Sunday, June 18, 2023

Abyss and Inspiration

Over the past two weeks, as we've begun to sink into this book of beginnings called Genesis, we've gotten our dawning glimpse into eternity, at a God who is eternally Love shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – one God in three distinct persons, each and all the same pure Existence, the same pure Goodness, the same pure Knowledge and Power and Life and Happiness and Glory. And this God would still have been Happiness and Glory, Goodness and Love, had he chosen not to create anything, had remained home alone in the eternity which he himself is. But that's not how things played out. Instead, he freely loved the universe into existence out of nothing. He simply willed to share the goodness of being with things. And so, out of nothing, “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

But now, as we inch forward, we find that this world as it first exists at God's command is not anything at all remotely like the world we know. It's incomplete, it's unready, it's raw. And we find three main words that describe it, or at least the part we're talking about: the earth, the waters, the deep. In fact, this picture is all so foreign that it's a bit hard to know what to make of it, isn't it? Some in the early church pictured this as though the earth is basically the earth we know, but “concealed by the water,”1 “inundated by a deep flood,”2 like the ocean floor.3 But at the same time, other Christians pictured it as though the earth and the waters and the deep were the same thing, blended together in a big muddy ocean of sediment: all that “mixed-up material” not yet “sorted out and formed,”4 “all the elements jumbled up together.”5

In more modern times, trying to picture how we can envision Genesis in our day, some Christians have drawn parallels with the stories scientists tell us of the history of our world. Some have compared this original 'deep' to the molten or gaseous early earth, “a poorly defined mixture of solidified compounds, molten liquid, and gases swirling” through space.6 Some look back further, to the theorized first fraction of a second after the Big Bang, when matter only formed what scientists describe as a “free-flowing quark-gluon plasma,”7 a “quark soup,”8 a dense fluid state throughout the whole universe in which the most basic building blocks of matter were unconfined, flowing all jumbled together in a universal deep. And still others look all the way back, to the scientists' tale of an infinitely dense beginning point, a singularity awash in possibility on the quantum vacuum.9

Whatever else we might compare the 'deep' or 'earth' to, listen to how the Scripture first introduces what God has just made: “Now the earth was formless and void” (Genesis 1:2). Those words make a cute little rhyme in Hebrew: the earth was tohu-and-bohu. Now, the word tohu shows up plenty in Scripture. It can describe a city reduced to rubble, like when Isaiah says that “the city of tohu is broken down; every house is shut up so that none can enter..., the gates are battered into ruins” (Isaiah 24:10, 12). It can describe the desert, like when Job says that God's judgment takes great people and “makes them wander in a trackless tohu” (Job 12:24), or when Moses sings that God found Israel “in a desert land and in a tohu, a howling wilderness” (Deuteronomy 32:10). In other words, the tohu is a place that's dangerous to set up shop.10 Isaiah loves this word as an insult, describing idols and their lovers as tohu (Isaiah 40:17; 41:29). Tohu is a desolate place, an inhospitable environment, something broken and unproductive, serving no purpose or value.11 And one scientist writes that the early universe was “devoid of structure, nor was it obvious that there would ever be any structure.”12

Bohu is a trickier word, since it only shows up in the Bible as an addendum to tohu. Isaiah threatens Edom that God would “stretch the line of tohu over it, and the plumb line of bohu” (Isaiah 34:11) – making it a haunted wasteland, devoid of human life, but given over to creatures of the night. Jeremiah, previewing the destruction of Jerusalem, laments: “I looked to the earth, and behold, it was tohu and bohu; and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jeremiah 4:23). He's pointing back at this verse, saying that the loss of Jerusalem will be like rewinding to when things barely existed at all. The basic idea of bohu is probably something empty and bare, unfinished and unfurnished, like a house after you've moved out. The earth was a desolate wasteland, a vacant house, “formless matter” (Wisdom 11:17) in a “gaping, empty, and void space.”13

But as if that weren't rough enough, Genesis adds one more fact: “and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). There was no light anywhere. Nothing could be seen. It was all impenetrable and invisible, mysterious, empty of any beauty yet. Everything was darkness, desolation, devoid of any real features at all, any clear indications of its goodness. It clearly wasn't anywhere a loving God would put us and tell us to live. This was a world that couldn't be lived in, that wasn't alive. As one Jewish writer put it in the first century, back then “darkness and silence embraced everything.”14 Lifeless as a tomb. One early reader got the impression of “something murky, always in twilight, deep, depressed, misty, and bearing darkness everywhere.”15 Others have called it simply “a sterile nothingness,” shrouded in unremitting darkness.16

