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Genesis 1:1–2:4

Although much too much can be made out of the idea of a “world view,” we do approach and make use of the world according to certain broad expectations and assumptions. These expectations and assumptions have very practical consequences, some of them certainly good and desirable, but others quite—indeed, mortally!—dangerous.

The view of the world that has increasingly laid hold of Western (and then global) culture over the course of the last three or four centuries has put us in the driver’s seat, at the control panel. We imagine the world as ours, to be used and discarded as we see fit. We imagine that the task of life is to exploit the world’s resources as quickly, efficiently, and profitably as possible. The disastrous consequences of our adventures are only now reaching widespread acknowledgment. Yet, even with this realization, our growing anxiety about such phenomena as climate change has to do with the human consequences of our shortsighted haste. That is, we remain at the very center of the way we think of this world, the world that Genesis 1 and 2 tell us was created by God.

That the opening of Genesis would stress the role of God in the emergence of the world has everything to do with the fact that these verses are a prayer of praise to be used in the liturgical prayers of ancient Israel. They are comparable to the creation hymns of the book of Isaiah. For example, Isaiah 44 ends with these words:

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;

shout, O depths of the earth;

break forth into singing, O mountains,

O forest, and every tree in it!

For the Lord has redeemed Jacob,

and will be glorified in Israel.

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,

who formed you in the womb:

I am the Lord, who made all things,

who alone stretched out the heavens,

who by myself spread out the earth;

who frustrates the omens of liars,

and makes fools of diviners;

who turns back the wise,

and makes their knowledge foolish;

who confirms the word of his servant,

and fulfils the prediction of his messengers;

who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited’,

and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,

and I will raise up their ruins’;

who says to the deep, ‘Be dry—

I will dry up your rivers’;

who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,

and he shall carry out all my purpose”;

and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”

and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.”

Genesis 1, too, speaks of the creation of the world as an act of God, an act that is not first about the world or even about the origin of the world. It is rather about the fact that the world of light and darkness, of seas and dry land, of creeping things and the birds of the air, of men and women, is a world that is not anything in itself. All the world—non-human and human—has no significance, no weight or volume, no age or future, without God. The question facing the creatures of this created world is how to praise God. This is no mean task in a world of great suffering and threats to hope, but it is still why we are here. But the Holy Bible tells us that God is patient with our struggles to praise God and is happy whenever we refuse to succumb to despair, even when the most we can voice on the way to doxology is a deep guttural groan of lament, as we see in the book of Job.

The infinitely vast exaltation of God in Genesis 1 and 2 leaves no dark corner in which we might construct a world with us in the center. That is why Genesis is not to be imagined as comparable to or in competition with modern accounts of the origin of the world. Contemporary astrophysics, for example, is inseparable from modern technology. Even at its most theoretical, modern science operates within the question of how the world might be negotiated and exploited. Genesis not only has no interest in that question, it declares that it is God who determines the future of this world, it is God in whom Israel and its heirs are to hope.

This is particularly true of Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them.” This verse does not declare that there is something “Godlike” about human beings. Human beings were not created to be like God (as the immediately following account of the fall of Adam and Eve says explicitly). We do not have the image of God in us. We are created in it. It would be much preferable to think of the image of God as God’s coming to us to call us out of ourselves, to throw us off-center, to beckon us to follow God. Genesis and the books that follow it are clear that God is always on the move and our task is always to follow God—whether that is to follow a pillar of cloud, a pillar of fire, or a Suffering Servant whose path leads to Golgotha.

This is also why the creation story that opens Genesis ends with word of Sabbath rest. Our labors, however godly and sincere, do not determine the future of the world. We are indeed to work. Faith without work is dead; a human being without work is dead. Yet our task is to work prayerfully, without fixating on work’s consequences. The Sabbath was the day when the children of Israel were to refrain from the kind of work that might tempt them to imagine that they determined the future. But they were not to refrain from the work of prayer. The Sabbath is a workday of prayer in a workweek of prayer, but one in which the children of Israel were without ambiguity to pray (if I may put it this way) uselessly. The Sabbath declares that all prayers all week long are always to end as did Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “not my will, but yours be done.” It is God—not you and I—who is the beginning and the end.