This second Bible Study on the book of Genesis begins with some brief review and some words on St. Basil the Great as the Church's pre-eminent interpreter of the days of Creation, and a discussion of the question "Why did Moses write Genesis?" From there we discuss the first day of Creation, when God created the heavens and the earth.
Why did God create the earth? What does it mean to say that God created "in the beginning?" Why was the earth void and invisible? What is the light of the first day? What spiritual lessons can we take from the Creation of the world? These and many more questions are herein discussed.
Below we present both the audio and the text of the Bible Study:
What do you remember from last class?
Student: We spent some time discussing time, and the question of whether the Scriptures are literal or allegorical.
And what did we say?
Student: Both are acceptable.
Student: You also told us about Fr. Seraphim and his book on Genesis which you recommended.
Fr. Seraphim Rose has a book Genesis, Creation and Early Man which is completely based on what the Church Fathers taught about Genesis, which he looks at in light of Creation and evolution. He lived in the 70s and 80s, and just as today it was a very controversial topic then. One of his spiritual children was a school teacher and so he was involved because of what he had to teach, so Fr. Seraphim spent years investigating this issue.
As Dimitrii said, we talked about layers of meaning and interpretation of Scripture—literal or figurative? And as he said, we concluded that it’s both. You don’t have to say that it’s only literal or only symbolic. The Church Fathers didn’t read Genesis this way. They accepted it as the history of the world, but as saints they also saw deeper levels to the Scriptures. We gave the example of St. Macarius the Great who says that when Adam and Eve sinned and God cast them out of the Garden and placed a cherubim with a flaming sword at the gate, that was literal. At that time there really was an angel standing there with a sword, but it also reveals that every person in his heart has lost paradise. We should have God within our hearts but we’ve been kicked out of Paradise, and Baptism is our way back in.
Another example is the four rivers flowing out of Paradise. The Fathers say there were four rivers, but they also love to find significance in numbers, so the four rivers are a foreshadowing that we would have four Gospels. Water is a symbol of grace and the Gospels give us the living word of God. These rivers flowing from Paradise are like the Gospels flowing from Christ. But there really were four rivers.
In praise of St. Basil the Great
 He had Divine thoughts—he tapped into the mind of God. St. Gregory the Theologian, the Patriarch of Constantinople and a personal friend of St. Basil, preached about him at his funeral, and this is what he said:
I will only say this of him. Whenever I handle his Hexaemeron, and take its words on my lips, I am brought into the presence of the Creator, and understand the words of creation, and admire the Creator more than before, using my teacher as my only means of sight.
When he reads the words of St. Basil he senses the presence of God. Because these words of St. Basil are Divine he is brought into the Divine presence. Many saints have spoken about how great St. Basil is, but I’ll read one more to you: his own brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, who also wrote a commentary on the days of creation. He says:
Before I begin, let me testify that there is nothing contradictory in what the saintly Basil wrote about the creation of the world since no further explanation is needed. They should suffice and alone take second place to the divinely inspired Testament.
St. Basil’s brother says that we have the actual Scriptures of Moses and in the second place is the work of St. Basil, so the best thing that you can read on the days of creation is the work of St. Basil, which is completely in harmony with the Scriptures themselves.
St. Ambrose of Milan also has a Hexaemeron which is based on St. Basil, although expanded.
We also talked about why we study the book of Genesis and we said it’s good to know where you came from because it tells you where you’re going and how you should behave and live. When we see that God created man specifically with His own hands, breathed His Spirit into him, placed him into Paradise, we see that man is called to something much higher. We’re certainly not living in Paradise now.
Why did Moses write Genesis?
A couple of Fathers say that Moses wrote the book of Genesis because in the early days of mankind with Adam and Eve and their descendants until the time that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob went down into Egypt and were enslaved there, God spoke to man as He spoke to Moses—as a friend. God comes to Adam after He sins and says “Where are you, Adam?” and He talks to him as a friend, as He later speaks to Moses. St. Ephraim says that the reason Moses has written Genesis is because God is no longer speaking to people that way. God hasn’t changed, but people have changed. As we grow farther from God we can’t hear from God that way, although there are still people like Moses who could. By the time of their wanderings in the desert the people have forgotten God and they’ve forgotten the traditions. All people used to know the creation story as passed down from Adam and Eve. Worshipping God, calling upon His name, offering sacrifice, and so on were all forgotten. As we see, paganism arose and people were worshiping idols—the heavenly bodies and animals. They’d begun to worship creations as the Creator. God sees this and gives to Moses the book of Genesis to fix this. St. John Chrysostom says the same thing.
The structure of Genesis
As per the structure of Genesis, first there is the prologue about creation with the first day, second day, and so on. After that the book is divided into ten sections called toledoths. Each section begins with “And this is the generation of …” such as the generations of the heaven and earth or the generations of Abraham. The words “these are the generations” in Hebrew is wa eleh toledoth, and thus each section is called a toledoth. The first five sections are the history of the ancient world, and the second five, Gen. 12-50, are the foundations of the history of Israel with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. First it’s the history of everyone and then it gets focused down onto God’s chosen people.
Let’s read about the first day of creation in Genesis:
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon 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 the evening and the morning were the first day.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth: What does this mean?
