The “Pre-History”: The Sovereign Call of God

Genesis 1:1—11:29

For [as] he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:9—10).

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are among the most important in Scripture. They are among the best known (in a stereotyped way). And they are frequently the most misunderstood. Misunderstandings of substance likely occur because the style and character of the literature is misunderstood. A faithful understanding of these materials requires that interpreters be clear about the nature of the material presented and the relationship it has to the remainder of Scripture.

In these texts, there is almost no historical particularity. Other than the reference to specific peoples in chapters 10—11, there is no concrete identification of historical persons, groups, movements, or institutions. Creation is treated as a unity. And where individual persons are cited, they are treated as representatives of all creation, the part for the whole. The only distinction made is that between human and non-human creatures. In various texts, the interrelation of human and non-human creation is presented in three ways: (a) It is treated together without differentiation. All stand before God in the same way, as the single reality of creature vis à vis creator (9:9—10). (b) Human creation is treated as superior and non-human as subordinate (1:25—30; 2:15): human creatures are designated to order, rule, and care for the other creatures; creatures are to obey and to be responsive to the human creatures. (c) At other times texts are highly anthropocentric (11:1—9), concerned only with human creatures, disregarding the rest of creation. Obviously, these three ways of speaking of creation have some tension among them. It is not obvious that one can speak of human creatures together with the other creatures and at the same time of human creatures over the others. Because of the different ways of speaking, it is not easy to generalize about “creation.” For theological purposes, it is important to distinguish the three modes. Each of them is employed when the tradition addresses a different issue or dimension of reality. On balance, speech here about creation tends to be anthropocentric. The text cares foremost about the human creature. And when the rest of creation is mentioned, there is a tendency to be interested in how the other creatures relate to this human creature. The central concern is with the large issue of the relation of creator and “creature” (which here refers to: [a] the undifferentiated creation, [b] human and non-human creatures in differentiated relation, and [c] human creatures alone).

These chapters embody a peculiar and perceptive intellectual tradition. This intellectual tradition has discerned that all other philosophical and political questions (i.e., issues of meaning and power) are subordinated to this fundamental issue of the relation of the creator and creation. Upon that issue everything else hinges, including human authority, power, and the reality of order and freedom in human life. It is likely that the work of these chapters is linked to the royal court which sponsored scientific and philosophical investigation of the mystery of life (cf. Prov. 25:2—3), for such investigations are closely related to the use and the legitimation of human power.

The theologians of Israel, in these texts, face the basic mystery of life upon which all social well-being depends. The texts appropriate materials from the common traditions of the Near East. But they handle and utilize them in a peculiarly theological way. On the one hand, they break with the “mythological” perception of reality which assumes that all the real action is with the gods and creation in and of itself has no significant value. On the other hand, they resist a “scientific” view of creation which assumes that the world contains its own mysteries and can be understood in terms of itself without any transcendent referent. The theologians who work in a distinctively Israelite way in Gen. 1—11 want to affirm at the same time (a) that the ultimate meaning of creation is to be found in the heart and purpose of the creator (cf. 6:5—7; 8:21) and (b) that the world has been positively valued by God for itself. It must be valued by the creatures to whom it has been provisionally entrusted (1:31).

This delicate statement is neither mythological (confining meaning to the world of the gods) nor scientific (giving creation its own intrinsic meaning). The affirmations of Israel are dialectical. They affirm two realities in tension with each other, neither of which is true by itself. We have no adequate word for this dialectical affirmation about creation which is peculiarly Israelite. It is probably best to use the word “covenantal,” as Barth has urged (Church Dogmatics, III 1 #41; IV 1 #57). That word affirms that the creator and the creation have to do with each other decisively. And neither can be understood apart from the other. (The word “covenantal” needs to be taken in that general sense, as in Gen. 9:8—12, and not in the more precise ways that have been employed in some recent scholarly discussion, for example, relating to treaty formulae. These perceptions lead to two overriding theological affirmations.

First, the creator has a purpose and a will for creation. The creation exists only because of that will. The creator continues to address the creation, calling it to faithful response and glad obedience to his will. The creation has not been turned loose on its own. It has not been abandoned. Nor has it been given free rein for its own inclinations. But the purposes of the creator are not implemented in a coercive way nor imposed as a tyrant might. The creator loves and respects the creation. The freedom of creation is taken seriously by the creator. Therefore, his sovereign rule is expressed in terms of faithfulness, patience, and anguish.

