September 18, 2018

Genesis: Where It All Begins (3)

The Good Land (2017)

Genesis: Where It All Begins (3)
God’s Good Creation

Many students of the Bible think that Genesis 1, with its intricate structure, repetition, and the heightened character of its language, may represent an ancient liturgy confessing faith in the Creator God. If it is, then the refrain, repeated seven times, is captured in these verses:

  • And God saw that the light was good. (Gen 1:4)
  • And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:10)
  • And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:12)
  • And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:18)
  • And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:21)
  • And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:25)
  • God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Gen 1:31)

You simply cannot come away from reading and meditating on this text without concluding that this world and all that God made is a good creation. Here are a couple of thoughts focusing in on what that means in the context of Genesis 1.

One, the word “good” involves a word-play. It contrasts with the phrase in Gen 1:3, “The earth was formless and void.” In Hebrew, “formless and void” translates tohu wabohu, which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a wilderness that is unsuitable for human habitation. “Good” is the Hebrew word tov, and represents the opposite of that. God took that which was tohu and made it tov.

Two, “good” indicates that which is beneficial for life to flourish. The word-play mentioned above contrasts that which is uninhabitable with that which can bring forth life and sustain the life of its creatures. It is not simply that God is evaluating his work and commenting on its quality. Rather, he is evaluating it according to its fertility and ability to provide abundantly for the life of the world. The Jews would have understood this contrast very well, having been brought through the wilderness (tohu wabohu) to the Promised Land (tov).

Three, the text indicates that this “good” creation is God’s provision. The word “saw” in the refrain “God saw that it was good” is not just saying that God looked at the world he brought to order as if to observe it. The word “saw” is a Hebrew verb that can have the idea of “God saw to it that it was good.” In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the patriarch named the place “The Lord will provide” (Yahweh yireh). That is the same word. “The Lord will see (to it).” So, in Genesis 1, when it affirms that God saw that it was good, it is saying that God provided what is good for his creation, that which promotes the flourishing of life and blessing.

Now, I want to make an assertion that I fully realize goes against the grain of a long tradition of Christian theology, at least the way it has been understood on a popular level.

God has never retracted his statement that “it is good.”

Most evangelical presentations of the gospel begin like this: In the beginning, God created a world that was good (meaning perfect, unsullied by any sin or evil, a paradise). But…

Then they go on to assert that Adam and Eve’s sin introduced human sin and death into the world, and the very nature of the world itself was changed. The world itself became “not good.” It was at that point that animals as well as humans began to die. It was at that point that all the things we consider “bad” became part of the very nature of the world.

The corollary to this in a lot of popular theology is that God’s goal therefore is to abandon this creation and put a new one in its place, rather than renewing and transforming the present one.

If you want to see a complete statement of the goodness of God’s creation, in all its facets, see Psalm 104, and go back and re-read my earlier post, “Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing: Delighting in God’s Goodness.” As I write in the post:

This reinforces [my] perspective…that creation did not change in its nature, properties, or “laws” as a result of a “fall” or “curse” in Genesis 3. It was deemed “very good” by God in the beginning, and in this poem, the psalmist affirms that it remains “very good.” This does not change the fact that God acts in both judgment and salvation in the world. But God does that because of what we read at the very end of Psalm 104 [which blames the wickedness of humans], not because creation itself has been placed under a curse that transformed it from “good” to “not good.”

Obviously, humans have introduced and continue to spread sin, evil, and corruption throughout this good world. In addition, we must face the fact of “surd evil”— evil or, from our point of view, “tragedy” or that which seems to work against life and well being that is incapable of rational explanation on our part.

However, my friends, this is our Father’s world. It remains good, God’s provision to us so that our lives and creation itself might flourish in well being and blessing.

The danger this good world faces continually is that human beings will corrupt it by “corrupting their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Humankind, given stewardship over the world, is called to represent the God of Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 in all the earth. This is the God who sustains creation by his wisdom and by the joy he takes in it. Likewise, through humanity’s wise care and use of this amazing planet, and by taking delight in its wonders and never forgetting from Whom they came, we take our rightful place here among the manifold splendors of the cosmos and helping to fulfill God’s will on earth as in heaven.

