Thursday, 12 February 2009

The End of Creation: re-reading Genesis 1

In recent weeks I’ve been wrestling with Genesis 1-3, fascinated by what it has to say, but also aware that it involves numerous crux interpeta, around which people become either sensitive or triumphalistic. (The sensitive worry about orthodoxy, the triumphalistic claim, ‘Aha, so you also disbelieve what I disbelieve after all!’)
Part of the problem, I am sure, is that we approach the text through our framework, rather than that of the original audience. (I can hear the triumphalistic already ruffling through Thiselton on the two horizons in hermeneutics.)
But hear me out. The question is not whether we have to understand the Bible differently today — ‘today’ of course being, in this context, a constantly changing reference point — but whether, in neglecting to consider the original context, we have missed what always was and always will be the message of Genesis within the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
When we consider the perspective of the Ancient Near Eastern author(s?) and audience, the most striking thing about Genesis 1 is not that God made the world (our point of contention) but that no other gods were involved (a radical idea, from their perspective).
In the surrounding cultures, gods were everywhere. More than that, what we think of as ‘natural phenomena’, such as the sun and moon, and even day-to-day events such as fertility, were active manifestations of these gods. By contrast, in Genesis 1 there is simply God and the world God has made. Moreover Genesis 1, if I have understood this correctly, allows us to think of ‘natural phenomena’ as properties of the world, not (directly) ‘acts of God’. Thus in v 11, we read,
And God said, “Let the earth put forth grass, herbs yielding seed, and fruit-trees bearing fruit after their kind, wherein is the seed thereof ...”
God commands, but it is the earth that ‘puts forth’ plants, and it is the plants that produce other plants.
Yet even here, we are in danger of missing the message of Genesis 1 if we read it solely to work out ‘how’ the world came to be — whether we focus on the ‘how’ of God’s word, or the ‘how’ of the time period it took. For those things are surely secondary to the ‘why’.
And the answer to the ‘why’ lies in the one thing which is so often ignored in controversies over Genesis 1, namely Genesis 2, and the institution of the Sabbath.
So often, Genesis 2:1-3 is treated as a kind of appendix to Genesis 1. It even gets put in a new chapter! Yet clearly it belongs in the narrative with the previous events on the preceding six days.
In fact, far from being a ‘PS’ to creation, I am suggesting that the Sabbath of the seventh day must be understood as the goal and purpose of creation, to which the events of chapter 1 are actually the preliminaries.
I would say this not least because in the rest of Scripture the Sabbath becomes a symbol of God’s purposes in redemption. The writer of Hebrews explains this in terms of the rest promised in Psalm 95, referring back to the original Sabbath of creation:
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. 2 For us also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. 3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. 4 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” (Heb 4:1-4, NIV)
The same point is reflected in the fact that we have two justifications for the Sabbath in the different versions of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:11, the Sabbath is to be kept because “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” In Deuteronomy 5:15, however, it is to be kept because, “you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
At first the two accounts seem contradictory, but in fact they are complementary: the purpose and goal of creation is the Sabbath, and the purpose and goal of redemption is, likewise, the Sabbath. Genesis 1-2, then, is not about six days of creating the world, after which God took a rest. Rather, it is about creating God’s resting place. It is this which is, properly speaking, the ‘End’ of creation.
The details of Genesis 1, then, should be read in terms of constructing the ‘resting place’. Of course, this resting place is ‘the world as we know it’, but it was also the world as ancient Israel knew it — significant not for the mechanics of how it works but the purpose for which it is made to work.
In this respect, what matters most of all about the shape of the account is that there is progress as well as process. The ‘days’ do not just presume a passage of time but present a development towards a goal.
Moreover, the starting point of creation (which is almost as neglected as the Sabbath at the other end) gives us a clear indication of the direction of this progress, for we begin not with light and perfection but darkness and chaos. The Hebrew is marvellously alliterative: ‘tohu wa’vohu’, or as we might say, “unformed and unfilled”.
And although the Spirit of God was present, hovering over the waters, there is a clear (though often missed) contrast between this and the ‘rest’ of the seventh day — a day, moreover, which has no evening and morning to bring it to an end.
Between the beginning and the end of creation, then, lies a process of differentiation, forming, filling and, above all preparation: the realm of time (light and darkness separated to form a ‘day’) is prepared for the lights in the heavens, the land is prepared for the plants, the sky and sea are prepared for the birds and the fish, and the realm of land and plants is prepared for the land animals.
But above all else, everything is prepared for Man, (the singular is essential to capture the essence of the Hebrew adam, the singular reference in Genesis 1:27, and the theological rationale of the ‘new man’ of Ephesians 2:15-16.)
We have said that the surprising thing about Genesis 1 is not the creative work of God but the absence of other gods. And in the ancient world those gods were, of course, represented by idols. But now we read God saying that he should make an idol of himself. The word tselem, translated ‘image’ in Genesis 1:26, means exactly the kind of image people were not allowed to make in order to worship. And again, the word ‘likeness’ is the thing that the manufacturer of an idol can’t capture in Isaiah 40:18.
Thus God is imaged in his creation, and, through his image he will exercise his kingly rule. But the blessing of Genesis 1:28, and the command specifically to subdue the earth, speak of further process and progress.
Thus we may suggest that the ‘resting place’ of Genesis 2 is not absolute — a suggestion surely borne out by subsequent developments. What we have here is not a ‘perfect’ (ie finished or complete) world, but a world of potential — a world, and a project, which has started but has not yet finished, even though its final shape is foreshadowed in the seventh day Sabbath.
John P Richardson
12 February 2009
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  1. a timely reflection, John, thank you. I certainly agree with you about the contrast between the Genesis creation account and those of other ANE cultures. It is as if the writer(s? not that I think JDEP is any good) of Genesis are engaging in a polemic against their cultural neighbours, as in, "you lot worship the sun the moon and the stars, but look, YHWH made the sun the moon and the stars."
    In the same vein, the Genesis accounts have the world made from nothing, whereas I recall that other ANE accounts have the world created by one god from the dead body of another god (was it Tiamat?) this shows YHWH's superiority as he is so powerful he can created ex nihilo rather than with something "prepared earlier"!

    So for me Genesis 1&2 (& for that matter 3-11) are about the why of creation and prehistory, about establishing the pre-eminence of YHWH over all other gods, and as you rightly say, if I have understood, foreshadowing the eternal rest of the new creation in Christ. This has so much more value than the use of Genesis as an anti-evolutionary textbook. It was never meant to do the science, just the theology and the politics (of the ANE)

  2. Hi Tim. It wasn't just dead bodies of gods - sometimes other bits and pieces were used as well, but yes, it is significant.

    I think I would want to say also that although Genesis 1 is not a 'scientific' text-book, it is an account of the 'scientific' world. There is nothing in Genesis 1 which we would today find particularly bizarre or 'mythical'. It is essentially the same world of time (day 1), space (day 2), land and sea, plants, visible stellar objects, fish, birds, animals and human beings.

    So I would want to say it is also of relevance to, and essentially consistent with, our 'scientific' view, even though it is not exhaustive in its description. But we must not succumb to acting as if this were the key point and that this is where all our interest should lie.

  3. Fascinating stuff - always exciting to stumble upon a new idea, as this is to me. On my 'to do' list has long been a proper examination of learned theological views on biblical sabbath teaching. I have heard very little - or very little convincing - regarding where Jesus' fulfilment of the Law leaves us regarding sabbath observance. My good old grandad would always turn off Sunday Grandstand as a matter of principle... (although there was never anything on that but snooker and skiing anyway... does snooker count as exercise? I digress...)