It’s time to bring together the material from the last two posts to show how Moses makes a brilliant literary move in his Genesis 1 creation account. What does he do? He takes the normal ANE metaphor “the temple is creation” and reverses it to “creation is a temple.” This literary move has huge theological implications.
A Quick Review
Two posts ago in this series, in Reading Gen 1 Through the Proper Interpretive Lens, we saw that we are to read the six days of creation through the lens of Gen 1:1 and Gen 2:1–3, because they form an inclusio (a literary envelope) around the text. At that end of that post, however, we still weren’t sure what kind of lens. What exactly does it mean to read the six days of creation through this lens?
In the previous post, The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1, we saw how the temple helped the people of the ANE understand their place in creation and especially in relation to their gods. We also saw that the temple, as a meme, has certain characteristics that seem to follow it wherever it goes. For example, it is often (practically always) associated with creation. The number seven is very commonly associated with the temple (including in the Bible). The temple is associated with the gods’ resting. These associations show up with the temple from Mesopotamia to Egypt and from 2300 BC to the time of Christ. They’re everywhere, all the time and were certainly familiar to Moses and the original readers of Genesis.
Putting it Together
Now we can look at what we have in the outer texts that form an inclusio for the six days of creation. First we have the emphasis on the creation of the heavens and the earth. It’s this creation theme that forms the parallel thought and so the inclusio that joins the texts together as a summary of the six days in between. Next we have in Gen 2:1–3 the seventh day. This day stands apart from the other days of creation because God does not do any work. Instead, he rests upon the completion of his creation work.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.Gen 1:1
So what do we have? Creation, seven and rest. We have three of the dominant themes associated with the ancient Near Eastern temple meme. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.Gen 2:1–3
But what does that mean, exactly?
Normally, in the ANE, they built their temples to be microcosms—little creations. Gods don’t live in buildings, they live in creations or in the heavens, so the temple, as the dwelling place for the god, had to be like a little creation. We could state this in the form of a metaphor: “the temple is creation.”
In Genesis 1 we have a text that is about God’s creation of heavens and the earth. At the same time, we have imagery in Gen 1:1 and Gen 2:1–3 that brings to mind the temple. These texts, we said, create a lens through which we look at creation. In other words we are to see creation through the lens of the temple. What a brilliant literary move! Moses has reversed the metaphor. Instead of “temple is creation” Moses is saying “creation is a temple!”
What Exactly Does it Mean that Creation is a Temple?
Back in the post, The Structural Symmetry in the Six Days of Creation, I pointed out that when we take the six days of creation on their own we see that Moses wants to communicate to us that God intended his creation to be a place where we experience his provision and protection. This idea works perfectly with the metaphor “creation is a temple.” Temples, as we read in the previous post, were meant to ensure God’s presence with his people. When God is present, then the people are blessed.
At the same time, however, the “creation is a temple” metaphor takes this a huge step forward.
Remember, in the ANE the temple is the dwelling place of the holy God. People were not to go into the temple (except to perform necessary duties to maintain the holiness of the temple). When Moses asserts that “creation is a temple” where God has come to rest, then all of creation is the dwelling place of God. Wait! From the six days of creation (not to mention firsthand experience) we know that creation is where people are to dwell.
That is earth shattering. Do you see? Creation is a temple where both God and people dwell!
When God created the universe in Genesis 1, he created it to be the place where people dwell in his holy presence without any sacrificial system. In other words, not only is creation a place where we are to experience God’s provision and protection, creation is a place where we are to be in relationship with our holy God.
Turning the Worldview Tables
This is absolutely amazing. It completely turns the tables on the normal ANE worldview. For example, in the Enuma Elish (I mentioned this Babylonian text in the previous post) Marduk created people on the sixth tablet (of seven) as the pinnacle of creation. After Marduk created people then all the gods rested. That’s just like people being created on the sixth day in the image of God and God resting on the seventh day in Genesis 1.
The similarities end there.
Do you know why the gods can rest in Enuma Elish? Because now they don’t have to grow their own crops and raise their own livestock. Now they have people who have been created basically as slaves to do the bidding of the gods.
To drive this point home we can compare question one of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (the biblical worldview) with question one from the ANE Shorter Catechism (the ANE worldview). Here’s the ANE shorter catechism:
Q1: What is the chief end of man?
A1: Man’s chief end is to work and slave and do the gods’ bidding.The ANE Shorter Catechism
And now here’s the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q1: What is the chief end of man?
A1: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.The Westminster Shorter Catechism
The Bible doesn’t just explain our experience, the Bible explains what it was really supposed to be in the beginning. We were not meant to slave away by the sweat of our brow. We were meant to be God’s representatives in his creation, to dwell in his holy presence and to enjoy his provision and protection. The biblical anthropology exalts humans way above the ANE worldview.
More Than Mere History
I hope this helps us see that the Bible is more than mere history. Genesis 1 does not give us a simple account of when and by what means and in what order God created the world. Moses wanted to communicate important theological truths that tell us where we came from, why we were created and what role we have in his creation, and how we are to relate to our holy creator God. In fact, Genesis 1 really is the basis for everything that follows in Scripture.
If all Moses gave us were a historical account of creation then he would have given us a mere window into the past and we would have to interpret the past events to get to the theological truths implied by them. But that’s not what Moses gives us. He takes the past events and interprets them in the form of a literary work of art. It is the very literary nature of the text that makes it possible to communicate not just historical, but theological truth. But that’s a topic we’ll have to explore more fully in a future post.
For now, we still have one more pressing question. At the end of the post on The Structural Symmetry of the Six days of Creation I mentioned that the literary structure of the text makes it a possibility that Moses did not intend to make any claims about the order of creation. I also said that we’re still not sure about his use of the word “day.” Does he mean a literal, twenty-four hour day or does he use day figuratively? That’s another topic we’ll have to save for a future post.
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can a Text like Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Did the Church Really Get This Text Wrong for Two Thousand Years?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?