While Genesis 1-2 draw a lot of interpretive attention because they stand first in the biblical text, in fact they need to be understood in terms of an older, already extant liturgical tradition on creation. The primary and proper context in which Israel articulated its creation faith is in doxology, the public, liturgical practice of lyrical, poetic utterance whereby Israel sings its awe and wonder about the glory and goodness of God’s creation (see Psalms 19, 104, 145, 148). Our term “creation stories” is to be understood in the context of that exuberant liturgical tradition.
This text is a solemn, stately, ordered, symmetrical text that is more like a liturgical antiphon than it is a narrative. It has close affinities to the well-known Enuma Elish, an older Mesopotamian account of creation.. As indicated, however, the creation text with which the Bible begins has been shaped and reshaped as a vehicle for Israel’s faith. Among the many possible interpretive dimensions of the text, we may call attention to the following:
1. It is widely agreed that Genesis 1:1-2 constitutes a remarkable premise for creation, namely, that disordered chaos (expressed in Hebrew onomatopoetically as tohu wabohu) was already “there” as God began to create:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. (Genesis 1:1-2)
That is, God did not create “from nothing,” but God’s act of creation consists in the imposition of a particular order upon that mass of undifferentiated chaos. For much of the Bible, the energy of chaos (antiform) continues to operate destructively against the will of the Creator, and sometimes breaks out destructively beyond the bounds set by the decree of the Creator (Levenson 1988). It is an interesting example of “imaginative remembering” that much later, in 2 Maccabees 7:28, the tradition finally asserts “creation out of nothing,” a view that since then has predominated in later church traditions of theological interpretation. The insight of the text as we have it, however, is a recognition of the intrinsic contradiction to God’s will, that is present in the “stuff” of creation itself. Thus the Creator makes creation possible, not by a single act, but by the endless reenactment and reassertion of a sovereign will over the recalcitrant “stuff” of chaos.
2. The peculiar role and character of human persons in creation has been especially important to the derivative theological traditions:
The “male and female” together are created to govern creation (1:26-28). This elemental assertion of the equality of men and women is at the tap-root of the Bible. This assertion has of late been an important claim for the emergence of theological feminism in an effort to subvert longstanding and deeply entrenched patriarchal assumptions that fail to recognize a God-given equality.
The “male and female” together are in “God’s image” (1:27). This latter phrase is not at all developed in the Old Testament, but has become central in subsequent articulations of theological understanding of human personhood. While the phrase “image of God” is open to many interpretations, it is plausible that it refers to the exercise of human sovereignty over creation as a regency for God’s sovereignty (Barr 1968-1969; Bird 1997, 123-54; Børresen 1995). This role for human persons bespeaks both human freedom and human responsibility for the care of the earth.
The notion of “image of God” is reinforced by the imperatives that follow, “subdue and have dominion” (1:27-28). These verbs have often been understood to mean that the man and woman in the image of God are free to use the earth as they wish without restraint (White 1967). Contrary to that notion that the Bible is thus a warrant for environmental abuse and exploitation, Wybrow has shown that the “rape of the earth” has emerged, not from the Bible and this imperative, but from the impulse of Enlightenment autonomy that lacks any covenantal restraint (Wybrow 1991). More plausibly than that misconstrual, which has been given wide articulation, this pair of imperatives intends that human persons in human community should be responsible for the care of the earth and its boundless, God-given fruitfulness for the benefit of all creatures. Thus the imperatives bespeak not unrestrained, indulgent freedom, but a mandate for the community to take responsibility for the well-being of the earth.
3. The sustained affirmation of this liturgy of creation is that the world (all of heaven, all of earth) is willed by and seen by God to be “good,” that is, lovely, beautiful, pleasing (1:10, 12, 18, 21). This reiterated affirmation that we imagine to be a congregational response to a priestly litany, culminates in verse 31 with the intensified phrase “very good.” This affirmation of the goodness of creation has been decisive for the Jewish and Christian traditions as a foundation for a life-affirming, world-affirming horizon with a determined appreciation of the good of the material world in all its dimensions . . . including sexuality and economics. This tradition will have nothing to do with world-denying, world-denigrating, or world-escaping religious impulses that characterize too much popular faith in U.S. culture.
