The Creator: The God of Genesis
This is the second in my series of sermons attempting to answer the question, “Who is God?” I spoke last time about the God of Abraham, El Elyon, “God Most High,” who called Abram out of his old home and became his patron – and about how Jesus brings us into relationship with God Most High and offers to be our patron, our Savior. Well, today I want to back up a little bit and talk about God as the Creator, and that may seem like I’m kind of getting things out of their proper order, to begin with Abraham and then go back to the creation story.
But I assure you, I have done things in this order by design. First, because God offers us a relationship with himself before he frets us with theological questions of his nature and his work. Theology is important, but a proper relationship with the living God is more important. But I also started with Abraham because the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are mostly older than the opening chapters of Genesis; they are family chronicles, handed down from gen to gen and lovingly recorded.
The stories of the Creation and the Fall of Man were written to match the same format, but they were not “traditional” the way family stories are. They were thought out and written down by a single probing mind, for a specific purpose. They were not “handed down” over and over so much as “thought up” at a particular point in time. Which brings us to a point of contention: In what sense are these stories from the oldest part of the Bible to be considered “true?”
My progressive colleagues would say that the creation story is very good Babylonian science from the second millennium BC, now long since superseded by better understandings of the origin of things. The problem with that point of view, of course, is that when you say some part of the Bible is out of date, it opens up the possibility that other parts are also out of date – and therefore, no longer to be considered “true” or authoritative. It means that the revelation is no longer “final,” but open to revision according to our current state of knowledge or opinion – and once you start down that road, you’re liable to wind up anywhere. Over against this, the fundamentalists (and many evangelicals) have expended enormous energy trying to prove that the creation story as we find it is scientifically factual, and that everything you learn in school, from evolution to astrophysics, is somehow wrong, if not a downright conspiracy.
I would suggest that there are different modes of truth for different sorts of writings: poetry is poetically true, science aims to be scientifically testable, history true to the event, and so on. And so the question to be asked is, What did the person who wrote the opening stories of creation and fall think he was doing? What sort of work was he making? In what sense did he think it was true?
I think it’s pretty clear that he was writing what we call a Cosmogony – which is an account of the origin of the world and of the human race, why things are the way they are. Every ancient religion had a cosmogony, a creation story - sometimes more than one – and the features were pretty much the same, whether you were talking about Canaanite religion or Babylonian or Egyptian or Greek.
The creator god, the divine wind, the serpent, the man and woman, and much else formed a vocabulary, a set of stock ideas and images – and the writer of the opening chapters of Genesis uses all of them, but he uses them to describe a God unlike the gods of those other religions. He turns the common vocabulary of pagan religion on its head, to reveal something – or I should say, someone – never before thought of: the God of the Bible, our Creator. The truth of these chapters is in their description of the nature of God and the situation of humanity – and that is as true now as it was when these words were first written.
Now, when you compare the account in Genesis with the other creation stories – the other cosmogonies – of ancient religions, they all look very much alike; the the Bible’s account seems no different, no better. But then you notice this: in all the pagan cosmogonies, the gods either grow out of the world, or it is begotten by them. They are either made of the stuff of the cosmos, or they make it out of themselves. In either case, the gods of pagan myth are continuous with the creation. They are part and parcel of it. They are subject to the laws of the world’s existence; their immortality is “endless duration w/in time,” not eternity; they can be fooled or foiled – and in the end, they are as subject to Fate as any creature. They might be thought the most powerful residents in the cosmic neighborhood, but they are still part of the neighborhood, nor can they escape it.
By contrast, the God of the Bible is dis-continuous with his creation. He does not beget it, it does not grow out of him; nor does he arise from some pre-existing chaos. Even though he is seen working over his creation, improving it and diversifying it, he makes it out of nothing. He simply speaks, and it exists at his command. He is not subject to the laws of the world; his immortality is of eternity, not endless time; he cannot be fooled or foiled, and in the end, his will is Fate and he is not subject to it except by his own decision. He exists outside his creation, and is supreme over it.
Despite all the similarity of images or of narrative, this God is radically different from all other gods that had ever before been imagined or worshiped by Man. We see him in the creation story making a cosmos ever more able to respond to him and enter relationship with him: he orders it, sets it forth, and is satisfied with it. The last thing he creates before he finishes his work is human beings, and the thing that sets this creature apart from all the rest of the creation is simply that we are told that we are made in the image of God.