Student: It means the beginning of time. It’s the first act of creation. It’s a specific moment.
So you’re saying time itself is a creation?
You’re definitely right. Time is a creation with a beginning point. It’s not eternal, which is different from paganism and philosophy where they said time is eternal and that something always existed with God. Here we just see that in the beginning God created everything.
Student: It’s strange that it’s not mentioned in Genesis that time is created. It’s evident that He created it, but it’s not stated.
We talked about how in some of the pagan mythologies the creation stories give a history of the gods and the history of how the world came about, with gods battling one another and using pre-existing matter to create, but here none of that is happening. The text just immediately says that God created. You’re right, it’s not explicitly stated, but because it’s so different from what other peoples believed it would probably compel them to think about all the ways in which it was different, I would think. The Bible isn’t necessarily giving us an interpretation of itself, but the meaning is there, and the Fathers later do explicitly state it for us.
Student: Time itself doesn’t exist without an act of creation.
—Definitely. As we said, time is a measurement of change and that begins with Creation. Created things change. They do not have life in and of themselves. I get sick and old and I die. I change. That’s different from God. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He does not change because He’s not created.
Student: But God Himself doesn’t need time?
He doesn’t need time. He has no need of anything. But He wanted to create man, and creation and time have to go hand-in-hand, because anything that is not God will necessarily be of a mutable nature, capable of changing.
In the beginning God created, and that says about God that He exists in a state of timelessness, which we can’t comprehend. We think in past, present, and future but these don’t exist for God. God sees all of it at one moment. There’s just now for God. We see this when He reveals Himself to Moses. Moses asks who he should say sent him and God answers that He is the Existing One, or I Am Who I Am. He doesn’t say, “I’m the One Who always has been and always will be,” but rather simply I Am. He’s always in the present, but even “present” is not correct because even “present” is about time. It’s enough for us to realize that God is totally different. Other theories have created gods that change, that get drunk and impregnate women and behave like men. This God is totally different and can’t be comprehended like that. Of course there’s some sense of understanding. God is good and we have some sense of what goodness is. God is love and we have some sense of what love is, but we’re also being shown that He is completely different.
The Fathers also ask what or Who is the beginning? In the book of Revelation it says that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. So the Fathers say that In the beginning also means in Christ, because Christ is the Beginning. This has obvious parallels to the Gospel of John, where the prologue is clearly based on the prologue of Genesis, in which it says that nothing was created without the Word. In our icons of creation we show Christ creating. In the beginning the Fathers are already seeing Christ. The Jews don’t have a Trinity, but the Fathers see the Persons of the Trinity in the Old Testament although it’s not until the New Testament that the Trinity is manifest.
Everything that exists has a pre-existing idea in the mind of God. These are the logoi or rationalities. Christ is the Logos—Word or Reason, Who ties the whole universe together. Because everything, as the Fathers say, was created in Him, it leads us to the idea that these ideas were always in the mind of God. St. Gregory the Theologian says: “The Reason,” that is the Logos—Christ Himself, “begat all things within Itself,”—In the beginning means in Christ, “and the outward begetting subsequently took place in a timely manner, when it revealed the great Word.” St. Maximus says these many logoi, or many definitions of everything, make up the one Logos. The logoi are actually energies of God, so they themselves are Divine. The idea of everything is Divine, but the actual manifestation of everything is not. Creations are not Divine. But the ideas of everything have always been in the mind of God, so everything is created in Christ.
Student: Does it mean that the ideas existed in God the Father and He transferred them to God the Son and God the Son made everything?
I wouldn’t say the ideas are transferred from the Father to the Son. They share one will. There’s nothing that the Father knows that the Son doesn’t know. He didn’t need to pass on the knowledge because He always had it. The logoi are energies of God. St. Gregory Palamas especially taught this. The essence of God is what makes Him what He is, and we’ll never know that. But we also know God and so we have the theology of the energies of God—His grace, mercy, and love are how He relates to creation and are on the level of the energies of God, and so have always been shared between all three Persons.
To emphasize the Patristic idea that it’s not historical vs. allegory, in speaking of this first verse the Venerable Bede, a seventh century English saint, says that it’s alright to talk about these deeper meanings, but he warns: “But it must be carefully observed, as each one devotes his attention to the allegorical senses, how far he may have forsaken the manifest truth of history by allegorical interpretation.” So be careful and pay attention to what you’re doing, and don’t forget that this is also history. And what Father doesn’t say that?
Scripture tells us that God simply creates, and it’s instantaneous. When there’s a movement of His will, it is manifested immediately.
Student: A glimpse of a moment.
Even less than a glimpse of a moment! The movement of His will and the manifestation of it are completely together, with no difference in time. It doesn’t say “In the beginning God thought it’d be cool to have an earth so He created some stuff that swirled around and eventually over billions of years formed together into an earth.” It just says He created the heavens and the earth and there it was. There was no delay. Certain Fathers specifically say this, which tells us that such ideas of a much older earth and universe existed in their times, and they already rejected them because it wasn’t harmonious with Scripture. St. Ambrose specifically says that Moses is not talking about atoms coming together in formation slowly over time. It’s instantaneous. That’s a very important thing to keep in mind. God acts six different times and every day it’s instantaneous, and many Fathers says this. As I said last time, when God created plants He didn’t put a seed into the ground that eventually became a tree, but He just created trees. God is creating a mature planet as a kingdom for man.
