Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Theology of Genesis 1

Genesis 1 has been the primary biblical battleground in the contentious debate over views of creation and evolution among Christians for many decades now, but in all of this the important theology of Gen 1 has frequently been overlooked.

Genesis 1:1 talks about the initial creation of the cosmos by God, but it is interesting from the perspective of the original Hebrew that Gen 1:2 contains three disjunctive clauses. These disjunctive clauses add information that is circumstantial to the main action of the narrative, which skips from v. 1, over v. 2, to resume in v. 3. At the same time, however, there is an element of contrast implied in these clauses. The following translation seeks to bring out something of the sense of the disjunctive nature of these clauses:
(1) In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, (2) but the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, but the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the water.
If the disjunctive nature of the first clause in Gen 1:2 is taken as conveying an element of contrast, then this is significant. It prompts us to ask the question: Why would God, when he created the world, initially create Planet Earth to be formless and empty? Surely God with his infinite power could have created a world that was fully formed right from the very beginning, but he chose not to; and the disjunctive clause at the beginning of Gen 1:2 is there to help us see how surprising this is. Why would a God of order create a world that existed in a state of disorder for a certain period of time? What is God trying to teach us?

A similar thing applies to the second clause in Gen 1:2. Like with the first clause in v. 2, the disjunctive nature of the second clause contrasts with the expectation of perfection that one might ordinarily have in relation to God’s creation of the cosmos in v. 1. God created the cosmos, but Planet Earth was covered in darkness. The disjunctive nature of the second clause in Gen 1:2 prompts us to see how surprising this is. Why would a God of light, the God in whom there is no darkness, create the earth only to cover it in darkness?

Formless, empty, covered in darkness; but the chaotic mass was pregnant with the expectation of new life, because the Spirit of God was brooding over the water. The disjunctive nature of the third clause in Gen 1:2 arguably signals contrast with the preceding two clauses just as much as it presents information that is circumstantial to the main action of the narrative. Things might look bleak, but the Spirit of God is always present offering the hope of new life:
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Ps 139:7–12).
In the midst of the chaos and darkness of the world, the Spirit of God is present; and “it is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63).

What we have in Gen 1 is a movement from disorder, emptiness, and darkness, to light (v. 3), and order (through dividing and naming in vv. 4–10), and filling (vv. 11–31). And significantly, how does God bring about this order and the fullness of life? And God said (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29). Through the ten words of God, order and life is brought into the world. To the implied orthodox Hebrew reader, the message of Gen 1 at this point is crystal clear: it is the word of God that brings order and life. The whole of human society must be founded upon and directed by the word of God the Creator. To do otherwise is to revert back to the disorder, emptiness, and darkness of the original chaotic mass.

The theology of Gen 1 is not only that God is the Creator of the cosmos, but that he is the God who acts through the power of his Spirit and word to transform chaos into order, to transform the emptiness of non-life into the fullness of life, and darkness into light. The theology of Gen 1 is more than just the time frame of creation. In fact, the six day structure of Gen 1 should prompt us to ask why God took his time! Why take his time leisurely over six days rather than complete everything in the blink of an eye? Why start off with just one measly person, then two, in a small garden? Why not the whole earth full with ten billion people right from the start? Is such not possible for a God who created the cosmos ex nihilo? All of this signals that God has chosen to start off small, and to move progressively in time to bring about the full fruition of his purposes.

In sum, the six days of the ordering of the initial chaotic mass and filling it is a statement of the kind of God that God would prove to be. Even the very way in which God created the world was a dramatic proclamation concerning his intentions in history. This means that God actually had us in mind when he created the world! He deliberately created the world in the way that he did in order to teach us about himself and about his plan for the subsequent history of the world, and we miss the point of Gen 1 if we fail to see this. God created the world the way he did because he wants us to see that he is a God who moves in human history from small to big, from disorder to order, from darkness to light, from death to life. The theology of Gen 1 is a theology of the gradual growth of the kingdom of God on earth through the power of God’s word and Spirit. When we have understood this, then we have no reason ever to lose hope, no matter how dark the world around us may seem to be. The theology of the cross and resurrection has been foreshadowed from the very beginning.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From Wilderness to Promised Land: The Experience of Adam, Israel, and Jesus

Most Christians are familiar with the idea that Adam was expelled from the garden of Eden to live effectively in the wilderness, but the idea that Adam commenced his life outside the garden is not so well known. Adam was not created inside the garden! This observation highlights some important biblical theological truths.

Firstly, to prove that Adam was indeed created outside of the garden. Thankfully, this is not too difficult to prove. The creation of Adam occurs in Gen 2:7, and the planting of the garden and Adam’s placement therein occurs in the next verse, i.e., in Gen 2:8. The NIV translation of ויטע and he planted into the English past perfect he had planted suggests that the garden was planted by God prior to the creation of Adam. But this is unlikely from the point of view of the original Hebrew. The most natural reading of the Hebrew is that the preterite verbs in Gen 2:7–8 (וייצר and he formed ... ויפח and he breathed ... ויהי and he became ... ויטע and he planted ... וישם and he placed) should be understood in the typical Hebrew manner as being temporally sequential.

