Recovering the Harmony

The work involved in doing exegesis is very much the work of a detective. A detective is given a limited number of facts about a case, and from those he has to follow leads and draw conclusions. For the exegete, the facts of the case are those Hebrew words on the page in front of you, and from there begins the same process of chasing down leads and building theories.

There are a number of significant clues to look for, clues that are especially effective at showing you the way to the heart of the passage. One of them is called a chiasm. The best way to explain a chiasm is simply to show you one. Here is the one I found one in my exegesis paper passage, Genesis 1:14-19 (the formatting is wrong. Instead of straight down, it should be shaped like “>”, with E at the point.):

A – Let there be lights to separate day from night,

B – as timekeepers

C – to give light upon the earth

D – God makes the two great lights

E- God gives the sun and moon dominion

D’ – God makes the stars

C’ – God sets them in the expanse to give light upon the earth

B’ – to rule day and night

A’ – to separate light from darkness

The main idea behind a chiasm is that the author will say something and then repeat it again differently. It isn’t always exact, as you can see from my example, but there is clearly a pattern there. Usually, however, there is one part that is not repeated, and that part is the significant one. Here that would be part E, God’s giving dominion to the sun and moon. I explain the significance of this in the following modified passage from my paper (it may help to have the Genesis text in front of you). I should also mention, just for context, that nowhere in Genesis 1 do we actually find the Hebrew words for sun and moon; there is only mention of “lights.” This is because ancient people worshiped the heavenly bodies, and the Hebrew words for sun and moon were divine names. The point of the passage is to reveal that God made the lights and gave them power. He is the divine one, and whatever power the heavenly lights have was given to them by God. My explanation:

The chiasm funnels our attention to the making of the sun, moon, and stars here in verse 16. The stars, however, just as they do in the night sky, only form the background. They are added on at the end of the verse simply to include them, it appears. Instead, the focus is on the functions of the two great lights. And even here, where it is obvious that the sun and moon are being spoken of, they are not named and are only referred to in terms of their functions. This is the climax of the passage, the coronation, so to speak, of the sun and moon, and there is no hint of divinity in the ceremony.

But on arriving at the heart at the chiasm, we find that the ancients had not been entirely mistaken. Indeed, the central fact of the fourth day is that the sun and moon have dominion; they have a very real authority, and it is not out of place to think so. In his analysis of evil in the Confessions, Augustine writes: “But in the parts of the universe, there are certain elements which are thought evil because of a conflict of interest. These elements are congruous with other elements and as such are good, and are also good in themselves.” The authority of the sun and moon exists, and it is not the purpose of the creation account to strip them of their power. That power was created by God and is therefore good. But later in the same discussion Augustine says, “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest substance, you O God, towards inferior things.” This was the great evil of the ancients; that by ascribing divine power to the celestial lights, they had created “a conflict of interest,” and had given what was inferior a superior place. Instead, the beauty of the creation account is that it restores the lights to their appropriate positions, recovering the harmony. The discordant cosmology of the ancients becomes the music of the spheres.

In the proper order of God’s creation, not only do the lights have no divinity, but neither is it given to them to rule over man. We saw this in verse 15, with God’s commanding them to give light upon the earth, and this truth reaches its consummation here with the bestowal of authority. For the authority that the sun and moon are given is not that of a king and queen, but more like that of the heads of the palace servants; with the sun ushering in the day, and the moon the night. So it turns out to be less of a coronation and more of a commissioning. David sang in Psalm 84 of the privilege of being a doorkeeper in the house of God, and it is the glory of the sun and the moon to be the doorkeepers of the heavens for man.

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