Depths and heights, sea and dry land (Psalm 95; Lent 3A)

As we move through the season of Lent, in my own congregation we are meeting for daily prayers where the focus is on being “in the wilderness”. It’s a theme that is inspired by the Gospel from the First Sunday in Lent, when Jesus is led “into the wilderness” where he was tested. It is a story about becoming prepared for what lies ahead; Jesus would enter, after that wilderness time of engagement with The Tester, into the public ministry which is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels, when “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).

As we journey through that (symbolic) wilderness during Lent, the scripture passages offered by the lectionary invite attention to key moments in the story of Israel (the Hebrew Scripture passages) and key encounters that Jesus had (the narratives from John’s Gospel), as well as a series of theological discussions from Paul (in his letter to the Romans).

And then we have the Psalms. This coming Sunday, Psalm 95 invites further reflection on God’s ways during this wilderness journey. It is a celebratory psalm, beginning “let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise … let us come into his presence with thanksgiving “ (Ps 95:1–2). The song continues in that same vein for a number of verses, celebrating God as “a great God” (v.3), creator of “the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains … the sea … and the dry land” (vv.4–5), honouring him worshipfully as “our maker” (v.6) and inferring that God is the shepherd of all his people (v.7).

The celebration of God’s creative capacities in the the middle section of this psalm draws on themes which are regularly sounded by the Psalmist. God is celebrated as the “maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 134:3), the one who created “all mortals” (Ps 89:47), indeed all creatures (Ps 104:24–30), even “the north and the south” (Ps 89:12), “sun and moon, shining stars and highest heavens” (Ps 148:3–5). Second Isaiah evokes God as “creator of the ends of the earth” (Is 40:28) whilst Third Isaiah looks to God’s new creation, “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17–18).

In Proverbs, Wisdom marks off each of the elements noted in the psalm (depths and heights, sea and dry land) when she declares that “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work … when there were no depths, I was brought forth … before the mountains had been shaped … when he assigned to the sea its limit … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker” (Prov 8:22–30).

The depths of the earth were the place where sinful people went (Ps 63:9; Isa 14:15), following the lead of the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and “went down into the depths like a stone” (Exod 5:4–5; Neh 9:11; Isa 63:11–13). There, in the depths, God’s anger burned (Deut 32:22). However, those banished to the depths were able to be brought back from the depths by God’s decree (Ps 68:22; 71:20; 86:13), so in one psalm we hear the cry, “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice” (Ps 130:1), and the prophet Micah affirms that God “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic 7:19).

The heights are where the Lord God set the people once they had made their home in Israel, “atop the heights of the land … [where] he fed [them] with the produce of the land” (Deut 32:13; similarly, Isa 49:9; 58:14; Ezek 34:14). It is a place of security (2 Sam 22:34; Ps 18:33); indeed, “on the heights” is where Wisdom is to be found (Prov 8:2) and the Temple was built on the (relative) heights of Mount Zion, and so it is from “the holy height” that God looks down over the people (Ps 102:19).

However, for the prophet Jeremiah, “the bare heights” is the location for God’s judgement (Jer 12:12; 14:6). It is evident that, “on the heights”, the sinful people have “polluted the land” (Jer 3:2) and “perverted their way” (Jer 3:21). Accordingly, “a hot wind from me [comes] out of the bare heights in the desert … I speak in judgement against them” (Jer 4:11), for “on the bare heights the Lord has rejected and forsaken the generation that provoked his wrath” (Jer 7:29).

Just as the depths and the heights were parts of God’s good creation, so too the sea was integral to God’s creative works: “yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great” (Ps 104:25). Yet the sea was a threatening place for the people of Israel, accustomed to life on the land, planting grapevines and herding sheep in “the land of milk and honey”. The sea of reeds was the place of destruction for Egypt (Ps 114:1–8), although it was also the location of salvation for Israel, as is celebrated in David’s song of praise (2 Sam 22:1–4, repeated at Ps 18:6, 12–19).

