Genesis 1 - Creation
Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
In the beginning… Some regard belief in the six-day creation – i.e., that the whole cosmos was created by God in a period of six 24-hour periods – as the ultimate litmus test of faith. To affirm the literal reading of Genesis 1 means defending God’s absolute sovereignty and Biblical inerrancy. To deny it means to subject the infallible word of God to fallible human estimates on the age of the universe and the Darwinian theory of evolution. If, however, the strictly literal reading of the Bible is the sole pathway to truth, then modern cosmology and evolution are not the only problematic scientific theories. Another one would be the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun because God has “set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved” (Psalm 104:5). Other Biblical passages would also have to be interpreted literally too (for the sake of consistency), such as Jesus’ exhortation at Capernaum to eat his flesh and drink his blood (see John 6:53-54) – something not all Christians are keen to do! The main trouble with reading Genesis 1 as a piece of scientific theory or data is not so much the tension created with modern scientific findings but that it is unlikely that the author of the book of Genesis (traditionally held to be Moses) intended the text to be held to the scientific standards of modernity. Moses certainly would not have lost sleep over whether Genesis 1 would be accepted in a modern scientific journal! In Job 38-41, God describes to Job the very limitedness of the human mind in comprehending the whole workings of the universe (i.e., much broader than the particular aspects of the physical reality where empirical data can be obtained). We can, therefore, rule out the notion that the Bible was inspired by God to act as a scientific textbook.
What then, if not for scientific education, is the main purpose of the first chapter of the Bible? In short, theology: in particular, the revelation about who God is as the sovereign Creator and the nature of His relationship with His created reality. I would argue that we can learn at least three things from the creation account in Genesis 1 which are more important than any scientific finding – indeed they in fact lay the very grounds for scientific enterprise:
The inherent goodness and orderliness of creation according to God’s design.
The unmatched power of God as shown in His ability to create something out of nothing.
The will of God to allow His creatures to participate in His sovereignty.
The Inherent Goodness and Orderliness of Creation
According to God’s Design First, Genesis 1 repeatedly affirms the goodness of the created world: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). We often take for granted the fact that we live in a life-supporting universe – and not just any life, but complex, self-conscious life forms like human beings that can muse about the age of the universe or about the ultimate meaning of life. Scientists are indeed discovering how ‘finely tuned’ the fundamental physical constants have to be to allow a life-giving universe to emerge. Genesis 1 affirms the notion that the universe is not just some random product of chance, but a piece of work ‘fine-tuned’ by God with each component declared to be “good” or “very good”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects on the significance of these declarations:
Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the "six days" it is said: "And God saw that it was good." By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws. Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339) The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 341)
Genesis 1, according to the Catechism, is far from a divine condemnation of modern empirical sciences. It is, in fact, a mandate and a source of motivation to explore and admire the “order and laws” of nature which reflect “a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and greatness”.
Hence, the revelation of the goodness of the world engenders a fundamental belief in its orderliness which is the first underlying premise to any scientific enterprise. Later in the Bible, King Solomon would similarly reflect on how God “arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20). We now take this Biblical belief for granted, but it was far from being the dominant ideology in the ancient cultures that surrounded the Old Testament characters. Table 1, for example, shows the cosmogonies (accounts of the origin of the universe) of ancient Egypt, Babylon and Greece.
Compared to the orderly account in Genesis 1 where creation proceeds in neat frictionless cycles at the command of God, the rival ancient cosmogonies are messy to say the least. The created world is almost a byproduct of the sexual activities (including incest) of gods. Moreover, there is no clear separation between the gods and their offspring who command the physical elements (e.g., Oceanus for all rivers according to the Greek cosmogony); they are in fact of the same substance. If the physical universe is of the same substance as the gods who curse and depose of each other, there is no reason to suppose that it is fundamentally good.
The Unmatched Power of God as Shown in His Ability to Create Something Out of Nothing
The second thing we can learn from the Genesis account is that God creates the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). 2 There is no mention of any pre-existing material when God initiates creation. This presents another major divergence between the Biblical religion and the cultures that surrounded it, including the Greek philosophers who valued rational enquiry. Professor David Lindberg, a historian of science, gives the following accounts of the thoughts of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle (who lived around a millennium after Moses) on the possibility of the world being created out of nothing:
Plato depicted the cosmos as the handiwork of a divine craftsman, the Demiurge. According to Plato, the Demiurge is a benevolent craftsman, a rational god (indeed, the very personification of reason) who struggled against the limitations inherent in the materials at his disposal in order to produce a cosmos as good, beautiful, and intellectually satisfying as possible. The Demiurge took a primitive chaos filled with the unformed material out of which the cosmos would be constructed and imposed order according to a rational plan. This was not creation of the cosmos from nothing, as in the Judeo-Christian account of creation, for the raw materials were already present and contained properties over which the Demiurge has no control; nor was the Demiurge omnipotent, for he was constrained and limited by the available materials. 3 Aristotle adamantly denied the possibility of a beginning, insisting that the universe must be eternal. The alternative – that the universe came into being at some point in time – he regarded as unthinkable [because it would imply that something could come from nothing].
