Creation

God of the Flood – Pt.1

This is something I wrote for Dispensational Publishing House

God and the Waters of Creation

In the very first chapter of the Bible there is an awful lot of water.  It does not come from the sky, nor does it run off the mountainous slopes of Hermon.  The waters (mayim) which are mentioned first in Genesis 1:2 are just “there” after the initial act of creation.  These waters are there even before any land is present.  In fact, water is even prior to light. Extraordinary in its properties, it is necessary for physical life, for breathable air, for rain and cloud-cover, as a coolant, a solvent, and for cleansing.[1]  Perhaps the original presence of water at the beginning of things says something about the Divine good pleasure and delight in the physical?

The primitive accounts which have come down to us from the ancient Near East sometimes depict clashing gods and the overcoming of chaos.[2]  Biblical scholars of various stripes have interpreted the Genesis cosmology with reference to such ancient mythological accounts and have surmised scenarios which draw explicitly from them.  These influences are then incorporated into their interpretations of the early chapters of the Book of Genesis.[3]  This is done in spite of the fact that the creation account in Genesis acts as an obvious polemic against these pagan reconstructions.[4]

The fact remains, however, that the world was in a real sense “born” out of water (2 Pet. 3:5).  God created “the deep” (tehom).  There is good reason to think that the tehom and the mayim refer to the same thing.[5]

God and the Waters of the Flood

It is only natural therefore that Moses should employ these same words, prominent in the creation account, in his description of the great flood of Noah.  Even more is this the case when one considers the reason for God bringing the flood in the first place.  It was not for the petty reason given in pagan versions, such as that the powerful god Enlil thought men were too noisy, as recorded in the Atrahasis Epic.[6]  We owe it to ourselves to ponder the words of Genesis 6:5-7:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.  So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.

Since God, who is revealed as being so concerned with the good, had taken such care to create a world for man and had endowed him with His own image (Gen 1:3-31), would be brought to think of decimating it is surely shocking.  That such a thoughtful God, who had made a special paradise for Adam and Eve where He would consort with them (Gen. 2:7-15; 3:8a) could utter words of sad regret[7] over the scene should make us wonder at human sin.  We ought to shudder that in such a comparatively short time wickedness had engulfed the race, and righteous Noah was surrounded by sin on all sides before Yahweh erased the picture using the same substance out of which it came.  What we have recorded in Genesis 6:7 is God’s desire to repeal His creative actions; an un-creation oracle.[8]   God was sick and tired of supporting that malicious prediluvial society.  The “waters” would come again.  But there would be grace.[9]

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[1] For the amazing dexterity and importance of water see G. Gonzalez & J. W. Richards, The Privileged Planet.

[2] Although it is well to reflect upon the fact that behind many polytheisms there was a great God.  This is hardly better brought out than in the fourth chapter of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man.

[3] See for example John H. Walton’s influential book, The Lost World of Genesis One, 55-56.  Walton gives little attention to the polemical intent of Genesis 1.  G. K. Beale, who admits to being influenced by Walton, refers to God achieving “heavenly rest after overcoming the creational chaos…” – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 40.  See also, 247 n.44; 630 n.36.

[4] See John D. Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament

[5] Jonathan D. Sarfati, The Genesis Account, 105-107

[6] So Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, 225-226.  “[T]hey became so noisy as to deprive Enlil of his sleep.”

[7] We must not philosophize too much about God’s impassibility and His imperviousness to emotion.  Did not God incarnate express exasperation at His disciples (Mk. 8:15-21), or anger at the hard-hearted Pharisees (Mk. 3:5)?  For a good treatment of the subject, see Rob Lister, God Impassible and Impassioned.

[8] A similar more extended un-creation oracle is found in Jeremiah 4:23-27

[9] “In the Gilgamesh Epic there was no thought of granting mankind an opportunity to repent.” – Heidel, 230.  It was the god Ea who went behind the back of Enlil to protect his favorite Utnaphistim.

