When beginning he, God, created the heavens and the earth, the earth was shapeless and formless and bleakness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God, she, fluttered over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; so God separated the light from the bleakness. Then God called the light Day, and the bleakness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, day one.
(Genesis 1:1-5, Translation from Wilda C. Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church)
In the first Genesis creation story, God doesn’t create from nothing. God begins creating from chaos, a “watery deep.” Some scholars speculate that this creation language was influenced by the religious myths of Babylon, which began with a divine battle against Tiamat, a sea goddess/monster. In the ancient worldview, only divine power could tame the sea — that’s one reason why Moses parting the sea and Jesus walking on the water were both such powerful symbols.
In the Genesis story, chaos is not the absence of God. In fact, God’s Spirit, in Dr. Gafney’s translation, is “fluttering over the face of the waters.” Chaos seems to be necessary for the divine act of creation to begin.
All of the action in Genesis 1 is about separating and naming, setting boundaries and ordering things. Much later, in the book of Job, God describes the act of creation again, and tells a story of how God said to the sea: “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped” (Job 38:11). Drawing boundaries is an act of creation.
Dr. Gafney’s helpful translation also substitutes “bleakness” for “darkness” in the story, recognizing the way that the word “darkness” has played into white supremacy in our theological language. Even here in the bleakness, I think it’s important to point out that God isn’t absent. God’s spirit is already present and at work, taking the energy of chaos and turning it towards order.
After a year of environmental, political, economic, and social chaos, I’m grateful for the reminder that chaos is not the absence of God, and that creation arises out of chaotic energy. I’m also grateful for the reminder that the act of creation is, in part, about drawing sacred boundaries. We are in a fertile time in which new boundaries are being drawn against patriarchy and white supremacy. God is doing something new.
Creator God, we recognize the divine possibility present in our current chaos. Draw sacred boundaries in our personal and corporate lives and unleash your creative power.
—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.