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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Genesis The Book of Beginnings Part 2 - "In The Beginning" (Genesis 1:1-2)

This new study begins, well, at the beginning!  Genesis 1:1 opens with four words, "in the beginning God."   Those four words remind us that creation involves supernatural power from a supernatural source.  As to God creating the universe and all that is in it, Psalm 33:9 reminds us that "He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast."   Likewise, in Hebrews 11:3 we are also reminded that "by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are invisible."   Romans 4:17 also tells us that God "calls those things which do not exist as though they did."   And, as to this "Word of God" it talks about, I Peter 1:23 tells us that the corruptible is made incorruptible "through the word of God who lives and abides forever," and the eternal nature of that word of God is affirmed by the Gospel and Jesus's own words when He proclaimed "heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away."   This brief Scripture lesson before commencing to the "meat" of this section is important because it reminds us that God is real, He is eternal, and He is also Trinitarian.   God's origins are not specified in Scripture for a reason - God transcends our conception of time and space, and He has no beginning or end!  God just simply is - but, He is also personally involved with His creation too, as we will be seeing in subsequent studies.

Genesis 1:1 opens for us with the words "In the beginning."  When we confess the Creed every Sunday at Mass, the very first sentence in the Nicene Creed affirms that "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible."  In order to truly believe and profess that sentence, it is important to start with what Scripture starts with, namely in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and therefore belief in God as a literal, supernatural Creator is fundamental to orthodox Christian teaching.  There are several common points we need to remember about this as well.  First, the "beginning" was long ago - not necessarily millions and billions of years ago, but a long time regardless.  Secondly, as we read in verse 2, the initial state of the universe was dark and chaotic - the earth was created on the first day, but it was not yet formed, which is an important distinction I will be making throughout the course of this study.  Third, the energies involved in that initial creation were supernatural.  Fourth, as we will see later in Chapter 1, plants and animals did precede man, but man didn't evolve from the plants and animals that preceded him either.  Fifth, as we read later in Genesis 3, man did fall, and as a consequence inherited concupiscence (sin nature), and at that fall the paradise of the original world the way God created it was lost.  Finally, the First Age of our earth was closed with a global flood that we read about later in Genesis.  These are some guides that will serve you well as you follow along with the rest of the Genesis study.

When it said that God created, there are three key Hebrew verbs that are utilized here in reference to that creative event (Henry Morris III, The Book of Beginnings, Vol 1.  Dallas, TX:  ICR, 2012.  pp. 40-43).  The first is the word bara, which can simply be translated "to create."  This is a word that also involves formative processes as well, as it also implies shaping and fashioning something.  It is used 5 times in Genesis as we note later on.  The second word is asah, which translates "to do, fashion, accomplish, make, organize, and structure."  This word appears some 140 times in Scripture, and of note here is Genesis 1:7, which deals with the creation of the firmament we will be discussing later.  The third word, yatsar, translates "to form, fashion, or sculpt," and entails a more "hands-on" involvement - we see this notably in Genesis 2.  It is intimate, and more emotionally invested than merely "doing."  Morris also notes on pages 44-45 of his text that there are three Hebrew nouns utilized as well.  The first of those is the word Bereshith, which is what the opening words in verse 1 translate as "in the beginning."  The implication here is that before this beginning, there was nothing except God Himself.  Time, space, and matter all come into being at this point, in other words.  The second noun Morris notes is the word Shamayim (or Shmayo in Syriac) which translates as "heavens."  As an adjective, it is also utilized in the context of loftiness, and is used 420 times throughout the Old Testament.  It is properly understood to be referring to space, in sense of space/matter/time.   A third Hebrew noun utilized here as noted by Morris is the word Eretz, which can be translated "dirt" or "dust," or it can mean a territory (such as Eretz Yisrael, the proper Hebrew name of the state of Israel).  The root of this word implies firmness, and when it is used in conjunction with Genesis 1;1, it refers then to the matter of the universe that would be organized into the fully developed world on the subsequent days of Creation.  It is therefore the "stuff" of Creation, described in verse 2 as being "without form and void.  A final Hebrew word here to mention is waw, which is a conjunction that is normally translated as "and" or "then."  The use of this word indicates a succession of events or stages in the process of creation.  It also implies that Creation was a sequential act - it was step-by-step, day-by-day.  And, every subsequent verse in Genesis 1 begins with waw except the first verse.  Now that the Hebrew study is out of the way, we now look at some commentary of the Church Fathers on these verses.

