The Theology of Genesis 1-11

Kevin Hall  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 44 - Fall 2001


The universal history of Genesis 1-11 portrays God’s relationship to the world and to humankind with broad and bold theological strokes that transverse a landscape rich in literary detail and historical texture.[1]I refer to these chapters as universal history rather than the traditional primeval history because the content is so clearly intended to provide a “universal opening” that serves as background for the rest of the Bible. See Nahum Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), xiv. Gordon Wenham has commented on how the early chapters of Genesis put Israel’s ancestors “in their cosmic context.” Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), xxii.
The distinction I draw between universal and primeval history is significant because these first eleven chapters are not simply about origins: they allow us to maintain the broadest possible theological perspective as we read the rest of the Bible.
As the literary and historical aspects of the text are explored, a the­ological witness is discovered that affirms profound truths which in turn may be applied to some of the most signifi­cant issues of our day. Thus we have in these chapters a theological vision that by its universality invites us, indeed makes it possible for us, to relate our whole lives to God.[2]Cf. the comments by Claus Westerman on blessing as distinct from saving in his Elements of Old Testament Theology, trans. Douglas W. Stott (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), 103.

The Theological Landscape

Before discussing the theological affirmations of Genesis 1-11 or exploring the ways these theological affirmations apply to the issues of our day, an exami­nation of the theological landscape from which these affir­mations arise is in order. In the theological foreground of this landscape are structural and narrative aspects of the text that should guide theological appropriation of the text. In the theological background are historical and cultural issues that provide the context for study of Genesis 1-11. These issues, once identified, give further assistance in the theolog­ical quest by illuminating the theological issues that formed the original matrix for the composition of Genesis 1-11. By beginning with an explication of the literary and historical dimensions of the text, I hope to put in play the theological integrity of a document that is not, strictly speaking, a work of theology.[3]Biblical theology, defined as the attempt to discover the theology implicit in the Bible itself (James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999], 1-17) is a comparatively recent development in the study of scripture, having come into its own in the eighteenth century. For the history of the discipline, see John H. Hayes and Frederick Prussner, Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development (Atlanta:John Knox Press, 1985); also, Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1, trans. Leo G. Perdne (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 1-26, and Barr, 18-26. Because of this history, we do well to remind ourselves that what we mean by theology and what intentions drove the production of scripture are not strictly identifiable. Nevertheless, it seems clear-and my analysis will attempt to discern evidence of this fact-that theology, understood as concern for the character and purposes of God, is what animates the biblical writings.

The Theological Foreground
Structural Considerations

The Toledoth Formula

One of the most obvious structural features of Genesis 1-11 is the so-called toledoth formula.[4]Joseph Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 58-59; also, John H. Walton and Victor H. Matthews, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 24. This formula, distinguished by the use of the Hebrew term toledoth, which is variously translated as “generations of’ or “descendants of’ or “account of,” is a distinct feature of the entire book of Genesis, appearing five times in the universal history (1:1-11:26) and five times in the ancestral history (11:27-50:26). The even distribution of this formulaic device between Genesis 1-11 and the rest of the book high­ lights the distinctive role these eleven chapters play within the book of Genesis and the entire Pentateuch.[5]This count and schematization follows the analysis of Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch, 58-59. His analysis, however, does not count the toledoth in 36:9, treating it as an addition and duplicate of the one in 36:1. Cf. the analysis of Hamilton who does count 36:9 but still finds ten occur­rences of this formula in Genesis by discounting Genesis 5:1 as a variant of the formula. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 150. Upon fur­ther examination, however, a distinct theological function of this structural device is detectable. In each of its occurrences within Genesis 1-11 (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:l; 11:10),[6]Genesis 11:27 is here (as in Blenkinsopp’s analysis) the first occurrence of the formula in the Ancestral History (11:27-50:25). the tole­ doth formula serves as a bridge from a more general or uni­versal treatment of the subject of the formula to a more spe­cific treatment of the subject. So, for example, the toledoth of Genesis 2:4, “these are the toledoth of the heavens and the earth,” serves as a bridge between the more universal portrait of the creation of the heavens and earth (Genesis 1) with the more narrowly focused portrait of the creator’s crafting of the first human couple and his placement of  them in the garden (Genesis 2). Or, as in the case of the toledoth formula in Genesis 11:10, Shem, the subject of the formula, marks the transition from a consideration of the three sons of Noah who peopled the earth after the flood to a consideration of the one genealogical line from which came Abraham, the man whose response to God constitutes the heart of the remaining narrative. The toledoth formula functions theologically to establish the important link between the universality of Genesis 1-11and the particular­ity of the rest of the biblical narrative.