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    Yes, God’s world is good. But we should not underestimate the importance of the idea of “surd evil”, quite apart from any evil influence on the part of human beings, in qualifying that goodness. It is impossible for me to see non-human acts of predation, and the extraordinary suffering they involve, as good characteristics of a good creation. You can call them necessary if you like, part of the warp and woof of creation in which death and life are interwoven in a delicate and mutual interdependent balance, and you can say that though we may not like it they are nonetheless good because part of the wholistic goodness of creation. But that begs the question of why a good God would build such a viscerally horrific mechanism into his good creation, and one that long predated the arrival of human being on the planet. The creation may be good on balance, because it is better for something to exist than for nothing to exist, but it is not complete, and there is a deep moral ambivalence in it that is a feature, not a bug, of the way it works in its currently unfinished state. There are forces of disorder and sources of evil in the world that do not originate with human beings; if these are not remediated in the life, death, resurrection, and eschaton wrought in Jesus Christ, then humanity and the world (which are inextricably part of each other, just as body and spirit are, and cannot be saved apart) have not been redeemed, nor saved from death and futility. The goodness that we can now see in creation depends for its ratification on the final act, when creation is completed and death is no more; until that day, when we say creation is good, we are speaking on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ to finish the work he has started, rather than on observation and experience of the world as it exists before us.

    • Robert, the last time I posted the Surd Evil article, Michael Z made a comment that I think gives some good perspective:

      What I hear in this is two different ways of viewing Creation. The first is: God created a good world, it got messed up, and it’s getting worse and worse until finally God will toss it out and make a new one. The second is: the world started out chaotic and uncontrolled, and each act of God – creation, Abraham’s calling, the exodus, the exile, the incarnation and life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the birth of the church, the spread of the Gospel, Christ’s eventual return, the renewal of all things, the resurrection of the dead – is a continuous, escalating drama of redemption where each step builds on the previous ones and spreads God’s healing and restoration to more and more of our broken world.

      I agree with you that the second view better matches the Biblical narrative. I also think it gives us a strong impetus to work for justice and renewal in this world. We’re not just waiting around to escape a dying planet; we’re a part of the work of God to heal and restore all of Creation, a work which is going on right now, among us. To me that makes this whole business of being a Christian a whole lot more exciting.

      And in the end, the wolf and lamb will lie down together.

    • “The goodness that we can now see in creation depends for its ratification on the final act, when creation is completed and death is no more; until that day, when we say creation is good, we are speaking on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ to finish the work he has started, rather than on observation and experience of the world as it exists before us.”

      Robert, you have expressed something that I have been trying to work out and put into words for myself for a long time.

      My Sunday school class did a year-long study of Job that brought me to the edge of declaring there is no God, or if there is, of not wanting anything to do with Him. I still struggle almost daily to step back from that precipice.

      If an earthly father made a bet with a thug in order to so perversely glorify himself by allowing the thug to bring such viscerally horrific destruction upon one of his beloved children while he stood by and watched…well, that earthly father would be convicted as an accessory in an extensive list of unspeakable crimes and then locked up for a very long time. Yet, our heavenly Father made a few speeches about how wonderful He really is and then gave Job a new family and new belongings, as if that was supposed to excuse or erase the evil that had gone before.

      I can look at God’s natural creation and see goodness. I can look at my dogs and see absolute love. I can even look at myself and others and maybe catch a rare glimpse of both. But mostly, I see the God of Job. I look at His promises of goodness and love, of a future and a hope or any kind of divine plan for me, and of the blessings of our “latter days” (as in Job) as meant, not so much for the here and now, but as part of some vague eternity that is part only of Jesus’ finished work. I also see little hope in the here and now for “humanity’s wise care and use of this amazing planet, and by taking delight in its wonders and never forgetting from Whom they came, we take our rightful place here among the manifold splendors of the cosmos and helping to fulfill God’s will on earth as in heaven.”

