Genesis 1:20-23 | Mark 1:29-39
And so, on the fifth day of the story, the ordered universe is ready for the emergence of animal life. There is a place for them – dry land for some, the seas for others – and there is structure; day and night, summer and winter – and there are the plants upon which they will survive.
So the time has come for things that move – for the birds that fly, and the fish that fill the seas. Fish that, of course, are the great gift of the oceans to the needs of humanity.
But at the same time, the oceans are also filled with danger. For they are still the place of chaos, feared by the people of Israel; and this fear takes concrete form in the creation of the great sea monsters.
Now if you do a bit of searching on the web you will find all sorts of theories abounding about these great sea monsters. They are, it seems, proof both for, and against, the existence of dinosaurs, they are mythical sea serpents, they are entirely real sea serpents that we have not yet discovered; they are the forebears of the loch ness monster; they are simply the great whales with really bad PR; they prove the ancient Israelites knew about giant squid; or they are dolphins with an inflated sense of self importance. OK, I made that last one up. But all the others you’ll find seriously argued online.
But as I read this passage – and others in the Old Testament which speak of the sea monsters, the leviathian, and the like – the impression I get is that of those old maps, where, written around the outside of the known and inhabited areas are the words “here be dragons”. For the oceans were the great unknown – and even the inland seas upon which the people of Israel would come to depend for fish were places of sudden danger – these were not the places of safety and order that the creation story speaks of God creating.
And in truth, even today the oceans are a vast unknown. It’s been estimated that for every species living in the ocean that we have identified, at least ten more remain undiscovered; most of the ocean floor remains unmapped and unexplored; it’s been said that reaching the depths of the ocean is harder than landing on the moon. For all our research and investigation we still know very little, for instance, about the giant squid – researchers can’t even agree if there is just one such species or many. And, of course, as we have discovered in the past months, the oceans are also vast enough to cause something as big as a passenger jet to disappear without trace, and to make the search more futile than the proverbial needle in a haystack.
But if the sea monsters are the “here be dragons” of the ocean, the fish are the gift – and, once again, the evidence of God’s provision. For on day five of the creation story God does not just create a few fish, but does it in abundance; swarms of living creatures to populate the oceans, filling the waters with an extravagant abundance of the fish upon which so much of the world will rely.
And then something new enters into the poetry of the story. We have seen a pattern of God speaking, as it were, into the whole of creation: let there be light, let there be a dome separating the waters below from the waters above, let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures; but here, for the first time, God seems to speak directly to a part of creation – “and God blessed them, saying ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas’”.
Now at the time when the people of Israel came to be a people, a nation, and began to record their creation story, in the form that would be finally written down many years later, one of the things that they were doing was expressing how their understanding of God was different to that of the nations around them. And one of the common beliefs, or practices, of the religious systems of the day was that of fertility rituals – religious rites and sacrifices designed to enhance or renew the fertility of the crops, the herds, the oceans, and, indeed, the people. The belief that it was by these practices that the earth continued to reproduce was widespread.
And it was to these beliefs that these few verses of the Genesis story specifically speak, declaring that the fruitfulness of the oceans, and (for the words will be repeated in day six) of the animals of the land, arises not from religious rites but as a gift of God. That ultimately ability of the fish to fill the seas and the birds the skies and the animals to the land, is because God blessed them. The first words spoken to the creation; words of blessing, words gifting the fish and birds with the power to do what the plants could do by virtue of their seeds: be fruitful, multiply, fill the seas and skies and earth.
And those words of blessing to the fish were, of course, words of blessing to humanity as well. For it’s not always obvious to us in Australia, or the western world as a whole, with our ready access to cattle, and sheep, and poultry; but throughout history fish have been the main source of protein for humanity – even today, around a quarter of all protein consumed by humans is in the form of fish. We might eat seafood once or twice a week, but for over a billion people fish are a central part of their diet.
Once again the theme of the creation story comes back to this: God’s generosity, and the goodness, the fruitfulness of creation; the way that each stage in the process as told in this poem of creation describes a world made right for those who will inhabit it, made, if not safe, at least liveable.
And the fish filled the seas, and the birds filled the air. Just one space remained, one stanza in the poem. Everything is now ready for the grand finale.
The sixth day.