January's Comfort: Reflections on Genesis 1: 1-15

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Lectionary Reflections for Sunday, January 8, 2012
Epiphany 1: Genesis 1:1-5

As we enter another church year, after the sparkling celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany, the birth of the savior and his recognition by the world, we now again try to discern what this all means as the world moves into a new year. Sometimes in our celebrations of the high holy moments of our faith, we tend to bracket, if not to forget, that life moves on while we are pausing to commemorate the events that form the foundations of our belief and practice as Christians. Too soon, we feel, we are wrenched back into the "real world," and the trees and tinsel, the sparkling lights, the too-tight sweater, and the unwanted bird house are packed and traded and given away.

So now we must get back to the business of living; jobs and cooking and groceries and bills flood back and the eggnog and the chocolate give way to salads and stair masters. Though Chaucer began his great "Canterbury Tales" with the line "April is the cruelest month," for us it is in fact January that looms as cruel, dark, cold, and long beyond all imagining. Why can't we just have Christmas year round and avoid this inevitable anticlimax of January and its demands?

Oddly enough, for those of us who love the Hebrew Bible, and I hope you do, too, there is nothing like a spot of Genesis to get us out of the funk. The first Sunday of Epiphany offers to us the grand curtain raiser of the scripture, Genensis 1:1-5, and there can hardly be more important words than these as we peer into the gloom of January.

They are so familiar as to have become clichéd, but a second (and third and fourth) hearing is salutary and enlivening. Listen again.

"In beginning, God created the skies and the earth, while the earth was tohubohu [Yes, that is an English word straight from the Hebrew! Look it up!] and darkness lay upon the surface of the Deep and a God-awful wind was howling over the surface of the water."

Now, there is as good a description of January as one is likely to get! It is dark and windy and chaotic, jumbled, dreary, devastated, hopeless, formless. It needs shaping up. We need shaping up! As always, it is very important that we search for some context in which these potent words were produced. We can hardly know that context for certain, but we can well imagine when the words would have had their greatest impact on a people living in a perpetual January.

Though the rudiments of this creation story were surely very old, appearing out of the mists of the most hoary of ancient times, many now think that the historical framework of this particular iteration of the story occurred in the Babylonian Exile of Israel in the middle of the 6th century BCE. That is so for many reasons. Primarily, the exile to Babylon, the world's greatest and most powerful city and empire at the time, was the Israelite January par excellence. They had lost everything: land, king, temple, priests, and now found themselves ghettoized in a strange land, far to the east of their Israelite home, cut off from centuries' old expectations and dreams.

In addition, their Babylonian conquerors and captors showcased their might and power in regularized rituals and celebrations of their gods, Shemsh of the sun, Ea of wisdom, Utu of the land, and above all, Marduk, city god of Babylon. At the annual spring festival of Akitu Marduk was fetched from his lofty perch at the top of the gigantic pyramid, Esagila, and paraded through the streets, accompanied by singing and dancing and erotic celebration. Each year the captive Israelites witnessed this orgy of power and no doubt asked themselves just what YHWH, the God of Israel thought of it all. Where was YHWH in their perpetual Babylonian January?

Their answer was Genesis 1, a ritualized enumeration of what they believed YHWH had done in creating the world and a thorough rejection of what the Babylonians were claiming in their wild festivals. Let me return to my translation of the first two verses of Genesis that I made above.

All time began when YHWH (Elohim in this 6th century ritual) created the skies and the earth. I translate "skies" rather than the traditional "heavens" to make it clear that the word does not refer to some "heavenly land," but is in fact the sky that forms a dome over the heads of all people. And the earth on which we stand and on which we live is created by YHWH alone for all the earth's people. Marduk and Shemsh and Ea and Utu had absolutely nothing to do with this creation. In fact, Shemsh of the sun is in this Genesis ritual reduced to the "Big Light" and is not made until the fourth day of YHWH's creation (Gen. 1:16); he is not a god but a creation of the one God.

1/6/2012 5:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.