The Division of the Nations

(Genesis 11:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-10)

“As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. . . . Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city.’” It sounds so innocuous, such a harmless thing; but it really isn’t. In Genesis 4, after God drove Cain from the land, he went east and settled there, and founded a city. Now here, following the flood, we’re told that people en masse have done the same thing; the human community is repeating the behavior of Cain. And in Genesis 9, God repeated to Noah and his family the command he had given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” Spread out, be attentive to all the various regions of the world, and care for them as God’s servants. But they didn’t want to do that; they had their own agenda which they were determined to pursue instead.

We see here, I think, a couple aspects to that agenda. The first is the desire for security—they were afraid of being scattered; they wanted control over their circumstances. If they had split up and spread out into different parts of the world, they would have had to trust God to provide for them and protect them; if they stuck together, they could look out for themselves more effectively, and they wouldn’t need to rely on God. What we have here, I think, is the first case in recorded history of the fortress mentality, as humanity is seeking to unify against the outside world—and, ultimately, against God. The root of this, I think, is the unwillingness to trust him, which produces the desire to keep him out.

Connected to that, I believe, is pride. I said a few weeks ago that the founding sin is the desire to be like God, and we see that rearing its head here. “Let us build a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves,” they said. Now, in the West, we read that and we think, “OK, they wanted to build the world’s first skyscraper,” that the point of the tower is that it would be impossibly high; this painting from the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder captures our mental image nicely. In truth, though, while I imagine they were indeed planning a tower bigger than anything that had ever been built to that point, they probably didn’t have that kind of height in mind.

You see, in Mesopotamia, in what would become Assyria and Babylon, and is now Iraq, the central feature of each city was the ziggurat, which was sort of a pyramid-shaped temple, except that its levels were terraced, so that the sides formed a sort of giant staircase. The very top level was the shrine, which was painted blue to make it blend in with the daytime sky, with the heavenly home of the gods. That shrine was understood as, symbolically speaking, the gateway to the heavens; it gave humanity access to the realm of the gods, while the ziggurat provided a great stairway for the gods to come down out of heaven into the city. Thus the name of the city of Babylon meant “gate of the gods,” and the great ziggurat in that city was named “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” The point of this tower, then, is not merely “Let’s build something really tall so that it will impress everyone”; rather, it is, “Let’s build a great tower that will give us access to God on our terms.” God lives in heaven and people live on earth, and there’s a division there; the builders of Babel want to go beyond their limits and cross that division. They want to compete with God.

And note what they want: “to make a name for ourselves.” God had offered them a name, as his people; he had offered them significance in life, giving them important and meaningful work to do. The thing is, they didn’t want the name he offered them, they wanted to make their own. They didn’t want to find meaning in life by doing what God called them to do, and they didn’t want to be significant on his terms. They didn’t want to be remembered as faithful servants of God. Instead, they wanted fame and importance for doing their own thing. They wanted to make a name for themselves by asserting their independence, rebelling against God and charting their own course. They were, in short, much like Satan in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” It’s been a common theme in human history ever since.

In their pride and their desire for security, then, they defy God and build a city for themselves. The French theologian Jacques Ellul has written a fair bit about the significance of this, calling the city “our primary human creation”; it is, as he says, “a uniquely human world.” If you’re not living in the city—of whatever size—you’re out in the country, surrounded mostly by things God made; granted, we shape nature around us, none of it is as it would be if we’d never done anything to it, but we’re still looking out at a world that we did not make and could not make. In the city, though, we’re surrounded by human creations, and the greater the city, the truer this is. Friends of ours are moving down to Reseda, in northwestern LA; he described it as “like Iowa, except that instead of corn as far as the eye can see, it’s houses.” This is why the city is the symbol we have chosen for human culture—think of a society, either present or past, and you think first of its great city or cities; and it’s why Ellul goes further to declare that the city is “the place that human beings have chosen in opposition to God.” This is not to say that all cities are bad, or that no one should live in cities; in due time, God will choose a city for himself, and when the heavens and earth are made new, they will center on a city, the new Jerusalem. But it is to say that the city people decide to found here on the plain of Shinar is an act of rebellion formed in brick.

Of course, while the builders of Babel might want to challenge God, they aren’t up to the challenge; but he will not let it go unanswered. The irony threaded through this passage is wonderful. They’re building a tower to reach the heavens, but God has to go down to see it; their little building is far less impressive than they think it is. As he looks at what they’re doing, he sees their refusal to accept and live within the boundaries he has set for them; with one language and one city, they are at the mercy of one ruler or group of rulers, and that ruling class, in their pride, is resolute in their rebellion against God. For any part of humanity to break free from that collective rebellion, their political and cultural unity must be disrupted. Rather than being unified in the worship of God, as he created human beings to be, the people of Babel were unified against him. As with the situation before the flood, this could not be allowed to stand; and so, once more, God acts.

In this case, of course, he strikes at their language, since a shared language is a necessary common denominator for any coherent culture or subculture; he confuses their language so that they can no longer hear and understand each other, and the city breaks up. They can no longer listen to each other, so they are no longer one nation—which means they can no longer be dominated by one ruler or group of rulers, and thus cannot be unified in rebellion against God. As such, the project breaks up, the city breaks up, and the people disperse across the face of the earth. They’re obeying God’s command to fill the earth, but not the way they should have, and so it won’t be as fruitful as God had planned. His desire had been that they be spread out to fill the earth, but unified in serving and worshiping him; in his plan, they would still have been a single people under one ruler—God—even though they lived in many different places. It’s much like the church, which is supposed to understand itself as one body, the one body of Christ, following God in many different smaller communities in many different places.

Now, however, they have been separated by force, alienated from each other by the division of their language; there are walls of confusion and misunderstanding keeping them apart, and their single society has been fractured into many. The result is the scattering they feared, only worse, for now they will not only be separated by distance, they will be divided by their inability to listen to each other. Because of this, as they were unwilling to trust God, so they will be unable to trust each other; and where their pride had been turned in a unified fashion against God, now in their division it will be turned against each other. Instead of seeking to compete with God, to take the place that properly only belongs to him, they will compete with each other, and seek to take what the other has by force; and so we have the beginning of war, of conflict between families, and ultimately between nations.

Our passage this morning sits at a transition point in the book of Genesis, which we can see clearly from looking at the context in which it sits: it is an interruption in a larger passage known as the Table of the Nations. Genesis 10 lists the descendants of the sons of Noah and tells us the places they settled and the nations they founded; it’s sort of a geography of the earliest human societies after the great flood. The interesting thing about it, as numerous commentators have pointed out, is that it treats all these descendants equally—it shows no particular concern for any one branch of Noah’s family or any one nation over any other. As such, what we see in Genesis 10 is God’s concern for the whole world, and for all nations. But then after the story of the Tower of Babel, the focus abruptly narrows, and we get the genealogy from Shem to Terah, and the beginning of the story of Terah’s family—which of course focuses on one of his child¬ren, his son Abram, whom God would later rename Abraham. Humanity was unified, but unified under rulers who were resolutely opposed to God, and so God disrupted that unity; thus, since humanity as a whole would not bow the knee to him, he would raise up a family, and through them a nation, who would, through whom he would carry out his plan to save the world.

To fully understand the significance of this passage, then, we need to look ahead; and while we usually focus on Abraham, take a look at the very end of chapter 11, at verse 31: Terah took his family, and they left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan—but they stopped at Haran and settled there instead. The Bible doesn’t make it explicit, but it sure looks to me like Abram wasn’t the first one to get the call to go to the Promised Land—his father Terah was; but Terah got part of the way and stopped. He got to Haran, and that was okay; Haran was the last big city before the border, it was still part of his own culture, and like his home city of Ur, it was a city where the people worshiped the moon. He got that far, and things were still comfortable—but after Haran came the frontier, and different people who talked and thought and believed differently than what he knew; after Haran, it was out of his comfort zone and into real wandering, trading something that felt like home for true homelessness. And he took a look at that, and he decided it wasn’t for him, and he stopped. He stayed in Haran until he died.

But where Terah stopped, his son Abram goes on, taking his wife and his nephew and all their servants and heading out to Canaan. It’s the exact opposite of what Cain did and what the builders of Babel did—he heads west, not east, and he founds no city; though his faith wavers once or twice, in general, he doesn’t take action to make a name for himself, but trusts in the promise of God to make a name for him. And because of his faith, God founds a nation through him—a nation which he teaches to identify itself this way, in Deuteronomy 26: “A wandering Aramean was my father.” That, you see, is the key: Abraham was the one who was willing to live by faith in the promise of God as a wanderer in a foreign land. Rather than seeking to found a city for himself, Hebrews says, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”

The Covenant of the Rainbow

(Genesis 8:20-9:17; Hebrews 11:7)

I think I’ve probably mentioned before that my dad grew up in the Church of God (Anderson). I’ve never attended a Church of God congregation, although I’ve visited one with my grandmother, but the Church of God was a real presence in our lives anyway, in the stories Dad told, and the music he listened to. Now, I am by no means unusual in this country in having grown up listening to a lot of Gaither music; having it combined with large doses of ’60s folk and classical was probably more unusual, really. But the connection my dad always felt there meant that even though he didn’t listen to a lot of other Southern gospel groups—I have a fair bit of the Imperials’ older stuff, for instance, but I bought all that myself—whenever the Gaithers put something out, it showed up in my house. Whether it was the Bill Gaither Trio, the New Gaither Vocal Band, or whoever, Mom got it for him and it went right into rotation. I am not, you understand, complaining; I enjoyed it, and I still do. But I do recall being particularly interested when Larnelle Harris joined the Vocal Band and they put out the album New Point of View, which Harris gave something of an R&B feel. It’s a fun album; but in retrospect, there’s one song on there I have to argue with a little.

