Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 98 (July 1997)


The Conquest of Chaos
The biblical paradigm of creation and its contemporary relevance

Klaus Nurnberger


The aim of this essay

The traditional doctrine of creation continues to create havoc in the faith of ordinary believers who become exposed to the scientific world view. Studies have shown that the relation between the creation narrative in Genesis I and the theory of evolution has led to considerable confusion in the minds of high school and university students, believers and sceptics alike.' Those who opt for science laugh off the "fairy tales" of the Bible. Those who remain believers do so with a bad conscience. Some become schizophrenic, being Christian in their hearts and pagan in their intellects. Others declare science to be an invention of the devil to confuse the elect. The general perception is that faith demands the sacrifice of one's intellectual integrity.

This is most unfortunate and completely unnecessary. At least for theologians the problem should have been solved a long time ago, and they should have passed on the message to their congregations and classes. The problem does not lie with the Bible but with the wrong set of assumptions, derived from the Enlightenment, with which ancient documents are approached by modern readers.

In this essay I want to show that the biblical creation narratives begin to display not only a wealth of meaning, but also decisive contemporary relevance if only one begins to read them on their own terms rather than imposing an empirical criterion of truth. In a paper on the royal-imperial paradigm,2 and another on the Patriarchs of ancient Israel,3 I have recently demonstrated the hermeneutic of tracing the trajectories of soteriological motifs in the Bible, from their earliest to their latest forms, and extrapolating them to contemporary problems. Soteriology is a reflection on the meaning of redemption. Continuing with this approach, I want to show that the biblical witness to the Creator is the result of its faith in God's redemptive intervention in different situations of need.4

How does creation fit in with redemption?5 Redemption means that God transforms reality into what it ought to be. This presupposes both the benevolence and the mastery of God. God's redemptive intentions can imply either stability or change, depending on how far what is reflects what ought to be in a particular situation.6 The postulate that God is the Creator of reality expresses the right of reality to exist as far as it reflects what ought to be, while the postulate of a pending transformation of reality expresses the discrepancy between what is and what ought to be. The recurrent validity of these two statements is expressed by projecting them to the beginning and the end of time respectively.

Although the two aspects are closely related, this essay deals only with the first aspect. I shall analyse the characteristics of the main biblical creation narratives in their historical order. From this analysis a few basic principles can be derived which will then be applied to three critical problems which the Christian faith has to face in contemporary South Africa: sorcery, ecological deterioration and social chaos.

The Yahwist creation story

Let us begin with what is probably the oldest creation narrative in the Bible, namely that of the Yahwist found in Genesis 2:4ff. The Yahwist is one of the sources which make up the first five books of the Bible. The book was probably compiled during the reign of David or Solomon. But the creation narrative which it utilises may be much older. At its present place the story marks the beginning of a long series of narratives in the Yahwist tradition which centre on the emergence and development of evil within humanity and which culminates in the new beginning which takes place with the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1ff.

What was the cultural situation in which this narrative was formulated? The ideal state of the world is depicted as a wonderful garden (2:8), watered by great streams (2:6; 10ff), and full of fruit trees (2:9). The rivers mentioned include the Tigris and the Euphrates; so the garden is supposed to be located in Mesopotamia. In contrast to the wonderful, but barricaded garden, the current human being has to labour on a cursed field which yields thorns and thistles and whose proceeds have to be supplemented by collecting wild berries (3:17ff). One can easily imagine the rocky and thorny hills of Palestine as background to this statement. The authentic human being is meant to work the garden and take care of it (Gen. 2:5, 15). No domestic animals for milking or slaughter are kept, rather fruit and agricultural products are eaten.

So the conditions in Mesopotamia are depicted as the ideal. This is quite remarkable, because in the rest of the Old Testament it is Palestine which is described as Yahweh's own land, "in which milk and honey flows" and which Israel is privileged to inherit. If one remembers that Abraham was supposed to have come from Ur in Mesopotamia (Gen. 11:28), an ancient nostalgia may have survived in the narrative. One can also imagine that the later praise of Palestine was meant to counteract a feeling of loss and deprivation.

The Cain and Abel narrative seems to reveal a different cultural background, namely the conflict between Hebrew nomads who began to penetrate the fertile land and were greeted with hostility by the Canaaffite peasants settled there. Note that Abel is a nomad, Cain an agriculturalist (4:4ff). The sacrifice of the nomad (Hebrew) is depicted as pleasing to God, while the sacrifice of the agriculturalist (Canaanite) is not acceptable to God. There is no reflection on the reason; it is simply taken for granted that the Hebrews are God's chosen people. Cain kills Abel. This may reflect the hostility of the settled communities against the nomadic intruders. As a punishment for his hostility Cain is driven from the land and becomes a fugitive (4:10-12). This seems to tie in with the Israelite assumption that they are entitled to drive the Canaanites from their land. Cain is also depicted as the first builder of a city (4:17). This fits in with the historical fact that agriculturalists were the first to build fortified cities in defence of their greater prosperity against the nomads. Jericho represents the earliest known example.

The social structure presupposed in the Yahwist creation narrative is clearly patriarchal. The original (thus authentic) human being is understood as the male human being. The female is understood as a derived and subservient being. It is not the man who is taken from the substance of the woman's body, as the biological phenomenon of child birth would suggest, but the woman is taken from the substance of the man's body. We see how culture reinterprets nature. Her generic name is "fe-male" (ishah) which is derived from the generic name of "male" (ish) (2:23). She is meant to be his "companion and helper" (2:18). He interprets the new phenomenon, gives her the generic name of woman (2:23) and takes the initiative in marriage (2:24). Male superiority is, as in all patriarchal societies, simply presupposed.7

Why do we try to establish the social and cultural facets of the story in this way? Because we want to reveal the interaction between theological message and cultural trappings. If we were to argue that, according to the eternal Word of God, women are to be subject to men in perpetuity, because it was they who led humankind into sin (as 1 Tim 2:11-15 suggests), we might as well say that agriculturalists are always murderers and nomads are always their victims. Instead we have to realise that the narrator utilises material formed by his environment to make a theological point. it is this theological point which we should try to retrieve, not the cultural means of communication. And even the theological point made must be subject to theological critique on the basis of the whole of the biblical witness.8 We shall see that Genesis 1 has a different and more appropriate vision concerning the relation between the sexes.

