The universal history of Genesis 1-11 portrays God’s relationship to the world and to humankind with broad and bold theological strokes that transverse a landscape rich in literary detail and historical texture. As the literary and historical aspects of the text are explored, a theological witness is discovered that affirms profound truths which in turn may be applied to some of the most significant issues of our day. Thus we have in these chapters a theological vision that by its universality invites us, indeed makes it possible for us, to relate our whole lives to God.
The Theological Landscape
Before discussing the theological affirmations of Genesis 1-11 or exploring the ways these theological affirmations apply to the issues of our day, an examination of the theological landscape from which these affirmations arise is in order. In the theological foreground of this landscape are structural and narrative aspects of the text that should guide theological appropriation of the text. In the theological background are historical and cultural issues that provide the context for study of Genesis 1-11. These issues, once identified, give further assistance in the theological quest by illuminating the theological issues that formed the original matrix for the composition of Genesis 1-11. By beginning with an explication of the literary and historical dimensions of the text, I hope to put in play the theological integrity of a document that is not, strictly speaking, a work of theology.
The Theological Foreground
The Toledoth Formula
One of the most obvious structural features of Genesis 1-11 is the so-called toledoth formula. This formula, distinguished by the use of the Hebrew term toledoth, which is variously translated as “generations of’ or “descendants of’ or “account of,” is a distinct feature of the entire book of Genesis, appearing five times in the universal history (1:1-11:26) and five times in the ancestral history (11:27-50:26). The even distribution of this formulaic device between Genesis 1-11 and the rest of the book high lights the distinctive role these eleven chapters play within the book of Genesis and the entire Pentateuch. Upon further examination, however, a distinct theological function of this structural device is detectable. In each of its occurrences within Genesis 1-11 (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:l; 11:10), the tole doth formula serves as a bridge from a more general or universal treatment of the subject of the formula to a more specific treatment of the subject. So, for example, the toledoth of Genesis 2:4, “these are the toledoth of the heavens and the earth,” serves as a bridge between the more universal portrait of the creation of the heavens and earth (Genesis 1) with the more narrowly focused portrait of the creator’s crafting of the first human couple and his placement of them in the garden (Genesis 2). Or, as in the case of the toledoth formula in Genesis 11:10, Shem, the subject of the formula, marks the transition from a consideration of the three sons of Noah who peopled the earth after the flood to a consideration of the one genealogical line from which came Abraham, the man whose response to God constitutes the heart of the remaining narrative. The toledoth formula functions theologically to establish the important link between the universality of Genesis 1-11and the particularity of the rest of the biblical narrative.
Another theological achievement of the toledoth formula is to highlight the creator’s redemptive (re-creative) intentions. This achievement derives from the fact that the flood narrative ( 6:9-9:29) is introduced by the third of five toledoth formulas in the universal history. The flood narrative is thereby structurally the centerpiece of the first eleven chapters. Add to this observation the fact that this structurally central narrative is introduced by a toledoth whose subject, Noah, serves as a link between the people who lived before the flood and the people who live after the flood, and the creator’s purpose comes into focus. The judgment of creation the flood represents has deliverance at its heart and re-creation/redemption as its goal.
The Seven Day Structure of Genesis One
Another important literary structure that sheds enormous theological light is embedded in the narrative of the first week of creation. The grand opening narrative employs a “six-plus-one” literary pattern that “determines the presentation of the narrative” and “dictates that the seventh day be the momentous climax.” Numerous commentators have noticed this pattern which parallels the creative activities of days 1-3 with the creative activities of days 4-6. Structurally set apart and sanctified by divine blessing, the seventh day stands, quite literally, unparalleled at the end of the first week of creation. This suggests a theological importance for the seventh day that has often been overlooked by interpreters of the Bible’s creation teachings. The “rest” that the creator enters, however, should entice all who labor in the theological fields of scripture.
