Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Biblical Understanding of Creation

This paper was given as the third talk in the Lent Course at All Saints Episcopal Church Rehoboth, Delaware, on February 28, 2008.

The title of the course was Creation: Perspectives in Science and Theology

Old Testament references to Creation

It has been said that there are, in the end, only two questions that should occupy Philosophers: What is the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves, and,
How should we live in that world?
The Hebrews were not, until very late in their history, much given to philosophical musings; nevertheless in many places in the collected writings we call the Old Testament they give a profound theological answer to these two basic questions. It is often assumed, even by some who should know better, that it is only in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis that we find how the early Hebrews thought about creation. The point is well illustrated by a quick search of the Web under Biblical creation. Almost all the articles deal only with Genesis 1 & 2, with a depressing majority focused on what they call the “conflict between science and religion”.
The first point to be made is that ch. 1 of Genesis is not at all an early piece of the Hebrew Scriptures; indeed it is quite late and might well be thought of as a preface to an already completed corpus of writings. The second point is that there are multiple passages in the Psalms and the Prophetic writings that give us important insights to the subject. Typical of the ideas found in the Psalms is Ps. 33. The psalm is not at all a treatise on the creation; its central emphasis is on the Lordship of Yahweh, and almost incidentally the Psalmist writes:
By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made…
He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle…
He spoke and it came to be.

This is not a unique reference: we find important passages in Ps. 8, 104, 102, 136 and 148, the first 12 verses of which are paean of praise for Yahweh’s continuing creative direction of nature.
There are, too, countless references to the creative activity of God in the prophetic writings, but the most significant are found in the that part of Isaiah written by an anonymous prophet known as The Second Isaiah (Deutero Isaiah), who was active well over a century after Isaiah of Jerusalem. This collection of poems comes from the final years of the exile of Israel in Babylon (which began c. 586 BCE), and is vibrant with the hope that Yahweh will reestablish the nation. Several themes are tightly intertwined: the certainty of rescue; the insistence that there is no God besides Yahweh (clearly stated here for the first time in Hebrew writings); the assumption that God created the physical world, but also the moral order, and an amazingly inclusive attitude to the nations of the world who do not at present accept the One God:
Thus says God, Yahweh, who created the heaves and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it…I am Yahweh, I have called you in righteousness…I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light of the nations. (Isa 42.5-9).

Middle Eastern Creation Myths

Not long after the critical study of the Bible began towards the end of the 18th century, early archeologists were also discovering ancient texts from Sumeria, Babylon and Canaan, and it became clear that the accounts of creation in the O.T. had some striking affinities to the Myths recorded in these texts. One of the central stories of the texts tells how the gods fought for supremacy; Marduk overcame Tiamat, the chaos monster, and cut her in half making the earth from the lower part of the body and the heavens from the upper: that is the earth contained the womb from which life continued to emerge, and the heavens the breasts that dropped sustenance for the human race. This battle is a recurring theme in the middle-eastern myths appearing, in stories where the chaos monster is overcome and stability and order in nature are established.
Traces of these stories are embedded in the O.T. references to creation. For example, the placing of the dome of (Gen. 1.6) is an attenuated form of the Tiamat myth. Even more striking is the unexpectedly large number of references to a primeval chaos monster, slain by Yahweh. It is important to note that the Hebrew writers completely eliminated the idea of multiple gods fighting for supremacy; everything is achieved now by the One God, Lord of all creation and of all Nations. Sea monsters called Rahab and Leviathan are said to be slain by Yahweh. (Job 9.13; Pss. 74.13-14. 89.10; Isa 27.1; 51.9).

You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves arise you still them
You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
…the world and all that is in it – you have established them (Ps.89. 9ff).

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Yahweh!
…Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep[?] (Isa. 51.9-10)

Adaptation of Creation Myths in the Old Testament

In these passages, it is clear that the creation of the world we inhabit is the sole work of Israel’s God, whose creative activity consists in the overcoming of darkness and chaos and the establishing of light and stability. In the light of this background much in the mythic stories of Genesis chapters 1-11 is made clear. But before looking at some of the particular passages that resonate with the older myths, it would be help briefly to say something about the two accounts of creation with which the O.T. opens.
At the end of the 18th century, scholars began to look at texts critically, a move suggested by a whole new approach to history writing. It soon became clear that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Pentateuch) were not a unity, written by one author in a set period of time. At first two major components were identified, one which referred to God as El, the other as Yahweh; chronologically, these two were relatively close and were fairly early in the emerging writings. It also became apparent that there was another, very much later and very important strand to the finished books. Indeed, these later authors (known as the Priestly writers) were in a sense the final editors and left a significant mark on the O.T. as a whole. This is the source of the first creation account in Genesis (ch.1 – 2.3).