The dangers of the sea which the Israelites escaped are detailed in Psalm 124, recalling the threat of floods sweeping them away, torrents rising over them, raging waters submerging them. That psalm concludes, with a sigh of relief, “our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 124:8). In the sea lurks the great sea monster, Leviathan (Job 3:8; Ps 104:26) of whom Job muses, “who can confront it and be safe” (Job 41:11). Only the Lord is able to subdue Leviathan (Ps 74:14; Isa 27:1).

For sailors, the sea could be a place of great danger (Ps 107:23–31)—the story of Jonah attests to this (Jon 1:4–17), as does the final trip of Paul as he is taken as a prisoner to Rome (Acts 27:14–20). Yet the power of the roaring sea, as majestic as it is, pales into insignificance beside the majesty of the Lord on high (Ps 93:3–4).

Just as the sea was a place of danger, so the dry land was a place of safety—as evidenced by the way the story of crossing the sea of reeds is told (Exod 14:21; Neh 9:11; Ps 66:6) and when Jonah is vomited up onto dry land by the fish (Jon 2:10). However, when the Psalmist finds themselves in “a dry and weary land where there is no water”, a prayer is offered to God because “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you” (Ps 63:1). When linked with “the wilderness”, “the dry land” receives blessing from God, who will “make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isa 41:18) and “pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Isa 44:3).

This opening section of the psalm might be seen to be a reworking of the creation narrative, crafted by the priests in the Exile, which is placed at the beginning of the Torah to signal its fundamental importance (Gen 1:1–2:4A). The deep” is initially covered by darkness, when “the earth was a formless void” (v.2), before God creates light. A dome is placed “in the midst of the waters” in order to separate the waters (v.6), and then God decrees, “let the waters under the dome be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (v.9). These were the fundamental building blocks for the intricate and complex creation which then evolved.


After this celebration of creation—depths and heights, sea and dry land—there follows in Psalm 95 an exhortation directly to the people to “listen to his voice” (v.7b). The exhortation to listen is repeated often in Hebrew Scripture, in narratives (Exod 23:22; 1 Sam 15:1; 1 Ki 11:38), in works of wisdom (Job 37:2; Ps 81:11, 13; Prov 1:33; 8:32), and by various prophets (Isa 1:10; Jer 11:4; Ezek 40:4; Hos 4:1; 5:1; Joel 1:2; Amos 3:1; 4:1; 5:1; 7:16; 8:4; Mic 1:2; 3:9; 6:1; Mal 2:1–3).

The fundamental instruction to Israel throughout the long speech attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy is, “hear, O Israel” (Deut 5:1; 6:3; 9:1; 13:11; 20:3; 27:9); even the heavens and the earth are commanded to “give ear … hear the words of my mouth” (Deut 32:1). The Preacher advises, “to draw near to listen [to God] is better than sacrifice offered by fools” (Eccles 5:1), and The Sage instructs, “listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future” (Prov 19:20).

Isaiah’s instruction to “listen to the teaching of our God” (Isa 1:10) is reiterated in both Second Isaiah (Isa 42:23; 46:3, 12; 48:12; 49:1; 51;1–7) and Third Isaiah (Isa 55:2–3; 66:6). Jeremiah is instructed to report God’s message to the people, “listen to my voice and do all that I command you” (Jer 11:4) recurs in later oracles (Jer 17:24–27; 26:1–6; 28:7).

The advice to Ezekiel, that “the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me” (Ezek 3:7) leads to God’s severe warning, “I will act in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them” (Ezek 8:18; see also 13:19; 20:8; 20:39). Eventually, however, Ezekiel is commanded, “look closely and listen attentively … declare all that you see to the house of Israel” (Ezek 40:4)—which is precisely what he then does (Ezek 44:5–45:25; 46:1–18).

The instruction to listen is, of course, picked up by Jesus in his teachings (Mark 4:3, 9, 23; 7:14; 8:18; Matt 13:3, 16–17; 15:10; Luke 6:27; 8:8, 18, 21; 11:28; 13:32; 18:6; John 5:24; 8:47; 10:3, 16, 27; 14:24). At the Transfiguration, the disciples are instructed to “listen to him” (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Luke 9:35).

