01. Genesis 1-2 part 1

I: The Covenant of Creation

A. Establishing the Covenant of Creation (Genesis 1 – 2)

1. How to Read Genesis 1 and 2

There is scarcely any other segment of Scripture that has attracted as much attention as the beginning of Genesis.  It has been the source of some of the most heated controversy during the last two centuries, and no wonder since it is the story of the very beginning of all things.  How we think of our beginnings shapes to a great extent how we think of ourselves and of our role in the universe.  When we argue about the first two chapters of Genesis, we are mainly arguing about our self-image, and that is why the debate gets so emotional.

Some argue that these two chapters must be interpreted as an historical account, that we must read this passage as a physical description of seven consecutive twenty-four hour days. Others argue that these two chapters are poetic in style and should be taken metaphorically, as a grand story not to be taken literally. I am suggesting a third possibility: that these two chapters are a presentation of a covenant between God and the universe. The idea of a covenant is no longer a common idea in our culture, and so an explanation is in order.

The so-called Covenant Theology arose in a Puritan and Calvinist context, but my approach to the covenants in the Bible is somewhat different from theirs. When the Puritans talked about the Covenant, the example they used most often was a legal or a business contract, but that is not at all the way I think about it. Nor does it seem to be the way it was usually presented in the Bible. When the Bible gets specific about covenants, it almost always has in mind two examples: the covenant established by a conquering king over the king he has just defeated is one; but more commonly, marriage is the example of a covenant that is used. Essentially, “covenant” is the word used in the Bible to mean “relationship”. Whenever God establishes a close tie to some person or people, He does it in the form of a covenant. We are accustomed to think of our relationship to God as a “personal relationship” but that phrase was never used in the Bible, and  it does not do justice to the biblical concept. It is better to say that we have a covenant relationship to God rather than a personal relationship to God, and as this discussion goes on I will try to explain why. Just so you can interpret me accurately, when I talk about the covenant, I am usually thinking marriage.

As a covenant, then, the purpose of these two chapters is to state the terms of a relationship. Viewing them as a covenant we need not worry about a time frame for the events described or even whether or not it is describing events. The point is not when or in what order events happened, nor even if they happened exactly as pictured. On the other hand, viewing them as a covenant, we need not transform these two chapters into a collection of symbols or some allegory which can be interpreted as we wish. The point is not a mystical look into unimaginable events.  From my viewpoint, the purpose of Genesis 1 and 2 was to set guidelines for the way we were to interact with each other and with God. Looking at the passage as the description of a covenant, the days of creation are not periods of time, nor imaginary realms of creative activity, but are more like the articles in a constitution. Just as the American Constitution, for example, establishes the branches of government, prescribes the duties they are to perform, and sets limits on their powers, so God partitioned His universe and set the boundaries for each realm and the rules for the interaction between the realms.

Though the word “covenant” is not used in these chapters, there are at least two other places in Scripture which describe this passage as a covenant. In Jeremiah 33:20 we read, “Thus says the Lord, ‘If you break My covenant for the day, and My covenant for the night, so that day and night will not be at their appointed time, then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the Levitical priests, My ministers.’ ” Here the Scripture refers to the ordering of the day and the night as a covenant on the order of the covenant with David that his descendents would always reign over Israel; it also compares the ordering of the day and the night to the covenant with the tribe of Levi which gave them the priesthood.  Thus the establishment of the day and the night was the same kind of act on God’s part as the establishment of the priesthood of Aaron, the kingdom of David and the promise of the Messiah.

Also in Hosea 6:7 we find, “But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; there they have dealt treacherously against Me.” When Adam sinned by eating the forbidden fruit he was committing the same kind of act as the later Israelites committed in breaking the Covenant of the Law. From the moment of his creation, Adam was bound to God in the same kind of relationship that would join all of Israel to God at Mt. Sinai. There were also differences, of course, but they were the differences that distinguish one covenant from another covenant, not that distinguish what is a covenant from what is not a covenant.

Finally it is right to view these chapters as a covenant because they have the right form, they contain the kind of information a covenant should contain and they are arranged like a written covenant should be arranged. Here God is portrayed not only as creating all things, but He is also described as ordering His creation, delineating the various realms of the creation, establishing rules and authorities, and setting the penalty for the violation of the rules (actually, the one rule). What He was doing here was establishing the context for the parties involved to pursue their mutual relationships and to grow in their knowledge and love for each other and for Him. No relationship is formless; there are always protocols involved. The rules of engagement, the rules of civility and decorum, are aids, not hindrances, to relationship, particularly when God Himself sets them up. Relationships are most like a dance, like the very elaborate dances from three hundred years ago with intricate patterns of coordinated movement. In these chapters of Genesis God was telling us how the dance would proceed.

