The Structure of the Apocalypse (Genesis 1:3-13)

Last week we left the ancient people of Israel in the middle of an existential crisis. They have their freedom, but they have no idea what to do with it. They have been rescued by a God, but they don’t know who he is or what he wants from them. They have been promised a very good land, but right now all they can see is desert, formless and empty and incapable of supporting life.

Moses began to address their crisis by telling them that there is a God, that he is One God, that he is a Personal God, and that he has the power to create and destroy.

But this just made their crisis worse, because nothing is more terrifying than an all-powerful God that you don’t know anything about!

But in his last sentence, Moses told the people one more thing about this God that makes all the difference: darkness was over the surface of the deep — which is terrifying! — but the breath of God was hovering over the waters.

In other words, this God is a God who can speak. This God is a God who can tell mankind who he is, and what he wants from us. This God is a God who can explain the meaning of life, and give purpose to our existence.

And he does this by speaking: [3] And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

The darkness that has permeated the physical universe is shattered by speech. Light pours in from the spiritual universe.

And as we discussed briefly last week, when Moses talked about darkness over the surface of the deep he was not ultimately talking about the absence of visible radiation, he was talking about the absence of the knowledge of God.

In the same way, when he talks about the creation of light here, he is not ultimately talking about the creation of visible radiation. We know that that radiation was part of the universe from the very beginning. Where there is matter and energy there must be radiation. So we know, scientifically, that radiation — visible and otherwise — has existed since verse 1.

So Moses is not saying, in a modern scientific sense, that when God spoke visible light began; he is saying that that when God spoke revelation began. The apocalypse of God began. The revealing of who God is began.

Now, I want to pause here for a moment to address something that might be on some of our minds: is Moses really just talking about ignorance and wisdom here? Couldn’t he also be talking about literal darkness and light? In fact, isn’t it better to believe that he is talking about literal darkness and light, rather than reading between the lines to see all this other symbolism?

Well, if we believed that Moses was trying to write a scientific textbook about creation, then yes, it would be better to read these verses as if they are just about literal darkness and light.

But the problem with that approach is this: Moses is not writing a science textbook. He is not writing a handbook, or a manual. He is writing literature. And literature is always, always more than just literal.

So is Moses talking about literal darkness and light here? Yes, he probably is. But Moses “literal” understanding of light is different from our “literal” understanding of light. For us, darkness and light are literally about particles and wavelengths, and that’s all it means. But for Moses — and for all ancient people — darkness and light were literally about the active effects of spiritual superbeings, and as a result the meaning behind literal darkness and light was completely different for them than it is for us.

If we try to limit Moses’ concept of “light” here to our literal scientific concept of light — then we are actually going to miss 90% of what he is trying to say.

To help us understand how that works, let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s pretend that, 3000 years from now, scientists are digging in the ruins of the ancient city of Kuala Lumpur, and they discover a phone with this message in its memory: “Wee Lern gave Sue a diamond.”

Now, what does that sentence mean?

The scientists do some research, and they discover that a diamond is a kind of rock. So they translate the sentence, “Wee Lern gave Sue a rock.”

Literally that sentence is true. But that’s not what the sentence means, does it?

So they do some more research, and they discover that a diamond is actually a rare and expensive kind of rock. So they modify their translation, “Wee Lern gave Sue an expensive rock.”

Still literally true! Still wrong, though.

So they research some more. They want to know why this rock is so expensive! — and then they discover that a diamond is a type of carbon crystal that refracts light in beautiful ways. So now they modify the translation to read, “Wee Lern gave Sue an expensive, beautiful rock.”

Literally, every word of that translation is correct. But those scientists have actually missed 90% of the real meaning of that sentence — a meaning that we all understood without even thinking. Those future scientists might know 1000 times more about the atomic structure of a diamond that we do — but all those scientific facts about diamonds won’t help them understand that sentence any better. In fact, we understand that there are many different ways to say that sentence and still mean the same thing. One person says, “Wee Lern gave Sue a diamond.” Another person says, “Wee Lern gave Sue a ring.” Another person says, “Wee Lern got down on one knee to Sue.” The details of all those sentences are different — but the meaning is the same.

That is how these verses work also. We can be absolutely certain that this translation is extremely accurate. But if we fixate on our literal understanding of “light”, we will miss 90% of the real meaning of these verses, a meaning that the ancient Israelites would have understood without even thinking. We know 1000 times more about what light really is compared to Moses — but those facts are totally irrelevant to the meaning of this text.

