Note from CM: I am reading a wonderful book about the Genesis 1 creation account by Michael Lefebvre, a local minister here in Indiana, called The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context. I hope to share more about it next week. His study yields remarkable insights about how the first creation story joins with other important stories in the Torah in functioning as a “calendar narrative.”
I want to propose in this book that the Genesis 1:1–2:3 creation week is most fruitfully read as a “calendar narrative.” It is a special kind of historical narrative in which historical events are given the dates of a festival observance (sabbath observance in the case of the creation week), without regard for the timing of the original occurrence.
Lefebvre goes on to say
…that the creation week narrative is, transparently, not a chronological account of the original creation event. Instead, it is a structured retelling of the creation around the pattern of a Model Farmer tending his fields and livestock each day of the week until the sabbath. This form was to serve as a practical guide for the lay Israelite in his or her weekly labors and sabbath worship, and it does not even attempt to answer the curiosities of modern science regarding the processes or timing of the original creation event.
Like the story of the Passover and others in the Torah, these stories from Israel’s past were primarily designed to instruct those who lived in a much later time. These narratives told them about their identity as God’s people and the practices that would enable them to flourish in later generations.
Before we get into this book more fully (I’m still finishing it), here’s a taste of the direction in which we’re going. This is a repeat of a post from 2018, from our “Genesis: Where It All Begins” series.
• • •
God’s Good Creation
Many students of the Bible think that Genesis 1, with its intricate structure, repetition, and the heightened character of its language, may represent an ancient liturgy confessing faith in the Creator God. If it is, then the refrain, repeated seven times, is captured in these verses:
- And God saw that the light was good. (Gen 1:4)
- And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:10)
- And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:12)
- And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:18)
- And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:21)
- And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:25)
- God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Gen 1:31)
You simply cannot come away from reading and meditating on this text without concluding that this world and all that God made is a good creation. Here are a couple of thoughts focusing in on what that means in the context of Genesis 1.
One, the word “good” involves a word-play. It contrasts with the phrase in Gen 1:3, “The earth was formless and void.” In Hebrew, “formless and void” translates tohu wabohu, which is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a wilderness that is unsuitable for human habitation. “Good” is the Hebrew word tov, and represents the opposite of that. God took that which was tohu and made it tov.
Two, “good” indicates that which is beneficial for life to flourish. The word-play mentioned above contrasts that which is uninhabitable with that which can bring forth life and sustain the life of its creatures. It is not simply that God is evaluating his work and commenting on its quality. Rather, he is evaluating it according to its fertility and ability to provide abundantly for the life of the world. The Jews would have understood this contrast very well, having been brought through the wilderness (tohu wabohu) to the Promised Land (tov).
Three, the text indicates that this “good” creation is God’s provision. The word “saw” in the refrain “God saw that it was good” is not just saying that God looked at the world he brought to order as if to observe it. The word “saw” is a Hebrew verb that can have the idea of “God saw to it that it was good.” In the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, the patriarch named the place “The Lord will provide” (Yahweh yireh). That is the same word. “The Lord will see (to it).” So, in Genesis 1, when it affirms that God saw that it was good, it is saying that God provided what is good for his creation, that which promotes the flourishing of life and blessing.
Now, I want to make an assertion that I fully realize goes against the grain of a long tradition of Christian theology, at least the way it has been understood on a popular level.
God has never retracted his statement that “it is good.”
Most evangelical presentations of the gospel begin like this: In the beginning, God created a world that was good (meaning perfect, unsullied by any sin or evil, a paradise). But…
Then they go on to assert that Adam and Eve’s sin introduced human sin and death into the world, and the very nature of the world itself was changed. The world itself became “not good.” It was at that point that animals as well as humans began to die. It was at that point that all the things we consider “bad” became part of the very nature of the world.
The corollary to this in a lot of popular theology is that God’s goal therefore is to abandon this creation and put a new one in its place, rather than renewing and transforming the present one.