In other words, Adam was not only created outside the garden of Eden, but he was created even before the garden had come into existence. This means that Adam was not only conscious of his “wilderness” origin—Genesis 2:5; 3:23 allow us to use the term wilderness of the land where Adam was created—but we can also assume that Adam would also have witnessed God planting the garden. He was, after all, conscious at the time. Imagine it from Adam’s perspective: after seeing God planting and getting everything ready, all of a sudden he is led by God into the garden that has been prepared almost as if it were specially for him. Imagine being led through a tree-lined entrance into the heart of a magnificent garden oasis. Adam knew the difference between the wilderness and the garden! He knew what it was to be the recipient of God’s (non-redemptive) grace from the very beginning.

Furthermore, noticing that Adam was created outside of the garden helps us to see that the important from wilderness to promised land theme of the Bible was something that was in operation from the very beginning. Just as Adam was led from the wilderness into the “promised land” of the garden of Eden, only to be expelled; Israel too would repeat this sequence. From the wilderness, John the Baptist proclaimed the arrival of the true Adam and the true Israel in the person of Jesus. Like with Adam and Israel, Jesus’ ministry began in the wilderness. There he was baptized, and there he was tempted; but unlike forgetful Israel, Jesus remembered the lessons of the wilderness (Matt 4:1–10): that “man [does] not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (a quotation of Deut 8:3 read in the light of Deut 8:2); that “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut 6:16 read in the light of Deut 6:10–12); and that “you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Deut 6:13 also read in the light of Deut 6:10–12). Knowing the lessons of the wilderness, Jesus would not repeat the mistake of his forefathers, and the cycle of wilderness to promised land to wilderness was broken. Through his death, resurrection, and ascension, permanent human habitation of the promised land has been achieved.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Relationship before Covenant or Covenant before Relationship?

In interacting with William Dumbrell’s suggestion that the covenant in Gen 9 is a renewal of God’s covenant with creation, Paul Williamson has argued that relationship is prior to covenant in the biblical order of things:
For most Reformed theologians, any relationship involving God must be covenantal in nature—whether it is his relationship with creation in general or his relation with human beings in particular. Covenant is seen as framing or establishing such a relationship. This, however, is not in fact what the biblical text suggests. Rather than establishing or framing such a divine-human relationship, a covenant seals or formalizes it. The biblical order is relationship, then covenant, rather than covenant, hence relationship (Paul Williamson, “Covenant: The Beginning of a Biblical Idea,” Reformed Theological Review 65 [2006]: 12–13).
Williamson cites approvingly Bruce Waltke’s understanding that a covenant “solemnizes and confirms a social relationship already in existence” (Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 136).

I agree in part with Williamson and Waltke at this point. Obviously God has been in a relationship with the world and its creatures from the very instance of creation, and it is true that there is nothing approximating a formal covenant ceremony in Gen 1–3. God’s relationship with the world is described in terms of his creation of the world, and his commitment to ordering and filling it. Filling the world and exercising dominion over it constitutes God’s blessing for humanity. God’s blessing is, in fact, the creation mandate (Gen 1:28), which is both imperatival, jussive, and indicative: God commands, desires, and foreordains that the mandate be fulfilled. The relationship between God and creation has as its presupposition, therefore, the divine fiat of creation; but the primary structure in Gen 1 for the outworking of this relationship is the divine blessing of life and dominion.

In addition to the blessing of life and dominion, promise also plays a part in structuring God’s relationship with humanity. In Gen 1:1–2:3, the ontological analogy between humanity and God (due to the former’s creation in the image of God) strongly suggests that the goal of humanity’s work on earth is an eternal Sabbath rest. That is to say, there is an implied promise in Gen 1:1–2:3. In Gen 2, the idea of promise is more explicit. The command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil promised that death would result from eating the forbidden fruit (Gen 2:17). The flipside of this is the implication that obedience would result in life. Genesis 1–2 clearly teaches, therefore, that humanity’s relationship with God is regulated by God’s word. God word of promise is that, as his word of command is obeyed, his word of blessing will be realized. The focus in Gen 1–2 is on God’s word (his word of blessing, command, and promise) rather than on covenant per se.

I agree then that, strictly speaking, relationship is prior to covenant. But to say that covenants merely formalize an existing relationship is not accurate. The presence of a historical prologue in the standard covenant form acknowledges that some kind of prior relationship typically exists between the parties of a covenant, but covenants do not necessarily simply formalize the status quo. Covenants presuppose a certain history, but their orientation is towards the future. In particular, they specify the privileges, obligations, and sanctions of the relationship (from the time of the establishment of the covenant) into the future. The major divine-human covenants that we encounter in the Bible do not formalize the status quo, but establish and regulate in a formally binding way a new stage in the relationship. Marriage, for example, is a covenant. To say that the marriage ceremony formalizes a pre-existing one flesh relationship between husband and wife is not accurate. Rather, the marriage covenant defines a new relationship, or at least a new and distinctive stage in the relationship moving forward into the future.

