When I was five years old my sister, Danielle, had a friend who lived opposite horse paddocks. We passed them every day after dropping my Dad off at the train station to go to work. Being the animal enthusiast that I am, one day I asked Danielle’s friend what the name of the brown horse was. Caroline replied “That’s Melanie’s horse”. But what I heard (much to my mother and sister’s utter delight) was, “That’s Melany Sauce”. Literally, for years I called that horse ‘Melany Sauce’ and would look for her and point her out to my Mum who, let the record show, never said a word. I kid you not, I was in my twenties when I finally realised my mistake.
Imagery that makes Sense
God is not like my mother. When God wanted to communicate His Story, He went to meticulous lengths to make Himself and His Story understandable within His people’s language and culture and ways of thinking. The Genesis creation story has elements, language and imagery that the Israelites were familiar with from the creation stories of Egypt and Mesopotamia – the nations they lived in and near. When Joseph and his family arrived in Egypt they were not a nation with a culture; they were a family that came down from Canaan to get food during a famine. That family lived and grew in the midst of the Egyptian culture for 430 years. The national culture of the Egyptians was the Jewish framework. Stop and think about this … because the creation story loses some depth of meaning when you remove it from it’s historical backdrop.
The creation accounts from Egypt and Mesopotamia begin with a sea (symbol of chaos). Next, the gods separate things out and make them function. In the same way, the Genesis account begins: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). God is declaring He (not foreign gods) is the one who created and set the functions of the entire cosmos in place – functions that humans would need to live and flourish, like days and seasons and weather and food. The days of creation also address the different things the Egyptians worship (sun, moon, seasons, animals etc.). Genesis is definitively declaring Yahweh is creator and governs their functioning.
The seven day motif was familiar to the Israelites as the time period for the inauguration of a temple (2 Chron. 5) and would have brought this imagery to mind. A temple is the place where gods dwell with the people and is the place that tells the story of creation and how the world works. Inauguration was always a seven day process where the various parts of the temple were made ready to start functioning, and the image of the god was brought to life.
In the Egyptian master Story, Pharaoh was the incarnation of the god Ra amongst the people, and Pharaoh lived in a ‘temple-palace-garden’ that represented creation. There was a large body of water to represent the water at the beginning of time (this was the god Nun). All kinds of plants grew around it, and the different plants represented the sun god, sky god, moon god and god of fertility. There were aviaries teaming with birds and animals, and all sorts of animals were kept and bred here.
In temples of the ancient Near East the most important thing is the image of the god: the idol or eikon. It’s the last thing brought into the temple and inaugurated in what they called a “Spiration Ceremony”, where the priests enact breathing into or en-spiriting the idols. These en-spirited idols presence the god with the people in the temple-palace-garden. This is the culture and story the people of God (the future Jewish nation) had lived in for four hundred years.
In the Genesis account God builds Himself a temple-palace-garden called Eden. There’s water and trees and animals, and sun and moon and sky. But, these were not gods to be worshiped, instead they were made by Yahweh as a place for Him to dwell with us. We’ll see this same imagery later in the Israelite tabernacle and temple (where the Hebrew word ‘Hechal’, which most English Bible’s translate as Holy Place is more literally translated ‘temple-palace’ and the walls are engraved with a flourishing garden of trees and flowers and fruit). It’s the imagery that the whole of creation is God’s temple – the place He will dwell with His people.
God places humans in the garden as His image bearers or ‘eikons’ (Hebrews 1:3; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15) and breathes His life into them (Gen 2:7). The imagery is that humans will be the idols, not to be worshipped, but to bear the image of God, and we will manifest His presence and life and kingdom all through the earth!
We need to reclaim the imagery of Genesis 1 and 2 – of God as glorious creator of a ‘temple cosmos’ and human image bearers. We need to reclaim the imagery of a God who desires to dwell with humans, and where humanity flourishes in His world. Like recalling a childhood story about Melany Sauce, we need to take time to reflect on the God Story we have heard and have been imagining. We need to make sure we hear aright and reclaim the imagery of the biblical story … so we know how to be fully human and live.
Some things to Ponder
Are there any points in the Genesis account contained above that you have not heard before? In what ways do these points change or add to how you understand who God is? The purpose of humans? The purpose of creation?
In what ways would these change or add to how you disciple others?
To read more on this topic I recommend:
The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate by John H. Walton