Genesis 1: Natural disasters are consequences, not judgments

 

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In the late 19th century, the Babylonian creation story in the epic Enuma Elish was published, sparking a new era in biblical studies. Scholars often fretted not only over the perceived similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis 1 but also the connections with myriad others ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian accounts.

Are we dealing with a second-rate knockoff?

Putting yourself there

Have you ever thought about what it must have been like to be alive 5,000 years ago? It is almost unfathomable. Births were often followed quickly by funerals. Life expectancy was maybe 40 years. Food, shelter, safety: all were accomplished only through violent, exhausting processes. Natural disasters would arrive quickly and with little warning. Life is certainly beautiful, but it is also brutal.

So it makes sense that creation epics would reflect this violent brutality. In the aforementioned Enuma Elish, the created world only arises as a result of the struggles between Marduk and Tiamat. Violence is in the very DNA of all creation.

Not so with Genesis 1. God begins the act of creation (in Hebrew, bā-rā בָּרָ֣א) with a mighty wind (in Hebrew, ר֣וּחַ or ruach). There is no inherent violence here; it is the original breath of life. Across the churning waters of chaos, God begins to bring order.

Genesis 1 is the ultimate click bait: you won’t believe what happened next!

Does God actually create anything? 

Of course, the answer is yes; the Hebrew text is clear that God engages in acts of creation. But what exactly is going on here? Is God bringing into existence something new, or is God providing permission for already existing things to make themselves known?

Twice the Hebrew word יְהִ֣י is utilized, which Strong’s Concordance translates as “to exist” or “to be.” When God declares “Let there be light,” is this an act of creation or of permission? Is Genesis 1 showing us the totality of creation or just a glimpse? Perhaps is both/and rather than either/or?

When God says, “Let there be light,” is this the first time God is seeing light? Is the declaration that light is good an evaluation made in the moment, or the expressing of an a priori reality? Is it like declaring a pizza “very good” because you have tasted it, or declaring pizza very good because, in order for there to be Good, pizza much exist? We could ask similar questions regarding the other days of creation: was the land already there under the water? Did God bring into existence something new, or simply grant permission to that which was dormant under the chaotic waters?

In one sense, these are perhaps just entertaining exercises in semantics, but in another more real way, these questions get to the heart of our understanding of theological ecology. How is God present and accounted for in the natural world? Does God act alone or in cooperation with creation itself, therefore passing responsibility to us?

Most other creation epics have male and female actors, generally Father Sky and Mother Earth. And we have a titillating possibility in Gen 1:26-27 in which the plural is used: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Male and female God created them, the text says.

It is the land that brings forth vegetation, that provides the seeds and the fruits. Yes, God is active, but this is an act of cooperation. God is present, in our realm, establishing our human time with evening and then morning, a full day.

God is an active creator, but God also bestows the power of creation upon the created.

The concept of time

God either orders the world or allows for the intrinsic order to come forth. Regardless, God is intimately involved and experiences time in the way that we do. In each of the days, God experiences evening and morning. From the outset, the Abrahamic religions have a bifurcated sense of time. First, the timelessness of God that stands outside the act of creation, called καιρός (kairos) in Greek. Second, the time by which we chronicle our lives, χρόνος (chronos) in Greek.

This is an important point. If we take this passage literally, which I do not suggest, it still points us to the same reality as does a figurative reading: God experiences temporality with us. We need not think of God as being remote and distant from us. God’s life is marked by the six days of working such that a day of rest is needed by God. We can ask all sorts of metaphysical questions like, did God need a nap? Does God drink coffee and if so, where can I find the brew because if it’s good enough to get God up in the morning I think it’ll be just fine for me?

But these would be the wrong questions to ask. Notice that God rests, but nowhere in the text does it say that creation itself rested with God. While God rests the waters lap the shores, dew forms on the fruit trees, birds chirp as the sun launches from the horizon. God creates a day of rest to marvel at creation, and we may speculate, to refill God’s own well. Regardless, this is not a God unaffected or disinterestedly involved in creation.

God in the storm

I wrote yesterday about the absurdity of claiming that the recent onslaught of devastating storms is somehow the harbinger of the Parousia or the Day of the Lord. What the Genesis 1 narrative shows us is that if we are looking for a text that suggests God sends storms or is in control of them, this is not that text. God has a relationship with creation, but creation functions by itself while God rests. That is literally on page 1.  

God gives human beings יִרְדּוּ֩ (literally “let them have dominion”) rule over the created world. Sadly, this continues to be interpreted by some as human beings have mastery, and God will not let the natural resources run. I think we have seen where that has gone. Yes, there are natural cycles for storms, but there is no doubt that the rest of creation is feeling the impact of our poor dominion.

I reject out-of-hand the idea that God sends storms to punish people for sins. But it seems to me, in reading Genesis 1, that God is also going to let the natural world do what it needs to do. These storms are not judgments, they are consequences. We cannot think that what we do as individuals does not have communal repercussions. Certainly, human activity is not responsible for every single storm that occurs; hurricanes existed long before we did. What we can see is that there is a delicate balance within creation that allows it to function as it should. This includes the good and the bad. Hurricanes are part of the natural order. But perhaps the frequency and ferocity of these storms are the words of God’s partner in creation crying out in anguish and pain?

If we seek to find God in these storms, let it be in the actions we take and the changes we make as those charged with dominion over the natural world.

 

 

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