The Creation Story, Rulers in the Sky. Episode 1 of the Rowing with Michael Series: A journey through the Jewish/Christian Scriptures in Verse and Commentary
Michael, row the boat ashore. Alleluia….
- A mighty wind on the waters blew. Alleluia.
- Soon a whole world stood shiny and new. Alleluia.
- Planets and stars in the heavenly spheres, alleluia.
- Mark the seasons, days, and years. Alleluia.
The people who gave us the Bible were not just inspired by God. They were geniuses. The creation story in Genesis Chapter 1, you might think, disproves that rule. It says God created the sun on the fourth day, but light as well as day and night already existed from day one. How did those Israelite geniuses figure the sun could have appeared only on the 4th day?
I want to combine that question with another: The story in the Book of Genesis gives to the people the command to “fill the earth and subdue it, have dominion…” etc. Could that have been God’s big mistake? Some have claimed that this command gives us humans license to trash the earth in pursuit of whatever we desire. Well, we certainly have done that, but are the critics right about the Bible? I will suggest a way of thinking about dominion in this chapter in Genesis, but, first, about that that puzzle concerning the appearance of the sun. Believe it or not, the two questions are related.
On the first day God created light and separated it from the darkness. (We can imagine light separated from darkness – light on one side of the Earth, dark on the other. But that wasn’t possible for the Israelites. I think for them it must have been a temporal separation—alternating times of dark and light.) But God didn’t create the sun, moon and stars until the fourth day. There’s a reason for that. The biblical author wants to discourage fellow Israelites from participating in their neighbors’ worship of sun, moon, and other astrological gods. So he demotes the heavenly bodies by making them wait until the fourth day. But what sense does that make?
As for that particular bit of Biblical science, it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t even help to reinterpret the days as ages, as I was taught in the 1950’s and still hear sometimes today. But Israelite “scientists” would have been quite comfortable with the story as it stands. You can understand why if you think with the mind of an ancient and acute observer. What do we see first every day? Not the sun but light. The Israelites’ idea about the sun is that it “rules the day.” That’s not the same as making it, so you could have days before there was a sun. The moon and stars “rule the night,” and they don’t make that either.
The Israelites’ God was not bound to any cycles of nature or the cosmos, and that was a freeing belief. The Israelites were ordered not to worship any God but Yahweh. They were commanded to be free. Why did the Israelites so often fall back into worshiping those other gods? I think it’s because it’s hard to live without the comfort that comes from repeating patterns and the freedom from responsibility that control by cosmic forces can provide.
Giving up one’s freedom to a star or planet or fate in some other guise probably is a universal temptation. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Cassius has to buck up his fellow conspirator: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” St. Paul knows that these false gods worried the early Christians. He assures them:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 38-39)
A footnote in my New American Bible explains, “Height and depth may refer to positions in the zodiac, positions of heavenly bodies relative to the horizon. In astrological documents the term for “height” means “exaltation” or the position of greatest influence exerted by a planet.”
The Bible’s first rulers are the sun, moon, and stars; but they only rule the day and the night. In fact, they serve human beings by marking the seasons, days, and years. In the process they give us a lesson on leadership that Jesus will expand upon. It exposes the mistake of those who criticize the “dominion” that God gives, two days later, to Adam and Eve. They imagine (and so have some Christians) that it gives humans freedom to exploit nature. Instead of that, imagine that the Bible story gives to the humans a leadership like that of the sun and moon: “Here, let me help you shine!” says the sun to the day. And the moon, as servant leader of the night, says to the stars, “How lovely, the way you twinkle! I never thought of doing that.” I can imagine the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and all that runs, jumps, or crawls on the face of the earth looking with joy to their new overseers – before sin entered the world – and together with these humans looking forward to God’s next bright idea.