The God whom Moses introduces to the Israelites through the first five books of the Bible has been misunderstood by many to be a wrathful, nitpicky God who is endlessly obsessed with the minutiae of making sure people are keeping his law. He’s willing to zap them at the first sign of disobedience – or maybe if they look at Him wrong.
Now, please understand that I will be using the words “story” or “stories” to to refer to real events that actually took place, not to “legends” or “fairy tales.” I strongly believe in the truth of the Bible, which I hope you will see for yourself as I continue.
In the book of Genesis Moses begins with something we Evangelicals understand pretty well: that God is Creator. He makes the heavens and the earth in a very poetic fashion: 3 days to make all of the “spaces” and three days to populate them: Birds and heavenly bodies for the sky, fish for the sea, and land creatures for, well, the land. One thing we sometimes do not really consider is the tremendous effort God puts into his world and the incredible role humanity has been given in its care and development.
In terms of the creation, Isaac Newton and the industrial revolution have led us to believe that everything runs as a kind of machine, including animals and plants. That’s why we can create “agribusiness conglomerates” instead of farms and keep animals penned up in the dark until we kill them to eat. We throw chemical fertilizers on land to increase productivity without taking the livingness of the soil into account.
Moses, on the other hand, did not have these obvious advantages of the scientific method, so he sees God ordering the seas and the land to produce life in Genesis 1. “Let the seas produce… Let the land produce…” (If the land and the sea were following God’s orders, is it any wonder that scientists think evolution has occurred through natural laws?) So we have a world-view in which even the land and the sea can follow orders from God. This is a good thing to remember when the disciples comment about Jesus, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey?” (Jesus is God, of course. But we already knew that.)
Remember that the entire creation is GOOD. And then, as his masterpiece, he creates beings in his own image, male and female. He blesses them by ordering them to prosper and multiply, just like all the creatures. Did you catch that? His blessing is also a command. The blessing continues with another command: Have dominion…. Ok, now who, exactly, is said to have dominion? Human beings, male and female.
Where, exactly, does the woman fit in this picture? She is co-ruler with the man, because she is also made in God’s image and is also called to have dominion. In Genesis 2 she is made out of exactly the same stuff as the man, literally flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. Unlike other stories of origins, the man and woman are depicted as equal in kind, not as of different kinds (such as Pandora, the first woman of the Greek legend of origins, who was made of something different [clay] from the man [earth] by different deities [Prometheus made the man and Hephaistus made the woman]).
The word for “help” in Gen. 12:18 is the same one that God uses for Himself in Ex. 18: 4; Deut 33:26; Ps. 40:17, so the notion that the woman is intended to be a life-long bondservant to the man doesn’t seem to be where God is going with this.
I’ll digress here for just a moment. The only place in the Bible that gives anything resembling a job description specific to women is the idealized woman in Proverbs 31. This woman is a wealthy entrepreneur who travels extensively, buys and sells land and businesses, and manages multitudes of male and female servants. She is probably closer to being a modern female CEO than the standard 1950’s North American nuclear family ideal of the stay-at-home mom. We modern people sometimes get strange ideas about what life in ancient times was intended to be like.
Gen. 3:16 indicates that sin is what starts the domination of man over woman. From the way the story is written, it is doubtful that this domination of man over woman is what God had in mind originally.
Now, if redemption is intended to be from sin and its effects, where does that leave the man-woman relationship between Christians? The point I would like to make here is that we need to read the story of humanity’s relationship with the God of Abraham in the context of God’s original intent for humankind. The orientation we get in the book of Genesis is important to help us see where Jesus is coming from in His pronouncements against the scribes and Pharisees as well as His teaching to His disciples.
For instance, Jesus says that divorce is allowed in the Law of Moses because of what he calls “hardness of heart.” It is good to remember that sin is what introduces male domination over the female. Divorce was probably allowed to prevent further damage to human beings from domestic violence. Put simply, being trapped in a “till-death-do-us-part” marriage would have led to many women being murdered by husbands. There would have been many times when allowing an unloving husband to walk away from an unloved spouse probably saved her life.
This is a result of the proliferation of sin, and can only be solved by the removal of its source: sin embedded in human nature. Divorce only ends when the hard heart (of domination) is replaced with a new heart. That’s why marriage, no less than faith, requires love and respect for and from the partner, not a commitment grounded in legal obligation and enforced by a legalistic society. The end result is the same if the only choices available are murder by spouse or being stoned by the neighbours for trying to escape an abusive spouse. The point here is that the entire discussion of marriage and divorce, just like that of male domination over females, is rooted in the Genesis 3 incident. Divorce is rooted in the same blame game that leads to other domestic problems. It pays to really know these stories well before applying one-size-fits-all solutions to modern crises.
