Saturday, February 28, 2015

Reading the Genesis Creation Narrative(s) Missionally

Scripture opens by announcing that God (Heb: elohim) created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). When God completes his work of Creation, he declares his handiwork to be very good (Gen 1:31). From Genesis 1:2–31 God guides his creation from undifferentiated matter shrouded in darkness (1:2) to a very good world teeming with potential and possibility. God establishes the framework for life in the cosmos and then fills it with vegetation, fish, birds, animals, and finally men and women. Humanity is the high point of God’s creative work (1:26–31).
         God is present and in control even in creation’s chaotic beginning. Genesis 1:2 informs us of the darkness and formlessness of the pre-creative state but then decisively declares God’s dynamic presence ready willing and able to establish very goodness as the abiding reality in his creation. God acts unilaterally in his work of Creation and profoundly God accomplishes this work simply by speaking the various elements of the physical world into existence. The initial creation story reaches its climax with God resting in Sabbath (2:1-3). This movement from undifferentiated darkness to very goodness and to sabbath is a powerful word for the world. The reader of Scripture immediately realizes that the God of Creation is a God who can bring order and wholeness to the most hopeless of situations. The Bible will prove to be a book for people desperate for deliverance, liberation, and salvation.
         Genesis 2:4–25 follows with a second account of Creation. Genesis 2:4–25 complements the theology of Genesis 1:1–2:3 but does so in its own distinct style. If Genesis 1:1–2:3 portrays humanity as the high point of God’s work and Sabbath as the climax, Genesis 2:4–25 focuses on the centrality of humanity and its relationships within God’s world. Humanity enjoys productive and positive relationships with God, with creation, and between men and women. The climax of the second creation story (2:18–25) celebrates the intimate union and harmony between the man and the woman who enjoy life together at the center of God’s creation serving as caretakers and stewards of God’s good world (2:15 cf. 1:28-29).
         The biblical stories of Creation exist to witness to the truth about reality and the Creator God. Israel’s creation stories did not arise in a vacuum. There were competing claims and stories about the gods and the nature of creation.  Likewise, today we find ourselves in a world awash with a multitude of understandings, sacred accounts, and claims about spirituality, life, God, and the universe. Genesis 1–2 use the creation stories as a vehicle to communicate to the world a message about a different kind of god and a new understanding of the cosmos. This god demonstrates his power and character as King of Creation.
         Genesis’ counter-testimony to the polytheistic and mythic worldview of the nations surrounding Israel is clear. First, Genesis is subtle in its introduction of the God of Scripture. Genesis 1:1–2:3 uses the Hebrew elohim 30 times. Elohim is translated “God” though grammatically it is a plural noun. It is Israel’s way of declaring the prestige of its deity.
         We get so use to hearing the word God that we forget that Israel’s God’s personal name is Yahweh. The millennia old practice of saying “LORD” rather than uttering Yahweh obscures this personal dimension. Yet the Bible’s consistent witness is that Yahweh alone is Israel’s God (Deut 6:4-5). Why then doesn’t the Bible open with an audacious declaration that Yahweh created the heavens and the earth? Perhaps it is the missional intent of Scripture at work. By using the more ambiguous elohim, Genesis opens its story of creation in a way that invites non-Israelites to listen or read more. The power, majesty, and prestige of elohim is clear in 1:1–2:3. In fact, one of the questions that this text begs asking is, “Who is elohim?” This is precisely the question that Genesis desires to answer.
         The Bible opens with Genesis 1–11 to remind God’s people that their purpose and mission is linked intimately with all people and all creation. Thus, Genesis 1–11 addresses not merely the prehistory of Israel, but the prehistory of all people and nations. The Scriptures invite a hearing by all interested parties. All that Genesis 1:1–2:3 asks of its hearer/reader is an openness to the divine. It then skillfully introduces its hearers/readers to a radically different god than those worshipped by the nations.
         Second, unlike other ancient creation stories from Mesopotamia or Egypt, Genesis 1:1–2:3 presents an orderly account of creation. The Creation stories of the ancient world depicted the creation of the world as a battle between gods and goddesses. It is noisy and messy. For example, in the Babylonian tradition, the heavens and the earth are crafted out of the dead halves of the goddess Tiamat. Beyond the realm of even the gods was a force that threatened existence in the form of watery chaos. The act of creation for the ancients thus involved great struggle and conflict between primordial forces. To create was to demonstrate supremacy. In a polytheistic context, the various gods and goddesses battled each other as well as the primordial forces to bolster their claims to be the chief god or goddess.
         In contract, there is not a hint of polytheism in Genesis 1:1–2:3. Genesis 1:2 talks about undifferentiated and unproductive chaos-like matter cloaked in darkness but simultaneously demythologizes it by affirming the dynamic presence of elohim who hovers above it ready, willing, and able to shape nothingness into very goodness (1:31). Elohim does not battle primordial forces or other deities. Elohim creates the cosmos quietly and orderly through his speech. The six days of creation demonstrate elohim’s power and sovereignty as he separates and fills creation. Elohim is the creator of the sun, the moon, the star, the fish, the birds, all living creatures, and humanity. Thus, there is no being worthy of worship and service other than elohim. The things that other nations worship as gods are merely part of elohim’s good creation.