In constructing these studies, I utilized a commentary called The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol 1 - Genesis 1-11 (Downers Grove, IL:  Intervarsity, 2001), edited by Thomas Oden and Andrew Louth.  Throughout this study, I will be quoting and referencing material from the Church Fathers utilizing this resource as a reference, as it is an excellent commentary that pretty much spells out what major Church Fathers wrote on different Scripture passages.  For this study, dealing with the first two verses of Genesis 1, the majority of the material we will be looking at is taken from pages 1-6 of that volume.  As we begin, we start with what the 2nd century Church Father Origen noted when he correctly identified the Christocentric dimension in these verses.  If you recall our "Four-Fold Hermeneutic" from the last section, Origen was a noted allegorist when it came to Scripture interpretation, and much of his material does attempt to point the reader of Scripture back to Christ.  In many of Origen's other writings, he can appear somewhat flaky, but when it comes to this particular subject he is spot-on.  Origen, possibly with New Testament passages such as John 1:1 and Revelation 1:6 in mind, brings Genesis 1:1 back to the person of Jesus Christ by rightly calling Him the "firstborn of every Creature," or as we profess in the Creed, "begotten, but not made."  Jesus, as part of the Godhead, is co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit and is, as Hebrews 13:8 affirms, "the same yesterday, today, and forever."  So, for Origen then, the Savior is the beginning!  Later, St Augustine, in his work On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, deals more specifically with the issue at hand when he notes that heaven and earth were called initially "formless matter of the universe," which at God's ineffable command changed (transformed) into beautiful natures.  He also notes in reference to Genesis 1:2 that darkness is only the absence of light, and in 1:2 God hadn't created light at that point so that is why things were dark!  St. Basil the Great, in his Hexamaeron, affirms the pre-existence and eternality of God likewise, as did Origen earlier.  Basil notes that God, in His infinite mind, imagined the world as it ought to be and with a single word created it in the form He wanted to give it.  Basil also deals with some more technical details too when he writes that God formed fundamental elements and gave to each of those the essence tht the object of its existence required.  As the summation of what he was saying, Basil notes that we cannot contemplate the whole universe from the limited wisdom of the world, but from what God taught His servant Moses when he spoke to him in person and "without riddles," meaning that what God communicated to Moses, and what Moses recorded, was not mere allegory but a literal, historical account of the creation of the universe.  St. John Chrysostom also composed a series of homilies on Genesis, and he likewise affirms that Moses was guided by God Himself and was judged worthy by God to narrate the creation legacy from its beginning.  Therefore, when Genesis is read, we don't hear the mere words of Moses but rather the words God gave to Moses.  This is something we fail to accept sometimes (St. Chrysostom called this too, as it is equally true in 21st-century America as it was in the 3rd-century Byzantine Empire) due to relying more on our own reasoning than on God's Word.  As God mercifully revealed these things to Moses, St. Chrysostom affirms, so we are to therefore receive them with much gratitude, resisting the temptation our enemies often use to assess these matters to their own reasoning.  Consequentially then, it also affirms God's transcendance - God is not subject to nature's demands nor to rules of technique, which hearkens back to Descartes' correct assumption regarding the fact that an effect can never be greater than its cause, something he notes in Meditation Four - Concerning the True and the False, in his Meditations on First Philosophy.  Descartes, for all his faults regarding the fact that the natural law is supreme, hence making him the father of naturalism, nonetheless does acknowledge that God is the Creator of all things, and this principle - an effect never being greater than its cause - is one that affirms God's transcendance over His creation.  This is also one reason why we will see later that paganism and other nature-centered spiritualities are exercises in futility, and also a major reason why God created things in the order He did - they magnify who He is, and debunk any divine attributes in mere created matter, with no deference to its immensity.  That then leads us to Genesis 1:2.

