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The meaning of Genesis One: The Universe as God’s Temple
by Daniel Jepsen
What does creation mean? Don’t skip over that question. It is at the very heart of understanding the very first thing we are told about the most important being in the universe. It is his creation. But what is the meaning underneath that bare assertion? Why does God tell us not only that He created, but give us a picture of some kind about His creative act?
Now, I don’t want to be dogmatic; you are welcome to disagree with me, as long as you don’t impugn my motives. But I have come to the personal conclusion that the view best handles the data of the text (Genesis One) in its literary, historical, and theological context is to understand it not as describing the historical progression of creation, but its theological meaning.
Now, although this is an old viewpoint, it is different enough from what most of us have heard that it is not always easy to understand. The main idea is that the seven days are not meant to be understood as a sequential scientific description of creation, (whether the days are understood as 24 hours or millions of years). Rather, verse one simply tells us that God created everything and the rest of the chapter describe the meaning, not the sequence, of creation; and the framework to best show the meaning was seven days.
The genre and context of Genesis One:
First the literary genre. What makes me think that this is not necessarily straight historical narrative? Well, at least three things. First, the whole passage is marked by repetition and numerology. The number seven and its multiples are especially prominent:
- And God said (10 times)
- According to their kinds (10 times)
- Let there be (7 times)
- Make (7 times)
- And it was so (7 times)
- God saw that it was good (7 times)
- Firmament (21 times)
- Earth/land (same Hebrew word) (21 times)
- God (elohim) (35 times)
Second, some of the literary characteristics of this passage are more poetic than narrative. This is especially true of the lack of definite articles before the numbers of the days, something that Gleason Archer, an expert in this field, says only happens in poetic, not narrative, Hebrew.
Thirdly, it is clear to me that the whole passage from 1:2 to 2:1 is highly structured to answer a problem: that the earth is “formless and empty”. As you can see on the chart, the first three days describe God forming this for a specific purpose, and then the next three days He fills those realms he had formed. This is perhaps the most important and noticeable data of the text to someone looking at it closely.
For these reasons, I feel it preferable to read it as either poetry or as arraigned topically or theologically instead of straightforward narrative.
Secondly, the historical context. We should recall that the first readers were the Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land. They needed to know about this Yahweh, but they also needed to understand the importance of the law, in both its parts: its ethical commands, and its temple or tabernacle centered worship. They needed to know about God, what it meant to live as God’s people, and why this was important.Two things are especially relevant here. The first emphasis is on the temple and the sacrificial system. The temple was to be the center of Israel’s worship, but it was also, in some mysterious but real way, the means by which God dwelt in the midst of His people. The temple became central to the religious thought of the Hebrews, and a right understanding of the temple’s place would be crucial.
The second emphasis would be on the law, and especially the Sabbath command (which would be completely unfamiliar to the recently emancipated slaves). For us, the concept of Sabbath (or the related idea of a “weekend”) is so ingrained that we may have difficulty understanding its novelty to them. But getting at the historical context of the passage requires that we try.
We know that the year is based on the relationship between the sun and earth, as is the day. The months are based upon th relationship between the earth and moon. But the week has no basis at all. Except in Genesis one. In Egypt, there was not a pattern of six days of work and one day or rest; slaves worked every day. And in this Promised Land, the temptation would be to increase wealth by working every day as well. So God reminds them again and again to respect the Sabbath, and in Exodus 20 actually ties it into the creation week. This is God’s way of giving them this gift of the week, which included the gift of rest. So part of the historical context is that by describing the meaning of creation in this way, God is able to give His people a gift: the gift of the week, and of Sabbath.
Finally, the theological context: Is there a reason that creation is described in this way that makes sense of the broader pattern of what God is showing His people? I think there is, and the key is to seeing the link between the creation week and the tabernacle or temple.
Just to review: the tabernacle was the tent-like structure which later became the temple; the temple was the beautiful and permanent house which took the place of the moveable tabernacle. Now, what can this have to do with Genesis one? I want to show you a few links.
- First, the tabernacle was designed by God. Again and again Moses is told, “Make sure you follow the pattern I show you”. It was not an arbitrary arraignment, but designed by God who was quite zealous that the actual tabernacle fit the pattern.
- Secondly, Moses would be writing Genesis one right about the same time that God was giving him instructions on building the tabernacle, as least on the traditional dating of the Torah. That is, the revelation about the meaning of creation would be given at or near the time the actual tabernacle was being constructed.
