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“When God Began to Create”: Reflections on Genesis and Cosmic Conflict (Part One)

(This article originally appeared on the website
In the magisterial language of the King James Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 is, however, a highly ambiguous text that can be translated as the start of a process rather than a fait accompli. In the JPS (following Rashi), it is rendered “When God began to create heaven and earth…” Whichever way the verse is read, there is a strong suggestion of a significant time gap between the creation of basic matter and the creation of life and its supporting structures. The earth “was formless and void” and God’s spirit was “moving over the surface of the water.”
The theme of creation as process as well as event is continued throughout the narrative in richly suggestive ways. In verse 3, God says, “Let there be light” and immediately “there was light”. The creation of light is thus ex nihilo, instantaneous, and strictly by divine fiat. However, when we arrive at verse 11, we find that God does not create only ex nihilo. He recruits and involves what he has already created previously in the next stage of the unfolding creation. “Let the earth sprout vegetation,” he says, and “The earth brought forth vegetation.” The earth itself therefore participates as an obedient servant to God in the creation process/event. Life itself is a complete gift of God. At the same time, the language is clearly focused on natural generation and conveys a strong impression of organic emergence. God commands and is fully in control, but something very different is underway than in the creation of light in verse 3. The earth is charged with a task. The earth brings things forth.
In verse 21, the text suggests an incomplete or still empty creation with ecological niches waiting to be filled by animals, again, not by instantaneous fiat as in the case of the light, but now by the animals themselves through procreative processes that will extend across time. The birds and creatures of the seas are commanded by God to “Be fruitful and multiply,” to “fill the waters in the seas,” and to “multiply on the earth.” The text does not restrict the multiplication of animals to quantitative multiplication alone. The literal reader is left entirely free to think that the Creator might be delighted to see his creation multiply not only in number but also in kind.
By any plain, literal reading of Genesis, God’s way of creating is organic, dynamic, complex, and ongoing rather than merely a sequence of staccato punctuation marks by verbal decree. God 1) recruits the creation itself as a co-participant in his work as it unfolds, so that not all of the creation is ex nihilo or purely by divine fiat; and 2) initiates emergent and generative processes that anticipate a continuous creation with (in philosophical terms) “secondary causes.” God desires a world that will in some sense be free from his direct control.
Enter the Earth Creature
Enter Adam. As in the case of the animals, Adam is not created out of nothing nor by divine fiat but from preexisting materials taken directly out of the earth, which God “forms.” The name “Adam,” numerous commentators note, is etymologically related to adamah, meaning soil. Adam’s name can be read to mean “from the soil” or even “the earth creature.” Strangely, some believers have thought that the idea that humans might be related to other animals detracts from their glory as creatures uniquely made in the image of God. Being related to soil hardly seems like a more noble distinction. Yet the fact that humans share the same material origins as other animals is undeniably stated in Genesis.
In Genesis 2:19, we learn that God also “formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky” from “out of the ground.” Humans, birds, and the beasts of the field thus share a common ancestry—they all come from out of the same ground. The language of Genesis is at once shrouded in tantalizing mystery and absolutely clear: Adam and other animals are beings of the same essential “stuff.” They are related. And the link that binds them together is not chance or competition for scarce resources but the hand of God.
As in the case of the animals, Adam is commanded to be fruitful and multiply. But Adam is given an additional task that may be our first significant clue to what Karl Barth referred to as the “shadow side” of the creation, the nihil or nothingness that a world created from out of chaos and nothingness is always in danger of slipping back into. In verse 28, Adam is told to “subdue” (kabas) the earth. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the word “subdue” is used almost exclusively to refer to one thing: violent military conquest (cf. Joshua 18:1; Judges 8:28; 2 Samuel 22:40). The implication, then, is that there is a difficult and even martial task for humanity in relationship to the rest of the creation. Adam must literally “dominate,” “subjugate” or conquer the rest of the creation.
This sense is amplified in the account of the creation of Eve in Chapter 2. In 2:18, God says he will make Adam an “ezer kenegdo”. “Helper” is too weak a translation, Robert Alter notes. What the word really connotes is an active sustainer or ally in military contexts. We are therefore faced with a great riddle. Why is Adam charged by God with “subduing” (together with Eve, his ezer kenegdo) the rest of the creation? According to some readers, such as John Locke, God gave Adam warrant to exploit or “own” the creation. Genesis is thus read as a manifesto for capitalist appropriation and private property rights. Other commentators have sought to soften the language of subduing by reframing it in terms of “stewardship.” But it may be the language of martial struggle actually serves a vital theological function.
An Untamed Creation
As unsettling as it may be for some readers to discover, nowhere is the creation described in Genesis as “perfect.” God declares his work to be “good” at each stage and finally “very good” at its end. But even though in Deuteronomy 32:4 we read that God’s “works are perfect,” Genesis does not use the language of perfection to describe the creation itself. The word was available. Why wasn’t it used?
If the reading I have offered so far is at all correct and God recruits the creation at each stage to play an active, participatory role in what follows, with Adam being charged with an especially vital task of “subduing” other parts of the earth, then the reason is clear. The creation cannot be perfect because it is, in an important sense, not entirely God’s work. There are principles of freedom at work in the creation, and animals, humans, and the earth itself have a God-given role to play as his co-workers. There is also a strong sense that while the creation is in one sense “complete” at the end of the narrative, it is not yet finished. God “completed His work which He had done” (2:2)—that is, he completed what he had completed. But the story of God’s creative purposes for his world has in fact just begun.
Hence, when God tells Adam to “cultivate” the Garden it is entirely consistent with the language and narrative arc of the story to see this cultivation as including the idea of expansion or development—God wants Adam to increase the Garden. The fact that God “rested” or “ceased” from his work on the seventh day may therefore represent not a termination point but a deeply pregnant pause. There is more to come and we must wait to hear God say the words, “It is finished.”
Yet wherever there is true freedom at work there is also the possibility of deviation from if not rebellion against the divine will. For beings with moral agency such as humans, deviation would be rebellion, purely and simply. But we must ask whether free creatures possessing creaturely agency of some kind but without moral awareness might deviate in other ways that were simultaneously not in harmony with God’s final plans but at the same time still within the sphere of what God would call “very good”. By way of analogy, a wild horse must be “broken” by a skilled trainer. The wildness of the horse is part of its glory. It is very good. But its energies must be disciplined and channeled in new directions before it can become a horse that wins the greater glory, both for itself and for its master, of the Kentucky Derby.
In Genesis 1, there are implicit and explicit distinctions made between domestic and wild animals, or cattle and “beasts of the earth” as well as “creeping things.” The seas teem not only “with swarms of living creatures” but with “great sea monsters” (which are described in wonderful poetic imagery in the book of Job as the Behemoth and the Leviathan). So there is a still untamed and wild aspect to the creation. Adam and Eve, I would suggest, must in some way wrestle with this side of the created world and bring it more completely under God’s own dominion without overriding or exploiting its freedom. That is their high calling and it seems to be a formidable task. The language of “subduing” in Genesis does not suggest pruning hedges. It suggests doing battle. Put another way, Adam’s role is not simply that of a caretaker but that of a redeemer. Adam is a “type” of Christ.
The burning question is: Might this wildness in the creation that still needs to be “subdued,” emerging from principles of freedom built into the creation itself, have included death as well? Could an untamed creation have included elements of ferocity and even predation? Could God have ever looked at a world that included death of any kind and pronounced it “very good”? And how could we possibly reconcile such an idea with Paul’s statement in Romans 5:12 that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin”? This is the question I will explore in Parts Two and Three of this article in the coming days.

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