I want to make sure that we understand the overall context of the Bible’s opening verses and what they are saying in a big picture way. Too often we get bogged down in details, examining small phrases, that we forget the over-arching context which includes the literary material as well as the cultural material that surround the text. Forgetting these things opens up the text for manipulation. We need to remember that the context is determinative of meaning and that the phrases and words find their meaning in relationship to the context. Thus, I want to do a bit of a fly-over of Genesis 1:1-2:3 to get the lay of the land before we start picking through these verses is greater detail.
We have already established what these verses are. If you have not read my earlier blogs on this topic you can check them out here and here. These verses present us with cosmogony constructing truths. They provide us with both polemic and constructive elements that are presented in a way that may be somewhat confusing for us, but would have made perfect sense to the people of Israel because the author uses imagery and concepts that would have been plainly familiar to the original audience. (Bartholomew) So we must read the account of creation against its Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) backdrop to truly understand its meaning. Which means that for us to pull out the maximum meaning from this passage we need to focus much more on the way the story is told in its context and be careful of the details that may appeal to our context. (There is often danger in the details!) The immediate implication for us regards bringing 21st century scientific concerns to Genesis. When we do so, we are in grave danger of missing the point of these verses because that is NOT what it was written to portray or address.
Let’s get the question of science out of the way right now – How does this chapter relate to present day science? We dealt with this question earlier, but since we mess up the relationship of these verses to science so often which leads to such bad consequences we need to address it again. As I do let me point you to the ESV Study Bible – ‘Genesis and History’ / ‘Genesis and Science’ as a good explanation of the issues involved in this discussion. For reasons that should be fairly clear by now, Genesis 1 and 2 are not concerned with a scientific explanation of the beginning of the universe but with building a cosmogony for Israel and for us. Thus we need to tread very carefully when trying to ask scientific questions of these opening chapters of the Bible. I think Vern Poythress analyzes the situation correctly when he writes,
We need. . . to take seriously the character of Genesis 1-2. It is not directly addressing questions that we bring to it out of a modern scientific environment. . . Genesis 1 is not science or a substitute for science, and critics make a mistake about literary genre, when they treat it as such. . . It is answering the big questions about the world, the questions that a person asks in order to get his bearings about the meaning of his life, the meaning of the world around him, the character of God or idols, and their relation to mankind. (Poythress, 92, 97, 98).
Once again in a slightly different way,
Though historical and scientific questions may be uppermost in our minds as we approach the text, it is doubtful whether they were in the writer’s mind, and we should therefore be cautious about looking for answers to questions he was not concerned with. Genesis is primarily about God’s character and his purposes for sinful mankind. Let us beware of allowing our interests to divert us from the central thrust of the book, so that we miss what the LORD, our creator and redeemer, is saying to us. (Wenham, liii)
So how do we approach these verses and the next couple of chapters? Bruce Waltke helps us understand what direction to take,
The creation account is an artistic, literary representation of creation intended to fortify God’s covenant with creation. It represents truths about origins in anthropomorphic language so that the covenant community may have a proper world view and be wise unto salvation. It represents the world as coming into being through God’s proclamation so that the world depends on his will, purpose and presence. (Waltke, 78)
In other words, it teaches us truths of cosmongony. It teaches Israel, and us, the truth about God and what faith in God looks like. John Stek captures it perfectly,
Moses’. . . intent was to proclaim knowledge of the true God as he manifested himself in his creative works, to proclaim a right understanding of humankind, the world, and history that knowledge of the truth God entails – and to proclaim the truth concerning these matters in the face of false religious notions dominant throughout the world of his day.
Now let’s get into some of the key aspects of this text and allow it to build for us a Christian cosmogony: We begin with the phrase that dominates the narrative.
“And God said. . .” – These simple words contain within them a wealth of meaning. First and foremost they point to the ultimate truth that God is sovereign and free in creation. Gerhard Von Rad writes, “The idea of creation by the word preserves first of all the most radical essential distinction between Creator and creature. Creation. . . is. . . a product of [God’s] personal will.” (Genesis) Creation is not self-existent, struggled for, a divine emanation or random. Creation is made, meaning it had a beginning, and it is shaped by a force (God) outside of itself. God spoke and creation came to be. The exact nature of what came to be we are not told, nor are we told if God used special or ordinary providence to bring everything into being. But we are told that by merely speaking, God willed everything into existence including any of means necessary to make it happen (cf. “let the earth bring forth”).
For example, in 1:21 when we read the phrase, “according to their kinds” does that mean that God created all dogs or just the prototype dog from which all other dogs trace their ancestry, or did he use some other natural mechanism to bring present day dogs into existence? We don’t know, because the term “kind” does not correspond to the modern scientific classification of “species”; it simply means “category,” and could refer to a species, or a family, or an even a more general taxonomic group (cf. ESV Study Bible, ‘Genesis and Science’). BUT let’s not focus on what we are not told, let’s focus on what we are told and thus what we must affirm – God created all of the “kinds”. We don’t know how God did it, how long it took, if there was any process involved, or anything like that. We are simply told the reason why there are different “kinds” in our world is because God decided that there would be. This teaching is affirmed in Colossians 1:16 – “For by him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions, or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.”
