This week saw the death of the world’s most eminent cosmologist, Professor Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s early work set out to prove, by the discipline of Physics, that the universe had a beginning. His later work set out to prove, by the same means, that it did not. My own study of cosmology lies within the discipline of Theology—the Queen of Sciences—and, theologically-speaking, we can also pursue both ends. If the universe is the outward expression of God’s creativity, creativity being an inherent quality of an eternal God, then the universe has source but may indeed have no beginning.
In the beginning was a story. A creation-story. But Genesis opens not with creation out of nothing, but, rather, with the creation of order and harmony out of chaos. A liberation-story. An exodus of creation, if you will. Later in the unfolding story, we get glimpses behind the beginning, to an angelic rebellion against the Creator God, with cosmic consequences [see the archangel Michael defeating the dragon, depicted in our East Window].
Exodus, the second book of the Bible, begins in much the same way as the first. God’s creation, the family of Israel, have been enslaved by chaos, personified by the Pharaoh, acting on behalf of the gods of Egypt, spiritual beings in rebellion against YHWH’s purposes for the universe. In the same way that YHWH had thrown-down the rebellious gods and set free the observable universe, so will YHWH overthrow the gods of Egypt and set free the Hebrew people.
Statement of intent is given when Aaron throws down his staff—the symbol of divinely-given authority—and it turns into a snake. Except it doesn’t. According to the Hebrew text, it turns into a sea-dragon, understood across the Ancient Near East as a symbol of chaos. The translators only put ‘snake’ because they don’t believe in dragons, which is foolish (and, in case you are wondering, no, it isn’t the same word as the serpent in the Garden). In modern Hebrew, the word means ‘crocodile’—but this was no Nile crocodile, either. It was a dragon. If you ask me whether I believe in creatures that are universally known to human culture, I will tell you, yes; and if you ask me for proof, I will reply, more proof than universal evidence?
Pharaoh summons the priests of his gods to respond. Instead of turning the sea-dragon into something harmless (which, by the way, wouldn’t be back into a powerful staff) they summon forth several more. But Aaron’s sea-dragon swallows all of theirs. This is incredibly important. What is being said is this: that Egypt (symbolised by the sorcerers’ dragons) has swallowed-up Israel, but that Egypt in turn is about to be swallowed-up. Chaos has engulfed YHWH’s people, but is about to be engulfed by something greater. This will come to pass when the Egyptian army is swallowed-up by the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds).
Notice has been given; but Pharaoh does not heed the warning. What follows is a series of hyper-natural events: nature escalating out of control. A series of ecological disasters, that point to something greater: these are the consequences of Pharaoh violating YHWH’s will for harmonious order, for inter-dependent freedom; violating this by persisting in holding people captive as slaves. Pharaoh’s actions express cosmic rebellion, and have cosmic consequence, in which the natural world and human lives within it are all caught-up.
We—people; not only Christian people—still talk about ecological disasters in a similar way today. We need to be careful how we do so; but we also need to recognise that such events do indeed call us to repentance, to stewardship of the earth, to concern for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable.
Aaron takes his staff and strikes the Nile, and the water turns to blood, or something like it. It is a clear sign that this will not end well for those who resist YHWH’s intention to oppose chaos and set creation free. But again, the magicians of Egypt escalate the problem they face, turning any water Aaron had missed to blood. Death spreads and spreads, touching every living thing. But God will bring about an exodus.
Writing to the church in Rome, Paul also speaks of slavery and exodus. It is, after all, the founding-story of his people—indeed, they’d since been swallowed-up by the Babylonians, and, most recently, by the Romans. But Paul expands its horizons: sin and death have swallowed-up everyone who has ever lived; yet, now, they face being swallowed-up by the grace of God, expressed through Jesus Christ. Those who hope in Christ, both Jew and Gentile, have been caught-up in a new exodus. Specifically, the gods of the Roman world were about to be judged, and the (remnant) people of God rescued through that judgement (though God would judge his own people first).
These exoduses have this-world historical consequences, as well as cosmic implications. God judged the gods of Egypt and of Rome, bringing a people out of captivity to proclaim his praise, and to establish a pattern of creation that reflected the divine will. First, the people of Israel; then, the Church. The question is, where do we find ourselves today?
Are we in need of a new exodus in our time?
Is the Church held captive to other gods?
Are the nations being judged?
Can we be faithful to our founding stories?
And might we declare that sea-dragons will be swallowed?