God Can Handle Chaos—Including Yours
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. — Genesis 1:1-2
If we are going to get anything out of Genesis, then we must prepare ourselves.
Basil of Caesarea (330-79) said at the beginning of his Hexaemeron, a series of sermons on Genesis 1,
How earnestly the soul should prepare itself to receive such high lessons! How pure it should be from carnal affections, how unclouded by worldly disquietudes, how active and ardent in its researches, how eager to find in its surroundings an idea of God which may be worthy of Him!
And John Calvin (1509-64) said in his commentary on Genesis, “The world is a mirror in which we ought to behold God.” “If my readers sincerely wish to profit with me in meditating on the works of God, they must bring with them a sober, docile mild, and humble spirit.”
So remember that the author of these words, Moses, saw an appearance of God at the burning bush, and God spoke with him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exod. 33:11; cf. Num. 12:6-8). And don’t forget the power of these words, “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
The Hebrew word for “beginning” is ראשׁית (rēshīt), which may also mean “starting point” or “first,” and is closely related to ראשׁ (rōsh), which means “head.” The word God translates אלהים, Elōhīm, which may be the plural for אל (el), the generic word for god. The plural does not in itself teach the doctrine of the Trinity, that there is one God and three persons in the godhead, but is more likely a “plural of majesty.” God is not just god, he is GOD. Elōhīm. GOD! The very sound of this word, naming as it does the Creator of the universe, should fill us with awe, dread, and love.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Before there was an earth and atoms, life and light, time and tide, there was God. He is eternal, which does not mean that he is very old, but that he had no beginning. He always was, is, and will be. Many have mockingly asked, “What was God doing before he created the world?” In his Commentaries on Genesis, Calvin relates a humorous answer he had read to this question:
When a certain impure dog was in this manner pouring ridicule upon God, a pious man retorted that God had been at that time by no means inactive, because he had been preparing hell for the captious.
We cannot speak reasonably of what God was doing “before creation,” because before creation there was no time as we know it—there was no “before.” Certainly there was nothing that brought God himself into existence.
The Hebrew verb for create is ברא (bārā); it is only ever used with God as the subject. What did God create? The “heavens and the earth.” Heaven, שׁמים (shamayīm), also means sky. Earth, ארץ (erets), also means land and ground. These words do not have a special meaning in Genesis 1:1; but when put together like this, “heaven and earth,” that is, “sky and ground,” “everything that’s up and everything that’s down,” they emphasize that God made everything. Only God himself is not made.
There are no time indications in these first two verses. The earth (erets) was formless and empty. There is some lovely alliteration here in the original, the earth was תהו ובהו, tōhu va bōhu. These words are neither “good” nor “bad” but are exceedingly and perhaps unpleasantly bland. Tōhu can refer to a barren wasteland, “a barren and howling waste” (Deut. 32:10; also Job 6:18). It can refer to futility (1 Sam. 12:21) and meaninglessness (Isa. 29:21). Bōhu appears only three times in the Old Testament. Isaiah 34:11 describes how “God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation,” and Jeremiah uses just the same phrase as Genesis 1:2: “I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty (tōhu va bōhu); and at the heavens, and their light was gone” (Jer. 4:23). We will return to Jeremiah’s hugely significant phrase in a moment.
Darkness was over the surface over the deep.
Creation at this point was empty and black. The same word describes the penultimate plague over Egypt: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.’ So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days” (Exod. 10:21-23).
This blackness was over the surface of “the deep.” תהום, tehōm, refers only to “deep waters.” The Septuagint reads ἀβυσσος (abyssos, “abyss”). The Old Testament talks about God leading Israel through “the depths of the sea” (Isa. 63:13, Ps. 106:9) and Pharaoh’s army being drowned in the “depths” (Exod.15:5). In Deuteronomy 8:7, it refers to subterranean water.
