Chapter four of Mark Harris’s book The Nature of Creation looks at creation according to the bible outside of Genesis 1-3 (Genesis 1-3 was covered in the previous chapter and our previous post Theologies of Creation?). The key point is that “God as Creator cannot straightforwardly be treated either as a scientific hypothesis to be reasoned about or an entirely objective other.” (p. 81) Creation as described in scripture is not a philosopher’s designer or a scientist’s cause. Creation is inherently relational and creation and redemption are tied together in an intertwined tangle. We know God in relationship, by his self-revelation, not by observation.
It is important to note here that revelation is not simply a code-word for Scripture. The Bible is an inspired record of God’s self-revelation to his people. This self-revelation is the essence of the story we learn through Scripture and in the ongoing witness of the Church. God was and is in relationship with his people. God revealed himself to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Samuel, David, Huldah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, … even to Solomon, Jeroboam, and Ahab (through Elijah, revelation didn’t necessarily lead to obedience) … Mary, Peter, John, Mary, Paul, … and to many others in the pages of scripture.
The Bible tells a story of relationship that culminates in Christ and in the hope for the age to come.
To a Christian, any hypothesis is incomplete that puts forward arguments for or against the existence of God based on science or creation, and that does not also take into account the fact that through Christ’s life, death and resurrection God has entered into an intimate relationship with the universe and so also redeems it. (p. 81)
I’ve started with Harris’s conclusions to frame our discussion of the creation motif in the Bible. The creation motif in the Bible is focused on the nature of God. Harris builds on the ideas of Terrance Fretheim (God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation) that “Old Testament creation thought is relational; that is it sees the formation of relationships as basic to God’s nature and to God’s formation of creation. Everything exists in a state of interrelatedness, reflecting its maker.” (p. 59)
Creation and Narrative. The narrative texts of the Old Testament tell the “gigantic story from the beginnings of humankind to the beginnings of Israel, and then beyond to the effective end of Israel and Judah at the exile, and the tentative re-birth at the rebuilding of Jerusalem.” (p. 60) In the Pentateuch we see the creation of the cosmos, the creation of humans, recreation after the flood, the creation of Israel through Abraham, the creation of Israel as a nation at the Exodus, the creation of the tabernacle. Creation, redemption, and the law are closely tied together in this story. Like God’s creative action in Genesis 1, the law brings order out of chaos and forms a people.
Creation and Poetry. The Psalms frequently express the praise of God’s handiwork in various ways (e.g. 8, 9, 33, 65, 97, 105, 117, 136). Harris finds Psalm 136 particularly interesting as it connects creation (Genesis 1) and redemption (Exodus). With a refrain between each line “His love endures forever” which I’ve omitted here, we read:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
to him who alone does great wonders,
who by his understanding made the heavens,
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
who made the great lights—
the sun to govern the day,
the moon and stars to govern the night;
to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
and brought Israel out from among them
with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
to him who divided the Red Sea asunder
and brought Israel through the midst of it,
but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea;
Isaiah 40-55 emphasizes God’s role as creator and predicts a new and glorious exodus across the desert. “It is clear that the prophet has in mind a “new creation,” which links together deliverance from Exile with the original foundational event of the Exodus.” (p. 63) Ezekiel 40-48 also describes a new creation centered on Jerusalem and a new temple. Isaiah 51 is worth highlighting because it connects creation not with Genesis 1, but with the mythology of the surrounding culture.
Awake, awake, arm of the Lord,
clothe yourself with strength!
Awake, as in days gone by,
as in generations of old.
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over?
Those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Creation and Mythology. A number of passages in the Psalms, Prophets, and Job connect God’s act of creation to the mythology of the surrounding culture. A theme of conquest over forces of chaos, serpent and sea occurs in Babylonian, Canaanite, and Egyptian forms. In the Bible “God’s conflict with the dragon and the sea” (John Day’s phrase) is connected to the original creation, God’s salvation, or God’s enthronement over the world. The Behemoth and Leviathan in Job 40-41 are references to mythological monsters. Both John Walton and Tremper Longman in their commentaries on Job note other probable connections with surrounding mythology as well (Yam, a goddess of the sea for example). “The message conveyed by the text it that, just as the mythical monsters are far beyond human control or even understanding, so God’s ways are much more so.” (p. 65) Leviathan is merely one of God’s creatures. Psalm 104 portrays Leviathan as playing in the sea. This is not conflict, and Leviathan is not an enemy, but a creature.
These references to ancient Near Eastern gods or goddesses are interesting. There is a strong theme in the Old Testament around the unfaithfulness of Israel as they worship the gods of the surrounding culture, Baal, Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites, golden calves (the sin of Jeroboam), Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians. It is significant, therefore, that the references to these sea goddesses remain in the various creation references. Harris notes:
That the symbol of the mythological dragon goddess can be domesticated and naturalized illustrates the degree to which the ANE mythological background to creation remained resistant in Israelite culture despite bitter invective against other ANE cultures. (p. 65)
The ancient mythological ideas of creation were not thought destructive, leading the people astray. They were tamed to tell of God’s nature, the redemption of his people, and his enthronement and power. The authors used this imagery to convey their message.
Creation and Wisdom. There are texts that reference creation in the wisdom literature. We’ve already mentioned Job. Ecclesiastes and Proverbs provide additional examples. Proverbs 8 portrays wisdom as present at creation.
The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;
before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,
before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.
I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.
Wisdom in this text is most likely “a literary device, describing an aspect of God’s personality as both born from God, with God, and in God.” (p. 68)
Creation and Christ. Finally we turn back to the New Testament. There is little concern with the details of the Old Testament creation narratives in the New Testament. Rather “talk of creation is focused largely on and through the person of Christ.” (p. 70) John 1:1-18 is the best known example. This is a Christological interpretation of the Genesis 1 creation account and of wisdom in the Proverbs 8 and various extra-canonical writings (extra-canonical for most protestants anyway). In the beginning was the Word. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
It is in Jesus of Nazareth that God’s creative purpose and divine will, which are the same purpose and will expressed by the law and the prophets – together with the duo of “grace and truth” (Jn 1:14, 16) – are embodied in the form of a human being. (p. 71)
Within only about twenty years of Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul could write “but for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for him, and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we exist through him.” (p. 72)
Christ is also the new Adam, bringing redemption and new creation. As in the Old Testament themes of creation, redemption and new creation (eschatology) are all wrapped together.
And a wrap. This is only a short sweep through the creation passages in the Bible, giving a flavor of the themes to be found. Harris goes into more detail, but the chapter is also only a summary of some of the major passages and themes. Creation in scripture is not a scientific hypothesis about the origins of the world. The ancient audience didn’t think in these terms and it isn’t the point of the Bible anyway. Yes God is creator. Everything came from him and through him. In the New Testament this is extended to Christ, through whom and for whom all was created. (Col. 1:16). But the emphasis is on relationship, redemption, and new creation. The authors used at times domesticated versions of ancient myths of creation. This didn’t trouble them and it shouldn’t trouble us. We can make connections with modern science. Harris alludes to discussions in the later parts of the book. But if we see creation in the Bible as a scientific hypothesis we will miss (or explain away) much of the depth of meaning in the text.
What is the major theme of creation in scripture?
Is Harris right to see multiple intertwined themes rather than a well defined theology of creation?
Should the other allusions to creation influence the approach that we take to Genesis 1-3?
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