I love the big picture. I love to see the way things fit together, the way they are linked together in cause and effect, in hierarchy, in reflection of one another. There’s something about understand all of a thing’s context and relationships that is beautiful, and reveals a little bit of its purpose.
That’s what Genesis 1 is. It’s a portrait of the universe as God created it. The land sits on top of the sea, and the heavens are like a vault, a great dome over the earth. Sun and moon rule the day and night, spinning through the heavens alongside the stars, giving signs to those below of the passage of time, of the turning of seasons. Life fills every corner of the universe, inhabiting sea and land and sky. Last of all, the speaking beast, the creature who bears the image of God, who has dominion.
It’s been remarked before, and I think it’s a point worth noting, that this is not a scientific explanation of how the universe came to be or how it functions. If you come at the world from an excessively materialist or rationalist point of view, you expect any explanation of something to be an account of the physical processes which bring a thing into being or keep it running. But that’s not the only way of explaining what a thing is.
A thing is also how you encounter it. It is what you see, what you hear, what you smell. It’s how it changes over time, and the patterns you notice. These things aren’t “objective” in some ultimate sense. They’re anthropocentric—man-centered. How do people actually experience the world? Genesis operates on this level.
We may know that the heavens are more or less endless, that some of the stars are far closer to us than they are to the rest of their starry brethren. But from the earth, it all looks like a single vault, a high ceiling on the world, with most of the stars at the same distance. We may know that the moon is actually one of the smaller objects in the sky, and so saying it “rules the night” is laughable, but so what? Viewed from the earth, it is the largest light in the darkness, the one that dominates that space.
Expect Genesis 1 to be what we call a scientific account of how the universe is structured, and you will be disappointed. Its taxonomy, and Biblical taxonomy in general, would drive a biologist mad. But that’s not the point. The point is explaining the world as we experience it, the structure of life as we actually encounter it. Now, there is a way of over-relying on this fact in such a way that it distorts the text. Just because something is poetic doesn’t mean the thing it describes is unreal. The fact that something is phenomenological implies that it’s describing real phenomena. But I’ll save that qualification for a later post.
One interesting aspect of Genesis 1 is the way it’s built on forming and filling. When the world is first described as “formless and void,” unless I badly misunderstand my Hebrew, the words there seem to refer to having no structure and being empty of all contents. But the first three days of creation are all the establishment of structure. God divides light from darkness, creating two spaces called “day” and “night.” Then God establishes a “firmament” or “vault” in the midst of the water, and this becomes the space we call “heaven” or “sky.” Finally, he gathers the waters below together into a single place, and up comes dry ground. He has created the spaces we call “earth” and “seas.”
These spaces are like different houses, or different rooms in a house. Alternatively, they are separate stages. And stages are nothing without sets, props, and players. And fittingly enough, God obliges. The next three days fill these very spaces. Day four fills the spaces created in day one—day and night—with lights of various kinds. For day, there is the mighty sun. For night, the gentler moon and all the stars are hung up in the top of the vault. Day five fills the two spaces of day four—sky and sea—with flying creatures and swimming creatures respectively. Day six looks to the final space created, the green earth, and fills it with various kinds terrestrial beasts and creeping things.
These are the two fundamental acts of creation: forming and filling. A number of my favorite Genesis commentators make a connection here that some find a bit wild and esoteric, but I find immensely interesting and fruitful. Be warned, I’m imaginative sort of person, who likes fantasy and poetry and miracles and ancient epics and rituals and mystic sayings and all the rest, certainly more than plain facts and dry numbers. If something packs a whole lot of meaning into a small space, that holds a lot of weight with me in whether I think it could be true.
The commentators connect forming and filling to male and female. It’s kind of a weird thought, but it kind of makes sense, both in terms of how the world works, and in terms of the text. The days of forming and the days of filling are one of the few big binaries we get this early in the Bible. In the midst of it, we get male and female, and the fact that man is made male and female is very central to who we are. It’s not accident, but something that is there from day one. In fact, the only thing that is not good in all of creation prior to the fall is the idea of a man without a woman.
So on that alone, connecting one big pair of complementaries to another just makes literary sense. But it also fits with the world. Men are built stronger, on average, physically tougher. They are more capable of projecting their will directly outwards into the world, of taking up and creating spaces. The idea that men tend to be better at abstract thinking also fits with this picture—that’s what creating spaces is all about. It’s drawing limits, defining structures, creating processes and areas in which things can take place. It’s setting the stage.
