Monday of Week 5 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 1:1-19

Today we begin reading the Book of Genesis and the story of Creation. Although Genesis is at the beginning of the Bible, that does not mean that it was the first book to be written, still less that it represents an “eyewitness account”. In fact, experts distinguish a combination of accounts written at different times. The form we now have, is a later, sophisticated work, written with a specific purpose in mind. It is not a scientific account and it does not clash with more recent scientific discoveries because it is written on a completely different level.

It is more about God, and our relationship with God, than about how the world actually came to be. The central message is that there is only one God, and that he is the source of all that is; he is totally good, and everything he creates is good. Genesis acts as an introduction to the five books of the Pentateuch, the Law of Israel, and shows how God brought order into a chaotic universe.

Our present selection of readings covers the first 11 chapters, which deal with what is called the ‘primeval history’ or pre-history, the Creation, the various ‘falls’, and ends with the incident of the Tower of Babel. The rest of Genesis is concerned with the origin of God’s people, with the first patriarch Abraham and his immediate descendants – Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and his brothers. We will cover the second part of Genesis in Weeks 12-14 of Cycle I. The last word of Genesis is ‘Egypt’, and leads immediately into the Book of the Exodus, describing a much later period where we find the Israelites living in Egypt.

Today’s reading begins with God bringing into existence (out of nothing) what we might call the infrastructure of our world. This section introduces the whole Pentateuch and, in a way, the whole Bible. It shows how God brought (created) an orderly universe out of primordial chaos (of nothingness). It forms a background for the call of Abram and the real beginning of the biblical story in chapter 12.

This first version of the creation story is attributed to the ‘Priestly Source’. As such, it is less detailed and more theological. Its primary focus is on God’s role. It aims at a complete logical classification of beings whose creation is deliberately fitted into the framework of a week that closes with the Sabbath day of rest. The text makes use of the primitive science of its day. It would be a mistake to look for points of agreement between the picture given here and the data of modern science (hence, the futility of the debate between the so-called ‘Creationists’ and ‘Evolutionists’).

The text uses a scenario found in some creation myth stories, but the emphasis here is very much on our world as the creative work of one, transcendent and all-good God, existing before the world he brought into being.

Recounting the origin of the cosmos and its glorious centrepiece, earth, it shows God masterfully orchestrating the events of creation. Each phase follows more or less the same basic pattern established on Day One: divine command, result, divine approval, enumeration of the day. The effect is anything but monotonous. Like a musical theme with variations, the story shows the world gradually becoming more mobile and complex, until, by the sixth day, it is ready for self-perpetuation through procreation (for detailed discussion, see The Harper-Collins Study Bible section on Genesis).

“In the beginning” is not seen as a beginning from infinity as suggested by the opening of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1). It is not a creation from nothing; it is the beginning of recorded history rather than the origin of being which the philosophers seek to understand. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the abyss/deep. There was a total lack of order and no light. God was absent. But with God there came order, an astounding and undeniable feature of a universe whose existence is often attributed to pure chance.

A “divine wind” hovered over the chaotic watery wastes of the deep. This is not the creative wind of the Spirit. Creation is said to have been brought into being either by the “word” or the “act” of God. But some translators do see the Spirit of God present in the phrase.

The deep (or the abyss) is the primordial ocean according to the ancient Semitic understanding of the universe. After God’s creative activity, part of this vast body forms the salt-water seas (Gen 1:9 and following); part of it is the fresh water under the earth (Ps 33:7; Ezek 31:4), which wells forth on the earth as springs and fountains (Gen 7:11; 8:2; Prov 3:20). Part of it, “the upper water” (Ps 148:4; Dan 3:60), is held up by the dome of the sky (Gen 1:6 and following) from which rain descends on the earth (Gen 7:11; 2 Kings 7:2,19; Ps 104:13).

The rest of today’s reading deals with the first four days of creation. First, there is light, but the sources of the light are not yet mentioned. Light is created but not darkness, which is a purely negative concept. The creation of light is mentioned first, since the succession of days and nights is to be the frame in which the work of creation takes place. God saw the light as good, and God separated light from darkness. It was “good” in the sense of being both acceptable and also intrinsically good. The light was called Day and the darkness Night.

There was evening and morning, the first day
In ancient Israel, a day was considered to begin at sunset. According to the highly artificial structure of the creation story, God’s activity is divided into six days to teach the sacredness of Sabbath rest on the seventh day in the Israelite religion. We should remember, too, how in the Gospel the Sabbath begins on the evening of Friday. That was why Jesus had to be buried before sundown on Good Friday, when the Sabbath would begin (see Mark 15:42).

On each of the succeeding days the same formula will be followed:

– “God said: Let there be…”
– What was commanded comes into being
– God sees that his work is good
– The number of the day is given

God then made a dome or vault in the midst of the waters, separating waters from waters. The vault, that is, the sky or the heavens, now divided the waters above the dome from the waters below it. This is the universe as the ancients understood it in their visual observations, from a vantage point they believed to be the centre: a flat earth and a curved and solid heavenly dome surrounded above and below by primordial waters. The water below produced springs from which rivers and lakes originated; the water above explained the rain, which came through apertures in the vault (the understanding of cloud-forming evaporation was still centuries away!).

Evening and morning made the second day
The waters under heaven now are brought together and reveal dry land, thus producing ‘earth’ and ‘seas’. God saw it was good.

Next vegetation and plants appear bearing all kinds of fruits and seeds. (What is remarkable is that the succession of creations harmonises with a contemporary understanding of evolution: vegetation, swarming creatures, fish, birds, animals [mammals] and human beings.) Again, God saw it was good.

Evening and morning, it is the third day
Lights are now created in the vault or dome to divide the day from the night. Light has already been created but now its dissemination is divided among the heavenly bodies. These will also mark seasons, days and years, and give light to the earth. There is one great light to rule the day and a lesser one to rule the night, as well as the stars – to separate light from darkness. The names ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ are deliberately omitted because these were often treated as gods by neighbouring peoples. For God’s people, they are no more than heavenly lamps dividing day and night and marking the seasons and times for festivals.

God saw it was good. Evening and morning it is the fourth day
Through all this there is the underlying refrain: “God saw that it was good.” The message is clear: there is only one God and he is totally good and everything he does is good, very good. Why then is there so much evil and suffering in the world? The answer to that question will come later.

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