You see, the American church since the Jesus Movement that began in the late ’60s has tended to be a bit free and loose with apocalyptic imagery, something that was encouraged when the “culture wars” phrase began to be kicked around in the ’80s; so on that album, they picked up a song by the old rock-and-roller Paul Evans called “Build an Ark,” where Evans talks about how bad the world is and how he’d like to build an ark for all the good folks and just let the rest of the world flood. Now, I don’t want to beat up on Evans for writing that song, or on the Gaithers for singing it; I understand the impulse, and I’ve certainly felt like that myself a time or two. But as understandable as that impulse is, when it hits us, I think we really need to step back from it a bit. As appealing as the thought can be of just pulling out of the world, keeping ourselves safe and letting it go its own way, that’s not the path God has marked out for us.

We see that, I think, in this section of Genesis. Yes, this world is in pretty sad shape, and there are terrible and horrifying things that happen; when the peasants of the Black Forest told tales of Jack and the beanstalk and the great giant who wanted to grind Jack’s bones to make bread, they captured the way the world treats the poor and the vulnerable. The only thing that’s fantasy about that story is that usually, the giant wins. But as we saw last week, the state of the world now doesn’t compare to how bad things were in the days of Noah; there, evil had basically won the day. There’s an old quote, falsely attributed to Edmund Burke, that says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”; in the days of Noah, there weren’t enough good men left to matter. The only way to stop evil was divine deliverance: the flood.

Now, we didn’t read the account of the flood itself this morning, in the interests of time; there’s a number of things there that we could talk about, but I wanted to focus this morning on the aftermath of the flood and the way forward. When the flood is over, Noah and his family come out of the ark, and all the animals come out after them, and immediately, Noah has a worship service. He builds an altar, and he takes some of the animals suitable for sacrifice to God, and he offers sacrifices—things he couldn’t do while he was on the ark, for fear of burning the thing down to the waterline. In other words, Noah takes the first available opportunity to offer thanks to God for saving him and his family. And note God’s reaction as Noah does this: “Even though humanity is evil, even though they’re all completely tainted with sin, I will never again strike the ground and wipe the earth clean of life.” And so he makes that a promise to Noah, and offers the rainbow as the sign of that promise, as the seal of his covenant.

This is important. God is saying that the flood accomplished its purpose, but that purpose was limited: it could wipe away particular evil societies from the earth, but it could not wipe away evil, because that lives in every human heart. In order to destroy evil by force, it would be necessary to kill all people, not just most of them—even the most righteous would still have to die. The flood was a one-time response to a particularly dire situation, but all it did was treat an especially bad set of symptoms; to address the real sickness of the human heart, a very different approach would be necessary.

That approach is prefigured here, but unfortunately, the NIV obscures it. In verse 14, where the NIV reads, “I have set my rainbow in the clouds,” the text literally reads “I have set my bow in the clouds.” Yes, it’s the rainbow to which God is referring, but there’s more going on here than that; the rainbow is being used symbolically in a very interesting way. The bow, of course, was a major weapon for hunting; equally of course, it was a major weapon of war, the best way for human beings to kill either animals or each other at a distance. A drawn bow was a sign of hostility; in the ancient Near East, among Israel’s neighbors, stars in the shape of a bow would have been seen as a sign of the hostility of the gods. But here, God has hung his bow in the heavens—pointing up. It isn’t pointing down at the earth to strike, it’s pointing up, away from the earth. Instead of a sign of war and hostility, it’s a sign of peace.

And it’s one other thing, though of course the early readers of Genesis couldn’t know it. God had aimed his wrath against sin at the earth, striking it with the flood; now he would take that wrath and reverse it, aiming it up—at himself, at his own heart. Tim Keller argues, and I think he’s right, that what we’re seeing here is a prefiguring and a foreshadowing of the work of Christ: the rainbow isn’t just a sign of God’s promise that he will never again deal with human sin by flooding the world, it’s an indication of how he will deal with it, by taking all its pain and penalty on himself. God makes this covenant with Noah, he promises never to send another flood, because he already knows that his final victory over sin is going to come a very different way. He knows that while punishing us for our sin—or allowing the consequences of our sin to fall on us, which is often enough the same thing—is frequently necessary, all the punishment in the world will only produce a more cautious and circumspect sinner; it will never make a saint, and what God wants is for us to be saints. To accomplish that, he needs to show us grace, so that we can respond not with fear and the desire to avoid punishment but with love and gratitude and joy.

Thus we have the gospel of the rainbow, which gives the lie to the idea that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from God as we see him revealed in Jesus. Yes, law is necessary; it’s necessary to show us, so clearly that we cannot avoid the truth, that God’s standards of holiness are too high for us to meet, so that we understand our desperate crying need for grace. Yes, punishment for sin is necessary, for many reasons; as rough as this world can be sometimes, it would be far worse if the evil that we do were never punished. But these things aren’t what God is on about, even in the Old Testament. He doesn’t want to terrify us into obeying him; he wants, rather, to love us into trusting him so that we obey him because we trust him, and love him, and know he loves us. That’s why his ultimate answer to more sin wasn’t more floods, more natural disasters, more judgment; his ultimate answer was the cross.

The Days of Noah

(Genesis 6; 2 Peter 2:4-10a)

One thing you’ll find, if you spend a lot of time reading the literature of the ancient world, is that a lot of that literature focuses on stories of giant heroes, men who were incredible warriors and leaders because they were simply more gifted than the normal run of humanity—especially physically, as they were usually tall, powerful, and athletic. Don’t think Shaq, think a guy who could bench-press Shaq and then dunk him for good measure. The Babylonians had the story of Gilgamesh—which, by the way, includes a flood story. The Irish sang of Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cúchulainn. The British gave the world the epic of Beowulf, who killed the monster Grendel in single combat. And of course, the Greeks told tale after tale of demigods and other heroes, from brutal Hercules to crafty Odysseus, as well as the legend of the great city of Atlantis, lost beneath the waves.

Now, your professional academic skeptics will tell you that these are all myths, and the first thing they’ll mean by that is “complete inventions”; but I’m not so sure. I won’t say that I believe a one of these stories happened exactly as we have them, but in my experience, stories don’t come from nothing, either; and the fact that we find these sorts of stories in so many different human societies—and not just on the European continent, either, though they do take on some different forms when you get to, say, Africa, or the Americas—well, it seems to me that suggests that there’s a kernel of memory lurking there in the back of the mind, that then works its way out in stories that are particular to each society and culture.

One of the things that makes me think so is that the Bible, too, knows of the existence of these heroes of old, these men of renown—but as is so often the case, it has a rather more skeptical take on them than the rest of the world. Part of this is that those heroes of old were such violent people as a whole; for all the complaints from some quarters about all the wars in the Old Testament and all the times God commands the Israelites to utterly defeat another nation in judgment for their idolatry, the Bible nowhere celebrates war, it has no long passages offering lovingly-detailed descriptions of battle, and it never glorifies warriors for their feats of arms. War is certainly presented as a necessity in many places in the Old Testament, but there is no trace of the theme common in other societies that the purpose of life was to win glory and the way to do so was through valor in combat. That’s a big, big difference between the Scriptures and, say, the Tain, the account of Cúchulainn and the great Ulster cattle raid.

So where does that idea come from? From human sin, with a little help. Look first at the way these heroes of old are labeled in verse 4: they’re called the Nephilim, the “fallen ones.” Then look where they came from: “The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.” What that means is much disputed, but for the best explanation I’ve found, let me tell you a little story. As we talked about last week, God showed Cain grace after Cain murdered his brother, and Cain went off into the land of Nod, and over time, a society developed there; and from what we see of it in chapter 4, it suggests that Cain did not use God’s grace well, for it was a society ruled by brutal and vindictive people. After all, force can be a very effective way to gain power over others; it can be countered by more peaceful means, but doing so requires a lot of people, and there just weren’t that many around back then. These tyrants were very much in rebellion against God, and they just kept getting worse, to the point that their evil offered an opportunity for evil spirits to possess them and take over. The “sons of God” in verse 2 are clearly human, but just as clearly they’re more than merely human; they are, I believe, demon-possessed rulers, fallen ones in their own right, who had children of unnatural physical presence, power, and ability—the heroes of old.