Another theological achievement of the toledoth formula is to highlight the creator’s redemptive (re-creative) inten­tions. This achievement derives from the fact that the flood narrative ( 6:9-9:29) is introduced by the third of five toledoth formulas in the universal history. The flood narra­tive is thereby structurally the centerpiece of the first eleven chapters.[7]Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch, 59. Add to this observation the fact that this struc­turally central narrative is introduced by a toledoth whose subject, Noah, serves as a link between the people who lived before the flood and the people who live after the flood, and the creator’s purpose comes into focus. The judgment of creation the flood represents has deliverance at its heart and re-creation/redemption as its goal.

The Seven Day Structure of Genesis One

Another important literary structure that sheds enormous theological light is embedded in the narrative of the first week of creation. The grand opening narrative employs a “six-plus-one” literary pattern that “determines the presentation of the narrative” and “dictates that the seventh day be the momentous climax.”[8]Sarna, 14. Numerous commentators have noticed this pattern which parallels the creative activities of days 1-3 with the creative activities of days 4-6.[9]E.g., the discussion in Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 125; Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch, 61-62. Structurally set apart and sanctified by divine blessing, the seventh day stands, quite literally, unparalleled at the end of the first week of creation. This suggests a theological impor­tance for the seventh day that has often been overlooked by interpreters of the Bible’s creation teachings. The “rest” that the creator enters, however, should entice all who labor in the theological fields of scripture.

A consideration of the fact that there is no eighth day of creation along with the fact that the biblical version of cre­ation magnifies God’s ongoing and intimate creative rela­tionship with the manifold works of creation (e.g., Psalm 104:24-30) may provide a fruitful point of entry into the theological significance of the seventh day. As noted above, the divine day of rest is climactic and the absence of an eighth day following suggests it is conclusive. Yet clearly the Bible envisions the continuous creative divine presence as constitutive of the world. Given this, perhaps the seventh day, with its divine rest, emphasizes in its conclusive and decisive position, not the cessation of God’s creative activity, but a kind of rest that is an integral aspect of the world. Instead of an eighth day, there follows the account of God putting (literally, “causing to come to rest”) adam in the garden (Genesis 2:15).[10]The Hebrew word adam provides a thematic connection between Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1 it is used in its usual collective sense as a reference to humanity, male and female, made in the image of God (1:26-27). Here, in Genesis 2:15 it is accompanied by the definite article and is normally translated as “the man.” The verb in this verse normally translated as “put” most often connotes rest. If John Sailhamer is correct that the last two verbs of this verse, which express the purpose for which adam was put in the garden, are best translated as “to worship and obey,”[11]His case for this is quite good but its development is beyond the scope of this paper. See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 100-101. then the conclusive impact of the seventh day of creation continues in the unnumbered days to follow. In other words, the creation is very good because it is a fit place for those created in God’s image to enter divine rest through worship and obedience.

The seven day structure also seems to suggest something primal and formative about the creator’s intentions for the numbering of our days. Claus Westermann has suggested, for instance, that the purpose of the seven day pattern was to articulate a “chronological unity” for creation derived from the goal and significance of the seventh day.[12]Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 89-90. If his insights are combined with the above analysis, it may be possible to suggest that all of humanity’s days are to be numbered by the seven day pattern, with the seventh day not being a cyclical climax to six days of work, but rather the day that gives substance, and meaning, and purpose to the other six.

The Genealogical Arrangements

The genealogies of Genesis 1-11 are integral to the entire structure of the work. As Hamilton has shown there is a steady and deliberate alternation between narrative and genealogy throughout the entire eleven chapters.[13]Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 248. Each of the genealogies are carefully crafted structures designed to portray the creator’s purposeful involvement in creation and human history. Through the genealogies, the blessing of progeny becomes the particular provenance of such involve­ment. But the structural designs and narrative placements of the genealogies most specifically support the overall theological agenda of the universal history. For example, the genealogy of Genesis 5, which serves as a bridge from Adam to Noah, contains ten names, as does the parallel genealogy in Genesis 11:10-26 which links Noah and Abram. Hardly fortuitous, and most likely not an exhaustive list of continuous links, these genealogies help focus our attention on the main narrative and theological developments that are evoked by the pivotal and memorable figures Adam, Noah, and Abram.[14]On the intentional structuring and purpose of these genealogies, see Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 82-83; Sarna, Genesis 40-41.

Narrative Developments

The Framing Narratives and the Significance of Speech The power and significance of a God who speaks the world into existence is commonly observed by students of the Bible’s first chapters. However, both the beginning and ending narratives of the universal history collaborate to por­tray a world where the word matters, divine/human com­munion is possible, and speech means both power and pathos. By virtue of these framing narratives, the opening chapters of Genesis testify to the cosmic significance of speech, both divine and human.

