Down by the Riverside – the rivers of creation

Within the second creation narrative of Genesis there is a moment of pause – a kind of aside. Within the second creation narrative we have first of all the formation of the earth creature, the man, from dust of the earth. Then we have the garden established by God with trees and fruit that provide nourishment; and there are the trees of knowledge of good and evil.

And after all of that is described there is a moment of pause – a kind of aside.

Before the narrative goes on to discuss the human vocation of stewardship, and before the warning not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and before the creation woman in completion of the human – there is a moment of pause – a kind of aside.

In that aside there is the sound of running water.

In that aside there is a large watershed where rainfall and melting snow run together to become a creek and then stream and then river.

In that aside there is a source of irrigation for fields and forests, animals and humans.

Here are the words of that aside in the second creation narrative: “A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”

Biblical scholars suggest that perhaps this portion of text was a later addition to the creation narrative. The book of Genesis in its final form only comes to us out of a long oral tradition, and comes from the hands of different authors and editors who composed it over generations in tradition of Hebrew faith and life. We don’t know exactly how the final text of Genesis was formed – and we don’t know exactly how this pause, this aside in the narrative came to be in the narrative.

But what a beautiful pause in the narrative. What a beautiful aside in this telling of the story of creation. A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.

Four rivers are named. Two of the named rivers were well known in antiquity and are known today. The Euphrates and the Tigris – rivers that both originate in what is modern day Turkey and then move south until they become one river, eventually emptying into the Persian Gulf. The other two rivers that are named are a mystery – the names are not fully understood, the references are not clear; there are a number of rivers that could be referred to; it really is a mystery.

But in fact the specific names of these rivers aren’t really that important. In the same way that the creation narratives of Genesis are concerned with so much more than factual or scientific details – in the same way, this aside isn’t really about the names of the specific rivers – it isn’t about geographically locating Eden.

Which is to say that when we read the creation narratives we aren’t faced with the question of whether this is a true, factual account of the worlds beginnings. So there is no crisis of faith if we discover that woman wasn’t taken from man’s side – there is no crisis of faith if some other factual detail doesn’t correspond with what the physicists and evolutionary biologists tell us.  The creation narratives of Genesis are poetic and narrative retellings of the origins of our world – and they are offered to us by an ancient people with faith-filled imaginations. The creation narratives are truthful inasmuch as they tell us that God gives the world as a gift; they are truthful inasmuch as they tell us that our world has no life apart from God; they are truthful inasmuch as they tell us that God was there from the beginning.

So if there are questions that confront us as we read these narratives – they are questions of faith. What we want to ask this morning, more specifically, is concerning this beautiful little aside – we want to ask concerning this pause in the creation narrative. This is the question: Do we believe that the God who gives our world as a gift extends grace and goodness into the whole world?

That’s what this little aside – this pause in the narrative – is all about. Eden is the place of God’s creation of the human. Eden is the place of the human’s first encounter with God. Eden is a time and place and territory where human’s enjoy the gifts and company of God. Eden is God’s country. And from that place, from God’s country, flow rivers that carry refreshment and goodness out to the known world. The specific rivers that are named remind us that these verses are rooted in the life and faith of a particular people in ancient near east – but the broader message of these verses is that the God of creation extends his goodness and grace to the whole world.

From the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – from the God who shows his face in Jesus – from God’s country, a river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it becomes four rivers into the world.

As we think about this, we could pursue this figuratively or metaphorically. We could talk about the rivers of love and forgiveness that extend from God into our lives and world. We could talk about rivers of creativity and imagination that extend from God into our lives and world. We could talk about so many different ways that the goodness of God extends out to the world.

But this morning I’d like to stay rather concrete – or, better, perhaps – liquid. We’ll spend a few moments thinking about rivers themselves. Obviously we can’t go far with this in a few minutes – but we can make a start.

As I mentioned during the announcements, I’m inviting you to share your stories about experiences with rivers and around rivers. I sent out an email earlier this week to those on email to share their stories. The simplest of stories or longer reflections.

Carol Silvius sent me a simple story about one of her experiences on a river – it was in Algonquin park during a canoe trip. She and a friend came across a beaver dam and spent some time exploring. At one point, Carol recounts that she took off her shoes to get a better grip while they were exploring the dam. After they were finished at the dam, Carol and her friend continued on with their paddle, and about an hour or so later, Carol realized, she had left her shoes at the dam. When they eventually turned back they discovered the shoes had been firmly wedged into the dam itself. As Carol said, eager beavers, indeed.