A consideration of the fact that there is no eighth day of creation along with the fact that the biblical version of creation magnifies God’s ongoing and intimate creative relationship with the manifold works of creation (e.g., Psalm 104:24-30) may provide a fruitful point of entry into the theological significance of the seventh day. As noted above, the divine day of rest is climactic and the absence of an eighth day following suggests it is conclusive. Yet clearly the Bible envisions the continuous creative divine presence as constitutive of the world. Given this, perhaps the seventh day, with its divine rest, emphasizes in its conclusive and decisive position, not the cessation of God’s creative activity, but a kind of rest that is an integral aspect of the world. Instead of an eighth day, there follows the account of God putting (literally, “causing to come to rest”) adam in the garden (Genesis 2:15). If John Sailhamer is correct that the last two verbs of this verse, which express the purpose for which adam was put in the garden, are best translated as “to worship and obey,” then the conclusive impact of the seventh day of creation continues in the unnumbered days to follow. In other words, the creation is very good because it is a fit place for those created in God’s image to enter divine rest through worship and obedience.
The seven day structure also seems to suggest something primal and formative about the creator’s intentions for the numbering of our days. Claus Westermann has suggested, for instance, that the purpose of the seven day pattern was to articulate a “chronological unity” for creation derived from the goal and significance of the seventh day. If his insights are combined with the above analysis, it may be possible to suggest that all of humanity’s days are to be numbered by the seven day pattern, with the seventh day not being a cyclical climax to six days of work, but rather the day that gives substance, and meaning, and purpose to the other six.
The Genealogical Arrangements
The genealogies of Genesis 1-11 are integral to the entire structure of the work. As Hamilton has shown there is a steady and deliberate alternation between narrative and genealogy throughout the entire eleven chapters. Each of the genealogies are carefully crafted structures designed to portray the creator’s purposeful involvement in creation and human history. Through the genealogies, the blessing of progeny becomes the particular provenance of such involvement. But the structural designs and narrative placements of the genealogies most specifically support the overall theological agenda of the universal history. For example, the genealogy of Genesis 5, which serves as a bridge from Adam to Noah, contains ten names, as does the parallel genealogy in Genesis 11:10-26 which links Noah and Abram. Hardly fortuitous, and most likely not an exhaustive list of continuous links, these genealogies help focus our attention on the main narrative and theological developments that are evoked by the pivotal and memorable figures Adam, Noah, and Abram.
The Framing Narratives and the Significance of Speech The power and significance of a God who speaks the world into existence is commonly observed by students of the Bible’s first chapters. However, both the beginning and ending narratives of the universal history collaborate to portray a world where the word matters, divine/human communion is possible, and speech means both power and pathos. By virtue of these framing narratives, the opening chapters of Genesis testify to the cosmic significance of speech, both divine and human.
In Genesis 1, God speaks and order reigns in the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 11, the Lord takes from humans the ability to speak to one another and disorder and disarray begin to characterize the human community. In between these narratives; there is never an overt decision by God to give humans the ability to speak. But having been made in God’s image and made as communal creatures-notice the male and female of Genesis 1 and the “not good” aloneness of the man in Genesis 2-it seems natural that God should speak to them and that they should have the ability to speak as well. So the decision by the Lord to confuse their speech rather than remove their ability to speak altogether is not surprising. The decision seems to parallel the earlier decision to deny them access to the tree of life rather than striking them dead on the spot (cf. 11:6-9 with Genesis 3:22-24). Like the earlier decision, the decision to judge their ability to speak rather than remove it seems to be predicated on the recognition of an aspect of these ones created in God’s image that remains good (and full of possibly devastating potential [cf. 11:6; 3:22]) despite being spoiled by rebellion.
This juxtaposition of narratives involving speech suggests a tragic irony with heavy theological overtones. When humans created for communion with God ignore God’s word, their communion with one another is not only arrogant, it is hopelessly futile. The ultimate effect of these framing narratives is that speech and its power is displayed yet attenuated by the pathos of words unheeded.
