Zimzum and the God of Creation

I’m beginning a sermon series this morning on Creation using the first chapter of Genesis as a jumping off point. While this is out of sequence with our lectionary cycle, my course work on the Doctor of Ministry degree that I am pursuing has had me thinking about creation, the climate crisis, and our response for most of the year. While I don’t generally like moving away from the assigned readings for the week—it can lead to avoiding hard texts—we only read the Genesis 1 account twice over the course of three years; either it’s during late Spring on Trinity Sunday, or on the first Sunday after the Epiphany in early January. That’s it, quick passes on this text that focuses on so much.

A Sermon based on Genesis 1:1-5.

So, for the next four weeks we’ll be reading through this first creation account—a reminder that in Genesis there are in fact two different accounts of the Creation. However, I can assure you there won’t be anything in those sermons about believing in a strict six day account. Clearly science has shown that the earth is much, much older than the 6,000 or so years that a literal view of scripture would provide, never mind the evidence of evolution. And so we begin at the very beginning. Even before time.

The writer of Genesis starts with, “In the beginning God…” and with those four words much debate has taken place in theological circles. As a good Anglican, I’ll present the two most prevalent understandings, and then consider a third way. First, the one you’ve likely heard about at some point. Many theologians suggest that God created “out of nothing”—ex nihilo, they say in the Latin. God, way back in the beginning, looked out across the nothingness and declared, “Let there be light,” and, Genesis tells us, with these powerful words from God into the nothingness, light emerged. There was in fact light! And it was good! And so God separated the light from the dark, and that was the First Day. 

God, the all powerful One, spoke into the nothingness and created through the Word. This may sound a bit familiar, as John the Evangelist will echo this language when he writes the Prologue to his gospel, that the Word was with God in the beginning and that everything was created by the Word, which of course is Jesus. So that’s the first and more prominent understanding: God creates out of nothing. 

The second interpretation focuses on the chaos present. You may have noticed that in our reading, Genesis says that the earth was formless and void at the time of God’s creation. It was a waste, an emptiness, and God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos. While some theologians see God speaking into the nothingness, others see God taking the maelstrom that existed in the beginning and ordering it. God’s first act for these theologians was to see this watery deep of disarray and redeem it. In the act of Creation, God saves the formless void and gives it meaning. The ones who hold to this understanding see a similarity in Jesus bringing redemption, order, and salvation to the world. That the story of that redemption began at the very beginning when God ordered the chaos.

However, 20th century German theologian Jürgen Moltmann—the mentor of one of my seminary professors—rejects both of these ideas. In his theological treatise, God in Creation, Prof. Moltmann says neither of these can be right because both begin with some other thing existing alongside God before God creates. He argues forcefully that only God could exist at the very beginning. That if anything else existed with God—be it the chaos and waste of the earth, or even the expansive nothingness—then those things would be equal with God for all of eternity. There can only be God.

You can likely see that this is problematic, because if there wasn’t either nothingness or chaos and only God, then how could God create ex nihilo? If there was no nothing—never mind a dark, watery chaos—then how did God work?

Prof. Moltmann suggests that there was only one way for God to do this. He states that once God determined to create, God did so by limiting, withdrawing, and becoming humble. God began by making space within Godself. While agreeing with those who believed that God created entirely out of nothing, Prof. Moltmann pivots from an image of God speaking into the nothingness around God out of extreme power to one of God drawing back and forming a type of womb, creating the space for the nothingness to exist inside of God in order for the cosmos to be birthed. He writes, “[God] ‘creates’ by letting-be, by making room, and by withdrawing himself,” and this “letting-be” is best understood through “motherly categories.” God conceives the entirety of the cosmos through a posture of humility, of opening up the space within God’s very being in order to create new life.

And this suggestion was—and frankly, still is—pretty radical. Prof. Moltmann turned to the Jewish mystical tradition in order to find a word for this concept: zimzum. It means withdrawing, contracting, and limiting oneself in order to make space. But this would mean that God began in creation with limiting Godself, and not as the all powerful one speaking into the chaos. This was where the critics came against Moltmann, determined that they didn’t like a view of God that began in this way, eschewing power for humility. But if you hold to that position, then other things existed with God—other things were on the same level with God—and that is problematic. 

So God needed to make space—needed to create a womb—in which every living thing could come alive. Without God’s self-emptying, there would not be the area—not even the nothingness—through which God could act in creation. God could only act through significant self-limitation and love. And as such Motlmann writes, “God…, as Creator took upon himself the form of a servant.” Rather than God’s first act being one of power of speaking things into creation or ordering the deep and violent chaos, God’s first act was to become a servant.

If you’re anything like me, hearing about zimzum, about God withdrawing to make a womb and taking the form of a servant, is mind-blowing, and yet, it makes so much sense. If we believe that God is the only one that existed, that nothing else was equal with God, then this is the only idea that makes sense. And God does it out of love. In zimzum, we see the very foundation of God’s love for us and for the whole of the created universe.

The language of God taking the form of a servant may be ringing a bell for you too. It’s the same description St. Paul uses in his epistle to the Philippians to describe how Jesus emptied himself at the Incarnation, even though he was equal with God, taking the form of a servant. Jesus comes to the earth in love, in order to bring us forgiveness, wholeness, a newness of life. Jesus emptied himself for us.

Just as God did at the creation of the world. This is important to explore because of how we frame our understanding of God. If God has to battle with chaos, the beginning image of God is of a warrior, a fighter. Even if God creates by speaking into the nothingness, God must work against some other power—again an image of conflict. God in opposition to the other. But if we hold onto zimzum, then God begins in love. God starts by imaging bringing something else into being, to create new life.

Which sounded too much like feminine qualities for the theologians—most of whom were male—and so they chose to stick with the image of a powerful God in battle with and overcoming something else—either chaos or nothingness. But if we embrace zimzum, if we hold that God who is neither male nor female began with self-giving love, well then our relationship with God will reflect that too. That God who opened up room within Godself because of love will not reject us as the very beings God made. God longs to be in relationship with us and with the whole of the natural world. And God desires us to embrace love as our foundational quality too. 

Far too often we see God as far away or even angry. God as one who is fickle. But when we see God incarnate in the person of Jesus, we see healing, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness. God remains with us. We can see this from the beginning when God embraced the way of zimzum. God chose the way of self-giving love for us and for all of creation. May we cherish and hold onto that deep love of God, who made the space within God’s very being in order to form us and all of creation.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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