Second, the creation, which exists only because of and for the sake of the creator’s purpose, has freedom to respond to the creator in various ways. As the texts indicate, the response of creation to creator is a mixture of faithful obedience and recalcitrant self-assertion. Both are present, though the negative response tends to dominate the narrative.

These theological affirmations, then, set the main issues and the dramatic tensions of the text: the faithful, anguished, respectful purpose of the creator and creation’s mixed response of obedience and recalcitrance.

We are so familiar with these texts that we have reduced them to cliches. But we should not miss the bold intellectual effort that is offered here, nor the believing passion which informs that intellectual effort. Israel is thinking a new thought. In the use of their faithful imagination, Israel’s theologians have articulated a new world in which to live. The shapers of the text are believers. They are concerned with theological reality. But they are not obscurantists. They employ the best intellectual data of the time. And they force the data to yield fresh insight. Their faith is genuinely “faith seeking understanding.” Their gift to us is an alternative way of discerning reality. It is a way which neither abdicates in “mythology” nor usurps in autonomy. It is a way in which obedience is known to be the mode of the world willed by God. But this is not obedience which is required or demanded. It is a grateful obedience embodied as doxology. These texts ask if this world of mixed response can become a creation of doxology (cf. Rev. 11:15—19).

Critical Issues

1. More than any other part of the Bible, this material has important links to parallel literature in the ancient Near East. Not only are there parallel creation stories and flood stories, as has long been recognized, there are also parallels in which creation and flood are joined together in one large complex. Thus our material relates to an old tradition even in its present shaping. Having acknowledged that, no special attention is given in our exposition either to comparison or contrast. This exposition has no more stake in stressing the uniqueness of the material than in showing the parallels. Rather, our concern is to hear what the text has to say in its present canonical form. Our task is to enter into this remarkable intellectual achievement of faith seeking understanding.

2. More than anywhere else in Genesis, one is aware here of the problem of literary sources. It is conventional (and accepted) that these chapters are of two different traditions, commonly J and P. The J material in Gen. 2—3, 4; 11: 1—9, and in some parts of the flood narrative and the genealogies, is usually taken to be earlier. It may be a critique of royal autonomy (perhaps Solomonic) and thus a polemic against the rebellious pride of the creature who will not live in relation to the creator but craves autonomy (cf. 3:5; 11:6). The P source is commonly dated to the exile. It deals with the problem of despair and hopelessness. This tradition is found in Gen. 1:1—2:4a, parts of the flood narrative and elements of the genealogies. While the former tradition is concerned with prideful self-assertion, the latter deals with despair. Against despair, it asserts not only humanness in the image of God (1:26) but that this image is enduring after the expulsion (5:1) and after the flood (9:6).

The two literary strands and their two theological agenda live in uneasy tension. That tension is never completely resolved. But the traditions are shrewdly held together in the canon. The expositor is not free to choose one at the expense of the other. It is required that our presentation should be faithfully dialectical. It must deal with (a) the human refusal and God’s response, as well as (b) human faithfulness and God’s affirmation. Thus, the sources commonly found here need not be viewed as a problem. They may be seen as a way of understanding the richness of material that is offered for theological interpretation.

3. After the two literary sources have been identified, theological exposition must seek the unity of Gen. 1—11, a unity surely intended by the present form of the text. Thus after sources, we must investigate the structure of the text. As we shall see, the structure of the entire unit is difficult and admits of more than one interpretation.

a. It is possible to see the material in several “clusters.” Malcolm Clark (“The Flood and the Structure of the Pre-Patriarchal History,” ZAW 83:204—10 [1971]) follows Rolf Rendtorff (“Genesis 8:21 und die Urgeschichte des Jahwisten,” Kerygma und Dogma 7:69—78 [1961]) and suggests two great cycles. We may speak of the “Adam cycle” of Gen. 1—4 (5) which asserts God’s intent for the creation. Here there is an affirmation and then a pattern of indictment and sentence (3—4). This cycle is completed in chapter 5 with the genealogy of the generations.

The second “Noah cycle” (6—9) begins with the curious statement of 6:1—4 and ends with the equally odd narrative of 9:21—28. This cycle presents the sorry picture of old creation and the beginning of new creation. This cycle is structured in the reverse order from the “Adam cycle.” That cycle began with affirmation and ended in indictment. This cycle begins in indictment in 6:5—8 and is resolved in 8:20—22. The decision to destroy in 6:11—13 is resolved in 9:1—17. In this construction it is the assertion of 8:20—22 which inverts the action and marks the decisive end of the pre-history.