The point the narrator wants to make is not a description of the origin of the world, but an expression of the character of evil. On the one hand it describes what ought to be. Where there is no evil, there is no knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Where there is no necessity to hide anything from God or from each other, there is complete openness and no shame. There is no conflict between God and humanity, nor between one human being and another, nor between humanity and nature. The narrative says that the Creator intended human existence to be without undue hardship. Being taken from the ground and granted the breath of life by God, human beings would not be immortal, but God would have no reason and no intention of letting them die. The man would work, but his work would not be futile. The woman would have to bear children, but without pain. No animals were to be slaughtered; so even for animals there would be no undue suffering.

On the other hand the narrative depicts the discrepancy between what ought to be and what is. The commandment of God evokes human desire. While it was meant to preserve the wellbeing of humanity it actually provides the occasion for disobedience - an idea which Paul echoed a millennium later (Rom 5:20; 7:5, 7:7ff). The unfortunate effect of God's well-intentioned law is also expressed in the symbol of the snake; it is a creature of God yet precisely its excellence leads humans into trouble. In this interpretation the cleverness of the snake stands for the inherent wisdom of the law (Gen 3:1; cf Rom 7:12ff). Access to the tree of morality was granted, access to the tree of life is barred. While humans managed to acquire the first prerequisite of autonomy, moral knowledge, they are irrevocably barred from the second and decisive prerequisite of independence from God, a self-sustained life which is no more subject to suffering and death (Gen 3:22). Very deep insights indeed!

The character of the story is legendary in that it utilises some historical material but does not feel bound to historical facts. It also utilises a mythological mode of speech. Mythological language expresses a truth in the form of a story which is projected to the beginning of times so as to indicate that it is valid for all times. The story is also full of symbolism: nakedness and clothing; the tree which dispenses moral knowledge; the tree which dispenses self-sustained life; the angel with a fiery sword guarding Eden; name-giving as a sign of mastery; the creation of the female out of the side of the male, and so on. God is depicted in crudely human terms: planting a garden, moulding his creatures in clay, blowing the breath of life into their nostrils, taking a walk in the cool of the trees. A sly animal symbolises the temptation occasioned by the moral law.

All this is typical of mythology. The intention is to describe what happens to all people at all times, even to us today. Adam is the Hebrew word for human being. So each one of us is Adam. The word is akin to adamah, the Hebrew word for earth. We all belong to the earth. We are not self-sufficient and cannot be. We live only because, and as long as, God grants us life. God's benevolent intentions are valid for us. We could be in paradise. But each one of us is tempted and fails, distinguishes between good and evil, tries to justify him/herself, suffers the consequences of disobedience and is barred both from painless wellbeing and selfsustained life. It is a story which expresses the human predicament; it does not explain the origin of the world.

Although it breathes the Ancient Near Eastern atmosphere, the impact of foreign religious ideas on this narrative seems to be slight. If it is true that the Yahwist wrote at the height of the Solomonic empire, as most Old Testament scholars believed until very recently, this could perhaps be attributed to the fact that, during the Davidic-Solomonic monarchy, Israelite culture was dominant in Palestine. Dominant cultures tend to be self-satisfied and to ignore dominated cultures. When Israel became a hunted, oppressed and exiled minority, it began to listen much more intently to what its neighbours had to say. This brings us to the following set of creation narratives.

The model of a primordial victory over evil

The royal model

At the time when the concept of creation was first formulated in the Ancient Near East, religious perceptions centred on the motif of mythological conflicts between divine powers. In rural Canaaffite religion the annual oscillation of seasons was, for instance, perceived to be due to the recurring battle between Ba'al, the god of life and fertility, and Mot, the god of drought and death. There was also a battle between Ba'al and Yam, the god of the sea. In the urban culture of kings and nobles, whether in Egypt, Canaan or Babylon, there was the perception of a primordial battle between a god of unstructured chaos (for instance Tiamat) and a god who established a cosmic order (for instance Marduk). Hebrew theologians responded to these mythological expressions with their own version of the foundations of reality. As a result the perceptions of the time were demythologised and transformed to fit in with the Israelite concept of God, that is a God who acted redemptively in history. However, this process of transformation took time and went through different stages.

Psalm 89 is a good example of the royal strand mentioned above:

  1. The presupposition is the common Ancient Near Eastern assumption that the king is the representative and plenipotentiary of the Deity on earth, through whom the Deity channels its blessings and upholds the cosmic order (Ps 2, Ps 110). The cosmic order includes morality, the laws of society and the structures of the natural world (Ps 89).9
  2. The occasion is a particular situation of need.. the Davidic king is in great distress (v 41-45; 50f). One can think of the fate of the last two kings of Jerusalem, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, who were deposed and captured by the Babylonians (2 Ki 24-25). In his prayer the Psalmist simply presupposes that it is Yahweh himself who brought this calamity upon him (v 38-46) and ascribes this action to Yahweh's anger and wrath (v 38, 46).
  3. The king has no other instance to appeal to but the very God whose anger lies so heavily upon him. He argues that Yahweh has placed David on the throne and entered into a special and enduring covenant with him (v 19-28). He also argues that this covenant has been extended to include David's dynasty "for ever" (v 29-37). On the basis of his solid promises Yahweh should revive his former great love and faithfulness and help him (v 49). So the king appeals to God against God: to God's promise against God's wrath.
  4. The promise made to David includes that he will be powerful, sovereign and victorious over his enemies (v 21-24). His power will also extend over the chaotic and obstructive forces of the universe, here symbolised by the sea and the rivers (v 24-25). He is God's adopted son (v 26-27; cf Ps 2:7f), thus the representative and plenipotentiary of God on earth. Everything is supposed to be subject to him.
  5. The particular status of the king is placed into a cosmic context. Throughout the Ancient Near East at the time, the national world was still perceived to be virtually identical with the cosmic world.10 Yahweh, whom the king represents, is the heavenly Ruler. He has authority over all the gods (v 5-7; cf Ps 29:1 and Ps 82). He has subdued the primeval powers of chaos, here symbolised by the sea and by the mythological monster Rahab (v 8-10). He is the Owner and Master of the universe because he has constructed it. So he is the Ruler over the heavens and the earth, including its peaks of power, represented by the two highest mountains around (v 11 -13). He is also the Guarantor of the moral order (v 14-16). And, of course, he is the Lord of the king, who is the strength of the people, here described as "horn" and "shield" (v 17-18).

