Tomorrow’s sermon will centre around the Old Testament lectionary text, Genesis 1:1-5.
At some point in my theological studies I became so thoroughly enthralled with the opening three words of the Bible (Bereshit bara Elohim) that I wrote my (rather whopping) Th.M thesis on the history of its interpretation. So, today, the challenge of a limiting myself to 10 minute sermon on this text is more than daunting!!
Why the fascination? I had assumed I knew what the opening verse of the Bible said and meant. After all, what’s complicated about “In the beginning, God created….”? Until I sat in a class with two Rabbis, who immediately called attention to the possibilities of each Hebrew word in this three word phrase, naming not one, but five possible translations/interpretations of them, and each interpretation was undergirded by an entire school of Rabbinic, Hasidic or Kabbalistic interpretation:
- “In the beginning God created”
- “In the beginning when God was creating/when God began to create”
- (Reshit = wisdom/reverence) “God created the universe with wisdom, with reverence, with faith”
- “God created beginnings” –
- In the beginning [G-d] created Elohim /God (!) Kabbala is notoriously difficult to define in a one-line summary!
I was floored, stumped and hooked! I became committed to examining not just the Hebraic tradition of interpretation of Genesis 1:1, but also what happened when Christian interpreters got going on this opening verse. The recent decades in which American Christians have drawn battle lines over “literal” understandings of the Genesis 1 creation story is but one small chapter in a long line of debates and battles over the meaning of this seemingly simple three word phrase.
I will not bore you with the details, but merely with one observation that has stayed with me ever since, and colours everything I do with the Bible, as a pastor, preacher, scholar, disciple.
The Scriptures are ‘replete with potential meaning.’ They are written to be interpreted, mulled, parsed, debated, viewed from any number of perspectives, angles, facets, dimensions. They are written to puzzle over, not define. They explode rather than confine meaning. In such a way, to my soul, these words contain, but never constrain, the breath of God.
To come to a text, any text, open to the multiplicity of its possible meanings is an adventure of faith that will last more than one lifetime. I guess this is why I am what I am and why I do what I do.
And that’s just “the beginning.” !!