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (pt.10)

Adam is Tested

In the next section (2:15-17) we read of God giving the man a straightforward command:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an actual tree.  It is not called a symbol and need not be seen as one.  I agree with Merrill that we should not think of “good and evil” in this place as contrasting values so much as an idiom for comprehensive knowledge.[1]  Certainly, ethical knowledge would be included, since all knowledge bears an ethical stamp, but the innocence of our first parents does not at all lead us to think they were ignorant of the meanings of the terms “good” and “evil.”  God is communicating meaningfully to Adam, not speaking over his head.  Every word which God speaks to Adam presupposes his ability to receive and comprehend it.  Thus, the expression “to freely eat” was just as well understood as the designation “every tree of the garden.”  Again the warning “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” was God speaking to a comprehending and responsive creature.  He was not speaking into the air.[2]

Because this is so I wish to re-emphasize the communicative aspect of revelation.  Words which cannot be understood, either because the hearer does not have the tools to understand them, or because they lack the capacity for language itself, are very poor conveyers of meaning and intention.  We cannot, without veering close to blasphemy, predicate such a thing of God.  Adam and Eve understood God’s every word.[3]

Although these verses refer to a prohibition, they in no case speak of a promise for obedience, or any Divine commitment to grant anything to the man and woman.  There is no trace of covenantal language in this section.[4]  And any and every attempt to read a covenant into Genesis 2 (or 3) requires the interpreter to bring along far more speculative material than textual material to fill out the content of such a venture.[5]

But then, why the prohibition?  We are not told outright, but one reason which I find useful is to test and deepen the level of trust and love between the man and God.  Sometimes in life we allow certain trusted friends to know more about us than we vouchsafe to others.  We feel that they are able to understand who we are more deeply because a level of trust has been reached which was not present at the start of our friendship.  Seen like this, God’s warning and testing of Adam was a means of developing the relationship and of teaching Adam more about God as Lord.  It was a test of friendship as much as a test of obedience.

Adam under God’s Instruction

Genesis 2:18-25 features two episodes in which Adam names those brought to him by God.  At first sight the two episodes don’t appear to be related at all.  In fact, the second one; the naming of the animals, almost seems to cut across the first: the problem of the man’s solitariness.  But as the passage is pondered it becomes apparent that what is happening is that the Lord is using the exercise of describing the animals to teach the man about his own situation.  It is noticeable that God does not simply inform the man directly that he does not have a helper and companion.  He sets Adam a course of study through which Adam himself arrives at that conclusion.  Thus, under the guidance of his God, Adam was coming to knowledge through reflecting on what he was encountering in God’s world.  I have no doubt that this is the way all our knowledge (as scientia) was to be gained and used; that is to say, knowledge gained either listening directly to what the Creator said about His world, or indirectly through the process of accruing knowledge by examining and reflecting upon the world under God’s tutelage.  Today the only access to this tutelage is through believing God’s Word.  Yet we remain hugely privileged.  It has rightly been said: (more…)

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.9)

Part Eight

Adam, Guard or Keeper?

Genesis 2:15 has recently stirred the imaginations of a whole group of OT scholars.  The reason for this is that they think they observe intimations that all was not well with the good world which Yahweh Elohim had made.  For one thing, as we have already said, the garden of Eden was an enclosed garden (gan).  Why was it enclosed?  Well, maybe because it was the initial safe point of departure for the man within the Creation Project?  In this view the garden was started by God and was to be a laboratory model for Adam’s own gardening enterprises after his progeny had themselves begun to explore and subdue the rest of the good earth.

But there is another supposed “clue” in the passage that all was not well outside of the enclosure.  The Hebrew words usually rendered “to cultivate” (abad) and “to keep” (shamar), may also be translated as “serve” and “guard”.  If, as some surmise, evil lurked outside the enclosure, then the picture before us is of a park which God has separated off from the rest of the early earth, perhaps by a wall or fence; hence a sanctuary.  Adam’s role in this scenario would not be just pastoral and creative; it would also be; in fact, it would mainly be, to act as a sentry, stopping the repeated attempts of Evil from despoiling the island of beauty which the garden must have been.

A corollary to this would be to interpret Adam and his family pushing out the edges of the garden in stages as they brought the untamed outland into order for God.  Thus, Adam would be seen as an Empire-builder for the Lord.  This is attractive to some people because they construe this account typologically as the first of several failed attempts by representative “Adam’s” to spread God’s kingdom throughout the world.  The final successful King is Jesus, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).  Depending on our choice of eschatology, either Jesus either subdues the whole world spiritually from heaven before casting it away and replacing it at His second coming (amillennialism), or else brings it to heel through the efforts of the Church before coming back (postmillennialism).  Still another view which would be amenable to this “Man as Guard” motif is historic or covenant premillennialism, although this would have Christ coming back to actually set up His kingdom reign on earth and finally driving evil out of the world like Adam (and many after him) ought to have done, though in double-quick time.