In sum: The Davidic king and his dynasty acts as God's representative and plenipotentiary on earth by virtue of a divine decree and an enduring covenant. The king is, therefore, the source of power and protection of the people. This set of assumptions is invoked in a situation where the king faces severe hardships and mortal dangers. Verses 17f indicates that it is not only the king himself who prays, but the people. With their king in trouble, their own lives are not safe. It is within this soteriological context that the motif of creation appears. Its rationale is to affirm the mastery of God in a situation of need. The particular situation of need is transcended to cosmic dimensions: If Yahweh can defeat and subdue the primordial powers of chaos, he can also get rid of the current political threats to the king and his people. The current manifestation of primeval chaos is the human enemy. The concept of creation is, therefore, not based on a theory of how the universe originated, but on the assurance that God has the power to overcome evil."

The exilic model

Deutero-Isaiah turned the motif of primordial victory from lament and appeal to promise and encouragement. In this case it is the needs of the exiles in Babylon which are addressed. The prophet has an unbelievable message: the Persian conqueror, Cyrus, who is a pagan ruler (is 45:5), has been "anointed" (45:1) as Yahweh's instrument to set the exiles free and rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Before him, Jeremiah had proclaimed a similar message, but in negative terms: Nebuchadnezzar was the "servant" of Yahweh to whom all power was given, who would destroy Jerusalem and lead its elites into exile upon Yahweh's command (Jr 27:6ff). How incredible this message was at the time can be gleaned from Hab 1. How can a pagan emperor, who harasses the people of God, conquers their capital and destroys God's temple be an instrument of God?

Deutero-Isaiah faced a similar kind of disbelief among his people when he proclaimed good news, rather than bad news. To convince them, he appealed not to the motif of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, because this covenant seemed to have been suspended, but to the motif of creation: God is the Creator of the universe; he is free to use any instrument within his realm of power. How can you quarrel with the Master of the universe? How can you prescribe what he is going to do? (is 45:7-12). In ever new variations the prophet proclaims the power and the glory of the Creator.

  1. It is Yahweh who sits enthroned in heaven (40:22). Other gods are nothing but idols, made by humans (44:10ff). This is to say that the human-made images do not represent anything divine, because the deities they are supposed to symbolise are of no consequence. Emperors too are powerless (40:15ff, 23f). Human beings in general are like withering grass (40:6ff).
  2. It is Yahweh who controls chaos and makes life possible. He holds the primeval waters in his hands (40:12); who has cut the primeval monster, Rahab, to pieces (51:9); who has constructed the heavens and who called each single star by name (40:25f); who even now gives rain and all blessings through his creative Spirit (44:3).
  3. It is Yahweh who had created Israel (44:1 f); who had allowed them to pass through the sea at the time of the Exodus (51:10); who never becomes tired in minding the needs of his people (40:27-31).
  4. It was Yahweh who had delivered them up to punishment (42:24) and it is he who will now march out like a mighty warrior (42:13) to liberate his people (42:13). And because Yahweh's "arm awakes, as in the days of old" (51:9), so the exiles from Jerusalem should wake up (51:17).

Again we see that the reason for invoking the motif of creation is not to describe how the world came into being, but to proclaim the mastery of Yahweh, from whom help is expected in a situation of need. Clearly the message is: he, who has the will to redeem his people, also has the power to redeem. He does not only possess the feeble powers at the command of inner-worldly entities, such as gods, emperors, normal people, or natural forces, but he is the Power that underlies all power. If he was able to overcome the primeval forces of chaos and construct the universe, he can dispel the forces of chaos threatening Israel now and rebuild the nation.

The Priestly Creation Story

The Jews took over the mythology of primordial conflict from their pagan environment when they were in a situation of oppression. But they also transformed this mythology. This can be observed most clearly in the Priestly creation narrative found in Genesis 1. The "Priestly Writer" is another of the sources making up the first five books Of the Bible. It represents an advanced stage in the confrontation with Babylonian mythology, if compared with Psalm 89 and Deutero-Isaiah.

It is likely that the Priestly Writer wrote during the time of the pending or actual return of some of the exiles to Jerusalem, but before the temple had been rebuilt.12 One needs to remember that the Persians allowed the Jews to establish a theocratic satrapy in Jerusalem with internal self-government but subject to Persian imperial authority. A satrapy is a semi-autonomous, dependent political entity and a theocracy refers to the assumption that it is God himself who rules, not through kings but through priests. The Priestly source as a whole seems to reflect the attempt to reconstruct Jewish life after the exile on the basis of the cult and the law, summarised in the torah. Let us highlight a few characteristics of the Priestly source.