Creation and Re-Creation
Within the framing narratives that focus on speech is a narrative development that treats with great narrative skill a theological issue that has kindled much debate and reflection among biblical theologians. The much remarked on parallels between the opening account of creation and the flood narrative with its reversal of creation and re-creation motifs (e.g., 1:2-10, 20-25; 7:11-22; 8:1-3, 13-17) have conspired with the doctrinal tendency to separate creation and redemption into categories amenable to distinct theological treatment to suggest to theologians that a theological puzzle exists: how to reconcile God’s work as creator with God’s work as redeemer. In fact, within the field of biblical theology, this puzzle, and the unquestioned assumptions that are behind it, have, in the past, led to a sublimating of the biblical creation traditions in an attempt to give due weight to the biblical teaching on God’s redemptive work. But the central narrative development of Genesis1-11 – a development highlighted by the toledoth formula and supported by the genealogical schema – stresses that the story of the world’s and humanity’s creation, judgment, rescue, and re-creation is one story. This, in turn, challenges us to accept a coherence and wholeness of the divine purposes that is hard to imagine and easy to resist.
Why, we ask, would the Creator destroy his creation? How, we wonder, are we to relate to a God who would kill those made in his image? What kind of barbarism, we intone, shall we have to embrace if we accept, rather than reject this story as our own? These age old questions draw their strength from the primal account of a redemptive God who creates and therefore has the responsibility to judge. And just this plot is the heart of the developed narrative that is Genesis 1-11.
The Divine/Human Community
It may be argued that the puzzle addressed in the previous section is a reflection of the puzzle that humans face about themselves. Just as it is difficult to reconcile God’s creative/judging responsibilities with God’s redemptive purposes, it is difficult if not impossible to reconcile what we know of ourselves and our sublime/horrific potentials with the divine image we were created in. Or, as the biblical narrative might lead us to ask, are we “sons of God” (bene ha ‘elohim) or “daughters of men” (benoth ha ‘adam) (6:1-4)? .
The narrative of Genesis 1-11, however, does not require us to search for solutions to these puzzles in a vacuum. Alongside, and in intimate connection with, the development of the account of God’s creative/re-creative involvement in the world, the narrative presents the creation of and struggle to maintain the divine/human community. Created in God’s image, humans share with their creator not only the power of speech but the responsibility to protect the world and promote God’s purposes within it. Thus, a divine/human community is begun by the creation of human beings in the divine image.
The portion of the narrative that is most pertinent to this development is Genesis 2:4b-25. The narrative begins with a picture of the shared responsibilities of the Lord God and human beings. “There were as yet no plants of the field on the land or green plants of the field springing forth,” we are told, “because the Lord God had not yet caused it to rain and there was no human being to work the ground.” The tender denouement of this scene paints a beautiful portrait of the intimate kind of community intended for human beings (“and the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed”) set in the context of dependence on the gracious gift of God (2:18-25).
The intricacies and subtleties of this narrative depict as well the fragility of the divine/human community. And it is this fragility that best indicates the presence of true community. The divine presence that pervades this community – from the brooding breath that instigates the creation of the entire creaturely domain ( 1:2) to the patient planter who with sagacious generosity provides for the needs of the first human couple (2:5-25)-directs the creation of the divine/ human community without upsetting the fragile balance of mutuality, responsibility, and accountability that is essential to true community. Thus, when this fragile balance is threatened, it is the divine presence that becomes key to life itself.
The Presence of God and Righteous Living
It makes sense, given the Lord God’s warning (2:16-17) and the conversation between the serpent and woman( 3:1-5), to focus on death as the consequence of humanity’s rebellion against God. In fact, however, the most significant consequence was loss of access to the divine presence. The moment described in Genesis 3:8 echoes throughout the rest of the universal history. As they heard the Lord God walking in the garden, the man and his wife hid them selves from the divine presence. From this moment forward, references to or motifs of the divine presence, most especially the metaphor of walking with the Lord, appear in the narrative at critical junctures. For instance, in the next chapter, Cain goes forth ‘from the presence of the Lord” (4: 16). Then, in the midst of the genealogy of the next chapter, a genealogy which “demonstrates the reign of death,” a man appears who breaks the pattern and appears as a “standing pledge of death’s defeat.” This man, Enoch, is conspicuously described as a man who “walked with God” (5:22). As a final example, there is Noah, the man delivered through the flood’s devastation. Noah is also described as a man who “walked with God” ( 6:9). So despite the reign of death, divine presence remains the critical reality for the world.