4. The liturgical characterization of creation in Genesis 1 culminates in Genesis 2:1-4a with the authorization of Sabbath as a God-given, God-practiced, God-commanded observance. The day of cessation from work declares that God’s creation is, at root, an unanxious environment for life that is not defined by energetic productivity or self-preoccupied consumption, but is defined by the peaceableness that has confidence in the reliability of the world as God’s creation without excessive exertion on the part of God or of humankind.Thus Sabbath is the discipline of pause that celebrates the world as God’s good place for life, and that relishes the human role in creation as “image of God.”
5. The creation narratives appeal to a common stock of cultural myths and liturgies, with particular reference to Babylonian materials. The use of these materials, however, is an act of powerful subversion whereby the narratives of dominant culture are utilized to voice a claim alternative to the claims of the dominant cultural materials.
The Sabbath became, in the developed traditions of Israel, a primary mark of Jewish life even as it continues to be. Because this text is commonly dated to the exilic period, it is likely that Sabbath became a distinctive mark of Jewishness in the exile when faith was practiced in an alien or hostile cultural environment. Sabbath became the lived testimony of Judaism that the “rhythms of cessation” as trust in the Creator constitute a mighty alternative to the frenzy of production-consumption that marks the world when it does not know that the world belongs safely to the God who has called it “very good.”
It is a widely held assumption of scholarship that this text — along with the Pentateuch — reached its final form during the sixth-century exile. In that context, the claim that the world belongs to the God of Israel is a mighty and daring alternative to the dominant, easily visible claim that the world is governed by Babylonian gods. Thus the liturgy of YHWH’s goodness connects the character of the world to a particularly Jewish vision of God, articulated through the various interpreted points noted above. The text makes large theological claims to be sure, but it functions in and through these cosmic claims to sustain the specific community that relies on this imaginative tradition. That is, its purpose is concretely existential. Given that canonical reality about the final form of the text, it is self-evident that the text is not about “the origin of the world” as that phrase is usually employed, and thus it has no particular connection to the “creation versus evolution” debate or, more broadly, to the issue of “science and religion.” Such expectations of the text, in my judgment, completely miss the point and function of the text in its original setting or in its durable canonical articulation.
Genesis 2:4-25 (together with 3:1-24)
It is clear that this “second creation narrative” is quite distinct from the first, and that it characterizes the origin of the world in a very different way. The two accounts have in common an accent on YHWH’s originary enactment of the world, and on the human creature as the “chief creature” who is responsible for the well-being of all creation.
This text, as the first creation text, has been material that has generated an immense amount of imaginative tradition. We may note three matters in particular from that imaginative tradition.
1. Unlike Genesis 1:26-28, the male and female creatures in this second narrative are not created “equal in the image of God.” Rather, the man has priority and, according to this tradition, the woman is derivatively formed from his “rib” (Genesis 2:21-22). As might be expected, this narrative account has given grist for a compelling notion of “female subordination,” which has then been translated into model social relationships that privilege men and legitimate patriarchy. It is not surprising that this narrative point has attracted great interpretive attention with the rise of feminist consciousness. Phyllis Trible in particular has made a winsome case against “subordination,” a case that is of immense importance even though her analysis has not been received everywhere as persuasive (Trible 1978, 72-143). In any case, the contrast between 1:26-2 8 and 2:21-22 is noticeable and has provided impetus for ongoing interpretive engagement.
2. Chapter 3 is to be read along with chapter 2, In chapter 3, the key character alongside the man and the woman is the serpent who utters the “sly voice” of temptation that triggers disobedience and, consequently, exclusion of the human creatures from God’s garden. The particular dramatic development of the narrative is possible only because of the “commanding voice” of the serpent; and yet the narrative expresses neither curiosity about the serpent nor explanation for it. The serpent is a given in the narrative and consequently in the garden. . . a voice that seeks to contradict and counter the compelling, commanding voice of the Creator God.
