Human beings do not begin the Bible. We are not its primary subject, nor are we its essential protagonist. In the beginning there was God, and in the end God will come again, and throughout God remains the mover of most significant events. Yet humanity is the dominant biblical theme, and the Bible is, on the whole, for us. Its texts and its narratives are given us, even as we have participated in their making and even as we who hold these words as holy confess that scripture has warrant beyond ourselves, that we are not the sole authors of the truths that shall sustain us.
The genius of the biblical narratives concerning Eden, Haran, and Sinai is that they present the same picture of the cosmos, and, more significantly, of the natural world as personified in land and related to our vocation. We are not the beginning of the land, nor are we its terminus. But we are certainly the dominant created theme, and the land is given us to shape – though we are not, to be sure, the sole authors of our environment, and we cannot subject it to our whims.
The land, like the neighbor and the scriptures that tell of both, has warrant independent of our perspective. And, respecting these, it is the emerging vocation of holiness that shapes these dramatic texts, the desired and desirous lives of the children of Israel and, I will argue, the very nature of our relation to the world itself.
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth” describes the initiation and order of creation. The heavens and the earth come first. All else will be built upon them or will be alterations of them. All else will be part of them, and apart from them there will be nothing. This is the creation of all that is – not its summit, but indeed its very foundation and its ordered context. From heaven and earth, everything else will emerge.
“The earth was formless and void” describes the unformed, chaotic character of a heaven and earth without God. It is creation without boundaries, without separation, and thus without limitation – and God will create precisely in the opposite direction. It is separation and division that will mark the created order represented in Eden; although of course the first creation account makes no mention of Eden, its allegorical nature in the second text allows its use here as symbolic of the created order. Eden is paradise, partitioned. It is the intended result of God’s intensive work. It is where all of this is going.
From the beginning, to be clear, separation by God is not separation from God; it is precisely the spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters that precedes God’s pronouncing light, and God’s “(seeing) that the light was good,” and God’s separating light from darkness. Again, it is not that God declares the light to be good; rather it is that God sees that it is good. The light is itself actually good preceding God’s judgment and, certainly, preceding our own. It is as though a painter sees her portrait coming together in accord with her intent – or, even, perhaps, producing a happy accident.
Regardless, it is not as though the painter believes that the painting will satisfy only himself; it is that he believes the painting in and of itself is satisfactory. God hovering over the face of the waters is God’s face closing in, leaning toward a canvas and making assessments about the work.
This is the prototypical creation scene: God calls something into being, God separates elements of creation one from another, and God sees and proclaims the inherent goodness of God’s own work. It is repeated six more times, with little variation throughout the articulation of created things. It is true of the dry land and the waters; it is true of the fruitful plants and trees; it is true of the celestial lights of star and sun that make day and night; it is true of flying birds and swimming fish; it is true for creeping animals and cattle; and it is certainly true for the male and female of humanity. They are created by God, they are separated by God, and their goodness is proclaimed by God.
Yet unto them more of course is added. The text approaches humans with some anticipation; the creation scenes have been generally building in complexity and in immediacy to humankind – beasts being more intimately useful, after all, than heavens and earth as such. The male and female human are the result of a comprehensive, compounding process and on them the creation text lavishes its most detail.
Their creation is even the most detailed concerning the God who creates; “Let us,” says God, “make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The God of the text is multiple or plural; at the very least God must be internally partitioned. But creation itself is increasingly about fecundity and multiplicity, and it makes sense that this would come from God and have relation to God.
So we must take the dominion given humanity to be similarly representative. Indeed, the famous imageo dei is often considered to be principally vicarious representation of God to the world. So, the dominion is not absolutist, because God’s dominion is not in absolute terms. Rather, human dominion is limited. It is not over the land itself, but only over the animals that dwell upon it. It is over creatures wild and tame and over seeding plants; the dominion is domestication. The primal human vocation is shepherding and gathering.
This presents another departure for humans within creation. Until this point, to listen to God’s speech was to come into being; to listen was to be. Now, when God addresses the male and female human, to listen is to do – or, more precisely, to be in a certain way: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion…See, I have given you every plant yielding seed…and every tree with seed…you shall have them for food.”
All living creation has been building up to humankind and is now for the male and female humans, with this important proviso: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” If all creation has led to humankind, humanity depends upon and with all creation; they are not separate from but are indeed part and parcel of it, though they have a special place within it.
Fittingly, then, humanity is not the culmination of creation, anymore than humankind was its beginning. Rather, the Sabbath is. The day of rest, completion and satisfaction crowns the created order and God’s creative act. Sabbath is the final creation, and humanity will be later called to participate in it. The ultimate Edenic vocation is restful trust in God, whatever tasks might come before. Sabbath is a day different from other days in which all creation remembers that it is God’s creation and that its goodness is satisfactory precisely as it is. Sabbath is a day set aside, separated, for being: the first holy day.