      And that’s a really depressing way to live in the world that exists before me. I feel every word of Michael Spencer’s lament in yesterday’s post. I despair, and I hate myself for it. My apologies if my own lament doesn’t belong here; I am in the wilderness and don’t know how to find my way out. I am missing God.

      • SusanA I hear you. There certainly are seasons in our lives when very little appears “good.”

      • Robert F says:

        @ SusanA, I fear that my words have increased your anguish, and I’m sorry if that was their effect. I did not mean to negate the existence of goodness in our world as it is, only to observe that it is incomplete and unrealized in its totality until the Eschaton. I agree with CM that the way we now participate in the realization of the Eschaton is by tikkun olam, acts that in our understanding are congruent with the love of Jesus Christ and the designs of God for his creation in the realized Kingdom. But believe me when I say that I know that in the interim it is hard find hope, even impossible, at times, and even for extremely prolonged periods of time. I share your frustration. Sometimes all we can do is “wait without hope,” as T.S. Eliot wrote, and trust that the hope is in the waiting. Hang in there.

        • No worries, Robert. You did not increase my anguish. You helped me put into words what I am already feeling but couldn’t quite articulate. I thank you for taking the time to respond. You, along with this article and the re-posted comment from Michael Z, have given me a lot to think about as I try to make a shift in my perspective. You hand in there too.

  2. Robert F says:

    Yesterday my wife and I received word that the latest round of tests show that her sister’s cancer has spread dramatically, despite aggressive treatment over the last years. It is likely that she will not make it to Christmas. My wife has already lost one of her little sisters; she will lose another. I ask for your prayers for my sister-in-law, her family (including her severely developmentally disabled adult son, who lives with and depends on her), my wife and 83 year old mother-in-law.

    Evil, suffering, and death are never abstract, always personal and felt.

    • Christiane says:

      ” I ask for your prayers for my sister-in-law, her family (including her severely developmentally disabled adult son, who lives with and depends on her), my wife and 83 year old mother-in-law.”

      Robert, as a mother myself of a severely developmentally disabled adult son, your sister-in-law and the family have my most sincere prayers. May she know before she passes that her son will be cared for as that is likely the one thing that is most on her mind day and night. May the Lord have mercy.

    • Robert, I’m so sorry to hear this. Comfort, peace, and strength to you all.

    • Patriciamc says:

      Yes! Praying for all of you.

    • Robert,
      My sympathies and prayers for a very difficult and painful situation.

    • Robert, this is heartbreaking. Despite my earlier lament, may God hear my prayer for His care and mercy for you, your wife, her sister, and her family.

    • I pray God’s healing in any and all ways, wisdom, and peace for all.

    • john barry says:

      Robert F. , I think that one of the great gifts that God has bestowed on us, as we are made in his image , is the gift of empathy. I am certain all here empathize and relate to your family situation.

      One of my completely worldly friends , when a dire situation is presented to him always says quite simply “that sucks” and its terrible . Then he adds addressing couple of us, at least you guys can pray and trust God, all I can do is accept it and deal with it in this world.

      I think it is God’s love that is demonstrated in your and your wife’s deep feeling of love and compassion for the plight of her family that are suffering. I am sure your sister in law is thankful that she has her sister, you and her family to be there for her. Where would she be without that love and concern?

      I am rambling and being inarticulate but that is my nature. These are the times that try men’s soul , comes to mind. Can only pray and empathize with your family. What compassionate person, cannot relate to your isister in law situation?

      I am sure that your sister in law main concern is her son and his well being, more so than her situation and future. To reference an old song “If that isn’t Love”. I pray that somehow, that your sister n law is assured that her son will be provided for.

      I again will quote my coarse friend but it sums it up ” this sucks” but we can pray and do what we can do. Do the , best you can to help your family , which I am sure you will, one day at a time.

      As I close this , I pray that God give your sister in comfort, peace and acceptance and she gets assurance her son will be provided for. I do this now, as being me I will forget later to do so.

      • Robert F says:

        I do this now, as being me I will forget later to do so.

