"In the beginning, there was something - not nothing – there was something, and that something was formless and void, rolling and dark, chaotic, seething with potential, but lacking true life. Our God intervened. Our God spoke into the darkness, into the chaos and began a change. A change which brought forth life from what seemed to be chaos. Creation broke forth on the words of God."
Genesis 1:1-5 (JPS)
1 IN THE beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth.
2 Now the earth was unformed and void (tohu wabohu), and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters.
3 And G-d said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light.
4 And G-d saw the light, that it was good; and G-d divided the light from the darkness.
5 And G-d called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Edward Lorenz is a meteorologist. He fills his days with observing and predicting the weather. Over time, he developed a computer model to show how weather systems react to outside variables. Now, if you were like me and got caught in the rain in Thursday afternoon’s spring shower, you are very aware that Mr. Lorenz did not create a model that could actually predict the weather, he only modeled how weather works.
At this point you may very well be asking yourself, “Why are we talking about a meteorologist in church?” Fair enough question. We are talking about him for the same reasons they talk about him in med school, MBA classes, advanced flight school, and maybe even in space camp. How could this guy you’ve never heard of be so important? Well, he discovered something in 1961 that has changed the world. Ok, maybe not actually changed the world, but it has changed how we understand the world. He discovered “chaos.” …sort of.
He discovered what is now known as “Chaos Theory.” At that point it was simply called it “The Butterfly Affect.” Up until his model, it had been purely theoretical. It went something like this… “a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia could affect the weather in New York a few days or weeks later.” Lorenz’s model simply proved that minute differences in initial weather conditions produced drastic changes in the outcome. That, in effect, is a simple model of chaos…small nearly untraceable changes can effect systems in unpredictable ways.
The surprising thing about this Chaos Theory or Butterfly Effect is what happened when he mapped out these changes. He put the formulas and equations in a computer and set the computer out plotting the effects 3-dimentionally. You have a picture of the results in your bulletin labeled “tohu wabohu.” (In the picture at the top beginning of this sermon). The results are remarkably less than chaotic. Oddly enough, they sort of look like the originally theorized butterfly. Chaos, it would seem, is not so chaotic. It actually has order.
Not only does chaos have order, it is also better equipped for the world in which we live. Let’s really over simplify this. As an example of a chaotic system we will use a shuffled deck of cards. Las Vegas banks on the fact that this deck behaves in unpredictable ways – chaotically so to speak. As an example of an ordered system let’s use a laptop computer. While some of us may find computers to be less than predictable, the truth is to those with the knowledge, a computer is excruciatingly ordered and predictable. Just tell me what you are going to do to it and I’ll tell you how it will respond. Now, what if I introduce change by dropping the cards (drop cards to one side)…are they any less shuffled or any more predictable? No. Even though they have experienced and extraordinary amount of change they are just as functional as they were in the beginning. Now (hold up computer)…yes, I am going to do it,…what if I introduce change, what if I drop this laptop? Some of you already know what is going to happen. It is very likely that it will stop functioning. (Drop laptop). The question is, which system is less affected by change – a so-called chaotic system or an ordered system?
What does all that talk about chaos have to do with a sermon on Genesis? Surprisingly enough, quite a bit. In part, Chaos Theory, deals with how one thing effects another. We have to do the same thing to get to the heart of the first Genesis creation story. We need to consider how the surroundings effect the story.
It is widely accepted by Biblical scholars that Genesis was recorded during the Babylonian exile. Which is important to us in our study because of how it affects the story. The people of Israel were relegated to the outskirts of society – Babylonian society. Necessarily, they had to understand who they were as a people over and against the Babylonian culture. Looking at Genesis then, we are particularly interested in the Babylonian conceptualization of Genesis – of the beginning.
It is called the Enuma Elish. In it the god of the deep, Tiamat – also know as the Chaos Dragon Monster picks a fight with the Über god – the ultimate god (alluring, sparkling, exalted, perfect, described as Lord of lords and King of kings). The Battle to Defeat Chaos ensues – he captures Tiamat in a net – she opens her mouth to eat him – he sends a wind, blows her up, shoots her with an arrow – out of the pieces of her chaotic body he creates the world. In their creation story the universe was created out of chaos.
Now lets turn to the first Genesis creation story. When the earth was tohu wabohu (as it is described in the regional Hebrew). Think of that as “wild and waste,” “helter scelter,” “mixed mess” …or maybe you prefer the more simple “chaotic.” When the earth was tohu wabohu darkness was over the “face of the deep.” At this point, it is worth remembering that Tiamat, the Chaos Dragon Monster was the Babylonian god of the deep. When the earth was tohu wabohu darkness was over the face of the deep. Then God speaks - God does not lift a finger – God speaks. To defeat the Chaos Dragon Monster, the Babylonian god had to go to battle. The people of Israel, in defining themselves against their oppressors, say, “Our God is so great the only thing Elohim has to do to overcome chaos…is speak.”
