What do Creation Stories do in the Bible?

Earthrise captured by the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.
Earthrise captured by the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.

One of the central themes of Faith and Wisdom in Science is the rich seam of creation-story material in every genre of Biblical literature, yet the strange paradox that, apart from some notable exceptions, this is largely ignored in the mainstream science/religion discussion.  As a further damaging consequence, when that debate ever resumes its close Mercurial orbit around the well-trodden turf of Genesis 1 and 2, interpretation of those texts become distorted without the foundation of creation story material in Psalms, Prophets and supremely the Wisdom books.  Since I claim that all this material is fundamental to answering a theological question about what science is for, as an essential prelude to how we govern and use science in our time, a close study of the whole Biblical picture of our relationship with nature assumes supreme importance in the church today.

A previous post, The 20+ Creation Stories in the Bible, did not much more than list some of the material that needs to be brought together in an healthy Bible-study program on creation.  That post pointed out that Genesis has by no means the monopoly on creation stories.  There are fundamental alternative images and language used in, for example, Proverbs 8 and Job.  Ah! The wonderful Book of Job! I drew attention to the reception of the creation story tradition in the New Testament genres of Gospel and Epistle too.  But there is more, of course, to say here.  We need to think about the role creation-stories play in the Biblical narrative, where they occur, in what moods and what the achieve.

Take Psalm 33. It follows hard on the heels of the penitential Psalm 32 (When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all the day long – 32v3).  The last verse of Ps32 and the first of Ps33 have turned this backward looking reflection on transgression and decay into an exhortation to praise, but it remains at this point a command.  There is no source of transformational energy to effect it. The narrative is moving towards the closing verse of Psalm 33: We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  But in order to reach that closure, the psalmist needs to chose a path that goes by way of a creation story:

By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses

its important to note that all the fundamental components of a Biblical creation story are here: the formation of boundaries, the ordering of chaos, the action of Word.  All this is embellished and formalised in the Genesis narratives, but the essentials are bridgeall in these shorter accounts in Song and Wisdom. The point here, however, is that the story of Creation, rather than just standing at the beginning of time as a monument to the first moment, becomes a bridge from despair to hope.  This active transport of the contemplation of the creative act through the process of healing and redemption, the bridging from fall to new creation, is ubiquitous when you have once recognised it.  The delightful, playful Wisdom-generated creation story in Proverbs 8 serves the same purpose.  Like Psalm 33, it answers a ‘call’ (this time not a call to praise but a call to wisdom) but lacking in the source of power to realise it, by unleashing the energies of God’s creation itself to create hope, and a direction towards the enacted Wisdom of the rest of the book of Proverbs.

The great creation story in the Lord’s Answer to Job (Ch 38) BlakeonJob

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand.

Who marked off its dimension? Surely you know!

Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set,

or who laid its cornerstone while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

serves the bridging need once more.  It resolves the tangled and angry impasse of the cycles of dialogues between Job and his comforters (who are of course rather accusers), expands the creation motif into a panoramic tour of the entire created order, but eventually takes Job to a place where both his body and his mind can be healed.

The New Testament visits Creation and our painful present relation to it in just the same way.  Romans chapter 8 cannot reach its goal of nothing separating God’s servants from their maker except by way of All Creation groaning until the sons and daughters of God are revealed.

The Johannine ‘signs’ may, at least partially, be understood in this light. After the feeding of the 5000 in John chapter 6, redolent with the symbols of the Exodus, the people want to make Jesus king, but by force. Nature itself illustrates this out-of-joint-ness with a terrifying storm that threatens to overcome the disciples in the Galilean fishing boat.  But, bringing three mighty Biblical strands together in one action: (1) a recollection of the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14); (3) a recreation and re-bounding of water in a new physicality (Psalm 93); (3) a fulfilment of the cosmology of Job (Job 9v8), Jesus walks to them across the waves. And the boat immediately reaches its destination (Jn 6v21).

Our relationship with created nature today features science at its heart.  But the role of this relationship, and its Great Story, has not changed.  Mending our ways with creation is still the bridge between the ignorance, fear and waste of our past, and to a future of knowledge and wisdom.  This is what makes a theology of science to urgent to work through and work out.