We all know how Genesis begins….”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It’s probably the most famous start to a story in history and it certainly sets the tone for what this story is going to be. Genesis is the story of creation and “genesis” literally means “origin” in Hebrew. In one sentence we are introduced to our main character, God, and his nature, that He is a supreme creator. From Genesis 1:1-24 God spends five days creating the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, the sky and the water, dry ground and the seas, vegetation, stars, sun, the moon, day, and night, sea creatures, and birds in that order. On the sixth day He creates living creatures to populate the land and finishes with mankind, male and female. He charges mankind with multiplying and being fruitful and gives them custodianship over the earth.
I think the things that stick out the most in the first chapter of Genesis are the questions we as modern people have. Immediately these come to my mind:
- What existed before the heavens and the earth?
- What is the nature of the separation between Heaven and Earth?
- How did God create all of this?
- Does this line up with our scientific understanding of the world?
- Is this a literal six days of creation or six days as a metaphor for millions of years of evolution and geology?
- Is this mankind God creates Adam and Eve or did he create mankind and Adam and Eve hold a special place in Eden?
- In what sense does man have custodianship over the Earth?
Let’s be practical….we cannot answer questions 1, 2, 3, 5, or 6 and we can only really make educated guesses at 4 and 7. What existed before creation? That’s a pretty existential question on par with “where did God come from?” or “how can something exist before existence?” I feel like these are questions we can formulate and speculate on but they are really beyond us to do more than that. They are fascinating to think about but beyond the ability of us to really contemplate. It’s also important to note that some of these deep answers aren’t necessary to read and understand this book. Does it really matter what God’s background is? Do we really need Him to submit some kind of cosmic resume to take him seriously? Perhaps the fact that the first chapter of this book is Him creating reality and life as we know it is enough to give us all we need to know about God at this starting point of the Bible. He is the creator and is responsible for the creation of the earth and life.
I do think that we can speculate on some of these questions to a degree though. The order of creation is fascinating because it more or less lines up with our idea of the long term evolution of the universe and life on earth. If we interpret God’s creation of heaven and earth and light and dark as almost a separation of realities and dimensions then that coincides with the theory that in the first moments of the Big Bang our universe and our reality was created, with its laws of physics and mathematics that would set the foundation for everything else. God then turns his attention to the earth itself separating the waters which means He has created water and sky…essentially the separation of the ground and the atmosphere. In the geologic history of the planet this was one of the first events to occur as well with the Earth’s rocks coalescing into orbit around the Sun, the Earth filling with water, and the creation of the atmosphere. The Earth then receives vegetation and lights in the sky, presumably the Sun, the moon, and the stars. This is the point in the Earth’s geologic history where the Earth settles, the atmosphere clears and life begins to form. Lastly God creates sea creatures (we know the first animals evolved in the sea), birds, land animals, and finally humans. More or less this follows the course of geologic and biologic evolution with the creation of reality to the creation of the Earth to the creation of man but for a book as ancient as Genesis this is a pretty good outline of how things came to be. The only difference is the ancient Hebrews believed these things happened in six days more or less with God snapping His fingers and things coming into existence while today we have used our scientific processes and an archaeological record to fill in some of the details.
Admittedly, I have never understood why everyone comes to blows over things like evolution and creationism. Firstly, the details really don’t play a role in the larger story of the Bible which is mainly about Israel and the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Secondly, the Bible basically tells us that God’s sense of time is much more different than our own. For the first several passages of this creation narrative, mankind does not even exist…and when they do enter the story we are talking about the earliest and most primitive men; we are still ages away from the invention of writing. Is it not that big of a leap to say the first chapters of Genesis are not going to be our strongest point in the historical record? It’s not a leap to say “six days” is a metaphor or even the literal truth but the literal truth to God’s sense of time while to us six days appears as billions of years?
“Let Us Make Mankind In Our Image”
When God creates man He says something in the NIV version that caught my eye. In Genesis 1:26 God says “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule…” Why is God referring to Himself in the plural when throughout the Bible He makes it clear that He is the only God and there are no others before Him? I had to look beyond Genesis for explanation but found several hypotheses. Firstly there is the idea that when God refers to us he is referring to Himself and the angels and the entire heavenly host. Secondly, God could be referring to the trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This is interesting because it could be an introduction to God as the Trinity and the importance of Jesus Christ to this story that is in its first chapter. In several paragraphs we could have it all set up to know that this story is one of God’s creation, God’s relationship with man, man’s responsibility, and the central role Jesus Christ plays in all of this. What happens though if you do not subscribe to the trinity theory of God being three-in-one? Blood has been shed in history over the trinity concept and dismissing this passage as the trinity is a disservice to the importance and power of this passage, not just in understanding God as individuals but also in terms of understanding the complexities of this book and its impact on history. Theories for this use of plural are that the original Hebrew word for God, Elohim, which appears throughout Genesis and the Old Testament is a plural word in its own right. But that does not explain the fact that in this first chapter alone the narrative switches between singular and plural pronouns. Another theory is that the use of “us” is a reference to the future existence and sacrifice of Christ. God could be taking this moment of creation of man at the very beginning to refer to this moment but also the future moment when He would use Christ’s redemption to make his disciples back into the likeness and image of God. Perhaps more interesting is the theory that God is referring to man itself in conjunction with God to create a plurality. This sentence is a statement by God that God, male, and female, before the separation of man and God that occurred in the Garden of Eden, will work together to create man in God’s image and likeness over the coming years, through the work and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Essentially, by reconciling man and God via Jesus Christ, we are working to make man into God’s image, after His likeness, and are becoming what we were always meant to be. This is interesting because it, once again, alludes to the coming Biblical story of man’s relationship to God and the importance of Christ in everything.
