Mark 10:35-37, 41-45
Genesis 1:26-28, 31
Genesis 2:4-8, 15
We have this children’s story book at home that drives me a little crazy. I know it’s my own problem and very few people would have this issue, but, well, studying a little too much Genesis will do this to you. I find the pictures BEAUTIFUL and the rhyming verses telling the creation story are well-written. The kids have loved it over the years, so I guess I should just be happy about that and move on. But I can’t. Every time someone picks it out I sort of cringe inside.
You see as this book moves through the days of creation according to Genesis 1, when it gets to day 6 it all starts to fall apart.
“Then God got creative, with camels and cats,
Zebras and weasels and beavers and bats,
Puppies and ponies and rabbits and rats.
But God wasn’t finished, you know
Day Six had a long way to go.
Next, Father and Son, with a plan they discussed,
Created, a man out of nothing but dust.
They called the man “Adam” and asked for his trust.
God told him to name every pet.
Still God wasn’t finished just yet.”
That was it! Did you hear it? No? That’s what drives me crazy! I told you no one else would care! Did you even notice?
That second half of Day Six seems so innocent. It’s something we do all the time. The story of Jesus birth gets told the same way. We take a little of Luke, sprinkle in a little Matthew. It’s all OK, in the name of telling the complete story (and making sure every kid gets a part in the Christmas pageant). But here in the story of creation in Genesis it seems different. To me anyway, it seems more wrong, because in the Scriptures we don’t have just one story of creation. We have two, and really, they don’t exactly tell the same story. The actual order of creation is slightly different in Genesis 1 and 2, not just the level of detail, as is the focus of each story.
Some people think these differences are something to hide or try to fix, but to me that doesn’t seem necessary. I don’t look at the Bible as a science book, or even always as a history book in the conventional sense. I look at the Bible as a book of faith. It’s a book full of the stories, poems, prayers, teachings, laws, preachings of the people of God, written down to share their understanding of God and, with the Holy Spirit God’s understanding of us.
The fact that we have two different stories of creation is not something I have felt the need to hide or correct by mixing the two together. I have never felt the urge to squish the creation of Adam and Eve into the numbered, ordered days of creation (AFTER the animals, which Genesis 2 tells us were created AFTER Adam). We have two different accounts of how the world began, and both of them communicate God’s Word to us. Both of them speak to the human participation in the created order and our special call from God relating to it.
Let’s look first at the account in Genesis 1. It is ordered. It is rhythmic. It almost reads on its own like a children’s book -
“And God said,” “Let there be…,” “And it was so.” “And there was evening and there was morning; the first day.” It is ordered. The ordering of creation, the placement of light here and dark there, the sun here and the moon there, water here and water there, dry land here and wet oceans there, the ordering of chaos is told in an ordered way. The message is there to receive in more than one way. Chaos is calmed by God. Creation, the origin of life, is a story of obedience to God.
We Presbyterians, as theological children of John Calvin, love love LOVE our doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and if it is ANYWHERE it is here in Genesis 1. God is sovereign over all the earth. God’s very WORDS called creation into being out nothing. God’s very WORDS told the chaos where to go, and chaos listened. In Genesis 1 God didn’t even need hands to mold the world together, to piece together the birds of the air and the cattle of the ground, but the command of God, the breath of God, the Word of God was all that needed to be spoken, and the world and all that is in it came into being.
This is God of power! This is God of life! This is God who creates all and rules over all, bringing life where there was none before, bringing order where there was chaos.
It is at the end of this creation account that God creates the human species, not as an afterthought, but maybe as a capstone. The scenery has all been set in the divine drama. The mountains constructed, the fields painted, the oceans set in rolling motion. The animals are creeping and slithering, splashing and fluttering, gliding and sliding through the elements of earth, air, and water, so now it is time to put a fine point on it.
God creates humankind, creates them in God’s image. God creates them and gives them a charge unlike any other element of creation received, “Let them have dominion…. Fill the earth and subdue it.” Sure other organisms were told “Be fruitful and multiply.” Others were blessed as they were called good in the eyes of the Creating God.” But no others were given this charge in the created order. “Have dominion and subdue.”
