The theological value of the Creation account

Genesis 1 and 2 as foundational theology rather than solely an account of physical origins.

Greg A. King, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, TN, United States.

Much of the time that Bible students have devoted to the first two chapters of Genesis has been directed toward matters other than understanding the theological thrust of this critical passage. For example, Christians have tried to understand the relationship of the Creation account to the scientific record and have tried to harmonize the two. They have spent time and energy contending that Genesis 1 and 2 preserves a factual, authentic account of the origins of this earth and its life forms. Their efforts have sometimes led them to clashes with the scientific community and even to vigorous debates within the Christian community.1

While this kind of debate may be necessary, if it is made the sole focus, it can cause us to overlook other important components in the Creation account, such as its theological message. The theology of Genesis 1 and 2 is neither peripheral to the purpose of the account nor is it irrelevant to contemporary Christians. The fact is that the first two chapters of Genesis are theological in nature.2 And that theology, far from being abstract and unrelated to life, is as practical and relevant as when it was first written.

I will attempt to touch on the main theological messages while encouraging a lifelong study of these crucial chapters. My approach will be comparative, inductive, exegetical, and theological. I intend to compare the Genesis account with the extra-biblical creation account related below. Some scholars contend that this is the best way to under stand the theological distinctives of the Creation account.3

By inductive I mean that some of the themes and messages discussed are intrinsic to the Creation account itself, so that as one thoughtfully reads and reflects on these two biblical chapters, the key theological messages identified in this article are readily discernible. The fact that this study is exegetical in nature is closely related to the previous characteristic and means that it is based on a responsible interpretation of the actual content of the first two chapters of Genesis. Finally, in taking a theological approach, the article will raise the questions: What does the Creation account teach about God, His relationship to the world, and His plans and purposes for human beings? What does the account indicate about salvation and eschatology?

An extra-biblical creation account

With these points in mind, let us review a creation account drawn from the literature of ancient Mesopotamia.4 Though it is a composite account, I will refer to it as The Enuma Elish, which is the major source from which it is taken.

"In the beginning, neither heaven nor earth had names. Apsu, the god of fresh waters, and Tiamat, the goddess of the salt oceans, and Mummu, the god of the mist that rises from both of them, were still mingled as one. There were no mountains, there was no pasture land, and not even a reed-marsh could be found to break the surface of the waters.

"It was then that Apsu and Tiamat parented two gods, and then two more who outgrew the first pair. These further parented gods, until Ea, who was the god of rivers and was Tiamat and Apsu's great-grandson, was born. Ea was the cleverest of the gods, and with his magic Ea became the most powerful of the gods, ruling even his forebears.

"Apsu and Tiamat's descendants became an unruly crowd. Eventually Apsu, in his frustration and inability to sleep with the clamor, went to Tiamat, and he proposed to her that he slay their noisy offspring. Tiamat was furious at his suggestion to kill their clan, but after leaving her Apsu resolved to proceed with his murderous plan. When the young gods heard of his plot against them, they were silent and fearful, but soon Ea was hatching a scheme. He cast a spell on Apsu, pulled Apsu's crown from his head, and slew him. Ea then built his palace on Apsu's waters, and it was there that, with the goddess Damkina, he fathered Marduk, the four-eared, four-eyed giant who was god of the rains and storms.

"The other gods, however, went to Tiamat and complained of how Ea had slain her husband. Aroused, she collected an army of dragons and monsters, and at its head she placed the god Kingu, whom she gave magi cal powers as well. Even Ea was at a loss how to combat such a host, until he finally called on his son Marduk. Marduk gladly agreed to take on his father's battle, on the condition that he, Marduk, would rule the gods after achieving this victory. The other gods agreed, and at a banquet they gave him his royal robes and scepter.

"Marduk armed himself with a bow and arrows, a club, and lightning, and he went in search of Tiamat's monstrous army. Rolling his thunder and storms in front of him, he attacked, and Kingu's battle plan soon disintegrated. Tiamat was left alone to fight Marduk, and she howled as they closed for battle. They struggled as Marduk caught her in his nets. When she opened her mouth to devour him, he filled it with the evil wind that served him. She could not close her mouth with his gale blasting in it, and he shot an arrow down her throat. It split her heart and she was slain.

"After subduing the rest of her host, he took his club and split Tiamat's water-laden body in half like a clam shell. Half he put in the sky and made the heavens, and he posted guards there to make sure Tiamat's salt waters could not escape. Across the heavens he made stations in the stars for the gods, and he made the moon and set it forth on its schedule across the heavens. From the other half of Tiamat's body he made the land, which he placed over Apsu's fresh waters, which now arise in wells and springs. From her eyes he made flow the Tigris and Euphrates. Across this land he made the grains and herbs, the pastures and fields, the rains and the seeds, the cows and ewes, and the forests and the orchards.

