γενήσομαι «ge-ney-soh-mey : i am becoming»
These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
reading genesis, part 4: a cosmic (temple) epilogue
Please note, this is the third post of a series.
You can read the first post here.
So far we have explored what I believe to be the two major keys to understanding a biblical passage—and we have been doing so using the creation stories in Genesis.
This was a very deliberate choice—the interpretive tradition surrounding Genesis shows us exactly what happens when we don't take the two keys of Genre and Context seriously when reading the Bible.
When we read the creation stories without acknowledging they are myths likely written during the Babylonian Exile, we ask the stories questions they were never intending to answer—we ask scientific questions of cosmic origins instead of questions of Israelite identity and Israelite worldview.
In other words, when we don't take seriously Genre and Context we completely and wholly misunderstand what the text is saying.
Even St Augustine of Hippo, the prolific theologian of the late 4th and early 5th centuries—who left a questionable theological legacy—understood that reading the creation story literally 'is too disgraceful and ruinous' and is 'greatly to be avoided.' Augustine argued that if a non-Christian 'should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters' the non-Christian would 'scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error [the Christian is].'1
Genesis is not a book about human origins. To read the creation stories literally is to make a grave mistake.
There is another layer. Indeed, as myth the creation stories set out to teach more than one lesson.2 The additional layer I want to highlight here also takes into consideration the Genre and Context of the narratives—but it also adds a weight of responsibility to our shoulders.
Dr John Walton has recently made more popular the idea that the creation stories are, as he calls them, 'cosmic temple inauguration' texts.3
Essentially, Walton argues that the creation stories are establishing the earth as God's temple. And there is much evidence to support his claim.
Scholars who study Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) will readily point out the similarities of the language used in Exodus when describing the construction of the Tabernacle with the language used in Genesis when describing the creation of the cosmos.
Consider, for example, Exodus 39:43 which reads, 'Moses looked over all the work and indeed they had done it.' Then read Genesis 1:31, which says, 'God looked over all that he made and indeed it was good.' Genesis 1:28 tells us 'God blessed them,' and Exodus 39 ends with, 'Moses blessed them.'4
In Exodus 40:33-34 we read, 'Moses had finished the work, and the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.' Similarly, in Genesis 2:2 it says, 'On the seventh day God finished the work he had done and he rested on the seventh day.'5
This last example of 'linguistic echoes' has another deliberate parallel, but it's a cultural one we miss by not being familiar with temple theology.
Rest and Seven
That is, in the Ancient Near East it was a common belief that a deity required a temple on earth in which that deity would dwell. A temple was, in other words, the house of a particular god—the physical location where that deity would live and extend their rule. And it was the place where the gap between divine and human was bridged.
And it was in this house the deity would rest. It was a 'divine prerogative' for the creator-god to rest after creation, and it was in fact a way to 'demonstrate his divine rule by resting in his temple-palace.' 6 It was the inhabitation—the entering into and making a home—of the deity that establishes the temple as sacred space. Thus, God resting at the end of his work (Gen 2:2) establishes the earth itself as sacred space—and this language would've tipped off ancient listeners to the temple theme happening in the story.
And we are told God rests on the seventh day.
People have been debating the 7 days of creation for years upon years (and too many years), but many rightly believe it was never intended to be literal. The number 7 for the Ancient Near East was a perfect number of completion and is often associated with important events—specifically, the building of temples.
The assembling of the Tabernacle, for example, was done in 7 stages (Exodus 40:19-32) before the presence of God filled it. In Leviticus 8:33, a priest's ordination requires seven days.
The Temple that Solomon constructed took 7 years to build according to 1 Kings 6:38, and in 1 Kings 8:2-6, the Ark of the Covenant and the rest of the Tabernacle's sacred objects were brought into the Shrine of the House—and the presence of God filled the sanctuary (1 Kings 8:9-11)—in the seventh month of the year.
The Temple was then dedicated during a seven day feast that was repeated for another seven days (1 Kings 8:65).
The seven days of creation therefore was simply another symbolic way to highlight that the creation story was in fact a temple story.
The Cosmic Scale
What the creation story does with temple theology is flip the convention upside down. Where a temple was traditionally believed by Ancient Near Eastern people to be a smaller scale cosmos, the Hebrew story in Genesis makes the cosmos a larger scale temple.