So as we go forward here we need to remember that our modern culture has built a big wall between “literal” and “figurative”, between “scientific” and “symbolic”. We have been taught that if something is not literally and scientfically true, then it is not true. But that is just not true! And it definitely was not true for Moses and his people; for them, literal and figurative often blended together. Darkness is almost always more than just darkness. Light is almost always more than just light.

Just in case you are still struggling to believe me, you should know that John, in the New Testament, uses these terms the same way that Moses does. Read the first verses of John’s gospel sometime: “In the beginning was the Word…in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” The Word is life, the life is light. John means for us to understand these words literally — and he means for us to understand them figuratively. He goes on to say, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Is John talking about literal light and darkness? No. He is talking about the presence and the absence of the knowledge of God, just like Moses did.

So, going forward, if we can remember — fix in our minds — that literal and symbolic are often blended together here in the creation story, then we will actually find that these verses are so much more deeply meaningful than we could ever have imagined.

And this blending of literal and symbolic will become even more clear as we go on.

Okay. Back to the text:

God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.

Here, God draws a distinction between darkness and light, between ignorance and wisdom. He separates the two, and he tells us that he prefers light; it is the light that he sees as good.

But that does not mean that darkness is necessarily evil in and of itself. Darkness is not something that is out of God’s control. Even though God prefers light and wisdom, he still rules over darkness and ignorance.

And in order to make that point clear, Moses says in the next verse:

God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”

In ancient cultures, naming something was a way of saying, “This belongs to me. I rule over this thing.” God rules the day; God rules the night.

And this was important for Moses to tell the ancient Israelites, because the Israelites had been taught something different during their 400 years of slavery under the Egyptians. The Egyptians believed the day was ruled by Ra, the Sun-god, who was the god of light, knowledge, and creation. And they believed the night was ruled by a serpent-god, the god of darkness, chaos, and destruction.

But Moses, by saying that God named the day and the night, is telling his people very clearly that God rules the day and the night. God rules over light and darkness. God rules over wisdom and ignorance.

And his rule over these things begins right away:

And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

[6] And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” [7] So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. [8] God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

Okay. This one seems relatively clear. That bit about separating water from water is confusing, but fortunately in verse 8 Moses tells us he is literally talking about the creation of the sky.

But what if Moses “literal” understanding of the sky is different from our “literal” understanding?

Well, let’s check and see.

We do some research, and we discover that ancient people believed the unformed earth was like a flat round table — a platter, a disk — floating in the blackness of a cosmic ocean, water underneath and above and going out in every direction. We might laugh at that a little bit today — but really, they weren’t so far wrong. We would say that the unformed earth was a ball floating in the blackness of the cosmic vacuum of space, but…close enough, right? They thought space was filled with water, but that’s a pretty good guess!

Anyway, this is what Moses has been describing so far when he talks about the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the deep and all that: he is describing the earth as a disk submerged in the midst of a black cosmic ocean, with God hovering over that ocean. And on Day 1 God began to speak light and revelation into the blackness of that cosmic ocean.

So we do a little more research, and we discover that when Moses talks about God creating a vault to separate water from water, he is talking about the lifting of a literal dome over the earth disk. Basically — and literally — Moses is describing an air-bubble being formed over the surface of the earth. The earth disk is still covered with water, like a shallow plate with water in it — but now the cosmic waters over the earth have been separated from the cosmic waters under the earth. There is no dry land yet, but at least now the water over the earth disk is just a shallow sea with atmosphere above it. The crushing weight of the cosmic ocean has been lifted from the surface of the earth.

Then we to a little more research, and we discover that when God calls the vault “the sky”, that is Moses’ way of telling his people, “God rules the sky dome. No one else.”

Now, if we are going to interpret Moses literally, that is literally what Moses is talking about here: the creation of a massive vault over the earth to separate the lower waters from the upper waters. That is Moses’ literal understanding of what the sky is.

Our literal understanding is quite different. In fact, we would say that Moses’ literal understanding is…not true.

So what are we going to do with these verses? Our modern instincts told us to interpret “light” literally in Day 1. But now our modern instincts tell us not to interpret “vault” literally here in Day 2!