The psalm as a whole ends on a sombre note, with a warning of God’s testing of Israel (vv.8–10) and a declaration that God’s punishment will stand (v.11). The note of exuberant celebration that marked the opening verses has dimmed. Yet the overall mood of the psalm is one of joyful appreciation of God’s creative works. It is a good reminder for us, to celebrate God’s creation, as we move though our (metaphorical) wilderness journey during Lent.

Reflecting on faith amidst the flooding

Water is on our mind, on the east coast of Australia, at the moment. Widespread flooding has occurred. Houses and businesses in many seaside locations, as well as in inland flood plains beside rivers, have been inundated by rising waters. People have been evacuated, some were stuck away from home, some now have no home to return to amd live in.

The power of water has been on display all around us. Constant sheets of wind-driven rain have fallen across hundreds of kilometres on the eastern coast of Australia. Surges of creek and river waters created currents that moved vehicles—even houses—and spread across flood plains, invading domestic and industrial spaces in towns and suburbs. Crashing ocean waves menaced beaches and cliff-faces, and currents swirled fiercely in the ocean.

We stand in awe and trepidation before the power of water—just as, a little over a year ago, we stood in awe and trepidation as roaring fires swept through bushland, invaded towns and suburbs, and wrought widespread and long-lasting damage. Then, we pondered, as now, we reflect on what this manifestation of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” means for us, as people of faith. (See

Is this a demonstration of divine power in the pouring rain and rising floodwaters? Is this, somehow (as some would maintain), God declaring judgement on human beings, for our sinful state and rebellious nature?

I have been looking at a range of public commentary on the floods. One church website (not Uniting Church) includes these statements: “[These] devastating floods are not to be considered as an act of judgement upon our world, but instead, a warning to repent. Whether it’s drought, bushfire, flood or pandemic, these disasters are an important time for us all to consider Christ in the crisis. As we pray for the recovery of our land from these devastating floods, let us also pray that through this disaster might be a fresh opportunity for people to find eternal comfort and security in Christ Jesus.”

This appears to understand the floods as God seeking to make human beings respond with an act of faith in Jesus. Whilst ancient understandings may have made this kind of immediate connection between an event in nature and the intentions of God, we cannot make such a simple link. It’s much more than just “flood—warning—repentance—faith”. We need to reflect more deeply.


Water, of course, is an essential of life. It covers 70% of the surface of planet Earth. We need water. Without access to water, humans and other creatures will dehydrate, weaken, and die. Scientific analysis indicates that 60% of the human adult body is water; the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, muscles are 79% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. (See

Water in our bodies helps us to form saliva, regulate body temperature through sweating, contribute to the brain’s manufacturing of hormones and neurotransmitters, lubricate our joints, and enable oxygen to be distributed throughout the body. Water facilitates the digestion of food, and the waste that is produced in our bodily systems is regularly flushed out as we pass urine. And we use water every day, to wash away solid bodily waste, to clean our hair and skin, to wash our clothes and keep our kitchen utensils clean.

Water is also a source of enjoyment: sitting on the beach, watching the powerful rhythmic surge of wave after wave; sitting beside the babbling brook, appreciating the gentle murmuring of running water; sitting beside the pool, listening the the squeals of delight as children jump into the water, splashing and playing with unrestrained glee.

The power of the ocean, of course, has often drawn the attention of human beings. We are reminded of this when swimmers are caught in rips and transported rapidly out into the ocean, or towards the jagged rocks at the edge of the beach. Sadly, the son of a friend was caught in a rip one day a few years ago. His two companions were rescued; the body of our friend’s son has never been found. The power of the ocean, whipped up by the wind, can be intense and unforgiving.


Water makes regular appearances in the Bible. It is a key symbol throughout scripture. It appears in the very first scene, when the priestly writer tells how, “in the beginning … the earth was without form and void … and a wind from God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).

It also appears near the very end of the last book of scripture, where the exiled prophet reports that “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev 22:17).