In this interpretation, the remaining materials of chapters 10—11 occupy a transitional position in a third grouping. They make a shift from primeval history to world history. Both genealogy and narrative move closer to political reality.

b. The foregoing hypothesis of Clark and Rendtorff regards 8:20—22 as the real end of the narrative, and the remainder of Chapters 1—11 is only transition. Against that, David Clines pays more attention to the post-flood materials to show that even in those narratives and genealogies God is still at work to have creation on his own terms and yet receives a continuing mixed response of resistance and compliance on the part of creation (The Themes of the Pentateuch, JSOT Supp. 10, Chap. 7). Seen in that way, 8:20—22 marks no decisive turn. The unresolved issues in and before the flood continue after the flood.

The difference between the two hypotheses is one of accent. Taken either way, the discussion makes clear that the theological issue is the troubled relation of creator and creation. Further, it is clear that read in terms of such clusters of narrative, material from both the J and P sources are essential to presenting the full anguish and persistence of the troubled relationship. Thus, even in the face of literary dissection, a theological coherence is evident which may control our exposition.

4. Comment needs to be made on the matter of creation, world-beginnings and attempts to correlate creation narratives with modern scientific hypotheses. No special attention is given to this issue here because it is judged as not pertinent to our purpose. The expositor must move knowingly between two temptations. On the one hand, there is the temptation to treat this material as historical, as a report of what happened. This will be pursued by those who regard science as a threat and want to protect the peculiar claims of the text. If these materials are regarded as historical, then a collision with scientific theories is predictable. On the other hand, there is the temptation to treat these materials as myth, as statements which announce what has always been and will always be true of the world. This will be pursued by those who want to harmonize the text with scientific perceptions and who seek to make the texts rationally acceptable.

Our exposition will insist that these texts be taken neither as history nor as myth. Rather, we insist that the text is a proclamation of God’s decisive dealing with his creation. The word “creation” is controlling for such a view. The whole cluster of words—creator/creation/create/creature—are confessional words freighted with peculiar meaning. Terms such as “cosmos” and “nature” should never be carelessly used as equivalents, for these words do not touch the theocentric, covenantal relational affirmation being made.

The word “creation” belongs inevitably with its counter word “creator.” The grammar of these chapters presumes that there is a Subject (creator), a transitive verb (create) and an object (creature/creation). The single sentence, “Creator creates creation,” is decisive for everything. It is not subject to inversion. The sentence asserts that God does something and continues to care about what he does. The pathos and involvement of God is implicit in all these texts, even though it is most explicit in 6:5—8; 8:21. The subject of the sentence, then, is never separated from the object; and the object is surely never separated from the subject. Finally, the verb that links them is irreversible. While it may be used synonymously with “make” or “form,” the verb “create” is in fact without analogy. It refers to the special action by God and to the special relation which binds these two parties together. Creator creates creation. Subject, verb, object: This governing sentence affirms that the creator is not disinterested and the creation is not autonomous. This is the peculiar “grammar of creation” in Israel.

The text, then, is a proclamation of covenanting as the shape of reality. The claim of this tradition is opposed both to a materialism which regards the world (nature, cosmos) as autonomous and to a transcendentalism which regards the world as of the same stuff as God. The term “create” asserts distance and belonging to. It is affirmed that the world has distance from God and a life of its own. At the same time, it is confessed that the world belongs to God and has no life without reference to God. Both characterize the relation of creator and creation. This idiom of covenant applies not only to the creation stories of Gen. 1—2, but to all of the materials of Gen. 1—11. The whole is a narrative about God’s insistence that the creation should be nothing other than his creation. Such a view leaves ample room for every responsible scientific investigation. But it yields not at all on the issue of the fundamental character of reality as derived from and belonging to this sovereign, gracious God who will seek to have his own way. This theological affirmation permits every scientific view that is genuinely scientific and not a theological claim in disguise.