As Bede says, don’t forget about the history.
Some Fathers say the angels were already created before the beginning, which therefore means the material beginning, or some say the heavens on day one means the realm of the angels. It’s hard to say exactly when but we know at least they existed by the time of the Fall of man because there was a fallen angel in the Garden who tempted Adam and Eve. The Venerable Bede says the heaven of the first day is the realm of angels, so then day one is the beginning of time and angelic time, which as we said last time, can be called “eternity.”
Why God created the world
Why did God create this physical world? We’ve already said He didn’t need to, so why did He?
Student: I think He wanted to share His love and happiness with us, so it was necessary to create the world.
You’re exactly right. That’s precisely what St. John of Damascus says in his The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. He says:
Since, then, God, Who is good and more than good, did not find satisfaction in self-contemplation, but in His exceeding goodness wished certain things to come into existence which would enjoy His benefits and share in His goodness, He brought all things out of nothing into being and created them, both what is invisible and what is visible. Yea, even man, who is a compound of the visible and the invisible.
God simply wanted to share Himself with us. He created things that could start to experience the life that God experiences—not to the fullest extent, but He wants us to experience it. St. Basil also says that first was the angelic world but then it was necessary to add this material world as a school and training place for souls of men to be taught. God wants to experience His love and Himself and He gives us this world in which we can do that. It’s our creation as physical beings that lets us change and move towards God.
Although the Trinity is not explicitly stated in the Old Testament, there are hints of it. In Hebrew the word for God here is “Elohim,” which some say has some sense of being plural. The verb is singular, but “Elohim” can be plural. The singular form is simply “El,” but here we have “Elohim,” so the Fathers are already seeing the Trinity here. Some say this is not true because the plural can just be used to mean the superlative—the most or best. I read that sometimes even Moses can be called in this way. In the book of Job this term is used when speaking of man standing before God and realizing how great God is, so there it’s the greatness of God, so it’s both superlative and plural. “Elohim” comes from the root word “Eloahk” which is a superlative, so it’s the superlative of a superlative. This is debated, but we know in light of Christ that God is plural in the sense that there are three Persons.
The Omnipotence of God
Moses tells us that God single-handedly created the world, without any pre-existing matter, which is the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo,” as we said last time. He spoke and there it was, and St. Basil says of God as Creator: “It is He, beneficent Nature, Goodness without measure, a worthy object of love for all beings endowed with reason, the beauty the most to be desired, the origin of all that exists, the source of life, intellectual light, impenetrable wisdom, it is He who ‘in the beginning created heaven and earth.’” God should be the object of man’s desire in that He is the supreme example of all these things that man desires. St. Basil is standing in awe of God in this reflection.
The doctrine of “creation ex nihilo” is first specifically stated in the book of 2 Maccabees. It emphasizes for us how completely different is God. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth—we see here no sense that there was a struggle for God. Genesis is specifically not mythological. A lot of more liberal scholars who don’t want to read Genesis as being historical, or maybe they don’t think it’s a very serious book, will say it’s very similar to mythology, but actually Moses is specifically de-mythologizing creation. There are elements that seem mythological but we are seeing that the true God of Moses, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and our God is reigning supreme over these other gods, because they’re actually not even gods but they’re demons who are fooling the people. Creation out of nothing is showing us that God is All-Powerful. There’s nothing He can’t do, whereas the gods of the nations always had their weaknesses, and could even be tempted into sin. They were weak creations, but God can do anything.
This is the entire story of the Bible. God Himself is humble and gives Himself completely to us in His love, even to the Cross. God is humble, so what does that mean for us?
Student: God is our example.
Right. God is humble so we should be humble, and you can read the Scriptures as being entirely this story—God can do anything, and without Him we can do nothing. If God can create out of nothing He is infinitely greater than us. We can invent new things, such as cars and printing books, but we always use materials that already existed. The Scriptures are immediately showing us this huge chasm between us and God. He is Uncreated and we are created. This is the fundamental distinction in Orthodoxy. Sometimes in the West they focus more on physical vs. spiritual—emphasizing the distinction between body and soul, but Orthodoxy emphasizes the distinction between created and Uncreated—God and everything else. Even when man is given Paradise and an existence full of virtue and a relationship with God he’s not able to maintain it. He could have, but he was tempted and fell. Even when we have that much we fall—we have Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, and Communion and we still fall. The Scriptures are the story of God coming to save us.
It’s essential for us to find in every verse and in every moment of life ways to become humble. We hear these verses all the time and it’s so easy to read one verse and pass onto the next, but if we can stop and think about what it’s really saying about God and ourselves in comparison to God, it will help us to find our humility which is an essential beginning point to the spiritual life. Fr. Seraphim says that the beginning point of the spiritual life is to see yourself as worse than all other men—this is necessary to have a spiritual life. St. Paul says I am the chief of all sinners, and we pray this every time before Communion when the priest brings the chalice out. Our task is to actually believe it—that we are the chief of all sinners. I should think that I’m worse than you, but that’s hard. We love our pride and it’s not easy to let it go. Repentance is the renewing of our minds, and we need to train ourselves through our repentance and the Sacraments and the life in the Church to see in everything how I can be led into humility. Every verse in the Scriptures probably could be read in a way to increase your humility. God can create out of nothing, He can do all things. We can do nothing.
