Monday, July 1, 2013

The Image in the Temple [Genesis 1] (8 July 2012)

Sermon Recording

Today, we are beginning a series of sermons on the first few chapters of Genesis and the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. We are calling the sermon series ‘Beginnings.’ As many of you probably know, the series on Romans was supposed to conclude two Sundays back and this series was supposed to start last Sunday. I am glad though that it is starting today because something happened this past week.

You may have read in the newspapers that scientists at the CERN Supercollider have discovered the Higgs Boson, one of the fundamental particles predicted almost half a century ago.

Why am I glad? Well, for three reasons. First, I have been following the research at CERN ever since the Supercollider went operational, hoping for the discovery of new particles, especially the Higgs Boson.

Second, I was hoping that in the wake of its discovery, the prominent scientists would disavow connection to the popular term ‘God particle’ that is used for the boson. Both these hopes have now been realized.

Third, I will be giving the same message today that I would have were the boson not discovered. Hence, speaking after its discovery, I can assure you that, profound though the discovery was, it has not affected my beliefs, nor indeed the manner in which I interpret today’s text.

So to today’s text. The text starts with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When you hear the word “created” in this context, what comes to mind? Probably something like the big bang? God bringing something into existence out of nothing. 

What about when you hear the sentence “He created a piece of art”? Surely not a one-time explosive big bang, but a possibly long process. And we know that the artist would not have started with nothing, but with a canvas, brushes, easel, paints, etc. 

What about when you read 1 Samuel 2.29? “Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?” 

What? What relevance does this have? The word translated as ‘fattening yourselves’ is the same that is translated as ‘created’ in Genesis 1.1. The Hebrew word is בָּרָא. 

If we do a word study of this word in the Old Testament we will find the following. First, when the verb takes a direct object, God is always the subject. Second, when the verb is reflexive as in 1 Samuel 2.29, the subject is a human. 

Third, most often, the focus of the verb is not on the material aspects. This is seen in Psalm 51.1, where David sings, “Create in me a clean heart.” He is not asking God to unclog his arteries or to wash the blood pump with soap! We know what he means, and it is not material in nature. 

If we go through all the uses of בָּרָא we will see that the common thread is not that of making something out of nothing, but filling something that already exists with meaning and purpose. 

Mind you, I am not saying that God did not create the material universe from scratch. What I am saying is that the focus of Genesis 1 is not on material creation from scratch, but on God’s giving creation meaning and purpose. It is a wonderful meaning and a powerful purpose, so stick with me. 

Apart from the study of the word בָּרָא, we have some intriguing clues, things that call out for recognition and understanding. 

First, in v. 2 we read, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” We see that, prior to the happenings of v. 3 itself, the earth existed, the darkness existed and the waters existed. So when we read about darkness in vv. 4-5 and about waters in vv. 6-7, the text is not speaking of their being physically brought into existence out of nothing. Rather, the focus is somewhere else. 

Second, why does God call the light, day? Does that not strike you as odd. Why did he not call the light, light? It is like saying, “I will call this group of pages, a book.” Not all groups of pages are books. But all books are groups of pages – even if it is in digital format on your iPad or Kindle. Similarly, not all light is day. But all day it is light. Similarly, it is dark at night, but not all darkness is night. 

Third, v. 4 is inexplicable. There we read that God separated the light from the darkness. But we know and the ancients knew that darkness and light are immiscible! Where one exists, the other is excluded. Darkness is precisely the absence of light. 

It is best to think of the light spoken of in v. 5 not as light in its essence, but as a duration or period of light. Does it not make sense that after reading about darkness covering the earth, that God designated a period of light, which he named “day”? And God designated a period of darkness, which he called “night.” This makes more sense than naming light itself “day”. 

Fourth, if we concentrate on the first three days, we will see that the idea that binds them together is that of separation. On day 1, God separates a period of light from a period of darkness. On day 2, God separates the waters below, that is, on the face of the earth, from the water above, that is, in the sky. 

Now we know that there is no such physical barrier that controls the rains. But that is what the ancients believed. They believed the earth is flat and that there was a canopy that contained the waters in the sky and that from time to time the canopy was drawn back to bring rain. 

On day 3 God separates the land from the seas, bringing dry ground into the picture, where there had been only waters. 

