The Bible starts with seven words. Then the second sentence has fourteen words. Then there are seven paragraphs each describing a day in this week of seven days. The seventh of these includes three parallel seven word phrases.
None of this is an accident. In our modern day with our modern eyes it can look like an accident, but it’s a deliberately formed piece of writing that is trying to instruct us. With our modern eyes we expect a sentence to do one thing, the first sentence of the Bible is doing so many different and layered things we can scarcely count them. We need new eyes.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”
Instantly we are confronted with time: God is there in the beginning before the heavens and the earth. We are confronted with the creator: it is God who creates as an act of fiat. We see that God creates from nothing, and in a few sentences time we discover that he does it by speaking. We can read this in parallel with other creation myths that the Hebrews would have known like the Enuma Elish and note the stunning parallels and differences that show us how different Yahweh is to the gods of the Babylonians, and much more besides.
But I’d like to start somewhere else.
This seven word sentence starts with the word בְּרֵאשִׁית, which we usually translate ‘in the beginning’. Nothing wrong with that translation, but it’s worth noticing that the Hebrew idiom which means first or beginning is ‘from the head’. Which means not a lot at all in and of itself, it’s idiomatic and arguing from etymology ends you up thinking a butterfly is a sort of fairy that attends milkmaids churning.
Except, with open eyes that know the hymn of Colossians chapter 1, the idea that from the head God created the heavens and the earth is evocative, to say the least. From him and to him and through him, in fact.
The opening word of the Bible announces—to those with eyes of faith—that the world is created from Jesus, and that everything else flows from him too. It preaches the gospel, that there is a Head in God who we can follow to be saved.
That’s not really where I wanted to start, either.
These seven words,
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
announce the intention of the rest of the chapter, and the book, and teach us something of where the world is heading. The central word of the seven, untranslated in English, is the first and last letter of Hebrew alphabet. If nothing else artful, and perhaps supposed to alert us to a pattern.
We are supposed to count them, which obviously as English readers is difficult for us, and notice that there are seven of them. We know enough to know that seven, the number of completeness, is special in the Bible and start looking for more. We might find the sets I already mentioned. Or that every key word is used a multiple of seven times: God (7×5), earth/land (7×3), heavens/skies (7×3), light and day seven times on day one, light seven times on day four, “and God saw that it was good” seven times, and more.
Intriguingly God speaks ten times. Not the only time that happens in the Old Testament either, but that’s not what I want to highlight today.
We’re meant to catch the seven. We might notice that the days one, four and seven talk about time, which looks like a chiasm, one of the poetic shapes that the Biblical authors like to use. Time is carved out of chaos in day one, it is delegated to others to regulate on day four, and enjoyed on day seven.
This is a long way from the only pattern in the text—think of the way days 1-3 provide form to chaos that is then filled on days 4-6, responding to the description in 1.2 of the cosmos as ‘formless’ and ‘empty’. But, I want to focus in on this idea of time and rest.
On the seventh day God stops to rest, observing the first of what came to be known as the Sabbath. The week described to us is bent around the idea that God has ordered time, and also reads like a journey from one to seven. God has ordered time, and the human life is a journey from chaos to rest. That’s the arc of the Bible too, that’s the gospel. Time moves in a direction that culminates in stopping to rest.
Moses is trying to teach us how to read the Bible, to catch these patterns. On the fourth day the Sun and Moon are placed to be signs for the seasons—but that would be better translated as feasts. Of which the Jewish people observed seven. They are there to mark sacred time.
So, to keep the Sabbath—the very aim of creation—is to understand that you are part of a complicated pattern of time, of bringing order to chaos, and knowing that you are a creature rather than the Creator. We keep weekly the day of stopping, of not-creating, so that we learn these truths from the world around us.
Which of course means the other days are for creating.
Why tell you all of this? This has lots of application for ours lives—I’ll write some more about that next week, but more theologically the purpose of time is to reach its completion and rest, and there’s a journey to get there. That’s our story, that’s history’s story. A journey from darkness and disorder into completion, into rest.
Which, as a complete aside, is the Exodus. Have you ever noticed that? In the first week of the world we move from chaos/death through waters to rest. That’s the Exodus, that’s baptism, that’s the gospel. That’s the third time in the first chapter.
Which shouldn’t be a surprise, the Bible has a story, and it keeps telling it to you.
Photo by Gary Scott on Unsplash
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