Water flows throughout the scripture as a central image, appearing another 720 times in the intervening pages of scripture. Water enables healings to occur, for instance (Namaan, commander of the army of the king of Aram, in 2 Kings 5; the man by the pool at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, in John 5).

To the people of Israel, as they retold their foundational myth of the Exodus and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the gift of water was a sustaining grace. Parched by desert thirst, the Israelites cried out for water, Moses struck the rock, and water flowed (Exod 17:1–7; Num 20:2-13). Rivers flowing with water then provided food for the people living in the land—the fish of the waters (Deut 14:9; Lev 11:9), alongside the beasts of the land and the birds of the air (Ezek 29:3-5; Deut 14:3–20; Lev 11:1–45).

Flowing water—“living water”—is one of the images adopted in John’s account of Jesus, to explain his role within the society of his day: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37–38).

The precise scriptural quote is unclear—commentators suggest that the reference may be to Prov 18:4 (“the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook”), or Zech 14:8 (“living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem”), or Psalm 78:16 (“[God] made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers”), or Rev 22:1–2 (“the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city”). The uncertainty as to the precise reference alerts us, however, to the many instances where “living water” is mentioned.

The imagery of water was used, in addition, in earlier stories in this Gospel. To the request of the woman of Samaria at the well, “give me some water”, Jesus replies, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:7–10).

To the crowd beside the Sea of Galilee, who asked, “Sir, give us this bread always”, Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34–35). Water is powerfully creative, restorative, empowering.


Water also threatens destruction: witness the paradigmatic stories of the Flood (Gen 6:1–9:17) and the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 14:1–15:21, retold in Psalms 78 and 105). The destructive power of massive flows of water is evident in both of these stories: water falling from the heavens (Gen 7:4, 12) in one version of The Flood story, water rising from The Deep in an alternate version (Gen 7:11, 8:2).

Although (as we noted above), the gift of water was a sustaining grace to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, from the time of settlement in the land of Canaan, the Great Sea to the west of their lands (what we know as the Mediterranean Sea) was seen as a threat. In the sea, Leviathan and other monsters dwelt (Ps 74:13-14; 104:25–26; Isa 27:1).

The Exodus was made possible because the waters of the Red Sea had caught and drowned the Egyptian army (Exod 14:23–28); this unleashing of destructive divine power was celebrated by the escaping Israelites in victory songs (Exod 15:2–10, 19–21), in credal remembrance (Deut 11:2–4; Josh 24:6–7), and in poetic allusions in psalms (Ps 18:13–18; 66:6; 77:18–20; 78:13, 53; 106:8–12; 136:10–16).

In like manner, the waters in The Flood caused almost compete annihilation of living creatures on the earth (Gen 6:12–13, 17); only the family of Noah and the animals they put onto the Ark were saved from the destructive waters (Gen 6:19–21 indicates “two of every sort”, whilst Gen 7:2–3 refers to “seven pairs of all clean animals … and a pair of the animals that are not clean”).


Both the creative power of water, and destructive capabilities of water, led the people of Israel to ascribe power to God over the seas and the rivers. The Psalmist affirms of God that “the sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (Ps 95:5).

Accordingly, the Lord God, who “made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them (Ps 146:6), was seen as able to “rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them” (Ps 89:9). God’s power over creation is also expressed through flooding: “The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the LORD!” (Ps 93:4).

In our current context, such words are deeply troubling. Can it be that God is exercising divine judgement through the increased rainfall and rising floodwaters currently being experienced? There are two problems with this point of view, both with an inherently theological note to be sounded.

The first relates to the nature of God, and how God interacts with the created world. The ancients had a view that God was an interventionist God, directly engaging with the created world. When something happened “in nature” (like a birth, a death, a flood, a fire, and earthquake, etc), it was seen to be directly attributable to God. It simply happened “to” human beings.

Contemporary scientific and sociological views, however, would provide much more room for human agency. When things happen, what contribution does the human being (or an animal of some kind) have in the process? We would want to say that events that take place do not “just happen”; they are shaped by the actions of human beings in history, by our intention and interaction.

