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In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

And he called …

For a long time, I have desired to write a biblical theology and provide commentary from a biblical viewpoint upon the world that we live in. Today I am ready to begin that venture. Perhaps no one will read a word. That’s okay. I’m not after applause or compliments.

But if you find the topic of interest and are ready to discuss and debate, welcome to a conversation of great import.

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A Suitable Helper

As we continue through the narrative, it is important to remember that the story of creation was explaining how the world began and why it is in the condition in which the original audience found it. Above all, we must avoid trying to parse the text too closely and thereby reading into it our ideas and prejudices rather than extracting from it the revelation it contains.

In particular, we should not assume that because the story describes how God took a bone from the man and with it created a woman means that women were created to be subordinate to man. It has already been revealed in the first chapter that male and female were created at the same time to bear the image of God. When God spoke to them, he blessed both of them and gave the creation to both of them to fill and tend. To both, he gave the vegetation, seeds, and fruit as food. And he considered this state of affairs to be ‘very good,’ although before the acts of creation were only deemed to be ‘good.’

As God takes the man to his garden as a place to live and work, God recognizes that the job is more than man can handle alone. More than that, God knows the nature of the humanity that he has made. We need companions. It is not good to be alone.

Does this point to the Trinitarian nature of God? That God too is not alone because the Son proceeds from the Father and from the both comes the Holy Spirit of God? (Or only from the Father depending on which branch of Christianity you believe.)

The answer is no. Once again, the nature of a biblical theology is to not rush the story, but to wait upon revelation. All we can gather at this point is that God did not intend for human beings to be alone. In fact, we might ascribe some importance to the contrast of God’s assessment: this is not good, whereas before everything was good.

The clockmaker view of creation fails here. God was and is not the master clockmaker, one who built the universe, wound it up, and walked away. He remains involved in his creation. When he finds a situation that is not good, he acts to remedy it.

The search begins for a helper. While we see God bringing the various animals to man for consideration and man giving them names, which establishes his dominion over them, none of them were found suitable.

This is presented as a fact through the use of passive voice. It is not God’s judgment or that of man. None of them were suitable for what God had in mind.

What was needed was the equivalent of man, a partner of the same form and nature.

Thus God forms woman out of man. Man does not name her; he merely calls her woman recognizing that she has the same nature and origin as he. The equality of the partnership is seen in the subsequent text when the serpent speaks to the woman. The man is there, but he does not take charge. He allows the woman to direct the interaction as he passively observes.

As we close out the scene, the man is delighted with the result that brings a unity as ‘one flesh.’

A New Story

“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.”

God set up his new world, one in which he was pleased, and one in which he planted image-bearers, male and female, to be the physical representation of his presence in the world. As Image-Bearers, humanity (both female and male) had the responsibility of overseeing the world. What that entailed we do not yet know from the Biblical revelation after one chapter of one book.

That is the nature of a Biblical theology. We don’t read ahead. We wait for understanding to come through experiencing God’s ongoing revelation.

Some see this new story as a second, competing story of creation. But that would not do justice to the structure of the book of Genesis. The formal essay that explains how the ancient Hebrews believed the world came to be, the superiority of their understanding over surrounding cultures, and the ultimate sovereignty of their God over all others is done. A new structure of narrative is used; one that is tied to the ongoing text.

In short, God created his kingdom. It was perfect, everything was in its right place, then it all went wrong.

Why? Before the text explains the when and how, it resets the stage. Because it is the fault of humanity that creation was corrupted, the story focuses on the perfection of God’s creation and the role of humanity first. This is the new story.

Humans are now central to the story. While the creative process was on-going, being incomplete, God forms humanity out of the dust and breathes life into it. In one brief sentence, we learn the nature of man: a creature that lives in a material body with a spirit that comes from God. More than an outward image, we bear the Image of God inwardly: in our souls, in our capacity to oversee God’s creation, in our emotions and ability to commune with God, in our ability to represent God, God’s desires and God’s values, to the rest of creation.