St. John Chrysostom has some strong words for us. He says, for those who believe in some pre-existing matter repeat to them the words of Scripture. You think matter always existed, but the Scriptures say In the beginning God created … Then he says “But what if the person does not believe in the Scriptures? Leave him to his own devices.” Of course every situation requires discernment for how to deal with someone, but he basically says if they won’t listen to Scripture then leave them to their own devices.
Student 1: How can we prove that the Scriptures are true?
Student 2: It’s not possible. It’s a question of faith.
Student 1: But there are a lot of proofs for our faith, such as archaeological proofs.
I would say evidence, rather than proofs. Many people can look around and see all the wonderful things in the world and it helps them to realize that something great created all this, but that doesn’t work for everyone, so in that sense you can’t say we have proofs for God. Some people can be brought to faith through such arguments. I came into Orthodoxy more through intellectual arguments. Someone showed me the history of the Church, explained various verses to me and told me I was interpreting incorrectly, but others require something more than this, or something different than this. We need to be Christians. Some people need to see Christians acting like Christ, on the path to becoming saints, so that they can see there’s something to our faith. In that sense I think it’s becoming more like proof. If we make grand claims that as an Orthodox Christian I can become like Christ, and they see someone who is becoming like Christ, that’s harder to deny. It’s hard to deny that someone like St. Seraphim of Sarov was different, although of course someone could still deny it. Today we have Elder Iliy. In America we have Elder Ephraim who came from Mt. Athos. These people are holy. It’s hard to deny, although you still can.
Student: What if the difference between us and them frightens them?
Everyone has had their own experiences that have shaped their heart and how they think and look at God. There’s no one answer we can give to bring someone to Christ. Some people’s hearts will be so hardened that the presence of a saint or just Christians around them will make them hate Christ. What can you do for that person other than just pray for him and continue to show him Christ? Beyond that sometimes you have to leave it to Christ. If someone has a hard heart you won’t argue them into faith. Every person is unique, so we need to work to acquire the gift of discernment. The best thing for us to do is become holy, and then we’ll understand what to do in these situations. Discernment is not easy. It’s a gift of God—we talk about saints being so holy that they acquired the gift of discernment from God and understanding what to do in a situation. Be humble, love them, pray for them.
This is what St. John is saying here. What if the person doesn’t believe in the Scriptures? Leave him to his own devices. Sometimes it’s what you have to do, and if you keep talking to him he might just move farther from the Church. “Leave him to his own devices, like an utter madman.” Don’t tell that guy he’s a madman but we can say amongst ourselves that it’s crazy to not believe in Scriptures. “But for what allowance can you make for a person who does not believe the creator of all things, who treats the truth as falsehood?” Christ speaks about pearls before swine. We give people Divine truths and they toss them aside. “Towards God the Lord of all they wage open warfare and do not perceive that they are running from salvation. Let us, on the other hand, cling to the unshakeable rock and keep coming back to the beginning, In the beginning God made heaven and earth. When someone refuses, just keep on trusting in Christ, and focus our life on the beginning, which is Christ.
Christian theology takes us deeper. The beginning of Genesis and the beginning of John are paralleled—In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and In the beginning was the Word. Christian theology and Christ Himself always takes us deeper into the mystery and shows us that the Logos is the root of all things. Revelation 1:8 says that Christ is the Alpha and Omega. Of course this isn’t just the theology of St. John. We believe that the Scriptures are one harmonious whole, and that they don’t contradict themselves although sometimes people say that they do. St. John Chrysostom specifically says they never contradict, and not just him. St. John is not the only one who has Christ as Creator, but he most eloquently states it in Scripture. St. Paul also says Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints—he’s being humble again—is this grace given, that I should preach among the gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world has been hid in God, Who created all things by Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:7-9). The whole New Testament is harmonious in that Christ is the Creator, and later we’ll see the Third Person of the Trinity. St. Paul also says, By Him were all things created, that are in Heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by Him and for Him (Col. 1:16). All things are created by Christ, manifesting the ideas in His mind, and all things are also for Him. The purpose of our existence is to find our way to Christ. And not just us—man has the task of saving not only himself, but the entire cosmos. The entire creation is meant to be transfigured by man. Man’s soul communicates grace to his body and from there we are meant to communicate grace to all of creation. This is why saints can be peaceful with wild animals. St. Seraphim had a bear for a friend, because he communicated grace to all of creation. We bring all of creation back to Christ, so all things are also made for Him, as the Logos which gives shape to all things.
St. Paul here mentioned thrones, principalities, dominions, and powers. What are they?
Student: Where is the evidence of this division of angels?
St. Dionysius the Areopagite has a book called The Celestial Hierarchy in which he talks about the nine ranks of angels, divided into three groups of three. There are different jobs, such as guardian angels, and some angels are constantly around the throne of God. There are angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, thrones, principalities, virtues, dominions, thrones, and powers.
