In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible. Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying. This was the introductory sermon, preached on June 7, 2015.
Water – it covers 71% of the earth’s surface. Our own Lake Erie covers almost 10,000 square miles. Water is the major component of most of our body parts and, depending upon your age, makes up 55-75% of your body.
Water really is everywhere, including in the Book of Genesis and in the Bible as a whole. Think about it for a minute: The waters of the deep at the time of creation. The flood. Water in the desert. The Red Sea. The Jordan River. The sea along which Jesus walks. The woman at the well. The storm at sea which Jesus calms. Jesus walking on water.
In Bible Study this summer, we’re embarking upon a study named “Come to the Waters,” a study which moves through the entire Bible by using water as a theme. On Thursdays – noon and 6:00 pm, by the way – we’ll be taking a detailed look at some of the significant water passages in the Bible. And on Sundays I’ll be preaching about those same passages.
Today, we begin at the beginning – with the Book of Genesis and God’s creation – in which water is a major feature. And I want to share with you something which I read this week which has really got me thinking and has really appealed to me. It has to do with the idea that God created a dome in the waters, and that the dome separated the waters from the waters.
Let’s set the stage:
Genesis opens with these words: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void [– a sort empty chaos –] and water covered the face of the deep.” Water was already there. God’s first raw material was water. And God’s Spirit was there as well – in fact, God was working through God’s Spirit. That very first sentence continues with the words, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In Hebrew, the language in which Genesis was first written, the word ruach is the word for both wind and spirit. That same Spirit that we’ve been talking about, the same Spirit who descended at Pentecost and enlivened Jesus’ disciples to carry the good news into the world – that same Spirit is present at the very beginning, moving over the face of the waters.
And then what happens? God begins to create and to separate things, starting with the light and the darkness. God begins to establish a universe and to create order in the universe.
The second thing on which God gets to work is the water, and the separation of water from land. Let’s listen again to the words which describe – which sing, really — the second and the beginning of the third day of creation:
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together God called Seas. And God saw that it was good,
A little confusing, yes? What is this dome that Genesis is talking about? Well, I have a picture for you: [Slide of drawing].
This is a drawing, a contemporary drawing, of what the ancient peoples, the people who told the stories of Genesis, though the universe looked like. See that dome? Their stories told them that God created this dome to separate waters above the dome – from whence rain and snow come – from waters under, or inside, the dome, where we live, and where there are lakes and rivers and ponds. And, as you can see, the sun and the moon and the stars are also inside the dome, as is the earth, and the ocean is kind of at the edge of the dome, butting up against the mountains of the earth.
Now, why is this idea of a dome so important? Why a dome to separate the waters above and the waters below?
It helps to know, I think, what the waters of the earth meant to the ancient people of the Bible.
Water, to them, was meant chaos. Water was deep, and dark, and filled with strange creatures. Water was a scary place, a place of turmoil and trouble. The ancient Hebrews were not a seafaring people – they were a nomadic people, a people of herds and flocks and, later, a people of agriculture and small towns. Other than as fishermen, they did not seek to encounter the water. In the oldest stories of the Bible, the story in which water plays a major role is the story of the flood – of chaos returning to the earth, wild and destructive chaos.
In the beginning, however, when God is seeking to bring order to chaos, God does so by creating and separating one thing from another – light and darkness, waters from above and waters from below, water and land – and then God creates very distinct creatures. Creatures that swim and creatures that fly and creatures that walk upon the land – and creatures who think, and talk.
If we think, as we so often do of the God of creation as a God who create order, and logic, and systems, as a God who separates and organizes, then that dome which God created makes sense – as a sort of dividing line, holding back the waters of chaos from the waters of calm.
But is that how life works?
Don’t we, in reality, experience a lot of chaos in our lives? Both wonderful chaos and terrible chaos? The wonderful chaos of falling in love, or of welcoming a new baby into a previously calm and orderly household? The terrible chaos of a crisis or a natural disaster?
Chaos is part of our lives. We have not been separated and secured under a dome, and thus protected from chaos.
So what does all this mean? Does the story of creation in Genesis, a story told not as a scientific textbook explanation of creation, but a story told in poetry and metaphor to explain who God is, who we are, and what we are doing here – does it really tell only of a fantasy world in which everything is perfect and trouble ever comes?
Or does it say something to us, we who so often live with chaos?
Here’s what I found this week that was so interesting to me:
That dome which God creates? The Hebrew word for dome is rakia. Rakia can be translated as dome, and also as vault, or firmament. Those all sound pretty firm, don’t they? Solid. Impermeable. If God is ordering the universe as we might hope, it makes sense that God would use a solid dome to divide the outside waters of chaos from the inside waters we need, the waters found in lakes and rivers.
But there’s another possible translation for rakia: Expanse. And as Karla Suomala, to whom I am much indebted for this line of thought, reminds us, expanse “is far more vague and may imply a less solid and more porous boundary between the earth and the watery chaos beyond” than words like dome, or vault.
Maybe the barrier between what we see as chaos and what we see as order is no so firm, not so definitive, as we’d like to think. Maybe God is thoroughly engaged with both. Maybe God calls us to be thoroughly engaged with both. Maybe God calls us to dive deep into the waters of chaos in our lives, and into the waters of chaos of all creation – not to separate or isolate ourselves from what strikes us as chaotically difficult.
Let’s listen to Karla Suomala:
. . . I’ve begun to realize that chaos, confusion, and emptiness are much closer than I would like. Much of my energy is aimed at setting up barriers (artificial, certainly) to keep my loved ones and me safe. Maybe it works some of the time. Other times it doesn’t. As a child of God, though, is this what I am called to do? Fight chaos with every fiber of my being?. . . [What] if we were to begin to think of life and chaos in a more symbiotic relationship, part of the same fabric of creation?
What if the rakia creates a porous space in the midst of chaos in which humans live in relationship with what they cannot control, what is uncontrollable, as opposed to constantly fighting against it?
What if we are called to understand the stories of creation in a new way? To remember that God creates out of watery chaos and presides over all sorts of chaos? That God’s Spirit sweeps over the waters of chaos, broods over the waters of chaos, and stirs up the waters of chaos to create new life?
We are so oriented toward order, so determined to impose control over our lives, so fearful of the tumult and turmoil of life – that we forget that the wind of the Spirit overshadows what we see as chaos and creates anew from what we understand to be the stormy waters of life. And – that the Spirit invites us to join her in stirring things up to create new hopes, new dreams, new worlds.
This is the good news, my friends: That God is in all things, creating from all things — and that we are called to open our hearts and minds to all of God’s good creation, knowing that even in chaos, perhaps even especially, in chaos, God’s love pours out and gives birth to new life. Amen.
Image: St. Augustine Beach, Florida