  1. God's presence and his blessings were perceived to be mediated not by the king, but by the high priest officiating in the cult. The central role model was Moses, not David. The priesthood did not have much power to enforce laws. To structure the re-established community, the priests had to rely on religious convictions and social controls.
  2. In the face of widespread social chaos and the urgent task of reconstruction the overwhelming need was for firm religious foundations, clear directives and social stability. Therefore the motif of the cosmic order was used, rather than the motif of transformative change. The imagery of the cult and the law was also less dangerous in political terms than the eschatological and potentially revolutionary trends of Apocalyptics.
  3. The Priestly source depicts a structure in space: the universe has its centre in the sanctuary. Moses is shown a heavenly model of the sanctuary which should be replicated in the sanctuary on Mount Zion (Ex 25:9; 26:30; 39:42ff). It is at this particular spot in the created universe that Yahweh makes himself present to his people. This is not apparent from Genesis 1, when read in isolation, but it becomes clear when one takes account of the entire document. Old Testament scholars have observed a strong correspondence between the structure of the creation narrative, the narrative of Noah's ark and the instructions for building the tabernacle.13
  4. The structure in terms of time is more easily recognisable. God had created the universe in six days, and rested on the seventh. In the same way Yahweh structured the weekly life of his people around the Sabbath. He "blessed" the day, a term which in Priestly terminology is always connected with "multiply and prosper" (Gen 1:22; 1:28; 9:1 etc.). At a time when the state and the land could no longer play a unifying role among the splinters of a community dispersed all over the Persian empire, commitment to the torah and the Sabbath assumed overwhelming importance for maintaining Jewish identity and cohesion This foundational character of the Sabbath is reflected in the Priestly creation story. The seventh day becomes a blessing because God is present among his celebrating people on that day.
  5. In the framework of structured space and structured time Yahweh grants his presence to the particular people who know his name. The Priestly source deliberately does not use Yahweh, the name of God, in the creation story, but only Elohim, the generic name for God. This implies that Yahweh is not known to humankind as such. The name of Yahweh is only revealed to Moses, whom the priests in Jerusalem had adopted as their role model (Ex 3:13f). The message the document puts across is, therefore, that God promises to be present among his people to bless them at the appointed place (Ex 29:43-46; 40:34), during the appointed time (Ex 24:16), and through the appointed mediators, the priesthood officiating in the cult.

The particular function of the creation story is to place this message in a larger context: the priesthood, the cult and the law, which mediate between Yahweh and his people at the holy place and during the holy time, is based upon the structure of the universe as a whole. Or in other words: the establishment of a redeemed community is possible because it fits in with the will of the Creator of reality who has established a stable order for the entire cosmos at the onset of time.

After having established the core message of the priestly source, we can deal with a few characteristics of its creation narrative. To begin with, evil id demythologised. According to the Enuma elish, the Babylonian myth of creation, Marduk defeats, binds and kills Tiamat. He splits her corpse in two and forms the sky out of the upper part and the earth out of the lower part (IV:1-146).14 We have seen above that the myth of a primordial conflict was taken up in some of the older creation stories written in exilic times. In Gen 1 there is no trace left of the motif of a struggle for supremacy among the gods. The motif of chaos still appears in the symbols of darkness and the primordial sea (Gen. 1:2). However, chaos is seen as a passive mass without will and power, no longer as a monster with enough power to battle with God. The Spirit of God broods in total sovereignty above the primordial sea.

God confines chaos to its limits through putting a structure in place. This he achieves by the mere authority of his command. He calls light to shine forth in the darkness (Gen. 1:3); he calls a firmament into being which splits the primordial sea into two, one above and one below (1:6). He confines the waters below it to their place, so that dry land can appear (1:9). This protective structure creates the conditions under which the life of plants, animals and humans becomes possible (1:11ff). In all these actions God simply creates and rules by decree. The motif of a creative word is reminiscent of decrees of Ancient Near Eastern emperors whose word was instant law.15 Obviously the authors felt that this is a more powerful expression of God's mastery than the image of a victory over an enemy, or the image of moulding with one's hands, would have been.

In contrast to the Yahwist narrative, the Priestly creation story does not foresee a fall into sin. One can understand that at a time of reconstruction, after having gone through a series of terrible calamities, seen as punishment for disobedience by the deuteronomic and prophetic traditions, the authors of the Priestly source wanted to put the emphasis on the possibilities of a new beginning. The law is depicted as a comprehensive guide to a holy life, not as a perpetual accusation. The Priestly flood story acts as a reminder that one should not play with evil because God can still utilise the destructive capacity of the primordial sea to punish, even to eradicate his creatures. However, the Priestly source also maintains that God was pleased with the sacrifice given by Noah (symbolising the priesthood in Jerusalem) and decided not to repeat that catastrophic act, in spite of the deepseated sinfulness of humanity as a whole (Gen 8:20ff).

We can easily see the relevance of these statements at the time. On the one hand the people are reassured that the national catastrophes of 721 and 587 BC would not occur again. On the other hand the Jews should not expect Yahweh to eradicate the pagan empire. Instead they should witness to Yahweh, with their holy lives. Neither the law, not the cult, but the rainbow, a natural phenomenon observed by all humans, was proclaimed to be the seal of a covenant granted by Yahweh to humankind (Gen. 9:9ff).

Not only the forces of evil but also the forces of life, order and prosperity are demythologised in the priestly creation story. In Ancient Near Eastern religions, sun, moon and stars represented divine entities. They granted life and established order in the universe. In Egypt, for instance, the sun-god Re was the supreme deity. It is remarkable how these celestial bodies have been downgraded in Genesis 1. God simply commanded: let there be light, and there was light (1:3). So Yahweh does not even need the sun to produce light or to mark his days. In fact, the celestial bodies are only created on the fourth day, and with a very limited function, namely to structure time for humankind (1:14). They are certainly not the prime sources of life. The ancient Jewish theologians probably knew that life is not possible without the rays of the sun. But they wanted to make a theological point, namely that Yahweh is supreme, not a scientific observation.