This created a dire situation for the future of the human race. These tyrants weren’t the only people on earth, but there was no one capable of resisting them; imagine how World War II would have turned out if the Nazis had had the only modern military on the planet, and you have an idea how this must have looked. Drastic measures were necessary to redress the balance, and the only one around to take those measures was God—and God will not allow human sin, injustice and violence to flourish unchecked. Sooner or later, he will bring down the hammer of his judgment on the unrighteous; and so he did. He raised up Noah, and he said to Noah, “Human society is so corrupt and so violent, it’s beyond repair; so I’m going to wipe it out. I’m going to send a great flood, and that will be the end of it. But you have been faithful to me, so I’m going to be faithful to you; I’m going to preserve you and your family. Build a giant boat and fill it with every kind of animal and every kind of food, and I will save you in the midst of the flood.”

Verse 22 tells us that Noah did everything God told him. All it gives us is that bare statement, but there has to have been a lot more to it than that; for starters, it has to have been a hard sell to his wife, trying to convince her that he hadn’t just gone stark raving mad. There was simply no logical reason for him to build a boat that big, and the reason he was offering—namely, God told him to—doesn’t always sound very logical. Building the ark was one of the biggest acts of faith in human history—but Noah did it. He must have put up with a lot of mockery for doing it, since we see in verse 3 that God decided to give humanity 120 years’ grace between his decision to send the flood and the time when he actually did so; Noah must have thought at times that converting the thing into a restaurant would make more sense than hanging around waiting for something he’d never seen before to happen. But he obeyed anyway, trusting that God was about something more than just making a fool of him; and so he and his family were saved.

And you know, they couldn’t have been saved any other way. There simply were no other options. There never are, really, as 2 Peter points out, but we usually like to think there are; we would rather believe that we’re in control, that it’s in our own power to save ourselves. Under normal conditions, we can usually convince ourselves that’s true. And then a crisis comes, and suddenly, we’re out of our depth, and we know it; or we reach a point when the consequences of our own wrongdoing and our own failures come back on us, when we know we’re getting what we’ve earned, and we understand just how far beyond our ability it is to save ourselves. And sometimes, the two are one and the same, as we face a disaster of our own making, and all we can do is cry out for mercy, pleading for a salvation we do not deserve and cannot possibly make happen by our own efforts.

And the amazing thing is, when we do, God responds; he doesn’t always shield us from the consequences of our sin, but he saves us through them. He didn’t give up on the human race, even when violence and corruption were everywhere; he found the one faithful family through whom he could rebuild, and he saved them. And he doesn’t give up on us, either; no matter what we may have done, no matter how deep the flood waters may be in our lives, if we turn to him and cry out for help, he will lift us out. We can’t save ourselves, we can’t get free of the power of sin in our lives—not by our own strength; but he knows that, and so he did it for us. He sent us his Son, Jesus Christ, to do for us by his death and resurrection what we could not do for ourselves; Jesus paid the penalty for all our sin by accepting his judicial murder, being put to death on a cross, and he shattered the power of sin and death in our lives by rising again from the dead.

He has purchased our salvation, and he offers it to us as a free gift; we don’t have to work to earn it. That’s not to say it won’t change us; it will. That’s not to say that he won’t give us work to do; he will. After all, when he offered Noah and his family salvation from the flood, he still left it up to them to build the boat—he didn’t build it for them. In truth, the work he gives us is part of the blessing. But it is to say that we don’t have to earn his love, or his attention; we don’t have to earn the right to be saved. All we have to do is receive the gift.

The War Within

(Genesis 4:1-16; Hebrews 11:1-4)

It doesn’t say in Genesis, but after Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden of Eden, they must have looked at each other and said, “Now what do we do?” How could they not? It was the central question of their life at that point. They’d been created to care for the garden, to walk with God, to live in paradise, and now all that was gone; they had been exiled from paradise, cast out of the garden, and though God hadn’t abandoned them, he would never be present to them in the same way again. Before, they had been cared for, with everything they needed right to hand; now they were left to make their own living in a world they would have to fight each step of the way. How were they to do it?

The text doesn’t go into great detail, but a few things are clear. They continued to worship God; we don’t know whether it was their own idea to offer him sacrifices or God told them to do so, but clearly they understood that as something they needed to do. They also understood that they needed to give him their best, to sacrifice the best of what they had, rather than offering him the leftovers. As well, they carried on as best they could with the work God had given them to do—raising crops, raising animals, raising children. There is one positive sign right in verse 1, where it says, “The man knew his wife Eve,” because the verb “to know” is almost always used to indicate not merely physical intimacy, but real intimacy that includes emotional and spiritual closeness; used here, it indicates that the relationship between Adam and Eve was still good. In this, at least, things were more or less the way they were supposed to be.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of their first two children, a fact which is signaled in the first two verses. In verse 1, when Cain is born, Eve boasts, “I have produced a man.” She concedes that it was only with God’s help, but she still gives herself top billing. God had made the man; then God had created her out of the man’s body; now she had created a man, albeit an infant, out of her body. Cain’s life began in a boast, prefiguring his future defiance of God.

With Abel, by contrast, we have only the bare announcement of his birth, and the ominous foreshadowing of his name. You see, the Hebrew word here is hevel, which means a puff of breath, insubstantial and quickly dissipated; it’s the word used at the beginning of Ecclesiastes, where the author of that book declares life meaningless and pointless. With a name like that, this is someone who will not live long. All would not be well with Cain and Abel; as is so often the case, the evil the parents did would poison the lives of their children. This would in fact be just the first of many, many dysfunctional families in the Old Testament; and yet, proving the insight of the early church that God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick, it’s through this succession of badly-fractured families that he would raise up his people, and ultimately give the world his Son, Jesus Christ.

We don’t get anything about Cain and Abel in childhood, any sense of what their relationship with each other was like, how they got along with their parents, any of that; we’re simply introduced to them at work, of an indeterminate age but probably still fairly young. It seems likely that up to this point, their parents have been the only ones offering sacrifices, but now they have their own sacrifices to offer, the result of their own labor; and so they bring them to the Lord. Notice how they’re described. Cain grew crops, and he takes some of his crop and offers it to God. Just some of his crop, nothing special about it. Abel, by contrast, takes the firstborn of the flock—the very first animals born as a result of his hard work in caring for the sheep—and from them he takes the very best portions to offer to God. Cain’s sacrifice is nothing special (he keeps the best for himself), but Abel gives the very best of the very first animals he has to offer; is it any wonder God is pleased with Abel and not with Cain?

Cain, however, is not pleased at all—no surprise; we’re not told how God showed his regard for Abel’s offering or his lack of regard for Cain’s, but Cain responds by growing very angry—and also, I think, by growing depressed. That might seem like an odd combination to you, but anger and depression are often linked; in fact, depression is sometimes defined as anger turned inward. In Cain’s case, if he perceived that God had rejected him, it makes perfect sense that he would be angry at God for doing so, and also at his younger brother, for showing him up; it also makes perfect sense that at the same time he would be depressed, because he felt he had lost face, or perceived that he had failed, or perhaps just thought he’d been done wrong.

Now, it’s important that God doesn’t just leave him to stew; instead, God speaks to him, both to offer comfort and to challenge him, sharply. “Why are you angry? Why are you depressed?” God asks. One might imagine Cain’s response to that, angry and bitter, blaming God for rejecting him, embarrassing him, treating him unfairly; but God, as always, will not be deflected, but drives right to the main point: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” In other words, if I didn’t accept your offering, it’s because you didn’t do well—you didn’t honor me, you didn’t give me your best. You can do better than that, and if you do, why wouldn’t I accept your offering? Yes, I rejected your offering, but I haven’t rejected you; I simply expect you to give me your best.

And if you won’t? Well, there’s the rub. “If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door.” In other words, you have two choices: you can turn toward me, you can honor me, you can give me your best, in which case you will be accepted—or you can refuse. I haven’t rejected you, just your offering, but you can choose to hold on to your pride and your wounded ego, and to reject me. What you need to understand, though, is that if you do that, sin is waiting there for you, lurking at the door, ready to pounce on you and take control of you. And at this point, God speaks to Cain in words which echo his words to Eve in Genesis 3:16: “Its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Sin is pictured not as a thing, or even as a force, but as a beast, a predator, much as Peter would later write in 1 Peter 5:8, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”; it’s a predator which Cain can’t kill off, or even completely defeat, but which he can master, if he will.

However, Cain turns his back on God; he hardens his heart against God’s appeal—which is a new development in human sin—and chooses to go after Abel instead. There’s some uncertainty as to the exact circumstances of the crime. The NIV, like most English translations, inserts the phrase, “Let us go out to the field,” which isn’t there in the Hebrew text; on this reading, it looks like Cain lured his brother out into the field to kill him. However, you don’t need to add anything to the text; I think it’s preferable to take the Hebrew as it is and translate it, “Cain went looking for his brother Abel.” Not only is that more responsible to the text as we have it, I think it fits better with the flow of the passage: God appeals to Cain to do what is right, and Cain walks out of the room, goes hunting for Abel, finds him, and kills him.

At this point, two remarkable things happen. First, the Lord doesn’t just condemn Cain for his action—instead, he comes to Cain and gives him a chance to come clean on his own, just as he had with Adam and Eve when they disobeyed. God knows what happened, but he asks, “Where’s your brother? Where’s Abel?” Second, Cain takes this to mean that God doesn’t know the answer to his question, and thus that he can lie to God and get away with it; and so, unlike his father, who at least tells God part of the truth, Cain denies what he’s done. His response has always seemed rather sulky to me: “Why should I know? My brother’s the shepherd, not me—is it my job to watch over him?” But whatever Cain thinks, God isn’t stupid, and he isn’t going to buy that line; and so he responds, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” The verb here is a powerful one, a desperate, anguished scream for help.