And sometimes that feels familiar. Because, as the prophets feared, these things – tohu, bohu, and darkness – can come back and impinge on our lives today. The psalmist cried that the brokenness in his relationships had made his companions “darkness” (Psalm 88:18). Jeremiah lamented that suffering and confusion can make us “dwell in darkness” (Lamentations 3:6). Darkness descends into our lives in our obscurity and our uncertainty. Think of all the times you've been unsure what to do, who to trust, where to turn. Think of all the times you've been screened off from the truth, kept in the dark. Think of the times in your life when a gray fog has seemed to settle on your heart, clouding your vision, sinking you down to the depths beneath your soul.

And then there's the bohu in our lives. Our lives can be depopulated as what we love moves away from us. It might be a grievous loss, perhaps the death of a loved one – a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend has died, they're not in your life any more in the same way, and that crushing void you feel, that's bohu. Or there's a relationship you've gotten cut off from by distance or disfavor, and it feels so strange and so lonely at times. That felt absence, that vacancy – there's the bohu. Or it could be a privilege or position you've lost. You've moved and been uprooted, you've been fired from your job, you've had your license revoked. That choking inability, that invasive insecurity, that phantom pain you feel in what's not there any more – bohu.

But there's tohu in our lives, too. Isaiah says that God “makes the rulers of the earth tohu” (Isaiah 40:23), that he strips them of their status as counting for anything at all. And so too, we might have stripped from us not just a thing, a place or position, but our sense of identity and meaning and purpose. You used to feel a vocation, a calling to do this or that, but you can't do it any more. You used to have bearings on who you are, what you're here for, what you're doing in life, but now that's damaged or destroyed, and you're adrift in the deep, unsure which way is up. Your landscape of meaning, the world you navigated your way in, has crumbled. It's become a more dangerous place inside your head, less fit for your soul's habitation among those thoughts of the night. And suddenly all those anchoring truths you used to tell yourself feel more like fairy-tales from a future that may never come. Whether you hurt or whether it's just numb, you wonder what it all matters. There's the tohu. And whether you're dealing with the darkness, with the bohu, with the tohu, or all three, you might find yourself in an “unbearable feedback loop of exhaustion.”17 You can tell it's no way to live. Have you ever been there?

So much for the abyss. We could use the inspiration now, couldn't we? Because this verse is not done. Yes, the earth in the beginning was tohu and bohu. Yes, the face of the deep was covered in darkness. But the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). When the deep was in darkness, when the earth was tohu and bohu, that didn't mean God's Spirit was far away, that God had removed himself from the situation the raw world was in, that God wasn't involved and had no plan. God wasn't absent from this dark desolation in the slightest. No, God was there, presenting himself face-to-face with the matter of creation, even in the dark. The darkness is no proof of God's failure. The vacancy of the house is no vacuum and void to God. The most desolate and inhospitable places are as open to God as any garden.

God has not left the matter of the world alone, has not deserted the deep, hasn't let the desolate earth go its own way. He's engaging with it. The question is, how? The Egyptians might have said that God owed something to the deep. The Egyptians looked back on “the uniform darkness, ocean of the gods,” a “place void of sky and void of land,”18 and declared that “the Waters... evolved” so that the first god rose out of them,19 “evolved out of the flood, out of the waters, out of darkness, out of lostness.”20 But that's not the picture in Genesis. The Spirit doesn't emerge from the deep, doesn't evolve from the waters. The Spirit comes to face lostness, not to flee it.

