Commentary on Genesis 1:1—2:4a
“Community” and “relationship” are “in words” in current environmental and creational discussions.1 All creatures of God constitute a community in relationship.
The Genesis creation accounts have important resources for this conversation. What kind of God is depicted in these texts and what is the importance of the divine decision to work in community rather than alone?
Commentators often suggest that God created the world alone and with absolute control, working unilaterally. But, if this understanding of God in creation is correct, then those created in God’s image could properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms–power over, absolute control, and independence. By definition, the natural world thus becomes available for human manipulation and exploitation. What if the God of the creation accounts is imaged more as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship? Then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.
Creatures are deeply dependent upon God for their creation and life. At the same time, God has chosen to establish an interdependent relationship with them with respect to both originating and continuing creation. God’s approach to creation is communal, relational, and, in the wake of God’s initiating activity, God works from within the world rather than on the world from without. I see four ways of thinking through this view.
1. God uses already existing matter in creating. The images of Gen 1-2 bring God, raw material, and movement together and signal a dynamic rather than a static sense to creation, an open process rather than one tightly controlled. For example, God assumes human form and shapes the ground into a human being, getting dirt under the divine fingernails (2:7). Human beings are created out of an already existent creature.
2. God calls upon already existing creatures to bring about new creations. For example, in Gen 1:11-13, God invites, “Let the earth bring forth,” and, we are told, “the earth brought forth.” The earth is the subject of the creating verb. This is mediated creation rather than immediate, multilateral rather than unilateral. The nonhuman creatures have a genuine vocational role in enabling the creation to become. That story of the creation has been repeated over the millennia as ever new creatures come into being, mediated by existing creatures, from glaciers to volcanoes to tsunamis. These texts witness to divine self-limitation in letting the world create itself; God stands back (the Sabbath day), enabling the creatures to be/become what they were created to be.
3. God invites the divine council to participate in the creation of the human. God’s involvement in creative activity with creatures who are not God is extended in Gen. 1:26:”our image, our likeness.” Most scholars understand this plural in terms of the divine council, the heavenly assembly that does the divine bidding. God is by nature a social being, functioning within a divine community that is rich and complex. Only social and relational human beings are truly correspondent to such a God; that is the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God. God here creates communally. The creation of the human community is the result of a dialogical rather than a monological act. Genuine interaction and interdependence are herein characteristic of God’s creative activity.
4. God involves the human in still further acts of creation. The word “God” in Genesis 1 primarily has reference to God as one who creates. It would follow that those created in the image of God are most fundamentally creative beings. This is illuminated by Gen 2:5, wherein human activity is deemed to be essential if the creation is to become what God intended it to be. Human beings are given a crucial role in the initial creation. Such an important role is evident also in Gen. 2:18-20, wherein the human naming of the animals is a genuinely creative act. Twice, God lets the human being determine what is adequate to move the evaluation of the creation from “not good” to “good.” Indeed, how the human being decides will determine whether there will be a next human generation! The human judgment will shape the future of the world. Human beings are not able to stymie God’s movement into the future in any final way, but God establishes such a relationship with them that their decisions regarding creation truly count.
In Gen 1:28, God gives the human being certain responsibilities and, necessarily, the power with which to do them. From the beginning, God chooses not to be the only one with creative power and the capacity, indeed the obligation, to exercise it. Given the imaging of God as Creator, this commission should be interpreted fundamentally in terms of creative word and deed. This gives decisive shape to what it means to have dominion and subdue the earth. God is imaged as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship; the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.
Human beings are created to “subdue the earth.” The word “subdue” makes clear that the evaluation “good” does not mean that the creation is “perfect,” in the sense of needing no further development or attention. The word “subdue” suggests the idea bringing order out of disorder, drawing the world along to its fullest possible potential. Creation is here understood, not as a static state of affairs, but as a dynamic situation in which human activity is crucial for the development of the created order.
God’s creation is built to go somewhere; the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things. The creation is not presented as “a finished product,” to be preserved as it was originally created. God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments.
In pursuing these tasks, human beings cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of the creation is solely in God’s hands. They are called, not to passivity relative to the earth, but to genuine engagement, the nature of which will have significant implications for the future of the environment.
1Portions of this article have been shaped by Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005). See this volume for detail and bibliography.