And it was good... (1:4 - 2:3)
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. 10God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. 12The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
14 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. 16God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
20 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
From verse 4 on, we see constant use of the word separate. God separated the light from the darkness, for example. Likewise, the waters are gathered. God creates boundaries and order throughout the whole story. Chaos and disorder is being brought under control.
In all this, god really "merely" speaks, and it happens. There is no violence; there are no battles; there is no struggle. There is but one God who creates and controls.
There is another repeated phrase: and it was so. Elegantly and precisely, the point is driven home. God is in control.
This structure of the text is quite deliberate. The above image is taken from Ephraim Speiser's Anchor Bible commentary on Genesis. The authors of Genesis knew the contrast they were drawing. This a completely different kind of God to the gods of Babylon.
While we have before us incontestable similarities in detail, the difference in overall approach is no less prominent. The Babylonian creation story features a succession of various rival deities. The biblical version, on the other hand, is dominated by the monotheistic concept in the absolute sense of the term. Thus the two are genetically related and yet poles apart. (E. Speiser Genesis pp11)
There is another refrain: And God saw that it was good (vv10, 18, 21, 25,) and finally, after the creation of male and female, God surveys "all that he had made, and behold, it was very good."
This is so different to the world of Babylon:
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage, ‘Man’ shall be his name.
Verily, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they [the gods] might be at ease!
By contrast, God blessed humankind in Chapter 1:28. We are not savages, but created in God's image. We are not slaves in the service of the gods, but given dominion over the earth. Indeed, it almost seems earth was made for us!
The irony is that in Babylon it is the same! The savage is created from the blood of the savage gods, created in the image of violence. By which story will we choose to live? In which image are we created?
Verse 6 reflects the understanding of the time that water lies under the world, and that the sky is a dome which holds the water above us in check. For example, in the story of Noah, in Genesis 7, it says
11 In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.
So again we see the power of God over the chaos. The waters are placed within boundaries. For river cultures like Babylon, where flooding is a recurrent danger, this is indeed good. It says God is making the creation safe. For the exiles, such a statement is a contradiction of the nagging fear of flood that haunts their captors. (See here for more on the flood stories of the ancient world.)
Later, in verse 20, we see that even the sea monsters are created by God! God is in control. The relevance of this is that in the cultures around Israel, Tiamat was sometimes portrayed "as a great serpentine beast, the dragon of chaos, or the dragon of the sea." But in Genesis 1, God created all the living creatures in the sea, even the fearsome monsters which symbolise chaos. The world is being made a good and safe. God is in control.
We see an echo of this in the land animals. God creates not only the cattle, but also the wild animals. God is in control.
Then, when all the world is ready for them, God makes humankind. Humankind is made male and female. There is no hint of gender hierarchy, although humankind is clearly placed at the top of the hierarchy of the other living beings.
And humankind is blessed. These are not creatures— savages, indeed— made to spare the gods labour. These are the pinnacle of creation, who are given dominion over everything else which lives.
But what does it mean to be made in the image and likeness of God, and to be given dominion over all the Earth, and to be told to subdue it? It is sometimes claimed that this was a warrant to exploit the earth and has been a key contribution to our current destruction of our world.
In 1967, American Professor of History Lynn White published a highly influential article in the Journal Science, entitled ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’. In this article, White argued that Christianity – particularly Western Christianity – is to blame for our ecological woes. According to White, ‘Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen… It is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends’.1 White traces the problem to two biblical principles. First, that the Bible grants to humanity a ‘dominion’ over nature, which has encouraged us to exploit nature for our own ends. Second, that the Bible privileges humanity – which alone is created in the image of God and alone will be redeemed – over the remainder of the creation. White argues that this leads to the conclusion that, since the non-human creation doesn’t have an eternal ‘soul’, it doesn’t matter what we do with it. (Michael Stead)
Is permission granted, or implied, in the text "to exploit nature for our own ends?" Even if it is implied in this text, is the text of Genesis 1 the Bible's only word on matters of environment?
