In the Beginning: Lessons from Genesis

The first thing one must do before reading a book is to recognize from which library shelf it came—that is, its literary genre. For example, if one is reading a satire one will misunderstand its contents if one takes it for history or politics. (Thus Swift’s A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, which proposed that poor Irish peasants might ease their lot if they sold their children as food for the rich, and which was intended as a satire, was misunderstood when taken as a serious political proposal.) The Book of Genesis was not written as a scientific textbook or even as an historical chronicle. In the words of one person, it was not written to tell us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven. It provides the theological backstory to the narrative of the patriarchs and the People of Israel, since the Genesis story flows seamlessly into that of Exodus and the rest of the Pentateuch.

A verse-by-verse commentary of those chapters of Genesis is beyond the scope of a blog. For that commentary you are invited to buy my book on the topic, assuming you can find it. But I would like to mention three basic lessons from the first chapter of Genesis.

The first lesson may easily be missed since our culture takes the concept of a universal Creator for granted. Not everyone is a theist, of course, but the concept of creation is tied to that of monotheism, and it is understood that the Creator (if such exists) is not a specific and named deity like Marduk, Molech, or Horus, but a single, universal deity, usually going by the generic name “God.” It was otherwise in the culture in which Genesis was written. A quick comparison with other creation stories reveals that deities such as Marduk figured prominently in creation. Genesis, on the other hand, makes a point of not mentioning other deities at all, demoting them to effective idolatrous non-existence by refusing to utter their names. It declares that Elohim, the God of the Hebrews, is alone the creator of heaven and earth. He sometimes goes by the name “Yahweh” (e.g. Genesis 4:1) and sometimes by the compound name “Yahweh Elohim” (e.g. Genesis 2:4). But by whatever name, the narrative clearly identifies Him with the God of the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, and with the God of Moses whose presence was accessed at the Ark of the Covenant and (later) in the Temple at Jerusalem. The deities of the other stronger nations surrounding and threatening Israel are not in the picture. Thus Genesis is not only theology, but theological polemic. It declares in its first sentence that the Hebrew God in the heavens does whatever He pleases, whereas the gods of the nations are mere silver and gold, incapable to thought, speech, reaction, or power (Psalm 115:3-7), and should be dismissed like the non-entities they are.

This polemic is part of our inheritance as Christians. Like Israel of old, we also declare that the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of the consubstantial Trinity, is the only God who exists, and that all other deities are idols and phantoms. That is, we confess a radical inequality between our religion and all other religions. This confession is tremendously unpopular and will result, if made publicly, in the confessor being treated as a kind of theological pariah. A more popular confession is that Christianity is but one way to God among many, and that all religions have more or less the same value and will yield the same fruits. Or, in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew (in his book Encountering the Mystery), the goal of the Christian Faith is “to promote a peaceful resolution of disagreement about how to live in this world, about how to share and use the resources of our planet.” This is a worthy goal, but it is not the mandate of the Church. We have found the true faith, and we call all people everywhere to come and find it as well, turning from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18). Marduk, Molech, Horus, and all their modern counterparts can be dismissed from consideration. They did not make the world, and cannot save it.

The second lesson found between the lines of the sacred text is that the same God who manifested His power in making the world also manifested His power in speaking to us in the Law and the Gospel. In the pagan creation stories, the pagan gods exerted an immense amount of sweat, strain, and even warfare in creating the world. Not so our Elohim. Like the true sovereign He is, He merely had to speak a word of command and life sprang obediently into existence. He merely said two words (in the Hebrew), “Light—exist!” and immediately there was daylight and time began. When one adds up the number of times He spoke in creating the world, we find that He spoke ten such words of command. This foreshadowed the Ten Commandments (literally the “Ten Words”, Hebrew dabarim, Greek logous). The message, hidden in the text, was that acknowledgment of God as Creator also involved loyalty to Him as Lawgiver and Lord. Acknowledging His power in creating the world counted for nothing if one rebelled against His Law. The demons acknowledge that He is their Creator, but this will not save them (James 2:19). As the Lord Himself said regarding this saving union of faith and works, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). If we acknowledge God as our Creator, we must also strive to fulfill His Law and do what He commands. Belief in God is barren without obedience.

Thirdly, the first chapter of Genesis reveals the towering dignity of the least of humanity. In saying that mankind is made in God’s image, Genesis democratizes something which was once only the possession and prerogative of kings. The Hebrew concept of image involves representation and authority. The word for “image” in Genesis 1:26 [Hebrew tselem] is also the word used to describe the images of the pagan gods. Those images were not regarded as reminders of an absent deity, but as the way the deity was present. It represented the deity and manifested its power in the world. As one scholar put it: “In ancient Near Eastern texts only the king is in the image of God. But in the Hebrew perspective this is democratized to all humanity… ‘exercising royal dominion over the earth as God’s representative is the basic purpose for which God created man.’” In Egypt, for example, the gods ruled the earth through the Pharaoh. But the Israelites knew that all men everywhere were meant to rule the earth in God’s name—and that included all women! Obviously the one charged with this high dignity had to be different from the animals, so that by extension the imago Dei could legitimately be described as found in man’s freedom, rationality, and capacity for love and self-transcendence. But this does not change the first insight of the sacred text that God’s image consisted of being charged with representing God and ruling in His name as His visible co-regents.

This dignity is found in all people everywhere. In democratizing the imago Dei the sacred author did not merely take the prerogative away from kings and give it to mankind in general. If the imago Dei does not depend upon royal power but is the irrevocable gift of God to all, then it also does not depend upon gender, age, color, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or intellectual gifting. Infants in the womb, devoid of present social utility, are adorned with His image, as are the mentally handicapped and the old and senile. Each human being who draws breath was created to represent and manifest God in the world. Our spectacular failure to obey Him does not erase that calling or that dignity. Everyone—absolutely everyone—must be treated with love and respect because all share that divine image.

We see that when closely read, the first chapter of Genesis is not simply an historical record, but a theological testament. It gives us lessons that even now we have not yet learned. All the more reason to read again what it really says, and strive to obey.