All my life I’ve understood the bible to tell the story that God created a perfect world, a world filled with all things good, free from suffering, pain, and death. This world became disordered as a result of human sin, from which Christ came to redeem us and creation. This constitutes a powerful story by which I have made sense of life.
But it has always stood in tension with the evolutionary account of beginnings. Even when I embraced the notion that Genesis was a powerful story rather than a history, I have never been able to explain how the suffering inherent in evolution was compatible with the Biblical worldview.Lately however, I have been wondering whether my reading of the creation stories has been flawed. I am not convinced they teach that God created a perfect world.
Genesis 1 does not describe creation out of nothing, but begins with an already existing earth that is “formless and void’ It is lacking shape, chaotic, disordered. Creation involves God bringing order to it. The outcome is a world that is “good”, which commentators describe as meaning fit for purpose, which in the text seems to be equated with fitness to multiply and sustain life. This is a far cry from a “perfect world” understood as one without anything that mars.
This becomes even more interesting in the account in Genesis 2. Years of being taught that the world as originally created was paradise blinded me to the simple fact that in the story, the Garden of Eden is atypical.
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground — then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the LORDGod planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The earth God creates is one where not yet fit for human habitation. Yet apparently the author envisages humans soon living there, for Adam and Eve’s sons find wives outside the garden and, after murdering his brother, Cain fears reprisals from those dwelling across the earth.
When God plants a garden it is unlike the rest of the earth, for it is abundant in trees “that were pleasing to the eye and good for food”. There God places the human he formed from the dust of the uncultivated ground outside the garden, tasking it with tilling. Are we meant to infer that this is the possibility for humankind? That as humankind emerged outside the garden, tilled the earth and lived in love toward one another and Creator, the earth would be transformed into paradise?
Yet Adam and Eve found themselves incapable of living in the garden and were expelled from it.Rather than the garden standing as a symbol of where humankind was headed, it becomes a symbol of our inability to trust God, leaving us in the wastelands outside the garden, where we work the land by the sweat of our brow, experience enmity with the animals, and know pain in the natural processes of life, such as childbirth.
The “curses” then are not a cataclysmic change in the shape of creation, turning it from benign to difficult, but an acknowledgement that this is how life is outside the garden.
The upshot of all this? There is, I think, room to argue that the biblical creation stories do not describe some pristine universe, but one where order and meaning is brought to a disordered and chaotic reality. They point not to a pristine past, but to a pristine future, if only God will save us from ourselves.