I said last week that the biggest difficulty with Genesis 1-2 is hearing what they’re actually saying. Cultural differences are part of the reason for that, as the expectations and questions we bring to the text aren’t necessarily the ones it assumes; as I also noted, though, another major issue is the deliberate attempts to destroy their authority that have been made by those who don’t want to have to listen to them. In that respect, the issue with Genesis 1 is the effort to disguise pagan idolatry as science; with Genesis 2, it’s the modern impulse to reduce the Bible from God’s inspired Word to just another flawed human text. You see, a while back, scholars began to argue that the five books of Moses weren’t written by Moses—or indeed, by any one person—but were cobbled together at some point in Israel’s history from a number of pre-existing texts, and that whoever put them together did a pretty poor job. To my eyes, this idea has had its run and seems to be fading slowly from the scene, but it’s done a lot of damage; even if it ends up being generally rejected, it has still distorted our understanding of a lot of passages in the Old Testament—including this one.
You see, for a long time, our passage this morning has been treated as Exhibit A for this idea; after all, why else would Genesis start out with that grand picture of creation, and then turn around and give us another creation account? From our scientific point of view—remember, everything is supposed to run in a straight line—it makes no sense, and so a lot of folks conclude that what we have here is a different creation account that just got jammed in after Genesis 1 because nobody knew what else to do with it. But if we get outside our own assumptions about how things are supposed to be done, we can see that in fact, this passage makes perfect sense right where it is.
The key is the Hebrew word that the NIV translates “account” in verse 4, as in, “this is the account of the heavens and the earth”; it’s the Hebrew word toledot, which I’ve taken as the title of the sermon this morning. It literally means “descendants,” and it’s the word that the Old Testament uses to introduce genealogies; thus, for instance, Genesis 5—the genealogy from Adam to Noah, carrying the action up to Noah’s time and the great flood—begins, “This is the written account of Adam’s line,” the toledot of Adam. The interesting thing is, this word and this phrase are very important in the way Moses structured Genesis—they introduce each of the major sections of the book. The story of Noah begins with it, in Genesis 6:9. Genesis 11:27, which reads, “These are the toledot of Terah,” begins the story of Terah’s son Abram, later renamed Abraham. In Genesis 37:2, we have the toledot of Jacob—the story of his sons, and particularly his son Joseph. And here in Genesis 2, we have the toledot of the heavens and the earth—the account of their “descendants,” metaphorically speaking: the first human beings.
You see, Genesis 1 tells us what God did—he created the heavens and the earth—and this passage tells us what came of that, and thus what God’s purposes were in creating everything. Put another way, Genesis 1 tells us about the who, and it leaves the why to Genesis 2. To understand that, we need to understand a little more about what it means to say that human beings are created in the image of God. That statement in Genesis 1:26-27 is a loaded one, and we’ll spend more time next week looking at it, but the key thing here is that in the ancient world, when this book was written, the phrase “image of God” meant one thing: a statue of a deity in a temple.
For Israel’s neighbors, kingdoms such as Egypt and Babylon, establishing a temple to one of their gods was a very big deal; and while putting up the building was a great deal of work, that wasn’t the most important part. At the same time as some of the priests were supervising the construction, others would be at work making the image of the god or goddess; in Egypt I believe they made the images out of the heavy river clay and let them bake hard in the sun. In any case, as they shaped the image, of, say, Anubis, the dog-headed god, they would pray over each part. As they sculpted the eyes, the priests would pray over them to open them, that the god might see; as they dug out the ears, they would pray so that the god might hear; as they formed the hands and feet, they would pray so that the god could walk and use his hands; and when they were finished, they would blow on the lips to start the god breathing, bringing him to life.
That’s what religion was like back then; that’s how it worked. Your worship focused on the images of your deities, statues in human or animal form, or some combination; those were the representations of your gods and goddesses, so that you could see what they were like. Where the image of a god or goddess was, that god or goddess was understood to be present in the image. As a consequence, people believed that if they created these images and built houses for them, brought sacrifices and observed the ceremonies faithfully, they could ensure that their gods would be with them—and that if they didn’t, their gods would abandon them.
Now, I said last week that the central agenda of Genesis 1 is to establish that God is the only true God, and thus to challenge Israel’s persistent habit of wandering away to worship the gods of the nations; Genesis 2 takes that one step further. All of Israel’s neighbors believed they needed to build temples and make statues for their deities to be with them, but this passage aims to break the people of Israel of that idea. First, it assumes that God does not need a temple (though he will eventually have one built for himself) because all creation is his temple. This idea pops up in various places in Scripture, as in our passage from Isaiah 66: God made everything, all of it belongs to him, and he won’t be restricted to just one little house like all the other “gods.” It takes all of the heavens merely to serve as his throne, and all of creation is his temple, and how could any of us have the gall to think otherwise?