Notice the implication of the Platonic Demiurge not creating the world out of nothing: he is not omnipotent, being confined to the materials given him (from an unknown eternal source). In the absence of a belief in God who can create something from nothing, Aristotle reaches the only possible conclusion: the universe must be eternal. This in turn creates some tension with the findings of modern cosmology which increasingly point towards (but can never prove) the universe having some form of a beginning in the finite past. The Bible in any case strongly rejects this philosophical notion of an eternal universe. The Second Book of Maccabees, which is set in the 2nd Century B.C. during the Greek occupation of Jerusalem, places the following words in the mouth of a mother who exhorts her sons to die a martyr rather than abandon the religious practices under persecution:
I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. (2 Maccabees 7:22-23, 28)
We see here a remarkable example of a later Biblical book reflecting on the moral and theological implications of the contents of Genesis 1. For the law-abiding Jews in the 2nd Century B.C., the belief in God creating the universe from nothing is the ultimate source of hope and heroism in the face of devastating persecution. For if God can create all things from nothing, death is only a momentary state before God summons one back to life. This passage is one of the most explicit Old Testament professions of the faith in the bodily resurrection, and therefore directly anticipates Christ’s passion, death and resurrection less than 200 years later. The early Christians were quick to make the same connection between the sovereignty of God the Creator and the victory over death achieved by the redemptive suffering of the divine Son of God, Jesus:
For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation [Jesus] perfect through suffering. Since therefore the children [of God] share in flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same [human] nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Hebrews 2:10, 14-15)
Therefore, theological reflections on Genesis 1 enabled the early Christians to recognize the identity of Jesus and the meaning of His life. They had realized that with his resurrection “a new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1) have broken into this world and that they themselves were “the children of God” for whom the whole of creation waited “in eager expectation” (Romans 8:19). They then fearlessly embraced martyrdom to share in Christ’s resurrection.
The Will of God to Allow His Creatures to Participate in His Sovereignty
The third thing we can learn from Genesis 1 is that God – despite being all-powerful – chooses to delegate sovereignty over the created world to His creatures, especially humankind made in His image. God is not an impersonal first cause remote from the workings of the universe (note the active decisions He makes at each cycle of creation), nor is he a fussy micro-manager. We can see this by paying careful attention to the sequence of God’s creations as illustrated in Figure 1.
After the initial creation, we learn that the earth was “without form and void [i.e., empty]” (Genesis 1:2). The Genesis account then tells us how this formlessness was filled by ‘realms’ in the first three days and then the emptiness by ‘regents’ for each realm in the next three days. The main theological point seems to be this: God wants His creatures to participate in His sovereignty over creation by each exercising “dominion” over its designated realm.5 This in turn has massive implications on how we view our role in the created universe. Genesis 1 depicts mankind as the last creature to receive this ‘divine investiture’, not just over a limited realm, but over “all the earth” (Genesis 1:26) and over “everything that has the breath of life” (Genesis 1:30). This is of course not a license to abuse other creatures and habitats. The Catechism warns us to “avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.” 6 We are instead called to be the “faithful and wise steward” entrusted by God to manage “his household” (Luke 12:42). According to the Church’s social doctrines, man was “created in God’s image, [and] received a mandate to subject to himself the earth and all that it contains, and to govern the world with justice and holiness.”7 In all, an open-minded reflection on the first chapter of the Bible quickly reveals the immensity of God’s love and plan for us. He has created a universe which is hospitable to an immense diversity life and imbued with order that can be discovered by scientific research. Mankind has been entrusted by God not only to preserve this ecosystem but also to use its resources for its own flourishing. And the story does not end there. God’s power to create all things from nothing and to sustain them in being offers concrete hope of a life to come as a “new creation” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
1. Have I ever questioned whether existence is fundamentally good or bad? What implications would the answer to this question have on my life?
2. Do I know anyone who is disinclined to believe in God because they feel that the story of creation (and/or other Biblical passages) is incompatible with modern science? How would I persuade them that science need not contradict God’s revelation or that science is not the only form of knowledge?
3. If suffering for a cause is redemptive, and even death is not the end, what implication does this have on my outlook and decision-making?
4. In what subjects, missions or relationships do I feel a strong sense of responsibility given by God? Am I exercising my ‘sovereignty’ to the best of my ability?
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