Student: I think only he talked about angels this way, so it’s not a big or important part of our theology.
I wouldn’t say only him. We see various types of angels in Scriptures. St. Dionysius might be the first to go more deeply into it, but my understanding is that this is what the Church teaches.
The “considerateness” of God
There’s a common idea that Moses wrote with simple language because the Israelites had primitive science and were superstitious and couldn’t handle the real truth, so God said He created in six days, “and on this day I made some plants, and on this day animals,” and He put everything in really simple terms so that they could understand. Last time we said that this isn’t true. Specifically people say this about time, as I’ve seen. The story says six days, but some people say billions of years wouldn’t have made sense to the Israelites because they lived in a cycle of six days and a rest, so God spoke to them this way. But then I read a verse from Genesis that says there would be thousands of millions of Jews. Big numbers don’t confuse them. People say that God created in six days and rested on the seventh because that’s how they were living, but that leaves the question of why they were living that way. Where did they get this cycle from? Scripture says at least twice in Exodus the exact opposite: they live that way because God created that way. God said He created in six days and rested on the seventh, so you should work for six days and rest on the seventh. If each day is millions of years are we supposed to work for six million years? It becomes nonsense.
Student: Adam probably lived in this way in Paradise, although it’s not mentioned.
These things aren’t specifically stated: “For Adam lived in a cycle of seven days,” but we see that from the beginning God laid it down this way. St. Basil talks about the first day of creation being the model for every subsequent day. On the first day God defines a day and then time continues like that. St. Symeon the New Theologian says God created in a week, and then it continues like that. The first week is a model of a week. Adam was living this way too.
Student: God could have created in one period of twenty-four hours, or even in one moment.
We’ll see this as we go on, but as we said God speaks and it’s instantaneous. The act of creation of each day is instantaneous but then God waits twenty-four hours, and He does it again, according to St. Ephraim. Man needs regularity so God is specifically creating this way for us. Of course He could have created in an instant but it gives us no plan to live by.
So there’s this idea that Moses wrote in a certain way so that the Jews could understand, and we said this isn’t true, but actually there is a sense in which it’s true. St. John Chrysostom talks about the “considerateness” of God, but the examples he gives are never about earthly things. It’s not about big numbers. God speaks about theology, about Himself in ways they can understand, because that requires a level of spiritual knowledge that the Jews didn’t have. Saints can speak to us about God and we won’t understand if we haven’t experienced God. It’s never about scientific things, but about God Himself that He speaks down to our level. St. John gives the example that Genesis simply says God created, without diving into the mystery of God. It doesn’t tell us it’s the Trinity or the Logos. They didn’t have the spiritual knowledge to grasp that, but through the millennia God was preparing the world. We had to await His Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost when He sends the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments in the Church in order to understand and go deeper into the mystery. So He spoke down when He said simply “God,” and then with Christ the mystery is opened to some degree and we see that it’s a Trinity and that the Second Person is the Logos Who created everything. He speaks down because they can’t grasp theological things yet.
Speaking to our modern times
The Fathers spoke about some stuff that might seem unnecessary to us, but they addressed them because of the societies around them. For instance, they sometimes talk about the question of what is the earth resting on. The Scriptures talk about the pillars of the earth—is it actually on pillars? Is it floating in water? Is there a cloud underneath it? The Fathers talk about this because they always want to communicate theology to the people around them. We can’t simply repeat everything that came before us. We have to keep the same ideas but find ways to communicate them to our world, so the Fathers were finding ways to do this. St. Basil talks about various options for on what the earth rests—pillars, water, air, another body underneath, but ultimately he says to forget about it—it’s not what we talk about in the Church. Some of the Fathers specifically say these scientific questions are not questions of theology, for the Church. The Church has no teaching on these things because they don’t impact our spiritual life.
Student: There are those in the Church who deny UFOs, but what if life on other planets really exists?
It’s a fact of our theology that man is the center and king of creation, because he is both material and spiritual—one foot in both worlds. It’s man that is meant to make the cosmos holy. So if there are aliens, they need salvation through Christ by the holiness of man. St. Paul says the creation is groaning and waiting for its redemption when the saints of God are revealed. If there are UFOs and aliens it doesn’t really matter. They need salvation through Christ with man as the intermediary. But, Fr. Seraphim Rose has a book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future in which he investigates UFOs because they were popular in his time. He examines how UFOs act in the witness accounts and he examines what the Church Fathers say about how demons act and he concludes, and I agree with him although not everyone does, that UFOs act just like demons. It’s just another way to distract us from Christ. Demons will do anything to distract us from Christ. If that means appearing as aliens in a spaceship, they’ll do it.
Of course Christ didn’t teach the Apostles that in two thousand years there’ll be UFOs and they’re demons, so you don’t have to say it’s solidly Orthodox Tradition that UFOs are demons, but I think using the wisdom of our Tradition we can conclude that they are demons. This is an example of what I’m talking about. Using the Tradition, Fr. Seraphim responded to questions of his time. He didn’t just repeat St. John of Damascus, but asked how to apply it to his times.