Theological Affirmations and Possibilities

1. The assertion, “Creator creates creation,” articulates the main issues before us. It affirms that God has a powerful purpose for his creation. Creation is not a careless, casual, or accidental matter. We suggest that as an entry into God’s intention for creation, reference be made to Eph. 1:9—10. While we have not pursued the christological element stated by Paul, the text affirms that the creator intends the creation to embody an obedient unity (cf. Gen. 1:31; 8:22). The statement of Eph. 1:9—10 makes several claims. First, it affirms that the purpose of creation is already decided. It is not to be decided in the future. It is not an optional matter for creation. The creatures do not have a vote in the matter. Second, that purpose is unity. The statement of 1:31 understands this unity to be aesthetic as well as ethical. The world is to be “beautiful” as well as “obedient.” God does not call the world to be chaotic, fragmented or in conflict (cf. Isa. 45: 18—19). And he stays with it until it becomes as he wills it.

2. It is by speaking and hearing that the interaction of the creator and creation takes place. In Genesis chapter 1 God creates by speaking. Creation is to listen and answer. Language is decisive for the being of the world. For that reason, it is exegetically correct that “God calls the worlds into being” (cf. Rom. 4:17). That call is given with passion and yearning. It is telling that in the final narrative of 11:1—9 the last state of pre-Israelite humanity is lo’-shema‘, “they did not listen” (Gen. 11:7). And when creation does not listen, it cannot respond as God’s creature. Nonetheless, the caller still calls, urging the world to answer.

3. This speech of God is a sovereign call. It is not subject to debate. It is sure to have its own way. Clearly, the creation will be God’s creation. Yet, in these narratives, the sovereign call is unheeded. We are dealing here with a peculiar kind of sovereignty. This sovereign speech is not coercive but evocative. It invites but it does not compel. It hopes rather than requires. Thus, it may be resisted and unheeded. But the call of the creator is not thereby voided.

By reference to Eph. 1:9—10, we do, of course, suggest a christological reading of the creation account. But in doing so, we do not misuse the text. The same claim, that the creator overcomes recalcitrance by embracing it, would be made in other language by Jewish interpreters. From both perspectives, a break is required from mechanistic notions of creation. Our exposition concludes that God does not create in the sense of a manufacturer. He does not “make” so that an object is simply “there.” Rather, he creates by speaking in ways that finally will be heard. His word has the authority of suffering compassion. The creation, then, is not an object built by a carpenter. It is a vulnerable partner whose life is impacted by the voice of one who cares in tender but firm ways.

4. Creation, the object of our governing sentence, is presented by our text as a special treasure of God. Yet, the creature is stridently disobedient, proud, and alienated. That is clear of the first man and woman (3:1—7), of Cain (4:1—16), of the world in the flood narrative (6:5—13), and of the nations in the tower narrative (11:1—9). But it is not unmitigatedly so. There are hints of an alternative reality as well. Our exposition must be attentive to those hints. Too much interpretation of these chapters has focused on the sin to the neglect of obedient creatureliness.

The hints of an alternative reality include the creator at rest because creation is “good” (2:1—4), the orders of life guaranteed (8:21—22), the world embraced and guaranteed (9:8—17). And of course, Noah is the new man, the new king who will relieve the world of its fruitless efforts (5:29). Noah stands as an alternative to disobedient Adam and perhaps to disobedient Solomon. As is well known, the P tradition summarizes this positive note in the model, “image of God.” But the most staggering claim is not in P, where it might be expected, but in J, in 4:7: “. . . Sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” If that statement is taken optatively, it is a promise, a hope and a permit: “You may.” That promise is an appropriate counterpart to God’s persistent, evocative speech. God will be sovereign. Creation may be whole.

5. The theme of this entire section may be stated in various ways. David Clines (The Theme of the Pentateuch, 1978, pp. 61—79) has summarized three contemporary thematic proposals: (a) Claus Westermann has argued that the drama moves from sin to God’s mitigation and finally to punishment (“Types of Narrative in Genesis,” The Promises to the Fathers, 1964, pp. 47—58). (b) Gerhard von Rad has traced the theme of the spread of sin and the counter theme of the spread of grace (Genesis, 1972, pp. 152f.). (c) Joseph Blenkinsopp has seen the narrative as shaped in terms of creation/uncreation/recreation (The Pentateuch, 1971, pp. 46f.).