Let me provide a couple of examples of this kind of thinking.  The first is from G. K. Beale:

Adam was to be God’s obedient servant in maintaining both the physical and the spiritual welfare of the garden abode, which included dutifully keeping evil influences from invading the arboreal sanctuary…Thus, he was to rule over and subdue the serpent, which was reflective of God’s own activity in Gen. 1 of subduing the chaotic darkness of creation and ruling over it.[1]

Then there is this from William Dumbrell:

The Garden of Eden is thus a place separated from the outside world, which presumably is very much like our own world…the garden is a special place, separated from a world that needs to be brought under the dominion of the divine rule, for which Eden is a model… At the end of the canon, however, the new creation is presented in varied symbolism, but lastly and most significantly in Revelation 22:1-5 as a new and universalized Eden.[2]

Beale links the Genesis account directly to ANE creation myths and interprets the words “enclosed”, and “keep/guard” negatively, along with seeing only the Garden in Eden as truly reflecting the name God assigned to it.  Adam is somehow to subordinate the serpent[3], (whom we know is the immensely powerful being Satan), thus recapitulating what God Himself is said to have done in overcoming and subordinating the anarchic chaos.  Dumbrell adds to the picture by describing the world beyond the enclosure as anything but “very good.”  It is not under God’s rule, and man’s task is to bring it not only under his dominion, but under God’s dominion also.  He also betrays further theologized ideals about the last book of the Bible by calling the New Jerusalem a symbolic “universalized Eden.”[4] (more…)

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.8)

Part Seven

A Thematic Account

The second chapter of Genesis is clearly somewhat different than the first.  But it was not intended to be another variant account of it.  It follows up on the second half of Day Six and the creation of humanity, and throws theological light on it.  It is not as concerned with chronology as the previous chapter.  So Genesis 2 is not, as the more liberal scholars think, another creation story.  It is a thematic zeroing in on the creation of Adam and Eve.

It is possible that the making of trees in the Garden occurred separately from Day Three, and was witnessed by Adam.  But such speculation need not detain us.  I am happy to follow Sailhamer, who comments,

It is important to read chapter 2 as an integral part of the first chapter…It seems apparent that the author intends the second chapter to be read closely with the first and that each chapter be identified as part of the same event…we may expect to find in chapter 2 a continuation of the theme of the ‘likeness’ between humankind and the Creator.[1]          

The chapter introduces the theme of the completion of God’s creative work.  The zenith is reached in the second half of the sixth day with the creation of God’s image-bearers (Gen.1:26f.).  The focus in chapter 2 is switched to the seventh day, the cessation (shabbat) of the creative work and the hallowing of that day.  Discussions about whether the seventh day (which does not include the evening and morning formula of the other days), is twenty-four hours long, or is open-ended is not likely to be resolved since it is often theologically tethered.  If the seventh day is ongoing then we are still living within it.  But it is difficult to view the history of the world as “hallowed” and separated to God as the open-ended view requires.  Paul talks about the world as “this present evil age” in Galatians 1.  This abounding evil epitomizes what some would want to label “the seventh day.”  This seems to me at least to run counter to every meaningful conception of “sanctified.”  If, however, the Sabbath observance in the Mosaic Law is viewed as a reminder of Creation in correspondence to the literal seventh day, as well as a sign for Israel (Exod.31:16-17), the question of the contamination of the day does not arise.

Too, the stoppage of creative activity was not the end of God’s activity.  God’s activity changed from that of Creator-at-work to Provider and Governor over Creation.  So the completion of God’s handiwork in the first six days forms the prelude to the whole Creation Project itself, which includes humanity as vice-regent within a world held in providential care by the Lord of history: teleology and eschatology get underway in the atmosphere of providence.  Hence, as Exodus 20:11 appears to indicate, the seventh day was the day when God looked with pleasure upon His works before shifting into His role as Upholder of the world.[2]

Man in Eden

The fourth verse of the second chapter introduces the reader to  the special scene of man’s creation and placement in the garden of delight (“Eden” means “delight”).  Please note the enclosed garden is “in Eden”, and since Eden means delight it would be a strange interpretation to teach that things outside the garden were not delightful!

The phrase “when they were created” is perhaps further evidence for thinking that the seventh day is over and we are now entering into providentialist history.  Verse 5 tells us that “there was no man to till the ground.”  This indicates two things: that there is an intimate connection between humanity and the ground from which he is made.  God in Creation had man in view: man and his relation to his environment.  The “tilling” of the ground, then, is not a dark adumbration of what was to come in 3:23.[3]  In the second place, this knocks out any special pleading for the evolution of man.  Man was created to work the ground, even in his innocent state.  The connection is intentional and is original.