In Genesis 1, God speaks and order reigns in the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 11, the Lord takes from humans the ability to speak to one another and disorder and disarray begin to characterize the human community. In between these narratives; there is never an overt decision by God to give humans the ability to speak. But having been made in God’s image and made as communal creatures-notice the male and female of Genesis 1 and the “not good” aloneness of the man in Genesis 2-it seems natural that God should speak to them and that they should have the ability to speak as well. So the decision by the Lord to confuse their speech rather than remove their ability to speak altogether is not surprising. The decision seems to parallel the earlier decision to deny them access to the tree of life rather than striking them dead on the spot (cf. 11:6-9 with Genesis 3:22-24). Like the earlier decision, the decision to judge their ability to speak rather than remove it seems to be predicated on the recognition of an aspect of these ones created in God’s image that remains good (and full of possibly devas­tating potential [cf. 11:6; 3:22]) despite being spoiled by rebellion.

This juxtaposition of narratives involving speech suggests a tragic irony with heavy theological overtones. When humans created for communion with God ignore God’s word, their communion with one another is not only arro­gant, it is hopelessly futile. The ultimate effect of these framing narratives is that speech and its power is displayed yet attenuated by the pathos of words unheeded.

Creation and Re-Creation

Within the framing narratives that focus on speech is a narrative development that treats with great narrative skill a theological issue that has kindled much debate and reflec­tion among biblical theologians. The much remarked on parallels between the opening account of creation and the flood narrative with its reversal of creation and re-creation motifs (e.g., 1:2-10, 20-25; 7:11-22; 8:1-3, 13-17) have conspired with the doctrinal tendency to separate creation and redemption into categories amenable to distinct theo­logical treatment to suggest to theologians that a theologi­cal puzzle exists: how to reconcile God’s work as creator with God’s work as redeemer. In fact, within the field of biblical theology, this puzzle, and the unquestioned assump­tions that are behind it, have, in the past, led to a sublimating of the biblical creation traditions in an attempt to give due weight to the biblical teaching on God’s redemptive work.[15]Gerhard von Rad, “The Theological Problem of the Old Testament Doctrine of Creation,” in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, trans. E. W. Trueman Dicken (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), 131; H. H. Schmid, “Creation, Righteousness, and Salvation: ‘Creation Theology’ as the Broad Horizon of Biblical Theology,” in Creation in the Old Testament, ed. Bernhard W Anderson, Issues in Religion and Theology 6 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 115; and Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology, 468-96. But the central narrative development of Genesis1-11 – a development highlighted by the toledoth formula and supported by the genealogical schema – stresses that the story of the world’s and humanity’s creation, judgment, res­cue, and re-creation is one story. This, in turn, challenges us to accept a coherence and wholeness of the divine purposes that is hard to imagine and easy to resist.

Why, we ask, would the Creator destroy his creation? How, we wonder, are we to relate to a God who would kill those made in his image? What kind of barbarism, we intone, shall we have to embrace if we accept, rather than reject this story as our own? These age old questions draw their strength from the primal account of a redemptive God who creates and therefore has the responsibility to judge. And just this plot is the heart of the developed narrative that is Genesis 1-11.

The Divine/Human Community

It may be argued that the puzzle addressed in the previ­ous section is a reflection of the puzzle that humans face about themselves. Just as it is difficult to reconcile God’s creative/judging responsibilities with God’s redemptive purposes, it is difficult if not impossible to reconcile what we know of ourselves and our sublime/horrific potentials with the divine image we were created in. Or, as the biblical narrative might lead us to ask, are we “sons of God” (bene ha ‘elohim) or “daughters of men” (benoth ha ‘adam) (6:1-4)?                                                                            .

The narrative of Genesis 1-11, however, does not require us to search for solutions to these puzzles in a vacuum. Alongside, and in intimate connection with, the develop­ment of the account of God’s creative/re-creative involve­ment in the world, the narrative presents the creation of and struggle to maintain the divine/human community. Created in God’s image, humans share with their creator not only the power of speech but the responsibility to protect the world and promote God’s purposes within it. Thus, a divine/human community is begun by the creation of human beings in the divine image.

The portion of the narrative that is most pertinent to this development is Genesis 2:4b-25. The narrative begins with a picture of the shared responsibilities of the Lord God and human beings. “There were as yet no plants of the field on the land or green plants of the field springing forth,” we are told, “because the Lord God had not yet caused it to rain and there was no human being to work the ground.”[16]Direct quotations are my own translation from the Hebrew text. Emphasis added. The tender denouement of this scene paints a beautiful portrait of the intimate kind of community intended for human beings (“and the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed”) set in the context of dependence on the gracious gift of God (2:18-25).

