“Mother died today.” This jolting sentence opens Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger. The reader is immediately startled, troubled even. Who’s speaking? And why is he so casually indifferent in grief? These three terse words—Mother died today—do critical work. They capture readers’ curiosity to follow this story, wherever it leads.
Whether it’s a secular work or the Bible, principles of good writing are universal. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” says novelist Stephen King. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King admits that before he begins work on a novel, he spends months composing the first sentences and opening paragraphs in his head. “If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know that I can do the book.”
Writers understand that opening sentences and paragraphs carry a lot of narrative heft. But they can’t tell too much or too little. Figuratively, they have to leave the story’s door propped open just enough to entice the reader to enter. As a reader and a writer, I like seeing what I can deduce about the whole of a story from its beginning.
I bring this curiosity about opening sentences and paragraphs even to the Bible, which means that Genesis has always been my favorite book. How does God initiate us into His story? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). To a reader standing on the first sentence of Scripture, the story feels granite-hard. In the beginning suggests to me stability in the narrative arc. Intuitively, I interpret His story as purposed for something good, as headed somewhere safe.
The promise of Genesis 1—of the story—is its structure. It’s as if Genesis 1 has a literary endoskeleton, its refrains acting like bones. We are spared surprise. We can see what’s coming. Then God said, let there be, there was evening and there was morning, it was good: The predictable patterns soothe. Scholars have argued for the poetic nature of Genesis 1, and even in English, it reads like a consoling rhyme. The rhythmic repetition gives the creation narrative its shape, just as God gives shape to the world’s formlessness. What was once vacant, brooding darkness, what was once an empty page, explodes with light and life and poetic form: “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The story gets written, and the world is architected; self-satisfied, God rests from the refrain.
How we want our faith to play like Genesis 1, like a lilting, familiar, predictable melody. If it all began as convincingly as “in the beginning,” should we not expect a linear life from God?
But surprise, not predictability, seems to be the course for the rest of Scripture’s first book. There is catastrophe as early as Genesis 3, and the chapter ends in exile. Adam and Eve are cast from the garden, made aliens and strangers by their fateful decision to mistrust God and disobey His command. There is murder in Genesis 4, and Cain, the criminal, is exiled for his blood-bathed jealousy of his brother Abel.
In Genesis 6, the divine self-satisfaction of Genesis 1 turns to a mysterious, visceral remorse: “The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart” (v. 6). And though Noah and his family are rescued from the flood of judgment, the cycle of human wandering begins anew in earnest. In Genesis 11, the rebellion grows tall into a tower of pride. “Let us make for ourselves a name,” God’s people declare (v. 4), as if shaking their collective fist at Him and His purposes for the beginning.
Where is the story heading now? And what happened to the stability we as readers had been led to expect? Even with Abram on the scene in chapter 12 (and the regenerated hope he brings to the purposes of God’s beginning), there is interminable waiting. Waiting on the story. Waiting on God.
Some of our deductions from Genesis 1—about God and the predictable story He’s supposed to be writing—wobble with uncertainty. As well they should. Perhaps this could be an argument for reading the whole of the Bible and not simply extracting the parts that confirm our preferences. In the beginning is a dandy way for God to begin. Don’t we all like knowing, with a fair degree of certainty, where we are headed? Spare us Your surprises, God!
But if the rest of Genesis teaches us anything, it reminds us that the ways of the Lord cannot be patterned and predicted. Yes, in the beginning, God set into motion great good to be fulfilled fully and finally in Christ, and this promise is rocklike beneath our feet. Nevertheless, those who commit to following I AM who I AM can’t ask for more narrative light than a partially open door.
Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
The fragility—and hope—of all our stories
A few weeks ago, the morning after the party my husband and I threw for one another’s 40th birthday, I stood in the shower, heaving unexpected sobs. The goodness of our friends gathering the evening before, the cherishing of the promises we had made to each other, the bewilderment that life had ended up somewhere strange—the acuteness of the joy, the simultaneity of the pain: It racked me. Nothing lasts. It’s all going so quickly. I can’t save any of this. And I can’t predict what’s next.
To be human, living post-Genesis 3, is to suffer a terrible fragility. I’ve survived enough loss in my life to understand the threats of impermanence that terrorize us: the death of my father when I was 18, the suicide of my brother when I was 23. These chapters in my story remind me that in a matter of moments, all of our stories could careen off the road, leaving us with shattered expectations and unanswered questions.
In truth, I would like a little advance notice on pending surprises. I wish God owed me that much. Can’t I know where this story heads? But Genesis reminds me that God offers no rehearsal of His scripts. This book weans me from my desire for predictions. Nevertheless, Genesis 1 does not leave me bereft of promises. Beginning means middle means end: There is reliability here.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is Himself good. He is the Father who never leaves or forsakes. And the goodness He originally intended for His world is a goodness to which it will one day be restored. That’s because the death, resurrection, and eventual return of Jesus Christ will eternally end death and its terrible threat of impermanence. It’s in the hope of this story—the gospel story—that we find stability for our own.
Illustrations by Jeff Gregory
by Jen Pollock Michel