I’m going to devote the next few posts to one of the most important, although under-rated, theological topics in the Bible: the role of God as creator of the world. Yes, one of the first things we Christians learn about God is that God made the universe. And it’s good that we begin with creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) helps us to accept that God is in control of things.
But the Bible uses teachings about creation for much, much more than just to tell us that God put the cosmos together. Biblical creation accounts have a lot to teach us about God, human beings, and humanity’s relationship to God. The trick for us is to be willing to hear more than just “God made everything” when we read these accounts.
In this post, I want to focus on an especially important point about Gen 1:1–2:3 and Gen 2:4–3:24. These are two separate creation stories, placed next to each other. Yes, many of us are tempted to read these as one continuous narrative. But several clues tell us that the accounts are different. Gen 1 refers to the Creator as “God;” Gen 2:4–3:24 uses the term “Lord God.” In 1:26–27 man and woman are created at the same time, and appear to be completely equal; in 2:4–24 the man is created first, and to some extent is set above the woman, who is created last. In Gen 1, humans are the last of God’s creation; in Gen 2, the Lord God creates man before the animals. And there are other differences (explore them sometime!).
For now, however, I want to focus on what may be the most important difference between the two. In Gen 1 God works on a planetary scale. He creates light and the heavenly bodies, things that we can all see existing far beyond earth. And when God’s creation reaches earth itself, it focuses on the entire globe, arranging seas and land masses, then calling into being large amounts of fish and birds, and a massive number of land animals.
So when we read Gen 1, we get a sense of God “out there,” overseeing the entire planet (I like this image). God is all powerful and remote, controlling everything from far away.
The picture of God in Gen 2:4–24, however, is very different. In this section God works on an intimate level. He creates the man by digging in the dirt (note the word “formed” in 2:7), then does a kind of “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation” to give the man life. He does not perform great acts upon the entire earth; instead, he plants (not words only!) a garden in a corner of it. A little later, he creates the woman by removing a rib from the man – a delicate operation that is best done with a scalpel. These are not grand actions, speaking from afar as in Gen 1. Instead, Gen 2 has the Lord God behaving on a small, personally involved level.
My favorite verse from Gen 2–3 is the first part of Gen 3:8, “then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” The idea of God visiting earth to relax in a garden (when the temperature is just right!) would be bizarre in Gen 1, something like us thinking of ourselves as ants taking a break under a blade of grass. But in the context of Genesis 2–3, where the Lord God appears human-sized, it makes sense that God would want to enjoy the garden that he himself has planted.
These two very different pictures of God are worth thinking about because they speak to deep human desires. We like the idea of a perfectly good, perfectly loving, all powerful God who is in control of things. It’s easier to accept the existence of darkness and hardship when we know that, in the end, a loving, just God is in control. So the Gen 1 image of a powerful God “out there” gives us confidence.
But it’s also great to know that God relates to us as individuals, and that he really understands what it is like to be human. The fact that God created us is not enough on its own to make us trust that God is fully aware of human desires, emotions, and fears. When God is on our level, it’s easier to believe that he knows us, and that he’s in our corner. This more personal image of God is what we get in Gen 2–3.
We don’t always realize it, but the Old Testament describes God in both ways throughout. Much of the time God appears all powerful, controlling everything. But there are many passages in which God is close and intimate with human beings.
The New Testament goes one step further, by claiming that the man Jesus Christ is God. This is part of the genius of John 1, which links the “remote” and “up close” depictions of God. John 1:1 references Gen 1:1 (and the “remote” God) with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” but a little later John 1:14a connects the All Powerful to the Human Sized by telling us plainly that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Thanks to the idea that Christ is at once fully God and fully human, Christians get to enjoy both the all-powerful God who controls everything, and the God who truly knows what it is like to be human, because he is human.
Genesis 1–2 shows us that even on a topic as fundamental as “the basic characteristics of God,” the Bible is not 100% consistent. But this inconsistency is a good thing, because it allows us to experience God in multiple ways. Even if the Bible’s teachings do not seem to be fully consistent from one chapter to the next, let’s allow them to differ from each other, so that we may enjoy all that the Bible has to offer us, and come to know God in all his fullness.