Sermon given at Evensong on Sunday 3rd February 2013

3 February 2013 at 15:00 pm

The Reverend Peter McGeary, Priest Vicar

This weekend marks a turning point in the Church’s year, when Christians stop looking back to the birth of Christ and what that means, and look forward to the holy season of Lent, and on to the recollection of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection at Holy Week and Easter in just under two months’ time.

So we are at the beginning of something, which is why, wonderful though it is, I intend to ignore our second lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel today, and concentrate instead on the first words of the first book of the Bible: words from the first lesson, from the Book of Genesis. If we begin at the beginning, then the very first words that we read in our Bibles are these: 'bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'aretz.' And as everybody knows, in most English translation this means 'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth'. Simple.

But is it? Those of you who know your Hebrew will know that there are no vowels in the alphabet, and that it is possible, when confronted by a word consisting only of Hebrew consonants, to render more than one meaning. The same shapes can be taken to mean different things, and a particular meaning can only be inferred from the word's context in a sentence - or else from the vowels, which are signified by a series of accents placed above or below the letters. Originally, these accents did not exist in the text of the Hebrew Bible, and it was only comparatively recently that they were added, thus producing the traditional reading that we, in common with the greater proportion of Jewish and Christian opinion, now accept as the standard meaning: 'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...' Thus it is in the AV and RSV translations of the Bible that have held sway in this country until comparatively recently.

But if we were to disregard the vowels, and engage the unaccented text, we might find ourselves confronted with a quite different translation: this is the one used in the NRSV (currently the preferred translation in the worship of the Church of England): 'In the beginning when God made heaven and earth, the earth was a formless void...'

Now it is true that each version of the Bible offers us a footnote, pointing out the ambiguity of the Hebrew and the possibility of the alternate version. But is that enough? Will it do just to leave it at that? The two translations are not just alternative ways of translating a particular phrase; they seem to be alternative accounts of the way things began. In the one version, God is the origin of all things. But in the other, the possibility seems to be floated that there was some kind of primal chaos, something 'without form and void', that was there already, out of which God created life and order.

The ‘traditional’ version, if one can call it that, is the one adopted by most scholars as the 'proper' version, and this is not surprising. One of the central beliefs of Christianity is the doctrine of creation 'ex nihilo'; the belief that God created all that is out of nothing.

But the alternative translation nags at us; it will not go away. And it will not do to pretend that it is saying the same thing really, because it is not! There is the merest hint in it that there may have been something there before God, something rendered by the virtually untranslatable words tohu and bohu in the text, some state of disorder and confusion. Into which state comes God and his creative activity. Which version is right?

If some recent literary criticism of the Bible is to be believed, we are bound here to come up with the wrong answer, because we are asking the wrong questions; indeed our very translations are misleading. We are, it is argued, still asking the Hebrew text to yield us answers that it was never intended to give: answers to do with meaning. From this perspective, the primary function of a passage like the opening verses of Genesis is not to communicate meaning - although meaning may incidentally be hidden in the text - but rather rhythm. One recent literal translation renders the Hebrew thus:

'At the beginning of created
God the heaven and the earth
and the earth was tohu and bohu
and darkness on face of deep
and the wind of God hovering over the face of waters
and God said let there be light
and there was light.'

The first thing that we notice about this is the rather baffling nature of the sense; we still don't know what it 'means'! But secondly we notice that the precise meaning of this word or that is not what is important, but rather the rhythm established by the constant repetition of the word 'and': a rhythm only partly reproducible in translation, a rhythm that carries us on to the end of the chapter and beyond...

Perhaps then we need to see the text of Genesis 1, indeed much of the Bible, not so much as a repository of meaning but as a generator of rhythm. That is to say, we need to approach the Bible not so much as a textbook of doctrinal propositions or moral exhortation, but as a story to be told - and most importantly of all, a story to be told over and over again in conjunction with the story of our own lives, that each may resonate with the other, enriching and illuminating as they do so.

Thus understood, we might begin to see creation as a dynamic thing: as a process rather than an event. Of course we can say that God made all that is out of nothing, and that we owe our being to him and him alone. But to leave things there would be to ignore the richness both of the biblical text, a text that would seem to require the services of the musicologist or the poet as well as the theologian, and also of our own experience. Allowing the two to interact is a risky business - textbooks are nearly always less volatile than relationships - but it is very creative!

Perhaps, then, we need to see the Bible as being more akin to a musical score than a mechanic’s handbook. And so we might then deliver it (and ourselves) from the fundamentalisms and the lack of imagination that can paralyse so much religious discourse.

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