On the other hand, women are built to bring new life into the world. It takes two to tango, but only one of them can nurture a small seed of humanity, barely in existence, to the point where it can survive in the world. I say it can survive in the world, but this isn’t quite right. Infants need protection, need nurturing, need to be feed. And again, the same half of humanity that brings them into the world can also feed them, once again, from their very body, their very self. Women are the part of humanity that is capable of filling humanity with other humans.
Now, I am not an expert in human psychology, much less in women’s psychology. Knowing the current internet environment, I already feel like I’m treading in dangerous waters. Because I’m a guy, I feel comfortable throwing out the connection between abstract thinking and forming. I’m not going to do the same with women, although I do think similar things can be done. There are certain ways women behave that just strike me as creating and sustaining community, of filling a community with life, that I just don’t see men doing as often or with the same skill.
I should also point out that although this gendered reading of forming and filling obviously fits well with a complementarian reading of Scripture, and so maps onto conservative vs. liberal cultural battles, with all the attendant drama, this type of thing is not unique to American evangelicalism. Besides those in western civilization who might see human gender reflected in the cosmos, the Taoist yin and yang obviously takes the same idea of a universal binary principles and uses it to structure both the universe and mankind. Alternatively, a thoroughly modern, western, fairly progressive, and utterly pagan worldview does the same thing—Wicca. British Traditional Wicca specifically sees the world as defined by male and female principles. All this to say, I don’t think I’m being a fundamentalist Neanderthal when I point this out, any more than I’m being a Taoist mystic or a witch. I think these are just legitimate insights.
Now someone who has being paying attention will notice that so far I’ve only referred to six days. Indeed, people often refer to “six-day creationism.” We all know, of course, that the creation week actually lasted seven days. The last day, though, was a day of rest. Having established order, and then filled it with life, God set aside an entire day simply to enjoy what he had done. That, I think, is how that sabbath day ought to be read. It’s not just resting from labor, but enjoying the fruits of that labor. And this is fundamental to the way the universe is built—space is created, space is filled, and then the whole thing is enjoyed.
While Hebrew storytelling, and really a lot of western storytelling, doesn’t necessarily place the most important part of the story at the end, I do think that’s a legitimate way to understand this passage. The sabbath is the crown, the pinnacle of the creative act. This was built not simply because the action of building is good, but because it is good that the thing be a complete work, and that it be enjoyed as a complete work. That day, the day of enjoying the completed creation, that is the one that was made holy—not the one on which man was created, and not any of the other days. The day of rest.
It is noteworthy that the creation of humanity isn’t the part that’s most holy. The creation of mankind is neither the center, nor quite the climax of the story. This is striking, since it is clearly written with a human perspective in mind. When we first hear God deliberating over the creation of mankind, we are defined in terms of two things: God himself, and the rest of creation. We are made in God’s image and likeness, and we are made to have dominion over the other living things.
Some might read this in a kind of predatory way, as if creation existed for us. I read it in something like the opposite way. I think, giving the weight which is placed on every aspect of creation, and the way in which so little of it is explicitly noted as being designed for us, that we should be understood as built for it. This is not to say we should be earth-worshipers, but that we should be gardeners. We plough, we plant, we weed, we water. There’s a reason Eden is a garden, and not just a vegetable garden. It is filled with plants which are beautiful to look at.
My feeling that this is true only increases when it becomes apparent that we are not supposed to be eating flesh, or making clothes from animal skin. Much of what we think of as the resources nature provides for us, simply weren’t resources at the time. Add this to Genesis 2’s revelation that certain natural processes like rain and the growing of certain grasses hadn’t occurred because we weren’t there to tend things, and it just reinforces the idea.
Now to be sure, there is a glory to humanity. We are rulers, those who have dominion. But our glory is derived—derived from the God in whose image we are made, and from the garden we are to tend. That is, from our Father and from our work. This picture of the world is not anthropocentric, even if the place we have in the order is prominent. We are not the creators of the order, nor our we the center of it. We are those who maintain it, and who represent the creator. I think that is a wonderful thing, but it’s also a humbling thing.
To be truly human, to be what we are and to flourish in this space, means to be under authority, and to seek the good of something outside ourselves.