Second, we need to understand that the author of Genesis is thinking in precisely these terms. In Genesis 1 we have God building his temple, and in verses 26-27 he resolves to create human beings in his image. In verses 7-9 of our passage this morning, he gathers the dirt in his hands, forms it into an image, and breathes into the nostrils to give the image breath, to bring it to life—just as the priests of Egypt did with their idols; then, having awakened the first human being, God installs him in the temple, in the garden which he has created for the purpose. Creation is God’s temple, and we are his image which he has placed in his temple.
Now, to really get the full significance of this, we need to understand one other thing. You see, in Hebrew, there are two main words for God. One is “Elohim,” which we translate “God.” The interesting thing about this word, incidentally, is that it’s the plural form of the word “god,” and that Hebrew has not just a singular form, meaning one of something, but also a dual form which is used when there are two of something (two eyes, for instance); so the plural isn’t used until there are at least three of something—and this is the form the Bible uses to name the one true God.
Anyway, “Elohim” is the name for God as God, and it’s often used in the OT to emphasize how big and mighty he is, that he can hold all the oceans cupped in his hand, that sort of thing. The other name for him is his personal name; we don’t actually know for sure how it was supposed to be pronounced, because it was so holy a name that the Jews never spoke it, and so they eventually forgot how; our best guess at a pronunciation is “Yahweh.” Where the name “Elohim” tends to emphasize God-above-us, God as the almighty Creator who is beyond our comprehension, “Yahweh” emphasizes his relationship with his people, both as individuals and as a group; this is the name which emphasizes him as God-with-us. As Elohim he is the Most High God; as Yahweh he is our provider, the one who meets our needs.
I say all this to point out the fact that while in Genesis 1, God is referred to throughout as “Elohim,” here in Genesis 2 both names are used: without fail he is “Yahweh Elohim,” emphasizing both his power and greatness and his personal care for his people. The author is trying to tell us here that the God who is mighty enough to create everything simply by speaking is at the same time the God who takes care of his people and wants to have a personal relationship with us. He is great enough to earn our awe, and beside him all our problems shrink into insignificance, yet he is close enough to hear our every whisper and to care about every part of life.
So if this is our God, if all creation is his temple and we are his image, what does this say about us? Well, for one, it denies the modern scientific view that human beings are the next best thing to irrelevant as far as most of the universe is concerned, excepting only our effect on Earth’s environment. The late science-fiction writer Douglas Adams captured this well in his classic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when he wrote,
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
He goes on like that for a while, but I think you get the point. Science has discovered that creation is much, much bigger than the ancient Hebrews thought, and that we are not in fact at the center of it, which is a good thing to have figured out. Unfortunately, scientists have gone from there to conclude that we are exactly as insignificant on the large scale of things as that makes us sound: we are unimportant residents of an unimportant planet in a minor solar system in one part of what is, after all, only one of thousands of galaxies in the universe, none of which would even notice if the day after tomorrow we blew ourselves to kingdom come. We aren’t even a flyspeck to the universe, after all.
Scripture’s view is radically different: we are the purpose of creation. God created the universe to be his temple in order that he could make us in his image and place us here. Now, this isn’t to say that we’re the purpose of creation because we’re so wonderful, nor does it mean that we have the right to do what we like with the rest of the world—which is, after all, God’s temple, not ours; rather, creation exists for us because God created us for a reason. It’s all about how wonderful God is. But because God is wonderful, he made everything that is so he could make us to share it with.
There are two reasons for that. The first one isn’t stated here, but we see it all through the Scriptures: God created us to share his love. Notice that I say “to share his love,” not “to find someone to love.” 1 John 4 tells us that “God is love,” and there is good reason for that. We know as Christians that while God is one, he is also three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that when we speak of God we speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; we call that the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s why it’s true to say that God is love: in himself, between the three persons of the Trinity, God loves. The Father, Son and Spirit all love each other deeply, and this was true even before anything or anyone else existed. Thus God didn’t need to find someone to love; rather, the Father, Son and Spirit loved each other and decided to create us so that God could invite us to share in that love, thus making his infinite love infinitely greater by including all of us in it.
As I said, this is not explicit in Genesis 2, but is rather something we learn from reading all of Scripture. It leads, though, to the second half of God’s reason for creating us, which is very clear in this passage: God created us to worship him. After all, that’s the purpose of a temple, right? God shares his love with us, and in so doing he calls us to respond in kind, by loving him and by acknowledging his greatness and glory; which is to say, by worshiping him, as we are doing here this morning. Worship is our first purpose in life, for it is the purpose for which we were made. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, one of the foundational documents of Presbyterian Christianity, declares that our chief purpose is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”; and John Piper has taken that one further, declaring that we exist to glorify God by enjoying him forever.
That really is the idea here. Worship is a large and deep subject, and we could spend a long time talking about it and only scratch the surface, but at its very core, it’s simple: worship is about making our relationship with God, as a body and as individuals, our primary focus. Everything else flows from that, and any priority which gets in the way of that is a temptation to idolatry, because God created us to worship him—not just to serve him, though that’s important, not just to do certain things, but to enjoy his presence, to enjoy him and celebrate him as the great and wonderful God he is.