Ok, back from the digression. So joint Dominion over what? Does it say here that some human beings get to have dominion over other human beings? That is what all Gentile kings thought. They thought they could rule over all lesser human beings according to their own whim. When Jesus says to His disciples “The rulers of the gentiles exercise lordship over their people, but it will not be so with you.” His words are rooted in the Genesis story of creation. Actually, a lot of Jesus’ words and approaches are rooted in the stories found at the beginning of the Bible.
So we are supposed to rule all the creatures of land and sea. If we were thinking in industrial revolution terms, that means they belong to the humans and we can do whatever we want with them. Is that what God is really saying here? Does dominion mean killing off everyone in your kingdom if it’s in your economic interest? No earthly nation would last long if we were to kill off all its citizens. Nor will the earth that supports us.
According to Genesis, our job is to “till and keep” the earth. The idea is to nurture it so it is capable of supporting the multitudes of creatures God made to inhabit it. Let me put it another way: The earth is God’s temple, and our job is to keep it beautiful and functioning the way God wants it as His priests (co-regents). We “subdue” it according to God’s design, not necessarily our own. That job remains even after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Nowhere in the Bible is that basic job description for humanity ever revoked. It continues post-Flood. Coating the Gulf of Mexico with a layer of oil does not strike me as a particularly effective way of taking care of the world we were entrusted with. I’m just saying…
Speaking of ruling over the creatures, are we ruling over “dumb beasts” or is there more to it than that? Well, God does order them to multiply, as He orders human beings. When Noah steps off the ark, God makes a covenant. It is instructive to note with whom He makes this covenant in Gen. 9:9-10 It is also instructive to note the instructions he gives to amend the covenant in 9:1. It starts with “be fruitful and multiply, and ends with instructions to both humans and animals.
Are animals dumb? How many of you have pets, say, dogs or cats? Do they understand you? Do you understand what they want? Does your cat ever manipulate you for food or attention? Can elephants or so-called “beasts of burden” have their own distinct personalities? I think anyone who has worked with draft animals will agree that there is more to it than just what we call instinct. Each animal is an individual, and different things motivate them or anger them. What I’m saying is that dominion involves animals being smart enough to respond appropriately to human leadership. The Apostle James notes that every creature can be tamed except the tongue.
How is that possible if animals don’t have intelligence of some kind? The creation is a living system, not a mechanical or industrial one. God cares a great deal for all of the creatures He has made, not least because of the rich beauty and balance He has built into it.
The choice to never again flood the world is a decision by Abraham’s God to continue working with sinful humanity in spite of the long odds against their actual cooperation. This decision is a unilateral promise by God to continue to bless the world, sinner and saint alike, for as long as it takes for humanity to be brought back to God. The blessings of sowing and harvest, summer and winter, sunshine and rain are to fall on the just and the unjust, just like in the New Testament. God is the God of undeserved blessings and the God of the continuity of the world. Abraham’s God is a promise-keeping God.
In the story of Noah, God is introduced as both judge and saviour. He judges that humanity is completely disobedient and untrustworthy – that is, worthy only of complete eradication. This will have disastrous consequences not only on humanity, but also on the entire air-breathing creation. Sin is universal in scope (perhaps even reaching into the heavenly realms), and judgment is also universal. Except that God chooses one man to carry on his creation. Theologically, we call that choice “election.”
God chooses one person to save on the entire creation. God later chooses Abraham to create a people who will be His own. Throughout the history of Israel, God saves the nation by choosing individual Judges, then Kings. When the kings don’t follow God’s will, He chooses individuals – Prophets – to try to turn back the kings to God. Each step of the way, God chooses people to serve His aim of saving some aspect of His good creation.
Think about that for a moment. The choice of Jesus Christ, descendent of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David and eventually Mary to save the world is not an isolated incident. Long before there was even an Abraham or an Israel, God was already a judge who also saves the world. That is why the apostle Paul later writes that his mission is to elicit the same kind of faith as Abraham had in Gentiles who embrace Jesus Christ as their Lord. It’s also why he writes in Romans 8:19-21 that the entire creation is waiting for the “sons of God” to be revealed to release it from its bondage to decay.
So, in the original design, the earth and its creatures are a living ecosystem that humanity is designed specifically to manage for livability on behalf of all the creatures. The human beings, both male and female are designed to mutually rule it. This is the God that Moses introduces to the world in what we now call the Pentateuch as Abraham’s God.
At this point you may be wondering where we’re supposed to be going with all of this.
