My Sunday School class, full of egghead university professors and defrocked seminarians as it is, finally petered out on our monthslong discussion of the Book of Mark. It did not take us nearly as long to tire of Jeremiah’s constant carping before we ceased our own complaining and switched subjects. So there we were, casting about for a biblical text to examine next. There is always an argument for beginning at the beginning, so we agreed to go back to Genesis, and started our weekly discussion by reading the first chapter.
Of course, as any good Southerner knows, as sure as Faulkner wrote long and confusing novels, you cannot really much appreciate the beginning until you have wandered around a bit through the middle and the end. Only then does looking forward from the starting point, as if for the first time, ignite quite the same spark of imagination.
And so from that vantage point of having previously explored the world of the Bible through Paul’s fits of pique, the confoundedness of the apostles, John’s subversive mysticism, and some words of Jesus that on the page were not quite the milquetoast we were spoonfed in sixth-grade Sunday school class, we took another look at the Biblical beginning we know so well.
Or so we thought. Forget all the scholarship about multiple texts, the Yaweh and the Eloim sources, meshed together. All it takes is a quick reading of the words themselves to see that Genesis embodies varying conceptions of God, two very different stories about the creation of man and woman, not to mention a perpetual mystery about exactly how God was passing his time before the creation of our cosmos, and what it was created out of.
We had to start with an easy example for an uneducated reader like me. In Chapter One God created man and woman in his own image on the sixth day. But we know, since we already read ahead in the sixth grade, that in the next chapter Adam is going to be lonely a little later on and the maker is going to pilfer one of his ribs to make Eve—just one of many Biblical self-contradictions we spend our lifetimes easily glossing over. Not to mention that the rib story does not correspond very well with what we think we know either about biology or grilling out.
In Chapter One, though, the creation story is amazingly scientific, as if told by a first person witness, from a makeshift raft in the formless pea soup of the primeval minestrone. You could read the successive passages as the earth taking shape out of a cloud of gases. Then an atmosphere formed, and the sun, moon, and stars appeared as the cloak of noxious arsenical Faulknerian fumes cleared away, and land appeared from the seas, and life began in the seas and emerged onto the land. Then man appeared to name and claim it all.
This is a pretty factual scientific chronology for even the most rabid opponent of Judge Roy Moore. Of course the writer could not have been there, and did not have the benefit of the modern scientific theories we learn in school today. Thus the scientific accuracy of the account can only reveal to us the first sign of the divine inspiration of the writing. But before we give too much credit to the Y-source or the E-source, Genesis, like science, still leaves us with the question of what existed before the world existed, and if the universe has been expanding since the moment of the Big Bang, what exactly is it expanding into?
Those unanswered questions are less surprising after reading Genesis Chapter One and seeing that God himself probably needed prescription glasses in the beginning. The first thing on the to-do list was to create light and that it was good. Presumably before that there was no light and God was, by our common definition, blind. In fact, according to the first paragraph of Genesis, before God created light, God (unlike the image of man we hear about in verse 27) was a spirit hovering over the surface of the deep. More on that later.
The other thing that struck us immediately last Sunday is that God is very busy dividing things up in the beginning. As soon as he could see to do it, he divided the night from the day, the waters above and below the firmament, the seas from the land. God set about separating, creating dichotomies and divisions, distinguishing the fowl of the air from the beasts of the field. And, in God’s image, part of our nature is to go about naming and classifying everything.
And that is in fact part of the act of controlling the world that God wills to us in Genesis 1:28. So it is small wonder that one of the questions that divides people most passionately today is how literally to take the creation story itself. And will we go on with this act of separation forever? As in the male-female myth of Plato, doesn’t everything that was separated in the beginning yearn to be joined, made round and whole like the world itself, and healed once again?
But Genesis begins with divisions even God cannot overcome. In our initial Judaeo- Christian image of God, God is hovering over the deep. According to King James, at the beginning of creation: . Gen. 2.
To the untrained reader that begs the question, before the world was formed, what was the deep that divided the universe and what was its face? Where did it lead, and does it lead there still? My idea from many years of skipping class at Princeton is that any good art or religion is spiritual in the sense that it leads you out of this world we think we know into a universe we are part of but cannot quite perceive or understand with the faculties available to us—except in the glimpses, the almost-grasping, toward which art or religion can direct us with its signs and symbols. Like God, we are always hovering over its surface and trying--without eyes or any faculty to perceive it--to see where it goes.
All we know from Genesis 1 is that the undefined deep exists. Then God Said “Let there be light” to illuminate our world, but did it illuminate the deep that existed before our world was formed? According to the image of the spirit of God hovering over the surface of it in the beginning, it appears to pose somewhat of a barrier and impenetrable mystery even to God. Maybe that is where dark matter and dark energy lies.
What will yet fall into that deep fastness like a black hole? Or what will emerge from it? From our present vantage point, we still do not know from which direction to perceive this deep, up or down, in or out. Genesis only gives us the enigma as our biblical starting point. But at least we have to rest of the Book to find out. So we will just have to wait for Sunday School class to see where next week’s passage takes us.