The writers of the first creation story in Genesis have gone to great lengths to put God in relationship with tohu wabohu – chaos. If chaos was so important to them in understanding God then I believe we need to understand it as important to us. After all much like the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, in our creation story, the only thing from which God has to form the things of this world is tohu wabohu – chaos. Ultimately, it is an ordered chaos, but chaos none-the-less. So even in our creation story the universe is created out of chaos.
Don’t we see it every day? As much as we’d like our lives to be ordered, they really aren’t. Life throws curves at us that we could have never predicted. In my life, among other things, I have found a dead friend, stopped someone from committing suicide, been divorced, been unemployed, wondered where I'd get food for my kids to eat and even struggled with depression. My parents are with us today. Do you think when that young couple had their first baby boy they could have imagined his life would be so chaotic at times?
Now I just use me as an example. We all have experienced the tohu wabohu of this life. They don’t have to be major events like finding a dead friend; even the small moments of chaos are enough to point to the tohu wabohu of the world. But here is the rather odd thing to think about…God designed it that way.
My first reaction to that thought was “how dare God!” Do you mean that this life was designed so that chaotic events like slavery, the invasion of Native American land, the Holocaust, and 9/11 could happen? How dare God! But then I had to learn to hear that question differently. Think back to our brief discussion on Chaotic and Ordered systems. Of the two systems, which one was capable of handling a change to the system but still function? The so-called chaotic system was… Do you mean that this life was designed so that chaotic events like slavery, the invasion of Native American land, the Holocaust, and 9/11 could happen? Yes.
It was designed so that they could happen. It had to be. In giving us freedom of choice God knew that humanity was being gifted with a terrible power and responsibility, and that some would abuse that power – God knew that Holocausts would happen. If God had designed an ordered system, like the laptop computer, Holocausts would have resulted in total, everlasting pandemonium – perminate and real chaos. In God’s infinite wisdom, however, God designed a world that was ordered tohu wabohu. It is part of what we are just learning in Chaos Theory. It is precisely the chaos that allows a system, God’s creation, to respond to sever changes to the system. God’s creation is able to respond to real chaos, without being destroyed. The chaos of this world seems to be necessary.
We need to trust God’s resilient system of ordered tohu wabohu. After all, when finished creating it, God called it exceedingly good. We have to stop insisting on working out of the same old systems. They are not resilient enough for the complexities of the world God created. Ordering things based on the way they have always been done or on a set of specific rules or on cultural expectations can be a very dangerous thing. God created a flexible universe precisely by ordering the tohu wabohu, not destroying it. I can’t help but wonder if it was more than just designing a system that could respond to change. Maybe it also is a God made design that makes us more dependent on God, more dependent on faith. If the world was completely ordered and we knew what to expect around every corner…who would need God? There would be no need for faith.
If you watch from a bridge as a leaf floats down the stream, you may see it trapped by a small whirlpool, whirl around a few times, and escape, only to be trapped again further down the stream. Trying to guess what will happen to the leaf is as futile as trying to insist on keeping things the way they have always been. You see, the tiniest shift in the leaf's position can completely change its future course. The same is true with us. It is something that Chaos Theory points out for us. Small changes lead to bigger changes later. This behavior is the signature of chaos and chaos, tohu wabohu, is the stuff from which the universe was created. Small changes are unavoidable. Small changes necessarily lead to bigger changes. So why do we resist it so hard? It is a God given design that works for our own benefit. It allows us to react to and survive changes to the system that happen in life. It encourages us to be active parts of the continuing creating of God.
We need to be willing to change, to respond to the chaotically changing needs of the world around us. Even the smallest change can, over time, lead to bigger changes. The good news is that God has designed the world to work best that way. Just like the deck of card, we are capable of experiencing an extraordinary amount of change and still remain just as functional as we were in the beginning –it just takes a little faith…not in ourselves, but in God.
Not all change is bad. It can lead us to places beyond our imagination. There is one thing that is true about all change, and maybe it is the thing that holds us back and frightens us. As Lorenz learned in mapping out the Butterfly Effect, we cannot predict where change will take us. That is when the faith comes in. We are fooling ourselves if we think by keeping things the same that we can predict where we are going. Inevitably things will change. Even the smallest change can, over time, lead to bigger changes. So why not trust in God and try something new. Have faith that the system God created is capable of experiencing an extraordinary amount of change and still remain just as functional as it was in the beginning. It will be an amazing journey, if we only learn to trust in God.