An attendant aspect of this key narrative development is the realistic righteousness that is portrayed and the implied call for righteous living. The pivotal verse describing Noah exhibits this well. Employing a chiastic pattern, Genesis 6:9 parallels the characterization of Noah as a man who walked with God with the description of Noah as righteous and blameless. The portion of the verse that follows the toledoth formula reads literally: “Noah, a man righteous, blameless was he//in his generation//with God walked Noah.” Thus the important theme of God’s presence is tied in this pivotal verse with a depiction of Noah’s righteous living. The terms used here, “righteous” and “blameless,” are common in the Old Testament, and connote not sinless perfection but a lifestyle commitment that is wholly consonant with the expression “walking with God.” Relational at their core, these terms apply to persons whose relationships reflect the charitable openness to responsible life in the community engendered by the divine presence with which their lives are in tune. The community that issued from creation, though ruptured by rebellion, remains a live option because of the divine presence and persons willing to live righteously.
Blessing and Curse
At this point, however, there is something that the full biblical story can add to our analysis of Genesis 1-11 narrative. The one who most fully embraced the call to righteous living and who also became the most manifest expression of God’s presence in the world, proclaimed that the heavenly father sends blessing on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5;45). This reminds us that the arena of righteous living is a world of great blessing. Yet, thorns and thistles grow and sweat still beads on our brow. So how best tell the story of creation? Genesis 1-11 shows how through its narrative development of the theme of blessing and curse.
The blessing of creation is the power of fertility (1:22). Bestowed first upon the creatures, God’s blessing of adam (1:28) requires of human beings the wisdom to learn from God’s constant care of creation to trust in what God provides (Matthew 6:25-34; cf. Genesis 2:9, 16). Scripted as failure to find satisfaction in God’s provision, covetousness brought the curse (3:6). But the curse does not extinguish the blessing of fertility; God continues to bless (9:1; cf.Genesis 10). So the potential for blessing or curse (a la Deuteronomy) provides the context for living in communion with God. The dynamic of blessing which is the power of fertility, so evident in the tenacious fecundity of the world God has made, serves, however, to remind us that blessing is prior in all ways to curse. This reminder, in turn, draws us back to the source of all blessings. Such is the true story of creation.
The Theological Background
Having examined the structural features and narrative developments of Genesis 1-11 that provide the theological foreground for these chapters, it is appropriate that we examine the various aspects of Israel and the ancient Near East that provide the theological background for the textual issues already presented. For this text, so rich in theological nuance, did not arise in a vacuum. Whether aspects of its development or reasons for its survival and canonization (or both), the following historical and sociological issues form the theological background for Genesis 1-11.
If their covenant with God determined the identity of the people of Israel, the land was the laboratory in which that identity was forged. Exodus and Exile, the key events of Israel’s history, find their meaning in Israel’s history with the land. Significantly then, the first verse of Israel’s universal history begins with a reference to the land. Obscured by the customary translation “earth” and the planetary associations the word “earth” carries for us, the Hebrew word ‘erets, which is the most common term used to refer to Israel’s promised land, appears in Genesis 1:1-2 and also in verse 10 where it is identified with the dry ground. And though the pairing of this term with “heavens” in verse one functions as a merismus expressing divine creation of all there is, the term also provides a thematic connection to biblical traditions of the promised land by virtue of it being the word used in those contexts as well. This does not mean that Genesis 1 is simply about the creation of the promised land, but it does suggest that theology of Genesis 1 and the chapters that follow is not meant to be speculative, theoretical, or metaphysical; rather, these chapters were meant to address the theological exigencies of a people whose experience with God was quite literally grounded in the land (‘erets) bounded by the river of Egypt and the great river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18), a land created by the word of their God and vouchsafed to them in like fashion.
