This is the second in a five part series called “In the Beginning,” exploring various creation stories.
Psalm 121 – A Song of Ascents
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.
Have you ever tried to climb a mountain? Have you ever looked at mountain and just thought not today, some day, but not today. Mountains have rich symbolism in human culture and language. They often are symbolic of an obstacle something that prevents us from reaching our goal. Yet paradoxically mountains are also symbolic of a goal, of a place, we must reach – a place where we might find wisdom or an epiphany. In the biblical world mountains are places where God is encountered. Recall the story of the 10 commandments, it is on a mountain that Moses comes face to face with God. The transfiguration of Jesus, when his glory is revealed to his disciples, it happens on top of a mountain. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “I’ve been to the Mountain Top,” borrowing biblical images he proclaims that he has been to the mountaintop that God has “allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” Mountains represent everything we cannot do, yet know, we some how must do.
In Psalm 121, known as the song of ascents, the psalmist looks at the mountains – the hills – in distress and asks where does my help come from? The answer, the Lord, the one who will not let us stumble as we try to get up over the mountain. If you ever have tried to climb a mountain, or even just a large hill you may know how the psalmist feels. I certainly do. I remember a trip I took with my partner to Las Vegas. We were staying near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and decided to explore the canyons and incredible landscape. We looked at the hiking trail on the map and decided to try the easier one. Well, some how we ended up on the hard trail, hiking the entire 6 km Mountain loop. At one point there was the boulder we had to get over and squeeze by another to continue on. I know in that moment I felt like quitting that this was more than I planned on. And yet when we reached the highest point, I couldn’t deny the beauty before me. I was tired and hot, and in that moment if you had asked me if it was worth it, I would have said no. But looking back now it was a moment when you feel like you can do anything, that you can overcome obstacles. It is those moments and stories of reaching the mountain top that can sustain us when it feels like we will never overcome the challenges, the injustice and all that life throws at us. The promise of the Psalmist reminds us that when surrounded by mountains help will come, it will come from the maker of heaven and earth.
Mountains are often a symbol of an obstacle to overcome in our culture. In the Chinese creation story of Pan Gu and Nu Wa, mountains are a reminder of sacrifice, and that the power of creation is greater than destruction. As you read the story,* I invite you to reflect on the mountains in our society, how God is calling us to respond and to remember that power of creation is greater than destruction.
They say that long ago there was nothing in the universe only an enormous egg. Inside two forces were scrambled together: the murky, opaque Yin, and the limpid, transparent Yang. Over a long period-some say it took 6,570,000 days (18,000 years)—these energies and substances came into balance, and out of the mix there appeared a hairy, two-horned, two-tusked giant named Pan Gu. The giant opened his eyes and saw only darkness. He listened with his ears and heard only silence. He conjured up a magical ax and swung-landing a mighty chop on the shell of the egg, which divided in two with an ear-splitting crack. Slowly the Yin and the Yang began to separate. All that was dark and heavy sank down and formed the earth, while all that was light and clear floated upward and became the heavens. But would the two halves of the newly created universe come back together? Pan Gu stood anxiously between them and held them apart. As each day passed, the earth thickened by three meters (ten feet) and the sky rose another three meters above him. Pan Gu needed to grow himself to keep up with the expansion.
The giant toiled for another 6,570,000 days, until he felt sure that things were securely held in place, and let loose his grip. Exhausted from his long labors to create the world, Pan Gu then lay down and died. Suddenly a miraculous transformation happened. Pan Gu’s last breath turned into wind and clouds, his voice became thunder, his left eye turned into the sun, his right eye the moon. Pan Gu’s hair and beard were transformed into the stars of the Milky Way, his arms and legs became the tall mountains of the west, and the blood that once flowed through his veins was changed into the water that would course thereafter in China’s mighty rivers. Pan Gu’s teeth and nails became precious gems and minerals, his bone marrow diamonds, the fine hairs on his skin vegetation, his muscles the fertile land, the fleas on his fur the wild animals, and the sweat from all his hard work the rainwater that would nurture the world. Born out of a cosmic egg, Pan Gu is now nowhere, yet he is everywhere-for he gave his life and offered his body to make the world.
Long after Pan Gu created the world, the serpent-tailed goddess Nu Wa would make the trees and flowers, the birds and tame animals; but she felt the need to create someone with whom to share it all. So Nu Wa knelt down in the mud by the sea and molded a figure resembling herself, except she gave it legs instead of a long tail like her own. She breathed into the figure to give it life. Nu Wa was very pleased with the way her sculpture turned out, so she made another like it, and another, and another a host of men and women. They all sang and danced, giving thanks to their creator.
But there were other gods in the world who were not as peace-loving as Nu Wa, and they set about destroying the world Pan Gu had created. There was Gong Gong, the water god, and Zhu Rong, god of fire. They constantly argued over who was more important and when these powerful deities fought, the earth cringed in fear. Earthquakes shook the world; tidal waves and tsunamis flooded it. Volcanoes exploded and set the land afire. The violent pair took their battles up to the heavens, where thunder sounded and lightning flashed. Gong Gong banged his head against Mount Buzhou, one of the eight pillars that held up the sky. Then all four pillars began to crumble and the sky was torn open. Half of it fell down and the earth’s axis tilted to the southeast, while what was left of the sky rose to the northwest. Then all the water began to drain from the northwest to the southeast.
Next Gong Gong and Zhu Rong unleashed monsters of their own on the world-dragons and snakes and huge birds. The frightened humans appealed to Nu Wa to save them from total destruction. Just as she had used her hands to create the first humans, Nu Wa set to work. To repair the tear in the sky, she gathered many different colored stones. She melted them in the wildfires, flew up with them, and used them to patch the sky back together. Then she turned to the crumbling pillars. She searched for the biggest turtle she could find and asked him to help out. He agreed and swam down to the bottom of the sea. He turned himself upside down and thrust out his leg to hold up the sky. Nu Wa put out all the fires by gathering up the ashes to smother the flames, and she piled together reeds and pebbles to stop the surging waters. Next she turned her attention to the monsters, for she knew there would be no peace in the world with them constantly swooping down. She reached out her hand and grabbed one of the biggest dragons by the tail, twirling it around faster and faster. All the other monsters looked on in wonder, thinking to themselves: “if this is what a goddess can do, there’s no way we can fight her and expect to win.” So they slunk off and hid themselves, vowing never again to disturb the humans. Meanwhile Zhu Rong and Gong Gong, who had been watching Nu Wa in amazement, realized that her power of creation must be stronger than their combined forces of destruction, so they ceased fighting. Like Pan Gu, Nu Wa, drained from her labors, lay down on the ground and her body became the huge mountain range in the west.
This is how the world returned to peace and beauty. The people rejoiced over the goddess who had given them life. They will never forget what Nu Wa did for the world, thanks to her leaving one trace-a single reminder of the work she had performed with her hands: When she mended the heavens, they remained slightly tilted to the northwest because of the damage done by Gong Gong. That’s why the sun, moon, and stars move along daily paths toward the west centered on the Pole Star of the north. They say this is also why the western region of China remained higher than the east, and its rivers still flow toward the south and east.
*This story is from Creation Stories: Landscapes and the Human Imagination, by Anthony Avendi