The Genesis Accounts – No Word for Soul in Hebrew

To return to the accounts themselves, we look first at the older one in ch. 2. Clearly the author is not at all interested in what we would call cosmology; all that is said is, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…there was no one to till the ground”. (2.4-5). The account is almost completely focused on God’s creation of human life, and what we read here established what might be called the definitive anthropology of Hebrew thinking. It is really a very simple point. But one for extremely complex historical and doctrinal reasons, that is hardly recognized in contemporary religious thinking:
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Heb. nephesh). (Gen. 2.7)

The word for ‘formed (yasar) is regularly used of a potter at work, and is a strong contrast to the word used in the first (P) account; it suggests a clay sculpture of a human male, an inanimate object: the crucial event is God’s putting breath into this model. In the first account, God’s Spirit is said to sweep over the formless void with power; the Heb. word is ruach, basically wind or breath, like the Greek pneuma which very frequently translates it, but it comes to mean the power of God active in the world and so we are told the result of this in-breathing is that Adam, man, “became a living being” - a nephesh. This is almost always, confusingly, translated ‘soul’, but it is important to note that the first human according to this account did not have a soul, he was a body/spirit unity; we might say a ‘psychosomatic’ being. The Hebrew meaning is retained in older English, as, for example in, “twenty souls perished in the ship-wreck”. The Greek, Platonic idea of a ‘soul’ encased in a body of flesh is quite alien to Hebrew thought , and this absence of dualism is definitive in the Hebrew understanding of creation. In Greek thought, the matter, and therefore the human body, was counted as inferior or even bad; the soul was a divine spark, pure and immortal: for the Hebrew matter is good, “God saw everything he had made…and it was very good”. (Gen.1.31)

The Priestly Account

When we turn to the much later and more sophisticated account, we do find something like a cosmology. God no longer is envisaged in anthropomorphic terms, a potter making a clay statue; rather God is the great Transcendent One, who creates as it were at a distance; the very verb for create, bara, is most often used of divine activity and looses its original mean of “to shape or fashion” something. The spirit/ruach of God is the agent of creation and it rushes over a formless deep. Many O.T. scholars believe that here we have an echo of the Babylonian myth since the Heb. word for deep (tehom) is etymologically connected with the chaos monster Tiamat (whom we recently encountered, so to speak). This account emphasizes that God’s creative activity is the bringing of light where there was darkness and order where there was chaos. It is important to note the very first act of creation in this Priestly account: “God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light”. It is important because it signals to us that this account is deeply theological, and not a scientific treatise. Light is the power of God made visible, in which all else is seen. Only later, on the fourth day does God create the “two great lights”, one to rule (that is, to mark it out), the other the night.
Both the second and third days have faint echoes of the Babylonian myth, though, of course, highly sanitized. The dome (Gen 1.6-8) is a standard element in the older Semitic myths, and the containing of the waters is, perhaps, the master key to grasping the biblical understanding of creation. For the Hebrew religious thinkers, water is a two-sided image. Over and again, the writers emphasize the importance of water for life as in, for example, Ps.147.8: “He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills”. It is, however, the other aspect of water that predominates in the O.T.: water out of control is deadly; it destroys as in the Flood and as in the Exodus story where it overwhelms Israel’s pursing enemies. Several Psalms refer to the raging of the sea, which can quickly destroy a ship, and a fairly late Psalm uses the metaphor of overflowing waters to express despair:
Save me, O God for the waters have come up to my neck…
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. (Ps. 69.1-2).

Creation Ex Nihilo?

This takes us back to the opening verses of Genesis. What precisely is God understood to have done at the moment of creation? Much later Christian dogma, heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, insisted that God created “out of nothing”, ex nihilo is the Lain phrase. In this classical view God not only ordered the universe but provided all the matter. This is clearly not the Hebrew view (and we may be virtually certain was not the view of Jesus either, and that makes one wonder about the common conservative Evangelical question, “What would Jesus do/think?”). In this first account, and by implication in many other references, God operates on an already existing “formless void”, paradoxically a kind of totality of nothingness shrouded in an absolute darkness where the chaotic formlessness is unintelligible. S.H. Hooke writes in a commentary on Genesis, “Chaos, tempest and darkness are all symbols of what is opposed to the divine purpose and must be overcome”. (Peake’s Commentary p.179a).
The essential core of the Hebrew understanding of creation is expressed in Ps. 93.3-4:

The floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift p their roaring.
Mightier than the thunder of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea,
Yahweh on high is mighty.