It is important to note that this is a nascent ability, being recently given and needing to grow into mature form. As yet, the man was in a state of innocence, but one that differed from all the other creatures because man has the breath of God within.

The creation of man has a purpose. All other creatures were to roam the earth according to their natures, but man was made to work and take care of God’s creation. Being limited in capacity as a creature, man was placed into God’s garden, a place watered by major rivers, populated by trees and other living things, to tend the garden and make it flourish.

It was not a difficult task. As Jesus would later say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The fruit of the trees was available for nourishment. There was no need to work the ground to produce crops with heavy manual labor. When hungry, man needed only to reach for a tree and eat.

God gave only one limit: man was not to eat of the knowledge of good and evil. This gives rise to a paradox in the text. If man had no knowledge of the moral nature of his actions, how was he to know that evil would come out of breaking this taboo?

In an overarching theme of God’s kingdom, we get an early glimpse. The answer to the paradox lies in faith. Man did not need to know whether it was good to obey God, evil to disobey God, or whether such knowledge was beneficial. What God desired was faith.

If God did not want man to eat of the tree, why did he plant it in the Garden? It did not have to be so. But if man was to develop faith and trust in God, something would have to be in place as a means of growth. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of moral knowledge, was what God chose as the tree that would prove (that is test) man’s capacity and willingness to have faith and trust God even without understanding why.

Time

In previous posts, we noted how ‘days’ were used as a formal structure in the text. God spoke, things happened (God made …), but the making was a function of the speaking, after all, God is not a human-like creature in that he has to use his hands to mold matter, evening and morning took place to mark off a day of creative action.

The passing of evening and morning is more than a stylistic feature, though. It shows that God divided his actions into six distinct blocks that are only possible because along with space and matter, God also created time.

On the seventh day, God rested. God was done with the last act of the previous day, the creation of the Image-Bearer. God blessed that day and the text tells us God made it holy by doing so. The meaning of what something becomes by being holy lies ahead in the text. But already we can tell that the seventh day was special–a time to rest from work.

With this wrap-up to the creation story, we are given one of the most basic structures that govern our lives: the week. Our lives move in cycles of seven sunrises and sundowns. At times, attempts to alter this cycle have occurred. One of the most notable was the French Revolution, which sought to divide months into 10-day weeks. It didn’t work out. There is something about the seven-day cycle that suits humanity even though neither the lunar calendar nor the solar calendar fit well into it.

Buried in this story of creation that the Bible tells is the concept of time; along with everything else, God created time to govern the universe.

And, if God created time, God is more than the master of time, God is timeless. God exists outside of time. We will encounter that theme as we move through the ongoing revelation of the Biblical text.

God is active. The sovereign Creator of the universe, of all that we see, feel, hear, and experience, God rules over all, but has delegated the daily responsibility of that to female and male humans. God’s Kingdom is in place; his purpose is yet to be seen. The objects of his creation that others worship are placed into their proper context. They are not god at all, but objects of creation. Who receives the responsibility of overseeing this creation? Humans. Humans, who are not unwilling victims or appeasers of arbitrary supernatural beings. Such things do not exist.

There is us and there is God.

From this point, we need a closer look at our role in the world and what God intended. The Bible delivers in a more detailed account of what took place in the first days of humanity.

Image-Bearers

We are coming to the end of the opening statement that the Bible puts in front of the eyes of anyone who opens the cover and looks at the first page.

The text has moved through a formal structure of God spoke, things happened, God called it good, and ‘there was evening [a close] and morning [a new opening]’ and these bookends in the text were called days.

Other literary structures organize the text and help us to understand the movement of the writer. We have the movement from the general statement to the specifics. First there is light, and later that light becomes the sun and the moon. The chaotic waters are gathered and we get the sky, sea, and land. The land is filled with creatures of all kinds.

