Thursday, September 27, 2007

Creation Stories and Theology in Genesis: Part 4


There is a striking difference between the world that God creates in the Genesis accounts and the world that is…even at the time of the writing of Genesis. Brueggemann tells us that the main theme of this text is that “God and God’s creation are bound together in a distinctive and delicate way.” He further insists that this is the “presupposition for everything that follows in the Bible,” and that this relationship is “not one of coercion,” but rather one of “free gracious commitment and invitation.”19 This is both the starting point for the Biblical narrative and also a description of the reality of Genesis 1-2. The word that the ancient Hebrews used to describe this state of being was “Shalom”. Plantinga defines shalom as, “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight,” and “a universal flourishing wholeness, and delight.”20 McKnight explains that the Bible “begins with humans in union with God and communion with others and the world.”21 This is the world that God brought into being, and further, it is the world that we are being called back to. It is a world of relational peace/harmony between God and humans, between humans and other humans, and between humans and creation.

The Image of God

One of the key concepts given to us in the Genesis 1 narrative is the idea of human beings as created in “the image of God”.22 When I was a child in Sunday School, I took this passage to mean that God must have thumbs, knees, etc. I simply took the phrase at face-value and interpreted it concretely. “We look like we do because that’s what God really looks like,” I thought. Perhaps he does. I would not presume to know what God “looks like” if, indeed, he looks like anything at all. However, I would admit that my childhood interpretation most likely missed the point of the text. Von Rad contends that this language is meant to make an analogy to the practice of earthly kings who erected images of themselves in the outermost regions of their kingdoms. As the image reflected the king, so human beings are to reflect the Creator God.23 Thus, according to Von Rad’s view, the fact that human beings are created in the “image of God” is less of a physical description and more of a charge to image God to the rest of Creation. While Brueggemann accepts this as one proper interpretation, it is only with the caveats that a) it is an inadequate metaphor and b) the only way for human beings to reflect God as king is to exercise “freedom with” and “authority over” everything within their care. However, Brueggemann assert that this text must be read “in juxtaposition to Israel’s resistance to any image of God.” He proposes that while surrounded by idolatrous cultures who made graven images of their gods, Genesis’ first creation narrative makes an astounding counter-claim, namely that “there is one way in which God is imaged in the world and only one: humanness!”24 Interestingly, even with this alternate interpretation of the text, the charge given to humanity remains the same: We are to reflect the Creator to creation. But how, exactly can human beings do that? How do finite creatures image an infinite Creator? Middleton seeks to help us answer these questions by suggesting a “functional—or even missional interpretation” of the “image of God”. He suggests that when this passage is seen in the context of the surrounding Near-Eastern cultures, this text “designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”25 Indeed, this may be a more useful interpretation as it seems more pro-active than “reflecting”.

God is Green?

The relationship between God and creation is often overlooked in theology. However, God’s relationship with and attitude towards his creation is firmly established in the opening chapters of Genesis. Somewhere along the way, Christians (particularly) became enamored with a dualistic worldview rooted in Platonic philosophy which views physical matter as “bad” or “evil,” while viewing only the spiritual as “good.” Even though this view resonates strongly with many aspects of Gnosticism (a heresy much of the New Testament actually seems to be refuting), many Christians seem to buy into the idea and long for escape from this “evil,” material world. Over and against the neo-Gnostic worldview accepted by many Christians, Michael Wittmer points out that God, (whom he refers to as “the toughest critic imaginable”), “announced no less than seven times that his work of creation was ‘good’,” in the first chapter of Genesis alone.26 Additionally, some of the confusion seems to come from certain interpretations of Genesis 1:28-30 where human beings are told to “rule” (govern) over the animals and are “given” the vegetation for food. This is commonly interpreted in terms of domination, and is sometimes even used as justification for the exploitation of natural resources. However, these verses must be interpreted in the context of the previous verse in which human beings are created in the “image” of God and must also be shaped by the second creation narrative in Genesis in which human beings are placed in the garden to “work and care for it.”27 Marshall explains that…

    “Thus ‘ruling’ is a fundamental part of God’s creative act itself; it is built into the very way that God planned not only human beings but even the rest of the world. God made human beings precisely in order to care for the earth. We were made to serve this purpose. It is built into our very being; it is our design…If we do not take up our responsibility for God’s world, we defy not only his command, but also our very nature and the very purpose for which we were created. Our responsibility for the world is a fundamental part of God’s plan for creation.”28

Bouma-Prediger insists that to equate dominion with domination in this passage is “faulty exegesis. He further asserts that when viewed in the larger context of scripture, dominion must be understood as entailing “suffering” and in terms of “service.”29 Brueggemann reinforces this view by noting that the idea of “subjugation” here is used in relation to animals. He suggests that this calls to mind the imagery of a shepherd. Thus, he insists that, “…the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse,” but rather, “…with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.”30

Relational Harmony

Though certainly not to the same extent, the relationship of human beings to other human beings as God’s created image-bearers is generally glossed over by modern people, blinded as we are by our infatuation with the concept of the individual. One point that comes across quite clearly in both creation narratives is that humans are relational bound to each other and can only reflect God and live out the charge he has given us in community. Individually, it is simply not possible. While ancient peoples weren’t as infatuated by individualism as we tend to be, they were very much blinded by a worldview that embraced power over other people by means of violence and force. Middleton explains:

    “…whereas power in Babylonian and Assyrian empires was concentrated in the hands of a few, power in Genesis 1 is diffused or shared… The democratization of the imago Dei in Genesis 1 thus constitutes an implicit delegitmation of the entire ruling and priestly structures of Mesopotamian society…The democratization of the image in this text thus suggests an egalitarian conception of the exercise of power.”31

In the first narrative, human beings are created all at once, male and female and in this we are said to bear the image of God. The implication is that the image of God cannot be borne, reflected, or lived out by individuals.

The second narrative depicts God as creating an individual male, but then goes to great lengths to show that this is not the ideal situation and that, indeed, he is not even complete until the creation of the woman with whom he can be in relation. Bouma-Prediger clarifies:

    “If being-in-relation is the nature of things, then to be human is to exist in relationships…We are not autonomous selves, floating free in a world of atomistic individuals, as many would have us believe. Rather we are persons related to much more than meets the eye. Created by God, we are dependent upon God and made to be in a loving relationship with God. But we are also created to exist among and live in communion with other humans.”32

“Being-in-relation” is our nature by design. We exist for community. We are incomplete outside of relationships.

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