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.


John Thomson said...


I've emjoyed reading through some of these recent blogs. Thanks for the work put into them.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John,

Thanks for the encouragement.