The serpent, by verses 14-15, stands under a curse. What interests us, however, is the narrative affirmation that the serpent belongs to the creatures of the garden. Rendered theologically, this affirmation means that the seductive voice of evil is intrinsic to the creation; that is, the creation in principle is under siege from evil that contradicts the intention of the Creator. And this in a world called “good” many times in Genesis 1. Taken all together through a combination of antecedent sources, Genesis 1-3 asserts that the good world of God is in potential contradiction to the Creator, a reality sketched more fully in what follows in Genesis 4-11.
3. As many church people will know, Genesis 3 is the denouement of the creation narrative of Genesis 2. That narrative is understood in Christian interpretation as “the fall” whereby human creation (and ultimately all of creation) has fallen hopelessly and irreversibly into the power and into the habits of sin, so that human persons are irreversibly alienated from God and helpless to alter that condition. In this classical interpretation, human sin is not a series of specific, discrete acts, but it is a continuing strand of related decisions that cumulatively produce alienation from God and helplessness.
This understanding of the “fall” of humanity into the power of sin — a fall that prepares the way for the good news of the gospel — is rooted in the interpretive authority of Paul, especially in Romans 5:12-21, but see also 1 Corinthians 15:2 l-22, 45-49. Paul is paralleled in a recognition of the sorry state of helpless humanity in the near-contemporary Jewish apocalyptic of 2 Esdras (4 Ezra);
It would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an immortal time has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death? And what good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed? Or that safe and healthful habitations have been reserved for us, but we have lived wickedly. Or that the glory of the Most High will defend those who have led a pure life, but we have walked in the most wicked ways? Or that a paradise shall be revealed, whose fruit remains unspoiled and in which are abundance and healing, but we shall not enter it because we have lived in perverse ways? (2 Esdras 7:116-124 [v46-54])
That interpretive venture, deeply rooted in experience and deeply insightful of profound helplessness, received in turn more systematic articulation in Augustine, powerful exposition in Luther, and lyrical voice in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This common interpretive enterprise has impacted Western culture in powerful ways and has evoked profound probes of human character in both religious and secular modes.
This interpretive history is of interest for our study, however, precisely because the Old Testament itself features no such teaching about “the fall,” nor does the textual tradition of the Old Testament refer again to the narrative of Genesis 3. To be sure, the prophetic teaching of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel assert that their contemporaries are hopelessly locked into recalcitrance against God; but nowhere in the Old Testament is that judgment articulated beyond existential disappointment about contemporaries into an ontological principle. The more characteristic view of the Old Testament concerning human sin and human capacity for obedience is expressed in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too fir away…No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. The Old Testament of course knows about profound sin (see Psalms 32, 38, 51, 130). In these same Psalms, however, there is complete confidence in the readiness of God to forgive. Thus a great accent is placed on repentance with the characteristic affirmation that human persons can repent and that God is ready and able to forgive such repentance, without any lingering disability or alienation. In particular circumstances Israelis said to be beyond hope, but this is regularly a concrete, situational judgment, one never transposed into a more foundational theological claim.
Thus the dominant trajectory of interpretation around this question of sin is very different in Judaism and in Christianity. It is not the case that either interpretive trajectory can be said to be wrong. It is, however, worth noting that the dominant Christian interpretation has entailed an immense act of imaginative exposition beyond the narrative itself that makes no such universal claim out of the narrative of a particular case. In recent time, moreover, there are now probes among Christian scholars suggesting that the decisive interpretation of Paul by Augustine and Luther misconstrued Paul’s intention (E. P. Sanders 1977, on “covenantal nomism”). In any case, it is clear that interpretation is not finished, but is an endless, open-ended project for those who take the text seriously and authoritatively.