God continues, “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” It’s the blood in our veins that carries life to every part of our body, that supplies what is needed to keep all of us alive—as Leviticus 17:11 puts it, life is in the blood—and so shed blood was the greatest of all pollutants, a moral as well as a physical pollutant; murders for which no atonement had been made polluted the land so that it was unfit for God. Cain has spilled his brother’s blood on the ground, and as that blood cries from the ground for justice, so too does the curse on Cain arise from the ground. He was a farmer, but he has blighted the land, and so now it will not produce for him. He must leave his home and his parents and wander the earth, to settle someplace far away.

Note Cain’s response. I have to thank Dr. Neil Plantinga of Calvin Seminary for helping me see this. Note this, because this is a snapshot of the agonizing irony of human sin. He says to God, “My punishment is more than I can bear.” And maybe you read that and you think, “What a whiner—at least he’s still alive! What right does he have to complain?” But what is it that he says is too much to take? “Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence.” He goes on to offer other complaints and concerns, but this is the nub of the matter—this is the thing that really weighs on him: “God, I’ll never see you again.” Indeed, even his other complaints tie into this; because he is no longer welcome in the presence of God, he will be a restless wanderer, and because God has cast him out, the only future that remains for him is one of judgment and death. He brought this on himself when he rejected God’s appeal and went after his brother; he made his choice, he chose pride over God, and this is the logical consequence—and yet, he knows what he’s lost, and it’s killing him.

Dr. Plantinga illustrates this with a heartbreaking story I’ve heard him tell a couple times now, of a troubled young man who, in an utterly insane fit of rage, shot and killed his father. His first night in custody, the chaplain went to visit him; from halfway down the hall, as he approached the cell, the chaplain could hear the young man sobbing, over and over, “I want my father. I want my father.” That’s where sin leaves us—we destroy, by our own hands and wills, the very thing we most desire, and the very thing we most need. That’s where Cain stands, in verse 14; that’s where we all stand, but for the grace of God.

And even here, it is with grace that God responds. God puts his mark on Cain, and it’s interesting that this mark has so often been interpreted as punishment, as a sign of God’s judgment; for instance, there have been those throughout history who taught that the mark was black skin, and that his descendants—which is to say, people of African heritage—remained under his curse. This was then used to justify racism and slavery. It’s nonsense, of course, because God’s mark on Cain wasn’t a punishment or a judgment at all. It was, rather, a mark of grace: God placed it on him to keep him from harm, to keep the logical consequences of his evil from coming back to him. It was a sign that despite the evil he had done, God still loved him; and in fact, I think, it was a sign that he was not utterly separated from the presence of God, because God still went with him wherever he went, at least in some fashion. Yes, he left his family and lived in the east, in the land of Nod, which means wandering; but he did not go alone, because he went under the care of God.

And so do we; in truth, we are all the children of Cain. No matter how at home we may make ourselves in this world, this remains for us the land of Nod; we make the best of what we have, but we are wanderers in truth, far from the home for which we were made, and even the most deeply rooted among us can be uprooted at a moment’s notice to someplace new and differently strange. We are fallen; we are sinful, and if we look at ourselves and our lives honestly, we can see that our sin threads its way through everything we do, and is forever tangling us up, tripping us and holding us back. We live in a world from which God sometimes seems absent, as we see murders and torture and natural disasters—the earthquake in Haiti has now been joined by another in Chile, though Chile was both far better prepared and far more lucky—and sometimes it just seems like too much to bear. I was feeling like that earlier this week.

And yet, God goes with us. He has placed his mark on us—not on our bodies, but on our souls: he has given us his mark of grace, and we are his own, now and forever. We are his own, and he goes with us to protect us and to guide us; though we may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet he walks beside us. We are his own, and he will give us provision and strength for today—not for tomorrow as well, but for each day as it comes. We are his own, and though we stumble and fall, he will lift us up again. We are his own, and he will bring us through, for he will bring us home. He will not fail.

The End of the Beginning

(Genesis 3:1-24; Romans 5:12-21)

If Genesis 1 is the account of God building his temple, and Genesis 2 shows us God creating his image—us—and placing that image within his temple—setting things up so that the good Creator of all things might be properly worshiped by his creation—then logically, worship belongs at the very center of life. It’s in the worship of God that our world finds its true story and its true meaning. But the world doesn’t understand that. Some people insist that the meaning of life is to be found in the pursuit of pleasure, or power, material wealth, or fame—which is to say, that the only meaning to life is whatever you decide to make of it. Others are honest enough to look at that and see that it’s really nothing more than just whistling in the dark—that if the only meaning to life is whatever you give it, then what that really means in the end is that life has no meaning; things like power and pleasure simply aren’t worth our worship, they aren’t worth the dedication of our lives that so many people give them. These braver souls tell our culture to stop piling its trinkets atop the altar of life and just admit the hard truth: the temple is empty. There is, they say, no one worth worshiping and nothing that makes life truly meaningful, and we might as well just accept the fact and learn to deal with it.

God created the world as his temple and us as his image, but there are millions of people who believe the temple is empty, abandoned, derelict, and millions upon millions more who have chosen to clutter it up with the worship of other gods. That is the tragedy of human existence; Genesis 3 is the story of how it happened. And just as the creation account of the first two chapters is, ultimately, all about worship, so too is the story of the fall of the human race, which we read here. Yes, obviously, this is also about obedience, and the failure of our ultimate ancestors to follow God’s command; but the obedience God desires was, as it always is, rooted in trust, and that trust was supposed to be the product of proper worship. We worship, therefore we trust, therefore we obey; and it’s that chain that the serpent attacks.

Note how it happens. The snake comes up to the woman—and interestingly, the author of Genesis doesn’t explain this; in fact, he doesn’t even identify the serpent, as Satan or as anyone else. The voice of evil and temptation is just presented as a fact, unexplained and inexplicable. Wherever it came from, the snake inserts itself into whatever Eve is doing at the time, and it says, “Ah, so God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden!’” It’s not exactly a question, as you might have noticed; a question might have gotten Eve thinking, and that’s the last thing in the world the serpent wants to do. He does want her to talk, but note this—the snake is trying to get her to talk about God, instead of to God, because if he can get her to do that, then he can get her to doubt God. She could cut off the conversation and refuse to talk with him, or she could invite God into the conversation, but instead, she plays along with the snake. In fact, she plays into his hands a little—yes, this snake had hands, or at least feet—by misquoting God’s instructions herself. No, God hadn’t told them they weren’t even allowed to touch the tree; but of course, the snake doesn’t correct her on that. After all, that makes God look rather unreasonable, something the enemies of God always want to do.

Instead, the serpent comes back with a most interesting response: he says, “You shall not surely die.” This does a couple things. In the first place, it’s a direct contradiction, a direct challenge to the word of God—he’s calling God a liar, straight out. Genesis doesn’t say, but at this point, maybe the snake said, “Go on, test it—touch the tree. Touch the tree. See? You’re not dead, are you? You just have a little sap on your hands.” He calls God a liar, and the woman lets it stand; and with that, the first seeds of doubt are sown. More than that, though, this statement by the serpent shifts the focus of the conversation. Starting off, the focus is on what God said, which means ultimately it’s on God; now, the serpent has changed that, and instead of being on God, the focus of the conversation is now on death. The question of whether or not to obey God is no longer a matter of the character and goodness of God; instead, it’s a matter of whether God is serious about the punishment he promised for disobedience.

This is a necessary shift for the snake as he’s trying to tempt the woman to disobedience. If he’s encouraging her to disobey God and she’s thinking about God, she’s going to come back and say, “No, I don’t want to do that because God is good and he knows what’s best for me and this is what he wants me to do”—and there’s really nothing the snake can say to that. But if he can instead get her thinking about punishment, then when he tempts her, then her response will be, “No, I don’t want to do that because if I do that, God is going to hurt me”—and that, he can argue about. To that, he can say, “No, God isn’t going to hurt you, no, you aren’t really going to die, and really, God’s only saying this because he wants to keep the best stuff for himself.” You see, the tempter wants to get us into a cost/benefit analysis where he offers the benefit—whatever the temptation of the day is—and God offers us the cost—whatever our punishment is going to be for giving in to temptation; he wants us to see God simply as somebody who punishes us when we do wrong, because if the tempter can do that, then he can always convince us that what he’s offering us is worth the price. If our reason for obeying God is positive rather than negative, though—not just because we don’t want God to punish us, but because we love him and want to please him—then the devil has a much harder time with that.

With the woman, though, his trick works. He gets her focus off of God and onto death—and in so doing, as the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman notes, the snake moves death to the center of the human agenda, where it’s pretty much been ever since. What’s worth the risk of death? Well, the snake tells the woman, “When you eat of it”—and note that “when”; he doesn’t let her think of this as an if, something she might do, but only as something she’s going to do—“when you eat of it, you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God, he tells her, has a better gig, one that he’s trying to avoid having to share with her. God gets to know everything, God gets to do everything, God gets to make all the decisions, and she’s just stuck doing what she’s told. God gets to be worshiped, and she just gets to do the worshiping. But if she will just disobey, the snake says, she can get out of that trap, and she won’t have to worship anybody but herself, and she won’t need anybody else to tell her what to do.

