1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was complete chaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.Genesis 1:1–5 (NRSVue)
“Let me hear ya sayin’, ball of confusion that’s what the world is today, hey, hey…”“Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” The Temptations
The R&B group, The Temptations, recorded these words just over five decades ago to describe the America they saw and experienced. Economic struggles, racial inequalities, social unrest, gun violence, and political division defined their era. The mounting problems left many fighting despair, feeling hopeless, and fearing uncertainty. In their words, “so, round and around and around we go; where the world’s headed, nobody knows.” Over half a century later, the relevance of this song’s sentiments ring true today. As I heard often as a child, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
As timely as many may find The Temptations’ song, it reminds me of a similar, more famous description of the world: Genesis 1:2–5. These verses that begin Jewish and Christian Scripture provide a poetic glimpse into the earliest moments of Earth, its creation, and God’s activity.
Like the R&B song’s description of the world, Genesis 1:2 describes the primordial earth as “complete chaos.” Earlier English translations, such as the King James Version, translated the summary of the primordial earth as “without form and void.” Regardless of the translation, it is clear the biblical text portrays a planet that is utterly lacking in the structure, order, and functionality to sustain human life. To thicken the description of this chaotic state, the verse adds that “darkness covered the face of the deep.”
Against this chaotic and dark backdrop, Genesis 1:2 concludes with an introduction of the “Spirit/Wind (ruaḥ) of God” that “swept over the face of the waters.” This new character signals a potential turning point in the narrative. Rather than the chaos and darkness being final, a reality unbound to the primordial world (i.e., the spirit/wind of God) can act. As Hermann Gunkel summarizes in his commentary on Genesis, “the continuation makes a new beginning in relation to v. 2, with a new figure, the (personal) God (=Yahweh) and with a new principle of creation, the word of God” (106). This poetic glimpse into primordial history is a creative reworking of ancient traditions Israel likely encountered under imperial domination. Thus, in aspects of my tradition, the primordial world is compared to a political wasteland—a “ball of confusion” human institutions and policies created. Like the initial chaotic state, our current crises are believed to have a divinely inspired solution.
This “new principle of creation” activates in Genesis 1:3. Here, God commands that light appears and it does. The terse description emphasizes the simplicity, while God’s assessment of the light in Genesis 1:4 highlights its efficacy and beauty. In Genesis 1:4, God provides a self-assessment of God’s work and declares that “it is good.” Genesis 1:4–5 concludes with God separating “the light from the darkness” and naming the light “Day” and darkness “Night.”
Because the separation of “the light from the darkness” was (and occasionally is today) a biblical rationale for racial segregation and subordination in America, it is important to note what is absent in this verse. First, God never condemns or announces any disdain for darkness. Second, Genesis 1:4 does not associate light with “Whiteness” nor darkness with “Blackness.” Third, the biblical text does not evince a ranking of light and darkness, in which light is more valuable, important, etc. than darkness. Instead of misinterpreting Genesis 1:4 as a “divine blueprint” for racial subordination and segregation, this verse describes the sacred value of both light and darkness. As Gunkel correctly highlights, God “gave each of them a special place in the world (Job 38:19)” (107).
Scholars often note the impact of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Canaanite influences upon Israel and its sacred texts. Many of these nations dominated Israel politically and economically, which helped to shape Israel culturally. Thus, these texts show the effects of imperial domination and subjugation, including acts of resistance designed to address Israel’s suffering. In Genesis 1:2–3, the presence of idioms, characters, and themes from Babylonian myths are readily discernible. In contrast to a simple “cut and paste,” these verses evince an intentional reworking of these traditions.
A purpose of this creative enterprise is to clarify an understanding of God and God’s activity in the world. The assertion of one God who has unrivaled control over life and all of its affairs (monotheism) stands in stark contrast to the other nations and preceding traditions who believed in the existence of multiple deities (polytheism). Because of this monotheistic framework, the creation account eliminates all origin stories about gods and any battles among them for supremacy—elements found in other creation epics. In Genesis 1, God is declared the sole, sovereign Ruler and Creator—a deity whose power is embodied in the creative power of God’s word. This monotheistic declaration is even more remarkable when one considers these texts reached their final form while their authors lived under imperial domination in polytheistic societies.
In the branch of African-American Christianity I call home, this creative reworking of traditions from dominant (and dominating) empires is a defining characteristic. In particular, understanding the imperial contexts for Christian Scriptures and God’s activity within it is invoked to provide hope, reassurance, and inspiration for my community’s ongoing battles with the devastations of American empire. Genesis 1:2–5 appears as a reminder of God’s relationship with chaos. When the world is (or appears) chaotic, God is neither absent nor impotent. Instead, God is most present amid dire circumstances (see Psalms 46:1). Not only is God present, God is also active and effective. Our reception of Genesis 1:3 emphasizes the inherent power of God’s word, not only to improve lives but also to change (and create!) new structures. Just as God once brought order from chaos, God can do so again. Applying the truth of an oft-cited spiritual, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, why not ev’ry man?”
While creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) would come to dominate interpretations of Genesis 1, the description of the primordial earth in Genesis 1:2 leaves another possibility. Is it possible that “complete chaos” was the stage for God’s creative intervention? Within larger conversations of Black Theology, God’s interest and ability to act on the behalf of subjugated peoples is foundational. The chaotic realities of the catastrophes of racial subordination and historical exclusion requires divine intervention. For many in my African-American Christian tradition, God’s first act reveals God’s nature. Chaos, evil, etc. are transformable when God acts. Since both ancient Israel and contemporary African-Americans find ourselves on the “underside of empire,” what inspiration, encouragement, and strategies can we find in this ancient text? Stated differently, how can we sustain faith in a God who redeemed primordial chaos to provide hope that this same God will act in the midst of contemporary crises?
Towards the end of “Ball of Confusion,” we find these words: “Fear in the air, tension everywhere, unemployment rising fast … let me hear ya, let me hear ya sayin’ ball of confusion that’s what the world is today, hey, hey….” The world as a “ball of confusion” is not a new reality—it is as old as the Bible’s retelling of the planet’s history. This state of the world, however, need not be incurable or final. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously titled his last manuscript, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The power of his legacy and poignancy of this title keep both at the center of many contemporary struggles for justice. As his title suggests and Genesis 1:2–5 reminds us, chaos continuing is a choice. In Genesis 1, God saw the chaos and chose to counter it. Today, will we choose similarly?