A speaker once said he reads through the bible, cover to cover, multiple times a year. Each time he reflects on a different point of emphasis. One read through he looks for the grace of God in every book. The next, he looks for the justice of God and another the long-suffering nature of God. Changing the lens by which he approached the scripture taught him something new with each additional reading.
It has become increasingly common to encounter Christians who affirm a woman’s right to choose abortion. Some claim the bible is silent on abortion and others go so far as to claim the bible affirms abortion. Considering the wisdom of that speaker, I determined to read through the bible with a focus on the value of human life and our obligations to one another. Reading the whole bible in this context may provide some clarity.
This is a big project. I realize that. It is also a worthy project. Jordan Peterson said in his lectures on the stories in the book of Genesis that those stories are at the root of the human literary experience. Further, the committed Christian approaches this book as the word of God, a special revelation to teach us who God is and our place in his world. It communicates truth we can’t acquire through pure intuition and rational reflection. We are told in Romans 1 and 2 that God has made himself plainly known through his created order. There is sufficient evidence in the natural world to apprehend God’s eternal power and divine nature as well as our accountability to the law of God written on our hearts. We know he is there, and we know there is a way we ought to behave. We know all this through natural revelation, but the special revelation of God tells us details we can’t apprehend through the natural world. What better way to understand what the special revelation has to say about life than to read through it slowly and carefully considering all the relevant details along the way?
What follows isn’t intended to operate as an apologetic for those who reject the authority of the bible and demean the value of nascent human life. This is for those of us who cherish the word of God as vital to understanding our place in this world. As an unbeliever, the bible seemed odd to me. As a believer, it seems even odder. It remains the same collection of wisdom literature, historical narratives, poems and songs, prophecies, and letters it has always been, but now I add the even more peculiar idea that the God of the universe attended to the collection of the books as an act of will for the benefit of his creation. Hopefully others who share this same peculiar belief can benefit from these reflections as I do.
Genesis Chapter 1
The first chapter of the bible is a creation account. Creation accounts are a part of every belief system. In preparation for this blog post I read six different mythological creation accounts from various belief systems. They all begin with an existing chaos, a being rising to bring order, some form of procreative act birthing gods, demi-gods, plant life, and pretty much anything else we can think up. In
Pelasgian accounts, Eurynome, the Goddess of all things, catches a bit of the North Wind, rolls it into a snake, couples with it, the North Wind fertilizes the act, Eurynome turns into a dove, lays an egg and hatches all things that exist. That is a heck of a way to start things up. Orphic myths have Night and Wind coupling producing a silver egg which hatches Eros who “set the universe in motion.” Hesiod’s creation narrative sees Darkness begetting Chaos, they couple and produce a whole host of craziness leading ultimately to Uranus being castrated by Chronos, and other life forms popping into existence by virtue of his severed testicles being tossed into the sea. Existence was chaotic, and into that chaos come the beings who will bring order through couplings and hatchings and battling.
This strikes a pronounced contrast to the beginning of the Book of Genesis:
(1) In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Ancient people understood that life sprang from life, presumably this is why there is so much coupling and birthing going on in those creation myths. The God of Genesis creates; no need to start a relationship with the wind and lay eggs. He just creates something new from nothing. We don’t begin with chaos or darkness, but with purpose. A necessary being existing without time and space with will and power taking creative action speaking into existence a universe teeming with purpose.
The story immediately turns to an order of creation, the opposite of chaos. I have no interest in addressing how to interpret the creation narrative, the order of creation, or the time frame indicated in Genesis 1. Our focus is on life. It is enough for the purposes of this blog to recognize, however particular Christians understand these events as they are relayed, we all agree that God acts creatively and with intention. These are not random quantum events. God wants these aspects of our universe to come into existence.
The first day saw light piercing the darkness. The second day saw waters separated in the sea and sky. The third day, God establishes land on this water world and now we arrive at the first mention of new life:
(11) And God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to the various kinds.”