The Babylonians looked back on the deep as a vicious monster, a universe-sized threat that the gods needed to shatter before hope could begin. To them, before heaven and earth, there were “mingled waters” which gave rise to the gods, but which then “organized battle against the gods,” so that the gods ultimately had to kill them with a mighty “evil wind.”21 Only the destruction of the deep and its darkness, only the violent shattering of the original reality, could allow a new world to triumph – or so said the Babylonians. But that's not the picture in Genesis either. The deep may be dark, but it's not aggressive. It's “still, motionless, receptive, waiting quietly in the darkness for the Creator's next step.”22

How does God's Spirit behave with this receptive matter of creation? God's Spirit – a holy wind, not the evil wind of Babylon – behaves like a soaring, gliding, circling bird. The verb here might sound predatory, because to the Canaanites, it was their word for the circling of a hawk or a vulture.23 But in the Bible, it's much more likely to picture how a mama eagle finds her nest and tends it devotedly, raising her eaglets with lots of love. It's the word Moses uses when singing about how, when God had found Israel in the tohu, “he encircled him, he cared for him... Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him” (Deuteronomy 32:10-12). This is not a story of violent intervention to fight the deep and its dangers.24 This is a story of God's Spirit gently rousing and pushing, supporting and shepherding. This is peaceful nurture of the deep and desolate earth toward hope. The dark world is shown to be putty in the hands of God. Much as the Scriptures took their origin when “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), so the very depths of all creation were being carried along by the Holy Spirit, waiting to hear God's voice. Nature is nurtured, nature is inspired.

And so God's Spirit looks down on this creation, stares the desolate and dark deep right in the face, and watches over it, shapes it, stirs it to growth. It's the Spirit of God that imparts dynamism, motion, on what would otherwise be a very dreary and dull abyss.25 It was God's Spirit who drove the inflation and expansion of the universe behind its austere face, God's Spirit who coalesced interstellar dust to form the earth, God's Spirit who alights upon the face of the deep, “preparing the nature of the waters for the generation of living beings.”26

And when we read here of the Spirit brooding like a bird over the waters, we should remember that story told often in the Gospels, where “when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold..., he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” (Matthew 3:16). Jesus, in submitting to John's baptism, showed the Spirit hovering on the waters again – and he was the place where it happened. In his ministry, he'd go on to describe baptism as being “born of water and the Spirit,” without which a person “cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). So naturally, when Jesus' followers read Genesis, this verse stuck out to them, that “already at that time, baptism was being foreshadowed”27 – that “the Holy Spirit... represented beforehand the grace of holy baptism” by sanctifying the first waters.28 The entire world we know began, then, as not just any waters, but as a cosmic baptism, superintended and sanctified by the Spirit's energy: “The nature of the waters, having received holiness from the Holy, itself conceived power to make holy.”29

And so, when we were “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), we returned to the very dawn of creation, to the root of the universe. We were buried in that original abyss of dark waters, the deep on which the Spirit of God stirred the prospect of order out of chaos, motion out of sterility, life out of the void. Our beginning in the life of Christ is nothing less than the birth of the universe itself. And if the Spirit's energy is what caused, as the scientists describe it, the universe to multiply its reach by a billion billion billions in the tiniest fraction of a second, then what growth in grace is the Spirit's energy not enough to supply in you, if you're as receptive as the deep? For the Spirit of God hovered over the waters where our Christian life was born. Jesus promised no less.

Out there in the world, there are lives that have fallen under the dark shadow of sin and death, draining them of vitality, bringing destruction and ruin, making them formless and void. And yet, wherever sin has introduced a moral darkness and desolation, the Spirit is circling, fluttering, having been sent into the world to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment,” like Jesus said (John 16:8). Even while darkness rules, even while unbelieving souls are yet sterile and empty, even when the world seems most graceless, the Spirit of God is already there, working undercover by brooding over each sin-soaked heart. There's hope for the darkest!

And we, too, even as Christians, even when we're living right, may meet in this life with a darkness, with the tohu and bohu, with chaos in our minds and hearts and circumstances. But there, too, the Spirit of God is circling, hovering, fluttering, nurturing, brooding. So when your mind is confused and all your thoughts and anxieties are mixed up, the Spirit of God is circling over your confusion, offering to be your order. When your heart feels like rubble and your emotions seem empty as the vacuum of space, the Spirit of God is hovering over your heart, breathing forth compassion from above. When you can't see past the cold obscurity and the gloomy grief, the Spirit of God is brooding warmth and possibility and life. When circumstances seem at their most chaotic, the Spirit of God is nurturing, gently prodding. When the apparent absence of God chokes all things in the stifling silence that shrieks louder than words, then and there is the Spirit stirring, setting plans in motion until the all-swallowing abyss is swallowed up by an even more bottomless hope. Tohu and bohu were never God's ultimate plan for the world; neither will he abandon you in fruitlessness forever (cf. Isaiah 45:18). And so, in the most desolate night when all is confusion and chaos, still even then, “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Therefore, “praise the LORD from the earth..., all deeps!” (Psalm 148:7).