The intention to demythologise its Babylonian counterpart also had a profound impact on the concept of the human being found in Genesis 1. According to the Enuma elish, Marduk crushed a rebellion by other gods against Ea, the Babylonian high god. Out of the blood of Kingu, the instigator of the rebellion, Ea made "savages" (human beings) to serve the gods as slaves. After the sacrifice of Kingu, the rebellious gods were set free. The idea of creating humanity was to keep the gods happy and prevent another uprising. The message of this myth is that human beings are meant to be slaves, but they carry rebellion in their blood and must be kept under control. This is a transparent way of legitimating the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. The Jewish exiles were at the receiving end of this oppression. And so their theologians responded with a remarkable counterstatement: the human being is not meant to be a slave but a king or queen. Humans have been created in the "image of God" - a royal title at the time - and placed above the rest of creation to subdue it and rule over it. Put differently, humans are supposed to participate in God's creative authority. The statement carries considerable emphasis because it is stated twice (Gen. 1:26; 1:27ff).

Moreover, God has created the human being, from the outset, as male and female. This stands in marked contrast to the earlier story found in Gen. 2:21ff. Man and woman do not only belong inseparably together, as the Yahwist had maintained in his own way, but they are also meant to have equal status. This is a surprising statement to make against the background of the pervasive subordination of females under males in the entire Ancient Near Eastern cluster of cultures, including the Jewish culture.

We remember that the Yahwist source was written at the height of Israelite glory. It legitimated the patriarchal and hierarchical structure of society. Elites usually have little sympathy for the plight of their subordinates. Four hundred years later the Jewish elites were themselves exiled and enslaved underdogs. It is in this situation of humiliation and suffering that they discovered what ought to be in this particular dimension of social reality. Paul restated in his own theological terminology, and on the basis of his own theology, that in the authentic human community there can be no difference in status between Jew and pagan, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3:26ff). For Paul it is Christ, the authentic human being, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, cf Col 1:15), and into whose image we are supposed to be transformed (2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29).

Unfortunately the lessons of the exile and the implications of the cross of Christ were soon forgotten and discrimination against women and slaves continued. The motif that human beings were created in the image of God does not occur again anywhere in the Old Testament. Even New Testament authors, including Paul, are hesitant when it comes to equality of dignity. In 1 Cor 11:7ff it is the male who is the image and glory of God, while the female is the glory of the male. In 1 Cor 12:13 women are left out, and in Rom 10:12 slaves are left out as well. In 1 Tim 2:1 l ff, finally, one finds a legitimation of male superiority which fits in neither with Gen 2 nor with Paul's concept of salvation. Traditions and conventions are tenacious, particularly if they legitimate the interests of dominant sections of the population.

Again we have seen that theological statements concerning the creation of the universe are meant to articulate God's redemptive response to situations of human need, rather than a scientific record of how the world came into being. In this case the underlying need was the re-establishment, maintenance and stability of the fledgling community in Jerusalem after the great national catastrophes. The message is: the God of Israel has established a universal order of which the small, battling, but celebrating community on Mount Zion is the centre because it is here that he had revealed his name.

Christ as the instrument of creation in the New Testament

New Testament theologies were obviously built upon the Hebrew-Jewish traditions. But they identified Jesus with the promised Messiah, the instrument of God's redemption. We remember that the ancient king was seen as the representative and plenipotentiary of God, who was supposed to hold the entire cosmos together. If redemption is not just the forgiveness of sins but the establishment and maintenance of comprehensive wellbeing, then love without power is simply not good enough. If Christ represents God's benevolence, he must also represent God's mastery. As God's instrument of redemption, he has to be God's instrument of creation. The statement that Christ represents God's mastery was applied to both the end and the beginning of time:

  1. Referring to the absolute end, he was proclaimed to be the eschatological king, who will subject all cosmic powers to his creative authority (1 Cor 15:24-28), and the ultimate Judge, who will subject all people to the criterion of his redemptive love (Mat 25:31ff; Jn. 5:22-30; Acts 17:30ff).
  2. Referring to the absolute beginning, Christ was proclaimed to have been God's instrument of creation (Col 1:15ff; Heb 1:2ff, Jn 1:1-15). Again the understanding is that he acts both as the channel of God's power and as the embodiment of God's intentions.

The most elaborate of these New Testament creation stories is found in the Prologue to John's Gospel. This Gospel was written in the idiom of Hellenistic Judaism. Hellenistic idiom is pervasive in the entire Gospel, but particularly powerful in the Prologue. Let us analyse this briefly. Greek philosophy believed that the world was constructed according to a rational principle, the logos. The Greek word logos means word, but also treatise, thought, principle or rationality. One can explain the motif best with a picture: an architect first visualises the building he wants to design. At this stage the idea of the building is part of the architect's own mind (Jn 1:11). He then projects the idea outward onto a plan. Then the building is constructed according to the plan (Jn 1:3). Anybody with intelligence can understand the plan.

Using this analogy one can say that the divine logos served as a blueprint for the world. In fact, the ancient idea of the cosmic order again surfaces in a new guise. The rational structure of the "macrocosm" can be understood because it is reflected in the human mind as a "microcosm". If we understand the logos, we understand the world. And if we want to lead an authentic life we have to conform to the logos (kata logon zen). John says that the logos is the "light" of human beings (Jn 1:9). Sadly enough people do not want to be enlightened (Jn 1:10-11).

John's prologue simply utilises this ancient pattern of thought. Its particular theological contribution is that it identifies the logos with Christ. With that it also replaces the impersonal principle of the logos with the personal will of God. If there was a divine master plan, it argues, it must have reflected God's authority, love and vision as revealed in Christ. God's intentions when creating the human being, in particular, must have found its expression in Christ. Here John adds a typically Christian definition of the nature of the intention of God: it is not the law, but grace and truth (1:17). In other words, the logos is not a set of principles we have to follow to become acceptable, but God's loving self-communication in Christ. Christ makes God himself known to us (1:18). Therefore Christ is not only called the logos, which can be mistaken as an impersonal principle, but also the "Son", the personal representative and plenipotentiary of God in the world (Jn 1:18). As we have seen, "Son of God" is an ancient title of the king (Ps 2:7ff; 89:26f).

