Thinking about Genesis chapters 1 & 2 and how we may discuss them in our current day. The debate is often about whether God created the world recently in six 24 hour days, or whether these days represent longer periods. I strongly believe scripture is about historical events. God reveals himself in history. But is this debate all there is to passages like the first chapters of Genesis? What else could God be saying to us through them?
I guess we have to ask the question from the perspective of the Hebrew people coming out of Egypt in the Exodus. Moses delivered the first five books of the Old Testament to the Hebrew, as a newly formed nation. What did these first chapters of Genesis mean to those people? This is a hard question for us today, some 3,500 years later, in a completely foreign culture.
Some scholars have said the Hebrew people weren’t interested in Genesis from an historical perspective. It has also been claimed there was no interest in science then. Our cultures today may be more materialistic, but questions of science were part of their lives then as they are today. So the Hebrew wouldn’t have discounted the historical or material nature of Moses’ books, but again, there is far more to them than just that. So what are some of these other issues, which would have been so important to the communities within the new nation after the Exodus?
For one, the narrative is often poetic. The poetry is sometimes more evident, as in some of the later Prophets, but even in Moses’ books Hebrew style poetry is present. This means words may carry symbolic, as well as historical, meaning. One poetic style in Hebrew literature is cyclical repetition. This is obvious in the Proverbs and Psalms. A theme is repeated for emphasis and impact. This cyclical style is present in Moses’ books as well. They begin with God walking with Adam and Eve in their Garden. They end in Deuteronomy with the same theme: God walking with his new nation in their Promised Land. There is a clear impact here, through which Israel was to understand the purpose of their new beginning.
In what other ways did the Hebrew people read their texts? They saw the text as revealing God’s redemptive plan. The early chapters of Genesis are therefore redemptive promise. They show God’s care for his creation and his zeal to renew it. He hasn’t forgotten his commission to Adam and Eve, their commission to bless the nations, to fill the world with his goodness. The calling of Israel was for this same commission, and foreshadows the gospel, which will yet fulfill it.
Comparing Genesis with other ancient creation accounts, we see a form of spiritual warfare. In pagan accounts the gods war against each other. This suited the violent cultures of the world. In Genesis no god contends with the Omnipotent, but God speaks his word and darkness is expelled. He separates light from darkness. The warfare that God calls us to is one of choice: to choose to be creation builders with God, rather than creation destroyers through self-centeredness. So he gives Adam and Eve a choice, depicted by one tree. Again, he says to Israel: I put before you life and death, blessing and cursing; choose life. But even with the trials of life, darkness cannot overcome the light, which shines at night through the stars and moon.
The themes we see in Genesis, of Spirit, word and light, depict in Hebrew culture the presence of God in his creation. These themes were taken up in Proverbs 8, where through wisdom God creates all good things. The Spirit was with Israel in the tabernacle and the word with Israel in the Torah. All these depict God’s incarnational presence, his image, in and with his creation, to form it for good. So the incarnation is a Hebrew theme. It doesn’t need an invention within Christian theology. As John describes the incarnation in his Gospel, he calls Messiah word and light, the source of all things. He further shows the activity of the Spirit, light and word throughout Jesus’ ministry. What is John showing the Hebrew people? He is moving from God’s first creation to his new creation. The king has arrived to make all things new. Christ dies on day six and rests in the tomb on day seven. He rises on the first day of a new creation week. And who declares this? Women do. This is a token of cultural renewals to come, a new people! We the church are following in Israel’s history of new creation. Paul uses the same language of Christ the wisdom and image of God, who has reconciled all things to himself, with the view again of inhabiting and directing the formation of his new world.
When Israel came out of Egypt they saw themselves as light being separated from the darkness of idolatrous Egypt (Gen 1:4). They saw their beginning as a nation as a new act of God’s creation, bringing order and life out of chaos and bondage in their slavery. They were separated from ungodly gentiles, just as God separated the land from the sea in Genesis. The seas often represented the tumult of oppressive empires and covetous rulers. At the end of Revelation there is no sea. God’s kingdom has removed this covetousness from our hearts. God brings Israel into their new garden, the Promised Land, makes them a nation of priests, called to reflect his image into the world.
Image bearers! What does this mean? Adam and Eve were made in God’s image. They were to be angled mirrors, reflecting God’s nature and character into the world and communities to come around them. In this way they were to have dominion. What is this dominion? How does it function? Israel heard the Genesis narrative and saw they have the same commission. They were to serve the nations. They were to de-Pharaoh the world, just as God delivered them from Pharaoh. Thus they were to show love and kindness to the foreigner, the stranger, the poor, those in need, and set people free from economic burdens, from covetous empire and slavery in the Jubilee. This goes to the very inner nature of the law, to show to us its real purpose in renewing the land, revealing God’s image.
This reflection of God in their communities was to spread to the world, or as Paul said, show the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers (Eph 3:10). But alas Israel grasped onto their election, their privilege, as something just for themselves, not serving their neighbour within their nation or outside. It is this failure that filled much of Jesus’ teaching as he presented his new kingdom. Israel’s failure to care is contrasted acutely with Jesus, who in himself fulfilled Israel’s identity and mission. It’s from this background that Paul says Jesus did not act as though privilege, or the good life, was something to be grasped, but “emptied himself”, becoming a slave to all. Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the nations. So here is dominion, the image of God: service.
So in as much as Israel saw itself as a new creation to renew all things, so we also see this Hebrew vision pinpointed in Jesus and his new community: the church. We see God’s plan, not to throw away the world, and take a few people to heaven, but to heal and fill the world with his glory. This is the Hebrew holistic vision, and the true way of seeing the gospel and our role in it. God has a plan for the nations, the same plan he bequeathed to Adam and Eve and again to Israel. Jesus came on behalf of this plan and today we inherit the plan. We are God’s new creation agents.
The cyclical nature of scripture continues. Not only does Deuteronomy close by calling Israel God’s new creation, but Moses goes further to speak of Messiah’s coming new creation. In this new covenant he says, God will circumcise our hearts, forming us in his image (Deut 30). All the scripture takes this creational view. In Ezekiel God brings forth a new temple, not of stone, but his family, from which the nations and entire earth will be healed. The whole world is God’s new garden. God makes covenant with Israel and with his incarnated Son (God making covenant with himself in Christ), to refashion his people and whole creation. And this is how the whole Bible ends in Revelation, just as it began in Genesis. A new creation stands in absolute fulfilment, the purposes of Christ’s kingdom completed. But this time there is no sea and there is no night (symbolic).