The South Pole is the perfect place for cosmic contemplation because it’s the one place on Earth that you can get closest to space and still be on the ground. It’s also one of the driest and clearest locations for observing things like faint microwaves in space – which science geeks think are linked to the “Big Bang” theory of creation. Some Christians are afraid that if creation didn’t happen exactly how and when the Bible says, then perhaps the other 1,187 chapters of the Bible aren’t true either. Some scientists struggle to hold their faith in tension with the evidence of cosmic observation, fossils and geologic time.
Many people wonder if they have to check their brains at the door when they come to church, or check their faith at the door when they go to class or the workplace.
But is this debate between science and faith really necessary? Is there a way to understand the stories in Genesis as authoritative while making room for the discoveries of science?
Old Testament scholar and Wheaton College professor John Walton thinks so. In his intriguing books The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Walton suggests that science and Scripture observe the same universe through two different but equally valid lenses – like the difference between viewing Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” and looking at a picture of deep space from the Hubble Space Telescope. They are both true in the sense that they describe an actual thing: the night sky.
Van Gogh, however, wasn’t trying to describe it scientifically; that’s a function of the telescope. Van Gogh instead painted an artistic rendering of the reality he saw. It’s a picture made to tell a story in ways beyond systematic description – it makes you feel something.
There is, in other words, a way to tell a story that transcends our post-Enlightenment categories of true versus false, science versus myth. The writers of Genesis lived in a storied world where people arranged their lives around a particular story set in a particular time and place. It is not pure history or science, nor is it pure myth and fiction. It is the story they found themselves in – it is the story of two central characters: God and humanity.
It’s a story that’s less about “cosmic inflation” and more about “cosmic elation” – the joy of a creating God, a God who creates all things “good.”
So, what does the Bible mean when it says that God “created”?
Walton concludes that Genesis 1 is not describing the material origins of the universe, but rather the functional origins of the world. In other words, Genesis is less about how God made the world than about how God made it to function.
When it is functioning well, it is “good” and God delights in it: Cosmic elation!
Look at how today’s lesson begins: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (vv. 1-2). It’s important to note that God is, in fact, starting creation with raw materials. If this were a text concerned with material origins (for instance, the “Big Bang”), we would expect the text to start with nothing. But here we have this formless void, darkness and “the deep.” We miss this, but an ancient person would have understood what’s going on here: these are all indicators of chaos and non-order. The Hebrew word for “formless” is tohu – it means to lack worth or purpose.
And what is God’s response to this non-order? God “creates.” The Hebrew word for “create” is bara. Bara is used some 50 times throughout the Old Testament, and in most of those cases, the direct object of the verb has to do with creating something for a specific role or function. God doesn’t just create something randomly; God creates it for a specific purpose.
We see this purposeful creation in the structure of Genesis 1.
During the first day, God creates “light” but calls it “day.” God is not merely creating light, but rather the function of time.
On the second day, God “separates” the waters, creating the function of weather.
On the third day God creates vegetation in order to provide food.
In other words, God begins by creating the functions of time, weather and food – all the things that are necessary for human existence (and the things we talk about the most).
The fourth and fifth days, God installs functionaries like the sun and moon (interesting that they are created after night and day) and the animals that are to be fruitful and multiply. And then, the sixth day, is the creation of humankind, whose function is to care for the creation, have “dominion” over it and reflect the image of God within it (1:26-27).
Everything is created for a purpose, and at the end of the sixth day, God looks at it all and calls it “very good” – it’s all functioning as he intended.
And then God rests on the seventh day. Why does God need to rest?
It evokes the image of a weary God, kicking his feet up, and sitting back in a Barcalounger with a tall glass of iced tea. Isn’t God omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? Why would God need a nap after all this? This description of the seventh day is actually the key to understanding all of Genesis 1 and, indeed, the whole biblical narrative.
In the ancient world, people believed that gods only “rested” in temples – indeed temples were constructed for this purpose. And temples were not merely residences for the gods, they were also the places from which the gods controlled the cosmos. When a god is at rest, it means that there is security and stability within an ordered system because that god is in control. This is not rest in the sense of relaxation, but rest in the sense of engagement, rule and order.
In the Genesis narrative, those ancient Hebrews would have known that this was the point of the first six days of creation. God sets things in their proper order and function. Creation was now prepared and ready as a temple in which God would dwell with his people.
The seventh day, in other words, is an “Emmanuel” moment – it’s the moment when God moves into creation – the moment God comes to dwell with us!
The first six days are really about God building a house.
The seventh day, it becomes a home.
This is a Creator who delights in creation enough to want to move in and be present – the God who is elated!
This is really the point of the creation story: God at rest, dwelling with his people. Creation is the place where God lives and in which God delights.
Of course, God is disappointed with the choices humans make. God expected that there would be morning conversations over a mocha cappuccino at the Eden Starbucks, and evenings chatting convivially at Job’s Bar and Grill.
But no! We had to go and screw things up.
But even after humans messed up, God did not abandon them. God walked with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He would dwell with Israel in tabernacle and temple. And then, in the most stunning evidence of cosmic elation, God became the “Word made flesh” that dwelt among us in Jesus Christ.
And the promise remains for the future. At the end of the Bible, just like at the beginning, the main point is that God will dwell with his people again (Revelation 21:1-3).
This is the stunning glory of the creation story. It’s not so much about the how but about the who. Here, a God is revealed who creates for the purpose of relationship.
This shouldn’t surprise us, given that God’s very nature is communal. Witness the three Persons of the Trinity. It’s natural that this unity in community would seek to bring others into relationship as well. God made the whole universe and dwells within it with the cosmic elation of love.
When we understand creation in this way, we better understand our place within it.
We’re not merely the product of cosmic dust and eons of evolution.
We’re beloved by the God who created us in his image.
The earth is not merely a happy accident, but God’s dwelling place.
We are the priests in God’s temple and our vocation is to care for it in God’s name.
We are humans about whom God cared enough to send Jesus Christ to redeem us from our sin and brokenness.
Sabbath reminds us of this reality. We gather to stop our daily routine, our attempts at controlling the world around us, and we simply worship. We enjoy God dwelling with us. We gather at the table with Christ, God with us. We gather to hear the promise of Scripture – that God will rest with us forever. Where creation has been gives way to where it is headed – to the glory of God who makes all things new.
The South Pole might be the one place on Earth which is closest to space and the expanse of the universe. But Genesis tells us that we don’t have to go that far to touch the face of God.