In my last post, I described the functions God created, according to Genesis 1. The first three days of the narrative explain the functions of nature that God established: time, weather/precipitation, and vegetation/food. The next step, after functions, is to install the functionaries, which are the entities of nature that perform or inhabit the functions.
Before we get into that, it’s probably a good idea to talk about method, because for most readers of the Bible, using Genesis 1 to talk about functions and functionaries may seem weird. For a more in-depth discussion of these topics, I recommend John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis 1.” Much of what I say is in dialog with his work, and some of it is just plainly stolen from him. Seriously, it’s a great book.
Questions about origins dominate the way we read the Biblical creation narratives, which is no surprise. Unfortunately, we often forget to consider what kind of questions we should be asking because it seems quite obvious to us that discussion of the origins of the earth and humanity ought to be concerned with scientific and material concepts: nuclear chemistry, orbital physics, chemical compositions, distances, and age. In a post-Enlightenment (and scientific) world, these are the things that we concern ourselves with when we ask, “Where did we come from, and how did this all get here?”
In fact, it is very, very difficult to imagine doing it any other way. But for most of history, humans have not conceived of the earth’s origins in these terms. Our preoccupation with materials is a modern thing. Ancient cultures saw the world in very different ways.
That is not to say that they were “primitive” or “dumb.” Well… they were just as dumb as we are today. But rather than a scientific explanation for the origins of the earth, many ancient cultures, especially the Ancient Near East, sought to understand the world in terms of its function and meaning. They accomplished this by using myths – narratives that offer an explanation. These myths described what it meant to be human, why the earth was created, and how it was created through divine activity. Far from being primitive, these narratives are often quite brilliant, complex, and contain tremendous insight into the human experience. They are still read today for this reason.
But they are not scientific accounts, and bringing scientific questions to these texts, including the Bible, fails to understand the cultures in which they were written. I’ll have to get to the functionaries next time because this post is already getting too long, but suffice it to say that the Biblical accounts of origin, the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3, occupy an ancient worldview that has no preoccupation with the materials of creation. As with my previous post, it is interested in how the elements of the universe functioned in an ordered system and how these elements gained meaning when they worked together to support/sustain human life.
Theologically, this means that God is perfectly happy to enter into human weakness (and culture) in order to reveal himself. All communication is governed by culture, and God revealing himself to humanity is no different. Even using the pronoun “he” in reference to God illustrates this point. So when God was answering the questions of ‘who we are and how did all this get here,’ he did so in a way that made sense to the Israelite culture.
If you would like a more in-depth look, I highly recommend the book by John Walton: