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When I studied the Book of Genesis in seminary, one of the first things my professor, Ray Van Leeuwen, pointed out was that cosmos is the opposite of chaos. Before God created his cosmos, the spirit of God hovered over the waters and all was (in Hebrew) tohu we bohu. Some of us grew up with the translation of “formless and void,” which is pretty accurate. But the short definition of tohu we bohu is “chaos.” It is that which is disordered, that which lacks coherence, that which is dangerous. Cosmos gives life. Chaos sucks life away.
But after sin entered God’s good cosmos, the primordial chaos started to make a comeback. Whereas God had placed barriers and protective layers in his cosmos to hold back the chaos—the firmament held back the waters over the earth, the dry land was separated out and the chaotic waters of the seas were kept in check—sin eroded those barriers, threatening human life. The best example of chaos unchecked comes in the Flood narrative in Genesis when the barriers that held back the waters over the earth and under the earth were temporarily removed. Since humanity had chosen chaos over cosmos, God let the punishment fit the crime and allowed chaos to run wild for a time, flooding the cosmos and taking all life except for what was in the Ark.
That is why after Genesis 1 in the Bible, tohu we bohu became shorthand for the desert or the wilderness. The wilderness was that dangerous place where the demons howled, where wild animals menaced all who came there, where you had a very good chance of dying from any number of threats to human flourishing. The wilderness became synecdoche for evil, for chaos. Thus it is no surprise that the prophets said that it would be precisely in the wilderness where God would start to build his highway to salvation. And when Jesus was baptized and declared God’s beloved Son, the first place he had to go immediately was the wilderness. If you are going to restore cosmos to this creation, you may as well start in the place that best instantiates chaos.
All of that is a somewhat long set-up for where I am going in this blog. Because I have been thinking lately about the phenomenon of Internet trolls and of the purveyors of fake news stories and conspiracy theories online. Last week a North Carolina man was sentenced to four years in prison for firing a rifle three times in a Washington pizza restaurant. Why did he do this fool thing? Because he had become convinced that Hillary Clinton and company were running a child sex ring out of that pizzeria and he had come to put an end to such a heinous crime. Of course, since Hillary Clinton had been accused in her life of everything but the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, it became more likely for someone like this man to believe even something as ridiculous as this conspiracy theory that had been posted online and circulated. Even the judge who sentenced him said that although his actions had been terrible and could well have killed someone, she believed he honestly thought he was doing something good.
What this case demonstrates is that Internet trolls who spend their days trashing columnists, Facebook posts, and blogs like The Twelve and also those who concoct horrible lies like the pizza restaurant story are agents of chaos. They are an example of an unalloyed desire to disorder society, to sow the seeds of chaos as a way to chip away at whatever semblance of cosmos still exists in an allegedly civilized society. Such trolls and conspiracy theorists—and yes, I would include TV and radio commentators who push theories like the idea that the Newtown school shooting was faked to let Obama be presidential or something—want to create a dizzying blur of disordered and shadowy information and then sit back to watch the chaos unspool. Of course, it puts lives at risk, it vandalizes shalom, it endangers human flourishing. But that is what tohu we bohu has been doing from the beginning. What is the line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”? “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” That’s pretty much it.
There is nothing innocent about people who troll away their days casting out accusations, insults, and insinuations against people they do not know or care for. There is nothing clever about conspiracy theorists or the remorselessly false rumors they generate. These are things that threaten the very cosmos of our Creator God. It’s not cute. It is chaotic evil. And it’s time those who truly wish to serve our God through Jesus Christ the Lord said so. As it has been from the time of the Fall into sin until now, this is finally and very simply a matter of life or death, cosmos or chaos.
Powerful and spot on. Thanks, Scott!
Amen and amen. Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Thank you.
I agree completely with your comment about the internet, trolls, and the purveyors of completely unsupported conspiracy theories. (Apropos of your thesis, one of the NY Times regular op-ed authors has sworn off using Twitter for similar reasons.)
That said, I am confused by your opening, particularly the second paragraph. The image you paint of creation before sin (God holding the chaos in check) is inconsistent with the physics, particularly, the thermodynamics, of our current world. Do you think that creation operated under a different set of physical (and biological) laws before the fall? This is not an easy question to answer, because either answer, and there really are only two answers, introduces a subsequent set of pretty tough questions.
PS. Ray and I were high school classmates and good friends. Maybe I should ask him this question ….
Thanks, Tom. First, by all means ask Ray, too! 🙂 I don’t have time to craft the kind of nuanced reply your questions warrant. Suffice it to say for now that my understanding of early Genesis is that this is a theological-poetic myth. “Myth” not in the sense of something that never happened but in the sense Peter Enns uses it as “an ancient, premodern, prescientific way of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories. Who are we? Where do we come from?” Such stories are theologically true but ought not lead to a literal application to cosmological questions not in view in the crafting of these stories. I do not believe in different physical laws operating way back when–that is, to insisting on a different set of physical laws based on no evidence but in an effort to prop up a literal reading of early Genesis. But I can read the creation story as well as the Flood narrative as theologically true, as revealing God’s ultimate purpose for the world in which we find ourselves. God’s desire for flourishing, for delight, for shalom are woven into his ultimate plans for the creation. That human sin further complicated things morally–and had an effect on even the physical earth somehow–is also part of the story. When I read God created everything “good,” I do not read that as everything “perfect” as we have tended to do. “Good” can include shifting tectonic plates (earthquakes) and lightning and maybe even animals being true to who they were made to be in terms of predation. None of this is simple, all of it is fraught with difficulty in fact, and hewing to my Reformed Confessional commitments gets a little trickier (but is still, I firmly believe, true for me). Anyway . . . all of which to say, I find the narratives of early Genesis theologically rich and true even though I understand their function–and the state of the early earth–in ways that accord with what God has revealed to us through also the natural world.
So wonderfully relevant — appropriately angry and measured . Thanks.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I have too often been an agent of chaos.