As we move to the final detail, one animal in particular will be mentioned. We have the sense that the grandeur of the story is building as the canvas is filled in and new details appear. Right in the center, at the final moment, humanity appears as the completion of creation.

But, lest our egos run away with ourselves, the text shows that the creation of humanity did not get its own day. It was simply the last act of the sixth day. We were the last of the animals to be created at the end of a long day of putting forth every type of being that crawls, slithers, walks, inches, sprints, runs, and pounds across the land.

But there was a purpose in the creation of humanity. The text is clear that we are image-bearers: “Let us make man in our image, our likeness ….”

Like nothing else, we bear the image of God. That will entail privileges and responsibilities, which the text at this point does not reveal. It simply points out that we are not another creature like a slug or a tiger. We are different. We bear God’s image. What that means is not yet told. We read the word image and think outward resemblance. But God is spirit and is not formed of matter. We need more to understand what it means to be an Image-Bearer.

The one thing we do get is that humankind are to ‘rule’ the living creatures: fish, birds, and land animals. While that English translation has given itself to many interpretations, God afterward gives humans and other animals the green plants, the fruit of trees, and the seeds of vegetation for food. No animal, however, is found with a carnivorous nature.

There is a limit to the rule of humans over creation. It is not do as you please. From this, we get the idea of stewardship. However much we salivate over the roasting of a juicy steak, it was not to be so from these days of creation. In beginning, God created a vegetarian world.

Why it went wrong is the subject the Bible turns to next. But before we move on, we must consider verse 27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In this crowning moment, God made a creature to bear God’s image in God’s creation. (I’m deliberately avoiding pronouns here.) The repetition emphasizes the importance of this point: the Image of God involves male and female. It takes both for the full Image of God to be seen and experienced. Not one or the other, we need both.

English, like many other languages, defaults to male pronouns when referring to genderless beings or objects. We often become confused by that and ascribe maleness to the being or object.

What does it mean that it takes male and female to bear the full Image of God? It means that God has no gender. God does not live in a body. God created bodies for us to live in. But God does not require one.

It means that God’s character encompasses all the qualities we want to divide according to gender. God might father, but God also mothers. It is our limited way of thinking about ourselves and the world we live in that assigns roles and attributes to the male and female gender.

But that does not limit God. God is more. And once he created both male and female to bear his image, he upped his opinion. His creation went from being good to very good.

God was pleased with the nascent universe. It had everything, including something to mark his permanent presence in the world without the necessity of his physical presence.

“And there was evening, and there was morning–the sixth day.”

Creation

Every ancient culture that arose and existed in the part of the world we call the Near East, that is to say, the peoples of Asia who inhabited the lands abutting the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf as well as the Egyptians, told a story of how the world in which they lived came to be.

I’ve been discussing these opening words in a few posts: Opening Day, Form Criticism, Formless and Empty, and The First Seven Words.

Please forgive me if there is repetition.

The overall themes we find in this origin essay is a sovereign Creator who creates, organizes, and sets boundaries that cannot be crossed. It is the Creator’s kingdom. We seem to be an afterthought, except that the increasing specificity leads to the climax of creation, the creation of the human species.

Light, water, and earth are created. God gathers and divides. After light was separated from darkness, God separates the waters. The boundary is the sky. Then God gathers the water under the sky (the sea) and separates it from the land.

God gathers light into planetary bodies to separate night from day. In all of this, the theme is the setting of boundaries. With that in place, God creates life: first the flora and then the fauna. First the animals of sky and water and then the animals of land.

God called all of this good. His kingdom is a good place full of good things. We should make note of this because all too soon we will reach the third chapter in which everything went wrong.

God blesses his creation. He commands it to be fruitful and increase in number. The new world, his kingdom, was not to be a static place of things put in place and nothing ever changes. It was to be dynamic, with God’s creative processes carried on by his creatures in their limited capacity. Out of this, we understand that God has delegated part of his creative power in bringing forth new life to his creatures, a power we all encounter in puberty in all its awesomeness and fearfulness. We, too, can create life in the form of our own kind.