Moving on from complex speculation about time and space as it appears to mortal and immortal beings and discussion about the relationship of God, man, and Christ…the issue of custodianship arises very early in this story. Man has been on top of the food chain pretty much since we burst on the scene. I’d make the argument with some societal exceptions we have historically abused this power, we certainly do today at our levels of western consumption. I don’t think it’s a big surprise that this charge of custodianship comes in the first chapter of the first book because it introduces us to a concept we have struggled with since the dawn of time: responsibility. At the end of the day the Bible is a story of God’s creation, his charge of responsibility to mankind as is custodians, our utter failure at this task, the conflict between God and men, both bad and good, and the reconciliation of man and God through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
I also find it interesting that we aren’t even a chapter in and we have one of the most misinterpreted sections of the Bible already introduced. For centuries men have used this charge of custodianship as an excuse to rule like tyrants over nature. However, in just about every version of the Bible we have, God does not gift us the earth as something for mankind to use up and abuse but rather he charges us with the responsible stewardship of his creation. This is seen in the NIV version as God charges man to subdue the earth, populate it, and gives man dominion over vegetation, animals, birds, and sea creatures for food. The key here is “for food,” we are charged to subdue and utilize the earth to keep ourselves alive and propagate ourselves but not to abuse and consume to excess. In the King James version we are given dominion over these things for fruit, seeds, and meat. Many other translations follow this interpretation with God giving man dominion over plants and animals for food. In the New Living Translation we are to “fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” In that version we are not given these creatures as food to sustain ourselves but we are still charged to govern and reign over them and those terms bring us to a crossroads where we can choose to rule like tyrants or choose to rule justly and wisely.
The Garden of Eden
After the first chapter outlines creation, Genesis dives into more detail. Chapter two is about arguably the best known Bible story save the Gospel…the story of Adam and Eve. One of the questions left over from chapter one that I had is “are the people God created in his six days of creation the same people as Adam and Eve?” The natural answer is yes because it is common knowledge that Adam and Eve are the first people. However, I want to go through and look at this in depth a bit because I can’t help but feel like the story of Adam and Eve is the most metaphorical story in the entire Bible.
Firstly, we are still very early in the story of creation. All of these stories predate paper and writing and man isn’t even around for much of it. Assuming Adam and Eve are the first two people then they would have passed down the story of creation orally to their children who would have passed it along until someone took the time to write it down at which point the narrative then has to survive the entirety of human history to make it today. If this story is literal then at least some things have been lost along the way either over the ages or simply through translation. If the story is allegory, passed along from the earliest people until it could be written down then the message is still the same. Again, this is another part of the Bible where I can’t help but get frustrated when people argue if it was literal or allegorical because this argument fails to miss the point of the stories. Adam and Eve isn’t about Adam and Eve as either the literal first people or representations of the earliest people…the story of Adam and Eve is about the fall of mankind and the separation of man from God.
Chapter One of our first book in the Bible sets the stage and introduces the characters, Chapter two establishes our conflict that will set the plot for the rest of this story.
Secondly, if Adam and Eve are metaphorical representations or perhaps the first two people placed in Eden while other men are still about in the world, this could help explain the population of the world and how in the Bible we are able to so easily jump from two people total to a world inhabited by wicked people that needs to be flooded in order to attempt a restart.
From the outset of chapter two two things are noticeable. Firstly, this story is more detailed than the outline of creation that encompasses reality and the universe. We are introduced to the earth in the middle of the creation outline when God creates Adam from the dust and breathes life into him. We are also introduced to Eden which is mysteriously located “in the east.” Secondly, we are introduced to our first Biblical contradiction not even a chapter in. In the previous chapter our creation outline went: the heavens and the earth, light and darkness, the sky and the water, dry ground and the seas, vegetation, stars, sun, the moon, day, and night, sea creatures, birds and finally mankind. Genesis 2:5-7 states that God created man before plant life had appeared and as waters had just saturated the surface of the ground. Why there is a contradiction this early is beyond me but I assume it is because this is an ancient story with multiple authors and orators that has been translated several dozen times before it was time to translate it from Hebrew.