So there are some questions that ultimately are not important to the Church. St. Basil says it’s enough to know that the pillars of the earth of which the Scriptures speak are the power of God. He sustains all things. St. Ambrose also says that the nature and position of the earth are not important. It doesn’t matter if the earth is in the very center of the universe because measurements don’t matter. What the Scripture are showing us is measurement of God’s power which ultimately is immeasurable. All of these things should be compelling us to look beyond the created world to God.
There’s a verse that gets quoted a lot from the book of Job in which God mentions Creation. Job’s friends are telling him he must have sinned and he says, “No, I didn’t sin,” and God says to him Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding (Job 38:4). Be humble. You weren’t here when I created everything. If you know about the foundations of the earth, then go ahead and tell me. Of course He knows that Job doesn’t know. One of the purposes of the creation story is for our humility. Don’t go into all these questions; we weren’t there. Often the Fathers say that the things not specifically laid out in Scripture we should not bother with. Science isn’t bad but sometimes goes into questions that seem to have no purpose and easily become distractions.
Some of the Fathers say the heavens were not solid. Sometimes you see drawings of supposed Jewish cosmology that shows the world in some crystal dome with the stars affixed to the glass of the dome, but St. Ambrose says the heavens are more like smoke. He refers to Isaiah 51:6 which says in his translation God hath fixed the heavens like smoke. This is another way in which common scholarly claims about what Jews were believing are not always correct.
The invisible earth
And the earth was without form and void in the Hebrew. The Greeks says the world was invisible and unfinished. Why was it invisible?
Student: Because there was no light.
There are several options given, and you’re right—one of them is simply that there was no light. Although, in the beginning God created the heavens and some of the Fathers says this realm has its own light, and the light that is then created is in our own atmosphere. But it’s invisible because there is no light. Also, there’s nobody to see it. Later we’ll see that God separates the waters, so the Fathers also say it’s invisible because it was totally covered by water so the land wasn’t seen. It was also invisible in the sense of being unfinished. God didn’t want just a rock floating in space, but it’s point is as a home for man. All of the things that God goes on to create are the adornment for earth, but they don’t exist yet so it’s unfinished. St. Basil’s says earth’s adornment and finishing is the plants, but this hasn’t happened yet. He also says the heavens aren’t finished either because there is no sun, moon, stars. It’s emphasizing that this is the beginning of the work. St. Ephraim the Syrian is very insistent about everything being done in six days, so although it doesn’t tell us when clouds were created he says they must have been on the first day, so the earth was invisible because the clouds were covering the earth and so the light from the heavens wasn’t shining through. This is the beginning, but God has more work to be doing. There’s always more adornment, and man is the same way. Even Adam and Eve weren’t in a finished state. As a Protestant I thought that Adam and Eve in the Garden were perfect and finished and had only to maintain the state they were in, but God’s work is always continuing. If we’re meant to become like Christ, that can never end. There’s always more Christ and we can always draw closer to Christ, so God’s work is always continuing.
And the darkness was upon the face of the deep. Again, there was darkness simply because there was no light, but there must have been some people in the Church who saw something more in this darkness—that it was a spiritual darkness. It was the demons. St. Basil specifically says this darkness is not a personification of evil powers. They weren’t covering God’s creation. Darkness is simply an absence of light. Darkness is a symbol of demons but here it’s not literally demons. God did not create darkness—it’s just that He hasn’t yet created the light. This darkness is not the evil powers because there’s no such thing as evil co-existing with God. Evil is not created by God. Evil and darkness have no essence of their own. Evil is when the good is not there. Evil is simply when good people choose to do evil, but there’s no essence to it. Everything that exists pre-existed in the mind of God. There was no idea of evil in the mind of God. He doesn’t say “and on the third day I created evil.” Lots of religions, such as Zoroastrian, have a good god and an evil god. We have Satan but he’s a creation. He’s God’s enemy but he’s certainly not his equal.
Student: Was Plato right about his idea of the ideal world where the images of all things exist?
He’s partly correct. The ideal forms don’t actually exist out there in some realm, but all these things existed in the mind of God, although not manifested until this week of creation.
“The deep” in Hebrew is “tehom,” and it’s from the same root as the name of the god Tiamat in the Enuma Elish, who is the female god of saltwater, represented by a ferocious sea monster. Again, this doesn’t mean that Genesis is mythology. In other myths the deep is used as a god, but we see that our God created it. In the next verse we even see that the Spirit is hovering over it.
The Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters. This could be “spirit” or “wind” as far as translation goes. Most Fathers says it’s the Holy Spirit, such as St. Basil, who takes it deeper. He says the Spirit is not just floating above the water, but is nesting like a mother hen, warming the waters, imparting a vital life-giving force. We see in later days that God calls forth life out of the waters. So the Spirit is not simply floating here. St. John Chrysostom also talks about this, saying that it’s very important to pay attention to the sequence of the events here and not change it. He says there are those who say that matter came first, but we know matter came later. Modern-day people can do the same. As I said last time, as a Protestant I always believed Genesis was literal, but when I was becoming Orthodox I met some people who said that’s not necessarily true, and one person even said to me that the sequence of the events doesn’t even have to be taken literally. Specifically, the sun is created on the fourth day, and that makes no sense for modern scientific proposals. So I was told that even the sequence is not meant to be understood as is, but St. John Chrysostom is saying “No, that is what heretics and pagans and people who don’t have the light of Christ do. Just accept it.”