And this is where we — as modern, literal-minded Christians — this is where we can get into trouble. If we insist that the literal details matter in Day 1, and then in Day 2 we suddenly switch and say the literal details don’t matter…we lose a lot of credibility. We look inconsistent, intellectually and morally. We look like the kind of people who change the rules in order to force the facts into our theory of how things should be.

And that is a bad reputation to have! That is a bad reputation for Christ to have.

So in the interest of intellectual and moral consistency — in the interest of representing Christ well! — let’s not change our approach. On Day 1, we could accept that Moses was talking about the creation of literal light — but that his meaning was something far more profound. So, in the same way, let’s accept that on Day 2, Moses is talking about the creation of a literal sky dome over a disk-shaped earth — but that his meaning is something far more profound.

So: how do we discover the “real” meaning of these verses?

Well, the best way is to ask this question: what new information is Moses trying to give his people that will help them in their current crisis?

We know he is not trying to teach them that there is a dome over the earth holding up the cosmic ocean. He doesn’t need to teach them that because they already know it. The Egyptians taught them that. They learned that back in Egyptian science class. That is not new information.

What is the new information that Moses has included here?

We do a little more research, and we discover that ancient pagans believed the sky dome was made out of the body of a god or a monster. In ancient pagan science class, kids were taught that the sky came into being through violence. One god defeats another god, and forces them to hold up the skies over the earth — that was Egyptian science class. Or a god defeats the cosmic sea-serpent of chaos that rules the blackness of the cosmic ocean, and then uses its body parts to create the sky — that was Babylonian science class.

But Moses is telling his people that the sky dome exists because God spoke. As simple as that. It is God’s spoken word that protects the earth from the chaos of the primordial ocean. It is the spoken revelation of God that preserves his people from the crushing weight of eternity.

And this meaning would be lost if we just said, “Oh, the details don’t matter, he’s just talking about the sky.” The details do matter. Because the details reveal the symbolism. What we literally believe about the sky affects how we think about the sky. Our literal beliefs affect our symbolic beliefs.

So, because we believe the sky is literally just empty space, when we look up we see Opportunity, Reaching for the Stars, Living Your Dream. That’s what the sky symbolizes for us.

But because ancient people believed the sky was literally solid roof holding up the inconceivable pressure of a cosmic ocean — they looked up and all they could think was, “Man, I hope that thing doesn’t break!” For them, the sky symbolized — and literally was — the fragile barrier standing between them and absolute terror.

Very different!

So when Moses told his people, “Hey, God holds up the sky with his unbreakable Word,” he was transforming their world! He was saving them from lives of constant dread, constant fear that someday a crack might form and the black waters of chaos come pouring down upon them.

Ironically, our modern world shares almost exactly the same fears as the ancient pagan world. Only the details are different! They worried about the cosmic ocean breaking through and drowning us all; we worry about some planet-killing asteroid; but that is the same human fear of extinction at work in us.

Which also means that this hope Moses intended for his people is also for us. Yes, we would change the details. We would say it is God’s spoken word that protects the earth from the chaos of outer space. It is the spoken revelation of God that preserves us from the crushing fear of extinction. But really we share the same hope as the ancient people of Israel.

Moving on:

[9] And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. [10] God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Day 2 ended with earth like a plate covered in water, a massive circular sea with a dome of air over it. Here, God’s spoken word — his breath — parts the sea in the middle and brings dry land to the surface.

And this, too, reflects a common belief at the time. Ancient peoples thought that the earth disk consisted of one central super-continent surrounded by a circular super-ocean.

The difference, though, is that pagans believed the land was also made out of a monster’s body parts, just like the sky — the defeated cosmic sea-serpent of chaos idea again. Which, for them, explained why the land sometimes tries to kill you with earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis: the body parts still get angry and quiver and stuff like that. And there is always the danger that they might just plain sink into the ocean!

But Moses, again, by contrast, says, “Nope. The land is not trying to kill you. The sea is not trying to kill you. God named them. God rules them. In fact, the land is actually designed to produce life!”

Which is exactly what the land does next:

[11] Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds. ” And it was so. [12] The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. [13] And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

For the first time in the creation story, God tells something else to do something. Until now he has done it all himself: separated light from darkness, separated upper waters from lower waters, separated land from sea. Now, he tells the land to produce life: plants. Food.