What have these three days accomplished? Day 1 set in motion the diurnal cycle of alternating day and night, without which nothing could exist. Day 2 set in motion the cycle of seasons, which for the ancients was mainly about control of rain, without which nothing could grow and flourish. Day 3 provided the space within which the two cycles could function to bring food into being, here vegetation which depends on both the diurnal and seasonal cycles. 

Isaiah 45.18 captures these three days succinctly when God says, “This is what the Lord says... he who fashioned and made the earth; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited.” The earth has a function and that function is for it to be inhabited. And the first three days of Genesis 1 tell us how God set up the overarching mechanisms as a consequence of which the earth could become habitable. 

So now to the next three days. If the first three days set up the mechanisms or functions for habitation, the second three days describe the entities through which the functions are fulfilled. 

Day and night are brought to the earth by the operation of the sun and the moon. These are mentioned on the fourth day. On the fifth day, the places not inhabitable by humans, namely, water and air, are filled with those who can inhabit them because God wants this earth to be bursting with life. And on the sixth day, the land itself is populated with all sorts of creatures. 

We have now reached v. 25. And the text is still probably quite opaque to us. It is opaque to us because it was not written to us. It was certainly written for us, but not to us. It was written to the Israelites many millennia ago. And in order to make the text transparent, we must ask ourselves, “What would have crossed an ancient Israelite’s mind when he or she read this?” 

The bible is not written in a vacuum. And the Israelites did not live isolated from the people around them. They would have known the writings of their neighbors – the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, etc. And the Israelites would have recognized Genesis 1 as being similar at points to yet markedly different from the temple texts of their neighbors. 

A temple text, as the name might suggest, described the building and installation of a temple. The common pattern was three stanzas that described the timings of the offerings, the festival calendar and the acceptable offerings. You will immediately see a parallel between this and the first three days of Genesis. 

After this, in a temple text, comes another three stanzas, which describe the who’s-who of the temple. This is a description of their priesthood. Who is responsible for the daily offerings, who is responsible for the various festivals in the year and who is responsible for the temple itself. 

The parallels here with days four to six of Genesis 1 are not evident. But if you see this text as a parody of the other temple texts it makes sense. There is no specific human priesthood in Genesis 1. This is because all of inanimate creation and animate creation are already accepted by the real true God. There is no need for a priest because God has already declared everything good. 

And if you are not yet convinced, let me ask you, “What do I hold in my hand?” A ring. Any specific ring? It is my wedding ring. When the goldsmith made it, he did not make it to be a wedding ring. He would not have known who would have bought it and for what purpose. When it was bought the purpose was known. However, knowing the purpose and fulfilling it are two quite different things. The ring fulfilled its purpose when it was put on my hand. 

In much the same way, a temple text describes the installation of a temple. But it is incomplete without the final element. This is because a temple cannot function without that final element. Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what that element might be? 

A temple is incomplete without the installation of the idol of the deity. And now we can see the importance and relevance of vv. 26-27. This is not some random strange thought propping up suddenly. 

Genesis 1 is telling its readers that creation itself is the temple of the living God. As scripture says elsewhere, heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool. And elsewhere, the whole earth is full of the glory of God. 

But if creation is the temple of the living God, where is the idol? And Genesis 1 answers that God has created human beings to be that image, that idol. They are the representation of the true God to the rest of creation. 

We can learn many things from this wonderful chapter. Most I cannot even mention because I have not laid the groundwork for them. Indeed, to speak of each of these aspects, we would need many months of messages. But here are a few things we can conclude. 

First, all of creation is God’s temple. The bible warns us about desecrating God’s temple. And so we must be careful about how we treat this creation, all of creation, for there is no separate sacred space. 

Second, the prohibition against making idols must be viewed in light of this passage. If God himself has placed idols, images, icons of his design in this temple of his, who are we to attempt to replace them? To make an idol, at the very least, is to say that God did not know what he was doing when he decided to be represented by humans. To make an idol, at its worst, is to reject God’s designation of humans as his image bearers. It is to say, “I cannot bear his image. Let this lifeless lump of clay do it.” 

Third, every human has been called to bear God’s image to the rest of creation. This is not restricted to a group of priests or a set of rulers. Divine representation is the prerogative of every human, male and female, and any attempt to deny this to any human is an affront to God. 

The very first chapter of the bible insists on an order of equality, rather than a hierarchical one, an order of justice, rather than a lopsided one. It tells us about a marvellous purpose extending to the entire universe. And it tells us about a glorious purpose given to humans. How can we not be in awe of the God who did this?

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