All the peoples and cultures surrounding Israel in the Ancient Near East of the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. had cosmogonies (creation stories). None of them are told in a manner that approximates what we would consider today “scientific” (primarily because those ways of thinking about origins did not and could not exist at that time and place). Israel’s creation stories in Genesis 1-2 strive to be intelligible to its own people and in conversation with these other stories (often called “myths” – which is not necessarily a bad word!). To do so required Israel to “speak the language” of the times, the language and concepts others were using to make clear what it intended by its own stories and how those stories differed from those told by other peoples. Let’s all this the missionary and apologetic aims of Genesis 1-2 which serve and extend its primary theological purposes.
Creation stories in the Ancient Near East serve varied purposes.
1. Some describe the world in such a way that human beings can locate and understand themselves in the world’s order. Genesis 1-2 can be read from this angle as a description of “home” for human creatures, a place where they belong and have a role and purpose. Genesis 1 structures its story in terms of a place (first three days) and a placing in this place of vegetation, land, air, and water creatures, and humanity. The effect of this unfolding of creation in all its orderly abundance suggests this is a good “home” for all God has created. Of course, God himself pronounces just this verdict over his handiwork. Humanity’s creation in God’s “image” and his royal representatives and care-takers of his creation reinforce this sense of creation’s goodness and our role in the “home economics” of this creation.
2. Other descriptions focus the nature of creation as “habitat.” That is, what kind of place is this, especially for the human beings who have to make and sustain life here. Is it a “friendly” habitat for humanity? Or will they experience and perceive it as a threat and challenge to wrest life from it? Or some combination of these? Are its processes stable and regular enough to establish routines and practices of food gathering and production? Are the resources sufficient to sustain life? What does it mean that human beings are to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15) the garden as habitat? Preaching/teaching from this angle has a clear message that God has inscribed this creation with the stability, regularity, and abundance necessary for a flourishing life for human beings who can learn to work and care for this habitat in a way that benefits all. An ecological or environmental mandate jumps off the pages of the Bible seen from this point of view. Neither a domineering use of creational resources for human whim and want nor a “tree-hugging” reverence for the creation that allows little or nothing done to it are appropriate to the Bible’s picture of this habitat. Rather, it seems clear that a responsible use of this creation to meet all humanity’s needs within an overall care for its integrity and flourishing is the Bible’s portrayal.
It is worth noting at this point that the unfolding description of this habitat in Genesis with God creating and assigning a place and role to the various elements offers a critique, a demythologizing, if you will, of aspects of creation considered to be deities in control of certain aspects of life. These deities needed to be worshiped and placated for them to offer their gifts to humanity. Often arbitrary and sometimes vicious, these gods and goddesses often worked at cross purposes and treated humanity as slaves to do the “grunt” work of maintaining creation they were tired of doing. Sun and Moon, for instance, were major deities in many of the religions of the region. In Genesis 1, however, they are only creations, astral bodies placed in the skies for purposes assigned them by God.
3. Often creation stories in Israel’s world were told as the construction of a cosmic temple, a “Hekal” in Hebrew. It’s become very clear in recent research that this is precisely what we have in Genesis 1 and 2. (Check out the article in Kerux from 2002 entitled “Garden Temple” by Gregory Beale at http://www.kerux.com/documents/keruxV18N2A1.htm or his “Eden, the temple and the church’s mission in the new creation.” http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-aPDFs/48/48-1/48-1-pp005-031_JETS.pdf JETS. March 2005 48(1): pp 5-31 for details.) This creation is to be the dwelling place of God and site of the eternal fellowship (communication, communion, and community) between God and humanity forever. And where does a God dwell? In a temple. Further, the words used for the roles God assigned to humanity (male and female, Genesis 1:27!) in the Garden (Genesis 2:15 again) are used together most often for the service of priests in the temple! This suggests that as divine image-bearers humanity is God’s family of royal (because God is the Great King) priests representing and expanding the boundaries of the Garden temple until they are coextensive with the world itself along with mediating God’s presence in this expanding temple by “protecting and serving” it (another way of translating the terms for “till and work” in Genesis 2:15). This is corroborated at the end of the biblical story with the vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, coextensive with God’s new creation and in the cubic shape of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple (the only other cubic-shaped structure in the Bible (1 Kings 6:20). Creation as a temple, a Hekal, a dwelling for God and humanity highlights God’s deepest intention for creation. We live in this world with God, for God, as his royal-priests serving in the expansion throughout the world of the temple it is destined to become.