        That is exactly my attitude about praying at the request of others for their needs, j.b. If I also remember to pray later, all well and good, but there’s no time like the present. Thank you.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “Evil, suffering, and death are never abstract, always personal and felt.”

      I hear ya, Robert. Yesterday, I posted this to my FB page:

      ——

      “We sang a song in church yesterday with these lyrics:

      All around, all around
      Everywhere I look Your love is all around
      All around, all around
      Everywhere I look Your love is all around…
      Manifest, manifest Your love
      Manifest, manifest Your love

      But the cynic in me kept changing the lyrics to…

      All around, all around
      Everywhere I look is pain and destruction
      All around, all around
      Everywhere I look is pain and destruction…
      Manifest, manifest Your wrath
      Manifest, manifest Your wrath

      (If you don’t know me well, know I’m as far from a wrathful God type person as there is)

      Anyway, my cynicism seems to fit this Babylon Bee article…”

      ——–

      I then posted the links to two of the Babylon Bee articles linked here on Saturday.
      https://babylonbee.com/news/church-kicks-off-fun-filled-sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god-themed-vbs/
      https://babylonbee.com/news/new-christian-station-k-wrath-to-emphasize-gods-justice-holy-vengeance/

      An angry God, a wrathful God, doesn’t fix what truly needs fixing. Only a God manifested in Jesus does.

      My prayer for you and your loved ones today is that Jesus manifests himself to you in a very real way, today and through the coming weeks.

    • Heather Angus says:

      I’m so sorry, Robert. I can only echo Rick’s prayer “that Jesus manifests himself to you in a very real way, today and through the coming weeks.”

    • Clay Crouch says:

      Robert, thank you for sharing this sad news. Please know that our little IMonk community is kneeling with you and your loved ones.

    • StuartB says:

      I’m sorry. You have my prayers.

  3. Christiane says:

    Good Morning, Robert F

    you wrote:
    “There are forces of disorder and sources of evil in the world that do not originate with human beings; if these are not remediated in the life, death, resurrection, and eschaton wrought in Jesus Christ, then humanity and the world (which are inextricably part of each other, just as body and spirit are, and cannot be saved apart) have not been redeemed, nor saved from death and futility.”

    maybe Creation is still ‘unfolding’ within itself, and inside of us also? just a thought

    Have you seen Malick’s film ‘The Tree of Life’? . . . I’m wondering if what troubles us the most in our broken state may be the inability to see the magnificence of all Creation AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE SEEN. (?)
    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/im-film-review-the-tree-of-life

    Have you read the ‘Epiphany’ of Thomas Merton, this:
    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/78647

    I am wondering about that part of us that is blinded and weighed down and ‘bewildered’;
    I am wondering if the Earth’s ‘curse’ some among evangelicals point to is not something else entirely, more of an internal inability of persons to turn towards the Light because they don’t even realize that they CAN ? . . . . and yet, among the humble of the Earth, enters ‘grace’ 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrAz1YLh8nY

  4. Mike, I feel like I’m back at Gordon sitting at the feet of Marv Wilson. He was fond of the phrase “tohu vabohu” (he pronounced it v, not w, and that suits the word tov nicely). He also liked to say that this could easily lead one to “a theology of ecology.”

    Do you think that Genesis begins so strongly with the notion that creation is good in order to combat a gnostic dualism that only the divine is good and that matter is evil? Or was that a problem in that period?

    • Ted, I think the emphasis is more specifically tied to the experience of the Jews. God had provided for them a good Land, bringing them through the wilderness and making sure they had all they needed to flourish. Genesis 1 affirms that this is God’s plan for all creation. If it is a polemic against anything, it is against the low view of humanity that the Babylonians and other ANE cultures held. Creation is good specifically in the sense that it brings blessing to the creatures God placed in this world.

      • If it is a polemic against anything, it is against the low view of humanity that the Babylonians and other ANE cultures held.

        Right. And later in chapter one God makes it clear that people are created in his image. That fits well with the idea that creation is not just good but very good.

  5. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > It remains good,

    Amen.

  6. Robert F says:

    Thank you to all for your good words and prayers.