Now, to this point, the commands and the authority of God, the boundaries God has set on her life, have been givens, part of what made the garden a good and safe place; her life has been defined by trust in God. That trust is the necessary foundation for obedience—if we don’t believe that God wants what’s best for us, we aren’t going to do what he says. The snake, however, has subverted that trust, telling her that God set those boundaries not for her well-being but to keep her down; her options, as the snake tells it, are to be a sheep, allowing God to control her, or to challenge him, to eat the fruit, gain his knowledge for herself, and take over her own life. The temptation here is the most fundamental of all, the temptation to spiritual ambition—the temptation to be our own gods—and she gives in, and takes Adam with her; and with that, the great cosmic dance is broken, and the music of the heavens falls into discord. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and it was very good; but this is the end of the beginning.

This is the bad news of our existence: we are, all of us, sinful people from birth; it’s a part of our inheritance just as surely as our eye color and the shape of our nose. We can’t blame the ills of the world, whether other nations or our own, on racism or sexism, Islam or Christian fundamentalism, poverty or the wounds of history, all of which explanations are usually advanced to make the world’s problems somebody else’s fault. The root problem is the darkness in the human heart, and that’s our problem as much as it is anyone else’s. We construct our systems for dealing with the rest of the world, and we build our structures to bring order to our society, and I think most of us do so with all good will and the best of intentions; but even at our best, what we produce is seriously flawed, and sometimes it seems even our best efforts to fix those flaws only manage to make things worse. Left to our own devices, we’re doomed.

If that’s the bad news, though, Genesis 3 also gives us the good news, because look how God reacts to the sin of his people. He has warned them that death would be the fruit of disobedience, and so it will, but in his grace he holds it back; and at the very point when they have fallen into sin, he puts his plan into motion to heal the damage and set things right. One will come, he promises, one of their descendants, who will crush the snake’s head. Indeed, God the Son himself would come, becoming human, Jesus Christ; and as Paul declares in Romans 5, in Jesus, God has given the final answer to sin and death, making true life available once again for all. Through him, there is a way out of our mess, if we will give up our pretensions to be gods and goddesses of our own lives and accept him as our Lord; in Adam and Eve, all of us their descendants fell into sin, but in Jesus Christ, all who will come to him have been lifted back into life. This is our hope, and the hope of our world.

Created Male and Female

(Genesis 1:26-27, 2:21-25; Ephesians 5:28-32)

To put it politely, our society is deeply conflicted about men and women. You can see it in the debates that rage about the definition and significance of marriage; in the insistence of many feminists that the only difference between the sexes is a nearly-irrelevant matter of physical structure; in the increasingly hyper-sexualized character of our popular culture—you see things in ads these days that would have had to hide in a brown bag when I was a kid, and I’m not that old—and in a number of other ways. We see it a lot in our politics, especially in the treatment dished out recently to prominent female politicians by those who otherwise would proclaim themselves feminists and advocates of women’s equality. The agendas of our culture collide with each other, and with our own individual selfish agendas, and they all swirl around the unyielding rock of our intuition that somehow, despite what we may want to believe, men and women are different in ways that matter, that challenge how we behave and how we live.

This chaos creates terrible confusion in our culture, particularly for those whose lives are unsettled in other ways as well, because whatever some might argue, being male or female is fundamental to who each of us is as a human being. Genesis speaks powerfully into that chaos, blowing away the confusion and helping us to see ourselves more clearly. The key statement here is that God created humanity, male and female, in his image. That’s a loaded phrase—I could preach a month of sermons on it—but this morning, I just want to draw out two key points: first, this affirms that men and women are different, and second, it affirms the equality of men and women before God.

Let’s take the second point first. You might be expecting me to say that men and women are equal because both are made in the image of God, but that’s not exactly the point. You see, what Genesis tells us is that humanity as a whole was made in the image of God; the only individual human being declared by Scripture to be the image of God was Jesus Christ. As individuals, we all bear the image of God, and many if not all of the qualities that go with it; we are rational beings, we have at least some degree of free will, we speak and create in imitation of the one who spoke the word and created us, we exist in relationships with one another, and so on; but it’s collectively, as a race, as men and women together, that we are made in the image of God and charged with the great responsibility that entails, to care for the natural world and for the people around us.

It’s important to note here that there’s no emphasis on the male in Genesis 1; male and female are jointly created in the image of God, equal sharers both in all the gifts and abilities that implies and in all the responsibilities it carries with it. That changes in Genesis 2, of course, which lays out the fact that the man was created first and the woman was created out of him to be his helper; from this, many Christians whom I greatly respect argue that hierarchy between men and women is part of God’s intent for creation. For my part, though, I’m struck by the fact that sixteen of the nineteen times this word “helper” occurs in the Old Testament, it’s applied to God. I could certainly be wrong, but I don’t see any sign of planned subservience in God’s original design for creation. Rather, I tend to agree with the great Puritan commentator Matthew Henry, who observed that the woman is “not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him.”

At the same time, it’s clear from Genesis that men and women are different—women aren’t just men with a few different organs; if that were the case, it wouldn’t have been necessary for God to create both men and women. It wasn’t good for the man to be alone, but if the man were sufficient in himself to bear God’s image, then God could simply have made another man; they would have kept each other company just fine. But the man wasn’t sufficient—it’s as male and female, in that joining of differences, that we are made in the image of God. Does that mean that the creation of the woman was planned from the beginning? Yes. God already knew that the man would need the woman; it’s just that the man, being male, needed to figure that out for himself before he’d believe it. The time of men griping about women would come soon enough, but God made sure that at least the first man would get off on the right foot.

You see, when we say that God made humanity in his image, one aspect of that must be that we are relational beings—that his image is seen when we relate to one another in love, and when we work together to care for his creation—because that’s part of what it means to represent God; our ability to love one another and to live together in love reflects the love relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course, when our relationships are broken, when they’re unloving, impure, or otherwise contrary to God’s will, then they don’t reflect him very well, but that’s all of a piece with our sinfulness; and even then, it remains true that we are only able to relate to one another as we do because we are made in God’s image.

This is truest in marriage, which God instituted with the first human couple. The God who is by nature in relationship among themself created humanity in his image, male and female, in order that they might be united in marriage—a point underscored, incidentally, by the man’s declaration, “This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman has argued that this is a covenant formula, a pledge of permanent and undying loyalty and commitment; we might describe this as the first man’s wedding vows, but that isn’t strong enough, because the first readers of this text took covenant a good deal more seriously than we do. Unlike our covenant ceremonies—mostly weddings—theirs included pledges and promises along the lines of, “May I be cut to pieces if I violate this covenant.” Nowadays, we try to make breaking a covenant as painless as possible, but that wasn’t God’s idea at all.

God takes covenants, including marriage, very seriously. That’s why verse 24 offers the comment, “It is for this reason that a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”; the word translated “leave” there is often translated “forsake,” and is used elsewhere to describe Israel’s rejection of their covenant obligations to the Lord. It’s a loaded word, and the point of using it here is clear: the new husband is to set aside loyalty to parents in favor of this new loyalty, this new covenant, with his wife. In a patriarchal culture like that of Israel, in which loyalty to parents was one’s most important obligation, the statement that loyalty to one’s wife—or, reciprocally, to one’s husband—was to come first was a powerful one indeed.

What’s more, it had a powerful reason behind it, even if Israel probably didn’t get the point. For those whom God calls into marriage, it’s important to understand that marriage isn’t about personal fulfillment—that’s a benefit of marriage, not its purpose. Its twofold purpose is to be found here: first, to fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply; and second, to display the image of God. In the union of man and woman in marriage, united in relationship, potentially to have children as God wills, and especially as they seek to follow God together, we see the image of God as we cannot see it anywhere else. God created us male and female in his image; in marriage male and female are united in a relationship of love, offering us an image of God who is love, for he exists in relationship among himselves, in the love that flows between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In marriage we can see the inner reality of God mirrored in a way that nothing else can show us; this, too, is part of the purpose for which he has ordained marriage.

As such, we as Christians should take marriage very seriously. Our society really doesn’t, unfortunately, and that affects all of our thinking and attitudes to some degree, whether we realize it or not; and we need to work against that in whatever way we can. For those of us who are married, that task begins in our own marriages; for those who aren’t but would like to be, it means keeping this in mind in your dating relationships; and it also means that all of us, even the most utterly single, need to take the marriages of those around us, and especially our family, church family, and other friends, very seriously as well. We need to do everything we can to help others build and nurture strong, healthy marriages that truly embody and reflect the selfless and self-sacrificial love of God; this is part of being faithful to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and one of the ways in which we show the world his love for us.