Unfortunately, misunderstandings and, I believe, arrogance, has caused us humans to use this charge in all sorts of harmful ways. We have interpreted it as a right, not a responsibility. Citing these verses as excuses or permission, human beings have taken advantage of creation, plundering resources, abusing land, decimating populations of other created organisms. We have “claimed our rights” to rule over the rest of the created order, to dominate it, to subdue it, control it, to greedily take what we want even beyond what we need from it without regard for the needs of other creatures or the inanimate creation itself. Historically, these verses have even been used sinfully by certain “faithful” populations to arrogantly assert themselves over so-called savage, or less-human indigenous people on this and other continents.
And, we have done all of this without paying attention to the delicate balance of creation, without honoring and supporting the careful order with which God spoke it all into being. Is this really what God meant when we were given dominion? Is this really what God intended when we were called to subdue?
I can’t imagine it is. God has dominion, and this doesn’t happen. God subdued chaos and instead of death, life came into being. As members of this human family we have been blessed with a special place in creation. The call to dominion and the responsibility to subdue is not given lightly. These are powerful words in Scripture. In Psalm 72, where a king has “dominon” his "foes bow down before him and his enemies lick the dust.” And in Joshua, subduing the land means to conquer it. When God gave humankind dominion to rule and the call to subdue, God gave us GREAT power…and in this account of creation, seemingly little direction of how or when to use it.
Which is exactly why I like having two creation accounts. They are different, yet their differences inform each other – not, I don’t think, so that they can be squished together to make one seamless story, but so that they can be held next to each other, read together, and given a chance to speak to each other and together to us.
Genesis 2 has a different feel to it all together. For all the cosmic power and supernatural energy in Genesis 1, Genesis 2 has personal attention. A man is formed by the hands of God out of the dust of the earth. God’s breath is breathed into the man’s nostrils. He is placed in the middle of a luscious garden where every tree was made to grow by God’s will, where rivers flow with water abundant, beautiful and precious metals and stones adorn the land around. Animals are created one by one, each as a gift to the man, formed carefully with God’s hopes and understanding of what the man will need in mind. The woman is lovingly and delicately brought from the man’s flesh and bones, a perfect partner for life in Eden’s garden.
When compared to Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 the human beings receive a very different charge relating to the rest of creation. The man and his partner are placed in the verdant garden in order to till it and keep it, to serve and preserve it. The charge, the responsibility here is one of great care and protection. It is, in the words of United Nations’ definition of sustainability, the responsibility “to improve the living conditions of the present generation [in a way] that does not compromise the ability of future generations.” The man and, by extension, the woman created as his working partner, are given the job of tilling the garden, of tending it, encouraging it, using its resources for their well-being and their pleasure, but they are also given the job of keeping it, preserving it, making sure that it lives on, grows on, exists and flourishes in abundance as God created it for the generations that will continue to come.
The power and might of Genesis 1 are tempered with the tenderness and care of Genesis 2. Humankind, we have seen, as been given the ability to make dramatic changes to the creation around us. God GAVE us that ability. God blessed us and called us to use our lives to lead creation, even to join God in changing creation with power to rule with God within it.
Through dominion and subduing, yes, but tilling and keeping, too. Working the land, cultivating the plants that feed humans and animals, nurturing the gardens planted by the will of God. Helping things grow and bloom and thrive on the land and seas that God molded with hands and love, the love only an artist can feel for her beloved creation. Keeping the land, protecting it, guarding it, preserving and conserving it, that it may be a blessing to us, generations beyond us, and all that shares this earth with us. These are our calls; these are our responsibilities as humanity created in the image of God, for the purposes of God in relationship with the rest of creation.
We heard these paradoxical calls echoed in the gospel lesson this morning. Jesus and his disciples were making their way to Jerusalem, on their way there to where Jesus would be arrest, tried, and executed. Realizing their time with Jesus was likely growing short, James and John, seized the opportunity to make their wishes known. Like children dividing their parents’ estate while mom and dad are still walking around, they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand, in glory.”
Understandably, the request began an argument among the disciples, one Jesus subdued with this, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Humanity has been created for greatness. We, along with all of creation, were called good, no VERY good, when God saw fit to create the world out of chaotic nothing. We have been created with God-blessed and God-given power to rule and subdue. The things we do on earth can change what happens here. But they can change it for good, or they can change it for worse.
Taking our cue from Jesus, may we learn to rule through our service. May we learn to have dominion through our acts of preservation. May we learn to subdue, but submitting ourselves to the discipline of sacrificial care.
It is the way of Jesus, the Word who was spoken at creation. It is the way of Jesus, the one who rules and saves by giving up his life.