Despite what you might think, God creating Ex Nihilo (that’s a fancy Latin phrase meaning ‘out of nothing’) is not part of the creation account in Genesis 1. A close reading of the text shows there was a whole glut of stuff hanging about when God ordered creation: a formless void, darkness, wind, water. The raw material was there; it was just a chaotic mess.
We don’t know what or who created the raw material. Perhaps God did. The ancients didn’t tell us. They probably didn’t know themselves, and for whatever reason they didn’t feel the need to speculate.
What we do know is that the raw material was in a pitiful state, and that God had pity on it. God sent out the wind and it swept over the primeval waters. It was the first suitable day for kite flying the universe had ever seen–well almost, ‘days’ weren’t part of the equation yet. It was also the first time a sound was made. The Lord broke the silence of the eons with a thunderous command “Let there be light” and the moment God spoke a powerful radiant light split the darkness like a hard swung axe through crepe paper. Things were happening now. The great mover had begun to move. The cosmic pot was stirred. The forces of chaos were in a dumb shock.
God determined that the light was good and it was separated from the darkness. These were the first categories, the first ordering of things: good and not good, light and dark. Names were given: the light was called day, and the darkness was called night, and there was evening and there was morning.
We know that the Genesis 1 creation account is ‘P-source’ material–meaning that it comes to us from the priestly traditions that developed in the wake of the Babylonian exile. During this time the Persians held power in the ancient world, and the Jews returned home to Judea to rebuild their homeland and national identity. As the Jews ‘re-created’ their holy city and distinguished themselves as a people group in the ancient world they reflected theologically on God’s creation of the universe, and what distinguished God from the pantheon of gods in the ancient world. The Jews had heard the Mesopotamian creation account of their captors in Babylon. Perhaps they were aware of the Sumerian myths and the Egyptian legends. There was throughout the land common symbols and archetypal stories that were employed to fill in the very earliest prehistory. But no one had ever told the story like the Jews were about to tell it: a tale of YHWH, the Lord of all the heavenly hosts, bringing order to chaos by the mere utterance of the divine imperative, and declaring his order good.
This was important to the post-exilic priests as they looked out on the ravaged promise land. Despite what they might have liked, re-creating Ex Nihilo (out of nothing) was not an option for the holy city following the Babylonian exile. This was to be a salvage project. There was a whole glut of stuff hanging about: rubble, charred remains, trash, bones. The vestiges of past glory were strewn everywhere. The destroyers and the looters didn’t care one bit where the debris fell. Just like the dawn of ordered creation the raw material to rebuild the city of Jerusalem was there but in a big chaotic mess.
The priests, for their part, were going to act as God had acted. They were going to act ‘theologically’, they were going to order their world, and give things categories and names. They were going to separate good from bad. The new Jerusalem would be built just as the universe had been built. For this is what God does, in the moment of darkness and chaos, he calls for the light, and he brings order.
“Should we take down the Christmas decorations at the church, or leave them up?” That was the question a table full of somber looking people were wrestling with. Not one of them made a move to give an answer. They were adrift on a sea of chaos. They were staring into a formless void. Darkness was all around.
Two days prior, on the day after Christmas, their beloved friend, granddaughter, niece, cousin, sister, and daughter was traveling home from a Christmas lunch. She dropped her boy friend of over two years off at a bus station and was alone in her vehicle traveling on snowy roads that on that day, at that exact temperature, were melting and in certain shady spots refreezing.
The talk from the old-timers looking over their newspapers the next day at the local store was of the confounded young people who drive too fast in bad weather. In calmer moments of more critical reflection they likely would have remembered occasions when each of them had misjudged the roads and had a near miss that left them breathless and in a sweat.
The twenty year old that hit her did nothing wrong. There was nothing he could do. In the blink of an eye she was broadside in his lane. By the time his foot touched the brake contact was already made. She died instantly. She was 22 years old. All of the sudden there was darkness and chaos. Everything that was ordered, everything that had settled into a category, everything that had a name, it had all come unraveled.
Her brother, who is a very quiet young man, kept saying over and over again, “It will never be the same. It will never be the same.” He was at that table along with his father. His father had just done the unenviable job of digging his own daughter’s burial hole at the local cemetery. He dug the hole in the rain. When he got back he remembered that there was an expected change in the weather, and there would be a hard freeze overnight. He worried that the freshly dug dirt would get saturated with rain and then become a solid frozen clump, unable to cover the urn that held his daughter’s cremains. He returned to the burial hole with five gallon pales and filled them with the recently dug earth. He brought them back to his garage where they would stay warm until they lay over his daughter’s final resting place.
The feeling in that house was so strange. It was full of people, all walking around like zombies. Every time a new person came through the door hugs would be exchanged and a new round of weeping and wailing would ensue. All the daily routines, all the ordered habits that everyone took for granted were laid aside. Nobody knew when it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Nobody jumped up to make coffee. Nobody got ready for work. Nobody kept the laundry going. Nobody made sure the favorite TV show got recorded. None of it mattered.
These were moments of disbelief. How can you ‘re-create’ life after it is torn down and burned to the ground. You can’t start over Ex Nihilo. Their lives were now salvage projects. There was a whole glut of stuff hanging about: her pictures, her clothes, the room she slept in. The vestiges of a family’s happy past were everywhere. Just like the dawn of ordered creation the raw material was there but in a big chaotic mess.
“Should we leave the decorations up or take them down?” I needed an answer. It seemed a good question to ask. This funeral was not a festive event to be decorated with holly and ivy, blinking lights, and bright nativities. Besides Christmas was her favorite holiday, and who wanted to be reminded of that. Larry, sitting at that quiet table, broke the eons of silence with a hushed, but powerful command “Leave them up. There ain’t no way there is going to be no Christmas here…Kristie wouldn’t like that. It may take a year of two to get back in the swing of things, but we’ll have Christmas.” Larry is Kristie’s father. The decorations stayed up. Not only did they stay up, but of the four to five hundred people who attended Kristie’s funeral all but a handful, including all the burly, gruff woodsman of central Maine came dressed in pink. The word had gone out that pink was ‘in’ as the funeral color because of Kristie’s work with breast cancer awareness. I went out and bought a pink shirt and a pink tie to wear why I delivered the eulogy. Usually funerals are black–darkness, chaos, the formless void. But our funeral was pink–light, vibrant, the dawn of morning.
It’s not that easy. I think that is why when the priests told the tale of YHWH ordering creation they didn’t have God finish in one day. Jerusalem took a while to re-create. Fractured lives heal over the lifetimes. None of us can start over from scratch. We all have our salvage projects. We all stare at chaos.
The priest’s message is not that God is the cure-all, but that God acts to separate the good from the bad, and to make sure that evening is always followed by morning. This is the established order of things. You noticed that didn’t you? Morning follows evening, not the other way around, “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” It had to do with the way Jews understood the passing of days. A new day began as the sun went down. Every new day began with the world shrouded in darkness. Each new day saw God re-create the light. Every new day a pink sunrise brought forth a radiant light that split the darkness like a hard swung axe through crepe paper.
“This is our God,” said the priests to the people, “so pick up a shovel, and a pick ax, and get three strong men over on that toppled stone, and let’s clean up a few of these chaotic ruins.” You see theology matters. For who God is and what God does will determine our answers to the questions we receive in our darkest moments, “Should we leave the decorations up, or take them down?”
Genesis 1 says leave them up, and so do the priests, and so does Larry Collins. It’s not that easy. But we have a lot of days before we enter God’s rest, and no matter what our ruins look like, we have a glut of raw material.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.” This is our God.