In beginning … it was only a beginning. God has a further plan for his creation, a goal toward which it was to point and attain, that is yet to be seen.

For that to happen, all that was needed was the Image-Bearers.

Opening Day

We’re still on the first page of the first book of the Bible: Genesis One. The previous post looked at the form of the writing: expository essay about the beginning of the world. Now let us turn to the content.

We first learn that a sovereign God has created space and matter, which the writer used the terms heavens and earth to describe in his language. Then, we find that the new creation has no forms, it is shapeless and chaotic, dark. But the sovereign Creator is there in spirit.

Why is God’s Spirit hovering over the waters and not God himself? We are in the opening sentences of God’s revelation of himself and his purposes to his creation. We don’t get an explanation sufficient for human curiosity. Only this hint that points to the fact that God is in his creation, but is not of the creation. Yet his presence is felt as his “Spirit” hovers over the swirling mass of quarks, electrons, and such that are coalescing into atoms.

God is sovereign. As the prophet Jeremiah conveyed, “O House of Israel, can I not do to you as the potter does to the clay? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand.” Other prophets echo this theme. What we are hearing described is the making of God’s kingdom in this universe.

Later, we will see this same right asserted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”

The opening words of the Bible speak to the majesty and power of the Creator God Elohim. What results is his kingdom, the Kingdom of God.

All was dark in this first day. Then God spoke and light came into being. Photons pinged into the swirling mix of chaos and we had light. With that, another theme of this opening essay appears: organization. First, God creates and then he organizes.

Another theme is God’s evaluation of what he is doing. “God saw that [it] was good.”

What kind of world do we live in? One in which God delights, calling it good. One which is organized with boundaries established. One which is illuminated, with light to make the good works of God visible to all. All possible because God is sovereign–able to work his will with only a spoken word.

This is how it all started: an act of creation, then illumination, organization, and goodness.

Form Criticism

Biblical scholars have engaged in many ways to understand the text after and during the time when experts examined the scraps of parchment and the rolls of ancient manuscripts to work back toward the original writing.

Among these ways is form criticism, which means using the literary structure of the writing to determine the author’s purpose and the message she/he was conveying.

Among the many literary forms of the Bible are poetry, sayings, narrative, expositions, and essay. To understand the theological truth being conveyed, that is, what God’s revelation is in the text, we must not ignore the form in which it was recorded.

The very first chapter of the very first book is highly structured. This opening creation essay, in which we get an ideal statement of the worldview of the culture that created it, expresses theological truth. It expresses profound ideas about God and how he created the universe.

But as we wade into the revelation, we must exercise caution as we examine this ancient writing. It is not a scientific treatise with every word meant literally. It is a grand exposition of the majesty of God and his divine power over everything we can see, touch, and smell.

The structure of the essay opens with ‘And God said,’ followed by a description of what took place, and closes with evening and then morning with a tag of the day.

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning–the first day.”

The repetition of the form drives home one of the main points of the essay: It was God, not a mating of two primeval forces with sexual characteristics, that brought the world into being.

That needs a moment of pause to take in. The Big Bang was not the result of a pregnancy and birth. The universe does not have a sexual origin. What was before our beginning is not known, but the Bible avers that our beginning came from a word. Speech. God needs no human form, no material body of some level, human or superhuman, to reside in. Whatever he is, he only needs to speak, and it is so. His act comes into being via his speech: his Word.

A millenium and a half later, the apostle John will restate this idea in his Gospel. But as a biblical theology waits for ongoing revelation to deepen its understanding of God and his purposes, that will have to wait for the jump to the New Testament.

If you doubt that each day was not a 24 hour day, you must explain how that day is defined by the revolution of the Earth before the Earth was formed. The text records the passage of two days before the waters were gathered together and land appeared. Before that, we have no clue that planets were formed. In fact, the sun wasn’t formed until fourth day to mark the passage of night and day.