As stated above, there is also a clear reference to sin which blurs the beauty of God's intentions. The logos pervades reality, but humanity does not recognise him (1:10). More than that, when the logos manifested himself in human nature, he was not accepted by humanity (1:11). We can easily recognise the discrepancy between what ought to be and what is in these statements. Human reality does not conform to God's intentions. Only when we accept Christ as the essence of our own being can this discrepancy be overcome.

What ought to be suffers at the hand of what is. But God uses the enmity of humans against him to bring about salvation: the divine logos becomes the "Lamb of God which bears the sin of the world" (1:29). So God takes the initiative to redeem a world which he loves (Jn. 3:16ff). And if Christ is the logos, it is God's master plan, the cosmic order, that is to be fulfilled by Christ. Moreover, those who believe in the "Son" themselves become "sons (and daughters) of God" (11:12ff). In other words, humans are meant to share the dignity, the power, the task and the vision of Christ. Believers see the glory of the logos, which again reflects the glory of God himself, and receive "grace upon grace" (1:16).

It is more than clear, once again, that John's prologue is not a story which describes how the world came into being, but a witness to God's benevolence and God's mastery. The creative power of God is the prerequisite for his redemptive love to become effective.

Great differences and a common thrust

We have seen that from the earliest to the latest of the creation narratives found in the Bible (Gen 2 and Jn 1) the motif of creation has been an implication of redemption. God responds to human need. To transform reality he must be in charge of reality. God's redemptive intentions and the power to make them materialise are expressed in terms of what God did "in the beginning". They are also expressed in terms of what God will bring about "in the end". What has been in the beginning and what will be in the end then serves as a model for God's redemptive interventions in current history. So in all these cases the emphasis does not lie on a description of how the world came into being. The thrust of the argument is throughout: in a situation of need it is God who should be trusted. Being the Source and Master of reality, he can turn what is into what ought to be.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that different creation narratives have come into being in different phases of biblical history. When needs change, and their interpretations change, the perception of God's response to needs has to change as well. In the detail of their contents these narratives differ widely and one should not even attempt to harmonise their statements. But in their basic thrust they all agree: God's redemptive benevolence is empowered by God's creative mastery over reality. This is the reason for the remarkable fact that they were all taken up into the same Canon, even one following on the other, without any sense of contradiction.

This also shows that the motif of creation has always had a missionary function. With widening horizons and new insights the perception of God's mastery became more comprehensive and more profound. Whenever a new constellation of need emerged, a new dimension of reality was involved and a new set of interpretations became necessary. In each case the lordship and the redemptive intentions of God had to be applied to the new situation in terms of the new tools of understanding. In all these cases the biblical authors took up, critiqued and transformed the interpretations which were current in their changing religious and cultural environments, whether Canaanite, Babylonian, Persian or Greek.

This process has not ended and it will not end as long as believers live in this world. If we really want to be true to the biblical witness we have to continue the process which the biblical authors have begun. We have to respond to our own situations of need, we have to utilise the interpretations of reality current in our own contexts, and we have to formulate our witness with the linguistic tools at our disposal today. We shall now attempt to discuss the contemporary relevance of faith in the Creator for three problems of life: sorcery, ecological deterioration and social chaos.

The chaos of sorcery and divine mastery

For better or for worse, the scientific world view is dominant today. It determines all aspects of the economy, the social organisation, the administration, the networks of communications, the transport system, the weaponry. But it is the world view of the elite, both in national and in global terms. The traditional world view still survives among the vast masses in spite of the invasion of its scientific-technological alternative.16 It is this world view to which the problem of sorcery belongs. Let us briefly discuss a few differences between the two.

  1. In traditional world views the substance which makes up reality is seen as consisting of dynamistic powers which are fairly unpredictable in their ebb and flow; in modernity reality is basically seen as a network of processes which function according to the laws of nature and which can be measured precisely with scientific tools.
  2. In traditionalism the hidden situation and its potential dangers and opportunities are revealed through dreams and divination. In modernity it is scientific research and analysis which reveal the secrets and possibilities of a situation.
  3. In traditionalism detrimental flows of power must be curtailed and advantageous flows of power must be induced by ways of rituals. In modernity people utilise technological means to change or to stabilise a situation.
  4. In traditionalism initiatives of individuals which go beyond their socially predetermined roles are considered to be dangerous and therefore subject to strict social controls. In modernity people are encouraged to take initiatives and develop their potentials as fully as they can.
  5. In traditional cultures the human being is supposed to serve - whether the gods, the social authorities, or the community. In modernity human beings are deemed to be free, equal in dignity and entitled to pursue their individual or collective interests.
  6. In traditionalism the world is supposed to be in in equilibrium. There can be no progress other than the gradual rise in status in a social system structured by class, age, sex and seniority. In modernity the world is seen as a dynamic system which evolves into an open future and infinite progress is possible.
  7. Traditionalism looks back to the proven truths of the past for guidance. The authority and wisdom of the ancestors and elders count, while the younger generation has to listen and obey. Modernity is geared towards the untapped potentials of the future; it is the energy and excellence of the young which count, while the older generation is left behind.

This is the context in which the problem of sorcery, as found in traditional societies, has to be seen. The dynamistic powers which are central to sorcery, are neutral. They can be channelled into life-supporting or life-endangering directions. When authorised representatives of the community, such as diviners, chiefs or fathers, use public rituals to channel cynamistic power in directions which strengthen and benefit the community this is a legitimate and virtuous enterprise. When individuals channel dynamistic power in secret to their own advantage and to the detriment of the community this is sorcery, the most treacherous and vicious of all evils a traditional community can contemplate. Nothing makes one shudder more; nothing causes greater fear. Widespread suspicion, ill-feeling, witch-hunting, victimisation may be the result. Sorcery not only means that the motivations of a member of the community have become wayward and that social relations have gone awry, but that the very substance of reality has been turned against the community. It is chaos breaking into the spiritual, social and natural fabric of reality.