“Spirit” in Hebrew is ruakh, which is the power of God, the force of God, the wind and breath. It is again showing that the Spirit is not just hovering but there is action going on. And as we’ve been saying, the action of the Spirit is to transfigure man and the whole cosmos, and we already see Him here imparting life.
Water and the Spirit—what does that call to mind?
Right. Immediately, even before man falls, God is giving us foreshadowings of what’s to come—Baptism into the life of Christ. There are many watery symbols of Baptism in the Old Testament—the Flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan River. We’re already seeing that the Spirit of God is involved. We’re already seeing hints of the Trinity.
God said let there be light. As we said, God did not create darkness. Light is an image of God but light itself is a creation. Light has its idea in the mind of God because it reflects Him in some way. Darkness was not a creation, but now there’s light and it disperses the darkness. As soon as He says let there be light, there’s light. There’s no delay. He speaks and it’s immediate. It’s here that St. Ambrose talks about His word and the fulfillment of His word going hand-in-hand. Some people sometimes think this light is the Uncreated Light—that Light of Mt. Tabor, but it’s a created light, although it’s not contained anywhere.
What does it mean that God spoke? The Fathers say that when the Scriptures speak about God we should understand them in a manner befitting of God. God was not yet incarnate and had no body. He did not literally move a mouth. As Christians we know that God speaking can lead us to Christ as the Word of God through Whom God created. But Scriptures are speaking of God in a way we can understand. We talked about how the Fathers don’t reject the literal interpretation, but we see here that not every word in Scripture must be taken completely literally, because God speaking is not literal. The proper method of interpretation is to stick with the Fathers. Don’t say everything is literal. Don’t say everything is symbolic. Say it as the Fathers say it.
Student 1: What if they say different things?
For the most part, when the Fathers seem to say different things, probably the problem is with us. The saints are up here spiritually and we’re down here.
Student 2: The Fathers complement one another.
But sometimes they really do seem to contradict one another, but the problem is we’re not spiritual like they are, and it’s hard for us to see how they harmonize. Some Fathers say man is naturally mortal, some Father say man is naturally immortal, and some Fathers say he is naturally neither—he is in-between. It seems like a contradiction, but when you look into it more you see that they all believe the same thing about man; they’re just expressing it differently. When there’s a seeming contradiction don’t assert that there’s a contradiction. First tell yourself to be humble and that you need to admit that it’s at least possible that they agree and you just don’t see it.
God speaks, and man is created in the image of God, and man is the only creation that speaks. The Logos is the Rationality and man has this rational gift. Scripture comes back to this. Psalm 32:6 reads By the word of the Lord the heavens were established and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth. So the Word and the Spirit are both there.
The goodness of creation
And God saw that light, that it was good. Of course it’s not as if God had wait until He created the light to find out that it would be good. Of course He knew. He’s speaking about the future advantage for man. Every time God creates something He says it’s good, so the material world is good. As I said before we don’t divide between material and spiritual. Some people say that the spiritual world is good, but you can forget about the material world. Some say man is really just a soul, and he simply has a body. God says that material creation itself is good. It’s not paganism.
Student: Ancient philosophers taught that our bodies are a prison for the soul, as punishment.
We talked a little last time about Origen, who was even in the Church, but had the idea of pre-existent souls that contemplated God, and when their love for God cooled they fell into bodies, so we’re trying to get away from bodies. This is not Christian at all, but people still believe this. I was speaking with one Protestant friend who said, “When I die you can cremate me. I won’t need that body anymore.” But the body is you! You can’t say you don’t need it—it is you. I don’t know how prevalent this idea is, but at least among some this understanding is lost. Creation is good, but we also take the middle path and say it is fallen. It’s not as it should be and it can be misused. Some people say that God created plants, so smoking marijuana is good, but marijuana is fallen like everything else. You can’t do anything you want. Orthodoxy is the middle path. So don’t smoke weed (laughter).
And God divided the light from the darkness. The nature of light cannot mix with darkness. God also divides them spatially—when it’s daytime in this part of the world it’s night over there.
And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. This primitive light was spread abroad, God draws it back and that’s night. The Venerable Bede asks an interesting question that I hadn’t thought of—in what language did God call them “day” and “night?” Was it Hebrew? Greek? Of course, I’m sure Russian was the first and they were speaking Russian in the Garden (laughter). But, he says, with God intellection is simple. God’s speaking doesn’t actually have noise; there isn’t any language. 
Student: So Adam and Eve didn’t need language? They could just look at each other and understand maybe?
Maybe they could to some degree. It wouldn’t surprise me. Sometimes the saints can meet one another in prayer. But God doesn’t need language, of course.
Student: Adam used language to name the animals. God called the night “night.”
Yes, but the Venerable Bede says more precisely that it means that God created in such a way that these things would later be known as “night” and “day.” He caused them to be named this way.