The Time that Is Given

(Genesis 2:1-3; Hebrews 4:1-11)

In the great fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, near the beginning of the first book, the wizard Gandalf tells the young hobbit Frodo Baggins, who will in the end be the great hero of the story, about the dark times in which they live, and the great challenges that lie ahead. Frodo, understandably, says he would rather live in happier times, times that aren’t fraught with such darkness; to which Gandalf responds, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The time that is given. In modern Christianity, it’s almost an article of faith that C. S. Lewis was a very wise man; but it’s too easy for us to forget that his great friend J. R. R. Tolkien, the man who played the most important role in leading Lewis to faith, was also a very wise man—because we mostly know him for his fantasy stories. But there is very great wisdom in that line, wisdom rooted deep in Scripture, and particularly in our passage this morning. We are limited creatures. We are limited in our abilities—good at some things, bad at others—and while we can grow and develop, we’re limited in our ability to do so. We’re limited physically—I’d love to be able to play shortstop in the majors, but that was never even a vaguely plausible dream—and limited mentally as well. We’re limited by our gender, and to some degree by the societal expectations that go along with it. We’re limited in our ability to control or influence the world around us—we can only reach so far, and what is beyond our reach eludes us; our bodies stop at the edge of our skin, and everything beyond that is not-us, carrying on its existence apart from us.

And most fundamentally, we are limited by space and time—we are creatures of place, and of the time we have been given. We are creatures of the places we live and have lived, and we are creatures of our place in human history; we will never know the life of an English knight who fought with Henry V at Agincourt, or of a Russian revolutionary in October, 1917, or of one of the shoguns who ruled Japan in the 1800s. We were each born at a particular time, in a particular country, and have lived through a particular set of experiences; we know our life and no other.

This is how we are; and as Genesis shows us, we were created so. When God created the first human, he didn’t just drop him off to wander around, homeless; rather, he placed the human in a garden which had been created to be his home. God gave him a location, a home address, a neighborhood, even if his only neighbors had either four feet or wings, and he told the human, “Do your work in this place.” Today, he tells all of us the same: “Do your work in this place, the place where I have put you; follow me in this community, in the home where you live, in the family of which you are a part, in the relationships you have now.” As Eugene Peterson put it, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, “All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people,” and thus it is as locals that we must live out our faith, placing the word of God in the concrete reality of “this land, this neighborhood, . . . this work, these people”—and bringing it alive in our life in response to all the concrete frustrations, irritations, and problems that “this neighborhood, . . . this work, these people” bring us. It is this place on earth that gives our lives their shape.

It is also this place in time—and, more generally, time itself. As Genesis also tells us, we are creatures of time, our lives shaped and formed in every respect by time in its passing. We can see this in our bodies, which are a collection of rhythms—the rhythm of our breathing, in and out, in and out; of our pulse, the twofold beating of our hearts, da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM; of sleeping and waking, as day succeeds night and night follows day in turn. We can see it in the rhythm of the seasons, spring-summer-fall-winter and spring again. We can see it in the music that threads its way through our lives, providing an ever-changing soundtrack to our existence, and in the flow of our movements as we walk, or run. And we can see it most fundamentally in Genesis 1, which shows us God creating the universe in time, in the flow of time, and shaping a rhythm: and God said, and God said, and God said, in six-part harmony—six parts to creation, and then a seventh part, the seventh day, the day of rest.

This is, by the way, true even if Genesis 1 isn’t talking about six 24-hour days; the point isn’t counting hours, it’s that this is the rhythm God built into creation, the rhythm for which we were created, of work and rest. Both are part of his design for our lives, and both are necessary if we are to live as he made us to live. Whether you’re still working for a living or you’re retired, God has work for you to do in this place; whether it’s necessary for you to support yourself or not, it’s a part of God’s plan for you, both for your sake and for the sake of others. He also has rest for you in this place, time set aside in his schedule for you to set work aside, during which we gather to worship him as one people; and together, together, they make up the base rhythm of life, the meter to which the poetry of our days is to be set. I should note, I am indebted to Cambridge theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie for that way of putting it, and more generally for his use of music to illuminate Christian theology.

The problem is, the world tries to convince us that limitations are a bad thing, and specifically that this limitation is a bad thing; but it isn’t. Think of our music, and I think you’ll understand, because in our Western musical tradition, meter is one of the standard limitations that gives shape and character to the work of composition. Think of 4/4—the time signature of a Sousa march, and many of our great hymns. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” Or 3/4—I remember being told in elementary school that this was waltz time. I was, what, seven years old, I didn’t even know what a waltz was, but that’s what stuck with me—3/4 is for waltzes and Irishmen. “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” 6/8 is always fun—beat it in two, sing it in triplets. “In shady green pastures so rich and so sweet, God leads his dear children along.” And so on. The meter isn’t a straitjacket; you can vary the rhythms, throw in changes of time signature, whatever you will. But the meter provides the structure, the necessary base rhythm within which, and against which, all those other things can work to produce their desired effects. As another great Christian novelist, Flannery O’Connor, said, art transcends its limitations by remaining within them.

In the same way, God has given us this sevenfold rhythm of work and rest, of work and worship, to be the base rhythm of our lives. You don’t see too many songs written in seven, because that extra beat throws things out of the typical patterns, but I actually learned one this weekend. “What we have heard, what we have known . . .” It’s a setting of Psalm 78, and I don’t know if that’s why Greg Scheer wrote it in 7/8, but the time signature gives it a real sprightliness; the extra beat breaks it out of ordinary time into something else quite again. The same is true in our lives of the Sabbath, of the day of rest—it breaks us out of the ordinary time that our world and its economy would dictate, a straitjacket rhythm of work, work, work, work. That’s the driving beat of money and accumulation and more, more, more; it is, if you will, the meter of a life governed by nothing but material concerns and the desire for things. Think of it as 4/4 with never a change in tempo or stress and nothing but quarter notes in sight. But the Sabbath—the mere fact of this God-ordained day of rest throws us out of that meter; it fatally disrupts the profit-driven, consumer-driven, one-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins, all-about-me rhythms of this world, and shows us another way to live.

This is important, because as Genesis will show us in chapter 3, human sin disrupted the music for which God created us, and so the rhythms of our culture are now very much at odds with his will for us, and with the life for which he made us. As Dr. Begbie puts it, in calling us to focus on God and God alone, worship sets up a cross-rhythm in our lives—the rhythm of the cross, which runs counter to the pounding beat of our culture. God calls us to live very much across the grain of that culture, and we can’t just do that by main effort; our culture is too powerful. It’s like the big black SUV stopped next to us at the light with the bass cranked so high it’s shaking our car from the tires up. To overcome that overwhelming sound, we need consistent, steady exposure to the cross-rhythm of worship—to what Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible, rendered as “the unforced rhythms of grace.” We cannot work our way into a truly Christlike life, because we learn to work from the world, and we learn to work in its way; but if we cannot force it, we can let God’s unforced rhythms of grace carry us along, as we learn to worship. We can focus our minds and hearts on him, opening our lives to his rhythm, and in so doing, allow him to transform us. Instead of trying to beat our own time, we can accept the time our great Conductor has given us, and let him direct us on.

In the Image of God

(Genesis 1:26-2:9; Colossians 3:9-11)

Did you hear about the human exhibit at the London Zoo? Seriously, back in the summer of 2005, the London Zoo ran a four-day human exhibit in its Bear Mountain section—eight human volunteers in swimsuits and tacked-on fake fig leaves with a sign at the entrance reading, “Warning: Humans in their natural environment.” The sign was a bit of a stretch, I think—sitting on bare rock in a swimsuit playing board games and fiddling with hula hoops, eating catered meals and drinking Starbucks doesn’t really qualify as “natural”—but what really bothered me about the whole thing was the message the zoo was trying very hard to send: Humans are animals just like any other animal—only worse. The zoo released a statement describing humanity as a “plague species,” and a member of their PR staff explained the exhibit this way: “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals . . . teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.” Note that he didn’t say “suggests,” as if that were one point of view people should consider, but “teaches”: as in, “We know this is true, and the public needs to learn this.”

For some who participated, the whole thing was nothing more than a lark, but others clearly volunteered because they agreed with the zoo’s agenda. One person in the exhibit, a 26-year-old chemist named Tom Mahoney, explained his participation this way: “A lot of people think humans are above other animals. When they see humans as animals, here, it kind of reminds us that we’re not that special.” Again, notice that word “reminds”—the assumption is that this is something we ought to know but tend to forget. As I said last week, this is the scientific view of humanity: we are, as the zoologist Desmond Morris wrote some 40 years ago, just one more species of ape, distinguished only by our largely hairless bodies and our overinflated view of ourselves.

Of course, the whole thing was inherently ridiculous. Dr. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary down in Louisville, put it well: “The humans on display at the London Zoo were not captured and placed there by apes or elephants. The signs identifying the various creatures were not produced by the inhabitants of the reptile house. The apes and other primates resident at the zoo may look upon the humans with curiosity, but they have no control over their own destinies—and unlike their hairless counterparts, they stay in the zoo overnight. . . . The undeniable reality is that the humans are buying the tickets, orchestrating the event, volunteering for the exhibit, and going home to sleep in their own beds.” Perhaps the most telling comment came from Tom Mahoney, who—as well as arguing that humans are nothing special—said, “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.” I wonder if he ever realized that he and his fellow humans were the only residents of that zoo who could say that—not just about living in the zoo, but about anything.