The Christian proclamation of the Creator should be able to break the spell of sorcery. In most African traditional religions the Supreme Being is not accessible to humans as a person; one does not know his ultimate intentions; his power is enormous but diffuse. The God of the Bible is a person, who is accessible to humans, not an impersonal force; his motives are known to be benevolent, and he exercises authority over all of reality. The implication is that nothing can do us ultimate harm if this God has committed himself to us. "If God is on our side, who/what can be against us?" (Rom 8:31). There can be no power in all of creation which can separate us from God's love (Rom 8:38ff). It is an assurance of this nature that makes spiritual and communal healing possible in the traditional community.

Ecological chaos by human mastery

Some theologians have argued that it was the long term effect of faith in the mastery of the Creator that the world was demythologised and demystified in modern times. If God is the Creator of the world, nothing in the world is eternal, omnipotent or divine. The world becomes temporal, limited, secular. As God's represenative and plenipotentiary, humanity is meant to control all aspects of reality; humanity is not meant to be controlled by anything in reality. Everything is open for investigation and accessible for utilisation. Research takes the place of divination to explore the secrets of reality. Technology takes the place of ritual to utilise the powers of reality. In the long run, therefore, a community which believes in this kind of God will become immune against the fear of evil powers or sorcery.

All this sounds good. But the demythologisation and demystification of reality has proved to be dangerous. The secularisation of the biblical world view has gone further than simply demythologising the world. It has dismantled the concept of God itself and proclaimed the autonomy of the human being. It has elevated the interests of the human being as the supreme value. it has also reduced these interests to the interests of the individual. Of course, while this attitude has become dominant in today's world, it is not inevitable. There are humanists, agnostics and atheists who are humble, caring and responsible. Nor does faith necessarily make people immune against irresponsibility.

Yet the problem remains. A humanity that has become its own ultimate authority is responsible only to itself. If human beings are no longer perceived to be the representatives and plenipotentiaries of the Creator, but autonomous masters of reality, they can do with reality what they like. They can appropriate the mastery of God and abandon the benevolence of God. Mastery without benevolence turns into tyranny. Humans can now maximise the depletion of resources, economic throughput, profit, consumption and the production of waste. They are responsible neither to God, nor to their fellow human beings, nor to future generations. They can exploit and destroy other people, cultures, and natural resources. There is some truth in the contention that the biblical narrative of creation, where humans have been told to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gn 1:28), has contributed not only to the vast economic discrepancies within the world population but also to the ecological disasters we are facing today.

Seen in this light, the message that the Creator calls his creatures to account has become a question of life and death for humankind. But how do we proclaim that message? Our witness to the Creator in modern times must utilise the scientific idiom. In the scientific world view the concept of chaos is expressed by the concept of entropy. In simplified terms the law of entropy says that any construction causes a greater degree of destruction in its environment. In economic terms, the resource base is depleted while the amount of waste increases. Human beings cannot create anything; they can only dismantle what exists and put the parts together in a form which is ready for utilisation. In this process most of the original material is discarded and the utilised material eventually also ends up on the rubbish dump. The more powerful our means of production become, the greater the "throughput" from resource base to waste. So technology is a catalyst which not only multiplies consumer goods but also accelerates the entropic process of depletion and waste production.

In the modern world view the notion of creation is represented by the notion of evolution. According to the biblical witness, God does not bypass his creation in his creative activity but utilises it as his means. So the theory of evolution presents no theological difficulties.17 If reality has indeed evolved, it is our God who has made it evolve. This also means that the process of creation continues.

We know today that all constructs are the result of a long process of progressive differentiation and growing complexity. But evolution happens in the context of the entropic process. Every new construct which evolves demands a price. Lions feed on antelopes, antelopes feed on grass, grass feeds on microorganisms in the soil. All this is not serious because our biosphere has evolved over millions of years in a carefully balanced way. The energy derived from the rays of the sun is transformed into organic material which forms the nutritional base of higher organisms. When organic material is consumed, constructs are broken down and the wasted energy is radiated back into outer space in the form of heat. So energy is imported and entropy is disposed of by nature. In theological terms, God has created a structure which allows for the sustained unfolding of creation over long periods of time.

It is human irresponsibility which has begun to upset the balance of this system. Due to the increased powers of science and technology the processes of destruction are accelerating at such a rate that the natural inflow of energy and outflow of entropy can no longer keep pace. In fact we are currently depleting the energy stored over millions of years in fossil fuels, thus creating a superabundance of waste. Many scientists have predicted ecological collapse within a century or two.18 For the first time in the history of the universe we are confronted with a kind of global chaos which is generated by human activity. Only if we can achieve a new structure which is able to dispel this threat can humankind hope to have a future. So we are back at the core message of Genesis 1.

We need to reduce the rate of extraction of renewable resources to the level at which the biosphere can regenerate itself; we must reduce the utilisation of nonrenewable resources, such as fossil fuels, to the rate at which substitutes can be found, and we must reduce our levels of consumption to the levels at which the "sinks" of nature can absorb the waste which our consumption generates. To achieve all that we need to reduce both our numbers and our average living standards. That again can only be done to the extent that we achieve a greater degree of justice between human beings. There is no other way.