"Marduk set the vanquished gods who had supported Tiamat to a variety of tasks, including work in the fields and canals. Soon they complained of their work, however, and rebelled by burning their spades and baskets. Marduk saw a solution to their labors, though, and proposed it to Ea. He had Kingu, Tiamat's general, brought forward from the ranks of the defeated gods, and Kingu was slain. With Kingu's blood, clay from the earth, and spittle from the other gods, Ea and the birth-goddess Nintu created humans. On them Ea imposed the labor previously assigned to the gods. Thus humans were set to maintain the canals and boundary ditches, to hoe and carry, to irrigate the land and raise crops, to raise animals and fill the granaries, and to worship the gods at their regular festivals."5

With this story in mind, let's explore the leading theological mes sages expressed in the biblical Creation account, some of which emerge as we contrast the Enuma Elish account with Genesis 1 and 2 and some of which are inherent in the biblical text itself.6

The nature of God revealed in Genesis

One of the foremost theological messages of the biblical Creation account, which stands out when com pared with extra-biblical creation stories, is the nature of God. The first words of the Bible, "In the beginning God" express a profound truth. There is no pantheon of gods, no potential for rivalry among various divine potentates. The Creator God of Gene sis 1 has no spouse or consort as was common among the pagan gods. He is One. Thus, Genesis presents a striking contrast with Enuma Elish which commences with both Apsu and Tiamat and is polytheistic in nature. Furthermore, Marduk, the god who creates, is a sixth-generation god.7

What are the practical implications of this? Is the Bible indicating that God needs nothing beyond Himself to bring fulfillment? Is there a suggestion that everything else in the created order is lacking fulfillment and needs to look to God to find it?8 Possibly. In any case, the benefits of having a single deity to serve as opposed to the capricious gods of Enuma Elish seems obvious. Should the bickering and feuding that existed among the gods in Enuma Elish be reality in the divine world, there would be cause to worry about our ultimate safety and to wonder if there was a unified purpose and destiny to life on Earth.9 Knowing the one true Creator God provides confidence in these and other areas.

Another obvious theological message is that God is a Creator God. While this may seem axiomatic to most Christians today, it was not necessarily so for individuals living in the ancient world. There was a tendency on the part of the various religions to identify each god with a certain part of the natural world. For example, there would be a god of the fresh waters, a god of the salt waters, a god of storms (the name "Baal" was some times used for this god) and a sun god, to name a few. However, the Genesis account declares something startlingly different: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" as a unified, interactive whole.

Thus, God is not part of nature (as pantheists would maintain) and is not to be identified with some natural force such as the winds or the storms. Rather, He is the Creator of it all.10 He is sovereign over the world and in complete charge of everything on it, including human beings and their destiny.

This theological message speaks volumes to our age. One of the hall marks of modernity is a desire for personal autonomy. We wish to have no obligation to anyone except self. We may not discern it, but we want to be our own god. The theology of Genesis 1 and 2 dismisses any such possibility. There is room for only one God and one throne. The Creator God "is the transcendent, sovereign ruler of the creation. He is in complete control."11

Another theological message high lighted by comparing the biblical account with Enuma Elish is the innate moral and holy nature of God. The biblical creator God has no character flaws. He wants to develop this moral perfection in His innocent creatures (see Gen. 2:17). He wishes to maintain the innocent nature in which He brought forth His creation. This stands in dramatic contrast with the gods of Enuma Elish. In that account, killing and war and deceit are the order of the day. In a sense, the gods in this account behave like the worst of humans.

In all of this a significant and sobering principle emerges: "people become like the gods they worship. Their gods are their models."12 One can only wonder about conditions in the world should humans, ancient or modem, try to further emulate heroes or conceptions such as those of Enuma Elish. Pondering this type of world gives one a profound gratefulness for the moral and holy God of the Bible who invites His children to follow Him in His holiness (see Lev. 11:44, 45; 1 Pet. 1:16).

The biblical Creation account and relationships

There are far-reaching theological messages resident in the kind of relationship that is described as existing between God and his human creation, as one reads the biblical Creation account. The Bible presents humans as the crowning achievement of God's creative work. He made Adam and Eve in His image and after His likeness (Gen. 1:26, 27).

By contrast, in the Enuma Elish account, humans are created as some thing of an afterthought. They are made for the purpose of relieving the gods of manual labor. They are formed from blood and spittle, along with clay from the earth. This account of human origins deals a death blow to the worth of human beings. If we were not divinely intended, if we simply came into existence to do grunt work for the gods, then we can make no real case for human dignity.

Albert Baylis underscores the difference between the two views: "And so, here is our first answer to 'Who am I?' The Babylonian myth would answer, 'You are a product of the gods to make their life easier.' Modern myth would assert, 'You are a product of random chance in a purposeless universe.' The Bible says, 'You are a personal creation of Yahweh, who cares for you, has created you male and female, and has placed you in an orderly and good creation as his representative ruler.' This knowledge of God's order and created relationships is considered obsolete by many today. As a result, our age suffers the anxiety of enjoying no secure place or significance in the world."13

Another theological message emerges from reflection on the special divine-human relationship that the first humans enjoyed. Instead of being created to perform tedious labor, they were created as regents of God to enjoy a special relationship with their Maker. Even as human parents enhance and deepen their love by procreating a child who becomes a recipient of their love, so God created intelligent beings with whom He could share things of importance to Him. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed God's direct presence in the Garden of Eden. God will restore this direct relationship in the earth made new (see Rev. 22:4).