Political Realities and Covenant Relationships
The land had inhabitants before Israel arrived on the scene (15:18). Encounter with the land, therefore, meant encounter with other people. So the people of Israel were forced throughout their history to negotiate faithfulness to their covenant with God within the context of political real ities and relationships. As a matter of fact, the terminology of their covenant with God was not sui generis. Covenant language and kinship terminology was employed through out the ancient Near East in describing political associations. The alliance between Soloman and the Icing of Tyre, for example, was styled as a covenant between brothers ( 1 Kings 9:13). If,therefore, the land was the laboratory of the covenant, a major component of the experiment was Israel’s relationship to other nations.
This historical reality may shed light on the theological import of Genesis 10, the so-called “Table of Nations.” If, as many commentators suggest, this description of Israel’s world employs the language of kinship to describe political realities as well, then perhaps this chapter, in addition to confirming the continuation of God’s blessing upon humanity, served as a reminder to Israel of their intimate relationship to the nations from which they were drawn and as a perfect prelude to the announcement of the covenant whose divine purpose was to bless all the families of the land (12:3).
The divine names of Genesis 1-11, also reflect historical realities and theological tensions that contribute to the significance of the text as we have it today. Elohim, the name translated as “God,” reflects Israel’s faith in one God in the context of a world where the reality of many gods was taken for granted. A plural form of el (god), the plural use of this word in reference to one God of Israel admits of several explanations, but it most likely expresses Israel’s faith in their god as the “quintessence of all powers” or “the holy God who represents the divine in a comprehensive and absolute way.” When linked with Yahweh, the covenant name for Israel’s redeemer revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14-15), as is the case consistently in Genesis 2 (see “the Lord God,” 2:4), the experiential faith in God as immanent and transcendent, so critical to the Bible’s theology (see e.g., Isaiah 57:15), is expressed.
Priestly and Prophetic Concerns
This faith that the one true, incomparable God (Elohim) became known and experienced by the people of Israel through the holy presence revealed to Moses (Yahweh) formed the people of Israel and gave rise to influential institutions whose complex relationships throughout Israel’s history contributed to the theological richness of the Old Testament. Both prophets and priests and their correlate institutions became in the history of Israel concrete expressions of important strands in the theology of Genesis 1-11.
The opening account of creation, for example, displays theological dimensions of Israel’s faith that became in Israel’s history the purview of priests. Scholars who have examined this account through paradigms suggested by the Israelite priesthood and its concerns have developed keen theological insights into the text. Samuel Balentine, for instance, has recently characterized Genesis 1 as a “liturgy of creation” celebrating “the order, more than the origins, of the cosmos.” This may be compared to the insights of William P. Brown, who analyzes the so-called Priestly Creation account (1:1-2:3) and discerns an overall structure that may “reflect that of a temple, with the final day representing a temporal ‘holy of holies.'” Even scholars who approach the text from different critical vantage points have found the priestly paradigm to be a fruitful one for study of the text. For example, both Blenkinsopp and Sailhamer have drawn parallels between the opening account of creation and the instructions for the tabernacle. This type of study promises to continue to advance our understanding of the theology of Genesis 1-11.
Attention to the concerns and sensibilities of Israel’s prophets also heightens our awareness of the theological import of Genesis 1-11. These spokespersons for the Lord were theologians par excellence, struggling as they did to interpret God’s involvement in the events that led to the death and resurrection of the people Israel. Discerning God’s involvement in Israel’s history in ways akin to that of a potter at his wheel or a vineyard owner with loving expectations for what has been planted, Israel’s prophets under stood that divine freedom was crucial to the pursuit of divine purposes (Jeremiah 18:1-11; Isaiah 5:1-7; Hosea 10:1; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 19:10-14; cf. Genesis 2:7-8; 4:10). Thus, as shocking as it is to our sensibilities, the repentance of God, which expresses divine faithfulness as surely as human repentance exposes human unfaithfulness, reverberates throughout the prophetic vision (Jeremiah 18:8, 10; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10). Divine repentance also played a pivotal role in the drama of creation and re-creation (cf. 6:5-7).
Do the prophetic vision and the narrative twists of Genesis 6-8 imply as well, a God who suffers? What is the theological significance of the Lord’s grief (6:6) and the divine determination never again to wreak devastation like the flood had wrought (8:21)? Are these evidence that the Lord “is a conundrum of contradictions” or that the Lord imposes self-limitations on divine freedom and power?