Notice the description of the vegetation, the mention of seed and fruit. The first mention of life in the creation story includes God calling special attention to the reproductive nature of that life. He speaks into existence plant life intended to reproduce and cover his world in beautiful biodiversity. This theme continues. On the fifth day:
(20) Then God said, “let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” (21) And God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind; and God saw that it was Good. (22) God blessed them, saying “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”
God creates and loves his creation. He expresses his desire to see it prosper and for life to multiply. Fill the seas! Fill the skies! God speaks life into existence to see it fill his creation. This isn’t a creation account which diminishes the value of life on earth outside the human family. It rings of love for the life in his created order and his desire to see it prosper. Next, he creates the land animals, the livestock, the crawling things, and all the animals of the wild. He creates them and then declares each addition to the created order as good. Good.
The Image Bearer of God
And now man enters the story:
(26) Then God said, “Let us make mankind in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.”
(On a trivial note, the King James Version reads “every creeping thing that creepeth” which is one of my favorite biblical phrasings ever. Now that I am done being intentionally stupid, let’s return to the narrative.) Consider again, the love God has shown for his creation up to this point. His unbridled and undisguised affection for his creatures. He sees them, and they are good. He wants them to prosper and multiply and fill his earth with beautiful healthy life. The language oozes with expressions of his pleasure and delight in his creation. In that light, this next line takes my breath away.
“Let Us make mankind in Our image; according to Our likeness…”
How do you read that unmoved? How does anyone read that and see anything other than a loving God? Pleased with his creation, he reaches this last creative moment and says, let’s make this one different. Let’s make it like us.
Remember the bizarre mythological stories of the origin of man? Contrast that now with this simple offering:
(27) So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.
The bible is prone to dramatic understatements. Anyone who has read Virgil’s The Aeneid knows the dramatic elements natural to stories born from the oral tradition. Consider this moment when Aeneus, seeking refuge, is revealed to Dido after being concealed by mist:
“He’s barely ended when all at once the mist around them parted, melting into the open air, and there Aeneus stood, clear in the light of day, his head, his shoulders, the man was like a god. His own mother had breathed her beauty on her son, a gloss on his flowing hair, and the ruddy glow of youth, and radiant joy shone in his eyes. His beauty fine as a craftsman’s hand can add to ivory, or aglow as silver or Parian marble ringed in glinting gold.” (Book One: 701-709)
Great moments call for great language when we write to impress. Virgil leaves no room for doubt of Aeneus’s striking good looks and the impressive figure emerging from the mist in front of the Tyrian queen Dido. His beauty is a gift from Venus herself. Return now to the creation of man in the biblical narrative. So God created man in His own image. It rivals the description of the crucifixion of Christ in Mark 15:25 for its blunt scarcity of detail. “And they crucified him…”
And yet, its brevity communicates affection to me, simple unadorned affection. When we tell our children we love them, we don’t write them Shakespearean sonnets. The power of our affection is communicated in the simplest of expressions. I love you. If we are feeling especially flowery, we might add “so much” or as my wife would say “to the moon and back.” So God created man in His own image. A succinct message to everyone who encounters the creation story, you were made by God to reflect his image in a world he loved; to be like him and enjoy his creation. To be an object of his affection, but a special object, one who could love him back. Given that his omniscience makes him fully aware of the turn this story is about to take, this simply described grace of creation is even more startling.
The story continues in its repetitive theme:
(28) God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Living in the age of dictatorial madmen, it is easy to read the words subdue and rule in a negative light. Vladimir Putin currently wages war with Ukraine because he, Putin, didn’t like the idea of a sovereign nation being able to establish treaties and alliances of their own choosing. Evil madmen subdue and rule. This is why it was so important to note how much God loves his creation as he creates. Putin and his ilk rarely give any indication they love anything other than themselves. God as a ruler looks upon his creation, declares it good, and wishes to see it prosper. Fill the earth with life! He sets man, made in his image, to oversee this task. Mankind’s rule is intended to reflect the will of God, and that expressed will is to see vegetation, sea life, the birds of the air, the wild things of the land, the livestock, and the creeping things that creepeth thrive.
We begin with this expression of the goodness of life and God’s desire to see it multiply. We begin with the recognition that in a world of created things God loves, mankind was made for a different purpose, to reflect God’s image in his creation. A comparatively simple story of a universe filled with purpose created by a transcendent being who delights in life.
(31) And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.