Author: Terence Freithem – from “The Creation on the Cross” issue
“Community” and “relationship” are “in words” in current environmental and creational discussions. All creatures of God constitute a community in relationship. More particularly, human beings are understood as part of an increasingly interconnected global community. Our lives touch the ‘life’ of all other creatures, whether for good or for ill. Everyone and everything is in relationship. Indeed, such interrelatedness is also characteristic of God. The implications of this understanding for creation and the environment are considerable.
The Old Testament has significant resources for this conversation, especially the creation accounts of Genesis. I will work with the two creation accounts as a single witness to creation. Whatever the history of tradition may have been, Genesis 1 and 2 together constitute ‘s primary witness to the Creator God. My plan is to think closely about the kind of God who is depicted in these texts, what sorts of creational moves God makes and, given the divine decision to work in community rather than alone, the implications of that divine move for creaturely life.
It is almost a hallelujah chorus among commentators that God created the world alone and with absolute control, working independently and unilaterally. But, if this understanding of God in creation is correct, then those created in God’s image could properly understand their role regarding the rest of creation in comparable terms—in terms of power over, absolute control, and independence. By definition, the natural world thus becomes available for human manipulation and exploitation. That is, if all the creatures of Genesis 1 are understood to be but passive putty in the hands of God, then does that not invite a comparable treatment of them by those created in the image of such a God? In other words, how one understands the God of the creation accounts will have a significant impact on our environmental sensitivities and the urgency of our practices.
Now, what if the God of the creation accounts is imaged more as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship? Then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model. Even more, if the God of the creation accounts is imaged as one who also involves both human and nonhuman creatures in creation, then that should inform our understanding of the value they have been given by God, then and now.
I want to claim that, while creatures are deeply dependent upon God for their creation and life, God has chosen to establish an interdependent relationship with them with respect to both originating and continuing creation. God’s approach to creation is communal, relational, and, in the wake of God’s initiating activity, God works from within the world rather than on the world from without. The importance of God’s word in creation is often a communicating with rather than an independent word.
I claim that the Old Testament witnesses to a God who works in and through that which is not God in both originating and continuing creation (this does not stand over against a creatio ex nihilo view). What human beings and other creatures do counts with respect to the future of the creation. Even more, what human beings do count with God, make a difference to God with respect to the future of creation. I see four ways of thinking through this angle of vision in Genesis 1-2.
I begin by noting the role of the spirit/wind/breath of God in Gen. 1:2. This creational image suggests that which has an ever-changing velocity and direction while working with already existing matter. The images of Gen 1:2 bring God, raw material, and movement together and signal a dynamic rather than a static sense to creation, an open process rather than one tightly controlled. This theme continues in Genesis 2, where God assumes human form and shapes the ground into a human being, getting dirt under the divine fingernails. Human beings are created out of an already existent creature.
In addition, the testimony of Genesis 1 to the goodness of all forms of material reality is undergirded in Genesis 2 with respect to God’s tangible and tactile engagement with creatures. Not only are finite, material realities capable of being “handled” by God (Ps 8:3; 99:5) without compromising God’s Godness, they are capable of actually bearing God bodily in the life of the world, as God takes on human form and wears this very creation (see Gen 3:8). Already in Genesis 2-3, God is prone to incarnation.
What are the environmental implications of God’s creating in this earthy way? Obviously, God deeply values the material of earthy life for the creational process. If this earthy stuff is of creative value to God, certainly it should be of value to human beings. And, if the God of the creation is one who takes on human form in the creating process, then that is at least an implicit invitation to those creatures that are comparably formed to engage in creative activity in similar ways.
How God responds to the evaluation of “not good” is impressive. Twice, God “brings” other creatures—first the animals, then the woman—before the human being. Twice, God lets the human being determine what is adequate to move the evaluation of the creation from “not good” to “good.” The human being, not God, deems what is “fit for him.” Indeed, how the human being decides will determine whether there will be a next human generation. The human judgment will shape the nature of the next divine decision; indeed it will shape the future of the world.