While there are important differences, these three proposals are variations on the same theme, the troubled relation of creator/creation and God’s enduring resolve to have creation on his terms. The unit of Gen. 1—11 makes an assertion about the situation of the world into which God will make the second call to his special people, Israel (12:1—3). It is a world in which fundamental issues are still to be resolved. Still to be settled is the way in which the world will come to terms with the purposes of God, willingly assenting to be God’s good creation. Still to be resolved is the way in which God will stay with the world in its resistance. To see the issues in this way is an important affirmation, no matter how they will be settled. Barth has seen this well (Church Dogmatics III 2, 1960, pp. 28—36). There is sin; this is how the world is marked. There is grace; this is how God presents himself. But the grace of God is the very premise for sin. “Thus the grace of God itself is the presupposition of man’s sin” (Barth, 35). Sin is only and always a resistance to God’s gracious will. It is the compassion of God which makes sin possible. As the narrative advances, we move between these two important recognitions. In one sense, the issues between creator and creation are unresolved in Gen. 1—11. It is unknown how it will be between the partners. Yet in another sense, the issues are resolved because the governing sentence remains: “Creator creates creation.” The accent is finally on the subject. And the object must yield, not to force, but to faithful passion. Both the strange resistance of the world and the deep resolve of the creator persist in the text. The expositor must not relax the tension in either direction. To conclude only that the world is “fallen” is to miss the point. But to conclude that God will prevail is perhaps to claim too much. The narrative leaves the issue open. What is proclaimed is that God is God. Nothing in the narrative alters that reality by a cubit.

6. Because the issues are unresolved and the relationship unsettled, the message here is one of promise. The stories must not be taken in isolation from each other. On the whole, it is clear that the purpose of God will not leave the world alone. God is patient (cf. Rom. 3:25—26) and will wait. But God will never abandon the world, as evidenced even in 11:1—9. That was good news to exiles who felt abandoned (cf. Isa. 49:14). It was good news to a bewildered community of faith (Matt. 28: 20). It continues to be good news to those who believe the world is autonomous and must make its own way, and it is good news to those who know about sin but who do not know that creatureliness is bound to a determined, pathos-filled creator.

God’s sovereignty is not yet fully visible. Creation is not yet fully obedient. The text of Gen. 1—11 leaves the issues open. In these troubled stories are the hints that later are discerned as the abiding promises. But the narrative lives in hope. At the end of this section (Gen. 1—11) in 11:1—9, we make a canonical move to the new life given in Acts 2:1—13. The angry but persistent creator of 11:1—9 now moves with a fresh surge of life-giving power. The community yearned for is now granted. In even larger sweep, we move from the unresolved tensions of Gen. 1—11 to the great hymnic vision of chapter 11 in Revelation, in which the issues of our text are resolved: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (v. 15). The ones who could not listen in Gen. 11:7 now have become the ones who hear (Rev. 2:11) and therefore praise (Rev. 11:16—18). The later faith tradition in our texts makes incredibly large claims. Perhaps they are understated. Perhaps they could only be seen in the light of the fulfillments. But once discerned, these claims loom large for biblical faith. It is the task of exposition to make visible these large claims for the world. At the same time, exposition seeks to let that grand vision touch individual creatures, ones who are valued and called in this “grammar of creation.” It is the intent of these texts that the hearer may respond in this way:

The text asks, What is your only comfort in life and in death? The creature may answer, That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful saviour, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and completely freed me from all the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him. (Heidelberg Catechism, question and answer 1).

The intent of the sovereign Lord is that creation’s only comfort is in his care and promise. It is important to observe that the comfort of the gospel announced in the catechism is anticipated by the New Man, Noah (Gen. 5:29). There is enough in the stories (Gen. 1—11) to assert that this claim of comfort is true not only for individual believers, but for the whole of creation, object of this incredible verb “create,” partner of this amazing subject, “creator.”

A Schema for Exposition

The chart of chapters 1 through 11 of Genesis entitled “The History of Creation,” suggests the points of accent and emphasis in the exposition that follows. The carefully structured flood narrative stands at the center and has as its major counterpoint the creation of the world in chapter 1. These two together provide the main dynamic of creation/uncreation/new creation. Specifically, the first verse of chapter 8 is a turning point, not only for the flood narrative, but for the entire presentation.

As the flood narrative is the center of the tradition, we may note the following correlations:

If the point were pressed to complete the symmetry, we should juxtapose 12:1—4 as the counterpart of chapter 1. As it is presently shaped, the tradition of 1:1—11:29 ends without resolution. God’s will for his creation is not in doubt. He has pledged to stand by his creation (8:21—22; 9:8—17). Now there is a waiting and a groaning (cf. Rom. 8:19—23). Those who value these texts are those who “wait with patience” (Rom. 8:25) and with “eager longing” (Rom. 8:19).