Most of us have these wonderful stories of encounter with rivers – we swim in rivers, we discover wildlife along rivers, we drink from rivers, we slip and fall in rivers, we see rivers rise and wane in the course of the year. Inevitably we interact with the created world and with rivers, since we are part of the created world. It leaves its mark on us, and we leave our mark on it. That is the nature of our existence.

Rivers are part of the great water cycle that makes life possible in the world God gives as a gift. When we sit in a canoe on the waters of Algonquin Park or on the waters of Parc de la Mauricie, we know the river as a treasure to be respected and received with gratitude.

But sometimes our interaction with rivers moves from enjoyment, and from incidental interaction to more widespread and negative impact. This past week, researchers from Queens University and Environment Canada published results of a study of a number of lakes within 20 to 90 kilometers of oil sands production in northern Alberta. They report that all of these lakes have seen increased levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s for short) over the past several decades.

These hydrocarbons are sometimes naturally present in rivers and lakes, but they are also produced when petroleum is burned, as in oil sands production. And these researchers have confirmed that the increased levels of these chemicals are a direct result of oil sands production. PAH’s are cancer-causing chemicals that are also linked to infertility, immune disorders and mutations in fish. Now the lead researcher on the project has pointed out that these rivers and lakes are by no means pollution pits – the present level of contamination is no greater than that of an urban lake. But the rate of increase of these chemicals is the concern. With expansion of the oil sands in coming years, there is little doubt that the negative impact will become more substantial and widespread.

The rivers of God’s grace – the rivers that flow from God and from God’s country – are for the good of our lives and our world – are for our enjoyment and our health, are for our refreshment and enjoyment – but many rivers are becoming contaminated. In some cases human activity means that rivers are becoming a place and source of harm and deformation.

Where is Christ in the midst of all of this? What does Jesus Christ mean in the midst of all of this? Is Jesus just some peripheral figure – an ancient teacher from 2000 years ago who only fits awkwardly into this picture of modern environmental concern?

That might be the way we think about the significance of Jesus for the environment – perhaps we can’t imagine his significance. In terms of religious faith we may think vaguely of a God out there who expects us to care for creation and for the rivers of creation. In that scenario, Jesus is just a wise, ancient teacher – perhaps someone who can teach us about the spiritual life, but that’s about it.

But from the perspective of the New Testament, Jesus fits into this picture much more intimately and importantly that we might have imagined.

We read this morning from Paul’s letter to the Colossians – we read words there that echo what John says in the opening chapters of his gospel. Paul writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

It is a mystery that Paul declares – and the mystery is this: That the Jesus who walked in Galilee two thousand years ago was with God in the beginning. That the Jesus who gathered disciples, who taught in the synagogue, who ended up crucified by the Romans – this Jesus was with God in the beginning.

Even more, that by the grace and wisdom of the ever-living Jesus, the world was made – by his love and mercy the world is held together.

In terms of our beautiful moment of pause this morning – in terms of that lovely aside in the creation narrative, we are saying this:

the living Jesus stands at the origin watercourses, extending refreshment;

the living Jesus stands in God’s country extending goodness and joy to the world;

the living Jesus, one with God, gives the rivers for our life and delight.

In the most concrete sense possible, God in Christ, God with Christ, gives rivers as the source of human life, as essential to human life, as vital to the wellbeing of our world – gives the waters as a basic and beautiful feature of creation.

Jesus isn’t peripheral to our environmental concern – he’s at its heart.

Jesus isn’t peripheral to our concern for the rivers – he’s at the heart of our concern.

In life together with the risen Jesus, we are invited to a deep care for the creation given through him – the creation we inhabit only by his grace. And this means something for the level of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the Athabasca river system – it means something for the toxins and chemicals that pollute our own St. Lawrence River. It means something for public policy around protecting river systems and preventing pollution from entering those systems. It means something for political process in which we all have a role to play. Christ isn’t peripheral to our concern for the rivers – he’s at the heart of our concern.

“A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.” In God’s grace the rivers are given – given through Christ for the life and refreshment of the world. And our life with Christ means seeking the wellbeing of our rivers – means that we seek our world’s refreshment with him.

Thanks be to God for our rivers. Amen.


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