Many times when I hear people discussing how to interpret Genesis 1, at some point in the discussion the point will be made that, “Regardless of the interpretation, the main point is clear: God did it.”
However, more and more when I hear this thrown out into discussion, I cringe. While it is meant as an overarching, summarizing point that isn’t made to take in all the depth of the considerations involved, and I can make room for that, there’s still something about it that seems to be perhaps amiss in some regard to me.
Now, I can concede that however one reads Genesis 1, one does clearly learn that “God did it.” And to some extent, as a creation myth, that would be an intended purpose: to highlight God – YHWH – as The God in contrast to any other god/s whom any other creation story would give that honor towards.
But here’s the problem I see in the “God did it” summary: WHAT exactly, did God do? Are we saying he created the world? Clearly a world was created in Genesis 1 and 2, and that world was set up – but the missing question in that consideration seems to me to be, “WHAT world?”
John Walton hints at this a bit with the title of his amazing book, “The Lost World of Genesis 1″ – where just the title alone contains the idea that there was a certain world made in Genesis 1, that, according to the title, is now lost. But this just starts the ball rolling of the consideration of “what world” is Genesis 1 actually about – and the Lost World of Walton’s authorship is the mental construct world that the ancient Mesopotamians, specifically Hebrews in this case, had of their cosmology. Now technically speaking, the world that the Hebrews lived in is actually the same world that we live in, so no actual world has been lost – unless we adequately take in that the world in question in Walton’s work is not the ACTUAL world, but the ‘idea’ or ‘conception’ of a world which they had, and which the Bible clearly places God into the midst of as the Creative Agent over it.
This gets really weird the more you play with it. As Walton is quoted as saying in one of his Biologos videos, “The Bible actually has no account of materialistic creation.” (I’m mangling the quote, but that’s basically the gist of it. I’ll dig it out and put it here and remove this parenthetical statement when I have it word for word.)
So, if we take that as fact: that Genesis is not in fact telling us about the origin of the material world, but is rather just setting God up as the Creator of the “world as people conceived of it” – then God is not so much revealed as the Creator of the World, but rather as the Creator of the World of Whatever Limits of Conception His People Can Conceive of Their Own Origins Within The Abilities And Limitations of Receiving Divine Revelation. Or more simply put, the Creator as seen through a certain mental construct – either the Creator of A Concept of Origins, or somewhat less directly perhaps “The Creator as Seen within A Limited Yet Somehow Useful Account of Origins For a Culture Endeavoring to Know YHWH.”
I told you it gets weird. And I want to extend it. I’ve been wondering, in fact: Is Genesis 1 and 2 something of the Bible’s equivalent of a “Once Upon a Time?” In other words, if we’re going to say that the Genesis account of origins is the creation of a world that only exists in a certain culture’s mindset about their origins, it is not that much further of a reach to view Genesis 1 and 2 as perhaps some sort of metafiction – some sort of “Here’s the beginning not to any real world out there in real life, but really this is the creation of the world IN THIS PIECE OF LITERATURE.” More specifically, if Genesis sets up any world at all, it sets up the world in which it’s own story is about to play out: a story leading to patriarchs, and then Hebrews coming out of Egypt, and ultimately the origins of the Jewish people and their law and their understanding of their God and His ways. There is no such world outside of the Hebrew Bible that has the physical characteristics or material history that the Genesis world has. It is simply put, only a world that exists inside this piece of literature. (See that world here.)
So ultimately, is Genesis just the stage for the ultimate story, by which I mean the one on paper that takes up all the space we know as Genesis to Revelation, that is not synonymous with the story of our outer world here in real-life land, but meant only by various considerations of reflection and insight to teach us about our world out here which is not so mythically story-like? (Our is after all a completely contrasting world to that in Genesis 1 & 2, where life and other things instead of being sung up front the ground by Aslan, come about by natural processes where God is only dimly perceived through the mist and His hand works mostly in the background, quietly and almost imperceptably viewable only to those with the ability to perceive such mysteries with their hearts.)
If so, if Genesis really is a grand, “once upon a time” and the world God creates in Genesis is the world of His own literary revelation, then to say Genesis is just about telling us “God did it” is to really – REALLY – understate the point, possibly to the point of missing it. If Genesis sets the stage for the entire story of God’s revelation to us in literary terms, then quite possibly it is filled with material meant as a primer – a primer for understanding the parameters under which God’s stories are framed from that point forward. The rhythms, symbols, perhaps even numerology, certainly the themes – of Genesis – are all the foundational reference points for Divine Communicative form in some way or another. At any rate, it seems that much, much more is going on than merely appreciating that God made the world – particularly since the world in Genesis is not ours, but only some sort of literary / spiritual representation of the world within and without of ourselves.
God indeed IS the creator of everything, and I think that comes out better in the NT with verses such as Colossians 1:15 “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things have been created through Him and for Him.” but Genesis, I think, is serving some grander narrative purposes than just telling us “God is a Creator.” Surely in Genesis He creates, but how we take that into our own world is only by parallel application from Genesis to ours. But the bigger message may not be to stop at the “God is a creator” theme, and to scratch our heads as many atheists do at why God would limit his revelation to Bronze Age storytelling when surely He could have given more accurate knowledge of the world’s inception that would have hastened scientific development and so forth as well as being a potent apologetic for His reality in our modern world – but to note that the MEANS of revelation He chose for Himself was specifically a literary revelation. Could we construe that God as the inspiration behind Genesis was every bit as interested in creating a literary world to embody as He was acting to create a “cosmic temple” or even to be seen as the one who created this world as it actually exists? (And what of God as a literary character within the world of His creation, does that have anything to say to us of a ‘house of mirrors’ in the realm of inspiration?)
I can get lost in all the considerations of my own toying with the metafictional aspects of Genesis, but suffice it to say, it has my attention as I consider these matters.
(Epilogue: It is interesting to note that the New Testament has its OWN account of the beginning of things, with the “Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” in it’s own, “In the beginning.” I’m musing on the idea that in so speaking, the NT makes a strong statement that ITS world (unlike ‘the ancient world’ as it terms Genesis’s world in the book of 1 Peter) is in fact, our own, literal world of our flesh and blood history here on Earth, in which Jesus was incarnated.)