Based on Genesis 1, Psalm 146, Colossians 1:15-20.
Trying to understand creation faith outside of the context its used is like trying to understand Martin Luther King Jr apart from 400 years of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the white church who supported it all. Or what it means to be a Mennonite without talking about Jesus.
To be sure Biblical authors tell the story of creation in a number of ways, for a number of reasons.
One key reason is to highlight God’s generosity and generativity. Because God is a god of creation we see the world not through the lens of scarcity, but of abundance. The mountains and the hills bring forth vegetation in the Psalms. We will always have enough.
The Bible uses creation faith to highlight that God is a god of order, and to give us a picture of the world as it should be. Like Psalm 146 which evokes creation and moves into the world as God intends it: “Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in them, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry, who sets the prisoners free, who opens the eyes of the blind, who watches over the strangers, who upholds the orphan, the widow.” (Psalm 146:5-9).
The Bible tells the story of creation to remind us who we are! We are the highest of all creation, just a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8). We were formed by God in our mothers womb, knit together by God, fearfully and wonderfully made, we were known by God even before we were born! (Psalm 139).
But to really understand the importance of creation in the Bible we’re going to have to visit two cities. Two cities, one Old, one New, within which prophets of God found it imperative to remind us of creation.
In the darkness of Babylon, where God’s people were taken into exile 600 years before Jesus was born, one story of creation was prevalent in the Ancient Near East. The story is the Enuma Elish, told and retold in nearly every civilization from Egypt and Ireland to Babylon and India. In this story the world and everything you can see is the product of excessive violence. The parent gods, Apsu and Tiamat, are rebelled against by their children gods. And Marduk, the youngest and most powerful son slaughters dad than turns his sword to mom. As he cuts Tiamat in half, her body is stretched out to form the cosmos. With her top forming the heavens, and her bottom half the earth.
Creation, in this story, is an act of violence. The gods themselves are violent. Marduk then slaughters one of Tiamat’s supporters to create humanity. Notice the role of the feminine in this bloody story: her role is to be defeated, her gored body forming the fallen, lesser material world. Where the real action and goodness is at is in the spiritual world, the masculine world of the gods. And notice how human beings are created out of the blood of a god. As Walter Wink says in reference to this story, “Our very origin is violence! Killing is in our genes… Human beings are naturally incapable of peaceful coexistence (Wink, pg 46-47).”
But that’s not our creation story, is it? But it was here, in this precise context, where this story predominated- that our story was formed. Genesis chapter 1 was written and publicized here, as a subversion of Babylon’s violent myth.
Our creation story is diametrically opposed to all this. And it functions to subvert this story, to rebut, to supplant, Babylons’ myth of origins with a different story. “In the beginning” God created a good creation to be very good. And he does so without violence. He does so not through slaughter, but through speech. Let there be light…let there be life…let us make humankind in our image. Creation is not fallen. Creation is good! The feminine is not a weaker, lesser, deteriorated or worthless aspect of humanity. “For God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” God looked at humanity and said, “It is very good.” Indeed, we are created in God’s very image, not the death of weak defeated gods.
How does our story of creation function? Not to justify war and murder as being essential components of life in the “real world.” As it appears the Babylonian myth has done. Instead, our story functions to repudiate Babylon and her overwhelming violence. Setting the juxtaposition so clearly, creation calls us to allegiance to YHWH and to the ways of God.
Creation is told in this context to counter the narrative that’s accepted and being told in dominant culture.
Let’s fast forward 600 years and visit a second city. Let’s visit Collossae, where Paul visited and the city to which he wrote the letter of Colossians. Through inscriptions and writing we know that in Collosae Caesar was Lord, he was even called “the image of the invisible god.” If you want to know who god was, you don’t have to guess, look to the man Caesar! An inscription at Priene, outside Collosae, reveals Rome’s creation myth connected to Caesar:
The most divine Caesar … we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things … for when everything was falling [into disorder] and tending towards dissolution, he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aspect; [He is] the common good fortune of all … the beginning of life and vitality … all the cities unanimously adopt [his birthday] as the new beginning of the year … the Providence which has regulated our whole existence … has brought our life to the fullnessof perfection in giving to us [him], whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of men, and who, being sent to us and our descendants as a saviour, has put an end to war and has set all things in order and, having become god manifest, [he] has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times … the birthday of [this divine one] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel concerning him. And therefore let a new era begin at his birth.
(Source: the inscription of the decree of the Provincial Assembly of Asia, OGIS 2, 458, quoted in Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas, p. 27.)
Now see how Paul subverts empire by intentionally using creation faith in talking about Jesus:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Paul calls on creation faith in the exact same way as our Genesis author did, to tell a counter-cultural story which empowers a counter-cultural community. He sums creation faith up very precisely for us in 1:13, saying Jesus “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” In other words, it’s Jesus’ kingdom, not Caesar’s empire, that deserves our allegiance.
Notice the Bible, in its primary storytelling mode, does not use creation to encourage the doctrine of creation-ism. It always reminds us of the divine origins of things. Absolutely. But we’re not asked to repudiate science in order to believe in Genesis or creation. If you want to believe in Biblical creation, it’s violence that you must repudiate! Violence, and Caesar, and empire, and their myth that violence brings peace; these are the lie creation faith calls us to repudiate.
This is why nonviolence is so wildly successful?
Between 1989-1990 13 nations, a total of 1.7 Billion people (or 32% of humanity at the time) were touched by nonviolent revolution. Everyone of them completely nonviolent, except Romania. Everyone successful, save China. Those were the capstone years of a century that saw 3 Billion people, or 64% of the earth’s population, touched by major nonviolent campaigns in the 20th century (including India, South Africa, and European countries in the face of Nazism and then again in the face of Communism). The landscape and spirit of our country has been completely rewritten by the nonviolence of the civil rights movement. As now have nonviolent demonstrations in many Islamic countries.
Nonviolence is successful precisely because it’s in our genes. It’s in the DNA of Divinity. It’s built in to creation. God is a nonviolent god, creation is born out of the word of peace. Paul, and Genesis, are saying that Jesus is the one and true Lord. It’s not Babylon. It’s not Caesar.
This is why we are a forgiven and forgiving community of faith.
This is why we are blessed when we make peace.
This is why Paul says love is greater than faith.
This is why he teaches us new patterns of conflict resolution.
This is why Jesus tells us whether we’re in the wrong or wronged we initiate reconciliation.
This is why we don’t return evil for evil or resist violence with violence.
This is why nonviolence is so subversively successful! It is in the grain of the universe.
So give your life to the Lord who is Lord of lords and King of kings. God sees you so radically different than the dominante narrative of our day. He sees you filled with capacity and goodness, able to participate in what God is creating. You are not lesser than. So do not be conformed to the narratives that rule the day, but instead be transformed by the narrative and peace of God. For this is the good news!