The message regarding the divine/human relationship is closely connected with another significant theological message of the Creation account: the Sabbath. After six days of creative work, God rested on the seventh day. Why did God rest? Is this an example of the divine otiosis expressed in extra-biblical accounts, the gods needing a nap? Far from it! In fact, the biblical Creation story seems purposely written to counter that idea. Far from being tired remember His creation was spoken into existence with a few words God chose to rest as a model for His children. To provide a special occasion for worship, to give time for fellow ship with Himself, God blessed a specific twenty-four hour period during the first week of earth's history and set it aside for human benefit.

Yet another theological message focuses on the nature of the male/female relationship in general and marriage in particular. Genesis affirms that both man and woman are created in the image of God, and both are given the right to rule over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28). If these features of the story had impacted humanity over the years, women would not have been downtrodden as has all too often been the case.

As to marriage, Genesis 2:24, 25 lays down the basics of a marriage covenant, subordinating all other attachments, even those most dear, to one's spouse as the two become one flesh. As Hamilton notes, "The marriage relationship is then an oath, a covenant, never an arbitrary relation ship of convenience."14

The promise of restoration

Finally, Genesis 1 and 2 prefigures and anticipates the new creation of the book of Revelation. In fact, this ties well with the message of the Sabbath, because the rest of the Sabbath and the communion with God it engenders is a prototypical foretaste of the rest in God's new kingdom and the closeness humans will have with Him there (see Heb. 4:9).

Revelation's portrayal of the new earth contains strong similarities to the Creation account. As with the Garden of Eden, the new earth has no need for a temple (Rev. 21:22). Also, God is directly present (verse 3), and both a river and the Tree of Life are there (22:1, 2).

This, indeed, is the ultimate value of the biblical Creation account. Even while it reminds us of God's perfect creation of long ago, it holds out the hope of a new creation, a world restored to its original perfection and beauty and harmony.

1 See Colin Mitchell, The Case for Creation (Grantham, England: Autumn House, 1994), for a fine volume by a Seventh-day Adventist scientist which addresses many of the scientific issues in relationship to the Genesis Creation account; Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., The Genesis Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), presents from a professedly Christian perspective both sides of some of the issues debated within the Christian community in connection with the early chapters of Genesis.

2 The observation of John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 31, about Isaiah is just as true of (he biblical Creation story. He states, "Unless the book of Isaiah is a great theological document, it is nothing. Whatever may be its strengths as a piece of literature, they pale by comparison to the breadth and sweep of the book's theological insights."

3 Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 35, states, "I am persuaded that the implications of the creation story of Genesis emerge most dramatically when it is compared with the creation literature of, for example, Mesopotamia (be that literature Sumerian, Assyrian, or Babylonian). For it is in the comparison of literature of identical general theme that the distinctiveness of biblical faith and message appears."

4 This story is quoted (though I have corrected his spelling!) from Bruce Railsback, "Creation Stories From Around the World," 2nd ed. (Unpublished manuscript, University of Georgia, 1997), 21, 22, who notes, "This Babylonian story of creation comes largely from the Enuma Elish and the Astrahasis, which appear to have been written between 1900 and 1500 BC, perhaps during the time of the Babylonian King Hammurabi. The tablets of both are broken and incomplete. At the end of the story here, the details of the creation of humans are supplemented with material from fragments of later writings. The latter may date as late as the 500s BC, but their consistency with the earlier Enuma Elish suggests that they tell the same story. The main actor in these tablets is Marduk, the most powerful of the Babylonian gods. Like most Babylonian gods, he has many names, and elsewhere he is sometimes known as Bel."

5 The observation of Hamilton, 35, is apropos here. He states, "A study of mythology helps the believer to see how ancient man tried to answer ultimate questions about life and reality when the light of revelation had not dawned upon him. Interestingly, the answers provided to those questions by ancient man are not all that different from the answers provided by modern but unredeemed man."  Reading Enuma Elish certainly makes me grateful for the biblical account. One shudders to think about what our self-esteem would be if Enuma Elish provided the true account of how human life originated on this planet!

6 Presenting the biblical theology of Creation by con trasting it with an extra-biblical creation account is especially appropriate, if, as Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 30, 31, maintains, "The wording of the (creation) passage leaves no doubt that it intends to snub them [the false gods]. Words and phrases are chosen that intentionally belittle claims existing at Moses' time."

7 Hamilton, 40.

8 See ibid., 22.

9 Baylis, 30, remarks, "For the pagan, the world was a fearsome place." I was reminded of how true this is recently when reading Eric B. Hare's Dr. Rabbit to my children. It described some very superstitious people and their fear of and efforts to appease the spirits.

10 See Baylis, 28: "Nothing could be clearer than this. God created it all."

11 Ibid., 30.

12 Ibid., 26.

13 Ibid., 42.

14 Hamilton, 29.

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Greg A. King, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, TN, United States.

March 2001

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