Taking the first two chapters of Genesis as a description of a Covenant, there are at least six major elements, or provisions, that emerge as central to the relationship God instituted with His new creation. Here these six provisions are listed not in the order in which they are mentioned in the Scripture, nor in their order of importance, but in the order that is most convenient for discussion. Rather than considering these two chapters in order, verse by verse, we will work through the passage by considering the terms of the Covenant one at a time.

2. The Terms of the Covenant of Creation

a) The Trees of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and of Life (Genesis 2:8-17)

The command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has sometimes been referred to as the probation test and this term does seem to represent a fairly common understanding of this part of Genesis. My dictionary defines “probation” as “a process or period of testing the character or abilities of a person in a certain role”. Calling the prohibition of the Tree of Knowledge a probation test suggests that Adam and Eve’s position in Eden was not secure, that they had to prove themselves in order to be granted permanent residence, as it were. This is a view that seems to be commonly held, that God meant the Tree to be a kind of job interview, an examination of Adam’s and Eve’s qualifications to live in paradise.

But the question must be asked: why would God test them? Didn’t He know what He was doing when He made them? Was He unsure about the quality of His workmanship? Did He suspect there was some hidden flaw in His creation that needed to be checked out before He gave it His full warranty? If so, then did He not really mean it in 1:31 when He said that everything He had made was very good? Or perhaps He was trying to prove to a skeptical audience, the host of heaven or whoever, that this creation, and particularly the human part of it, was up to snuff? I hope these questions are sufficiently sarcastic to cast doubt on the concept of the Tree of Knowledge as a probation test. Further, the idea of a probation test assumes, tacitly or otherwise, that the possibility of evil had to be present in order for there to be a vindication of good; and it assumes that the perfection of Adam and Eve (the very creatures described as being created in the image of God) could not really be claimed until they had met temptation and rejected it. Let’s consider these assumptions further.

If the Tree of Knowledge was a probation test then goodness would seem to require the existence of evil, or the possibility of evil, to be recognizable as good. Something like this belief has the authority of popular mythology, but do Christians or Jews really believe such a thing? Does the Bible intend that we believe this? Putting the question in other words: must we be occasionally miserable so that when we attain bliss it is recognizable? Does light require darkness in order to be recognizable as light? Does God require a devil in order to be fully known as God?

The Biblical view of God and of goodness requires that we answer in the negative. The goodness of God, and the goodness which He built into creation, stand on their own and do not need any contrast in order to be fully themselves. To believe otherwise is to believe that God is not complete in Himself, that evil is as much built into the foundation of reality as good is. But the God portrayed in Scripture is purely good, with no trace of evil, and yet in need of nothing to complete Him. This self-containment of God’s Goodness, this independence of Goodness that renders it Good absolutely without any reference to evil, is a quality that is passed down to every level of the creation. Throughout chapter 1 God asserted the goodness of everything with no badness present and no badness necessary to reveal it as good. When God repeatedly pronounced the creation to be good, He was not using the term in a relative way as if He were saying, “This creation is really pretty good compared to others I’ve seen”. We are accustomed to using our terms in a relative manner, but there is no reason to suppose that God does. It is one of the distinctives of the Judeo/Christian tradition that it views evil as entirely dispensable and unnecessary. Not only is evil not a necessity, but it is our hope that the day is coming when it will be eradicated without a trace. It is not only theoretically dispensable, but it is in fact to be dispensed with.

From a Scriptural point of view, evil is not a created thing at all; it has no intrinsic existence. The most revealing metaphor of the character of good and evil is the metaphor of light and darkness. Just as darkness is not a thing in itself, just as darkness is only a lacking of light, so evil is merely a defect of goodness. There is no substance to darkness and there is no substance to evil. One can never devise a switch that can be flipped on to flood the room with dark. A room can’t properly be said to be full of darkness; properly we must say it is empty of light. Evil is just such a non-entity, a powerlessness, an absence of something which ought to have been there and isn’t. Evil is not only an unnecessary thing; it is not even truly a thing at all.

Furthermore, if the Tree of Knowledge is a probation test then its whole point was the temptation and the testing of the character of Adam and Eve, as if God were not sure of what He had made, or as if He did not know what they would do, or as if He had to prove Himself to a skeptical audience. It would mean that when God made the universe, He could barely hold it together, that its goodness was so fragile and uncertain that He had to take it out for a test drive, as it were, before He was willing to give a warranty on His work. In this view God wasn’t creating the world in the biblical sense; He was experimenting, playing around, practicing the craft of universe manufacture, perhaps rehearsing for some future and better effort; He didn’t really know what He was doing; the whole creation was a sort of on-the-job training, and apparently His work failed the test and proved to be of poor quality. Just as a construction worker who tests his work is really testing himself, in testing Adam and Eve, God was really testing Himself, the quality of His work. We can make excuses for Him; He was, after all, trying to do a pretty difficult thing, making a universe that was genuinely good out of nothing; His reach exceeded His grasp, that’s all. In short, the view that God planted this Tree to test Adam and Eve undermines the way we think about God’s competence.

