Millions of people are hooked on their hobby of family history. They surf the internet or leaf through mouldy pages of old records in pursuit of their ancestors. And that’s not surprising. Because each of us craves a sense of belonging; an understanding of what makes us what we are. If we can answer the question, ‘Where do I come from?’, we can appreciate our past, understand our present and anticipate our future.
So it’s not surprising that the Bible is interested in that question too. For the Bible is concerned with matters of utmost importance: ‘Where do I come from?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Where am I going?’ And it tells many a story to provide answers to those questions. We usually treat stories as entertainment, a relaxing read on the beach during our annual holiday, or filling in time at the dentist. In the Bible, however, stories have a much higher status. They are used to help us experience and feel our way around issues that really matter to us. These stories paint pictures we can carry around with us, engage with, experience, re-tell, inviting us to respond and express our opinion. So in answer to the question, ‘Where do I come from?’, the Bible replies, ‘Let me tell you a story’. In fact it tells several stories. And these stories plumb the depths of human fear, tragedy, love, faith, hatred – the whole gamut of human experience. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity. The stories themselves are simple enough to be remembered after one reading, but they repay a lifetime of reflection because they are among the best and most controversial ever written.
The Bible wastes no time in dealing with these ultimate questions. On the first line of the first page of the first book – Genesis – it dives straight in. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). It tells a story of creation. And it tells that particular story in order explore the crucial questions of human existence.
What does it say? It tells of how God created the world in one week. Now, for twenty-first century people that sounds odd. But let us, at first, engage not our heads but our hearts and our imagination. For that is where Genesis is aiming. So, briefly, Genesis 1 says that in the beginning God created everything. At the outset the earth was in chaos, with no purpose or design, but then, over six days God created, separated, designed, and organised. After that God set aside the seventh day as a distinctive period of time – the Sabbath. It’s helpful to set out the flow of the story in the following diagram.
This shows the sequence of what God creates on each day. And a clear pattern emerges. The days are grouped in three pairs. Days 1 and 4: the day and night are ruled by the sun and moon. Days 2 and 5: the fish live in the waters and birds fly in the sky. Days 3 and 6: land creatures and humans both live on the land and eat vegetation. So each day has a ‘partner’, producing an overall balance. In addition, the beginning and the end are also a pair. The chaos with which the account begins is balanced by the order and rest revealed on the seventh day. This final day brings the account to its climax.
Let me repeat, at this stage it’s important to experience the story with our imagination rather than to analyse it with our heads. This is a profound account, simply told. So, as we engage with it, what might we see? Among many other things, this story tells us that God is in control. He creates effortlessly, as is demonstrated by the repeated, ‘And God said …’ followed by an immediate response. This stark contrast to the struggles and battles of many ancient creation myths gives us confidence in the power of God, who has control over matter. It also counters the modern secular article of faith, that all life on earth is the end result of the survival of the fittest, a struggle pure and simple. Nothing more. He not only has control over matter, but he is also the lord of time and space, demonstrated by his creating, naming and separating the basic elements of time and space: day and night; the heavens above; the earth and seas beneath. If he is lord of time, then history is his arena. He is encountered not only ‘back then’ but also ‘right now’. We can expect to encounter God in our own time and personal experience. If he is the lord of space, then he is never beyond our reach. He is the God who is there – indeed, the God who is here. It makes a big difference to our work, relationships, marriage and so on, if God is with us in our experiences, not just in our thoughts.
God is not simply an all-powerful God who reigns over the universe. He is also the intimate and tender God, emotionally involved with his creation. We see this in the next story, in Genesis chapter 2. ‘The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). He forms human beings like a potter shapes clay, invests his creative energies in them, and gives life through his breath – like a kiss of life. Some people deal with God as if he were an object for debate, defined by creeds or ‘fundamental beliefs’. Even in general conversation God is referred to using philosophical, theological or abstract terms. That isn’t how the Bible presents him. In this story God is a character, a personality, not an abstract notion. He is a God we relate to, and have a personal relationship with. Rather than discussing his attributes, or defining his essence, Genesis invites us to know and experience him. After all, we were created in his image. At the very least this means that we were created with the ability to have a relationship with God. And if that is how he created us, clearly God wants to have a relationship with us. That would not be possible if he were the intellectual God of philosophy or the impassive God of the ancient Greeks. But he isn’t. He is a personal God with emotions, who craves to know us, and wants to be in our lives. It is one thing to talk about God. Quite another to speak to him. That’s why it might be a good idea to set aside some time each day to speak to, and listen to, God.
Spirituality is also important in this story. The very fact that it is God who creates the world shows that there is more to the world than meets the eye. There is a reality that our physical senses are not capable of comprehending. Therefore, our lives, without this spiritual dimension, are incomplete. We need look no further than the fact that God created us in his image to confirm that we were created as spiritual beings. To this we can add that God set apart the seventh day and made it different. This special day indicates that time itself has a spiritual dimension. Time is not merely a matter of reckoning seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, or years. These merely form the framework within which God acts, and is known and experienced.
We live in a scientific age. Many people expect an account of origins to present matters scientifically. And the Genesis story clearly does not. But that is no accident. Nor a reason for dismissing it. Unless we believe that the only truth is scientific truth – a position that a growing number of scientists are abandoning. The Genesis story reaches parts that science cannot touch. Rather than asking How? or When?, this story is more concerned with Who?, Why? and So what? And it does so because it wants to engage our hearts, emotions and wills. It wants to provide a spiritual context for us to live our lives to the full. The questions concerning When? – the timescale of creation; or How? – the precise mechanism, can be put to one side for now. Far better to deal with issues of first importance.
And what is of first importance? The fact that this world had a meaningful beginning. If there was no meaningful beginning, there can be no meaningful end. And if there is neither a meaningful beginning nor end, then there is no meaningful present. Genesis counters this bleak pessimism by assuring us that the world and human existence are more than the end result of a cosmic accident. The creation story gives us understanding of the past, hope for the future, and meaning for the present. Because this story engages our imagination, it asks us to imagine how to respond to it. To wake up in the morning, or to earn our living, or to love those closest to us, or to deal with those difficult people – knowing our lives have meaning. Well, that makes all the difference.
If we can live this story, then we can live an enriched and fulfilled life.