So “may the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,” even when things seem perilous and pointless, fruitless and formless, vacuum and void, “so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Yes, even then, may you abound in joy and peace, in faith and hope, as the Spirit of Love hovers ever-near – for in your darkest and most desolate, no less than at your brightest and most fruitful, you will never be alone. Thanks be to God! For from him and to him and through him are all things. Amen.

Gracious God, you who created all things from the beginning, you breathed forth your Spirit on what you had made when it was still imperfect, unfinished, unready, raw, and dark.  And in what would have been hopeless and helpless, you stirred and hovered and baptized all things into love.  Your Spirit is the life of all that exists, and certainly the life of our souls.  So take not your Holy Spirit from us!  As we were baptized in the deep your Spirit sanctified, so let the same living waters now well up in our hearts to life.  When the darkness deepens, Lord, with us abide.  Abide with us in chaos and confusion, in trivial tohu and bereaving bohu.  Breathe forth your Spirit, hover over us, make us new.  Stir us beneath the surface by your love, evangelize and energize us for your holy purpose, and make us not a sterile nothingness but a fruitful new creation.  Catch and carry us along until all is very good, all is very best, in and for and from us, as we become at last, finally, fully in Christ.  Amen.

1  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 2.1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:22.

2  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 1.8 §28, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:30.

3  Bede, On Genesis 1:2, in Translated Texts for Historians 48:71.

4  Augustine of Hippo, Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis 4 §§11, 13, in Works of St. Augustine I/13:120.

5  Gregory of Nyssa, On the Six Days of Creation 10, in Fathers of the Church: Shorter Works 1:56.

6  Jeffrey Greenberg, “Geological Framework of an Evolving Creation,” in Keith B. Miller, ed., Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 127.

7  M. Mitchell Waldrop, Cosmic Origins: Science's Long Quest to Understand How Our Universe Began (Springer, 2022), 68.

8  Helmut Satz, Before Time Began: The Big Bang and the Emerging Universe (Oxford University Press, 2017), 20.

9  William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), 56-57.

10  Iain W. Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 27.

11  David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1-2: A Linguistic Investigation (JSOT Press, 1989), 155-156.

12  Roy R. Gould, Universe in Creation: A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life (Harvard University Press, 2018), 105.

13  Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation of the World 6 §32, in David T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses, Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series 1 (Brill, 2001), 53.

14  4 Ezra 6:39, in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 1:536.

15  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 1.7.3, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:25.

16  David W. Cotter, Genesis, Berit Olam (Michael Glazier, 2003), 15.

17  Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible's Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan Academic, 2022), 66.

18  Book of Nut, in The Context of Scripture 1:5.

19  Coffin Texts, spell 714, in The Context of Scripture 1:6; cf. also translation in R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (Aris & Phillips, 1973-1978), 2:270 ("I came into being yonder on the great occasion of my flood..., I am he who originated in the abyss").

20  Coffin Texts, spell 76, in The Context of Scripture 1:10; cf. also translation in R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (Aris & Phillips, 1973-1978), 1:78 ("came into being in chaos, in the abyss, in darkness, and in gloom").

21  Enuma elish I.1-10; II.2; IV.95-104, in Wilfred G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Eisenbrauns, 2013), 51, 63, 91, 93.

22  Joseph E. Coleson, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, New Beacon Bible Commentary (Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 43; cf. Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11, Christian Standard Commentary (Holman Reference, 2023), 86.

23  e.g., in the Tale of Aqhat, KTU 1.18 IV.19-22, 30-33, in Writings from the Ancient World 9:66.

24  Tremper Longman III, Genesis, Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan Academic, 2016), 34.

25  Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 7; Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11, Christian Standard Commentary (Holman Reference, 2023), 82-83.

26  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 2.6, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:31.

27  Jerome of Stridon, Homily 10, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 48:74.

28  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 1.11.3, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:41.

29  Tertullian of Carthage, On Baptism 4, in Ernest Evans, ed., Tertullian's Homily on Baptism (SPCK, 1964), 11.

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