Genesis 1:1 A Cry of Praise and Worship

What did the ancient Hebrew mind experience when it read the first verse of the Bible? As strange as it might appear to many of us today, it is a preface to a sacred worship text comprised of Genesis 1:2- 2:4 that brought praise to God for ordering the elements of chaos into a great cosmic temple of beautiful form and function for Him to dwell with humanity. Consider this statement by Claus Westermann who wrote a definitive and very thorough commentary of Genesis:

“The sentence in 1:1 is not the beginning of an account of creation, but a heading that takes in everything in the narrative in one single sentence ─ and it is much more than a mere heading. It speaks of the creation of heaven and earth in the same way as do the hymns of the praise of God … It has often been said that Gen 1 has echoes of a hymn or that as a whole it is very like the praise of God. The reason for this is that the first sentence itself is really a cry of praise.” (Genesis 1-11, p. 94).

What this verse is not is what latter commentators (since the Middle Ages) thought it was, a statement of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). There are at least two fatal problems with understanding this particular verse as creatio ex nihilo. First, the whole idea of “nothing” cannot be predicated (nothing is … the absence of something) and it is certain that the ancient Hebrews simply didn’t think in terms of “nothingness,” at least in the modern scientific sense of a vacuum. In fact, for them, “nothingness” is impossible since God fills all things (Jer.23:24), and there is no place where God and His glory is not (Isa. 6:3). A clear window into this ontological thinking is Hebrews 11:3 where we believe by faith that God made everything seen from the unseen. You see, there was no separation between the spiritual and the physical; the material has its origins in the spiritual and is necessarily connected to it. Therefore, this whole modern debate of where did material come from is foreign to the Bible. The assumption is that God made it at some point, but this is not what was important to them in the creation narratives (Gen. 1 & 2).

Since this is true, we ought first to understand what the creation texts have to say in its own context, and then make application, if appropriate, to our modern way of thinking. We need to set aside our cosmological assumptions that have little to do with the Bible, and learn to enter into the biblical way of thinking, the biblical cosmology, however strange this may seem at first.

Genesis one is a hymn of praise that joyfully describes how God created a universe of wondrous form, order, and function out of that which was without form, disorder, and without function, that is, chaos. It asks, how did the cosmos get to be so beautiful? Why is there order? Is there meaning and purpose to it? What is it? How do I fit into it? How does the Creator relate with it? These are teleological questions (design and purpose), and these were the questions that were important to the ancients. Modern science, limited by its methodology to empirical experimentation, is not equipped methodologically to explore these teleological issues, but can certainly be shown to be in harmony with them.

The modern western mind is not geared to experience creation with the Creator. Rather, it is geared to explain it. That is why western Christians simply do not understand Genesis one, and really do not, as a whole, have a creation theology.

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