What is this image? Wherein is our likeness to God? At this point of the story, all we have been told is that he is the Creator. We see him making the world and setting it in order. So, argued Dorothy Sayers, the essential thing about human beings is that we are Makers, too. So we see God commanding the man and woman to be fruitful and multiply – which is an imitation of his creative power – but we also see him setting Man over the rest of the creation, to order it after the will of God. Man – at God’s direction – names all the animals, declares what they are and what they are for. He is told to tend the earth, to manage it on God’s behalf; the fact that he messes up and winds up alienated from God and the rest of creation does not change the fact that we are still made in God’s image and still given the responsibility to act after our nature. And that has certain important consequences – which is the point of this sermon. I want to offer three conclusions today which I think might surprise you.
The first of these is that the use of natural resources is a moral issue. The world is not ours to do with as we please, to despoil or use up. Our detractors accuse us of arrogance, thinking that our belief in God having given Man dominion over the rest of creation must mean that we think we have the right to rape the world and call it progress. They are quite wrong. Dominion means responsibility. God has made us his stewards, and he will demand an accounting of our stewardship.
They say we don’t inherit the earth, but borrow it from our grandchildren; it would be more correct to say we have it on loan from God. He expects us to use it for our needs, but he’s going to want it back some day, and he maintains a lively interest in all parts of it even now. Not only do I want there to be clean air and clean water and productive fields for the sake of others; not only do I want my grandchildren to know the beauty and wonder of this world as I have known it; but I think to myself, all those animals are God’s animals. All those forests are God’s forests. The sea is God’s. He will not be happy with those who have misused his gifts. And there will be an accounting given, some day.
Yes, you are worth many sparrows, said Jesus. There is little virtue in an environmentalism that sees people as a plague, that sets the creation apart from the needs of humanity. That said, Jesus didn’t say that the sparrows weren’t worth anything. Tending God’s world is more than economic good sense; it is a moral duty.
Speaking of sparrows, the second conclusion I want to share with you is that how we treat animals (specifically) is also a moral issue. That is true whether we’re talking about domestic livestock or pets or wild animals or animals used in research.
Discussions of animals often give way to all kinds of sentimentality and weird values. There are people who value their pets more than children, and that’s pretty off-kilter to my way of thinking. Likewise, there are the “animal rights” people, who think that chimpanzees or whales ought to be able to assert their rights over against the rights of humanity – which would, of course, require them to be able to sue in a human court room where a human judge will decide between two human lawyers’ arguments, so I think it’s pretty obvious that the whole idea of “animal rights” is a kind of absurdity. Nevertheless, I agree with C.S. Lewis, who wrote in The Problem of Pain, “Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and [therefore] everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right.”
Ponder that for a moment. Not everything we do to animals is a lawful exercise of our right. It is to our shame that there are many sacrilegious abuses which people commit against creatures that are helpless before their cruelty – and I say, God is watching. We must teach our children to be kind to animals. We must demand high standards of care and handling, even of those who process animals destined to be our food. Only by holding ourselves accountable for our behavior toward the animals do we show ourselves worthy of our superior position to them.
And finally, I want to share a conclusion about the work of the imagination. To be made in the image of God is to be a maker. Man is a tool-maker, a tinkerer, a designer, an artist. Painters, musicians, writers, engineers, seamstresses, cooks, and all – do the will of God when they design new things. They make possible new joy for all mankind. And for more than mankind: they enrich the creation itself by ornamenting it, adding to it, sharing in the work of God.
J.R.R. Tolkien was greatly troubled by accusations that his works of fiction were “escapist.” High-minded, important people, then as now, were quick to judge indulging one’s imagination as a waste of time, as narcissism, as self-indulgence and immaturity. In his great essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” he discussed the human task of sub-creation, asserting that “Fantasy” – as well as music and other arts – “is a natural human activity.” And he shared part of a poem he wrote,
Dear Sir, Although now long estranged,Asserting our right to make new things, even imaginary things, he finished,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.
. . . ’twas our rightTo be made in the image of God is to continue the creation, to make the world better. Not only by ordering it after the will of God, but by adding to it things that never were before, that become the common inheritance of all God’s children. This is something that every one of us can do. And may God look upon the things we make and be able to call them, “very good.”
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.