The intricacies and subtleties of this narrative depict as well the fragility of the divine/human community. And it is this fragility that best indicates the presence of true community. The divine presence that pervades this community – from the brooding breath that instigates the creation of the entire creaturely domain ( 1:2) to the patient planter who with sagacious generosity provides for the needs of the first human couple (2:5-25)-directs the creation of the divine/ human community without upsetting the fragile balance of mutuality, responsibility, and accountability that is essential to true community. Thus, when this fragile balance is threatened, it is the divine presence that becomes key to life itself.

The Presence of God and Righteous Living

It makes sense, given the Lord God’s warning (2:16-17) and the conversation between the serpent and woman( 3:1-5), to focus on death as the consequence of humani­ty’s rebellion against God. In fact, however, the most signif­icant consequence was loss of access to the divine presence. The moment described in Genesis 3:8 echoes throughout the rest of the universal history. As they heard the Lord God walking in the garden, the man and his wife hid them­ selves from the divine presence. From this moment forward, references to or motifs of the divine presence, most especial­ly the metaphor of walking with the Lord, appear in the narrative at critical junctures. For instance, in the next chap­ter, Cain goes forth ‘from the presence of the Lord” (4: 16). Then, in the midst of the genealogy of the next chapter, a genealogy which “demonstrates the reign of death,” a man appears who breaks the pattern and appears as a “standing pledge of death’s defeat.”[17]Kidner, Genesis, 79-80. This man, Enoch, is conspicu­ously described as a man who “walked with God” (5:22). As a final example, there is Noah, the man delivered through the flood’s devastation. Noah is also described as a man who “walked with God” ( 6:9). So despite the reign of death, divine presence remains the critical reality for the world.

An attendant aspect of this key narrative development is the realistic righteousness that is portrayed and the implied call for righteous living. The pivotal verse describing Noah exhibits this well. Employing a chiastic pattern, Genesis 6:9 parallels the characterization of Noah as a man who walked with God with the description of Noah as righteous and blameless. The portion of the verse that follows the toledoth formula reads literally: “Noah, a man righteous, blameless was he//in his generation//with God walked Noah.” Thus the important theme of God’s presence is tied in this pivotal verse with a depiction of Noah’s righteous living. The terms used here, “righteous” and “blameless,” are common in the Old Testament, and connote not sinless perfection but a lifestyle commitment that is wholly consonant with the expression “walking with God.” Relational at their core, these terms apply to persons whose relationships reflect the charitable openness to responsible life in the community engendered by the divine presence with which their lives are in tune. The community that issued from creation, though ruptured by rebellion, remains a live option because of the divine presence and persons willing to live righteously.

Blessing and Curse

At this point, however, there is something that the full biblical story can add to our analysis of Genesis 1-11 narra­tive. The one who most fully embraced the call to righteous living and who also became the most manifest expression of God’s presence in the world, proclaimed that the heavenly father sends blessing on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5;45). This reminds us that the arena of righteous living is a world of great blessing. Yet, thorns and thistles grow and sweat still beads on our brow. So how best tell the story of creation? Genesis 1-11 shows how through its nar­rative development of the theme of blessing and curse.

The blessing of creation is the power of fertility (1:22).[18]Westermann, Genesis 1-11, 140. Bestowed first upon the creatures, God’s blessing of adam (1:28) requires of human beings the wisdom to learn from God’s constant care of creation to trust in what God pro­vides (Matthew 6:25-34; cf. Genesis 2:9, 16). Scripted as failure to find satisfaction in God’s provision, covetousness brought the curse (3:6). But the curse does not extinguish the blessing of fertility; God continues to bless (9:1; cf.Genesis 10). So the potential for blessing or curse (a la Deuteronomy) provides the context for living in commu­nion with God. The dynamic of blessing which is the power of fertility, so evident in the tenacious fecundity of the world God has made, serves, however, to remind us that blessing is prior in all ways to curse. This reminder, in turn, draws us back to the source of all blessings. Such is the true story of creation.

The Theological Background

Having examined the structural features and narrative developments of Genesis 1-11 that provide the theo­logical foreground for these chapters, it is appropri­ate that we examine the various aspects of Israel and the ancient Near East that provide the theological background for the textual issues already presented. For this text, so rich in theological nuance, did not arise in a vacuum. Whether aspects of its development or reasons for its survival and canonization (or both), the following historical and socio­logical issues form the theological background for Genesis 1-11.

