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Explore the meaning of “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”.
Text:  Genesis: 1-3

Before reflecting upon the words contained in Genesis 1-3 it is important to consider the genre of the Book.  In the introduction to Genesis in The Oxford Bible Commentary R.N. Whybray says:

The aim of [the early Greek Historians of the sixth century BC] was to write accounts of the origins, genealogical descent and history of the notable families of their own day, tracing them back to a remote, heroic age. ... In their accounts of past ages they did not distinguish between myth, legend and what we now call ‘historical facts’.  It was not their primary purpose to establish the exact truth of the events they described but rather to raise in their readers a consciousness of their own identity and a feeling that they were citizens of a great and noble city or race.  These historians made full use of extant traditions about the past but they were also creators of tradition: where extant traditions were lacking or scanty they did not hesitate to fill them out with details and even entire stories supplied from their own imaginations.

I have no doubt in my own mind that those who committed to writing the particular selection of stories that we now know as the Book of Genesis were ‘historians’ of the type described above by Whybray rather than what is expected of a historian today.  The stories are a mixture of myth, legend and the story-teller’s art and can in no way be considered as an accurate account of how or when the creation of the earth or of man occurred.  They can, however, tell us much about the nature and attributes of God as perceived at the time of writing and many of those perceptions are of as much value today as they were when they were first written down.

 

The nature and attributes of God

11 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth

The opening words of the Bible tell us clearly that God was here before man.  In all the arguments about Darwin and Evolution it is easy to lose sight of this fundamental truth.  No matter what mechanism He employed to bring about His creation and no matter what time-scale that mechanism worked within, God was here before man.  That statement implies yet another important truth:  as He was here first He cannot be an invention in the mind of man as many have suggested.  He is real and He was here first.  These are important truths onto which to hold.

Can any clues be found in Genesis about the nature of God?  If by nature we mean “What does He look like?” or “Is He composed of matter or energy?” or any other question designed to produce some form of picture understandable by human beings, then my answer is No.  I do not believe that human beings have or will ever have the mental capacity to understand the nature of God.  However, I do believe that a reading of Genesis can give us many clues about His attributes.  To paraphrase Matthew:  By His fruit we may yet recognise Him!

 One of the fundamental attributes of God can be learnt from the constant repetition of the phrase “And God saw that it was good” in the first of the creation stories.  We have a God who is compassionate and loving and wants only that which is good for His creation.  Indeed, the word good occurs no less than 15 times in the first three chapters of Genesis.  In reflecting upon this point in his book Christian Theology, Alister McGrath says: “The constant biblical emphasis upon the goodness of creation is a reminder that the destructive force of sin is not present in the world by God’s design or permission.”

Much of the imagery in the creation stories in Genesis depicts God as an artist – painstaking in His work and proud of the results.  Here is a God with a love of beauty which we can see reflected in His creation.  There is no functional reason for the earth, and all that can be found upon it, to be as beautiful as it is, but it is so.  Our God is a God of beauty.

 

The meaning of Creation from nothing

There has long been a debate in the Church on the concept of ‘creation from nothing’ or creatio ex nihilo.  The two creation stories in Genesis begin respectively as follows:

11 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void ...

2 4 In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens ...

The Hebrew word bara which is translated as ‘created’ in Genesis 1:1 is rare and is found in the Bible only in Genesis and Isaiah where it is used exclusively to describe a creative action performed by God.  By contrast, the Hebrew word asah, which is found throughout the Bible and is usually translated as ‘made’, is used to describe actions performed by both God and man.  However, although many thousands of pages have been written comparing the specific instances in Genesis 1-2 where the verb bara is used with those where asah is used, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that either word necessarily implies creatio ex nihilo.

Genesis 1:2 implies that God fashioned the earth from pre-existing material, a view expounded by Plato and adopted by most Gnostic writers and later Christian theologians such as Theophilus.   In more recent times the view sits well with the theories of the world-renowned twentieth-century astronomer Fred Hoyle’s description of a universe in which the building blocks of matter have always existed.  In this interpretation, God ‘created’ in the sense that a potter creates a beautiful object from a lump of clay, not ex nihilo.