- Third, both the temple and tabernacle had four stages: (1) the bringing together of the materials, (2) the creation of the structure or form of the building, (3) the creation of the items which would fill the building, and (4) the resulting presence of God, who then dwells or rests in his temple.
This, of course, fits what we see in the creation account:
- First the creation materials are present, but unformed and unfilled (1:2)
- God forms creation in days 1 through 3
- God fills creation in days 4-6
- God rests
Look at the chart again and see how this is illustrated:
- Fourth, while we are not told how long the tabernacle took to complete, we are told that the temple took seven years to build, and had a seven day dedication. Furthermore, the number seven is used of the lampstand. The symbolism of sevens in the two passages seems more than coincidental. It is not common in the Old Testament (not used again until the apocalyptic visions of Daniel).
- Fifth, Genesis 1 does not name the sun and moon, but merely refers to them as “lights”, to “give light” upon the world. This is the same word, and same purpose, as describing the lampstand in the temple (Ex. 35:14; Num. 4:9).
- Sixth, the phrase in 2:1 about the conclusion of God’s work, (“God had finished the work he had been doing”) is repeated in Exodus 40:33, when “Moses finished the work” of setting up the tabernacle. In fact, the only times the Hebrew words used in Genesis 2:1 for “finished” and “work” occur together elsewhere in the Old Testament are in texts that refer to the tabernacle or temple.
- Seventh, in the beginning of the work in Genesis 1:2 we find an unusual phrase: “the breath (or spirit) of Elohim”. This phrase is much, much rarer than “the breath or spirit of Yahweh”. We see it again in Exodus 31:3 and 35:31 where it describes how God has given Bezalel skill to create the articles for the tabernacle. I believe this is the only other occurrence in the Old Testament.
While any one of these items may not be conclusive in themselves, together they tell me that God is deliberately using the pattern of the building of the tabernacle (and, looking ahead, the Temple) to be the pattern by which He describes the meaning of creation itself. Or, another way to put it, the earthly temple was in some way patterned after the spiritual nature of the cosmos, and that therefore the cosmos itself is in some ways designed to be understood as a temple.
Old Testament scholar John Walton sums up the similarities:
In the biblical text the description of the tabernacle and temple contain many transparent connections to the cosmos. This connection was explicitly recognized as early as the second century A.D. in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who says of the tabernacle: “every one of these objects is intended to recall and represent the universe”.
In the outer courtyard were various representations of cosmic geography. Most important are the water basin, which I Kings 7:23-26 designates “sea”, and the bronze pillars, described in 1 Kings 7:15-22, which perhaps represented the pillars of the earth. The horizontal axis in the temple was arranged in the same order as the vertical axis in the cosmos.
From the courtyard, which contained the elements outside the organized cosmos (cosmic waters and the pillars of the earth), on would move into the organized cosmos as he entered the antechamber. Here were the Menorah (lampstand), the Table of Bread, and the incense altar. In the Pentateuch’s description of the tabernacle, the lamp and its olive oil are provided for “light” (especially Ex. 35:14; Num. 4:9). This word for light is the same word used to describe the celestial bodies in day four (rather than calling them the sun and moon). As the menorah represented the light provided by God, the “Bread of the Presence” (Ex. 25:30) represented food provided by God. The altar of incense provided a sweet-smelling cloud across the face of the veil that separated the two chambers.
If we transpose from the horizontal axis to the vertical, the veil separated the earthly sphere, with its functions, from the heavenly sphere, where God dwells. This latter was represented in the holy of holies, where the footstool of the throne of God (the ark) was placed.
One problem most of us have in coming to the text is importing our own ideas of what words mean into the text itself. This is especially true regarding the word rest in 2:2, where we read that God rested on the seventh day. The word is much richer that we normally understand it. To say that God rested does not meaning primarily that He ceased labor, but that He began a new phase of creative activity. In particular, it means that the work of construction or building was over, so now the work of fulfillment, control and reigning could begin. To say that God rested is to say that He took the throne as King of the Universe and is now exercising His reign.
We see this most clearly in the passages describing the earthly kings of Israel who pointed toward the ultimate King.
II Samuel 7:1 relates that the idea of building a temple to the Lord came to David after he “was settled in his palace, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies all around him…”. Here we see that rest has the idea, not of inactivity (King David was certainly active in reign) but of activity which fulfills the function of the king. In other words, the obstacles to his reign were removed, and he now had rest, and this rest consisted of his reign.
In I Kings 5:4-5, Solomon writes to King Hiram to seek cedar for building the temple, and his words are, “But now that the LORD my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster. I intend, therefore, to build a temple for the Name of the LORD my God.”