To even want to do that we must regain a sense of global responsibility and intergenerational justice. The old concept of the cosmic order must today be reformulated in terms of "evolutionary ethics" (nature), "human rights" (moral order) and "democracy" (social order). Those people who know that God loves his creation and who are involved in this love, who do not appropriate divine mastery for themselves but who see themselves as God's representatives on earth, who participate in God's own mastery and share God's own benevolence - those people could be in the forefront of ecological healing if they became aware of the cosmic consequences of their faith.19

Social chaos and the mastery of God

We have seen that the threat of social chaos and the divine response to that threat are at the heart of many creation narratives in the Bible. Here it suffices to draw attention to a modern version of these ancient narratives. The recent series of political events in South Africa present such a close parallel to the interventions of God in biblical history that it can leave one quite dumbfounded. We have witnessed social chaos in countries such as Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda. Prophets of doom have predicted a bloodbath in South Africa for decades. In the event it did not happen. Clandestine negotiations of pragmatic leaders on both sides have led to a situation that nobody could have expected. Even more confounding was the fact that millions of South Africans stood for long and hot hours in thousands of queues to cast their vote without a single fist being raised or shot being fired. South Africa has turned from the polecat of the world to an example which proves that civil war can be avoided.

Was this a redemptive intervention of God? To be sure, hundreds of thousands of believers had turned to God in agonising prayer, but there was nothing supernatural or inexplicable about the whole affair. Gods action does not bypass human action but enables and utilises it to achieve his goals. If we are serious about our witness to God the Creator we should proclaim this extraordinary event as a redemptive intervention of God, just as biblical writers would have done. We should also stop grumbling about the imperfections of the new dispensation, express our gratitude and get going to make this country a better place to live in - as those who share the power, the love and the vision of God.

To summarise

The biblical creation narratives witness to the mastery of a benevolent God. They originated as responses to particular situations of need. They utilised, but also transformed, the myths of origin found in their religious environments. The biblical faith has proved to be extremely versatile in this regard. It has responded to many different situations, penetrated many different cultures and interacted with many different convictions. Whenever it entered a cultural and religious situation it picked up the problems, assimilated the interpretations and subjected them to critique. In this way the biblical faith has been enriched with many facets of its social, cultural and religious environment, yet it has retained its distinctive identity.

In all these cases the aim of the authors was not to describe in objective, scientific terms how the world came into being, but to ascribe the existence of reality to the mastery of God in terms of contemporary interpretations of reality. Our task as believers and theologians today is, therefore, to repeat for our times what the biblical authors have done for theirs. Far from being a threat to faith in the Creator, therefore, exposure to the scientific world view helps us to witness to the Creator in terms of current insights and patterns of thought.20


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Anderson, B W (ed.) 1984. Creation in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)

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[1] See de Villiers 1994: 3 & Anderson 1994: 69-73.

[2] Nurnberger 1992: 16-34.

[3] Nurnberger 1993: 1-23.

[4] Fretheim is correct when he says that "the canonical ordering was theologically significant for Israel" (1991:355). But the compilation of the Canon represents the final, "dogmatising" phase of the evolution of the Old Testament religion, which does not necessarily reveal the existential roots of particular faith statements. Logically the "order of being" may claim priority over the "order of knowing" (Fretheim 1991:355); epistemologically, however, the order of being did not fall from heaven but is a timeless abstraction from historical experience.

[5] For the debate see, amongst others, von Rad, Schmid, Fretheim and especially the Jewish scholar Levenson

[6] Therefore it is not appropriate to play off von Rad's thesis that creation is an implication of redemption against Schmid's thesis that the idea of the "cosmic order" is primary. In both cases there is an underlying soteriological concern, namely for order against chaos.

[7] Trible, among others, tries to argue that Gen 2 does not imply gender inequality (60f): the first word play in Gen 2:4b relates adam (human being) to adamah (soil). No gender is implied. The second word play in relates ish ((male) to isha (fe-male), but this does not imply gender subordination. 1 do not think that this exegesis is tenable; the male is not only prior to the female, but also clearly in control of the situation. The exegesis seems to depart from the assumption that the biblical witness could not have legitimated a patriarchal society or male superiority, which it often does. Biblical authors were human beings embedded in the culture of their times and to defend ancient texts in terms of modern norms is inappropriate.

[8] This is what the principle of the Reformation that 'Scripture interprets itself" should mean in our time of historical-critical exegesis.

[9] Schmid 1984.

[10] Schmid 1984: 112.

[11] A similar pattern is found in Psalm 74, only that here the focus is not on the needs of the king but on the needs of the people during the time after the city and the sanctuary had been destroyed by the Babylonian and misery and humiliation took their toll.

[12] The reason for assuming this is that the Priestly source contains elaborate instructions for building the sanctuary in the form of a tent, not a temple, indicating that God was with them in their current state of instability and mobility. The narrative does not show signs of an emerging dialogue with the Persian religion. This dialogue was taken up by the alternative school in the Jewish theology of the time, namely Apocalyptics.

[13] See Weimar 1988: 337-385 and Lohfink 1982: 3-6.

[14] See O'Brien & Major 1982: 21-24.

[15] It had already been applied to the god Ptah in Egyptian mythology who imagines something, then utters a word of power and it exists.

[16] Cf Nurnberger 1975.

[17] See Moltmann 1985: 190-214.

[18] For instance, Meadows, Meadow & Flanders, J 1992.

[19] In Gen 2 the human being is placed into the garden "to till it and keep it". In Gen 1 the human being is created in the "image of God", which is a royal title and signifies that the king is God's representative and plenipotentiary on earth (cf Ps8). In the New Testament not Adam but Christ is the image of God (the authentic human being, Col 1:15) and we are to be transformed into his image (2 Cor 3:18). Another royal title with the same meaning is "son of God" (Ps 2:7). Christ is called the Son of God and we are to share in his sonship (Jn 1:12; Gal 3:26). In Rom 8:19 the rest of creation is waiting for the true 'Sons of God" to emerge, because that would bring health and wellbeing to the world.

[20] Financial assistance by the University of Natal Research Fund is gratefully acknowledged. or David Walker has kindly edited the manuscript. The author takes full responsibility for its contents.


Klaus Numberger is Professor of Theology and Ethics at the School of Theology, University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (South Africa).