And this, too, is a departure from ancient pagan beliefs. Pagans generally believed that plants grew as a by-product of the gods’ procreation. In other words, the gods would have sex with each other, and the…moistures…that resulted would fall to earth and plants would grow. And this is why so many of the ancient pagan religions were oriented around sexual rituals: they believed that having sexual orgies on earth would help encourage the gods to get frisky, and…ta da! Fertile crops.

Even worse, pagans generally believed that the whole reason humans exist is to grow food for the gods. So pagan religion was this complicated system where you tried to encourage the gods to have sex so you could grow enough crops to feed the gods and keep them happy so they would keep on having sex…it’s circle of life, right? 

But Moses says, “No. The land produces plants because God tells it to. There is no mystical sex thing going on here; just God’s eternal spoken word at work telling the land to grow food for us.”

So when Moses told his people, “Hey, the land is not out to kill you, it is actually designed to give you life!” well, we can see how that would change everything! Pagans lived in constant dread of the natural world. They lived in constant fear that someday the gods would get angry or bored or impotent and just starve everyone to death. Moses is saving his people from that fear!

Now, ironically, again, our modern world shares almost exactly the same fears as the ancient pagan world. Only the details are different. They were scared of pissing off monstrous body parts, or making the gods angry somehow, and so bringing ecological disaster upon themselves. We worry about pissing off the ecological balance and so bringing some ecological distaster upon ourselves. They were worried that the gods would bring judgement upon them. We are worried that the planet will bring judgment upon us.

And this, again, is why it is important for us to realize that even though Moses is talking about the literal separation of land from sea, his meaning is deeper than those literal details. When Moses talks here about dry ground appearing and producing life at God’s word, the ancient Israelites would have remembered at once that the same thing happened for them at the Red Sea. The dry land symbolizes salvation and life; the seas symbolize judgement and death. God rules both. And the provision of dry land and food for his people is a pure gift, an act of grace.

Moses did not want his people living in fear of the gods’ judgement. He also would not want us living in fear of the earth’s judgement, feeling like we are constantly living just moments from ecological disaster. “The preservation of life,” he would tell us, “ultimately belongs to God, and so does judgement.”

If we, as a global society, are going to be judged for our ecological sins, it will be God who does the judging, not the earth — even if God uses the earth as the means of his judgement.

Now, some of you might say, “Well then, what difference does that make? It’s still ecological disaster innit?”

True. The difference is this: if the earth is in charge of our judgement, then we can expect no mercy at all, because the earth is impersonal.

But if judgement belongs to God…then we have a hope that he might hear our cries of repentance and save us from what we have done.

So, to recap:

The Spirit of God, hovering over the chaos of the cosmic ocean, wants to be known. But knowledge in the midst of chaos is impossible. So he begins to bring order into the chaos.

On Day 1, he speaks light into the cosmic darkness. And he sets a cycle going: day and night. In other words, God created a very simple calendar, a very simple way to organize and measure Time.

On Day 2, God speaks separation into the cosmic ocean. He sets up a sky over the earth that is designed to limit the destruction that water can bring. In other words, God created a space where rain can be regulated.

On Day 3, God speaks separation into the earthly ocean. He sets up dry land and commissions it to produce plants. In other words, God has created a space that is capable of sustaining life — the kind of life that is capable of knowing God.

God is bringing order to chaos so that mankind might know him. Everything that has happened on these first three days is oriented around the apocalypse of God, the revealing of who God is. Without order — without light, without Time, without rain or atmosphere, without land and food — mankind’s knowledge of God would be impossible. Now everything is in place, and ready, for real revelation to begin.

And all that is pretty cool. But, practically speaking, we have to remember that this is supposed to be a response to an existential crisis. The people of Israel are in the middle of the Arabian desert, and they have been asking, “Who is this God? Is he going to take care of us? What does he want from us?”

How does this creation story begin to answer those questions?

Well, let’s start with the first one: who is this God?

Here is the answer: this God is the God who speaks, who does not leave his people guessing. This is the God who brings order to chaos, the God who rules over Time. This is the God who upholds up the sky with his Word, who rules the weather and provides rain. This is the God who created the land itself as a safe space for his people. He is the God who provides food instead of demanding it.

Which also answers the second question: is he going to take care of us? The answer is that he has designed the earth itself to take care of us.

And all this is meant to be a great comfort to a people who are wondering if this God has led them out into the desert just to kill them as some kind of horrible cosmic prank. Moses is reassuring them. He is showing them that their God is reasonable, orderly, and personal. He has designed the earth to sustain human life so that human life can get to know him.