The creation of man in verse 7 is described as a twofold affair.  First God constructed Adam’s body from the soil.  Then He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.  One should not read more into these words than is there, but it does appear that these actions; especially the note about the impartation of “life” (chayyim) through breath (nephesh), is intended to set us off from the animals.[4]  Still, human beings are interesting creatures:

What a combination he is of grandeur and dignity (made in God’s image) and lowliness (formed of common dirt).[5] 

This “life” which was breathed into man denotes the “inward man” or “soul”.[6]  Mind/body dualism (of a particular kind) is a fundamental Bible teaching.  There are plainly two actions in the verse which correspond to this doctrine. (more…)

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.7)

Part Six

God’s Transcendence versus Continuity

It is very important to notice the links between the creation accounts and ethical accounts.  In one way or another all non-biblical systems of belief paint a metaphysical picture of reality that is at once unified and diverse.  The unity is found in the indissoluble connection between heaven and earth, between man and the “higher powers”, or between the human animal and the Cosmos.  The diversity is seen in the various ways this connection is explained.  It may be explained by saying that we are merely the consequence of blind, purposeless matter coming together and developing in a certain way.  This is the secular evolutionary explanation in which man is no more significant than a slug (to cite atheist moral philosopher Peter Singer) because men, slugs and stars are composed of the same stuff arranged in different combinations.  The same feature is found in ancient pagan depictions of reality.  There is a real connection between the gods and the earth.  There are no exceptions, everything is connected; nothing is truly transcendent.

Old Testament scholar John W. Oswalt, defines “continuity” in this way:

Continuity is a philosophical principle that asserts that things are continuous with each other.  Thus I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually.  The tree is me; I am the tree.  The same is true of every other entity in the universe, including deity.  This means that the divine is materially as well as spiritually identical with the psycho-socio-physical universe we know.[1]

The ancient myths reflected an outlook on the world, and they memorialized that outlook.  Thus, “myth depends for its whole rationale on the idea that all things in the cosmos are continuous with each other.  Furthermore, myth exists to actualize that continuity.”[2]

Oswalt demonstrates that this “continuity” or connection between gods and humans and rocks is the key difference between the biblical worldview and its rivals, ancient and modern.  Rituals, however debasing they became, were thought to affect the god for whose benefit they were performed.  Just as the rumbling of thunder was construed as something happening among the pantheon above, so a festival or dance or sacrifice was believed to be noticed by those same gods.  This is the ancient idea of “the Great Chain of Being” which unfortunately got introduced into Christian thought through a misunderstanding of the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics.

This “hierarchy of beings” is well described by David Bentley Hart:

God was understood as that supreme reality from which all lesser realities came, but also as in a sense contained within the hierarchy, as the most exalted of its entities.  Such was his magnificence and purity, moreover, high up atop the pyramid of essences, that he literally could not come into direct contact with the imperfect and changeable order here below.  He was in a sense limited by his own transcendence, fixed up “there” in his proper place within the economy of being.[3]

When Hart refers to God being “limited by his own transcendence” he is highlighting the incongruity of putting Him atop any chain of being.  In biblical terms, what we call God’s transcendence is His Lordship over everything He has made and upholds, together with His immanent working in providence.

Although there are things in common that the biblical creation narrative with ancient creation myths, these similarities shouldn’t surprise us once it is understood that these creation myths are partly derived from the original truths passed down from Adam and his descendents, twisted of course and corrupted as man rebelled against God and became polytheistic and superstitious, and lost the framework for true transcendence.

How different all this is from the creation accounts of surrounding nations!  Those all assume the eternity of matter in some guise.  This is why things like transcendental meditation, non-Christian prayer, voodoo, magic, sorcery, etc., are practiced in the belief that one can directly affect the world or the god in some way.  Even many atheists have a mystical side to them which reflects this idea.  Only within biblical spirituality does this continuity of being evaporate.[4]   God is the transcendent Lord over all He creates and He cannot be maneuvered or coerced to do anything which is contrary to His will.

So the doctrine of Creation as found in Genesis 1 and 2 sets up a theological and philosophical platform which ought to produce a way of looking at things which has radical divergences from those which are conceived of by the world.