If you want to see a complete statement of the goodness of God’s creation, in all its facets, see Psalm 104, and go back and re-read my earlier post, “Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing: Delighting in God’s Goodness.” As I write in the post:
This reinforces [my] perspective…that creation did not change in its nature, properties, or “laws” as a result of a “fall” or “curse” in Genesis 3. It was deemed “very good” by God in the beginning, and in this poem, the psalmist affirms that it remains “very good.” This does not change the fact that God acts in both judgment and salvation in the world. But God does that because of what we read at the very end of Psalm 104 [which blames the wickedness of humans], not because creation itself has been placed under a curse that transformed it from “good” to “not good.”
Obviously, humans have introduced and continue to spread sin, evil, and corruption throughout this good world. In addition, we must face the fact of “surd evil” — evil or, from our point of view, “tragedy” or that which seems to work against life and well being that is incapable of rational explanation on our part.
However, my friends, this is our Father’s world. It remains good, God’s provision to us so that our lives and creation itself might flourish in well being and blessing.
The danger this good world faces continually is that human beings will corrupt it by “corrupting their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Humankind, given stewardship over the world, is called to represent the God of Genesis 1 and Psalm 104 in all the earth. This is the God who sustains creation by his wisdom and by the joy he takes in it. In God’s image humanity is called to the wise care and use of this amazing planet. By taking delight in its wonders and never forgetting from Whom they came, we take our rightful place here among the manifold splendors of the cosmos, helping to fulfill God’s will on earth as in heaven.
24 thoughts on “Another Look: God’s Good Creation (and a preview of things to come)”
“The corollary to this in a lot of popular theology is that God’s goal therefore is to abandon this creation and put a new one in its place, rather than renewing and transforming the present one.”
I’m not so sure this is the only conclusion to the idea of a ‘cursed’ or ‘fallen’ creation. Especially the idea of a curse – it implies a foreign, external action that is oppressing creation, but that suggests that it can be reversed. The curse can be undone and creation is free again.
For those who missed it at the time, Mike the Geologist reviewd “God’s Good Earth” here a while back, which contains many of the same points.
“God has never retracted his statement that ‘it is good.’”
Genesis 1 should have put a stop to gnostic dualism among believers a long time ago. Alas…
My favorite OT prof always pronounced the word wabohu with a “V,” making it sound even more alliterative with the word tov: “Tohu Vabohu.” Lots of poetry in Hebrew.
And the six-day narrative is a numerical progression, also a device in poetry. Six times creation is called “good;” on the seventh it’s “VERY good.” Something like the lyrics in a blues song, complaining once, then twice, then upping the ante with a more creative complaint or insult. Very biblical.
Also, I like the idea that “The word ‘saw’ is a Hebrew verb that can have the idea of ‘God saw to it that it was good.’”
Fun stuff. Thanks.
That was beautiful. Like you!
We did a series on this last year for Eastertide, Beakerj: https://internetmonk.com/?s=%22the+very+good+gospel%22
It never ends…
Got the blockquotes right.
Feel free to delete the bad-format one above.
It’s called Making the Rapture Bet.
Just like the Death Bet, they’ll be gone so That’s YOUR Problem.
“OH I’LL BE GONE
(Yes I’ll be Gone)
IN THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE…”
for Robert F who is our loved haiku poet in residence 🙂
“I don’t want to be here anymore.”
If I had been able to verbalize the first feeling, my first visceral reaction to the world when I first became aware of it, and myself in it, and the people and web of distraught relationships and human suffering and dysfunction all around me, I don’t know exactly at what age it was, but as a very small child, I would’ve said, “I don’t want to be here….” I came into this world a rather glum child, and remain one.
Thanks so much for this post – it’s a really important topic for me as I just love this planet & the natural world so much, always have.
I’m reading a book which covers this topic too- The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right – which is about the Biblical notion of shalom, & the eventual restoration of shalom in the Kingdom of God. I’m enjoying it so far.
Thank you, Dana
“Despair comes when we look at the dark and forget the light.”
true this, thank you to Father Stephen for your insight
‘they’, the ones who see only the darkness, may be in process of turning towards the light,
but better ‘we’ who think ourselves as being in some better state bear with ‘them’ and help ‘ them’ if we can
life is tough on people
for some, the journey ‘takes longer’ but ‘they’ are still ‘trying’ in the ways that ‘they’ know how to try
pray for ‘them’
‘we’ aren’t meant to judge ‘them’; but to come alongside and help ‘them’ so that the darkness does not overwhelm
in the end, in Christ, there are no divisions among ‘us’ and
if the work of the Incarnation comes to fulfillment, as is the promise,
then, we will know Our Lord came to seek and save the ‘lost’ and so all shall be well in the Kingdom of the Lord in time, in time
I don’t know if you’re able to follow Jesus Creed these days, but RJS has been reviewing this book for the past few weeks. You might want to take a look.