It is also meant to be a great comfort to us. We have already seen that in many ways our modern secular fears are exactly like ancient pagan fears. The details are different, but the fears are the same. And so our comfort can be the same.

We don’t believe in the chaos of a primordial life-crushing cosmic ocean. But we do believe in the hyper-compressed chaos of the Big Bang, the terrifying forces unleashed during those first micro-seconds of the universe, immense distortions of space-time that made life impossible for billions of years. Physicists are trying to figure it out, thinking that if we could just understand it we might be able to control it and thus protect ourselves from the destructive forces that are loose in our universe.

So isn’t it a comfort to know that God spoke order into that primordial chaos — that he is speaking even now, holding things in place so that we can experience reality, so that we might seek him and perhaps even reach out for him and find him?

We don’t believe that the sky is a solid structure holding back the weight of cosmic waters, making life possible. But we do believe that the atmosphere protects the earth from the weight of cosmic radiation. And we do worry that it could some day be damaged so badly that all life would become extinct.

So isn’t it a comfort to know that God spoke that word of protection over our planet, and that the survival of our species is ultimately up to him?

We don’t believe the continents are the corpses of defeated sea-monsters that might someday sink into the ocean. But we do believe that sea-levels are rising. We don’t believe we have to feed the gods. But we are afraid of a global ecological collapse that could starve us all to death.

So isn’t it a comfort to know that God has designed this earth to produce water and food and everything we need for life? And honestly — scientifically speaking — we have no reason to doubt this. As far as we can tell, digging back into history as far as we can go, we keep finding that our planet is a place where life of every kind just thrives, and keeps coming back after every disaster.

So, practically speaking, Moses is also answering our existential crisis. He is beginning to answer our questions as well: who is this God? Is he going to take care of us? What does he want from us?

But that third question is still unanswered, isn’t it. It is great to know that God is good, that he is in charge, and he is going to provide for us. But we are still wondering: what does he want in return? To put the question in more modern terms, we could say: “What are we here for? What is the meaning of our existence?”

Well, actually Moses has already begun to answer that question, but it is not going to be totally clear until we reach Day 7.

So, be patient! We’ll get there.

In the meantime, though, what should we believe, what should we do, because of what we have read here today?

Are we required to believe that God created physical light one day, and then created the sky 24 hours later, and then created the land 24 hours after that?

Well…we are going to talk more about that, also, in the weeks to come. But even today, having discovered what Moses was literally talking about — a cosmic ocean, a solid sky dome, a central super-continent on a disk-shaped earth — we are already realizing that a thoroughly literalistic scientific approach is probably not going to work.

And that can be a challenge for some of us. Because we want to say, “But why would God inspire Moses to write down stuff about creation that is not scientifically true? Doesn’t that mean that God lied?”

No. It means that God spoke to Moses and his people in a way that they could understand. The Greeks only figured out that the earth is a globe more than 1000 years after Moses. And the Italians only figured out that the sky is not solid only 500 years ago! So how would it have helped Moses or his people with their crisis if God had told them, “Actually, uh, your science is all wrong. The earth is a ball, not a plate, and the universe is not full of water, it’s full of nothing.” That would have made no sense at all! In fact, it probably would have made their existential crisis much much worse!

God used imperfect concepts about the nature of the universe to communicate perfect concepts about the nature of himself. And this happens even today. God speaks to us using language, and language is always an imperfect reflection of reality. But does that mean God lies when he speaks? No, it means he communicates to us in a way that matches the imperfection of our existence.

So, what now? What should we believe, what should we do?

Let’s believe this: God is speaking eternal truths here, truths that depend upon the details of what is written and yet are so much greater than the details of what is written.

And since we believe that, let’s do this: let’s put aside our modern obsession with what “literally” happened in creation, and let’s focus instead on what the Days of creation are meant to teach us about God, and about ourselves. And let’s do what Moses wanted his people to do in response to these revelations: let’s put aside our fears, and trust the One who made us.

In closing, let me point something out: at the start of Day 1, the earth was formless and empty.

Here, at the end of Day 3, it is no longer formless. Now it has shape. It has form.

But it is still empty.

So I bet you all can guess what is going to happen next.

But you’ll have to come back next week find out for sure! 

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