Should we Read the Creation Story “Literally”? Part 4

In our previous post, we discussed the “days” of creation, as they are described in Genesis 1 and in the first few verses of Genesis 2.  On the “sixth day”, God creates human beings as the culmination of His work.   In this post, we would like to follow this story into the following verses.

Beginning in Genesis 2:4, we read another account of creation, providing a different perspective on the facts provided in Genesis 1.  While Genesis 1 emphasizes structure and order, Genesis 2 emphasizes intimacy and care.  While chapter 1 describes the origin of our world, chapter 2 focuses on our unique nature as human beings, among all created beings.

A Garden Theme

The garden theme is everywhere present in this intimate story, beginning in Genesis 2:5. The garden does not yet have any plants, because they have not yet come out of the ground.  God has not yet sent rain.  He is waiting until He creates human beings to tend the garden.

So, in verse 7, God solves this problem.  He forms a man by forming soil into a body and then breathing life into the man’s nostrils.   Now the man is a “living being”.

This is not a scientific description of process.  The account offers no detail, for example, about this atmosphere without rain.  It does not explain how we can have plants lying dormant below ground.  The very image of God forming a body out of soil, and then breathing into nostrils does not present itself as a biological process. 

The story does not get stuck on process.  It is not a story about how God creates human beings. It is a story about why He creates them.  And, in this first instance, the story tells us that God creates them to live in a garden.

The garden is called “Eden,” our synonym for “paradise”.   With human caretakers ready, trees at last rise from the ground.  Two of the fruit-bearing trees have a name, though one of them grows forbidden fruit.  This fact that will become important later in the story.    

A river waters the garden and then flows out into the surrounding lands, where it divides into four separate rivers.  Each of these rivers also have a name.

When the garden is fully prepared, God places the newly created man into this garden, “to work and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15).

This story so far focuses on this garden. Apart from the rivers that flow out of it, we are not given any detail about the rest of the created world.  What about the rest of the heavens, the waters, and the earth?  Are plants growing there too?  Are creatures of sky, water and land developing there too?   The story does not say.  Our questions will have to wait.  Right now, we are focused on the garden.

There is no real reason, however, to doubt the accuracy of this story.  The river names sound real and point to an area somewhere in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, as we know it today.  While we are not given scientific detail, but the facts are plain enough.  The environment is made ready before human beings are introduced to it.  Like many gardens in our own day, some trees have names.  And somehow — we are not told precisely — God causes human beings to exist.

A Unique Creature

The image of God breathing into a human being is an image of His Spirit.  Here the account describes humans as “breathing beings” (nephesh, in Hebrew).  They get their breath from God Himself.  He gives them His breath.  The normal word for Spirit in Hebrew is “ruach,” which also carries the notions of “wind” and “breath.”

The picture here is therefore a powerful one.  The mighty Spirit who, in Chapter 1, hovers over the waters, moving things into place, breathing out the creative word of God, now also breathes life into the human being.  This creature, among all creatures, gets his breath directly from the Spirit of God.

In chapter 1, we heard that human beings were created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27). The Hebrew term translated “image” (selelm), is borrowed from the art world, where works of art are sculpted into one form or another, in accordance with an image.  The human being is a work of art sculpted in the image of God.

Taken together, these two images tell us something remarkable about God’s human creation. While all creation reflects its Creator, and while other creatures “breathe” in one form or another, only human beings are described in this way.  Only they are sculpted in the “image” of God.  Only they are inspired by the breath of God.

The story therefore tells us that human beings are not accidents.  They did not develop randomly from chemical and biological processes.  God created them on purpose, with a unique design.  They share His form and they receive their life breath from Him.   This means that they can know Him and communicate with Him in a way that the rest of creation cannot.  They can consciously experience the love of God and can respond to Him with love.

By rushing to embrace naturalistic explanations of our origin, we manage to skip an important perspective.  If we view ourselves simply as biological accidents, then we miss the whole point of our existence.  We are created to be in a conscious, loving relationship with our Creator.  And, we are to share with Him in overseeing His garden.  We have authority and responsibility regarding the rest of creation. 

If we focus too much upon whether the story agrees or disagrees with science, we can miss the bigger point.  The “image” and “breath” reference are not scientific in nature.  They are not intended to communicate process. They communicate purpose.

God prepared a garden for us, and He uniquely formed us to live and work in this garden. And, the whole time, we can know and share the love of our Creator.  In other words, God created us to be in relationship with Him.  Science cannot tell us that, but God has explained this to us in His story.   Let’s not miss the point!

In His Service,