Robert, and David,
here is Fr Stephen’s latest.
It seems there’s “something in the air”….
So then I wonder why many religious folks who truly believe the created world is evil and cursed enthusiastically sing such hymns as “This is My Father’s World” and others that extol the beauty of nature? Or why they talk about the children of Israel entering the promised land flowing with milk and honey? It is almost as if they do not believe what they preach.
thank you, DAVID CORNWELL
I loved your comment, it makes ‘sense’ to me, but more so it speaks to my heart right now. God Bless !
here is a perspective that might encourage you some:
“But history is not something that takes place elsewhere; it takes place here. We all contribute to making it.
If bringing back some human dimension to the world depends on anything, it depends on how we acquit ourselves in the here and now.”
He believed we are called to contribute to presence of the goodness that is ‘humane’ as our testament to hope in this world, even in the most difficult of times and circumstances, we need to ‘witness’ to that hope
Havel once said this about hope: ““Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart;
it transcends the world that is immediately experienced,
and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons
. . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”
it’s like that ‘thank you’ the Earth gave us when we all sheltered for a time long enough for the skies to clear and turn a deeper blue and for the smog to vanish above the cities and for the air to be clearer and fresher, so that for those who grew sick and had trouble breathing, some might be helped by the natural world of the Creator which was more able to give better air when mankind had ceased for a while from its thoughtless pollution . . .
— “Someone (I’m looking at you evangelicals) who thought the world fundamentally evil would want to see it put out of its misery, not restored.”
That seems to be the underlying sentiment among people I know who espouse the “End Times” and “I can’t wait til Jesus comes again.”
And I think to myself, Do you know how many good, decent people will suffer if “End Times” plays out like most people interpret them? Why would I wish that on anyone?
I would say your hope that the world will be liberated proves your belief it is fundamentally good. If you did not truly love it, you would not wish to see it saved. No one expects you to call evil good, or pretend that the evil is not there. Someone (I’m looking at you evangelicals) who thought the world fundamentally evil would want to see it put out of its misery, not restored.
I see and feel the pain of this world every single day of my life. It’s all around — everywhere. It has invaded our existence. But I also know that there is something better — something resoundingly good that is sometimes hidden, waiting to be revealed that has the power of transformation and salvation within its very nature. Sometimes it is just beneath the surface, like the Spring flowers that are now bringing us beauty even in the midst of terrible sickness and tragedy.
I hear it in the voices of those who are hurting — and healing — each evening when I gather with neighbors in a circle outside. Social distancing can be revelatory — somehow it reveals that which is “good.” The words I hear aren’t those of hopelessness in the midst of evil. Rather they reveal a neighborhood dong the good things of Spring — planting, making their homes places of beauty. Death is all around and threatens daily. But still, the most compelling voice is that of God saying “it is good.”
This is a feeble attempt to put in words what I feel. It doesn’t do justice.
I continue to struggle with my underlying spiritual predisposition to Gnosticism. My instincts tell me this world is not good; the pain, suffering, and death in it are the result of it having been created by a lesser being, not the transcendent and good God; there are glimmers of light and beauty in it, including in living things and the natural world, but they are trapped inside ugliness and pain, suffering and death; ultimately the only way of liberation is the way out of it into a reality where pain, suffering, and death do not exist. Where I part ways with the Gnostics is that I’m not convinced that esoteric knowledge leads out of the condition of this world. I hang onto hope that ultimately it will all be liberated from its condition, and I look to Jesus as the liberator. But I cannot look out at the world around me, and the one within me, and say, “It is good,” not seeing what I see, what I’ve seen all my life, I just can’t.
Thoughtful and well-written piece today, CM. Much enjoyed your perspective on creation and its “goodness.”