Overcoming chaos and darkness (1:1-5)

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the 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.  3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.


There are several possible ways to translate the first words of Genesis.

The traditional reading takes verse 1 as a single sentence and starts a new sentence in verse 2: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The earth was formless and void . . . ." [There are] two other possible translations: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void . . ." or "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void . . ." (NRSV). (Dennis Bratcher)

About this, Bratcher says,

… these last two translations serve to shift the emphasis from a concern with time ("beginning") to a concern with the pre-creation condition of the earth. While that may seem like a contradiction to us, accustomed as we are to talking about creation in terms of "out of nothing," we need to realize what the concerns of this passage are. It may be a valid logical observation that only God is eternal, therefore he must be the origin of all things, and therefore nothing can exist prior to God… Yet the biblical text does not require this.   [It] … is not really the concern of this text. The earth, which is a way to describe the realm of human existence, is described here as "formless and void." The starting point for God’s work here is disorder, we might even use the stronger term chaos. In fact, the Hebrew word translated here "formless" is translated in other places as "chaos" (Isa 24:10, 34:11, both passages referring to judgment; cf. 4 Ezra 5:8)

Especially if we have had contact with the Young Earth Creation heresy, we may have absorbed the idea that creation ex nihilo is a key Christian doctrine that cannot be abandoned. Whatever we conclude about that, Bratcher's point is hugely important: it "is not really the concern of this text."

We might note Speiser's comment here, if this clash with ex nihilo concerns us:

If the first sentence states that "In the beginning God created heaven and earth," what ensued was chaos which needed immediate attention. In other words, the Creator would be charged with an inadequate initial performance, unless one takes the whole of vs 1 as a general title, contrary to established biblical practice. (Ephraim Speiser Genesis [Anchor Bible] pp11)

Bratcher continues with what is perhaps the key concern of the text:

Now, recall that in Babylonian mythology of the Enuma Elish the world is conceptualized in terms of order or chaos, in terms of the threat of crop failure, drought, and famine that the gods annually alleviate by their activity in the coming of Spring. There, Marduk (or Ba’al) is the one who brings order out of chaos, stability out of threat of extinction of winter as he brings the Spring rains and fertility to the land. But here, Marduk and Ba'al and the other gods of nature have no role. This is not a myth of the cycles of seasons. It is an affirmation about God. The chaos of the world, the threat under which human beings live is still the given, the reality which they must face. And yet this text will give a radically different answer to that threat.

Bratcher develops this further.

There are many passages in both Old and New Testaments where darkness is a metaphor for the absence of God, just as light is a symbol for his presence. The linking of the concept of chaos here with the image of darkness is a compounded metaphor for the absence of God. Or, to look at it from the other direction, which is probably closer to what the writer wanted to say, without God and his active presence in the world there is only darkness, disorder, and chaos. That provides a background for the creative activity of God.

This darkness "covered the face of the deep." (vs. 2) "The deep" is also a metaphor for chaos in the absence of God. He says

The "deep" is a reference to this untamed water of chaos. It is this very term that is used in the Noah story where the uncontrolled water of the deep is unleashed in the world as a consequence of sin (Gen 6:11).

… the idea of water as a threat to the world, as a symbol of the destructive power of sin, as a way to describe the world or people without God, even as evidence of the judgment of God, is a pervasive theme in Scripture. Conversely, the conquest or taming of water is a common metaphor to describe the creative and transforming actions of God in the world, especially at crucial junctures in human history.

In the New Testament, this imagery is reflected when the storms occur as Jesus is crossing the Sea of Galilee. For the readers of the time the message was obvious: chaos is challenging Jesus, who as 'Son of God' shows that he too has mastery over chaos. In the culture of the time, the chosen son had all the authority of his father.

Across this formless void of chaos sweeps a wind from God. (1L2) Bratcher  again:

The word in Hebrew (ruach) can be translated as wind or breath or spirit. The idea behind the word is movement or activity, as in breathing. Most modern translations say "wind from God" or even "a mighty wind" (since the generic term for deity here can also mean "powerful").

However, in one sense it really doesn’t matter exactly how we translate the term as long as we realize that wind or breath is a way to talk about God’s presence in the world, the animating life force of God that makes things happen. In fact, the term came to be almost interchangeable with God, so that the later prophets could speak of the "spirit" of the lord coming upon them, a way to say that they were empowered by God himself

Even in today's context, there is a claim made by this story. In modern thinking, physical matter is the primary building block of our reality. From this, in some mysterious way people cannot explain, consciousness arises all on its own. In Genesis 1, spirit; that is, God, is primary. It precedes created matter. God is animate. God designs and creates. Matter is secondary. We are spiritual beings, not meat based computers.

When God sweeps over the waters, darkness and chaos are removed.

3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

Darkness is reversed. Consider the beginning of the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This passage is a deliberate reference to Genesis— "In the beginning…"

Verse five of John Chapter One is taken, correctly, as reference to the crucifixion. It states that the darkness of death did not overcome the light. But the metaphor is deeper than this; the violence of crucifixion, John tells us, is an attempt to overcome light, an attempt to undo creation and return to darkness and chaos.

Matthew 27 reflects this too:

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land

There is a variant translation which NRSV notes for Matthew 27.45: " …  darkness came over the whole earth."

John does not use the tradition of the three hours of darkness, because his understanding is that despite  Jesus' crucifixion, "the darkness did not overcome" the light.

 The light/dark imagery is also present in John 13.

27After [Judas] received the piece of bread,* Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ … 30So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. [My emphasis]

In verses four and five, God separates the light from the darkness which is then named night. We know night is often a time of danger, chaos and evil. The myth reflects our reality, and its poetry reflects our atavistic fear of the dark.

My colleague Rev. Christa Megaw pointed out to me how this gets projected onto people with dark skin, by those of us who are white. Colour racism betrays our "fear of the dark," and it indicates how little we've been converted by one of the recurring messages about creation in Genesis Chapter One: And God saw that it was good!

We are evolved from animals for which the night was a time of danger. We were right to fear it. And we still are. Bratcher points out the magical fearful world of those who lived by Enuma Elish.

Those who believed the myths as a way to describe reality were never really sure if the sun would come up tomorrow, or if the rains would come when they should, or if life would go on at all. There was fear that if they did not do the sacrifices the right way, it might be their fault that the world did not work the way it is supposed to work. A magical world is a fearful place!

The night makes this worse— more fearful.

As we evolve, as we grow and are converted and healed, the foundation for our becoming human1, and for our healing from our primordial fear of death2, is the text of Genesis Chapter One: God has overcome the chaos. The creation is good.


  1. Only God, as it were, is truly Human. The goal of life, then, is not to become something we are not—divine—but to become what we truly are—human.” (Becoming Human, 29)

    It strikes me that this task is quite enough, for we have not yet, as a species, come close to this full flowering. Despite Jesus’ initiatory attempts, and his willingness to lay down the template for a fuller humanity, we are very much a  work in process. Wink describes theologian, Gerd Theissen’s insight: people were once especially eager to find the “missing link” between primates and human beings. Now, however, it is dawning on us that we ourselves could be that missing link. (Bruce Sanguin. He is quoting Walter Wink's book Becoming Human)

  2. [H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. (John Chrysostom, quoted here)



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