In verses 28-30 we see that God the Creator makes everything, and then made the creature who was like Him.  Man had a vital role to play and a response to give in the project.  We see, then, an ethical dimension introduced at the start; the role and response were to be worshipful.

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[1] John W. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, 43

[2] Ibid, 45

[3] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 203-204.

[4] Of course, where certain Christian formulations may be overly reliant on Greek thought (e.g. some Thomistic reliance upon Aristotle).  This is still a problem in some quarters.

Part Eight

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.6)

Part Five

Image and Function in Genesis 1:26-28

Another significant fact related by these verses is our creation in the image and likeness of God.  We cannot here enter into all the debates about the imago Dei, but some few things should be said.

Firstly, God does not say ‘according to My likeness.’  He says ‘Our likeness’.  The “Let us” statement is no plural of majesty, since it appears to be ideational, and is to be understood (I believe) as a statement of plurality in the Speaker.  The question arises then, in what way is God a plurality?  This question is not fully answered until the NT era.  Or, on the other hand, and as much OT scholarship insists, is the plurality meant to convey some sort of heavenly council scene, such as one finds in ANE accounts of the assemblies of gods?

If the latter is the case then one will have to go outside of the Bible for added data to interpret the passage.  This indeed is what many scholars in the evangelical community do.  But if we pause for a moment and read the context we quickly see that such an interpretation must be wrong; for the Speaker goes on to say, ‘Let us make man in our own image, according to our own likeness.’  And, in line with the words/actions pattern which we have already noted, it says, ‘So God created man in his own image’, and underscores it right after with, ‘in the image of God he created him.’  That ought to clear up the interpretation.

“Man” (adam) here is plural: ‘male and female’.[1]  Both are made in God’s image.  There is no hint of a conversation between God and the angels (which would not mirror an ANE council of divinities anyway).  Angels are nowhere said to be made in God’s image and likeness.  Plus, creation is a grand prerogative of God.  Why would the Creator discuss His creative proposals with creatures?  Angels have no part in the work of creation (See Isa. 48:11).

The passage also states that man was to be given dominion over ‘all the earth’ not just Eden. This must be kept in mind when we reach chapter 2.  The dominion applies to the function of man and woman as God’s image-bearers.

In the third place, just what constitutes the image of God?  Again, many today would claim that the image includes the function as well as the constitution of man.[2]  Unsurprisingly, resort to ANE records features largely in their arguments.  But the text appears to make the function contingent upon the image.  In other words, man and woman cannot fulfill their function until they are made in God’s image.  This would restrict the image to at least our material and immaterial natures.

But then we must enquire whether the image assumes the material part of human beings along with our immaterial natures.  Here I think we are on safer ground if we define the image and likeness classically along non-physical lines.  If we make the image merely physical we run into the problem of what God looks like.  Our difference from the rest of the created realm is not just physical.  Fish and birds and cattle and creeping things differ physically one from another as much as we do from them, so it is doubtful that we image God merely physically.[3]

On the other hand, can we dismiss the possibility that both the soulish and the physical aspects of man image God?  Authors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum point out that,

“the traditional view is inadequate… because it does not come to grips with the fact that “image” normally refers to a physical statue and cannot be exegetically validated as the author’s intended meaning or the first audience’s natural understanding of the text in terms of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and linguistic setting.”[4]

But this begs a rather crucial question.  Did Moses report the words God actually spoke in Genesis 1:26-27?  Nobody else was around, and certainly God meant what He said in the rest of Genesis 1, as we have seen.  That being so, the matter of whether people of the ANE living in or after Moses’ time (ca. the fifteenth century B.C.) thought “image” meant a physical statue is by the bye, and may even be anachronistic.  The context will have to tell us.  Gentry and Wellum opt for “rulership and sonship” as the image.[5]  But this leaves us with the problem of the spread of little rulers and sons of God upon the earth.  If everyone is a ruler then surely nobody is.  (and if “image” equates to sons, what about daughters?  In OT times – if we’re insisting on “cultural setting” – daughters did not enjoy the same rights as sons).  The biblical text leans toward thinking of the image primarily as non-physical and the body as the vehicle for the expression of the image in the extended world.

Anticipating the Human Form?

Reading the progression in Genesis 1, we follow a logical as well as a chronological order.  Dry ground comes before plants and trees.  The plant kingdom is readied before creatures are made to live off them.  The apex of the creation week is the fashioning of man from the dust of the ground.[6]  Man is God’s image-bearer: a stupendous privilege and responsibility, and he is given dominion over what God has just created.

(more…)