The stories of the first five books of the Bible were given to a people who were about to enter a land that God had promised their ancestor Abraham. It was going to be an awesome new adventure, yet one that their parents had already tarnished by refusing to enter 40 years before. (Anybody heard about the incident of the 12 spies – the 10 who gave a bad report? In fact the entire book of Hebrews is a sermon based on the story of how they failed to enter because of unbelief.) The more you know the stories of the Old Testament, the more sense the New Testament’s stories about Jesus will make.
God tells them that they most emphatically will fail to stay in the land in Deut. 30:1 because of their disobedience. Even with that verdict, however, comes hope in the following verse. There will always be at least a few left who can come back. God will never entirely do away with them, just as in Noah’s day.
These same stories were later told to an entire people who had been forcibly removed from the Promised Land as a witness that their God was still true to His promises, even though they had been unfaithful to theirs. God had promised them a descendant of Abraham and of King David who would redeem them from slavery to the nations and restore their fortunes so that they could fulfil God’s promise to Abraham to bless all of the nations.
I am here to remind all of us that that long-promised saviour of the creation has come! The God of Abraham is now actively saving the world even as we speak, one person at a time. He called Noah to participate in saving the world. He is calling, or has called, each one of us here to participate in saving the world. He called Abraham to participate in blessing all the nations of the world. He has called all of us to participate in blessing the whole world by spreading the good news that Jesus died for us, lives for us, and is currently renewing the entire creation by giving us all a fresh start in His Kingdom. By the time Jesus Christ, our Lord, has finished, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, a fresh start(!) and there will be no more crying or pain ever more.
Now, having said all of that, what do we do in the meantime? Does it make sense for us not to care about the environment? What about all the creatures being made extinct every day? Does it make sense for us not to care about fellow human beings?
We also stand at the threshold of momentous change. Like the Israelites who were being systematically ejected from the Promised Land to Babylonian captivity, we are being marginalized in our own supposedly Christian country. What do we do in a country that is rapidly de-Christianizing? Do we lobby a government that no longer cares about Jesus Christ for Sunday laws and privileges for the church? Or do we buckle down and do what Jesus Christ asks us to do – make disciples?
Our fate is tied to the fate of Abraham’s children according to the book of Romans. That’s because we now live by faith in a land that is not our own, just like Abraham, who looked forward to a promise that was yet future for him. So do we. Jesus is still redeeming. It’s not over yet. He told His disciples that if the world obeyed Him, they would obey His disciples. Well, the world killed Him instead. He also tells us that we are not greater than our Master (Jn. 15:20). Whatever they did to him could happen to any of His disciples (Jn. 16:2). He even promises His followers tribulation (Jn. 16:33). It’s there in the fine print.
The more we read the whole book, the more informed we will be about who we are, what God is like and what we need to be doing in our lives. Like Israel, we are called to display how great God is by word and example. We really need to think about how to do that in the way God does it. Read the book. Study how God saves. Study how Jesus deals with sin. Does He condemn first or save first? How does God deal with sin individually? Collectively? All of these things are displayed in the Bible –not as timeless laws- but as timeless (true) stories and examples (see Rahab’s story in Josh. 2; 6:23 how God honors the spies’ promise).
Adam and Eve were called to keep the earth full of life. Noah and his family were called to preserve the creatures and refill the earth with life. Abraham’s “seed” was called to bless all nations.
Sooner or later there’s a question that should occur to us. Where do we fit in this universal story? Why were we called? Why was I called?
The whole Bible was written as a story intended to draw us into a much larger world-view. [Pause] Just as God did not choose Abraham or Noah just for their own sake, nor Israel just for its own sake, He chooses us for the sake of the entire creation. For the sake of our neighbours. For the sake of strangers. For the sake of all the animals in the world. For the sake of the entire planet. This isn’t a private club. This isn’t about fire insurance. This is about a calling to fulfil a destiny God ordained for all human beings from the very beginning. It’s about being keepers of the planet and about being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. It’s about relieving oppression. It’s about courage in the face of persecution. It’s about dying to self and dying for others if need be – just like our Saviour did for us.
That’s why we have been exploring the beginning of the Bible today. I want to encourage all of us to read the book with the eyes of our curiosity wide open. Read it like you’re reading a kind of Bible Jeopardy. What I’m reading is the answer. What was the question? Become enthralled again by the scope of the story. See the patterns of salvation and covenant in generation after generation. See how the imagery at the end of the book of Revelation looks so much like the Garden of Eden, complete with a river and tree of life. Get the big picture.
Find your place in the world of God’s creation. And Live out your calling in light of what you see there.