This is the first sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Imagine you are an ancient Babylonian. You’re going about your daily business of whatever it is that ancient Babylonians did — harvesting crops, carving stones for the ziggurats. Imagine the kind of world you live in if this is your creation story?
The world was born from the freshwater god Apsu and the saltwater goddess Tiamat. From their union, other gods are born. But these god children are noisy, and their parents are not getting any sleep. This enrages the father Apsu, who decides to kill his children. But before he can carry out his plan, his children discover his plot and kill him instead. Their mother, Tiamat, is furious that her children have killed her husband, and she declares war against them. Terrified of their murderous parent, the divine children choose a young warrior god, Marduk, to lead them against Tiamat and her few loyal offspring. He agrees, but only if he can be named king of the gods if he succeeds. A bloody battle ensues, and Marduk kills Tiamat, dismembers her body and fashions the heavens from her body parts.
In a moment of whimsy, Marduk then decides to form a human being out of the blood of another god he had killed. These lowly creatures are created for one purpose only: to be slaves to the gods so that the gods may enjoy lives of leisure. (This summary of the Enuma Elish comes from Linda MacCammon’s book Liberating the Bible: A Guide for the Curious and the Perplexed.)
What kind of a world is this? (People’s response: hierarchy, violence, no empathy, cruelty, hierarchy, capitalism!, callousness, competition)
A world created through an act of primordial violence, in which all things emerge from a slaughtered mother, will be a violent, brutal world. A world in which humans were created to be slaves to beings of greater importance will be a world in which there is a merciless hierarchy and the one or the few are born to rule over others. It will be a world as battleground— a world of little mercy and no regard for human life, where what matters most is violent, coercive power.
This is the world that the exiled Israelites were forcibly brought to after the conquest of their homeland. A world where this is the creation story that tells them what this life is like. While it sounds like Babylon would be a wretched place to befit a wretched worldview, it was actually a spectacularly beautiful, luxurious city that out-rivaled the glory of Jerusalem several times over. As the Biblical scholar Wes Howard-Brooks says, “Financed by conquest and tribute, staffed by slaves and the lower classes, Babylon rose from the Mesopotamian desert in unprecedented grandeur. Its Hanging Gardens were renowned as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and its ziggurats and palaces were architectural marvels rivaled at the time only by Egypt’s pyramids.” (From Come Out, My People! God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond)
Babylon, like any empire, is a seductive place. Of course, only the elites are enjoying this luxury, but keep in mind that most of the Hebrew exiles sent Babylon were the “intelligensia” or elites of their day. The peasants were left behind. Those in Babylon weren’t toiling in labor camps, they were perfecting their craft making cups for the royal household or serving as advisors to the palace. Many of them may have even begun thinking of their new home as an opportunity. Think of the German scientists brought to the United States after World War II, who worked in the space and weapons programs here, grateful to have a stable place to land and use their skills.
So, the Hebrew people are facing the real possibility of disappearing as a distinctive people with a distinctive worldview. Death by assimilation. As we know from listening to immigrants to this country, it can be hard to hang onto your customs, your norms, your traditions, your worldview within the dominant U.S. culture. Some of our Pacific Southwest Mennonite immigrants talk with pain about seeing their children “lost” to a dominant culture that they view as individualistic and consumeristic and godless. So, how do you hold onto your values and your identity in a foreign land?
You tell a good story. You tell a story that is more true and more powerful than the dominant story. You tell a story, to quote a book title, of “the more beautiful world your heart knows is possible (Charles Eisenstein).” This is the creation story the Hebrew people fashioned during this time of exile:
(Read Genesis 1:1-2:4)
Scholars believe that the final form of the first chapters of Genesis — even though they were made up of older oral traditions — were put together in the shape that they are in during they Babylonian Exile expressly to serve as a counter-story to the dominant Babylonian story. They needed this counter-story to keep their people bound together through two generations of exile; to keep them true to the covenant with God; to keep them from succumbing to the seductive influence of power and opulence and might; to keep them from disappearing as a community through assimilation.
And it worked. The story worked. We probably wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t. Isn’t that kind of mind-blowing? 2500 years ago, some people told a story so powerful that it has formed the identity of Jews and Christians ever since.
