'Let there be light': How to read Genesis 1

The Gulf of Mexico seen from the International Space Station.Reuters

The first chapters of the book of Genesis are all too often made into a theological battleground. Some people see them as childish survivors of a pre-scientific worldview. Others want to assert them as absolute historic fact: this is how the world was made, and that's that; if you don't believe that, you don't believe the Bible.

But I want to suggest that each of these approaches misses the truths contained in these stories. There's a third way, and that's to ask what God is saying to us through them today. We know far more about the physical universe than the early Hebrews did, but God will always speak through His word. So here's what He might be saying to us in the first 10 verses.

The Bible begins with a picture of chaos; a nothingness waiting to become something. For the Hebrews, the sea was sometimes used as a picture of the chaos that was opposed to God's order. So we might imagine a sort of surging sea, without waves or water, but there is nothing that language can do to help us much.

The creation begins with God saying, "Let there be light": the theological equivalent of the Big Bang. Again, we can imagine this as we like, but it is a dramatic moment. In Haydn's oratorio The Creation (1798), the moment is captured with a choir singing softly, "And there was..." and then exploding with the word "LIGHT", with a great fanfare and crashing chords from the orchestra.

There is a New Testament reference to this verse which has awe-inspiring implications. Paul says, "God, who said 'Let light shine out of darkness', has made his light shine in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:6).

In other words, the glory of the birth of a universe, in which God brought order into a chaotic nothingness, is matched and mirrored in our own re-birth. Job 38:7 pictures the angels shouting for joy at the creation; Jesus tells of the joy in heaven over the one sinner who repents. We should not take the miracle of conversion lightly.

Verses 6-10 of Genesis 1 speak of the formation of the land and sea. The groundwork is done on which an inhabited world will be built.

The Hebrews had no concept of space. For them, the world was carved out of a watery chaos. God makes an 'expanse' to separate earth from water; it is a dome over the world, and without it we would be engulfed.

It isn't water on the other side of the sky, but space – we've been there. But there is a profound truth in the Genesis story. This is a 'Goldilocks' world: not too hot or cold, with gravity not too great, and an atmosphere hospitable to life. In a universe with billions of stars, it may be the only one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, 'If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare.'

Perhaps: but we would more probably be terrified.

Isaac Asimov, the science fiction author, wrote a story called Nightfall, about a world in a solar system with six suns. Its inhabitants have never seen the stars, so have no reason to believe they exist. Once every few thousand years, all its suns are eclipsed at once, revealing that Lagash is in the heart of a mighty cluster. Traumatised by the knowledge of their insignificance in the universe, they become insane.

But the biblical writers, more aware perhaps even than we of the fragility and sheer unlikeliness of life on earth, are not moved to fear or despair, but to praise: "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:9). God has created, and God sustains the world. It exists because He wills it, and so do we.

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