We can explore this with an online article by Theodore Hiebert. He says
The inescapable fact about the biblical term “dominion,” from the Hebrew verb radah, is that it grants humans the right and responsibility to rule, to govern the rest of creation… [although t]he verb radah does not itself define how this dominion is to be exercised, whether benevolently or malevolently…
Similar conclusions may be drawn about the phrase “subdue the earth” in Gen. 1:28. The verb “subdue,” from the Hebrew kavash, depicts a hierarchical relationship in which humans are positioned above the earth and are granted power and control over it. The verb kavash is even more forceful than radah, describing the actual act of subjugation, of forcing another into a subordinate position. It is used for military conquest, where the same phrase used in Gen. 1:28, “subdue the earth/land,” can be employed to depict the destruction and occupation of conquered territory (Num. 32:22, 29). It is also used of the king’s forcing his people into slavery against God’s wishes (Jer. 34:11, 16), and of rape (Esther 7:8; Neh. 5:5). In many of these cases, the abuse 19 of power is patently obvious. (Hiebert)
Subdue, as Hiebert describes it, has no sense of the benevolent. How could one "benevolently subdue?" Indeed, power, the ability to dominate and subdue, is very frequently accompanied by exploitation, and mal-evolence. Those in power typically project their own failings onto those without power. While Genesis 1 is a great contrast to the violence of other creation stories, benevolent dominion seems to me to be something that is brought to the story later. I am much more persuaded by Hiebert's later point:
… biblical society … was a society whose economy was largely based on subsistence agriculture. Such agriculture was preindustrial, without modern machinery, high-yield crop varieties, or chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, it was practiced on the rocky slopes of the biblical hill country and was completely dependent on rainfall, which in these hills is variable and unpredictable (Hopkins 1985). In such an environment, life is a constant struggle to survive, demanding extremely hard work to coax out of the rocky, hilly soil each year a tolerable crop. Within this context, it is not difficult to understand how the human relationship with the earth could be viewed in adversarial terms, and how the human task of producing food could be regarded as overpowering the intractable ground, as gaining the upper hand over it, of “subduing (kavash) the earth,” in the words of Gen. 1:28. It is in this same context that we may also find the reason for the use of the verb radah, rather than the more common malak, for human rule over creation. The verb radah is most often used in the Bible for rule over enemies, and this may have been considered the appropriate nuance for human rule in creation, a creation that in the ancient, preindustrial agrarian society of the Mediterranean highlands was a kind of adversary that had to be subdued and controlled—overpowered, in a way—in order to survive at all.
This is a more forceful and raw reading of dominion in Gen. 1:28 than the stewardship interpretation of it. But it must be recognized that such a conception of dominion arises not out of a context of human power but out of a context of human powerlessness. For biblical society, the balance of power was decidedly in nature’s favor. This means that the dominion theology in this text could not have signified the kind of control of nature now possible after the industrial and technological revolutions. Such control was not even conceivable in antiquity, when humanity was viewed as essentially impotent before the vast powers of nature. (Hiebert)
The issue for us is to recognise that the power balance has changed. We have much more power than the Jewish farmer ever had. How will we use that power?
In the Jewish tradition, the rabbis were clear about the limits of our dominion.
 Rabbi Yaakov of Kfar Chanin said, ‘If he [acts] in Our image and likeness [then] ‘he will rule,’ if he [acts] not in Our image and likeness, then ‘and he will be taken down.’” The Midrash is based on a play on words in Hebrew, in which the root of the word ‘to rule’ is the same root as the word ‘to be taken down.’ The great commentator Rashi writes based on the Midrash that if we do not merit, we will be ruled by animals. In this vein, the Soncino translator writes, “Man is entitled to pre-eminence only as long as he cultivates his G-d-like qualities; when he voluntarily abandons them he is even lower than the brute creation.” Can humans be ruled by animals today? At first one may think that human beings are so powerful as to be immune to these predictions, but one only need think of insect infestations (even in the Western world) which have caused tremendous havoc. One example is the “bed bugs” outbreak in North America in 2010. Another example relates to diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and the West Nile Virus. These are spreading into new areas as the range of certain mosquitoes extends to more northern latitudes as a result of human-induced climate change.
The power that Jesus shows us, in contrast to the usual human use of power, is the power of giving and being compassionate, not the power of exploitation. Exploitative, dominating, subduing power can be described as the power of Babylon, or the power of Empire. So Jesus would not read dominion and subdue as the rapacious, controlled-only-by-the-bottom-line domination systems of today which we apply to the poor and, ultimately, to the biosphere.
Hiebert goes on to considered the authorship of Genesis 1, widely understood to be someone of priestly lineage. (Genesis 1 is from the P source of the Documentary Hypothesis.) He says
It may well be that this distinctive and preeminent role played by the priests in the social world of ancient Israel lies behind their conception of the preeminent role of the archetypal human in the world of creation as a whole. Thus the first human in the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1 is a kind of priestly figure representing the divine and mediating God’s rule.
If this is so, then the dominion theology in Gen. 1:28 has roots in the powerful social role its priestly authors held in their own society. And its conception of human authority over the world of nature reflects the priestly authority in the cult and society of biblical Israel. According to this line of analysis, the concept of dominion in Gen. 1:28 arises directly out of its author’s own position of power and authority. (Hiebert)
If White is correct about Western society's attitude to the environment, he is not so much describing what is in Genesis as he is describing a reading of Genesis as the only biblical word on how we are to relate to creation. He ignores, as has much of the church, the second creation story in Genesis 2, and ignores the instructions to let the land lie fallow in Leviticus 25:1-7, for example. These offer a deeper perspective on our relationship to the creation. The broader biblical setting must include the other creation story in Genesis 2 and, of course, the reading by Jesus, of both stories. I will address this in the work on Chapter 2.
