Tonight we are diving into the first three words of Scripture: “Bereshit bara Elohim.” Gen. 1:1a. The definition of epiphany is a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience. The purpose of our deep spiritual reading into the story Genesis 1 during this Epiphany season is to prepare a place for the sudden, intuitive perception of and insight into the Ultimate Reality and Essential Meaning of all things through the simple, homely, and commonplace words of Genesis 1. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) tells us that the purpose of Scripture is not to simply provide us with information on natural phenomena, but ultimately to confer upon us the gift of becoming one with God. This oneness is approached by reading the Scriptures in a prayerful and spiritual manner where we simply ask, and seek, and knock so that these deeper spiritual truths will be given unto us. As we begin to spiritually unveil the deeper meaning of Scripture, our goal is to see who God is, who we are we, and the relationship between the two. There is no “right” answer, there is only growing closer to the Ultimate Divine Reality.
The word bara means to “create” and its root means to form or fashion. The Scriptures use this word exclusively in relation to divine creativity. (See, Exodus 34:10 (create a covenant), Ps. 51:10 (create a clean heart in me)). The word signifies that the created product is absolutely novel and unexampled, wholly dependent upon God for its coming into existence, and beyond the human capacity of replication. Only God can truly “create.” For tonight, contemplate and ruminate over what it means that God is the creator and that only God can properly be said to create.
For me, as for Job, God as Creator should humble us absolutely into understanding that God is in control. Throughout the eponymous book, Job and his companions question God. God responds by recounting the creation: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Job 38:4. As God tells of his works of creation, Job is forced to concede that “I know that you can do all things, and that nothing and no one can upset your plans.” Job 42:2. God as Creator means that God is absolutely sovereign and that his will prevails.
A God that creates, is also a God that recreates, restores, and renews. In speaking to the exiles in Babylon, God says “For behold, I create (bara) new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” Isa 65:17. God’s plan is to create anew. As we say at the Commendation, only a creator God can “Give rest to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” 1979 BCP 499
As we have looked at before, the Hebrew suffix -im can either make a word plural or make the word a superlative or majestic. “El” is the Hebrew word for “god.” For example, “elohim” is translated “gods” in 2 Kings 18:33 or Psalm 95:3. Here, however, the word is translated as “God” because of the singular verb tense of create. From a Christian perspective, we can also see “Elohim” as signifying the Trinity – a plural noun with a singular verb. The Father is the Creator, the Son is the agent of creation (Col. 1:15), and the Spirit gives life and animates creation (Ps. 104:30, Job 33:4). The plural “Elohim” is the Trinity.
Genesis seems to have little interest in who God is. Unlike other ancient mythologies, there is no history of God. Genesis 1 says very little about God except that God speaks and things come into being. In other ancient mythologies, the texts will give us whole biographies of the god or gods, but in Genesis, there is nothing. What is the origin and function of God? What is the essence of God? What is God’s motivation? The text simply does not tell us.
This reticence in the text should not be surprising. Christianity, like our Jewish and Greek predecessors, teaches that God is beyond our understanding and knowledge. In his book, Life of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) writes, “Every concept formed by the intellect in an attempt to comprehend and circumscribe the divine nature can succeed only in fashioning an idol, not in making God known.” God is not properly an object that we can somehow comprehend if we just try hard enough. God is not a “Supreme Being” that lives in Heaven like Zeus on Mt. Olympus. Rather, God is not a “being” as such that is constrained by space, location, or time. God is the source of being and the source of existence and therefore is fundamentally beyond being and beyond existence. This is why Jesus speaks in parables and analogies because our words, and our concepts, and our intellect is simply incapable of comprehending the fullness of God. God’s preceding creation demonstrates God’s fundamental difference between us and God. God is the ultimate transcendent.
Because God is beyond our conception, most Christian traditions hold that true knowledge of God comes from moving beyond knowledge and concepts. Within the Christian apophatic tradition, ultimately, God is “unknowable,” not as an absence of knowledge but as a knowledge of silence or negativity – the kind of knowledge which is possible in the silence of contemplation. Within our own Anglican tradition, this type of knowledge of God is best set forth in the 14th c. work The Cloud of Unknowing which holds that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes and surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing.” We saw this last year in our reading of Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond and will see this in the writings of Julian of Norwich in a later study. Ultimately, we only know God to the extent that God chooses to disclose himself to us through Creation, Scripture, Reason, and, most clearly, in the Incarnation. For tonight, contemplate and ruminate over Genesis’s use of Elohim and its lack of disclosure as to the nature and essence of Elohim.
BARA ELOIM –
The literal translation of the Hebrew “Bereshit bara Elohim” is “In the Beginning created God.” In Biblical Hebrew, the subject of a sentence can come before or after the verb. (In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Jewish Bible) the language is the same as in English.) For the rabbis (and for us) this can raise a few exciting areas of contemplation. The Rabbah Bereshit (the rabbinic study of Genesis), says the word order speaks to God’s humility. “A mortal mentions his name before his achievements, but for God, only after he provides for the needs of the world, does he mention his name.” (Bk. 1, Ch. 12). The Jewish Kabbalah tradition, however, takes the word order in a different direction. In the Zohar (the mystical book of Kabbalah), the teaching interprets “Elohim” as the direct object of the verb “created.” The subject of “created” is Ein Sof, signifying the God beyond our comprehension, and is unnamed in the sentence because the fullness of God is beyond all names. For the Zohar, “Elohim” is not the fullness of God, but only a name through which God chooses to disclose an aspect of himself. Ein Sof condescends to us in Elohim. Reading Genesis with “Elohim” as the direct object, and not the subject, of “bara” opens up another avenue of divine contemplation.
Modernity is characterized in the first place by annulling God as a question. . . . What then is found set in play is the question of a negation or an affirmation of God. Not God as such, but the compatibility or incompatibility of an idol called “God” within the totality of a conceptual system. . . . Theism and atheism bear equally an idol. They are a brethren born of modernity, where God is reduced to “the supreme being” and true transcendence is lost.Jean-Luc Marion.