Ever since the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925 the creation story of Genesis is often perceived as being primarily about a 6 day literal creation of the earth over and against the scientific theory of evolution. One of the (many) unfortunate consequences of boiling down this story to a single 20th century issue is that much of the rich theology and significance of the story is lost. For this reason I think its worth taking a little bit of a closer look at what Genesis is all about.
The creation account falls under the genre of myth—not in the sense that we typically think of myth i.e. made up/not true–but rather myth in the sense that it is a foundational story meant to explain the basics: who God is, the nature of the cosmos, and where/how human beings fit in the world.
The creation story of Genesis may also be classified as myth since it shares much imagery, style, metaphor etc. with other creation myths that existed in the Ancient Near East (Egypt to present day Iraq) such as the Enuma Elish. However what is significant about the Genesis story is that the elements are not merely borrowed from other myths but are rather used with a twist in order to highlight the differences in worldview between the competing creation stories. Let’s look at two examples:
Comparison #1: the Earth
Ancient Near East:
These myths often depict the creation of the earth as being the result of a violent struggle between the gods. In the Enuma Elish for example the earth is created when the god Marduk kills the goddess/sea-monster Tiamat and fashions the earth out of her carcass.
- This myth lends itself to animism–i.e. the belief that the cosmos is divine. In this view things such as the sun, moon, stars, ocean are to be feared and worshiped.
- In this myth violence is placed into the ‘DNA’ of creation. It is only through an act of violence that earth is here in the first place.
- the gods are not necessarily good. Their behaviour often seems haphazard at best and malicious at worst. They certainly have no concern for the well-being of humanity unless it somehow benefits themselves.
Initially the world is described as formless and empty yet at the same time God is described as hovering over the waters. The “waters” is significant since in the Ancient Near East water was symbolic for chaos (like Tiamat the sea-monster). God then simply calls the rest of creation into being and calls it good.
- God is separate from creation in the sense that the elements of the cosmos are not divine but are rather called into being by a God who has control over all. The sun, moon, stars, etc are not to be feared but are rather things that have been put in place by God and fall under his rule.
- In this account the creation of the cosmos is deliberate and planned. God also creates out of the water—0r to put it in today’s language brings order out of the chaos. This affirms the basic goodness of creation—a designation which God himself gives to creation in this story.
- God is good. the planning he puts into his creation shows his concern for life there. Creation is seen as an act of love as opposed to an act of violence.
Comparison #2: Humanity
Ancient Near East:
Ancient Near Eastern myths generally understand humanity’s role as being slaves to the gods. In these myths humans are created to do the work of the gods that they grew tired of doing.
- The low view of the human being put forth by these myths helped maintain the political status quo of the ancient world where the king was seen as divine. If he is god than people must do his bidding.
God creates human beings in his image from the dust of the earth. Image implies that humanity represents God to the rest of the earth. Humans do this by cooperating in God’s twofold work of cultivating the earth and guarding it from harm.
- The cursed work of a slave becomes the blessed work of sharing in God’s work on earth.
- All human beings are created in the image of God. This pushes back against the rigidly hierarchical societies of the ancient world. Unfortunately Christians have often failed to recognize the implications of this point.
- Although humanity has been given a privileged position in the cosmos they nevertheless remain a part of it since they were created from the dust. This means that humanity should never think too highly of themselves (as if they are God) or too low of themselves (as if they do not reflect God’s image)