So, the second element I see as integral to understanding the current situation, theologically, is the contribution that human beings have made to the current environmental situation. Why are floods occurring more regularly, and with more intensity, in recent times? The answer is, simply, that we are seeing the effects of climate change right around the earth.

And the human contribution to climate change cannot be argued away. Climate change is real. (See this excellent website from NASA, at

The rate of change to various climatic elements has increased noticeably in the last two and a half centuries, since the Industrial Revolution, and at an exponential rate since the 1960s, when we expanded the use of fossil fuel right across the globe. (See this article on the so-called “hockey stick graph”,

We human beings know this. We have known it for some decades, now. Yet policy makers bow to the pressures and enticements they receive from vested interests in business, pressing and bribing to ensure that their businesses can continue—even though it contributes the greatest proportion to the rise in temperature.

For every one degree Celsius that temperature rises, the atmosphere holds 7% more water. Given the right atmospheric conditions (such as we have seen develop in the last week), that water will get dumped somewhere—in recent times, that has been over much of the east coast of Australia, in massive amounts.

And it is obvious to thinking human beings, that how we have lived, how we have developed industries, how we have expanded international travel, how we have expanded the transportation of food and other goods around the globe, how we have mined deeper and wider to find fossil fuels to sustain this incessant development, has all contributed to that rise in temperature.


Certainly, a fundamental human response to the tragedies we have seen unfolding around us through the rainfall and flooding, is one of compassion. Compassion for the individuals who have borne the brunt of the damage that has occurred.

Compassion and thankfulness for the emergency services personnel and others who have spent countless hours in assisting those caught by the floods. Compassion and careful listening provided by Disaster Recovery Chaplains in many evacuation centres.

Compassion, practical support, and prayerful support for all who have been affected by these events, is fundamental.

Yet whilst the massive rainfall and the high floods are the processes of nature at work around us, we know that we have intensified and exacerbated them. And we see tragic results in the rivers that have surged and flooded in recent days—just as the same instability in the earth’s system has generated more intense and more frequent cyclones, created more intense and more frequent fires, warmed the oceans and melted the edges of the polar caps, and caused other observable events around the world.

This past week, there have been two opportunities for us to remember what we are doing to the planet—opportunities to commit to a different way of living in the future. The first was Australia’s Overshoot Day, on 22 March. This is the day that Australia has used up its yearly allocation of the earth’s resources. What should have taken 365 days has taken Australians 81 days. You can read about this at

The second opportunity was Earth Hour 2021, on 27 March. This hour was an invitation to turn off electricity and rely on natural sources of energy, for just one hour— and then to use this as the basis for living more sustainably in the future. See

So, in the midst of the increased and more intense cyclones, and more regular meltings, and bleachings of coral, and eruptions of fire storms, and flooding of plains, God is communicating with us: the world cannot go on like this, the planet can not sustain our incessant disregard for its natural ways.

So let’s not blame God for dumping all that water and flooding all those homes and businesses. Let’s look closer to home, and consider how, in the years ahead, we can adjust our lifestyle, reduce our carbon footprint, live more sustainably, and treat God’s creation with respect and care.


For my other blogs on the environment, see

My wife Elizabeth Raine has written some helpful reflections on environmental theology at

And God saw it was good…


and a series of blogs on living a life with low environmental impact, at

and a lot more at (follow the links on the right of the page)

Let there be light: the season of Epiphany (Gen 1; Epiphany 1B)

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany refers to the manifesting of light, the shining forth of revelation. It is applied to this season, which follows on from Christmas, and is initiated by the story of “the star in the east” told in Matthew 2:1-12.

The birth of Jesus, and the story of the Magi following the star, signals the early Christian belief that God was acting in a new way through this child. The Magi come from the east, following the star, to pay homage to the infant Jesus. Light is of symbolic significance in this story, as is the theological claim that the child Jesus provides a revelation of God.

During the five Sundays of Epiphany, we start into the long haul of this year, following week by week the stories contained in the earliest account of Jesus, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we know more typically as the Gospel according to Mark.