And even if it is true to say that strictly speaking the concept of covenant does not occur in Gen 1–2, it also needs to be acknowledged that the basic structural elements of a covenant (i.e., parties, promise, condition, and penalty) all exist in the prelapsarian situation of Adam in the garden. Just as oaths function to strengthen promises, covenants formalize, solemnize, and strengthen relationships by defining the privileges and obligations of the parties in the relationship, as well as the sanctions that exist for any who would break the covenant. These privileges, obligations, and sanctions are at heart … promises. Covenants define binding relationships based on promise. The relational dynamics of promise inside the garden is not fundamentally different, therefore, from the relational dynamics of covenant outside the garden.

The definition of a relationship that a covenant provides may simply be to renew or confirm an existing covenant or relationship, or it may be to establish a new stage in the relationship that is consistent with previous commitments. The covenant with Noah confirms God’s intention that land animals should exist on the earth (as per Gen 1:24), and that the birds and humanity should be blessed (as per Gen 1:20, 22, 26–28). But, at the same time, it also contains new content: God promises in particular that all flesh will not be destroyed again by a universal flood. This is something that had not been promised in the garden. This particularity means, therefore, that the covenant with Noah cannot simply be a confirmation of God’s covenant with creation. Instead of looking back, the Noahic covenant looks to the future, and promises that animate life will be preserved on earth until God’s purpose of the blessing of life and dominion is achieved for humanity.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Meaning of God Establishing His Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9

The language of establishing a covenant occurs twice in Gen 9. In Gen 9:9–10, God says to Noah and his sons: “And I, behold, I am establishing (מקים) my covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you.” מקים is a Hifil participle of קום. The question here is whether מקים means that God is establishing a new covenant with Noah, or confirming a previously existing one. Linguistically, both options are possible, so context must be our guide in deciding which option is more probable. Given the absence of any explicit covenant language in the text preceding the Noah narrative, it is difficult to take מקים as talking about the confirmation of a previously existing covenant. The most natural reading is that God is establishing a new covenant with Noah and his seed, together with the living creatures (saved by Noah) and their seed (see Gen 9:12, 15). The content of the covenant is specifically the divine promise not to destroy “all flesh” by way of further instances of universal flooding (Gen 9:11, 15). This promise constitutes new content arising out of the new situation, namely, the existential crisis of life in the postdiluvian world. Appropriately this new covenant also has a new sign: the sign of the rainbow (Gen 9:13–14, 16–17). The translation of מקים in the LXX as ἀνίστημι confirms this. ἀνίστημι as a transitive verb means to cause to stand up, to raise up, to erect, to build; compared to ἵστημι, which means to cause to stand, and which can also have the meaning of to confirm. Thus, the translators of the LXX, by their use of ἀνίστημι rather than ἵστημι in Gen 9:9, seem to have understood מקים as indicating the establishment of a new (covenantal) formality within the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth.

The second instance of establishing a covenant in Gen 9 is found in v. 11, where God continues and says to Noah: “I will establish (והקמתי) my covenant with you, and all flesh will not be cut off again by the waters of the flood, and there will not be a flood again to destroy the earth.” It is significant that והקמתי is a Hifil modal perfect form, the modal flavor of which must be determined in the light of the context. The ESV seems to interpret והקמתי as carrying something of the flavor of the participle מקים from v. 9, as it translates both מקים and והקמתי as I establish. However it is best to interpret the flavor of the modal perfect verb in question in line with the two negative imperfect clauses that follow it in v. 11, which are basically epexegetic of the first clause in v. 11. In other words, והקמתי has a standard future-imperfective force. According to this interpretation, the idea of establishing God’s covenant in Gen 9:11 is to be understood in terms of God’s fulfillment of his covenant obligations in the future. God’s “establishment” of his covenant in v. 11 will be realized as he refrains from sending another flood to destroy all flesh in the future. This future-imperfective interpretation of והקמתי is confirmed in the LXX, which translates והקמתי using the verb στήσω, the future tense of ἵστημι.

All up, therefore, I would argue that the language of establishing a covenant in Gen 9:9 best reads as indicating the establishment of a new covenant that helps to guarantee the eventual fulfillment of the blessing of the realization of the original creation mandate, renewed in Gen 9:1–7. However, in Gen 9:11 the confirmation and fulfillment of this covenant in the future is being asserted. The Noahic covenant is a new covenant that functions to preserve animate life in the world by restricting the operation of the forces of chaos and decreation until a permanent solution to human sinfulness might be achieved. In Gen 9 the Noahic covenant is a newly erected frame, but at the same time its erection confirms the original framework of blessing and promise for which humanity as a whole was created.