These questions pertain to the enigma of God’s relationship to creation. Our approach to these questions should affirm with the earnestness and conviction of the biblical testimony, the reality and integrity of God’s involvement with the world. Here again, the prophetic perspective gives insight into the theology of Genesis 1-11. In the prophetic vision the divine grief in the days of Noah is less a riddle to be solved than a sign that God’s compassion will not fail (Isaiah 54:6-10). Inseparable from divine compassion, the divine grief of the flood account (6:6) finds its parallel in the suffering of the humans made in God’s image ( 3:16-17) and in the grief of Israel’s redeemer (Isaiah 54:6).
Based upon an examination of the theological landscape of Genesis 1-11, several theological affirmations may be articulated. These theological affirmations depend upon the cogency of the observations already made but they are not proposed as an exhaustive list of all possible theological affirmations from Genesis 1-11. Consideration of these themes should, however, provide an extensive enough matrix for comprehensive theological engagement with Genesis 1-11.
One God, One Humanity, One Purpose
Establishing the broadest possible theological perspective for the rest of the Bible, these chapters envision a true uni verse with a theological integrity grounded in the purposes of the maker of heaven and earth and the redemptive vision of one humanity. Its affirmations of one God, one humanity, and an integrated creative/redemptive purpose for the world proclaim a biblical, universal perspective that animates the entire biblical witness.
Israel inhabited a world in which the regnant presumption was that of the existence of many gods (elohim). The blunt claim that there is only one god (el), would have been in Israel’s world a parochial assertion easily ignored. But Israel embraced the majesty of Elohim, affirming that Elohim created the heavens and the earth (1:1). This move, however, in a way that is similar to John’s conjoining of the widely accepted Greek notion of the logos with the Christian faith in the incarnation (John 1:1-14), allowed Israel to affirm its particular experience of Yahweh in a transcendent, universal way. Thus, Israel’s faith declares, the Lord he is God and there is no other. (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 4:35; Isaiah 43:10-13; 44:6; Psalm 96:5).
But this claim, made in a theological vacuum or as a matter of expediency, can reflect a superficial response rather than a resounding conviction (ala the response of the people in Elijah’s day-1 Kings 18:39). The affirmation that there is one god who is maker of heaven and earth stands as a biblical challenge to both religious and secular complacencies, and must be discerned in the context of our own prevailing assumptions for its power to be felt to its fullest.
A corollary to the affirmation of one God is the biblical vision of one humanity. This is a missionary vision, as Paul made clear (Acts 17:24-31). And it illumines, by virtue of Genesis 10 and 11, God’s covenant with Abraham and his seed through which God’s intention to bless all humanity is manifest (12:1-3). Thus, the disruptions wrought to the human community at Babel (11) are overcome by the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost (Acts 2) even as the sin of Babel (“let us make a name for ourselves”; 11:4) is matched by a central promise of the covenant (“I will make your name great”; 12:2). So the biblical vision of one humanity is a redemptive hope that calls us to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:14-21; cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).
An Integrated Creative/Redemptive Purpose
The universal perspective affirmed by Genesis 1-11 ultimately hangs, however, on the affirmation it makes of the integration of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. The biblical witness to redemption is not simply couched in creation terms, rather it reflects the faith and hope that the world’s creator is our redeemer (Isaiah 65:17-18). As Terence Fretheim puts it: “God’s redemptive purposes in and through Israel presupposes the reality of the world as the creation of God and the world in need of reconciliation; God’s activity in the history of Israel is for the sake of the world.” God’s love for the world he created (John 3:16) conjoins our hope with the hope of the world and allows us in our travails to wait expectantly, even as all creation does, for the work of the world’s creator that makes all things new (Romans 8:8-25; Revelation 21:1-5). The God who is the source of our existence is the God who loves us with a “love that will not let us go.”
