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Rowing With Michael

Verse 1: Creation

A mighty wind on the waters blew. Alleluia.

Soon a whole world stood shiny and new. Alleluia.

Planets and stars in the heavenly spheres, alleluia.

Mark the seasons, days, and years. Alleluia.

Which did God create first—light or the sun and stars?

On the first day God created light and separated it from the darkness. (Think of it as temporal separation—alternating times of dark and light.) But God didn’t create the sun, moon and stars until the fourth day. Whatever astrological theories about stars and planets, their attendant gods, and their influences on life down here may have been current in Israel and her neighbors, the Bible does not condemn them as religiously or scientifically false. Only, don’t give these cosmic gods the time of day. Look, they’re only fourth in the order of things God made.

As for that particular bit of Biblical science, it’s completely impossible, of course. It doesn’t even help to reinterpret the days as ages. But Israelite “scientists” would have been quite comfortable with the story as it stands. You can understand why if you think about it. What do we see first every day? Not the sun but light. The Israelites’ idea about the sun is that it “rules the day.” That’s not the same as making it. The moon and stars “rule the night,” and they don't make that either.

This creation story pulls the heavenly bodies down from the exalted status they have in other religious systems. It wasn’t because those gods weren’t real. It’s not clear just when the Jews became true monotheists. What is clear is that worshiping a sun god or a moon god didn’t fit with an important insight that the Jews gave us: something new is possible in the history of this world. All the heavenly bodies follow unchanging circular patterns in the sky. To worship these beings, that is, to put them in control, is make yourself a slave not so much to gods as to ever-repeating patterns on earth.

The Israelites' God was not bound to any cycles of nature or the cosmos, and that was a freeing belief. The Israelites were ordered not to worship any God but Yahweh. They were commanded to be free. Why did the Israelites so often fall back into worshiping those other gods? I think it’s because it was hard to get used to living without the comfort that comes from repeating patterns and the freedom from care that control by cosmic forces can provide.

That’s probably a universal temptation. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Cassius has to buck up his fellow conspirator: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” St. Paul knows that these false gods tempted the early Christians. He assures them:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 38-39)

A footnote in the New American Bible explains, “Height, depth may refer to positions in the zodiac, positions of heavenly bodies relative to the horizon. In astrological documents the term for "height" means "exaltation" or the position of greatest influence exerted by a planet.”

The negative “Thou shalt not” that forbade worship of other gods was a step toward freedom for the Jews and for us. But they took a positive step in that direction, too. They gave themselves one day of rest in every seven. “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath Day.” This was probably a Jewish  observance before the story of the seven days of creation was composed. That story, with God resting on the seventh day, provided a sort of divine justification for the Sabbath.

Six days to work and one to wind down. Alleluia.
Should have been the other way around. Alleluia.   

Before Israel was a nation, the Egyptians had a fling with something like monotheism. Pharaoh Akhenaton proposed the Sun God as the creator of the universe and all the other gods. But Egypt never accomplished the religious freedom in relation to life's necessities that Israel did.

The Israelites may have been lucky in that they came from a people who worshiped the moon. The moon’s cycle divides neatly into four weeks of seven days. That number seven has very little to do with the business of life in an agricultural community. For practical purposes it’s the seasons that matter much more than the weeks. If farmers worship the sun, their religion is directly tied to their work; but not so, or not so much, if they worship the moon.

Abraham’s descendants, who no longer worshiped the moon, took the next huge step. Religion had always been support for the patterns that make a society’s existence possible. For the Jews religion became something more. There’s more to life than survival. The weekly Sabbath wasn’t just a break in the routine so you could return to work refreshed the next day. It was a “holy” day. Every week it forced the Jews to remember “something more,” whatever that is. Twenty-first century America, a society that has nearly lost the Sabbath, may be losing more than that.

On to Adam and Eve

 

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