That is, while temples were made as mimics of the greater universe, the creation story symbolically presents the universe as a mimic of the Temple.
And it does this intentionally. Remember that much of the Hebrew Bible was compiled during the Exile—and the Exile occurred after the Temple was destroyed by Babylon.
The Temple as a physical building no longer existed—so how could they function as God's people without his house? Where would God rest and from where would God extend his rule?
Simple—Genesis establishes the entire cosmos as sacred space. That is, the cosmos is God's house. The universe is where God dwells.
In Exodus, God's presence fills the Tabernacle at the completion of all the work; in 1 Kings, God's presence fills the Temple after all the work was done and it was adorned with the sacred objects; and in Genesis, on the final day when all the work is done, God rests in the earth. Therefore, it would be understood that as God rests his presence/glory permeates the sacred cosmic temple—the earth—just as it did in the Tabernacle.
The world is God's temple.
Unlike today, temples and sanctuaries were not places to gather as a community and worship, but instead they were understood as holy places to serve the god who dwelt within it. The Genesis creation stories are therefore telling its audience that not only is God present anywhere and everywhere within the cosmos—since it is his vast dwelling place—but it is also telling its audience the world is in fact the very place to serve God precisely because it is his house.
And humans are the priests.
The Priestly Kingly Connection
When 'adam is created and placed in the cosmic temple, God instructs the human-creature to work ('abad) and keep or guard (shamar) the land. While these two words are often used throughtout the Bible to describe the doing and the keeping of God's law, they occur together outside of Genesis 2:15 when describing the Levites' activities in the Tabernacle7, such as Numbers 3:7-8 and 18:5-6; as well as 1 Chronicles 23:32 and Ezekiel 44:14.
Additionally, the Ancient Near Eastern understanding of a king was that a king was responsible for bringing and maintaining order not only for his people but for the land as well. The activities and projects of a king would have the general aim of the benefit of the whole community as well as the land on and by which it lived.8
A king's palace would typically be placed in a royal garden, overlooking his domain—and that palace would be near the temple. Since the king was viceroy to the deity, king and God in this way dwelt and ruled together from the paradisiacal garden.
It is not a coincidence that Adam and Eve are placed in a garden for which they are to work and keep/guard—the garden in which God also dwells. Adam and Eve are priest-kings and representatives of God to all of creation. Adam and Eve being placed in Eden to tend to the land can be read as allegory for Israel being commissioned to tend to the earth. In this way, humanity is made responsible for the cosmos and all the creatures within it.
'Creation care' is built in to the story right from the beginning—it is the human duty and responsibility to work and keep/guard the cosmos.
The creation stories are therefore attempting to show that all of God's people (by extension, us today who are part of Jesus' Kingdom) are the priestly kingly presence tasked to work and keep/guard the cosmos, which is the very cosmos that God has made his dwelling. The world itself is sacred space—is the temple— where humans meet and serve God.
Clearly, I hope, after all this we can understand and appreciate the importance of accounting for the Genre and Context of any given biblical passage. It is very rare indeed we can take a text and read it superficially—literally and at face value—without consulting the Genre and Context to tell us what exactly is happening with what we're reading, what the author is attempting to say to his audience.
After all, with Genesis a completely different literary landscape with these things in mind, what other passages could we be misreading so heartily? ✤
1. Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19-20, Chap. 19.
2. We see examples of multiple lessons throughout the creation stories when we're told why snakes crawl around in their bellies, for example, and why labour is painful for women, and why working the earth for food is so difficult for survival.
3. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2009), 162.
4. Naftali S. Cohn, 'The Tabernacle, the Creation, and the Ideal of an Orderly World,' TheTorah.com (2015). https://www.thetorah.com/article/....
6. Ronald A Simkins, Creator & Creation (Peabody, MA; Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 147.
7. Jeff Morrow, Creation as Temple-Building and Work as Liturgy in Genesis 1-3, 12. www.wisdomintorah.com/wp-content/....
8. Michael LeFebvre, 'First Human or First King? The Introduction of Adam in the Eden Narrative,' BioLogos.com (March 20, 2020). https://biologos.org/articles/...