Note both these passages occur in the context of building the temple. The rest from the obstacles (“adversaries and disasters”) to their reign prompts them to build a greater palace for the Heavenly King to rest and reign from. Again in I Kings 8:56 we find the idea of rest associated with the temple, as Solomon in his temple dedication praised God for giving rest to the people of Israel.
See also I Chronicles 22:9, 18, 35; II Chronicles 14:6,7, and 15:15.
That the temple should be explicitly understood as a place of rest is also seen in David’s words in I Chronicles 28:2, where David calls it “a place of rest”.
The temple as God’s place of rest is also seen in Psalm 132:7-8, 13-14 –
Let us go to his dwelling place
Let us worship at his footstool—
“Arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place,
You and the ark of your might.”
For the Lord has chosen Zion
He has desired it for his dwelling:
“This is my resting place for ever and ever
Here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.”
Now the parallelism makes two things very clear here: first, that the temple is designed to be God’s dwelling place, which is where he “rests”. The second thing we see that specifically, this “resting place” is described as above the ark, in the holy of holies. After the temple of creation is set up, and the work of building is done, he ceases from that work and sets up residence in his temple.
The other verse that brings these themes together is Isaiah 66:1-2, in which Yahweh tells his people that even the temple was only a symbol of where He dwelt. Heaven and earth themselves are his divine temple and place of rest:
“Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things,
And so they came into being?”
Declares the Lord.
Now, what is the point of all this? That we should understand the “rest” of the seventh day not as divine inactivity but divine reign. This is why the seventh day is not closed out like the other six (see, for example 1:13) for it is still happening; as Jesus said, “My Father is at work till this very day”. God is explicitly stated as working in many passages in the epistles, such as Romans 8:28, I Corinthians 12:6, Ephesians 1:11, and Philippians 2:13. He is not working in the sense of working on creation; in that sense He is still resting. But in the sense of now working in creation He is still active.
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What are the implications for this understanding of Genesis 1?
First, the understanding that the cosmos is a temple should help us further see His glory and holiness. It takes all of creation, all the universe, to serve as a fitting temple for this God! The temple in Jerusalem was only a sign and symbol of that more magnificent temple of God, creation itself.
Second, the understanding that the cosmos is a temple should help us understand our place. What is one thing a temple needs after it has been formed and filled, and God has taken up his abode? It needs priests, those who mediate, represent, and image God to the world and the world to God. This is why we are made in His likeness: to be His image. This is why both Israel and the church are called a nation of priests, because God’s plan for our salvation is not just to bless us individually, but to reclaim us and make us in His image again, through Jesus, so that we can serve as His priests or representatives, and reign with Him over the new heavens and the new earth.
Third, if this view is correct, than disputes about the age of the earth and how the days of Genesis one correlate with science are beside the point. The seven days are not intended to convey the scientific progression of creation, but the theological meaning of creation. It uses the literary structure of a seven day week both to tie into the imagery of the number 7 in the temple and to give us the Sabbath. The cycle of work and rest depicted emphasize the graciousness of the Sabbath gift, even as it grounds it in God’s cosmological purpose.
Finally, this view also gives us a glimpse of the age to come, a glimpse, which, if we let it, can help create a healthy longing for the New Heaven and New Earth. For we, too, are promised rest. The book of Hebrews promises it to us as our future inheritance. You will find it in chapter 4, verses 1-11, which begins by stating that “the promise of eternal rest still stands” and ends by exhorting us to “make every effort to enter that rest”. Just as God ceased from his work and entered into that rest, we who are united with Him through Christ will do the same. As verse 10 says, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his”. I take this to mean that the great difference between our labor and activity now, and our labor and activity in the new creation, will be that in that time and place, our work will be not a striving in our own effort and facing frustrations and obstacles; no, it will be partnering with God (!) in reigning over the new creation in joy, wisdom and peace (II Tim 2:12; Rev. 5:10). Revelation 20:6 combines the ideas of priests who reign: “they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him a thousand years”. I believe the best way to understand this is in the words of Ephesians 1:23: the church is the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. By our perfected likeness to Him, we will reflect Him perfectly, filling all parts of creation with Him as we joyfully work, live and love. The rest of the age to come is not floating on clouds, but physical activity drenched in love and joy. It will be what we are made for. To put it another way, this life is one stage in our existence, but the meaning of our existence is found in its rest, which will come later.
From Chaplain Mike: you can see a video we ran in 2010 of John Walton HERE.