Genesis 2:4 uses the word asah (made) rather than the word bara (created) but I do not think that too much can be made of this.  The second creation story found in Genesis 2 is primarily about Adam and Eve, their temptation in the Garden of Eden and their consequent fall.  The introductory sentences are there to set the scene rather than to convey any highly-significant information on the difference between creating and making.

In our modern world we sometimes do make such a distinction though I am not convinced that the writers of Genesis did.  However, if there is a distinction to be made, I believe that it is concerned with the originality of the action.  A great painter can create a picture from his/her imagination rather than by slavishly copying the lines of a pre-existing material object.  We call such an act creative and contrast it with the act of completing a pre-printed painting-by-numbers kit which we might describe as making a picture. 

Working in the material world as we humans are bound to do, the picture in the imagination of the great painter might be considered to be ex nihilo even though the oils placed upon the canvass are quite clearly pre‑existing.  It is this concept that, for me, speaks of God’s creation of the earth.  A loving God created the concept of the earth and all that dwells within it ex nihilo and then made it from pre-existing matter (the formless void) through the process Darwin described as evolution.  This bringing together of Genesis and modern scientific theory is sometimes known as ‘intelligent design’.

 

What it means to be made in the image of God

1 26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image [selem], according to our likeness [demut]

It is sometimes said that, if He formed us in His own image, the God of the Church England must be a white, middle-class Englishman who votes conservative and prefers to sit in Victorian pews rather than upon a chair.  I am quite certain in my own mind that this is not what it means to be made imageo Dei - in the image of God.

The use of the words selem and demut in the original Hebrew in this verse alone suggests that human beings resemble God in a way that is not the case with animals.  However, there is no further suggestion in the text as to the nature of this resemblance.  Some writers have pointed to the many verses in the Old Testament where God is spoken of as possessing physical organs such as hands, feet or eyes as evidence that God is a physical being with hominid features.  Others regard these references as metaphorical and insist they tell us nothing about the physical nature of God.  Similarly, some take Genesis 1:26 to refer to a physical resemblance between man and God which accords with the image so beloved of some religious artists of an old man with a grey beard sitting on a cloud.  I do not accept this literal interpretation of the verse and am inclined towards the view expressed by Whybray in The Oxford Bible Commentary that the verse implies that “human beings, in distinction from the animals, possess the unique capacity to communicate meaningfully with God”, a view derived from that first put forward by Augustine in the fourth century.  In this interpretation, imageo Dei is interpreted in terms of the human capacity for reason reflecting (very poorly) the wisdom of God.

 

God’s intention for fallen creation

The reaction of God to Adam’s disobedience as described in Genesis 3 accords well with the picture of God as a loving father.  His first reaction in confronting Adam is anger followed quickly by the infliction of punishment:

3 17 And to the man he said,  ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you,  “You shall not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;  18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’

 
Harsh as they may seem, these punishments are considerably less than the death sentence He originally intended:

2 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

The compassion shown by God’s commutation of his original sentence is followed by two further acts of kindness and compassion towards his fallen children:

3 21 And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

24 ... at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

 In the first of these God clothed Adam and Eve to save them from the embarrassment that was a consequence of their sin and in the second he took direct action to protect them from the greater sin of taking from the tree of life.  These are not the actions of a God who has given up on man, for he could have slain them and returned them to dust there and then; He did not.  Out of love he created the conditions in which they could survive, go forth from Eden and continue to exercise their free will.  These actions are truly those of a loving Father.

 

Conclusion

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”.

I believe in a loving, compassionate God who was here before man and is the Father of mankind.  He created the concept of the earth and all that dwells within it ex nihilo and then made it from pre-existing matter through the process Darwin described as evolution.  He gave man free will and sent us out into the world to look after it and to enjoy the fruits of His creation.  He watches over us as a loving Father still cares for his adult children even though he can only occasionally influence their actions.