faith are we introduced to a God who is alive.