So here is our first look at God’s creation: formless, empty, black, and watery. Light was yet to be created. The water was yet to be put into its place. Solid ground for living and walking on had yet to be exposed. The celestial mirrors of God’s light had yet to be fashioned. God’s life had yet to break out on the earth. Humanity was yet to be fashioned and enlivened in the delightfully different forms of male and female.
Calvin calls creation at this moment “the seed of the whole world,” and Basil “the foundation of a house, the keel of a vessel.” These are pleasing and correct analogies, for it is neither beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant. It is full of potential.
The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The Hebrew word for Spirit in verse two, רוח (ruach), is a wonderfully rich Old Testament word that can refer to wind, breath, or a personal spirit. Exactly the same range of meaning applies to the NT πνευμα (pneuma, from which we get such words as pneumatic and pneumonia). Ruach (elohīm, Spirit of God) always refers in the Old Testament to a person, God the Holy Spirit. So the Spirit was near to his creation, but not just near. He was hovering—fluttering is probably a closer translation—like a mother bird flutters over her young. Basil describes the early Syrian Christians’ delightful interpretation of this: “The Spirit cherished the nature of the waters as one sees a bird cover the eggs with her body and imparts to them vital force from her own warmth.” And in his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) John Milton sang:
Covered the abyss; but on the watery calm
His brooding wings the Spirit of God outstretched,
And vital virtue infused, and vital warmth,
throughout the fluid mass.
“Hovered” is used by Moses again almost at the end of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) to describe God’s intense care of Israel his people:
In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions. (Deut. 32:10-11)
Whatever we might think about God’s formless, empty, lifeless, black, and watery creation, the Spirit of God loved it and sustained and upheld it (John 3:16); for as Psalm 104:29-30 says: “When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath (ruach), they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit (ruach), they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
Why didn’t God complete creation instantaneously?
The burning question is this: “God is omnipotent and omniscient, so why would he not bring about a fully developed and complete creation instantaneously?” If the universe’s greatest good is that God glorify himself, then we can know that it was more glorifying for him to develop his creation over six days, to allow his great power and wisdom to unfold over this time. Moreover, by creating the world in this way, God taught the world that he can rescue us from darkness, lifelessness, and chaos, and that when he rescues us, he does it not instantaneously, but in a way that unfolds his omnipotence, omniscience, and omni-benevolence step-by-wonderful-step.
For although I have said that Moses’ description of initial creation in itself is neither beautiful nor ugly, similar words were used in different contexts to describe God’s people in distressing circumstances. As I mentioned above, Jeremiah uses this kind of language in the sixth century BC to describe Judah in a state of godless apostasy, who were about to face the fierce judgment of God by the hands of the brutal Babylonian army:
My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good. I looked at the earth, and it was formless (tōhu) and empty (bōhu); and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger. (Jer. 4:22-26; cf. Isa. 34:11)
Moreover, the very first readers of Genesis, the Israelites who had just emerged from centuries of brutal slavery and death in Egypt—slavery to Pharaoh’s building projects and slavery to the false gods of Egypt—would also have seen their situation mirrored in what was “formless and void,” black, and chaotically watery. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, God would rescue them from the “deep” (Ps. 106:9).
Perhaps these adjectives describe your own situation.
Confused. Empty. Lifeless. Dark. Chaotic. You are not yet a Christian, and you don’t know why you are on this planet and what is the meaning and purpose of your life. There is spiritual blackness and obscurity, and everything is immersed in chaos. Or you are a Christian, and the chaotic trials of life are pressing on you, and even the darkness of despair. You feel the “waves and breakers” crashing over you (Jon. 2:3).
Whoever you are, and whatever the depths and agony of your trials, God is hovering over you: he loves you, he is near to you, and he can rescue you. We see a living picture of his rescue unfold in the subsequent six days of creation.
God does not stand aloof from the world in all its chaotic agony. His caring, brooding presence is very near, and he is at work.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.