Regardless of details and contradictions, the story of Adam and Eve is one we all know. God creates Adam (man) from dust and breathes life into him. Adam and God live harmoniously in the Garden of Eden which is synonymous with paradise. Adam grows lonely and God creates Eve (woman) from one of Adam’s ribs. Eve is tempted by the serpent into eating fruit from the Tree of Life/Knowledge. She tricks Adam into eating the fruit and the two humans learn of good and evil and are expelled from Eden by God because they have been introduced to sin. The penalty of sin is death and thus we have the story of the fall of man.
Something I have to admit about this story, it just feels like allegory. That doesn’t mean that the lessons or the story and what it represents are not true but it just feels like this story is a vague metaphor about how God and man once lived together blissfully but then man sought knowledge, became aware of sin, and fell from grace and was expelled from Eden/paradise. Whether this happened in an actual Garden of Eden or represents the evolution of man from a happy animal living blissfully unaware into knowledgeable humans aware of death and the vices that come with knowledge…I’m not sure. Regardless, the lessons and the moral of the story hold true regardless.
Adam and Eve are tricked by the serpent into eating from the tree of knowledge which represents the first disobeying of God’s command by man and thus our contamination by the knowledge of good and evil and original sin. Adam, Eve, and the serpent are punished by God and expelled from Eden with God creating “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve. Whether or not this means God gave them clothes from animal skins or Adam and Eve were given flesh and form by God before being expelled is unclear in the NIV translation but other translations make it seem like God gave them clothes and kicked them out. Then God says another interesting passage to close Genesis 3, from the NIV translation:
“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”
God then places cherubim (angels) with flaming swords to guard the tree and the Garden after expelling man.
This part fascinates me because once again God is referring to Himself in the plural but also there seems to be a conversation of almost cosmic importance occurring. It almost seems like if Adam and Eve had eaten a second fruit we would be immortal and knowledgeable of good and evil and on par, or closer in terms of power, with God. Looking past whether or not that is a horrifying prospect when you consider the sheer level of our evilness (immortal and all powerful Hitler anyone?) This is also our first passage with a direct mention of angels. It’s a confusing passage because of the plurality issue but also because it brings a question to mind: “what can mankind ultimately become?” The entire Eden story is about the fall of man and his separation from God but it almost feels like there is a sub-layer here that isn’t talked about as much and that is, now that mankind is removed from innocence and has fallen, what is our course now?
Another question raised by this passage is how did eating the fruit make man like God? How does the knowledge of good and evil make man like God? It’s important to clarify that like a child, Adam and Eve understood the concept of good and bad but before disobeying God and eating the fruit they had not actually committed a bad act. Once they ate the fruit they had known evil because they had actually done something bad. This means that mankind had now known good and evil which God, being omnipotent, knew as well thus making man like God. The serpent was not lying when he told Eve that eating the fruit would make man like God, he just strategically failed to mention that knowing of evil would also cause God and man to separate. It also means that, now that man has knowledge of good and evil as God has knowledge of good and evil, we have been transformed from loving servants of God to actively wanting to be like God and being envious of his all powerful position.
The Eden story hurts, not because we lost paradise but because the story makes it seem like knowledge is the cause of all of human suffering and pain. Eating from the tree gave us knowledge of good and evil. This knowledge corrupted us and made us envious of God. Because we had been tainted and could no longer be loving servants of God we were corrupted by the vices of sin such as envy, greed, anger, etc. and this cost us our fellowship with God. Perhaps it even cost us our spiritual existence and kicked us out into this physical world. Genesis 3:21 states that God gave Adam and Eve garments of skin. Generally the translations mean animal skins and then they are expelled from the Garden. What if this story is allegory and after man’s fall God deems we are unworthy of staying in the spiritual realm of paradise (Eden), gives us psychical clothing of skin, and expels man to earth. Not only does it mean we’ve lost paradise in the past but it means the pursuit of knowledge can only increase the vices of sin and the desire to indulge ourselves. We aren’t even close to the New Testament and it’s important to remember that only through Jesus Christ can we reconcile with God and that we cannot gain enough knowledge on our own to rival God. Merely the pursuit of knowledge makes us want to be like God, a task we cannot accomplish nor should we accomplish.
As someone who loves learning and believes education is the key to self-improvement, that’s a terrifying notion.
It also brings up another question…is knowledge bad? I don’t think it is. While the Eden story makes it easy for anyone to get depressed about mankind’s prospects we forget that this is only the third chapter of the first book. Countless individuals would find favor with God from this point on and Jesus Christ, the savoir of humanity, was even known as “teacher” during his ministry. Knowledge is not inherently evil but it empowers people to be evil and know evil and that is the danger. We have this knowledge now and there is no going back. It does not matter if you literally believe Adam and Eve ate from fruit and gained knowledge of good and evil or if you believe such knowledge came about when human beings evolved to gain sentient consciousness and we developed the knowledge of good and evil we all experience today. The key from this Eden story is knowledge corrupts but the key to this whole Biblical story is one of redemption. Knowledge in responsible hands can do great good, we just have to be mindful to reconcile with God through Jesus Christ and strive to use our knowledge in a way that emulates him.
The Eden story is painful and its tragic but we are just at the beginning and just like any redemption story, there must be a failure with which to redeem.