Alongside these Gospel excerpts, the passages set in the lectionary from the Hebrew Scriptures have been carefully chosen. These passages illuminate the message of the Gospel which we hear each week from the New Testament, as we celebrate Christ as the light that comes into the world, illuminating and enlightening.

The Hebrew Scripture passage this Sunday (Genesis 1:1-5) tells of the creation of light, the first act of creation. It stands at the head of the whole story about creation. All that happens after that is bathed in the light of God’s creation. Telling of the creation of light establishes a pattern which is then repeated, five more times, for each of the various elements whose creation is noted in this narrative.

This repetition provides a structure, an ordering of the story. That reflects the very strong likelihood that the origins of this narrative lie, not in the distant mists of “the beginning of time”, but in the period after the exile of the people of Israel, in the 6th century BCE.

Many ancient cultures had their own creation stories, told in dramatic narratives and recorded for posterity. The ancient Israelites had their stories, but the account that we have in Genesis 1:1-2:4a comes from that time of returning from exile.

As the people returned from their decades of living in Babylon, they encountered the distressing scene of their former glory, the city of Jerusalem, in ruins. The hard work of rebuilding the city lay ahead of them. Under the leadership of the priests, the work of construction was inspired by the story of the creation. The structure and order in the creation narrative reflected the needs of the people at that time.

The same structure and order also reflected the liturgical structures set up in association with the rebuilt temple. Books were written, drawing from older oral traditions, that set out a complex and highly regulated system of sacrifices and offerings, to be brought to the temple overseen by a priestly class (the Levites, men descended from Levi).

The first two verses introduce the key characters: God, first described as the one who creates; a formless void, which is how the earth is first described; darkness, an entity in and of itself (not defined in any further way); and the breath of God, sweeping over the waters of the void. The fundamental image of God, then, is of a creative being, bringing order out of chaos; an image pertinent to the situation of the returning exiles.

The third verse introduces light, which comes into existence through a single word of command. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light (1:3). Light is the key entity in the creation story, the first creation of God, a signal of the creative process which then ensues.

Each subsequent creative action results from something that God said (verses 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). And each creation is affirmed with the phrase, and it was so (verses 7, 9, 11, 15, 24, and then verse 30). The pattern is regular and clear.

The fourth verses tells of God’s approval of what had been created: And God saw that the light was good (1:4). Likewise, God then affirms as good the creation of earth and seas (1:10), vegetation (1:12), the sun for the day and the moon for the night (1:18), all living creatures in the seas and in the sky (1:21), then the living creatures on the earth (1:25).

Finally, after the creation of humanity in the image of God, there comes the climactic approval: God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (1:31).

In a number of the six main sections of the narrative, God explicitly names what has been created: he called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night (1:5), then God called the dome Sky (1:8), God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas (1:10), followed by plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it (1:12), and the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars (1:16).

After this, the categories of living creatures are identified (1:21, 25), before the climax of creation is identified: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (1:27); and finally, God’s blessing is narrated (1:28).

Finally, each section concludes with another formulaic note: “and there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (1:5; likewise, at verses 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), before the whole narrative draws to a close with the note that “on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (2:2).

Of course, it is from this demarcation of the sections of the creative process as “days” that there came the traditional notion that “creation took place over seven days”. But this flat, literal reading of the “days” is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the narrative in Genesis.

The story is thus told with a set of simple, repetitive phrases, but arranged with sufficient variation to give aesthetic pleasure, and with a growing sense of building towards a climax, to shape the narrative arc towards the culmination of creation (humanity, 1:26) and the completion of the creative task (sabbath rest, 2:2-3).

The noting of the “days” gives the story a shape that we can appreciate—they are not literal 24-hour periods, but a literary technique for the story, much like we find that some jokes, some children’s songs, and some fairy stories are constructed around threes (“three men went into a pub …”, or “three blind mice”, or “Goldilocks and the three bears”, etc).

And on the first “day”, God speaks and Light is created. It is a fine passage for us to reflect on at the start of the season of Epiphany, when we focus on the manifesting of light, the shining forth of revelation.