Biblical Creation: Which Do We Believe?

Creation stories tend to explain the physical manifestations of how things were created. Mountains and valleys were fashioned by embattled giants or gods seeking power and control of the earth. The Sun was a fiery warrior on a chariot, the moon a lovely maiden searching for a lost lover. Humans came from the womb of some female enity or pulled from a hole in the ground by and ancient elder. Creation stories emanate from a known source such as mountains, seas, forest, volcanoes and dark unknown horizons. Life came forth from mythical beings or geographical structures familiar to that group of people.

In the traditional Biblical creation story of Genesis nothing existed except God. He did not descend from a mountain or rise from the sea.   More recent interpretations are that the chaotic mass existed before God, and by God’s will the existing chaos was shaped into the world and the life upon it.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann supports this idea.   He writes, “The liturgy of God’s majestic governance of the world in vv. 1-2 attests that God did not make the world out of nothing (ex nihilo), but rather ordered preexisting chaos through a series of “separations” of light from dark and land from waters.”[1]

If we hold to the traditional translation, then God created everything, even the chaos which would become the basic building blocks.  In either case the Lord then began to separate and structure these chaotic elements and bring order to the “formless void” by sending a wind (spirit) which “swept over the face of the waters”.

God’s spirit moved across the earth and he commanded, “Let there be light”. And only by His command was the light separated from the darkness, the water from itself and the earth from the water.   Then by His spirit He called forth for vegetation, fruit-bearing trees and plants that bore seeds.  He gave them the ability to multiply and be self-propagating.  By the third day the groundwork which would sustain animal life was established.   Then he created the seasons, so each plant would grow according to its variety.    The light was further divided to create day and night and the length of night and day was varied so that the life giving plants could be abundant and diverse.   And time could be measured by the rising and the setting of the moon and the sun. God began to create sea life and birds. Then He made land animals which could live off the abundant and varied vegetation He had created on the third day.

And then He created mankind.  Genesis specifically states that we are made in God’s image and that we are given dominion over the other creatures which He created.  By virtue of being last we assume that we are God’s greatest creation, the apex of all his labor.

What the first creation story does is establish the sovereignty and purpose of God.  Genesis demonstrates that God has a plan and that only He could create life from the void. There is a sense of structure and purpose to His work and unlike other creation stories there is no randomness or arbitrary action.  The creation is precise, methodical and follows a purpose which will be revealed in God’s own chosen time.   Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reverberations of Faith, declares this orderly act of creation as an expression of faithfulness.  “In the faith of ancient Israel, the relation of God and world is not arbitrary, but one in which God’s generative power to create a fruitful, life-sustaining system is exercised as an act of fidelity that evokes glad, ready obedience in response”.[2]

Chapter one establishes God as the source of all things both living and non-living. It provides a point of reference from which God repeatedly reminds His people that only He could have created the world and the life within it. And that only He has a plan which can guide us from sin to Grace. God wanted to fix in our minds this idea of His omnipotent and singular existence.   There is no other god to whom we can turn to, no other entity, spiritual or physical who we should worship.

Chapter two of Genesis tells an alternative version of the creation story and conflicts with parts of the first chapter. The disparity is in the creation of man.  In Chapter 1 mankind is the last of God’s labor, but in Chapter 2 man is created on the first day, before the earth is made habitable. So how do we explain this discrepancy?   And is it significant or one of those messy little inconsistencies which appears in ancient stories handed down through verbal traditions.

The terminology used between different versions of the Bible can lead to even more confusion.  In both the NRSV and KJV, Genesis 2:7 reads, “Then the lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”   So man (singular) was created in the beginning.   However, in Genesis 1:26 of the NRSV it says, “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;”.

In the NRSV God created Man (singular, Gen 2:7) on the first day, but mankind (plural, Gen 1:26) at the end of the sixth day.  The KJV and other versions use the singular, Man, in both chapters 1 and 2. Thus by the NRSV we could reason that man (Adam) was created first but that humankind (Gen 1:26 NRSV) was created last. If we understand that humankind means the family of Adam and begins at the end of God’s labor with the act of human procreation, then this clears up the incongruity between the two chapters, that the human race was created on the last dy but Adam was made on the first.

However, it may also indicate that the creation of man was a process and not a single event. While the two chapters may seem to tell a different story, the conflicting narrative may be resolved in verse 26 of Chapter 1.  “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” and verse 7 of Chapter 2, “then the lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;”.  The veracity of both creation stories may turn on these two verses.

They cause us to ask two questions, who is the “us” God is referring to, and what is meant by the words ‘image’ and likeness?

As far as the ‘us’, God may have been referring to the angels who were with Him.  However, John Wesley believed that it referred to the Trinitarian nature of God.   “And therefore God himself not only undertakes to make, but is pleased so to express himself, as if he called a council to consider of the making of him; Let us make man – The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, consult about it, and concur in it; because man, when he was made, was to be dedicated and devoted to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” [3] In Genesis God establishes His singular existence, but also indicates that he governs in multiple roles.  From the beginning the Bible may be attempting to help man recognize the three-part temperament of God so that our worship of Him would be on a personal level and not one of distant idolatry.

