We have just discussed how Scriptural references to the natural world are rarely to be taken as teaching about these subjects, but have other purposes. In Part 4 I discuss how we can move from seeing Genesis 1 as a description of natural world processes, to a contextual interpretation that makes sense for Israel and for us.
What then is the intention of reference to the natural world in the creation story?
1. A motif that acts as a reference point for Yahweh’s worship above all other gods.
We get some clues by looking at the context in which the natural world and the creation story is mentioned in the rest of the Old Testament. For instance, when the Old Testament writers exhort loyalty to and worship of Yahweh they appeal to the creation story, and in particular to the standard motif of the waters, earth, and sky (heavens) that Yahweh, above all gods, separated, and then filled with creatures.E.g.:
“You shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” Ex 20:3-5
“I know that the LORD is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods. The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths.” Ps. 135:5-6
This motif is not a reference to a series of historical events or a detailed cosmology but simply to the fact that God is the author of everything there is. We might say: “The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the universe, the galaxies, and even beyond space-time”, tossing in some broad-brush elements of 21st century cosmology without any particular detail, and without describing the processes of quantum mechanics, gravitational attraction, or expansion of the universe. The “heaven-earth-sea” motif is carried on into the New Testament either in full or as just “heaven and earth”. This usually enters in the context of God’s sovereignty, and invoking God as sovereign to act, as in this passage after Peter and John had been arrested, interrogated and threatened:
“’Sovereign Lord,’ they said, ‘you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them…Now Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak…’”. Acts 4: 24, 29
2. A motif that makes Yahweh the focus of intercession and trust in place of other deities
Another clue comes in the reference.
“And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Deut 4: 19-20, 31
The ancient peoples were concerned with natural processes that affected human prospering: fertility of humans and their crops and domestic stock, longevity, regularity of seasons, favourable weather, and protection from monsters of the deep, the night and the storms. All of these concerns were reflected in their theology, and governed by their gods – the god of the sun to rule the earth, and ripen crops, the god of the moon to control tides, the gods of the stars to control destiny, the gods of plain old fertility, gods of agriculture, gods of the weather, gods in the form of domestic or wild animals, or combinations of them, and gods of feared creatures like the snake (e.g. Wadjet, the snake depicted on Pharaoh’s brow, or Ningishzda, the snake, also known as “god of the good tree”). Between the Egyptian, Canaanite and Babylonian deities (including those scourges of Israel’s loyalty to Jahweh: Baal the god of storms, and Asherah the creatrix), all of these were covered. You can understand people asking questions like:
- Which god will help our crops, land, and children?
- Which god will give us political / military superiority?
- Which god will guard our nation’s and descendants’ future?
If the Israelites were to trust Yahweh, Abraham’s God, and to become a unique and faithful people to him, they needed answers to these questions in regard to Yahweh. Genesis 1 is the definitive answer. How is this seen?
3. The establishment of a place for humans to flourish, and to commune with Yahweh
The theologian John Walton in The Lost World of Genesis 1 demonstrates that in the chapter God lays out a place for humans to dwell and flourish by creating, as we saw in Part 1:
- time and seasons (light=day, dark=night),
- weather / irrigation (waters above and below)
- food (seed-bearing plants and trees)
God’s faithfulness to humans in establishing these provisions is reinforced in Genesis 8, which refers to all these aspects of the Genesis 1 story:
“As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” Genesis 8:22
Further, Walton draws parallels between the inauguration of the world and the inauguration of the tabernacle later in the Pentateuch, or of Solomon’s temple. The description is of the universe created and furnished as a temple for God’s presence to dwell with man. The garden of Eden which follows in Genesis 2 and 3 is a sanctuary, a Holy of Holies where the presence of God rests (Genesis 2: 3, to rest often means to stay in the Old Testament) and walks (Genesis 3:8) (John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One). The text is arranged in a formal pattern with repeated themes (“the evening and the morning were the ….th day), the verses use the sacred number seven repeatedly in constructing the words and phrases, and they are structured into three days of creating spaces (Genesis 1: 6-10) followed by the three days of filling those spaces (Genesis 1: 11-25), followed by the seventh day of God’s rest. This is a formally landscaped passage and the temple may frame the layout of the chapter.
4. A vision of the world order that places Yahweh as the focal point of Israel’s origin, identity and future
People both ancient and modern have also asked these fundamental questions about human existence:
- Who are we?
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
The book of Genesis as a whole answers these questions for Israel something like this:
You are creatures of God’s plan in creation, his provision in the created world, and his promises to his people (especially to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses). You are special envoys of the one God Yahweh, who is greater than all the other gods.
You came from Abraham and his call, from the patriarchs (hence the genealogies in Genesis), but fundamentally you came as a direct result of God’s plan and purpose
You are headed for the land of Promise, the land where Yahweh alone would reign, the kingdom of God.
(This was always envisaged by the Israelites as the physical land of Palestine promised to Abraham, but God, it seems, had a broader goal in mind, in regards to his kingdom, of which we as followers of the New Covenant have been made more conscious.)
How can we summarise the key message of Genesis 1, taking these themes into account? I discuss this in the final Part, Part 5.