White's article is also unaware of the subtlety within Genesis itself, which Hiebert notes:
…. if the image of God means that humans have not a special essence but a special function or task, and if that special function is to act as God’s representative or authorized agent on earth, as some have claimed (Bird 1981, 137-44), then human rule is not absolute, but is to be carried out in accordance with the intention and design of the divine sovereign who delegated it. And if that divine sovereign exercises power benevolently as Genesis 1 in fact depicts God as doing—bringing all of life into existence, considering it all good, placing it all within a harmonious ecosystem—then humans, as God’s representatives or agents, should exercise the power granted them in order to achieve the same ends. (Hiebert)
I wish to return to the question of what it means to be created in the image of God.
Walter Wink quotes Bill Wiley-Kellerman in a reference I cannot track down elsewhere. It's quoted in Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, Walter Wink pp104
Who in Babylon, not to mention virtually the whole of the ancient world, was the image of God? The King, of course, who stands in for [Babylonian God] Marduk in the creation pageant, and whose authority is annually legitimated. Who, however, is in the liturgy of Israel? Humanity. Women and Men. Human Beings in community. This is a subversion and affront to every imperial authority. It’s practically anarchism. In this counter-story human beings are not created from the blood from a murdered god, created as slaves of the state. They are made for freedom and responsibility
It is often alleged that God does not create us in God's image, but that we have created God in our image. Certainly, as Anne Lamott says, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." The idea of God as some sort wish fulfilment or projection, goes back to Feuerbach and Freud, not as a smart and true insight like Lamott's, but as a critique of the whole notion of there being a God at all.
There is a truth here. The despot in Babylon does create God in his own image1. He justifies his own ascendancy, and his violence and domination, by the story of the violent, dominating Gods.
But in Genesis 1 something else is happening. It takes a moment to unpack Wiley-Kellerman's dense prose: He created them male and female means he created community, not hierarchy. He blessed them; they're not created for servitude. In all of this, God's act of creation is to give. God empowers, rather than over-powers. I have already said that "power, the ability to dominate and subdue, is very frequently accompanied by exploitation, and mal-evolence. Those in power typically project their own failings onto those without power." Genesis 1 is not a projection of this upon God!
And in Psalm 8, reflective of Genesis 1, for example, there is not a celebration of the King, but of humanity:
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals (lit. son of adam ) that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
This empowering, giving community finds its fullest expression in the person of Jesus, and his story of the Samaritan, and in the giving of his life. The whole of the Eucharist is about the giving of life that we may have life; about the table where all may come and eat. In God's kingdom, God searches for the lost coin and the lost sheep. We are neither slaves nor kings, but those who are loved. We are those inspired to give by the joy of discovering all we have been given.
Wink says more about our creation in the image of God in his final book Just Jesus - My Struggle to Become Human. (He has a more complete development of this in The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), which I do not possess.
In summary: Genesis 1 does not read like Myth. It is too tidy, too honed and considered.
Gerhard von Rad suggests plausibly that Genesis 1 is directly prompted by the revelation God gave Ezekiel, [he was a priest of the Exile to Babylon] and is the first elaboration of it. Scholars have long noted that Genesis 1 is too rational and abstract to really be a myth. It was a polemic made possible by the unprecedented breakthrough of Ezekiel’s vision. (pp105)
In his vision, Ezekiel saw "seated above the likeness of a throne … something that seemed like a human form." (adam) Wink notes that, in the gospels, Jesus called himself "the son of the man." We use it as a title; we say The Son of Man. What if in leaving out the second the which is the Greek texts— the son of the man— we are obscuring the fact that Jesus identified himself not as human or a mortal man (which is what son of man can mean), but as a son of the man of Ezekiel?
Wink is clear that Ezekiel's vision is not a projection of himself upon the Divine. Ezekiel is experiencing revelation; a vision of what really is.
This is really what God is: HUMAN. It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness—which is to say, we are capable of becoming human… pp102
But we risk losing the numinous reality under a barrage of words. Ezekiel is not struck as if by an interesting new idea. He is, rather, struck to the ground. The vision overwhelms him, like a blow to the solar plexus. And the God who has struck him now orders him to his feet. God, apparently, will not converse with human beings supinely prostrated. That which addresses us insists that we stand our ground. God will not speak as to an inferior, will not tolerate a servile mentality. The Spirit enters Ezekiel to embolden him to face this awesome vision.
The Human One on the throne-chariot now addresses Ezekiel: “Child of the Human One, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you” (Ezek. 2:1). Chip off the old block, Humanchild in exile, this offspring of the HUMAN will from henceforth not be addressed by his given name, but only as a relative of the enthroned one. (Walter Wink Just Jesus - My Struggle to become human. pp107
I am definitively Homo sapiens, just as the dog in my house is Canis familiaris. Am I definitively human, or is that something I may become because I am created in the image of the human one; because I, too, am a son/child of the human one? Will I seek to become truly so, or choose to remain in the thrall of the Myth of Redemptive Violence and be, instead, a citizen of Babylon? The authors of Genesis 1, writing in Babylon, are saying: This is not our city; this is not our God, nor are is their story or story.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
- In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.
Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society. (Wink)