In discussing the themes in Genesis 1 & 2 we need to do so from the point of view of its recipients. These were the Hebrew people who came out of Egypt with Moses. Moses handed them the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, also called the Pentateuch. So one question is, how did the Hebrew people read Genesis 1 & 2 at that time? What did it mean to them? What themes did they see in those first two chapters of the scriptures?
This is a hard ask. We are separated from those early Hebrew people by some 3,500 years. We have little knowledge of those days, except from the scriptures, from archaeology of the time, or from surviving writings of other civilizations of that era. We today come from cultures that are in many ways different. We may think in many different ways. Our literary traditions and styles today are often different also. How can we put ourselves in the shoes of those early Hebrew people to see how they thought about the Genesis narrative?
Western culture views the scripture in a linear fashion. Our theology is straight line, scientific categories, whereas contrary to this God presents himself in history, with mysteries, through a style of text that appeals to our imagination of a new world, transforming us and our communities inwardly. Imagination is crucial to God’s purpose in us, enabling us to wake from sleep and grasp a vision of a new kingdom and the possibilities for living it out in our present societies, caring for others. Hebrew text wasn’t written in a linear way. It is telling a story from the past to the future, but it does so in a poetic style. It is this poetry that speaks into the Hebrew mind themes which are often missed by our present day cultures.
A common factor in Hebrew poetic style is repetition. This can be seen in its simplest form in the Proverbs. A statement is made in one sentence and then repeated in different words in the next sentence for impact. There is a circular movement in the writing. This circular movement is seen in the broader scriptural message as well. God moves from creation in Genesis 1 & 2 to a creation of a new people/nation in the Exodus. And in Deuteronomy he speaks of yet another new creation in the New Covenant. The circular movement shows how God wants us to interpret his word. We understand the new creation from the earlier themes it is built upon.
Genesis 1 & 2 speak of God bringing order out of chaos. Light is separated from darkness. This means good is separated from evil. The land is also separated from the sea. Sea, in the Old Testament, often symbolises the torrential character of human nature, and the nations’ oppressive armies, as opposed to the still, peaceful waters of Siloam. The circular motion of scripture is seen from cover to cover. In Revelation 21 & 22 the scriptures end by saying there is no sea. This is symbolic for the healing of the world, of its cultures and of humanity in Christ.
Please note, we are not saying Genesis isn’t historical text. It is. God reveals himself in actual and real history. The Bible is historically reliable. But the Bible is also more than that. In the Hebrew mind the scriptures record historical events revealed in redemptive narrative. Through God’s acts in history, he is revealing his redemptive mind and plan for the creation he loves, nurtures and redeems. God’s eternal plan shines through in rich Hebrew literary styles.
When Israel crossed over the Red Sea God was speaking to them in every book of their Pentateuch. He was saying to them that he was separating them form their disorder and chaos, from the bondage in slavery. He was freeing them from their oppression under Pharaoh. He was also calling them to holiness, separating them from the idolatry of Egypt and of the other gentile nations. They were to be separate, not superior or distant from others, but to be holy, to serve.
God made mankind in his image, male and female. And he put them in a Garden. He gave them a commission to the nations. They were to subdue the world and have dominion over it. Adam and Eve were God’s priesthood. To be made in God’s image meant they were to reflect that image into the world. They were like mirrors, called to reflect God’s character and caring nature throughout his creation, and by doing so keeping creation in wholeness (shalom), rather than abusing it in greed. As a priesthood they were also to reflect back to God the praises of creation, through the graces and goodness their communities were to experience daily. This was also the call to Israel. Israel was called a nation of priests. Their calling wasn’t for themselves, but for others. They were called to serve and bless the nations.
As stated, God gave Adam and Eve dominion. This dominion wasn’t understood by our fallen human cultures until Christ came. We have taken it selfishly, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden when tempted. But in Christ we see what the nature of this dominion is. It is shown us in Phil 2:5-11 in Paul’s epistle. Christ humbled himself to serve the world. He became obedient. He gave up his rights in order to help others. Therefore, God gave Christ dominion over all, so that at his name, to this type of serving character and life, all things will be renewed and restored. This example is our commission today, and how the church is to go about its work in the world.
God also gave Israel a garden, called the Promised Land. In that land he placed his tabernacle and presence. Like he walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, God would now once again walk with his people. Once banished from the Garden, God’s people were now returned from exile to their land and to the presence. Their land was a temple of the Lord, just as Adam and Eve’s Garden in the first creation. And the purpose of these temples was to bless the earth.