That’s a lot of work for something as simple as a story. And yet, stories are the most powerful “technology” — or cultural tool — our species has. Scholars tell us that what sets humans apart from other species — why we came to dominate the planet in the way that we do — is because we are the only “species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers” (from Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens). Ants and other insects cooperate but instinctually not flexibly or creatively like humans do. And we cooperate flexibly in large numbers by creating a shared web of meaning. This has, evolutionarily speaking, been why religion is so important — religion comes from a word that literally means “to bind together.” And this web of meaning is created through stories — stories that we repeat, that we ritualize, that we creatively adapt as situations change. Stories organize people. Stories create worlds.
What is the world envisioned by our creation story, this story from an ancient people resisting empire and assimilation?
- This is a world that is not created through violence but through a creative act. The Hebrew word for “to speak” in this story — when God speaks the world into being — implies “not simply the physical act of pronouncing words but also the deeper sense of bringing an intention into being” (Wes Howard-Brook). God intends a world, dreams a world, imagines a world and then speaks it into being. It is a fundamentally creative act. It’s not a world created by violence nor is it a world that comes together impersonally and by chance, which is the story that science tells. It’s an intentional creative act.
- This world is good. It is not intrinsically evil or violent. It’s full of abundant, vital, growing life. It’s ordered and harmonious — it’s not chaotic. In fact, the chaos is what God’s Spirit sweeps over and rearranges into order and beauty. Anyone who has created anything — a collage, a drawing, a song, a poem, a sermon — knows that you start with some chaos, a “formless void.” And the creative act is to bring order and harmony to that chaos.
- Who is the God of this world? To use some fancy theological terms, God is both transcendent and immanent. There are two creation stories in Genesis: we heard the one from Genesis 2 in the children’s story time and then the second one in the Scripture we just heard from Genesis 1. They both show different faces of the Creator, who is both transcendent — meaning before everything else, independent of creation, powerful enough to create worlds with a word — and immanent — a deity who is right here with us, scooping up clay, artfully shaping human forms and then breathing life into them. This immanent God is a God that deeply desires relationship with us — walking with us in the garden in the cool of the evening — and that creates us to be in relationship with each other.
- Who are we in this world? We are certainly not created as slaves to the gods. We are creatures — a part of creation — not the Creator. That’s so simple but really important to remember as our story of the Bible continues. Because the one thing humans consistently get wrong is assuming that they are not creatures, that they are mini-gods and that they can ignore their creaturely limitations. But we are creatures made in the image of the Creator so, we too are powerful; we too are creative; we too are made for relationship. We are made to be in relationship with the Creator, with each other, with creation. The fact that we have dominion over creation and are told to subdue it is problematic — but the word for “dominion” here is not understand as pillaging but as stewarding, care taking. — problematic, but was understood as stewarding not pillaging. Like God, we have the ability to create and shape the environment around us. And let us also note that the story does not give us dominion over each other. There’s partnership between Adam and Eve, intimacy.
- Last, in this world there is Sabbath. There is rest. Is there any rest in that story from Babylon? How can you ever rest, ever relax, when you are caught the spiral of violence and are constantly fending off enemies made during the last round of blood letting? In this creation story, there is cooperation and order instead of competition and chaos, so there can be true rest and not relentless struggle. And this Sabbath rest is holy — the only thing in the entire creation account that God calls holy. Holy rest.
The stories we tell shape the world; they shape us. They tell us who we really are, where we really come from. They tell us what to expect from this life. So, the stories we tell ourselves matter; the stories we tell our children matter; the stories they read in the Bibles we give them matter. Because there will be those days when life feels like a battleground between good and an evil that feels so omnipresent, a ceaseless vying for power, and so we tell each other a story: “In the beginning, God created the world and it was good.” There will be those days when we feel like we are the children of a cruel God, and so we tell each other a story: “God created us in God’s image, in the image of God we were created.” There will be those days when we feel beleaguered and weary, and so we tell each other a story: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that she had done, and she rested on the seventh day.”
As we end our retreat, may we continue to taste the goodness of creation, may we touch the goodness of our own being and of relationship, may we drink deeply at the wells of holy rest. Amen.