On the other hand, if the Tree of Knowledge was a probation test then Adam and Eve had to justify themselves by works and were not under God’s grace. No other creature had to prove its goodness; only the two in God’s own image had to prove themselves. Do we believe that the closer a creature comes to God’s character the less grace is involved in its relationship to Him? If we view the Tree of Knowledge as a probation then we would seem to imply that grace was not part of God’s character until after the Fall, as if He began by using a strict moral accounting system, a Law, and then was forced into being gracious after the Fall in order to keep the whole thing from falling apart. However, if we think that the universe began by law and that our relationship to God began based on strict obedience, then we give up grace for all time. We cannot make grace grow out of law. Law is a poison soil that gives life to nothing and grace will wither every time; it becomes non-grace; it becomes another version of law. One of the major themes of the Scripture as it goes on is a repudiation of Law as the foundation of being. To believe in the probation test ultimately undermines the central meaning of the rest of Scripture.

5 Comments on “01. Genesis 1-2 part 1”

  1. Simone Says:

    Hi Carroll,

    There are so many points I find insightful in this post. I especially find interesting your suggestion that the debate over the origin of the world is often emotional because it provides insight into the origin of oneself. The suggestions implicit in creation are so vastly different from the ideas implicit in evolution, for example. Any theory of origin can uphold or call into question a person’s understanding of how to interpret the largest part of who he is. The results of such a narrative of origin can be affirming or crippling, depending, of course, on the conclusions that person has not so much arrived at, but started with. The beginning of the story, in so many ways, is also the end.

    I also appreciate how you argue for god’s independent perfection, and admire how you debunk the idea that good needs evil to exist. I have long taken issue with this ludicrous perspective. It is dangerous to think, in my estimation, that anything good or “light” is simply a relational result.

    I want to ask: Would you consider the commands we see in the book of Genesis speech acts? Were the commands, “Let there be…”, in some regard, not so much spoken acts occurring in the moments of their depiction, but more so uttered acts that are portrayed spoken for the purpose of demonstrating a pre-established relationship? Are we seeing enactment or reenactment? When those commands are depicted in Genesis, is there some suggestion that the manifestation of those utterances had already occurred, and were depicted to demonstrate, and not necessarily execute, that covenant? Or is the covenant taking place as the spoken words are presented? Are we readers or witnesses?

  2. Carroll Boswell Says:

    I think of the utterances as acts of will. They are described as words to give a metaphor for what is going on internally with God, and that metaphor is picked up later on in the revelation as a metaphor for Jesus, the Word. On a human level, it is the words that we speak that make external what is internal to us, that express, for all to hear, the things that are in our hearts. So Genesis 1 describes what is in God’s heart as He creates by portraying it as what He says. The utterance and the creation are simultaneous, two sides of the same thing.
    But I may not have understood your question, of course. Does this help?

  3. Simone Says:

    Thanks Carroll, I gotcha.

  4. godanalytics Says:

    This reminds me of a philosophy of religions class I took around 10 years ago. Maybe you could look into academic publishing. Not sure what type of credentials that would require. Anyway, these are the questions and thoughts that are quite tedious to put into words as you have done. But it isn’t sooo complicated that an average joe cannot use it to begin thinking more critically about the text they’re reading. I have actually started reading from the beginning of the Bible to try and understand some things that just do not make sense to me from a literal standpoint. Something that I don’t understand is how it seems that the Bible in Genesis doesn’t seem to specifically condemn or blatantly stigmatize certain things that in today’s culture would totally blow our minds (or my mind anyway). In my reading today only, here are three things that I think would be shocking or at least a little disturbing to the average person in modern society. 1) Abraham married his half sister. 2) Abraham and others had many children with their concubines (yet the covenant of marriage remained? between Sarai & Abram) 3) When the evil men in Sodom wanted the angels to come out, Lot offered that his virgin daughters go out to them instead 4) Lot’s 2 daughters got pregnant by him.

    So to me it seems that these specific acts are not necessarily condemned within the context of the text. Or it doesn’t stand out to me as it would if it were known in the church that something like that happened with one of the members.

    Does this make any sense at all?

    Other points that seemed interesting to me is that Adam’s job was always going to be working in the garden but it was just after his disobedience, that the work was going to become a burden.

    There is always the emphasis on how we are in the image of God, but if we are in the image of God, doesn’t that mean that He has to have something in common with us as well, like He is in our image? When it talks about in the first few chapters of Genesis that God had to ban them from the garden so that they wouldn’t have eternal life too. This to me seems like a very human action, like as in showing the “limitations” of God’s experiment (you referenced this sort of, above).

    O.k. I guess that’s all for now. Good piece!!

  5. The first generations of Christian theologians said that God became man in order for man to become like God. He took on our nature, so that we could take on His nature. We have not even begun to imagine what that may mean.
    The things about Genesis that shocked you are shocking, and I hope if you read that far in these notes, some of what I say will prove helpful.

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