The Land

If their covenant with God determined the identity of the people of Israel, the land was the laboratory in which that identity was forged.[19]The Land may be regarded as the laboratory of the Covenant.” Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth 1982), 5. Exodus and Exile, the key events of Israel’s history, find their meaning in Israel’s history with   the land. Significantly then, the first verse of Israel’s univer­sal history begins with a reference to the land. Obscured by the customary translation “earth” and the planetary associa­tions the word “earth” carries for us, the Hebrew word ‘erets, which is the most common term used to refer to Israel’s promised land, appears in Genesis 1:1-2 and also in verse 10 where it is identified with the dry ground. And though the pairing of this term with “heavens” in verse one functions as a merismus expressing divine creation of all there is, the term also provides a thematic connection to biblical traditions of the promised land by virtue of it being the word used in those contexts as well. This does not mean that Genesis 1 is simply about the creation of the promised land, but it does suggest that theology of Genesis 1 and the chapters that follow is not meant to be speculative, theoreti­cal, or metaphysical; rather, these chapters were meant to address the theological exigencies of a people whose experi­ence with God was quite literally grounded in the land (‘erets) bounded by the river of Egypt and the great river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18), a land created by the word of their God and vouchsafed to them in like fashion.[20]John Sailharner, in his analysis of the use of ‘eretz in the opening account of creation, does suggest that it refers to the creation of the land. His discussion suggests more than my proposal is attempting and the details of his discussion are informed and stimulating. See Sailharner, Pentateuch, 81-86. Readers interested in his approach may also want to examine   his other work which presses these insights into service of an appraisal of the creation account that puts a novel spin on the various Bible/science questions associated with these chapters. See John H. Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Books, 1996).

Political Realities and Covenant Relationships

The land had inhabitants before Israel arrived on the scene (15:18). Encounter with the land, therefore, meant encounter with other people. So the people of Israel were forced throughout their history to negotiate faithfulness to their covenant with God within the context of political real­ ities and relationships. As a matter of fact, the terminology of their covenant with God was not sui generis. Covenant language and kinship terminology was employed through­ out the ancient Near East in describing political associa­tions. The alliance between Soloman and the Icing of Tyre, for example, was styled as a covenant between brothers ( 1 Kings 9:13). If,therefore, the land was the laboratory of the covenant, a major component of the experiment was Israel’s relationship to other nations.

This historical reality may shed light on the theological import of Genesis 10, the so-called “Table of Nations.” If, as many commentators suggest, this description of Israel’s world employs the language of kinship to describe political realities as well, then perhaps this chapter, in addition to confirming the continuation of God’s blessing upon humanity, served as a reminder to Israel of their intimate relationship to the nations from which they were drawn and as a perfect prelude to the announcement of the covenant whose divine purpose was to bless all the families of the land (12:3).

Divine Names

The divine names of Genesis 1-11, also reflect historical realities and theological tensions that contribute to the sig­nificance of the text as we have it today.[21]The historical reality that generated much of the Old Testament’s theology of the divine names was the rise of Mosaic Yahwism subsequent to the long history of Israel’s ancestors who according to the standard interpretation of Exodus 3 did not know God by the covenant name revealed to Moses. For an insightful historical, literary, and theological analysis of this issue, see R. W. L. Moberly, The Old Testament of the Old Testament: Patriarchal Narratives and Mosaic Yahwism, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992). Elohim, the name translated as “God,” reflects Israel’s faith in one God in the context of a world where the reality of many gods was taken for granted. A plural form of el (god), the plural use of this word in reference to one God of Israel admits of several explanations, but it most likely expresses Israel’s faith in their god as the “quintessence of all powers” or “the holy God who represents the divine in a comprehensive and absolute way.”[22]Martin Rose, “Names of God in the OT,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary. When linked with Yahweh, the covenant name for Israel’s redeemer revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:14-15), as is the case consistently in Genesis 2 (see “the Lord God,” 2:4), the experiential faith in God as immanent and transcendent, so critical to the Bible’s theology (see e.g., Isaiah 57:15), is expressed.

Priestly and Prophetic Concerns

This faith that the one true, incomparable God (Elohim) became known and experienced by the people of Israel through the holy presence revealed to Moses (Yahweh) formed the people of Israel and gave rise to influential insti­tutions whose complex relationships throughout Israel’s history contributed to the theological richness of the Old Testament. Both prophets and priests and their correlate institutions became in the history of Israel concrete expressions of important strands in the theology of Genesis 1-11.