         Third, the biblical creation stories witness to the profound potential, dignity, and purpose of every human being who has even and will ever live. In Genesis 1:26–31, God creates women and men in God’s image (Latin: imago dei). Other than kings, the average human being in the ancient world lacked basic dignity. Men and women were slaves of the gods and kings. The religions of the ancient world celebrated and solidified a suffocating status quo that favored the powerful and oppressed the vast majority of the population. There are references to humans created in the images of the gods in other literature, but such references focused on the king to raise his status and prestige over the average person. Thus, it is remarkable and important to hear the audacious message of Genesis 1:26–31 that all humanity bears the image of God. Moreover, this includes women. Such claims are unprecedented in the ancient world and lay the foundations for subverting all paradigms and world views that privilege the few over the many. Genesis 1:26–31 depicts the creation of humanity as the climax of God’s creative work.
         What does it mean to be created in the image of God (Heb: tselem)? In the ancient world, gods and kings projected their power by erecting images of themselves for their subjects to see. These images came in the form of idols or statutes. The later Roman emperors issued coinage with their images. Thus, an image is a visible representation of something or someone that is invisible or not at least not physically present. According to Scripture, this is the role that women and men serve. Humanity are visible representations of God to the rest of creation. This points to the purpose and mission of people. God created humanity to serve as a missional community that reflects and represents the Creator God to/for/in the Creation. God’s designed humans to function as priests and priestesses who will fill the earth.
         Fourth, the general nature of Genesis 1:1–2:3 and 2:4–25 functions to set the Bible within an international context rather than only a parochial one. With the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, Israel’s Scriptures will focus on God’s calling of a special people to serve his mission, but this calling is set intentionally with God’s creational intentions for all people and all creation. The story of Creation is the story of humanity. This is critical from a missional perspective because it invites the World to read the Bible as its story and not merely as the story of Israel and the Church.
         Fifth, the biblical accounts of creation present Yahweh elohim[1] as the Creator of a beautiful and inviting world. There is no violence. There is no discord. It is a world of abundance and order. We see a move in Genesis 1:1–2:3 from undifferentiated matter to very goodness. But ultimately there is something even better than a state of very goodnessSabbath. Even the very good work of creation is purposeful as it moves to the rest and harmony of Sabbath. This is a marvelous word whether we are Iron age Israelites or 21st century Americans.
         Last, the climax of Genesis 1:1–2:3 is God’s sabbath rest. Work ends at Day 6 and the Creator God intentionally rests. This is an important witness. Creation is God’s cosmic temple and humanity serves as God’s visible representatives in it. The power of Israel’s opening creation story lies in its movement from undifferentiated disorder (1:2) to a finished product that is very good (1:31) to a Sabbath rest (2:1-3). The implication is that Sabbath sits on the other side of very goodness. It is a gift of God that is woven into the very fabric of the created world. The goal of life is sabbath rather than endless cycles of work.
         Genesis 2:4–25 continues this good news by focusing on the central role of the divine human relationship in the world. Genesis 2:4–25 offers a portrait of a small part of the creation: the garden of Eden. It is an idyllic setting filled with beauty, animals, and plenty of good food. Genesis 2:4–25 affirms humanity’s role in preserving and enhancing God’s creation (2:15). These verses also emphasize the relational aspects of human life. Humanity walks and talks with God. This is the pivotal relationship that sets the standard for all other elements of life. As we move deeper into the Scriptures, we will find that our lives can be understood broadly as love for God and love for neighbor. Humanity’s relationship with the earth is clear. Humanity functions as caretakers and stewards of creation. This includes both the physical world as well as the animal world. The latter is implicit in humanity’s naming of the animals. The climax of Genesis 2:4–25 is the creation of the first woman as a partner for man (2:18–25). The relationship between man and woman is intimate and joyous.
         The takeaways from Genesis 1–2 are rich. Yahweh is a powerful God who unilaterally created an orderly and harmonious world of peace. Humanity exists to serve as God’s ambassadors of his abundance to all creation by serving as a missional community that reflects his character and ethos. They make visible the invisible king of creation who invites all to experience sabbath as the defining purpose of life. Creation is very good. Relationally there is mutuality and goodness between God and humanity, creation and humanity, and men and women. This is a powerful witness to the present of what God originally intended and a portrait of the salvation that God ultimately is working to consummate again in his coming New Creation.
© 2015 Brian D. Russell 

[1] After using elohim only in 1:1–2:3, the narrator skillfully identifies elohim with Yahweh by combining the two beginning in Genesis 2:4.

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