4. The creation story has also be preached as a story of hope. Many ancient creation stories served to buttress the idea that the way things were was the way the gods wanted them to be. To try and change the way the world worked, then, was to act against the gods and court the divine punishment the authorized powers that be would swiftly and brutally deliver. Israel’s story, though, moves in the opposite direction. As we say in #3 the creation is not yet what it will be. The originating point, far from setting the way things are at that point in stone, set creature and creation on a journey to each’s full flourishing. In this maturing journey, even apart from sin, we will have to learn and discover how best to implement God’s order as we make our through life and across the creation. We are responsible for this due to our creation as God’s image-bearers and response-able to do it as those who live in constant communication, communion, and community with God. Sin tragically disrupts this journey and makes it infinitely more difficult, but still necessary. Jesus Christ, in whose image we are created and will be remade (Colossians 1:15; Romans 8:29), who would have come to be God with us and one of us (thus fulfilling God’s deepest desire to draw near his people) even apart from sin, takes on the task of reclaiming and restoring us to God’s divine intention through his life, death, and resurrection as well. Thus we have hope that the world of interdependent harmony, cooperation, generosity, and beauty prefigured in Genesis 1-2 will finally and fully become reality as pictured in Revelation 21-22. How things are, often quite unjust and oppressive for the many, is not how things have to be or are supposed to be. And the God of the Bible is indisputably and unreservedly on the side of changing things to more closely approximate the world he desires and will one day have. Hope, yes, the creation stories in Genesis are hope-full stories for those held down, put upon, and mistreated at present.
5. Another way of preaching/teaching the Genesis creation stories is to consider the date of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis – Deuteronomy. A consensus exists at present that these books did not take their final form, the form in which we have them, until after the exile to Babylon (6th century B. C.). And it was put together in this form as a response to the catastrophe of exile. Everything for Israel was put in question when Nebuchadnezzar and his armies destroyed Jerusalem, razed the temple, and hauled the best and the brightest of the land off to Babylon – God, their future, what their lives meant – everything. How might the struggling, dispirited faithful respond? For what might they hope now? The answer Genesis 1 provides is the people may hope for Help. It gives us a lexicon of salvation. When the “tohu wabohu” (‘formless void, Genesis 1:2) descends upon us – and exile was “tohu wabohu” to the nth degree – we are reminded here that such chaos is not beyond God’s interest or redemption. He will again utter his recreative “Let there be” and new order will take shape out of the chaos. And this recreative utterance will be matched by its fulfilment (“and it was so,” 1:7). Genesis 1 is a story of Help. The help that the God who creates and redeems alone can and will offer. The help that we can hope for when hope itself fails us!
Creation as Home, Habitat, Hekal (Temple), Hope, and Help. I hope my sketchy comments trying to begin to flesh out some directions a preacher/teacher might go with them. Even more, I hope all such folks will catch a vision of the fullness that lies within these texts and can and ought to be put to use regardless of how one treats the “scientific” issues. I suspect that over time a repeated exposition of the creation stories in this manner will reveal the poverty and irrelevance of the “scientific” issues we continue to struggle over today. And it may just lose its hold and drop aside in favor of the rich possibilities of reading these stories from other angles.
[Now I do believe there is an issue that must be contested in the “scientific” struggle over origins. But it is not whether to read Genesis 1 “literally” or not. It is evolutionism or scientism. When advocates of science or evolution rule out a theistic creation (even an evolutionary theistic one) because science tells us all we can or need to know about human and cosmic origins, then Christians, at least, must cry “foul.” Science, properly conceived and invaluable for its proper purpose, can only tell us what is and some parts of the story of how what is came to be. It cannot tell us whether or what kind of deity may stand behind the creative process. It’s when science becomes such an ideology (scientism, evolutionism), a philosophy that we must say “no.” But we don’t resist it by turning theology into science! Rather, we let Genesis 1 and 2 answer the “who,” “why,” and “where” questions – who is God? Who are we as God’s creatures, Why are we here? Where is creation going? - and let them frame and interpret whatever account of origins the best science of our time affords us. Bad science (science as ideology or philosophy) and bad theology (theology as science) have created the huge distraction of creationism/intelligent design vs. science that continues to haunt our approach to Genesis 1 and 2. It’s time to let that go, isn’t it, and turn to riches we so easily ignore in these wonderful texts?]