In the last post, we looked at the account of creation in Genesis 2 as a theological text, focusing on what it has to say about our relationships with God and creation. We saw how the story uses priest and temple symbolism to describe our service to God through care of creation. But what are we to do when we encounter differences in the ways that Genesis 1, 2, and modern science describe creation? Are these accounts mutually exclusive, and if not, how might they relate to each other? Let’s start by looking at Genesis.
The accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 stress complementary aspects of what it means for the world to be created by God. To find what aspect of created-ness is primary in a given creation account, we need to look at how the passage describes both the precosmic state13 and the created state. In Genesis 1, the precosmic state is described in verse 2: “the earth was without shape or form, [and] it was dark over the deep sea…” The created state is given in the rest of the chapter, as the Creator’s power transforms this shapeless darkness into a structured design. Therefore, Genesis 1 is focusing on the ordered structure, meaning, and purpose of creation. Genesis 2 describes the precosmic and created states slightly differently. The precosmic state is a barren land with no rain and no human to farm it (v. 5). The created state is a lush garden with humans in perfect relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. Therefore, Genesis 2 is focusing on the intended harmony of these three relationships.
On the other hand, a modern physicist will give an account of material origins that describes nothingness (the precosmic state) giving way to material atoms, space, and time (the created state). A chemist’s account will likely focus on the simplest atoms (hydrogen and helium) giving way to the heavier atoms (like carbon and nitrogen) and complex molecules. A biologist’s account will describe single-celled organisms giving way to more complex, diverse multicellular organisms.
Each one of these five accounts describes a precosmic and created state differently, but does that mean that they all contradict each other? Or should the different order of creation events between Genesis 1 and 2 bother us? Do we have to choose which account(s) to accept and which to reject? We do not; these different accounts are simply describing different aspects (in different ways) of what it means to be created. People often speak of a “contradiction” between science and the Bible, or between Genesis 1 and 2, but we don’t have to choose between physics and Genesis 1 any more than we have to choose between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. These various descriptions are complementary. Genesis 1 and 2 do not speak in scientific language or describe scientific theories; such concerns would have been alien to an ancient audience. Instead, these chapters provide a rich, profound theological framework for understanding God and his creation. This framework can help us understand what modern science tells us about the material world, rather than requiring that we negate it.
We can see the same sort of complementarity of scientific and theological truths when it comes to other texts in the Bible. For example, Psalm 139 praises God that “you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb…My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my embryo…” (from vv. 13-16). It would be extremely misguided for us to interpret this as literal science, rejecting modern embryology in favor of some kind of “Knitting Theory” of fetal growth! We would miss the whole theological point of the passage, a theological account that is completely compatible with the account given by science.
Creation and the Human Calling
As I discussed in Part 1 of this essay, one of the theological concerns that Genesis 2 addresses is the relationship between humanity and creation, and how protecting creation is a sacred duty. Like an interpersonal relationship, an exploitative relationship with the natural world has harmful consequences as well. Our wasteful overuse of coal and oil has altered the earth’s climate, bringing an increase in extreme weather events and threatening the survival of whole ecosystems and vulnerable human communities. Careless deforestation and pollution has destroyed numerous species, each one a masterwork of God’s creative hand. Scientists are still learning how environmental pollutants contribute to a wide range of health concerns, from stunted fetal brain development to certain forms of cancer.
Why have we so readily ignored the task given to us all the way back in Genesis 2 to properly care for creation? It certainly isn’t for lack of attention paid to Genesis 2; the first chapters in the Bible are some of the most heavily-discussed, heavily-disputed in all of Scripture. But perhaps for all the attention Christians have paid to it, we’ve spent too much time pitting Genesis against science, rather than working with scientists to better understand the very world that these verses command us to protect.
In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan is sent to confront King David over his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uzziah. Interestingly, Nathan begins by telling a story of a rich man and a poor man who lived in a town. When a guest of the rich man arrived, the rich man stole the beloved only lamb of the poor man to feed his guest, rather than killing one of his own lambs. Upon hearing the story, King David was enraged at the injustice, but Nathan responded that it was David himself who was the “rich man,” and the story was a metaphor for David’s own sin.15 It would have missed the point for David to respond by arguing with Nathan over whether these two men and the lamb were literal, where they lived, or when this happened. Once he recognized Nathan’s purpose, David recognized the story’s symbolism, acknowledged his sin, and repented.
I pray that we will respond to the story of the Garden of Eden in the same way, regardless of whether we think it is a historical account or a purely literary one. We shouldn’t get so hung up on the symbol itself that we miss the truths that the symbol is pointing to. After all, this is the reason we have the Bible – “so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim. 3:17) as we recognize our responsibilities in this our Father’s world.