In Confessions, Saint Augustine mentions how some people ask the question, “What was God doing before he made the heavens and earth?” He answers by basically saying that God was preparing hell for people who ask such questions. I appreciate Augustine’s humorous response because like the question of whether God can build a rock so big that he can’t move it, such questions are irrelevant and ridiculous. Good theology reflects instead upon God’s revelation of himself to us and how is at work among us. Such theological reflection allows us to also understand how we are called to serve as participants in the mission of God.
In reflecting on God and his work, we gain insight into the life for which we have been created and are being redeemed to live as followers of Jesus Christ.* So when we come to the Genesis creation narrative, we discover that the heavens and earth are the cosmic temple in which God dwells as the king (Wenham, Rethinking Genesis 1-11, 16; Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, 83-84). Yet God is at work doing even more.
Genesis one reminds us that what God has created is good. So we must reject any ideas of platonic dualism in which physical creation is something bad that we need to overcome or escape. Instead, we happily find ourselves among creation and here is our first hint as to why… “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground” (Gen 1:28). So among the garden, God is cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of creation and we are to participate with God in the cultivation of this life.
“The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community.”
Chapter two of Genesis offers another portrayal of God creating that expands further on this life that God has created us to live. First, we are told in vv. 15-17, “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The Lord God commanded the human, ‘Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!'” Walter Bruegemann identifies three characteristics of the life God envisions here vocation, permission, and prohibition (Genesis, p. 46). In other words, God has created us to work and gives us much freedom to use our abilities but God also places some restrictions. Secondly, the male is alone and in need of a suitable “helper” (vv. 18, 20) who will become “one” (v. 24) as they multiply in offspring. The idea of a “helper” does not imply any sense of inferiority since elsewhere in scripture the Hebrew word ‘êzer is used to describe God as a helper of Israel and the Bible is not ascribing an inferior status to God. The point is that God has created us to live in community with others.
So God is at work creating an enduring community that continues growing and developing. The Genesis creation narrative imagines us as part of God’s community participating with God in the continued cultivation of his community. Absent here are any notions of the individuality and autonomy that says we can live life apart from the help of God and each other. But do we understand what that means?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter…” (Life Together, p. 27) In other words, if we love our vision of community more than we love the community then we destroy the community we actually live among. That seems very important because if we’re honest, I think sometimes we are more interested in our vision of community rather than listening to God. That is, we don’t mind the work it takes to cultivate community and we certainly love the idea of freedom but we treat the notion of having any restrictions on our freedom as an insult to our human dignity. Yet, we seem better at destroying the community of God’s creation than cultivating a life that is sustainable and enjoyable for all of God’s creation. So maybe it’s time that we start listening to God again as to how we should care for his creation rather than playing God by determining for ourselves what is right and wrong.
As a pastor, I believe in Jesus and I believe that it is ultimately God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus where we learn how to live as God’s true community. It is Jesus who teaches us how to love the community… Love God, love our neighbors, and even our enemies. Is that what we want? And if so, are we going to listen to Jesus? Or are we more in love with our own vision of community than joining with God in cultivating the life Jesus gave his life for?
* You might also be interested in listening to the sermon podcast of the message I preached on Genesis 2:15-25 called Life Together, which can be accused on the website of the Newark Church of Christ.