And the evening and the morning were the first day/one day. In the Hebrew it says the first day but in the Greek it says one day but then it says the second day, third day, so the Fathers ask why it says one day rather than first day. Many Fathers talk about this, the earliest that I’m aware of being St. Hippolytus of Rome, a pope in the second century, and then St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Palamas. They say that the Scriptures specifically say one day because God is therefore defining what a day is. The cycle of night and day is a day. Many Fathers specifically go on to answer how long was the day. St. Basil in his Hexaemeron specifically says that it’s just as if the Scriptures and God were saying twenty-four hours.
Student 1: How can we compare or harmonize this with science?
If these days are twenty-four hours then the earth is much younger than modern science says. A lot of people try to harmonize prevalent scientific theories and these days and so they say they are just symbolic of ages.
Student 2: But, do we need a harmonization, or just to see how it was in reality?
To seek harmony between religion and science is of course not bad. Science is given to us by God, and if something scientific is true and something theological is true, they have to harmonize. But the question is, as we discussed last time, can science talk about this period? The Fall of man and the world came about and everything changed. Everything begins falling into corruption. Death and natural disasters and all these things that shape the world as we know it entered at the Fall, and even the way that man now thinks and reasons, and all of these things have been changed as a result of the Fall. So how can we use our fallen world to tell us about the unfallen world? A lot of Fathers talk about this and say that the Fall is a barrier through which no human research can pass. It’s impossible. We can only know about it by God revealing things, for instance God revealing to Moses. Other saints later had spiritual experiences of revelation as well. If you believe that the world was once a Paradise where there was no death and corruption, then our world filled with death and corruption can’t tell us about it. Our world is a reminder of what we lost. We all know that death is wrong and we’re sad when people die. This tells us that we weren’t meant to die and leads our minds to Paradise, but it doesn’t tell us what it’s like to live without death and these conditions.
Student: Maybe time is changing in speed.
Time is a measurement. I’ve heard people suggest before that time speeds up or slows down but I personally don’t understand what that’s supposed to mean. If you measure consistently then what does it mean that time changed? Your means of measuring might change. Is time a thing that has velocity?
There’s a verse from the Psalms that St. Peter quotes that a lot of people point to in regards to this topic: A day is as a thousand years to the Lord (Ps. 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8), so people say “Ah! A day is not literal!” A day is as a thousand years to the Lord—does that mean that literally a thousand years passed for God? Of course not. As we’ve said God is timeless and that’s what this verse means. There’s no necessary link between a day and a thousand years. A day is also as a second to God. It’s also as a billion years to God because time does not affect God. But some people want to apply this verse to the days of Creation and think therefore they’re not literal days, but a thousand years, although this is still not enough time for what modern science says. Modern science needs billions of years so I don’t know what the point is of applying these verses to Creation. Where else do you apply it? Christ was in the grave for three days. Was it really three thousand years? Why would it only be Genesis where a day is not a day?
Student: I tell people who say that the days of Creation are really a thousand years to open another book of Moses where it says to work six days and rest on the seventh. If you believe it you cannot fulfill the fourth commandment.
You have to work for six thousand years and then rest for a thousand years.
Student: Yes. If you die without rest you have broken the commandment, because you had to work for six thousand years before you rested.
Another point here is that when the Fathers say twenty-four hours they’re not saying “We think so,” or “We just don’t know how else it could have been”—they’re specifically teaching it as a certainty. The Venerable Bede says “without a doubt” this is a day of twenty-four hours. St. Ephraim the Syrian says it’s impermissible to say that the days were shorter or longer than twenty-four hours. St. Ambrose says “Scripture established a law that twenty-four hours, including both day and night, should be given the name of day only, as if one were to say the length of one day is twenty-four hours in extent.” They’re saying they know how long the days were.
Some Fathers even go so far as to say that God created on Sunday. They give a specific day, and Sunday is clearly not a long age. How do they know it was Sunday? Because the seventh day was the day of rest—Saturday. Many saints say this, such as St. Anastasius of Sinai and St. Dimitrii of Rostov. St. Gregory the Theologian says, “Just as the first creation begins with Sunday (and this is evident from the fact that the seventh day after it is Saturday, because it is the day of repose from works), so also the second creation begins again with the same day [i.e., the day of Resurrection]. Why did God rise on Sunday? Because He’s fulfilling the beginning of creation and finishing it. St. Justin Martyr says we gather on Sunday not only because Christ resurrected but also because it’s the day of Creation. Some Fathers even say that God created in the spring. Spring is full of life so it’s an appropriate time for creation. St. Ephraim the Syrian says this, as does Archimandrite Naum from the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.
Fr. Daniel Sysoev:
The first day of the universe, according to the teaching of the fathers of the Church, was a Sunday in the first month of spring. That God made this particular day the first in history of the world is no accident. He knew that five and a half thousand years later, on this same spring Sunday, He would renew all creation by rising from the dead and manifesting to mankind the brilliance of eternal life. To this day on the night of Pascha we recall those first days of creation. It is no accident, as Saint Basil says, that this day symbolized that remarkable state that will come to be after the end of the universe. Then there will be eternal day for the blessed, and for the damned—eternal night.
The first day was a Sunday in spring which is an image to us of the coming eternity, but it doesn’t mean it’s not literally a day. It has to be a day to represent something more.
On this first day God lays the foundation for what will become the building of creation as a kingdom for man and a temple for man to offer sacrifice to God.