The idea of evening and morning is not to describe what took place in 24 hours as we experience it, but to mark off the various events of creation.

However, I have run across an explanation that demonstrates that those 24 hours are not from the perspective of a created Earth (yet to appear), but from the perspective of God, whose frame of reference is not the same as the Earth’s. 24 hours in the experience of God is not the same as 24 hours for the Earth according to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

What passes as a day for us is not the same as a day for God.

Or as the Psalmist (90) said, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by.”

Formless and Empty

The Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe tells us that, from a single point known as a singularity, the universe exploded into being. Not only did the ensuing energy coalesce into matter, but space expanded around it providing the room for energy to transform into matter.

Those original days were chaotic with the basic blocks of matter assembling themselves into atoms as the universe went from beach ball size to an ever-expanding vacuum pushing its boundaries further and further outward.

In the opening verses of Genesis, we are told that God created space and matter at the beginning of the universe. The writer did not use those words; indeed, the ancient writer would not have thought of creation in that way. The writer used the words available: heavens, to depict sky and space, and earth, to depict material or matter.

The key lies in the explanation that immediately follows the first declaration. After the statement that God created the heavens and the earth, we find that “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

The writer wrote for his audience, the Hebrew people who had emerged from slavery in Egypt and wandered into the land now known as Palestine. As a distinct culture, they engaged in a rivalry with surrounding cultures as each claimed to be the best expression of humanity with their way of living superior to others.

Part of that rivalry lay in the myths (not fiction, but myth as origin stories) each culture adopted to explain the world in which they lived. An essential part of those myths was an explanation of how the world came to be, especially how humans arrived upon the scene.

Ancient peoples saw extra or super (meaning above) human power in the forces of nature, both local and global. While their immediate lives dealt with appeasing the hostile or arbitrary gods that they saw in nature, when they considered the origin of the earth and sky, they believed there were primeval forces that joined together to birth the world.

Tiamat, the female goddess of salt waters, mates with Anku, the god of fresh water. The chaotic nature of water and the uncontrollable storms they generate was embodied in these two. They mated (because in the Ancient Near East, almost everything was sexualized), children were the new gods who made war upon their parents, Tiamat and Anku, and succeeded them.

These ANE stories are also seen in the mythologies of Greece and Rome.

Then that one culture, the Hebrews, disagreed:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without form and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was beating over the waters.”

Where did Tiamat and Anku come from? No one knows because creation mythologies always falter at the first cause: where did IT come from? There is no explanation.

The Bible declares that is unknowable: God has no cause, no origin, he is the great I AM. Always existing, always present, past and future included. (But that lies ahead of us.)

For now, we can notice the argument with surrounding cultures. God created everything, he was not born, he is not some unorganized force of nature.

In fact, what other cultures elevated into divinity, the swirling clouds of matter, the bouncing pings of energy, the expanding ball to make room for it all, the Hebrews snorted and said that their God did it all.

He made the world and it is his. There is no Tiamat, no Anku; that is only the chaos of newly-created matter and God made it.

In other words, the Hebrews were telling others: THAT’s your goddess/god? Our God made that.

The world is not the offspring of these original divinities. It was the single act of a single God.

In the immediate aftermath, everything was chaos. God had yet to organize it. The succeeding verses will explain how even as they maintain the theological argument.

“You worship that as god? Our God made that.”

Even in beginning, the Bible puts forth that the world was made by God. The Creator God has the privilege of ordering his creation as he will.

That brings in the organizing principle that I think unites the two Testaments, Old and New: the Kingdom of God.

The First Seven Words

In beginning, God created heavens and earth.

English adds a few words because Hebrew puts the conjunction ‘and’ onto the next word. But when we go look at the words and ponder their meaning, everything that follows is contained in this one sentence.

