Our theme is Living in the Story, and last week we talked about the importance of knowing the story we’re in. We noted that everybody will be shaped by a story and for us in our setting it’s a question of whether we’re shaped by the story of the western worldview or the biblical story. Today we’re considering the beginning of the story—Creation.
In recent years I’ve come to see that creation’s place in the story as far more critical than I’d realised. It’s not critical in the sense that certain groups within Christianity have tried to make it i.e. the hows, whys and wherefores of the mechanics of the creation process. Instead its importance lies in what the story tells us about God and his ongoing purpose and plans for creation and humanity. Genesis isn’t particularly interested in many of the issues that have been imposed on it.
Let’s consider the start of the story.
(The following material is adapted from Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth.)
The Bible As Story
Before we focus on creation itself, a few words about the Bible as a story.
I can still remember from my primary school days having it drummed into me in that a composition must have a beginning, middle and end. That’s because the thing that makes a story a story is structure and plot, without which it’s likely to simply be a jumble of words that don’t make sense. The classic form of plot is one which creates a narrative tension: the scene is set, something goes wrong, and the rest of the story tells how it gets back to be OK again so everyone lives happily ever after.
In essence that’s the plot of the bible:
- The scene is set: creation.
- Something goes wrong: entrance of sin.
- Fixing it: redemption.
- Happily ever after: new heaven and new earth.
While that’s put very simply, that is the flow of the overarching story, and all the sub stories within it are aimed at moving the story along step by step.
Creation Sets the Scene
A large portion of the Bible is taken up with the story of redemption. After all, the thing that went wrong happened in the third chapter, so that leaves an awful lot of space for the rest of the story! Because the redemption part looms so large, and given the contemporary focus on God saving us from our sins, it’s easy to miss the critical importance of creation and understanding its role in shaping the rest of the story. If we fail to understand that, we’re in danger of misreading or misunderstanding the story. Some have paid it lip service, but seen it more as background rather than foundation. On the other hand, others have given it a huge emphasis, along with their own imposed agendas.
A year or so ago I read a book by John Walton called The Lost World of Adam and Eve. I’ve told you about it before. That book did a good job of messing with my head as I read it, but it was one that really made sense. Let me give you my highly edited version, which is likely to leave more questions than provide answers!
What Was Happening in Creation?
Whenever we think of creation, it would be fair to say we usually think in physical terms i.e. when God created he made something physical out of nothing. Given our scientific mindset, we find it very difficult to conceive of any other way of understanding creation, but Walton shows—using both biblical examples and the writing from that era—that the Ancient Near East understanding of creation was that something was only considered to be created once it was given its function. In other words, something could physically exist but not be considered created until it was given its function. Genesis 1 isn’t interested in how the world was created; its interested in God giving material things their function.
But there’s something even bigger happening. The seven days of creation end with God resting. The people of the day would have known that the only place any god rested was in his temple, so when they read God rested on the seventh day, they knew the story was all about God creating his temple, the place of his presence. The temple was also the place from where the God ruled. This is the bigger picture of what was happening in Gen 1. In other words, Genesis 1, the story of creation, is not about how God created, it’s about God establishing his rule and presence with his creation.
The Human Vocation
As part of his creation, God also gave humans their function and purpose. What was that? One of the standard answers, and one I’ve read many times, is a quote from the Westminster Confession: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
The problem is that’s not what’s said in the creation story! We find the purpose God gave humanity in 4 verses:
Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV) 26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
Genesis 2:15 (NRSV) 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
God’s purpose for humans, the function he gave them—a purpose which still pertains today—was to multiply, to rule the animals and subdue the earth, to till it and keep it.
Middleton summarises it this way:
The fundamental human task is conceived in rather mundane terms as the responsible exercise of power on God’s behalf over our earthly environment. (p. 39)
Here’s some thoughts about that.
But you might say, Surely we are called to worship?! That’s true, but there’s a couple of things to say. Romans 12:1-2 makes it clear that worship isn’t what we say, sing, pray or feel. It’s about all we are and do. According to the scriptures, worship isn’t limited to humanity. In fact, even the animals and the physical creation are called on to worship him (Psalm 148). Again in the words of Middleton,
In the biblical worldview, mountains and stars worship God just as much as humans do. (p. 41)
How do mountains and stars worship God? They do it by fulfilling the function given them by God i.e. to be mountains and stars. We are to worship God, but we do that by being full human beings, living and being as God called us to live and be i.e. subduing and serving.
The Image of God
God created human beings in his image (26). Many ideas have been expounded as to what it means to be created in God’s image, but it seems clear from the context that its primary aspect is to rule over the creation in terms of subduing and serving. Genesis 2 tells us that God held off creating the garden until he’d created humans because it needed humans to till it and care for it (Gen 2:5-8). I don’t know about you, but my picture of the garden was somewhat ideal i.e. everything was there and grew without any help or tending needed. The reality was that the garden needed humans to care for it—that was part of the human calling before everything went haywire. God exercised his rule over creation and his care for it through the communal, social and physical human agency. Doing all that under God is effectively building a house, so when we do that we are recapitulating God’s own building of the world (Middleton, p. 47). In other words, we are representing his presence.
By our faithful representation of God, who is enthroned in the heavens, we extend the presence of the divine king of creation even to the earth, to prepare the earth for God’s full…presence, the day when God will fill all things. (Middleton, p. 49).
Here we see the importance of the creation story for us today: it shows us our vocation. Within creation God established what Tom Wright has called a covenant of vocation (The Day the Revolution Began, 74).
The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is image-bearing, reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker (76).
Our ultimate aim is not ‘heaven’, but living out our vocation here and now with a view to being able to perfectly fulfil it in the new heaven and new earth. It’s this creational vocation that provides the rudder from creation through to new creation, the rudder by which we ourselves navigate through life. At any point we can stop and ask a question something like this: is who I am and what I’m doing both moving towards that new creation and a reflection of it in the present? That can include very simple things like: gardening, building relationships, working, creating, enjoying creation—all of which are part of our vocation and help prepare us for the new heaven and new earth.