The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved;
your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
• Psalm 93:1-2, NRSV
As the Bible’s first creation account, Genesis 1 enjoys pride of place. Positioned as the cosmogony of cosmogonies, the Priestly account is also the most carefully structured text in all of Scripture. Its intricate arrangement reflects something of creation’s own integrity . . .
. . . As creation unfolds “daily,” it becomes constructed in the imago templi, in the model of a temple. What took Solomon seven years to complete (1 Kgs 6:38), God took only seven days, and on a cosmic scale no less! In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests.
• William P. Brown
In our first post reflecting on insights from William P. Brown’s book, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, we noted Brown’s observation that the story of “creation” is found not just once, but seven times in the Bible:
1. Genesis 1:1-2:3
2. Genesis 2:4b-3:24
3. Job 38-41
4. Psalm 104
5. Proverbs 8:22-31
6. Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; 12:1-7
7. Isaiah 40-55 (excerpts)
The first of these accounts, of course, is in Genesis 1. Brown’s interpretation of this text is close to my own (with some significant differences — see My View of Genesis 1– a post I will update soon). In particular, let me mention the following seven points, with which I am in full agreement:
First, Genesis 1 may have the polemic purpose of contrasting the Jewish view with that of the Babylonians and others in the Ancient Near East, but it does so subtly. Whatever hints of cosmic conflict it may contain are muted, with the overall effect of portraying God as One who is majestically above all other so-called gods.
Second, the account is intricately structured, primarily by the number 7. This is not always appreciated by English readers, but it is key to understanding that this is not merely prose reporting of events, but “exalted prose” that is written this way for effect. It is not poetry, but if not, it comes close to having a poetic effect on the reader. Some suggest it may have been liturgical in nature, but whatever its precise genre, it is magnificent in its numerical complexity while at the same time it speaks with profound simplicity of language. “. . . the order inscribed in this account imparts a remarkable mathematical aesthetic, the quantifiable order of a fully stable, life-sustaining, differentiated world.”
Third, the narrative also follows a symmetrical order by which God addresses the conditions spoken of in 1:2 — “without form” and “empty.” God forms his creation on the first three days and then fills it on days 4-6. These days are essentially parallel to each other, with some variations, so that on Day 4 God fills what he formed on Day 1, and so on. Day 7 stands alone as the day of completion, answering “Day 0″ when creation was uninhabitable.
Fifth, this gives us a clue as to the place of humans as creatures made in God’s image. “Many an ancient temple contained an image of its resident deity within its inner sanctum. In Jerusalem, however, the physical representation of God was expressly forbidden . . . . Genesis 1, however, does not jettison the language of divine image but recasts it by identifying the imago Dei with human beings, created on the sixth day.” This suggests that humanity’s role is to rule as priests in God’s good creation, to embody the imago Dei in the world.
Sixth, in creation God works with its material elements, not simply over them and without their free cooperation. The idea that creation is “good” includes its fecundity and ability to generate and sustain itself. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive.
As a whole, creation takes place in Genesis 1 from the top down and from the bottom up. God commands from on high for creation to happen, yet much of the creative process emerges from below. Both the earth and the waters contribute to the emergence of life. God’s engagement with creation is thoroughly interactive. The creative process is no singular event; neither is it a unilateral process. The result is a creation that exhibits structure and variety, a cosmic living temple, a creation deemed “extremely good” (1:31).
Seventh, God is portrayed as a beneficent Ruler who builds his temple as he commanded Israel to build hers: led by Moses (who spoke the word of divine instruction), Aaron (who served as priest), and Bezalel (the artisan who crafted the temple by the Spirit). All these roles are filled by God in Gen. 1.
• • •
One more thought in closing. Brown gives us an important reminder about the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3. This story came to Israel in an important socio-historical context.
The Babylonian exile of 587 BCE had left the land of Judah more than decimated. From the perspective of those most affected, imperial conquest and deportation rendered the land “void and vacuum.” The survivors experienced such national trauma as nothing less than a resurgence of cosmic chaos, leaving the land “empty,” stripping the community of its national identity, and leaving the temple in ruins. The good news of Genesis 1 is that God can work with such chaos to bring forth new creation. Heard in the time of exile, the message of imago Dei in Genesis would have been a “clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity and to take seriously their royal-priestly vocation as God’s authorized agents and representatives in the world.”