God created. Someone made this world that we live in. It did not spontaneously pop into being; there was a cause. It was not a force of nature. The beginning of all that is came from an intelligent being: Elohim being the name cited in the verse.

In the Ancient Near East (ANE for short), El was a sky god, remote and uninvolved. The Bible picks up that cultural reference, but elevates El from being a thought or vague wind in the clouds into being the God, the only God, with a majesty that demands the royal plural.

El did not create the universe; it was Elohim (the plural form).

The significance of the form would not be lost on the audience that received this text when it was first written. It should not be lost on us, either.

What came before? No one knows. 1000 years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote about the first letter bet and its shape. He said that the first letter, being closed on three sides but open on the side that faced the following letters, showed that whatever existed or was before the act of creation could not be known. God was there. The rest is a mystery that cannot be penetrated. The knowledge is boxed off. (Curiously, this agrees with the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin. From a single point, the universe sprang into being. What came before the point? The knowledge is not possible.)

But this is where it all began. From that moment, when God spoke and the heavens and earth came into being.

How? Where? It boggles the human mind. The medieval mystics posited that God fills all of reality and that for the creation, he voluntarily withdrew from part of it to make room for the creation, that is, making room within his presence in all places for the rest of us.

That stretches the text at this point. But it helps us to understand that the ‘beginning’ is ours, that is, the beginning of the world that we know. It was not the beginning of God.

The world began. God did it. What comes next gives us the details.

But before we move on, we should note the clear attribution of authorship. This is God’s world, which means that he made it and it belongs to him.

What Is a Biblical Theology?

Theology is the study of God if you parse the meaning of the root words. Often, it is combined with a prefix to indicate a branch of learning: biology is the study of life, anthropology is the study of humans, and archaeology is the study of past ages.

Theology is often thought of as a system of beliefs. A systematic theology categorizes beliefs according to a schema and presents those beliefs with explanations and, hopefully, supporting evidence.

A Biblical theology restricts itself to the canonical material that is contained in the Scripture. Beyond that, it does not organize the biblical material into categories, but examines the development of belief that happens from the ongoing revelation of God through experience and word, that is, the historical life that was lived by the community of faith and the messages delivered by the prophets.

Immediately, an issue arises. If we are building a theology from the ongoing revelation in the biblical source, how are we to work through that revelation?

One answer is to use the canonical order of the books. The canon resulted from the decision of religious authorities as to which books are recognized as inspired by God and the order they are placed in the collection of writings known as the Bible.

You can simply open the cover, begin with the first page, and read through the volume with each new idea adding to those from the previous pages.

There are two problems with this. First, there are different canons. Although in Christianity, the various denominations have the same order of books, Roman Catholicism includes more writings than the Protestant denominations. Do we leave the extras out? If not, how do we process their ideas?

But even the idea of canon differs between Christianity and Judaism. The Torah, The Law, and The Prophets is a different approach to organizing the content.

A decision has to be made. As I proceed with my theology, I will adhere to the Protestant Bible since that is my heritage and my conviction.

The other answer is to use time in considering revelation. God revealed himself and his thoughts, commands, and hopes in human history and that contains an element of time.

Should we consider the writings of Isaiah after the record of Nehemiah when Isaiah’s time during the kingdom of Judah preceded that of Nehemiah in the return of the exiles?

Because a Biblical theology works out the revelation of God and his purposes throughout human history, I will take the approach of considering the material when it is first presented as occurring in time.

Note the careful wording. Biblical theologies consider the material as it is presented; arguments over who wrote what and when are sidestepped. After all, it is the Biblical witness as we encounter it today that is important for our time the same as it has been important for every time.

Nevertheless, I will not ignore the implications of the various sorts of analysis that have taken place: the literary forms that were used, archaelogical evidence that support the text, comparison to other ancient near east (ANE) cultures and their texts, and anything else that helps us to understand what was recorded on the page. We are far removed from the days of the Bible and we need these helps to understand what was being said at the time.