The opening account of creation, for example, displays theological dimensions of Israel’s faith that became in Israel’s history the purview of priests. Scholars who have examined this account through paradigms suggested by the Israelite priesthood and its concerns have developed keen theological insights into the text. Samuel Balentine, for instance, has recently characterized Genesis 1 as a “liturgy of creation” celebrating “the order, more than the origins, of the cosmos.”[23]Samuel E. Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 82-86. This may be compared to the insights of William P. Brown, who analyzes the so-called Priestly Creation account (1:1-2:3) and discerns an overall structure that may “reflect that of a temple, with the final day repre­senting a temporal ‘holy of holies.'”[24]William P. Brown, “Creation,” in Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible. See also, idem, The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 385-88. Even scholars who approach the text from different critical vantage points have found the priestly paradigm to be a fruitful one for study of the text. For example, both Blenkinsopp and Sailhamer have drawn parallels between the opening account of creation and the instructions for the tabernacle.[25]Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch, 61-62; Sailhamer, Pentateuch, 298-300. This type of study promises to continue to advance our understanding of the theology of Genesis 1-11.

Attention to the concerns and sensibilities of Israel’s prophets also heightens our awareness of the theological import of Genesis 1-11. These spokespersons for the Lord were theologians par excellence, struggling as they did to interpret God’s involvement in the events that led to the death and resurrection of the people Israel.[26]See Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998). Discerning God’s involvement in Israel’s history in ways akin to that of a potter at his wheel or a vineyard owner with loving expec­tations for what has been planted, Israel’s prophets under­ stood that divine freedom was crucial to the pursuit of divine purposes (Jeremiah 18:1-11; Isaiah 5:1-7; Hosea 10:1; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 19:10-14; cf. Genesis 2:7-8; 4:10). Thus, as shocking as it is to our sensibilities, the repentance of God, which expresses divine faithfulness as surely as human repentance exposes human unfaithfulness, reverberates throughout the prophetic vision (Jeremiah 18:8, 10; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10). Divine repentance also played a pivotal role in the drama of creation and re-creation (cf. 6:5-7).[27]For a systematic discussion of the repentance of Yahweh, see Preuss, Theology, vol. 1, 244-46, 249. The book of Hosea displays well the divine faithfulness and human need inher­ent in the biblical discourse of divine and human repentance. See, e.g., Hosea 6:1-2; 11:8-9.

Do the prophetic vision and the narrative twists of Genesis 6-8 imply as well, a God who suffers? What is the theological significance of the Lord’s grief (6:6) and the divine determination never again to wreak devastation like the flood had wrought (8:21)? Are these evidence that the Lord “is a conundrum of contradictions”[28]Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 362-63. or that the Lord imposes self-limitations on divine freedom and power?[29]Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 72.

These questions pertain to the enigma of God’s relation­ship to creation. Our approach to these questions should affirm with the earnestness and conviction of the biblical testimony, the reality and integrity of God’s involvement with the world.[30]Ibid., 36-37. Here again, the prophetic perspective gives insight into the theology of Genesis 1-11. In the prophetic vision the divine grief in the days of Noah is less a riddle to be solved than a sign that God’s compassion will not fail (Isaiah 54:6-10). Inseparable from divine compassion, the divine grief of the flood account (6:6) finds its parallel in the suffering of the humans made in God’s image ( 3:16-17) and in the grief of Israel’s redeemer (Isaiah 54:6).[31]A single Hebrew term ‘atsab, is used to designate the pain of the man and the woman (Genesis 3:16-17), the Lord’s grief over the condition of the pre-deluge world (Genesis 6:6) and the grief of Israel’s redeemer (Isaiah 54:6).

Theological Affirmations

Based upon an examination of the theological land­scape of Genesis 1-11, several theological affirma­tions may be articulated. These theological affirmations depend upon the cogency of the observations already made but they are not proposed as an exhaustive list of all possible theological affirmations from Genesis 1-11. Consideration of these themes should, however, provide an extensive enough matrix for comprehensive theological engagement with Genesis 1-11.

One God, One Humanity, One Purpose

Establishing the broadest possible theological perspective for the rest of the Bible, these chapters envision a true uni­ verse with a theological integrity grounded in the purposes of the maker of heaven and earth and the redemptive vision of one humanity. Its affirmations of one God, one humanity, and an integrated creative/redemptive purpose for the world proclaim a biblical, universal perspective that animates the entire biblical witness.

One God

Israel inhabited a world in which the regnant presumption was that of the existence of many gods (elohim). The blunt claim that there is only one god (el), would have been in Israel’s world a parochial assertion easily ignored. But Israel embraced the majesty of Elohim, affirming that Elohim created the heavens and the earth (1:1). This move, however, in a way that is similar to John’s conjoining of the widely accepted Greek notion of the logos with the Christian faith in the incarnation (John 1:1-14), allowed Israel to affirm its particular experience of Yahweh in a transcendent, universal way. Thus, Israel’s faith declares, the Lord he is God and there is no other. (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 4:35; Isaiah 43:10-13; 44:6; Psalm 96:5).

