Genesis 1:6-8 | John 1:43-51
So there came a point, about half-way through this week, when I was cursing myself for the whim – or, as I now think of it, momentary lapse of reason – that led me to pick the six days of creation as a series of six themes for the period between epiphany and lent.
And in particular, for the second day. I mean, most of the days have a pretty clear theme – light, land, animals, people – but day two? In day two what gets created?
A dome in the midst of the waters, separating the waters below from the waters above.
It even seems as if the writer of Genesis feels that day two is a bit of a let down – it’s the only day that lacks the refrain “And God looked… and God saw that it was good”. Did you notice? On day two, we don’t even have that. Even God seems a bit “yeah, whatever” about this dome.
And then the other things about day two – I actually can’t get my head around what it’s meant to look like. I mean, in the beginning the spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters, but now a dome is created to separate waters below from above. It makes, to me, about as much sense as having “days” of creation, when day and night don’t even get created until day three….
But of course, such objections are to totally miss the nature of the writing. This is not a naturalistic, mechanistic description of some historical process; this is a theological, poetic telling of the nature of creation.
And it does reflect an ancient understanding of cosmology. For the ancient Hebrew people, in common with the majority of the people of their age, the world was covered by a giant dome that supported the skies, and upon which the stars, sun and moon moved. And to understand that beyond the dome was water was just common sense – why else was the sky blue, and where else did the rain come from? To the ancient mind, Spike Milligan would have been speaking the obvious:
There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they’re ever so small
That’s why rain is thin
Now you’ll remember, from last week, that the Hebrew attitude to the waters – the chaos – was basically pretty negative. And that persists in a deep fear and distrust of the sea – in the language of Genesis “the waters below” (ever wondered why in the book of Revelation we read And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea?). But to an agrarian society, as our farmers know all too well, rain was, at least in most cases, a blessing, a good, a gift from God.
So the dome, the firmament, creates a distinction between the chaotic, dangerous, untrustworthy waters “beneath”, and the waters above, sent, at God’s command, to water the earth and bring it to life.
And of course, there is the metaphorical language of up and down which runs through not just the scriptures but pretty much any spirituality; whether Jacob’s ladder, or “who has ascended to God’s throne”, or “she’s buying a stairway to heaven”.
Not that the people of the Old Testament scriptures believed that God actually resided “up there”, but that there is a deep, consistent, almost instinctive sense that up, the skies, the heavens, is good, and down, the depths, is bad. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ‘heavens’ and ‘sky’ here are basically the same word – in English, in Hebrew, and in many other languages.
It’s as if the first day took the undifferentiated grey of chaos and produced the distinction of darkness and light; and the second day produces a different distinction; a vertical one – up, to the heavens, and down, to the depths, to hades, into death.
And here’s the thing that is really created on day two: a gap.
What God creates by separating the waters below from the waters above is a space between the two.
A space which is not the waters of chaos, but is also not the heavens above. A place which is not meaningless void and nothingness, but is also not God. No dry land yet – that’s next week – but the possibility of something else. Something created; something with order and meaning and purpose; but something that is not the creator.
Something which is not the water of chaos, but is also not God.
There is a sense in which this is actually the key mysery – the central philosophical miracle of creation: that God who was everything could create space for something that was not God.
Now we don’t believe that the sky is heaven, that below the earth is the water of chaos and above it a dome holding back the waters above.
When the book of Job has God saying “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail?” we read those words as literally as Spike Milligan’s poem.
And so we read the second day of the creation story, the creation of the sky to hold back the waters above, and we move on.
But in fact it makes a profound statement about our place in creation – that we – and by we, I mean the whole of the created order – are between.
We are not the meaningless flow of matter and energy, the souless movement of fields and particles in unfathomably complex patterns. Such a view of creation, for all the complexity that emerges, remains no more than the waters of chaos; thrown for a moment into recognisable shapes, but no more meaningful that the dragon’s head you see in the clouds or the white horses in the ocean foam. This is the creed of the hard-core athiest; it is not our faith.
And at the same time, we are not God. We are not mini-Gods, divine, infinite, eternal, unlimited creatures held back only by our own perception. We are not Jonathan Livingston Seagull. This is the creed of the gnostics, and of sentimental spirituality; it is not our faith.
We are between.
We are created; limited; made of the natural stuff of the universe; and we are cast in the image of God; shaped by the word of God; baptised by the Holy Spirit of God into lives of meaning and purpose and order.
There is a Hasidic saying that each of us should carry around two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. One piece of paper says “I am but dust and ashes”: I read this when I’m feeling proud and self-important. But when I’m feeling worthless or ashamed, I read the other piece of paper, which says: “For me the world was created.”
For these are both true; and neither. We are between. That’s why day two of creation matters – it gives us a place to be between. And perhaps it’s why God does not say it is good. For it is not unambiguously so. The space between is not a place of good, it is a space that creates the possibility of both good and evil.
That is where we live.