After working for six days, it was said that God rested. In the language of that time this means that God entered into his creation for communion and as a place to dwell with his people, to experience the joy of life and work together. To rest means to take up residence and to reign, to spread your benevolent rule to all inhabitants (see Psalm 132:8, Isaiah 11:10). This is temple language in Genesis 1 & 2. We see God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden. God’s purpose was to dwell with them and through their agency bless the world. This temple message in Genesis 1 & 2 is often missed but it is one of the most important themes in the creation narrative. It shows us God’s purpose for the temple theme right through the scriptures: to fill the earth with his glory and blessing (see Isaiah 6:1-4). The temple is where heaven and earth join and through which God’s kingdom comes to earth.
The temple theme is duplicated with Israel in Canaan. The temple finds its fulfilment in the body of Christ. The fullness of the godhead dwells in Jesus and his coming to earth was the coming of God’s reign and kingdom to this world. Today God’s temple on earth is Christ’s body, the church. We see here the purpose of the gospel, not to take us to heaven, but to unite heaven and earth for new creation and renewal. This means our homes, communities and nations. And this temple fulfilment which transforms all nations on earth is the theme of the end of the book of Revelation. The purpose of the gospel is to join heaven and earth together, not discard the earth. Our eternal destiny is a united heaven and earth.
The Pentateuch ends the way it started. God’s second creation Israel enters their land with God, to reflect his image to the world. Israel is God’s new creation, his second Adam with whom God dwells. This is why Christ is called the Second Adam. He comes from Israel and fulfils their call to serve and heal the world. All in Christ are in God’s new-creation humanity/temple. Israel would have been very well aware of the parallels between Adam and Eve and their own calling when they read Genesis 1 & 2 and this would have given them enlightened understating of God’s purpose for them in the world. So when we read Genesis 1 & 2 today we see the same parallels between it and God’s call and purpose for us in the world through the gospel. This is the gospel message.
Note the gospel in these passages. God isn’t forming Adam, or saving Israel to take them to heaven while he destroys his beloved creation. Rather, it is about a God who through love is committed to his creation, who doesn’t cast it off because it disappoints him, and who calls his children to work with him in renewing his whole creation. This was the call for both Adam and for Israel, and it is also our calling in the gospel. And as well, we are to reflect this nature ourselves in how we deal with other people, with the same patience, personal sacrifice and forgivingness that God shows us. How we see God is how we treat others. If we see God casting off a world that has disappointed him we will do that to others. But if we see him committed unto blood to love them, we will reflect that also.
This is the gospel message we see in Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. It’s the Hebrew Gospel of wholeness for his whole creation. This isn’t universalism. It isn’t saying everyone will be saved. It is saying that God sticks with his original project until it comes to pass: until the whole earth is covered with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.
And so the poetic circle ends in Deut 30. Moses says God will bring Israel back from their captivity in Babylon and circumcise their heart and bless their land. He did this through Christ’s death and resurrection. On the cross Christ was banished from the land and presence, “outside the camp.” He bore our exile. God in Christ as a man tasted our forsakenness and he took on death and defeated it. In the resurrection we are all returned to the favour of God. In Deut 30 we see a clear poetic connection between Genesis 1 & 2, the Exodus of Israel, and the calling of the church. This connection is unmistakable to the Hebrew mind.
“And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deut 30:5-6) God brings us back into a land with temple in Christ, and through his presence in our hearts by the New Covenant he renews our world. This is his final creation and the fulfilment of his plan. It includes all Israel who believe and all who are grafted in by faith, so that we too are Israel, and the land is the whole world. God’s promises are about his presence with is people in a good land. His promises are about land, this earth, not about going to heaven. These promises can only be fulfilled through a circumcised heart, which he brings about in us through Messiah.
God’s creation and people are healed in Christ, as it is at the end of the book of Revelation. The Pentateuch is a five volume book on the redemptive plan of God for the world, fulfilled in his Messiah. The plan is described in history and in poetic form, moving us from Adam, to Israel, to Christ. As we begin this journey with Adam in Genesis 1 & 2 we see why God has come to us in the gospel. This shows us God’s plan for his church today. It isn’t simply individual salvation. It is service to our communities and to our world, partnering with God in his self-giving love to restore his people and the whole earth.