Let me preface what follows by acknowledging that the uniqueness of the Hebrew creation story is not everywhere agreed upon. There are those who see very little that is truly unique when compared to the surrounding creation stories. Some of this is covered in THE LIBERATING IMAGE and I don’t feel the need to cover it here. It’s my impression that even a simple reading of the stories offers some obvious differences that reveal a different view of God, humanity and the world. Walter Brueggeman has written in his book THE PROPHETIC IMAGINATION that “we are indeed made in the image of some God. And perhaps we have no more important theological investigation than to discern in whose image we have been made.” Again, it seems clear to me that the Hebrew creation story offers a unique perspective on the character of God, the vocation of humanity, and the place of creation.
First, there are obvious differences in the character of God as we explore Genesis 1 and even the following chapters. The first thing to note is that, while God does order the chaos, God creates out of nothing. There is no violent combat, no spilling of blood that results in the formations of humanity. It seems that God is enjoying this task of creation and its result, commenting again and again how good it seems to be. Perhaps one way to say this is that the God of the Hebrew story seems self-giving, while the gods of competing stories come across very self-centered. Drawing the story out a little further illustrates the point.
In Genesis 6, humanity is making their fair share of noise. In fact, they are violent and corrupt in all their ways. As opposed to the other creation stories in which the gods become annoyed, the God of the Hebrew Bible is grieved; sorry that he had made creation in the first place. In other words, God’s motivation for sending the flood is different. In the Hebrew Bible, God is a suffering god verses the vindictive gods of the other stories. The method of creation (out of nothing) and the reason for flooding it (eruption of violence) portray God as one who is opposed to death and destruction and resorts to the flood only out of deep pain and loss; grieving the corruption of humanity whom he has invited to join him creating the world. That point brings us to the next unique aspect of the Hebrew story.
Humanity is seen in a much greater light and, therefore, held to a much higher standard in the Hebrew story. Rather than being made after the lesser gods to slave over the structures of civilization, they are made a little lower than the gods and invited to join in creating the structures of civilization. This is true of male and female alike. While it may be valid to point to Genesis as a model for relationships, when comparing it with surrounding cultures, the main point seems to be to emphasize the equal place of the female gender. Any distinction or subservience seems to be the result of the fall that doesn’t come until chapter 3. The Hebrew creation story begins with a much more democratic and gender-equal perspective. That is, the image of God is found, not just in the king nor simply in men, but in all people, male and female. That same story moves forward with humanity playing a much more prominent role relative to the other myths.
In the creation stories of surrounding cultures, civilization is passed down to humanity by the gods and through the king. It is a way of keeping the humans in check and making sure they follow through on their task of keeping the gods fed. In contrast, civilization in the Hebrew story is never prescribed and always attributed to different individuals. The first city, arts and crafts, agriculture and animals, music, the first vineyard are all “discovered” in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. None of them are commanded by God. All of them come across as an expression of the creative work of those creatures whom God has set apart to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “subdue the earth.” In other words, the civilizations that humans build on top of the foundation that is the earth are actually a faithful response to God’s invitation and concrete expressions of what it means to live in the image of God. This final idea will be especially helpful in forming a definition of justice. We can pursue this further in the next post.