I’ve been working my way through Greg Boyd’s God At War. One of the things he proposes is that Genesis 1 should be interpreted as God’s ordering of chaos rather than His creation of the world out of nothing (ex nihilo). Boyd’s contention is that the “void, formless” world of Genesis 1 is the world after a cosmic battle perhaps also alluded to by the extra-Biblical myth of Lucifer’s fall out of heaven. Whether or not we want to go that far with him, it’s worth pondering the implications of the two conceptions of creation: ex nihilo vs. ordering chaos.
In writing Genesis 1, the Hebrews borrowed from and consciously modified Canaanite and Babylonian stories of primordial conflict at the beginning of the universe. Much of the description of dividing the land and sea, day and night, waters above and waters below, etc, is the same, but Genesis 1 replaces the gods in the other stories. One example is the sea goddess Tiamat from Akkadian mythology whose body is cut up to form the land after she is killed. Her presence is replaced by T’hom, the word for “the deep” that’s derived from the goddess’ name. Boyd speculates that Genesis 1 doesn’t “correct earlier creation-conflict accounts” but “supplements them” (105). In fact, he thinks that the “formless void” that God shapes in Genesis 1:2 was the ruin of a world ravaged by divine war rather than an empty canvas.
Part of what draws Boyd to this way of understanding Genesis 1 is that other Biblical passages attest to a primordial conflict, such as Psalm 74:12-17 which refers to God’s defeat of Leviathan the sea monster (vv 13-14) in the context of describing His creation of the sea (v 15) and the heavens (v 16). God’s speech in Job certainly talks about creation as a subduing of wild elements. The sea has to be subdued (38:8-11); the stars are enchained (vv 31-33); the lightning must be taught to obey (v 35). There are other references in the psalms and the prophets to God’s victory over chaotic sea monsters who seem a lot like the ancient Canaanite deities Tiamat and Rahab. And then of course there’s the extra-Biblical myth of Lucifer’s initial rebellion against God and subsequent eviction from heaven (Yeah it’s actually not in the Bible).
Whether or not we want to speculate with Boyd about Genesis 1 having a post-battlefield setting, it’s worth asking whether it describes giving order to chaos or starting something entirely from scratch. Like most aspects of Christian doctrine, the ex nihilo creation doctrine arises out of an argument, in this case with 2nd century Gnostics who had an elaborate cosmology in which physical matter was shaped by a demiurge named Ialdabaoth (awesome name, right?) who was an imposter god that needed to be overthrown by the real God. So it was important to say there isn’t an elaborate Gnostic mess behind the physical world, because God did it all from scratch.
Another thought-system that ex nihilo creation responds to is Manicheism, which was Augustine’s faith before he converted to Christianity. In Manicheism, the universe is an eternally dualistic order in which good and evil are equally essential and never-ending. Ex nihilo is part of Augustine’s pushback against Manicheism because it makes God responsible for the beginning of all things, good and evil. It fits with the concept of God as the “unmoved mover” in Platonic thought (basically everything moves in reaction to something else that moved it, but something had to start the chain of motion and that “unmoved mover” is God). But has Augustine’s pushback gone too far?
The problem is that Genesis 1:2 doesn’t have God starting with nothing. Some Christians try to get around this by making Genesis 1:1 day zero of God’s creation, but it seems pretty clear from the structure that the statement “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth” is supposed to function as a summary of the entire story, not its first action. Whenever God creates anything in the story, there’s a specific formula that He follows: 1) He says something, 2) He names what has been made, 3) He calls it good, and 4) a day passes. When a Hebrew story has a formula, it follows the formula throughout the story.
So we don’t get to take that easy out. Four things exist in the story before God has started creating, whether they get translated into English or not. The first is tohu which means “wilderness” or “wasteland.” The second is bohu which means “emptiness” or “undistinguishiable ruin.” Those two words are brought together in English translations to say the Earth was a “formless void,” which isn’t quite accurate since we’re dealing with two different nouns.
The third thing that exists is t’hom, or “the deep.” This word is usually used with regard to the sea. It specifically refers to the opaqueness and mysteriousness of the sea, which was used as a symbol of incomprehensible evil in Hebrew writing. The fourth thing is mayim, “the waters.” Mayim and t’hom are in a parallelism since they occur in the same phrase back-to-back (“face of the…”), which might mean that they are two words for the same thing but also might mean that the waters where “God’s Spirit hovers” are being contrasted with the deep which is “covered by darkness.”
Obviously it would be a narrative challenge to talk about what the beginning of the universe would look like. You would have to use words figuratively and imperfectly to describe it. So I don’t want to make too much out of the tohu and bohu. But let’s talk about the classic question of God’s relationship to evil as the universe’s Creator which is the preoccupation driving Greg Boyd’s thought.
I see three possible options for understanding evil’s relationship to God’s creation: 1) evil has always existed and God’s creation is the fight to subdue it; 2) God created everything that later became evil, but the things that became evil chose to be that way independent of God; 3) God created everything good and evil and He uses evil things as objects of His wrath to accomplish His purpose.
I guess I would fall in the option 2 camp. Ultimately for me it’s a mixture of pragmatism and fidelity to the Biblical witness. I think it’s most useful to understand what God is doing in the world as a continual battle against would-be saboteurs who have always been defeated by God but not effortlessly. I also don’t think it’s true to the Bible’s witness to imagine God sitting in eternity watching a pre-programmed drama unfold. God exerts Himself throughout the Biblical stories about Him even if this violates one of the Hellenistic theological principles that we’ve allowed to define God more than the Bible itself.
I don’t think it’s helpful to think that God decided before time that the Holocaust would be a good learning experience for humanity in general despite its profound evil and suffering. It seems more true to the Biblical model for talking about God’s relationship to the world to say that God responded to the Holocaust by firing up His wrath in the hearts of those who fought Hitler and those who have served the world differently because of what happened.
I guess I imagine God kind of like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, the rightful king who is moving incognito through the world reclaiming His throne. God’s power and sovereignty are not necessarily self-evident looking around the world; to say that they were would be to claim that God approves of what’s going on or is too weak to do something about it. I don’t think God is weak at all. I just think that He chooses to relate to His creation in a cruciform way that draws the right people to Himself not through fireworks and lightning but through sacrificial love.