As we go back to look at Genesis 1:2, what immediately stands out to us as the reader is this:  "The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep."  In St Augustine's Confessions, what he noted about this was the fact that the earth was invisible and unorganized at this point, and it was covered in water.  A good illustration of what it looked like would have been this:

It must be remembered that the sun and moon had not even been created yet - we don't see those in the Creation account until Day 4.  St. Augustine takes the interpretation yatsar here to say that from this invisible, unorganized mass, another visible and organized heaven and earth were made.  The light that was before then was God Himself, in that God dwells in a different light, a supernatural light of His own generation (note St. Augustine's other work, Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichaeans).  Therefore, in this context darkness is not anything sinister or evil, but merely the absence of light because the latter wasn't created yet.

St Ambrose, who wrote a book with the same title as the aforementioned St. Basil, the Hexamaeron, follows this line of thinking by noting that creation precedes ordering.  Using the analogy of an architect, St. Ambrose says that a good architect lays a foundation first and then plots the various parts of the structure, and upon constructing those, he finishes with ornamentation (painting, etc.).  That actually sounds like good common sense and logic, because after all, if you don't have the foundation you won't have a house, will you?  This means then, as St. Basil notes in his version of the Hexamaeron, that Creation didn't happen in its totality on the first day.  Naturally, God could have created everything with a sneeze if He so desired, because after all He is God, but there are reasons that will be revealed as we read further in Genesis as to why God chose to do it this way, as there is a purpose behind the order God created the universe.  But first, I want us to take a look at a sacramental dimension of the first day of Creation, as many Church Fathers saw a typology here that is actually profound.

The point of the next phase of this discussion focuses on the second part of verse 2 - "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters."  Looking back at the four-fold hermeneutic, we already know that this was a literal event, and the Church Fathers by and large saw it that way too.  But, many of them also saw something else.

In the Church when the sacrament of Holy Baptism is celebrated, the officiating minister often pours a holy oil called Chrism into the waters of the baptismal font as a part of the rite associated with the Sacrament.  This is a very old practice going back practically to the pre-Christian Jewish roots of the faith, in the ritual mikhveh cleansing associated with many ancient Hebraic Temple rituals.  To give an idea of this we need to look into an early Church baptism as recorded by Fr. Aidan Kavanaugh entitled "A Rite of Passage."  Here is the narrative of that early baptism, which was vastly different than what we see today:

I have always rather liked the gruff robustness of the first rubric for baptism found in a late fourth-century church order which directs that the bishop enter the vestibule of the baptistry and say to the catechumens without commentary or apology only four words:  "Take off your clothes."  There is no evidence that the assistants fainted or the catechumens asked what he meant.  Catechesis and much prayer and fasting had led them to understand that the language of their passage this night in Christ from death to life would be the language of the bathhouse and tomb - not that of the forum and the drawing room.

So they stripped and stood there, probably, faint from fasting, shivering from the cold of early Easter morning and with awe at what was about to transpire.   Years of formation were about to be consummated; years of having their motives and lives scrutinized; years of being dismissed with prayer before the Faithful went on to celebrate the Eucharist; years of having the doors to the assembly hall closed to them; years of seeing the tomb-like baptistry building only from without; years of hearing the old folks of the community tell hair-raising tales of what being a Christian had cost their own grandparents when the emperors were still pagan; years of running into a reticent and reverent vagueness concerning what was actually done by the Faithful at the breaking of bread and that closed baptistry...Tonight all of that was about to end as they stood here naked on a cold flood in the gloom of this eerie room. 

Abruptly the bishop demands that they face westward, toward where the sun dies swallowed up in darkness, and denounce the king of shadows and death and things that go bump in the night.  Each one of them comes forward to do this loudly under the hooded gaze of the bishop (who is tired from presiding all night at the vigil continuing next door in the church), as deacons shield the nudity of the male catechumens from the women, and deaconnesses screen the women in the same manner.  This is when each of them finally lets go of the world and of life as they have known it; the umbilical cord is cut, but they have not yet begun to breathe.  

As each one finishes (some text omitted here for space) this he or she is fallen upon by a deacon or a deaconness who vigorously rubs olive oil into his or her body, as the bishop perhaps dozes off briefly, leaning on his cane.

When all the catechumens have been thoroughly oiled, they and the bishop are suddenly startled by the crash of the baptistry doors being thrown open.  Brilliant gold light spills out into the shadowy vestibule, and following the bishop the catechumens and the assistant presbyters, deacons, deaconnesses, and sponsors move into the most glorious room most of them have ever seen...Suddenly the catechumens realize that they have unconsciously formed themselves into a mirror-image of (an icon of Christ's baptism over the pool - my add) on the floor directly beneath it.  They are standing around a pool let into the middle of the floor, into which gushes water pouring noisily from the mouth of a stone lion crouching atop a pillar at the poolside.  The bishop stands beside this, his presbyters on each side:  a deacon has entered the pool, and the other assistants are trying to maintain a modicum of decorum...Then a young male catechumen of about ten, the son of pious parents, is led down into the pool by the deacon.  The water is warm (having been heated in a furnace) , and the oil on his body spreads out over the surface in iridescent swirls."

(Robert Feduccia and Nick Wagner, Primary Source Readings in Catholic Church History.  Winona, MN:  St. Mary's Press, 2005.  pp. 12-14)

I wish I could have shared this whole narrative, as it is quite a vivid and concise picture of an early Church baptism, but what I am focusing here on is the role chrism played.  In the ancient Church, the catechumens were literally doused with the Holy Chrism, although today it amounts to a few drops in the baptismal font.  Note too the passage in the narrative - "and the oil on his body spreads out over the surface in iridescent swirls."  Oil tends to lay on the surface of water as a sort of film, and this is an imagery which was not lost on many of the early Church Fathers.  Scripture teaches (particularly James 5:14), and the Church also has historically maintained, that oil (in particular the Chrism used in sacramental rites) is a universal symbol of the Holy Spirit, and that is why the verb anoint is often used in conjunction with the Holy Spirit, as the verb anoint is defined as the smearing or rubbing of oil over something or someone.  If we look at this in the context of Genesis 1:2 then as some of the Church Fathers saw it, we see in the literal act of Creation an allegory, a typology, of the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  Going back to St. Ambrose, to start in his Hexamaeron, the connection is made with the "seeds of new birth" which were held by the Spirit of God, and in Psalm 104:30 Scripture affirms that "You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth."  In baptism, we are in a sense re-created, or re-born, as a new creation, and the Spirit "hovers" over the baptismal waters to generate that new life in us.  Likewise, the Spirit "hovered" over the waters in Genesis 1:2 to also generate life, and as St Jerome notes in his Homilies, this initial "hovering" of the Spirit at Creation does indeed foreshadow baptism - a baptism is not a true baptism, in other words, apart from the Spirit of God.  St. Ephrem the Syrian goes one further in his Commentary on Genesis when he notes that the Holy Spirit actually warmed the waters of the newly-created earth with what he called a "vital warmth," and this warmth made the waters fertile and life-giving.  The Spirit "hovered" - much like the Chrism "hovers" over the waters of baptism - in order for us to learn that the work of Creation was held in common by the Spirit with the Father and the Son - the Father spoke, the Son created, and the Spirit fertilized.  This is also seen in the way a chicken or some other bird nests too - a hen warms the egg through incubation, and in similar fashion, the Holy Spirit did likewise (which may be a theory as to one reason the Holy Spirit is symbolized by a dove).  Augustine then picks up on this Trinitarian aspect of Creation by noting that the matter of Creation was first called by name in the universe - it was created ex nihilo, in other words.  The formlessness seen in verse 2, Augustine correctly notes, simply meant that creation was a "work in progress."  The water was there because of its mobility, and being no life existed at this point, it was the Holy Spirit who moved the waters.

As we conclude this lesson, there are some things to note.  First, Creation was an act which was initiated and completed by a Trinitarian God.  Secondly, the "darkness" of verse 2 doesn't necessarily denote chaos, but rather the fact that light had not yet been created and the earth was still in the process of God's formation.  Also, verse 2 can be a focus of debate as to whether the earth is old or young, and although it is the focus of this particular study to present a young-earth view, it is not going to be theologically earth-shaking if one differs and accepts an old-earth theory - the important thing here is that God is acknowledged as Creator, and that life didn't just "evolve" from random change.   Bottom line is that God transcends our linear concepts of time and space, and He created the universe as He did for a purpose.  Finally, God created first, and then formed - understanding that will prevent one from falling into a serious heresy which would have sin and death evident before the Fall, which it wasn't.  As we continue in the next study on the second day of Creation, we will begin to see the formative process of God's creation, and will begin to see an order to what He did.  God bless until next time.