This idea of God being sovereign and free over his creation continues to be demonstrated by the fact that as God creates he also names what he has created – Gerhard Von Rad reminds us of the importance of doing this, “the act of giving a name meant, above all, the exercise of a sovereign right. . . Thus the naming of this and all subsequent creative works once more expresses graphically God’s claim of lordship over the creatures.” (Genesis) In the act of naming, God demonstrates his Lordship over all that he has created, which includes the human race.
God appoints tasks and duties for his creation – Everything that is created has a job to do, a role to play, in the created order including the human couple. As each fulfills its role in creation, from the stars, to the amoeba, to the lion, to us, they are contributing to God’s judgment of his creation as “very good.” For humans our role in relationship to creation is to work, to tend, to be co-regents over that which God has made for us. Thus, these responsibilities are part of our place in creation and when we seek to avoid them, we are seeking to run from that which God has created us be as his image.
God creates the human couple in his image – We need to recognize the paradox that is our existence. We are both “in” nature and “over” it. We are part of creation – we share a creation day with the animals; we feed off the land as the animal creation does; we are told to reproduce as they are supposed to; and we are blessed in a similar way as they are. Yet we are a special part of creation – God deliberates over us, “Let us”, and he creates us to be in his “image and likeness” which differentiates us from all of the rest of creation.
But what does it mean for humanity to be made God’s “image and likeness”? A little background is necessary,
In the Ancient Near East it was widely believed that a god’s spirit lived in any statue or image of that god, with the result that the image could function as a kind of representative of or substitute for the god wherever it was placed. It was also customary in the Ancient Near-east to think of a king as a representative of a god; obviously the king ruled, and the god was the ultimate ruler, so the king must be ruling on the god’s behalf. It is therefore not surprising that these two separate ideas became connected and a king came to be described as an image of a god.” (Hart, TynBul 46, 318)
With this background we can better understand this unique phrase.
The text is saying that exercising royal dominion over the earth as God’s representative is the basic purpose for which God crated man. . . man is appointed king over creation, responsible to God the ultimate king, and as such expected to manage and develop and care for creation, this task to include actual physical work.(Hart)
One more observation is necessary from these verses, the unending seventh day. This final day brings to light two key points.
- The 7th day is the day when God rested – What does it mean that God rested since he is God and he does not get tired or need a rest? (Isaiah 40:28) It means simply that God ceased his special activity of creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them. But this does not mean that God becomes suddenly inactive. It means that God is done his work of creating and now he turns his attention to sustaining his creation and more importantly to building a special relationship with human creation. Notice that in 2:3 we are told that God made this day “holy.” The simple meaning of holy is to be ‘set apart to / from.’ It means that God sanctified this day and consecrated it and set it apart from the other days for holy use unto the Lord.
- There is no evening and morning to end this day – We will deal with the full implication of this phrase being missing latter on, but for now we can make a few basic observations:
- It implies strongly that the Sabbath day is anticipatory, it has yet to come for creation. God rests, but creation does not.
- It anticipates the future rest of God which we are all invited to enjoy (Hebrews 4) the eternal, redemptive Sabbath rest of God that will come at the end of the age.
- It is suggestive of invitation and it raises a key question going forward – will the male and female enter into this rest? (cf Genesis 2:15-17)
- It suggests that since the 7th day is an unending day, an obvious non-literal (non 24 hour) day, the other 6 days are not to be understood as 24-hour days.
Let’s take some time to briefly explore a few implications of what we have discovered:
- God is God and we are not – He is sovereign, free, personal (he speaks), he is the Lord over all of creation, he is not only transcendent, but imminent as well. We also are left with a pretty clear picture of all that is created by God, including us as human persons – it is dependent on God, it is the creature with a role to play in God’s created order. This means that we are to recognize our proper place in relationship to God. When we try to be more than we were created to be we run into problems. When we try to bring God lower than what he is as the Creator and sovereign Lord over creation we have problems. Our finiteness / createdness separated us from God long before sin ever did. Recognizing God’s sovereignty and our dependent creatureliness is massively important to getting everything else in the Bible correct.
- Racism, sexism, agism or any other kind of discrimination is strictly off limits for the Christian. ALL people are made in the image of God and have inherent value as a result. We must treat all people as equals.
- We are responsible for creation and accountable to God for how we treat it. – We are to treat the world the way God would treat the world, since we are vice-regents over it. We MUST obey God’s commands and the mandate given to us as it relates to his creation and our rule over it.
- God blesses the 7th day and makes it holy in the best interest of all people and animals. – It is for our good to follow the pattern laid out for God in these verses. Jesus made this point to the Pharisees a number of times (Matthew 12:1-4; Mark 2:23-28; John 5:9-15). The Sabbath was created for people, not people for the Sabbath. It is a time to rest, heal, refocus for the next 6 days of work; but more importantly it is a time in which we are to focus on God and our relationship to him. “When we keep Sabbath by resting from our labors, we acknowledge that our life… is sustained by God. We rest from our labors because we know that our hope is in the Lord, not in our labors. Sabbath rest also reflects our larger hope in the Lord for the sustenance of creation and for the completion of redemption.” (Wilson, Gospel Virtues, 129)
Soli Deo Gloria