But this claim, made in a theological vacuum or as a matter of expediency, can reflect a superficial response rather than a resounding conviction (ala the response of the people in Elijah’s day-1 Kings 18:39). The affirmation that there is one god who is maker of heaven and earth stands as a biblical challenge to both religious and secular complacen­cies, and must be discerned in the context of our own pre­vailing assumptions for its power to be felt to its fullest.[32]The study by Langdon Gilkey remains a classic in its attempt to bring the full force of the biblical testimony to the creator to bear on contemporary philosophical, scientific, and theological.ideas. See Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959; Anchor Books, 1965).

One Humanity

A corollary to the affirmation of one God is the biblical vision of one humanity. This is a missionary vision, as Paul made clear (Acts 17:24-31). And it illumines, by virtue of Genesis 10 and 11, God’s covenant with Abraham and his seed through which God’s intention to bless all humanity is manifest (12:1-3). Thus, the disruptions wrought to the human community at Babel (11) are overcome by the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost (Acts 2) even as the sin of Babel (“let us make a name for ourselves”; 11:4) is matched by a central promise of the covenant (“I will make your name great”; 12:2). So the biblical vision of one humanity is a redemptive hope that calls us to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:14-21; cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).

An Integrated Creative/Redemptive Purpose

The universal perspective affirmed by Genesis 1-11 ulti­mately hangs, however, on the affirmation it makes of the integration of God’s creative and redemptive purposes. The biblical witness to redemption is not simply couched in cre­ation terms, rather it reflects the faith and hope that the world’s creator is our redeemer (Isaiah 65:17-18). As Terence Fretheim puts it: “God’s redemptive purposes in   and through Israel presupposes the reality of the world as the creation of God and the world in need of reconciliation; God’s activity in the history of Israel is for the sake of the world.”[33]Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 34. God’s love for the world he created (John 3:16) conjoins our hope with the hope of the world and allows us in our travails to wait expectantly, even as all creation does, for the work of the world’s creator that makes all things new (Romans 8:8-25; Revelation 21:1-5). The God who is the source of our existence is the God who loves us with a “love that will not let us go.”[34]Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth, 360.

The Power of God’s Word

The clear focus on the power of speech reflected in the framing narratives of Genesis 1 and 11 draws our attention to the power of language and in particular to the efficacy of God’s word. The potential humans possess by virtue of their creation in God’s image and in particular the power they share in common with their creator for communion is real and dangerous. However, more powerful and therefore always efficacious is God’s word which speaks to the void and creates what God desires (cf. Genesis 1:2-3; Isaiah 55:11). The determinative power of the world, therefore, is the power of God’s word. The power of God’s word is not a raw power that becomes the only rationality of the world (ala Nietzsche);[35]For a cogent analysis of Nietzsche from a theological vantage point, see James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 307-309; idem, with Nancy Murphy, Witness: Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 295-96. it is an efficacious power that brings order, to be sure, but also woos more than it overwhelms.

Theological Applications

In addition to the theological affirmations derived from an analysis of Genesis 1-11, certain theological applications suggest themselves when some of the more significant issues of the day are considered in the light of the theology of Genesis 1-11. These applications draw sustenance from the conviction that the biblical witness is visionary, speaking even about first things in ways that shine light on the path before us.[36]I draw my inspiration for this view from McClendon and his view that “authentic Christian faith is prophetic faith; it sees the present in correct perspective only when it construes the present by means of the prefiguring past (God’s past) while at the same time construing it by means of the prophetic future (God’s future).” McClendon, Doctrine, 69. So theology derived from the book of beginnings ought to, and indeed does provide guidance as we step into a future in which questions about the human condition, the nature of the universe, and our responsibilities as those who worship the world’s creator loom large and seem unnavigable.

The Human Condition

The psalmist’s question, “what is man?” (Psalm 8), is being vigorously engaged today on a variety of fronts and from a number of different vantage points.[37]See Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul: Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998). No definitive answer has garnered a consensus, but what is clear is that we no longer are certain what we mean when we say “human.”

But what the Bible seems to be saying when it says “human” is clear, at least in some respects. The Hebrew term adam is used in a highly suggestive way when the assertion is made that “the Lord God fashioned adam from the dust of the adamah” (Genesis 2:7). This pun has lead recent commentators to search for the best way to render the term adam, with one translating the word as “earth creature”[38]Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 78. and another using the word “human” for adam and “humus” for adamah in order to make the pun visible  to English readers.[39]Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 8.

So was the philosopher Hannah Arendt correct that “the earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.”[40]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 2. Some may wince at the bluntness of this assertion, believing that such a proposal would give too much “ground” to those who scoff at the spiritual dimensions of human existence. But there have been earnest attempts to engage the physicality suggested by various scientific investigations into human nature in a biblical, and hence, non-reductive way.[41]This is the basic unifying project of the essays in Whatever Happened to the Human Soul.

A false dichotomy between our spiritual capacities and our conditional existence as earth creatures does more than create poor exegesis and translation of Genesis 2:7. Such a dichotomy left unchallenged may lead us to unwittingly accelerate the alienation human beings feel as they struggle to be at home in the universe (but not on earth) and to live as entitled individuals rather than in community with their fellow earthlings.[42]According to Arendt’s analysis, the alienation modern humans experience is derivative of our “flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self.” The Human Condition, 6. Maybe the biblical witness can help us recover in fresh and authentic ways the reality that we are “super, natural” beings.[43]The expression is from Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997). By the phrase she intends to give expression to a Christian life that is spiritual but not otherworldly. She advances this notion in her most recent work, suggesting that “following Christ means following One who, like us, was flesh and bones, of the earth, earthy …Christian sainthood is …a very mundane-a worldly, earthly business.” Idem, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 4. Cf this with the observations of Eugene Peterson: “These bodies of ours with their five senses are not impediments to a life of faith; our sensuality is not a barrier to spirituality but our only access to it.” “What’s Wrong with Spirituality: The Gospel of Mark’s Prescription for Spiritual Sanity,” Christianity Today, 13 July 1998, 55.

The biblical vision entails more, however, for the human condition than simply our status as creatures of God. In addition to our place in the natural order of creation, the biblical doctrine of creation indicates that our humanity is conditioned by communal and eschatological contexts as well.[44]See James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 66, on the three ways “in which we have to do with God.” From the beginning we were made for community and blessed with an account of our existence that invites us to consider our creation in the light of the new heavens and the new earth that God intends.

The Return to Cosmology and the Moral Nature of the Universe

Despite its potential for creating in us a sense of alien­ation from our environment, the desire to comprehend the human condition in the broadest possible sense, in other words, the desire to think cosmologically, is as integral to what makes us human as is the earth from which we were created.[45]For a good introduction to cosmology as a human enterprise, see Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 1-17; a fine collection of classic reflections on cosmology from a wide range of sources may be found in Dennis Richard Danielson, ed., The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe From Heraclitus to Hawking (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2000). The cosmological drive of Genesis 1-11, there­fore, provides a bridge between the biblical witness and abiding human concerns. As we walk across the bridge, however, we do well to remember the dangerous waters the bridge help us traverse.[46]As Howard J. Van Till notes, when it comes to the relationship between the sciences and Christian belief, “In place of rational and amicable dialogue directed toward the goal of mutu­al understanding and communal wrestling with complex issues, we too often find heated and antagonistic debate dedicated to defeating opponents and developing ideological factions within the Christian community.” See Howard J. Van Till et al., eds., Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation, Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 267, Writing as a Christian intellectual in the evangelical tradition, Mark Noll speaks about being in a situation “where wounding is com­monplace.” See his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind ( Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), especially the chapter “Thinking About Science,” 177-208. The quote is from the preface, ix.

We risk venturing onto the bridge, though, because we long to recover a sense of the moral nature of the universe.[47]See Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). As previously noted, the magnitude of the biblical vision calls for us to relate our whole lives to God. When human inquiry expands our intellectual horizons, the biblical light encourages us to see beyond and gives us hope that our expanding universe is held in the loving hands of one whose thoughts are genuinely unfathomable. Like Job in “no­ man’s-land,” we encounter a creator and creation too wild and wondrous for us to have imagined and in that encounter discover “a self-forgetful awe.”[48]Brown, Ethos of the Cosmos, 375. In the end, if we follow the contours of the biblical cosmology, we discover afresh, as the Bible’s opening chapters display, that “creation reveals the contours of authentic community.”[49]Ibid., 377.

The World and Worship

We are full and fruitful members of that community as   we live lives of worship in this world. Finally, the coherence and meaning we seek through cosmology or our attempt to understand ourselves is discoverable only as we embrace worship as a way of life. As we do we discern a theological take on creation in which the crucial matrix of world and worship forms the heart of the biblical understanding of what it means to say “creation.” And this is nowhere on dis­play more than in the opening account of creation (1:1-2:3), where creation is ordered as a “cosmic sanctuary” whose creation culminates in the creation of “a tabernacle in time” (2:3).[50]Ibid., 385.

The fact that the day of rest has been “encoded in God’s creational design” means that worship is the “primary means” by which we achieve “clarity about God, the world, and human responsibility.”[51]Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, 236. We may want clarity without worship; but worship remains the truest, most real experi­ence we can hope for. “The world is full of praise, for God is in this world.”[52]Jurgen Moltruann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 133. And “all that breathes shall praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6).


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