Transition to the New Testament

I need to spend the last part of this paper with a brief look at what is made of all this in the N.T. An important bridge between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian writings is the fact that in many places in the O.T. God’s creative activity is intertwined with the divine act of rescue or salvation. In this conjunction the sea plays a central role: as God separated and bound the waters at creation, so He separated them at the Red Sea in the central act of salvation that colors the whole of O.T. theology. I have already quoted the passage from Deutero Isaiah that begins, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of Yahweh!”, and I purposely did not finish it:

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces and pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep,
And made the depths of the sea a path for the ransomed to cross? (Isa. 519-10)

This is just one of dozens of passages in which God’s creating and redeeming activity are equated. And there is yet another development in the O.T. which is of cardinal importance for the N.T. writers: it is a late theme, but a very important one. As God repeats, as it were, the act of creation in rescuing the people, so the Third Isaiah prophesies the God will execute a new creation, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered”. (Isa. 65.17).

Central ideas of the New Testament

The treatment of creation in the N.T. really requires another lecture, and all I can do here is to give the headlines of the sections it might contain.

1) The earlier strands of the NT, the Synoptic Gospels and the earliest letters of Paul all affirm the Judaic faith in God as creator, who has a purpose for the creation and sustains it. We find references to the original creation in Mk.10.6 with reference to the institution of marriage, in Lk.11.50 – guilt for the death of the prophets “since the foundation of the world”. These are typical examples of many that could be given.
Other related themes are of immense importance. It seems highly likely that the miracle stories connected with the stilling of a storm on the lake reflect the ancient notion of God’s creative power as controlling the forces of chaos: it is worth looking at Ps. 107.23ff as one reads Mark’s story in ch.4: “[God] made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed”.
We have noted that the Exodus delivery is firmly connected with God’s creation of the world, and in the NT the writers see the ministry of Jesus as inaugurating a new Exodus and founding a new Israel. For example, Lk. in his version of the Transfiguration refers to Jesus’ impending death as an “exodos”, and the Temptation stories are redolent with imagery from the stories of Israel’s wandering in the dessert. Finally, and most significant, is the sealing of a new Covenant, most clearly seen in the narratives of the Last Supper. The NT thus sees Jesus as leading a new Exodus, and inaugurating a new Covenant for a new and purified Israel.

2) It is not surprising, therefore, that we find the idea of a new Creation very prominently displayed there, particularly in the writings of Paul. In his second letter to Corinth Paul writes,
The God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, (who) has shone n our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (4.6)

Here we have clear reference to the original creation and the action of God in Christ that re-creates us. The identical point is made rather more clearly in 5.17,
So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new (kainos) creation: everything old has passed away: see, every thing has become new!
The Greek kainos (as opposed to neos) means absolutely new, unique.
Then there are the passages in Paul’s letters which imply that Jesus is a second Adam, Rom.5.15-21, and the implication is clear in I Cor. 15.22, “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”.

3) In the later strands of the NT, the 4th Gospel, and some of what are known as the Deutero Pauline writings, we find the view, which was to become Christian orthodoxy. Christ is now a pre-existent figure, patterned to some extent on the Hebrew concept of the Wisdom of God. In the Book of Proverbs ch. 8 there is a seminal passage about the function of Wisdom (virtually personified) as God’s agent in creation. This idea is taken up by the author of the 4th Gospel and combined with the Greek idea of Rationality as the principle of creation; this Greek idea was expressed by the word Logos, which, of course is translated ‘word”. So we read:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…without him not one thing came to being. ….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (Jn. 1.1-5)

John could hardly have made his point more clearly: ‘In the Beginning’, are the first words of Genesis, and the darkness (chaos) cannot overcome the creative power of God.
4) One final headline would be to introduce an exposition of the magnificent climax to the teaching of both the OT & the NT on the subject of creation in The Book of Revelation ch.21.1-6:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” [i.e. chaos is finally conquered] “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is with mortals.” …And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new.”.”


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