Mahoney’s remark, it seems to me, underscores the fact that while many people will tell you humans are just animals, nothing more, they don’t really live like they believe it; indeed, I don’t think they could. At some level, unless we have been terribly abused, we all know we’re more than that, and indeed that we’re more than what we seem to be. We may bury that sense, but it’s still there, telling us that we’re more than mere animals, and that we need to behave accordingly—for after all, if we’re only animals, who can blame us if we go out and do whatever we feel like doing? But if we aren’t, if we alone in creation are made in the image of God—if there is this that makes us profoundly different from the animals—then clearly that comes with certain expectations and responsibilities, whether we want them or not.

So what does it mean for us that we are made in the image of God? As I said last week, this is religious language, as Israel’s neighbors would make images of their gods and goddesses—statues, idols—and set them up in their temples to worship them; but they also used this language of their kings. You see, theologically, they understood that their chief god, whichever one that might be, ruled their nation; but as a practical matter, clearly it was the king who ruled. Thus it must be that the king ruled the nation as the representative of the god, and so they spoke of the king being the image of their god—the god’s physical representation who ruled on his behalf.

Now, you can see in this a real elitism—only the most powerful and important person in the nation was worthy of this label; everyone else was less important, second-class. Their gods and goddesses would smugly accept their worship, but disdained to identify themselves with such insignificant creatures. Out of this came the mindset that some human lives were more important than others, which as a practical matter meant that your life was only important to the degree that you were of use to the king. From that sort of perspective, our modern notions of equality and human rights would have seemed like ridiculous drivel; if the king is the image of the god and you aren’t, obviously the king is greater and you are lesser, and you don’t have rights, you’re just allowed to do whatever the king wants you to do.

That was pretty much the way ordinary people were seen by those who ruled the nations around Israel—they existed to serve their rulers in whatever way those rulers might desire; which is why Genesis was such a radical text. Its insistence that all people are made in the image of God blew that elitism away and replaced it with a very, very different view of humanity—rooted in an equally different view of God. This was a God who identified himself not only with the important people, but with all people, declaring that he had created all people in his image; this was a God who had created humanity not to be his slaves, serving his comfort and doing his dirty work (which was why the Babylonians, for instance, believed their high god Marduk had created humanity), but in order that he might love us and we might love him, as we saw last week.

There’s an important lesson in this: no human life is worth less than another. That might seem too obvious to need saying, but in fact it needs frequent repetition; the idea that some lives are worth less than others is one which keeps cropping up all over the place. These days, we see it in, among other places, the euthanasia movement, and in some of the arguments made in favor of abortion. Princeton professor Peter Singer is the clearest example of this, arguing at every opportunity that some people’s lives are not worth living—and that their family members should be free to kill them if it seems preferable. Against this idea, in all its forms, stands Genesis (and indeed the whole of Scripture), which declares unequivocally that God has made all people in his image, and loves all whom he has made. It is not ours to regard anyone as less important, or less human, than anyone else, no matter what excuses we might offer; whenever we look at another human being, regardless of any other considerations, we see the image of God in them, and we must treat them accordingly, without exception.

Given, then, that this applies to all of us equally, what does it say about us as human beings that we are made in the image of God? This is a question which has been answered in many different ways over the centuries, and there’s probably truth in most of those answers—but most of them don’t come from the biblical text. To understand the idea here, we need to go back to the fact that the nations around Israel used this phrase of their idols and pagan kings. If we do that, we can see that this lays the groundwork for what is commonly called the “cultural mandate”: the command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28 to rule the earth and fill it with people.

Now, in saying that, we need to admit that this verse has been misused over the years to justify environmental irresponsibility. There are those who argue that since God gave us dominion over all the other creatures and told us to rule the earth and subdue it, we have the right to do whatever we want with whatever part of the planet we happen to own; and there are too many in the American church who have gone along with this kind of thinking. Now, this isn’t to get into all the legal issues of property rights and environmental law, but we really must remember two things here. First, this command was given to sinless people—it cannot be used to justify sinful actions. Second, when God says, “Rule the earth, subdue it,” and so on, he gets to define what that means and how it’s appropriate to carry out his command. Remember the basic message of these two chapters: God made the world, and as such he’s the Lord of everything that is; that means he gets to make the rules, not us.

As such, Genesis 1:28 doesn’t mean that God created us to rule the world as we see fit, or that we have the right to do whatever we want with it; rather, it means that he created us to govern it under his authority, as his deputies. The world doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to him; it isn’t our property to exploit, it’s our responsibility to care for according to his will. Creation is his temple, and we are its caretakers and stewards. As such, the dominion over the earth which God gave us—and which we still have; he didn’t take it back once our first ancestors fell into sin—isn’t a privilege, it’s a duty. Yes, it entitles us to draw support from the earth and its plants and animals, for those who labor deserve a fair share of the harvest; but the key is that we work for the good of all creation, including our fellow human beings.

And if we don’t? If we use God’s creation selfishly, abusing it for our own personal gain? Then rest assured, we will be held accountable. Thomas Jefferson, musing on the evil institution of American slavery, wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever”; and he trembled with good reason. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” We will be held accountable by God for what we have done with the world he has given us—for the pollution in our air and water, and for the pollution in our culture. We have abused the earth and we have abused our fellow human beings, and the one is a sin as surely as the other. Our call and our responsibility is to take care of our world—including its people—for the God who made us all, and it is not a task to be taken lightly.

Understanding this is essential to free us from idea that the world exists simply for us to use, which reduces mountains and trees to raw materials and people to assets and resources. God didn’t create us to be resources or assets for someone else’s benefit, and he didn’t create the mountains and trees we see out our windows merely to be raw materials. We may use the trees for lumber, and we may draw on other people’s gifts to do things which need to be done, but we must always remember that that’s not all they’re for. Even as we cut the trees, we need to care for the forest, and the land on which it grows; and even as we take advantage of other people’s gifts to accomplish our purposes, we need to be careful that we aren’t taking advantage of other people. The justice of God demands no less.

This, then, is what it means that we are made in the image of God: it means an important responsibility for us, to care for the natural world and for the people around us, and to recognize the image of God in every person we meet and treat them accordingly. It means that we as human beings were created to be God’s representatives on this earth, the agents of his rule, and that those of us who recognize that fact are responsible to live that out in whatever ways we can. And it means that there should be great joy in doing so, because living in that way brings us into harmony with the purpose for which we were made, and for which this world was made, and so it opens us up to the joy of God’s creation. When we live selfishly, thinking only how we can use the world around us for our own purposes, we close our hearts to that joy; but when we live as God created us to live, we open our hearts, and our eyes and ears, and that joy becomes our own.


(Genesis 2:4-25, Isaiah 66:1-2a; 1 John 4:7-12)

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.

The Intelligent Designer

(Genesis 1:1-2:3; 2 Peter 3:1-10)

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the British science-fiction series Dr. Who, but there’s a scene in one of the episodes where a policeman asks the Doctor where he’s from. He’s from another planet, as it happens, but he doesn’t want to say so; instead, he responds, “I’ve always found that the best way to find out where someone is from is to find out where they’re going and work backwards.” When his interrogator asks where he’s going, the Doctor replies, “I have absolutely no idea.” I love that line, but the Doctor is in fact reversing the truth: in order to figure out where we’re going, and who we’ve become along the way, we need to figure out where we’ve come from and work forward; and to do that properly, we need to go all the way back to the beginning, to the first part of Genesis. This is why, as we begin this very important year in the life of our congregation and our country, I wanted to begin at the beginning, by spending several weeks in Genesis 1-11, and particularly in chapters 1-2.

The problem is that these days, there’s so much sniping over the first two chapters of this book, it can be hard to hear what they’re actually saying over the din. We have this argument in Western culture, you’re all familiar with it, which is usually cast as “evolution vs. creationism,” as science vs. religion—and the reason it’s usually cast that way is that that way of framing the argument insures that the folks who are opposed to the Bible and Christianity will win. Plain and simple, it’s dishonest, and it’s a cheat, and unfortunately, too many Christians play into it and thereby aid and abet those who hate our faith. More recently, you have the folks in the Intelligent Design movement—I’ve had the chance to study under a couple of them, and I appreciate their work—who are attacking evolutionary theory on its own terms, pointing out the problems with the supposed evidence and the nearly infinite odds against any such thing as evolution happening as a natural process. I believe their scientific and mathematical arguments will ultimately carry the day; but as they themselves recognize, there’s more to be said.

You see, the real debate going on here isn’t “evolution vs. creationism,” but rather evolutionism—which is, by the admission of its own high priests, a religious doctrine founded on the assertion that God cannot exist and thus that we may only accept explanations for the existence of the world which totally exclude him—vs. various doctrines of divine creation. There is no one “creationism.” You have folks like Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis crew, the Institute for Creation Research with Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, who argue for creation in six 24-hour days, and you have folks like the Canadian astrophysicist Hugh Ross who argue that the days of Genesis 1 aren’t 24-hour periods, and thus that the scientific evidence for the age of the cosmos can be taken at face value. I’ve learned from all of them, I believe they’re all taking positions which are defensible and reasonable readings of Scripture, I think they all have contributions to make to the debate—and I really wish they’d spend more time making them and less time shooting at each other, trying to prove their position the only acceptable one.