The Power of God’s Word
The clear focus on the power of speech reflected in the framing narratives of Genesis 1 and 11 draws our attention to the power of language and in particular to the efficacy of God’s word. The potential humans possess by virtue of their creation in God’s image and in particular the power they share in common with their creator for communion is real and dangerous. However, more powerful and therefore always efficacious is God’s word which speaks to the void and creates what God desires (cf. Genesis 1:2-3; Isaiah 55:11). The determinative power of the world, therefore, is the power of God’s word. The power of God’s word is not a raw power that becomes the only rationality of the world (ala Nietzsche); it is an efficacious power that brings order, to be sure, but also woos more than it overwhelms.
In addition to the theological affirmations derived from an analysis of Genesis 1-11, certain theological applications suggest themselves when some of the more significant issues of the day are considered in the light of the theology of Genesis 1-11. These applications draw sustenance from the conviction that the biblical witness is visionary, speaking even about first things in ways that shine light on the path before us. So theology derived from the book of beginnings ought to, and indeed does provide guidance as we step into a future in which questions about the human condition, the nature of the universe, and our responsibilities as those who worship the world’s creator loom large and seem unnavigable.
The Human Condition
The psalmist’s question, “what is man?” (Psalm 8), is being vigorously engaged today on a variety of fronts and from a number of different vantage points. No definitive answer has garnered a consensus, but what is clear is that we no longer are certain what we mean when we say “human.”
But what the Bible seems to be saying when it says “human” is clear, at least in some respects. The Hebrew term adam is used in a highly suggestive way when the assertion is made that “the Lord God fashioned adam from the dust of the adamah” (Genesis 2:7). This pun has lead recent commentators to search for the best way to render the term adam, with one translating the word as “earth creature” and another using the word “human” for adam and “humus” for adamah in order to make the pun visible to English readers.
So was the philosopher Hannah Arendt correct that “the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.” Some may wince at the bluntness of this assertion, believing that such a proposal would give too much “ground” to those who scoff at the spiritual dimensions of human existence. But there have been earnest attempts to engage the physicality suggested by various scientific investigations into human nature in a biblical, and hence, non-reductive way.
A false dichotomy between our spiritual capacities and our conditional existence as earth creatures does more than create poor exegesis and translation of Genesis 2:7. Such a dichotomy left unchallenged may lead us to unwittingly accelerate the alienation human beings feel as they struggle to be at home in the universe (but not on earth) and to live as entitled individuals rather than in community with their fellow earthlings. Maybe the biblical witness can help us recover in fresh and authentic ways the reality that we are “super, natural” beings.
The biblical vision entails more, however, for the human condition than simply our status as creatures of God. In addition to our place in the natural order of creation, the biblical doctrine of creation indicates that our humanity is conditioned by communal and eschatological contexts as well. From the beginning we were made for community and blessed with an account of our existence that invites us to consider our creation in the light of the new heavens and the new earth that God intends.
The Return to Cosmology and the Moral Nature of the Universe
Despite its potential for creating in us a sense of alienation from our environment, the desire to comprehend the human condition in the broadest possible sense, in other words, the desire to think cosmologically, is as integral to what makes us human as is the earth from which we were created. The cosmological drive of Genesis 1-11, therefore, provides a bridge between the biblical witness and abiding human concerns. As we walk across the bridge, however, we do well to remember the dangerous waters the bridge help us traverse.
We risk venturing onto the bridge, though, because we long to recover a sense of the moral nature of the universe. As previously noted, the magnitude of the biblical vision calls for us to relate our whole lives to God. When human inquiry expands our intellectual horizons, the biblical light encourages us to see beyond and gives us hope that our expanding universe is held in the loving hands of one whose thoughts are genuinely unfathomable. Like Job in “no man’s-land,” we encounter a creator and creation too wild and wondrous for us to have imagined and in that encounter discover “a self-forgetful awe.” In the end, if we follow the contours of the biblical cosmology, we discover afresh, as the Bible’s opening chapters display, that “creation reveals the contours of authentic community.”
The World and Worship
We are full and fruitful members of that community as we live lives of worship in this world. Finally, the coherence and meaning we seek through cosmology or our attempt to understand ourselves is discoverable only as we embrace worship as a way of life. As we do we discern a theological take on creation in which the crucial matrix of world and worship forms the heart of the biblical understanding of what it means to say “creation.” And this is nowhere on display more than in the opening account of creation (1:1-2:3), where creation is ordered as a “cosmic sanctuary” whose creation culminates in the creation of “a tabernacle in time” (2:3).
