NEW ΥEAR’S DAY 2015
This year my bible blog will use Mark’s gospel and the book of Genesis in tandem
In these blogs I’m using the translation of the Bible by John Darby (revised by me) which is fairly literal and retains many features of the original Hebrew and Greek.
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 And the earth was waste and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light. And there was light. 4 And God saw the light that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning — the first day. 6 And God said, Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it be a division between waters and waters. 7 And God made the expanse, and divided the waters that are under the expanse from the waters that are above the expanse; and it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heavens. And there was evening, and there was morning — a second day. 9 And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear. And it was so. 10 And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 And God said, Let the earth cause grass to spring up, herb producing seed, fruit-trees yielding fruit after their kind, with their seed inside them, on the earth. And it was so. 12 And the earth brought forth grass, herb producing seed after its kind, and trees yielding fruit, with their seed inside them, after their kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning — a third day.
The scholars tell us that this chapter is the work of the priests who contributed an important strand to the book of Genesis. It serves and was probably composed as, an introduction to a book which describes the reason for Israel’s existence as God’s people: God needs them to help him save the goodness of his creation. Wow!
First of all therefore, the act of God’s creation is described in the form of a week’s work (and rest).God is like a human artisan in the nature of his tasks which supply shape and order to unordered material. He is unlike the human artisan in that he uses no effort; he exercises no skill. Rather he speaks an enabling word which allows the new formation to happen. There is no mythology here; the means of creation is beyond all understanding; God allows it to happen.
The author uses the best science of his time, which had noted the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars; the regularities of day and night, weeks months and seasons; the fundamental biospheres of water and dry land; the reproduction of plants and trees by seed. There is a leap of understanding, which may be by this writer or from his stock of knowledge, that light is the first element of God’s creation. Big Bang theory would now call it energy, but in this particular the ancient theology is in tune with the latest science.
But there is also a more fundamental agreement with science. The Genesis account envisages the creative process as moving from the undifferentiated “waste and emptiness” to more and more defined bodies and living souls. In a similar way modern cosmology sees a development from undifferentiated energy, through “inflation and expansion” towards the clumps of energy which become galaxies, stars, planets and frogs. It is the differences in the original spread of energy produced by the big bang which are significant for matter and life.
In the Genesis account the rhythm of each day, each stage of creation, fits into the rhythm of the week, which is the symbol of completed creation but need not be imagined as “having been completed”. We may still be in the sixth day of creation, with the day of God’s rest still to come. More of that in the days to come. But for now we should note the author’s use of the “day”. Creation proceeds in days, that is, in orderly sequences, each of which has its own divine tasks. God does not bring the universe into exisence at the wave of a wand, but respects the materiall with which he is working and enables its development. Modern science insists on the “freedom” of matter, right down to the smallest particles whose behaviour cannot be fully predicted. The God of Genesis respects this freedom in material things and also as we shall see, in his rebellious humans.
The “day” is also significant in that is made of darkness and light, evening and morning. God incorporates some of the original chaos into his emerging order. This is a profound perception. The chaos which is also symbolised by the waters above and below the heavens, remains, threatening the stability of God’s order and spurring him to new creation, in the same way that human disobedience calls forth new inventions of God’s goodness.
And “good” is a a key word in the passage. The universe and its life begin in goodness which God fashions and approves. There is no exclusion from this judgment. “And God saw it, that is was good”. The process of the universe, with all its chaos and suffering, is said to be good. This is a challenge to the reader. How can God have the impertinence to call it good?What about the extinction of the dinosaurs or the extinctions of Auschwitz? How are these things good for goodness sake? Probably these questions are unanswerable except by the theology of the crucified Jesus but nevertheless most ordinary readers respond positively to God’s estimate of his/her handiwork. Yes, they say, it is good.