The most important thing to get here is that this is a religious debate—on both sides. The position which argues that evolutionary theory disproves the Bible and disproves God is every bit as much religious in character and essence, it is based every bit as much on faith, as the position which argues that the Bible teaches that God created the world in a calendar week, and the more people understand that, the more they’re going to see what’s really going on in this debate.  And, just as importantly, the more clearly we see that, the more clearly we’ll understand how Genesis speaks into this debate—because it isn’t a modern debate at all, it’s just the most recent version of a fight that was just as significant back when Genesis was written.

The key to understanding that is realizing that while Genesis speaks to us, it wasn’t originally written to us. This is something that folks who want to take down the Bible don’t get, and so they pick up Genesis and treat it as if it was written by somebody with a scientific mindset to make statements of a scientific character about the creation of the world; and it wasn’t, and that’s no criticism of it. You see, science tends to ask questions about what and howwhat happened, and how, by what mechanism, was it done? Valid questions, but not enough, and really not the most important questions, on the whole.  Genesis certainly doesn’t ignore the what, but it isn’t really concerned about the how; rather, its focus is on the who and the why, and its language and argument are geared to that end.

So if Genesis 1 wasn’t written to provide, in our terms, a “scientific” account of the creation of the world,* why was it written? There are several parts to that answer, but there’s one that’s most important and foundational to the rest: this passage tells us in no uncertain terms that God and only God created everything that is. We get that right from the opening statement: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In saying this, right away, Genesis distinguishes the God of Israel from the gods of other nations in two ways.

In the first place, of course, there’s the claim that he, not they, made the world; thus the God of Israel is the only true God, and the gods of the nations are all false gods with no right to the title. Just as important, however, is the assertion that God made everything. No other god made that claim; in other religions, the gods shaped the world as we know it, but they didn’t make it—they were a part of it. Only Israel’s God claimed to have made everything that is, a point driven home in verses 14-18. To the nations around Israel, the sun and the moon were major gods, and the stars ruled people’s fortunes. Moses, in writing this passage, doesn’t even name the sun and the moon—he just calls them “the two great lights,” and throws in the stars as an afterthought. No power, no influence, no nothing—not gods of any sort, just lights, that’s all. You remember when we looked at Colossians, and Paul was talking about Jesus setting us free from the elementary powers of the world? It’s the same sort of thing here. Genesis makes the claim very clear that God is absolutely superior to every other power in this world, no exceptions, and no challengers.

Now, let’s carry this forward into our own time. For the last several years, there’s been a recurring flap over the Intelligent Design movement. When President Bush was asked for his opinion on the issue, he said that “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” including those which challenge evolutionary dogma; from the howl that arose, you’d have thought he’d advocated book-burning. More recently, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin took a similar stance, and was ruthlessly mocked by the liberal elite—since of course (as I know well coming from Washington state) if you live west of the Mississippi and you’re not from LA or San Francisco, you’re a dumb hick by definition. In the responses to their statements, do we see a scientific openness to inquiry and new ideas? No, we don’t. Do we see rational argumentation and careful explanation of the evidence? By and large, no. Rather, what we see is the insistence that no one is allowed to challenge the dogma of godless evolutionary theory, and that anyone who does so must be shouted down as quickly as possible by any means necessary.

In other words, we don’t see a scientific theory of evolution that can be questioned and challenged and that its holders will happily throw away if the evidence doesn’t support it; rather, we see the religious doctrine of evolutionism to which its adherents are committed as a matter of faith. Put another way, we see the gods of the nations in their new form; just like the ancient pagan gods, they did not make the world, they are a part of it, and they refuse to admit the existence of anyone who did. This comes through clearly in the famous declaration by Richard Dawkins that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”; but perhaps the strongest statement on this point was made by the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin. In a review essay in the New York Review of Books, Dr. Lewontin wrote this:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

Note: “materialism” here means the belief that there is nothing but matter, no spiritual element to reality, and certainly no gods of any sort. He continues,

That materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

Translation: we’ve already decided that we don’t want there to be any such person as God, and so we’ll take whatever explanations for things we can find that don’t involve him, regardless of whether we have the evidence to support those explanations or not—as he and other eminent scientists admit we don’t.

The idea of a God who might upset our nice, neat little systems—and, worse, who might have some claim on our lives—is simply too intolerable to be accepted, says Dr. Lewontin elsewhere in this article, and so they dedicate their efforts to coming up with the best answers they can that don’t require God, whether or not they are in fact sufficient, or even supported by the evidence. This is a religious position, not a scientific one; so is the definition of science held by most scientists which says that science must begin by presuming that God doesn’t exist.

 It’s this religious worldview, which uses science to prop itself up, which is the root of most of the “science vs. religion” clashes in our time. One good example is the academic temper tantrum we saw some years ago when the Cobb County, Georgia school board some years ago put a disclaimer on their textbooks saying that evolution is only a theory, not proven fact. Scientifically, it’s a completely inarguable statement; but it’s a challenge to the worldview, to the religious beliefs, of the scientific establishment, and so it got the same response that such challenges so often do: a howling mob with pitchforks and torches crying “Death to the heretics!”

It’s really the same issue now as it was when Genesis was written—who is God, the LORD or the gods of the nations?—even if the gods of the nations look very different these days; and against the religious worldview which believes in evolution in order to deny the existence of God, Genesis speaks loud and clear: God created everything that is. He has the authority over all the created world, because he is its Author, and that gives him author’s rights—which is what “authority” is—over every part of it. You can argue about how he did it, but you cannot get around the thundering heart of this passage, on which it speaks with the voice of mighty waters: in the beginning, God.

 For those like Dr. Lewontin who refuse to believe it, this must be avoided, denied, or explained away; but for those who are willing to accept it, it’s reason for praise. We praise God for the wisdom that made the world, and for the beauty which expressed itself in the beauty of creation; we praise him for the goodness of creation, marred though it is by our sin, and for the ways in which creation shows us his glory. We praise him because wherever we might go, he is there with us, guiding and caring for us. And in our praise, we summon all creation to do the same.

Additional notes on the text:

For the sake of brevity, I did not take time in the sermon to expand on my assertion that Genesis 1 should be read as a theological and literary text rather than a scientific one; but there are a few points worth making in that regard which may be of interest to some. The critical thing for any interpreter of Genesis 1-2 to understand is that reading it with a scientific mindset is anachronistic, because the mindset and conceptual framework of modern science did not exist in the ancient world; ancient peoples had a somewhat different set of questions and concerns, and so the focus of this text is different than it would be if it had been written by someone formed in contemporary Western culture. That doesn’t make it any less true or accurate in what it’s trying to say, but it does mean that it’s going to say it differently.

First, it doesn’t use words scientifically, but for literary effect. Thus, for instance, when we see the word “day,” we shouldn’t think, “24 hours”; after all, there wasn’t anyone standing around with a stopwatch timing God as he went about his work. This is especially true given that Genesis 2:4 refers to “the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” which clearly doesn’t mean a literal day. The word “day” is used deliberately in Genesis 1, but not to nail creation down to six 24-hour days; the author had a different purpose, one which was directed not to instruction in astrophysics and geology but to the teaching of truth about God.

Second, Genesis isn’t structured scientifically, but for literary effect. Modern science thinks in straight lines—first this, and then that, and then that; thus when we read this chapter through scientific lenses, we naturally assume it was written in chronological order. We understand it to be telling us that God first made light, then separated the waters, then made the land appear and put plants on it, and then went back and created the sun and the moon, then birds and fish, then land animals, and then people. If you find it implausible that God would make day and night at the beginning but not create the sun and the moon until three days later, you’re not alone; but there are two good reasons to believe that this passage was never intended to be read that way. One is that the word “day” doesn’t have an article until you get to the sixth day; before that, we have, “And was evening and was morning, day one,” or “day five,” or whatever. In other words, that fourth day on which God created the sun and the moon isn’t labeled the fourth day, but a fourth day; which suggests that these events were arranged in this order not because they happened in this order (except that day six came last), but for some other reason.

That other reason is that while this order doesn’t make scientific sense, it does serve a literary purpose. Hebrew poetry and rhetoric was based on various forms of parallelism, and so the biblical authors often used that to emphasize their points; this is a classic example. As you can see, the six days break up into two groups of three which are then set in parallel to each other, and which correspond to the description of the earth at the beginning of God’s creative work as a formless void—in other words, unformed and unfilled. You’ll notice that the first three days all have to do with God giving form to the raw stuff of creation, setting boundaries to give it definition—dividing light from darkness, creating day and night; dividing the waters, separating the sky from the surface of the planet; then setting boundaries on the waters, dividing the planet into land and oceans. In this way, he creates the various “realms” or “spheres” of creation. The next three days, we’re given the filling of these realms—the sun, to rule the day, and the moon, to rule the night; the birds to fill the air and the fish and other marine animals to fill the waters; land animals to fill the continents; and, ultimately, humanity to oversee the whole thing. The passage runs this way not to say that things happened in a certain sequence, but rather to emphasize the order and logic of God’s creative work.