The fact that the day of rest has been “encoded in God’s creational design” means that worship is the “primary means” by which we achieve “clarity about God, the world, and human responsibility.” We may want clarity without worship; but worship remains the truest, most real experience we can hope for. “The world is full of praise, for God is in this world.” And “all that breathes shall praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).
Southwestern Journal of Theology
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The Book of Genesis opens the Hebrew Bible with the story of creation. God, a spirit hovering over an empty, watery void, creates the world by speaking into the darkness and calling into being light, sky, land, vegetation, and living creatures over the course of six days. Each day, he pauses to pronounce his works “good” (1:4). On the sixth day, God declares his intention to make a being in his “own image,” and he creates humankind (1:26). He fashions a man out of dust and forms a woman out of the man’s rib. God places the two people, Adam and Eve, in the idyllic garden of Eden, encouraging them to procreate and to enjoy the created world fully, and forbidding them to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In the garden, Eve encounters a crafty serpent who convinces her to eat the tree’s forbidden fruit, assuring her that she will not suffer if she does so. Eve shares the fruit with Adam, and the two are immediately filled with shame and remorse. While walking in the garden, God discovers their disobedience. After cursing the serpent, he turns and curses the couple. Eve, he says, will be cursed to suffer painful childbirth and must submit to her husband’s authority. Adam is cursed to toil and work the ground for food. The two are subsequently banished from Eden.
Sent out into the world, Adam and Eve give birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain, a farmer, offers God a portion of his crops one day as a sacrifice, only to learn that God is more pleased when Abel, a herdsman, presents God with the fattest portion of his flocks. Enraged, Cain kills his brother. God exiles Cain from his home to wander in the land east of Eden. Adam and Eve give birth to a third son, Seth. Through Seth and Cain, the human race begins to grow.
Ten generations pass, and humankind becomes more evil. God begins to lament his creation and makes plans to destroy humankind completely. However, one man, Noah, has earned God’s favor because of his blameless behavior. God speaks to Noah and promises to establish a special covenant with Noah and his family. He instructs Noah to build an ark, or boat, large enough to hold Noah’s family and pairs of every kind of living animal while God sends a great flood to destroy the earth. Noah does so, his family and the animals enter the ark, and rain falls in a deluge for forty days, submerging the earth in water for more than a year. When the waters finally recede, God calls Noah’s family out of the ark and reaffirms his covenant with Noah. Upon exiting the ark, Noah’s family finds that the earth is moist and green again. God promises that from this new fertile earth will follow an equally fertile lineage for Noah and his family. But humankind must follow certain rules to maintain this favor: humans must not eat meat with blood still in it, and anyone who murders another human must also be killed. God vows never to destroy the earth again, and he designates the rainbow to be a symbol of his covenant.
One night, Noah becomes drunk and lies naked in his tent. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, sees his naked father and tells his brothers, Shem and Japeth. Shem and Japeth cover their father without looking at him. Upon waking, Noah curses Ham’s descendants, the Canaanites, for Ham’s indiscretion, declaring that they will serve the future descendants of Ham’s brothers. A detailed genealogy of the three brothers’ descendants is given. Many generations pass and humankind again becomes corrupt. Some men, having moved west to Babylon, attempt to assert their greatness and power by building a large tower that would enable them to reach the heavens. Their arrogance angers God, who destroys the edifice. He scatters the people across the earth by confusing their common language, thus forever dividing humankind into separate nations.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis tell an authoritative story about the beginnings of the world that contains many contradictions. Scholars believe that the account is not the work of one author, but of a later editor or “redactor” who collected stories from various traditional sources into one volume. For instance, the author of the story of Cain and Abel shows a knowledge of Jewish sacrificial law that only a later writer would possess. Also, the narrator’s introduction of stories with phrases such as “This is the list of the descendants of Adam” (5:1) or “These are the descendants of Noah” (6:9) suggests these tales existed before the current writer or redactor collected them into their present form.