In the first 26 verses God creates a world teeming with life and filled with the beauty of His love. Then Man is created and awakens to a land alive and vibrant, brimming with wonders and marvels, surpassing anything he can conceive.  Then God gives man dominion over all He had created.  Man and woman was entrusted with its care, to love the world as God loves the world, to cherish its creatures as God cherishes its creatures, to care for the land as God cares for the land.

In Chapter 2, man is created on the first day and is able to watch the miracle of creation and like a wide-eyed child he stands in wonder as God turns the chaos into harmony and fills the void with brightness and life.  This more strongly suggests a parental relationship with man than in Chapter 1.

In both chapters God entrusted man with the care of His world.  With Chapter 1 this occurs at the end of day six.  Then God seems to wander away leaving His newly created world in man’s hand.  But in Chapter 2 man is involved in the process; he witnesses the creation and assists in the naming of the animals.   God continues to interact with man, teaching him to farm and providing man with a safe home in the garden and ultimately with a companion.  This may suggest that the ‘our image’ or ‘our likeness’ refers to a physical similarity.  But nowhere in the bible is man allowed to look upon God though God spoke with numerous people from Abram to Malachi.

So if the likeness isn’t physical what is it? Is it possible that God formed us into a shape which was pleasing to Him and would serve His purpose? In his Bible commentary notes, John Wesley writes of Genesis 2: 7 “Of the other creatures it is said, they were created and made; but of man, that he was formed, which notes a gradual process in the work with great accuracy and exactness.  To express the creation of this new thing, he takes a new word: a word (some think) borrowed from the potter’s forming his vessel upon the wheel.  The body of man is curiously wrought. And the soul takes its rise from the breath of heaven. It came immediately from God; he gave it to be put into the body, “[4]

According to Wesley, God formed man but it was a gradual process.  The physical form may have been created in the first days, but the final “form” of man did not occur until the sixth day, the same day that all the land animals were created.  Perhaps it wasn’t until that sixth day that the ‘image’ of God’s spirit was placed in the heart of man.  It was on the sixth day that the ‘Likeness’ of God’s grace was given to his beloved creation.

So what is the nature of this image? John Wesley says there are three dimensions to man being created in God’s image; the natural image, the political image and the moral image.  “Not barely in his natural image, a picture of his own immortality; a spiritual being, endued with understanding, freedom of will, and various affections; — nor merely in his political image, the governor of this lower -world, having “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth;” — but chiefly in his moral image; which, according to the Apostle, is “righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:24) [5]

Chapter 1 establishes the might, the power and the sovereignty of God’s presence in the world.  Chapter 2 defines the relationship God is offering to His children.  He is not an indifferent God who rules from a remote mountain or celestial citadel, but a God who is near and shares our lives.  One who teaches and nurtures us and whose divine images of love, wisdom, hope, affection, understanding, morality, free will, “righteousness and true holiness” are “breathed into his nostrils”.

John Wesley writes, “That man was made in God’s image, and after his likeness; two words to express the same thing.  God’s image upon man, consists: (1. In his nature, not that of his body, for God has not a body, but that of his soul. The soul is a spirit, an intelligent, immortal spirit, an active spirit, herein resembling God, the Father of spirits, and the soul of the world.   (2. In his place and authority. Let us make man in our image, and let him have dominion.   As he has the government of the inferior creatures he is, as it were, God’s representative on earth. Yet his government of himself by the freedom of his will, has in it more of God’s image, than his government of the creatures. And chiefly in his purity and rectitude. God’s image upon man consists in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness”.[6]

Conclusion

Had verses 4 through 25 been excluded from chapter 2, then our impression of God would have been as an omnipotent and powerful being who, after creating the earth and putting man in charge, left to do whatever gods do. This god seemed to admire his own work and had little regard for what happened afterwards since he left a single man and woman in charge. And when he returned to discover they had disobeyed him, he banished them from the garden as someone who would pull weeds from the flowerbed. Like the gods of other ancient cultures, this god would appear aloof and indifferent to the human condition.

Verses 4 to 25 are intended to show God as compassionate, caring and nurturing. Like a loving parent he allows man to name the animals and care for them.  He teaches him to till the earth, providing for himself and caring for the land.  He then gives him a companion created from man’s own body because God did not want his child to be lonely. In these verses we come to know the true purpose of God’s work; to have a family with whom He can share His love and compassion. This second creation clearly shows that the God of the Bible seeks to have a personal relationship with His children.  This theme is expressed throughout the Old and New Testament and is given its greatest expression by the death and resurrection of His Son on the cross.  Without the telling of the second creation of man, the purpose of God’s labor, a personal relationship with a loving parent, would not give authenticity to our faith.

[1] W. Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith pg 40

[2] W. Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith pg 40

[3] John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible

[4] John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible

[5] John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible

[6] John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible