The debates about Creation will most likely always remain. Even within Christendom, scholars with various academic backgrounds wage highly publicized wars with each other over the age of the Universe. Whether you take the account in Genesis literally, as the Young Earth Creationists do, and believe the Universe is roughly 6000 years old, or you view the text as having no bearing on time, as the Old Earth Creationists do, and see the Universe as however old the scientific community currently says it is (usually somewhere around 15 billion years old), pretty much every Christian believes that God created the Universe. And honestly, that’s probably the most important thing to take away from the Creation story. Personally, I don’t identify with either the YEC or OEC groups. If I had to choose, though, I’d style myself a Middle-Earth Creationist. My favorite account of Creation can be found in The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien. So let’s put aside the debates about religion and science for the time being and focus on the biblical story itself. Only by asking what the story meant to the people who first heard it can we know what it means for those of us who read it today.
Form and Function
In the world of the ancient Near East, to which the people of Israel belonged, views of Creation were very different from the way we see things in the modern Western world. Today we tend to put a great deal of stock into notions of matter, substance, and measurements—the Science of it all. That is certainly not a bad way of looking at Creation; in fact it’s quite amazing and beautiful, but it’s not how people in biblical times contemplated the Universe. Instead, they viewed Creation in terms of chaos and order, or rather, form and function. In the simplest terms: unless something had a name and a purpose, it didn’t exist.
An example of this way of thinking can be found in the Babylonian Creation account, Enuma Elish, which begins like this,
“When on high the heaven had not been named, firm ground below had not been called by name…when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by names, their destinies undetermined—then were the gods formed within them.”
Like his Babylonian counterparts, the God of Israel brought Creation, and even Time itself, into existence by naming and decreeing their destinies.
Though similar in outlook, the Creation story found in Genesis is much different in terms of content. Within its ancient genre the biblical account stands high above its contemporaries, which typically involved a cosmic battle between the divine forces of chaos and the divine forces of order. Each culture had their own variation of the myth in which the local god came out victorious, ordered the Universe, and sat enthroned as king of the gods. In the Babylonian tale I just mentioned, the god Marduk (the patron storm-god of Babylon) defeats the goddess Tiamat (a primordial dragon that represent the Sea), creates the world from her carcass, becomes king, and then has a temple built so he can rest. Gods in other cultures, including Baal, Zeus, Jupiter, and even Thor, engaged in similar cosmic battles.
In stark contrast, the God of Israel does not battle the forces chaos but simply calls them to order with the power and authority of his words. And just as the other gods typically did, God rested at the end of his work. In fact, God’s rest on the seventh day is crucial for understanding Genesis 1.
Genesis 1 is a beautifully crafted piece of literature in which God orders the Universe in six days and then rests on the seventh. On the first three days, God forms realms. On the last three days, God fills those realms with corresponding agents.
Day 1: Light — Day 4: Sun, Moon, and Stars
Day 2: the Waters (Sky and Sea) — Day 5: Birds and Sea Creatures
Day 3: the Dry Ground — Day 6: Land Creatures, including Humanity
Day 7: Rest
Stories like Enuma Elish exist because they were part of annual festivals, which often commemorated a temple dedication. The day that a god came to dwell within the midst of the people—when the god’s power came to dwell in the new temple—was a day of remembrance and celebration. A temple was a physical representation on Earth of the god’s true palace—the Cosmos—and Creation epics were recited and reenacted in honor of the deity’s victory and enthronement. These dedication celebrations typically lasted seven days, over which the sacred furnishings were placed in the temple and the new priests installed to office. On the seventh and final day the image of the god was installed within the temple’s holy of holies to sit on its throne and rest.
The theme of temples being a representation of the Cosmos can be seen within cultures all over the ancient world, even within Israel itself. The holy of holies within the Tabernacle and Jerusalem Temple were filled with imagery commonly associated with the heavenly realms, as well as the Garden of Eden (Exodus 26:31-35, 1 Kings 6:23-36). The notion of decorating sacred space like heaven and divine paradise was not unique to Israel. Examples of similar motifs can be found in temples, shrines, and even churches, from all over the world. There are other biblical references to the cosmos as the true Temple of God as well (e.g., Psalm 48, Isaiah 66:1, and Psalm 78:69). Isaiah’s vision of God (Isaiah 6) clearly indicates that an earthly temple is a shadowy reflection of God’s true temple. The earthly building can’t even contain the train of his robe. To drive the point home even further, the author of Genesis clearly meant to convey the theme of Creation as Temple by their word choices. Instead of using the Hebrew words for Sun and Moon (Shemesh and Sin), which were also the names of pagan gods, he called them the “Greater Light” and “Lesser Light” using the same word for light used for the sacred luminaries in the tabernacle (ma’owr).
Keepers of the Temple
Knowing that Genesis 1 established all of Creation as God’s Temple gives Genesis 2 a beautiful perspective. The Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple had similar forms and function even though one was just a tent and the other a grand building. Each essentially had three “sacred spaces,” each more holy than the next. First was the Outside Court, then the inner Holy Place, followed by the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. With this in mind it’s easy to envision the planet itself as the Holy Place and the Garden Paradise, in which God places his Image Bearer and where he himself walks among his Creation, as the Holy of Holies. As we know from the story, Adam was not created to simply sit in the Garden and enjoy an eternity of leisure time while sipping piña coladas and working on his tan. Adam was to be the Garden’s Keeper and to tend and take care of God’s Creation—to be the High Priest of God’s Temple. Adam’s double vocation of Priest/Image Bearer can be seen as he exercises divine authority in the naming of the animals. As we saw earlier, naming things and giving them purpose—a destiny—is an essential part of the Creation act. At this point the Temple has not yet reached its “Good” status (Genesis 2:18). Adam needs a partner—a co-priest. Only then will Creation achieve divine completion.
This temple imagery would not have been lost on the ancient Israelites who first heard these stories. If the scriptures are any indication, the temple and everything that went with it were central to their entire society. The sacrifices, the offerings, the priestly duties, all of the sanctification rituals and cleanliness laws—according to the books of Moses, maintaining Holiness was the most important concern of the Israelites while wandering in the wilderness. This can most clearly be seen in the nature of the Holy of Holies and the office of High Priest. Standing in the very presence of God was an act that only the High Priest could perform, and only once a year at that. And even then, he had to go through various rituals to achieve “super-purity” so he didn’t die once he stepped behind the curtain. There was also absolutely no place, whatsoever, for women in the priesthood. With that in mind, the image of Adam and Eve, Man and Woman, dwelling in the very presence of God, talking with him directly and going about the business of High Priests within the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Creation—naked, no less— would have likely made many an old Israelite lady faint from shock.
Like the ancient Israelites, we read this story and marvel at the wonders of Creation and God’s purposes for Humanity. And as we close the second chapter of Genesis, we are left wondering what happened? Of course the following chapters, and most of the entire Hebrew Bible, explains exactly that. Human beings gave up their vocation to be God’s priests and the Keepers of Creation in favor of worshiping the Creation instead—to be prisoners and slaves to whatever idols we serve, and as a result, to be agents of Sin and Death. Ultimately, the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of God calling his Image Bearers out from realms of Rebellion and freeing them from their shackles to reclaim their lost vocations—to be a Kingdom of Priests, the Keepers of Creation.
For Enuma Elish and other interesting ancient texts see,
Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, J.B. Pritchard, ed. Princeton University Press.
For more on the cosmic temple see,
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, by John. H. Walton. Intervarsity Press.
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, by John. H. Walton. Baker Academic.
Basically anything Dr. Walton writes is great. His work has greatly contributed to my outlook on the Hebrew Bible. He’s also a really nice guy.