1 Beginning of the glad tidings of Jesus the anointed one, the Son of God; 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send my messenger before you, who shall prepare your way. 3 Voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 There came John baptising in the wilderness, and preaching a baptism of change of heart for release from sins. 5 And there went out to him all the district of Judaea, and all from Jerusalem, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 And John was clothed in camel’s hair, and a leather belt about his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, After me there comes one that is mightier than me, the thong of whose sandals I am not fit to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptised you with water, but he shall baptise you with Holy Spirit. 9 And it was in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptised by John at the Jordan. 10 And straightaway, coming up from the water he saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit, as a dove, descending upon him. 11 And there came a voice out of the heavens: You art my beloved Son, in you I have found my delight. 12 And immediately the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.
Darby’s translation doesn’t iron out the weird syntax and grammar of the original and preserves the energy that embodies ithe explosive urgency of Jesus’ earthly life. With a beginning like this no one should be in any doubt that the events of the story will be world -changing. And the author gives his Jewish readers a big clue right off in the word “beginning,” a reminder of the first word of the first book of the Torah, “b’reshith” which signals the start of God’s engagement with chaos.
The “glad tidings” about Jesus the anointed are that God has gone back to creating through his anointed son. The Greek word for “glad tidings” is “euangelion” which was used in the Greek tranlsation of the Hebrew Bible to translate Isaiah’s great image of a messenger shouting to Jerusalem the “glad tidings” of the exiles’ return from slavery in Babylon. When Mark uses it here he expresses the conviction of the Jesus communities that his life, death and resurrection are an act of liberation for all humanity. The antiquated langauge is appropriate because it directs the informed reader back to the prophet’s words. More modern translations say “gospel” or “good news”.
Without delay the author rushes into more words from Isaiah announcing God’s messenger. Only they’re not from Isaiah but from Malachi first and then Isaiah. In the heat of writing the author mixes the two prophets. The main point is the voice that tells the messenger to prepare a road for God just as officials prepared a ceremonial highway for an emperor. Mark describes John the Baptist as carrying out this role. John had been a famous prophet with many disciples but Mark relegates him to being a forerunner for the main act, which is Jesus.
John announces “one who is mightier” than himself and specifically denies any competition with him. This may have been directed by Mark towards people who still followed John rather than Jesus. Mark increases the contrast when he has John compare his water baptism with Jesus’ “baptism of Holy Spirit”. John’s baptism merely washes away past sins whereas Jesus’ baptism immerses people in God.
The reckless and excited narrative has wound up the reader’s expectation. A great new figure is about to stride on to the stage. And what happens? “Jesus came from Nazareth…and was baptised by John in the Jordan.” An anticlimax, surely? Superhero arrives and joins the queue of people who want a change of heart. God’s Son appears and stand shoulder to shoulder with sinners. Mark has designed this surprise, but he also gives the reader a glimpse of the inner meaning of Jesus’ baptism:
1. The dome of heaven which separates God from the earth, which pious Jews believed had been closed since the time of the last prophet Malachi is “torn open” and God’s communication with humankind is resumed.
2. The “spirit like a dove” is an mage from Genesis (as above) of God’s spirit hiovering over chaos. The God who gently says, Let there be…” is back in business through Jesus.
3. In his vision, Jesus is assured that God loves him as his dear child and delights in him. This human being, Mark tells the reader, this man from Nazareth who has quietly come to be baptised by John, is God’s partner in the re-creation of the world.
(We shall see how Mark recapitulates some of these elements in his story of Jesus’ death)
Then like God’s son Israel, Jesus is driven by the spirit (notice the verb in the present historic tense-“The spirit drives..” indicating urgency) into the desert, the place of testing before the battle for the promsed land. Jesus’ battle with Satan, the power of chaos and death, will continue throughout his ministry.
These are great scriptures for the first day of the year. They direct me to the God who has never ceased creating, in whom I Ilive and move and have my being. The world to which I awake with its dull skies and drizzling rain is God’s world, and it is good. The person I am is also God’s creation and is good. God knows there are a million ways in which I have gone wrong and can go wrong again, but God has made provision for this. At the beginning of the year I can follow the footsteps of Jesus God’s son, down to the the riverside where multitudes of my brothers and sisters are seeking a change of heart, and when I join them in humility, I will hear again the re-creating word, “You are my beloved son, my delight.” Then maybe I’m ready to do battle with Satan.