That the human being does not simply acquiesce to what the Creator God presents is remarkable. God, in turn, accepts the human decision, and goes back to the drawing boards. Without any qualification in the text, whatever the human being called each animal, that was its name (2:19). Divine decisions interact with human decisions in the creation of the world. Creation is process as well as punctiliar act; it is creaturely as well as divine. The act of naming is not a perfunctory utilitarian move, a labeling of the cages of the world zoo. As with God in 1:5-10, naming is a part of the creative process itself, discerning the very nature of intra-creaturely relationships. Human beings are not able to stymie God’s movement into the future in any final way, but God establishes a relationship with them such that their decisions about the creation truly count. God takes the ongoing creational process into account in shaping new directions for the creation.
Remarkably, God’s first move to take care of human aloneness is to create animals. Even if it proves not to be a final decision, God’s move must at least mean that the animals are understood to participate in the community that is needed to meet the issue of human aloneness, which assumes their high value. The ‘adam finally recognizes that the woman will address the stated need. God recognizes the creational import of the human decision, for no additional divine word/act is forthcoming. God lets the man’s exultation over the woman fill the scene; the human word counts for the evaluation that the creation is now “good.” It is left to the narrator to note the rightness of this creative move by drawing the reader into the closeness of the male-female bond.
Three basic purposes are given in Gen 1:28: to be fruitful, to have dominion, and to subdue the earth. The first is not confined to the human being (cf. 1:22 and 1:28), but such procreative capacity is an essential element of what it means to be in the image of God. By being what they were created to be and without a need for divine intervention, they can “naturally” be productive of new life and perpetuate their own kind. God is present in the process (see Ps 139:13), but not in such a way that human decisions and actions do not count or random events cannot wreak havoc (e.g., the randomness of the gene pool). Reproduction is a responsibility that human beings have in order to be the image of God they were created to be (recognized by Eve, Gen 4:1).
Second, human beings are created to “have dominion” over fish, birds, and “every living thing that moves upon the earth.” The language of dominion apparently was drawn from the sphere of ideal conceptions of royal responsibility (see Ezek 34:1-4, where “force” and “harshness” are needed to qualify the verb). The verb should be understood in terms of care-giving, even nurturing, not exploitation. At the same time, to maintain the democratization theme inherent in the image, the focus should be placed on what the king does, not who the king is. Every human being, without distinction of gender, class or societal status, is to relate to nonhuman creatures as God would. If God is imaged as one who, in creating, chooses to share power in relationship, then the way in which the human as image of God exercises dominion is to be shaped by that model.
Third, human beings as image of God are created to “subdue the earth.” The word “subdue” makes clear that the evaluation “good” does not mean that the creation is “perfect,” in the sense of needing no further development or attention or, for that matter, of being unable to fail. While the verb may involve coercive activities in interhuman relationships, no enemies are in view in this pre-sin situation. Moreover, this is the only context in which the verb applies to nonhuman creatures and one should not assume the usage for human activity. More generally, God’s creative activity relative to the earth (e.g., 1:2 with 1:9-10) entails an ordering of the not yet ordered; human continuity with this divine activity suggests a meaning of “subdue” along the lines of “to bring order out of disorder,” drawing the world along to its fullest possible creational potential. Creation is here understood to be, not a static state of affairs, but a dynamic situation in which human activity is crucial for the development of the created order (Gen 2:18-20 is the first such example). That God has entrusted human beings with such God-like responsibility is witness to their having been “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5).
In so understanding the human in God’s image, we see again that God intends from the beginning that the created order not remain just as initially created. God’s creation is built to go somewhere; the potential of becoming is built into the very structure of things. And this is so not just because God does not exhaust the divine creativity in the world’s first week, but because of the creative capacities given to the creatures. God creates a paradise, but this is not a static state of affairs. The creation is not presented as “a finished product,” all wrapped up with a big red bow and handed over to the creatures to preserve as it was originally created. God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments.
In pursuing these tasks, human beings are to reflect the character of God in the life of the world, to be God as God would be to the non-human creatures. Human beings cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of the creation is solely in God’s hands. They are called, not to passivity relative to the earth, but to genuine engagement, the nature of which will have significant implications for the future of the environment.
In pursuing these tasks, human beings are to reflect the character of God in the life of the world, to be God as God would be to the non-human creatures. Human beings cannot rest back and assume that God will take care of everything or that the future of the creation is solely in God’s hands.They are called, not to passivity relative to the earth, but to genuine engagement, the nature of which will have significant implications for the future of the environment.
Questions for Reflection
 Portions of this article have been shaped by Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation ( Nashville : Abingdon, 2005). See this volume for detail and bibliography