“In the beginning …” Those weighty words begin the Hebrew Bible. Too often the story of creation has been flattened out to become a simple account of how God created the world, but there is much more to say about the first episodes of the true Story of the world. This article explores what it meant for God to pronounce his world “good” and what that means for us today.
Focusing on a couple of key words in the first chapter of the Story will help to give this article direction. First, the word “good” (Heb. tov) may indicate moral goodness (in contrast to evil). Here, however, it indicates flourishing or, as it is sometimes translated, “prosperity” (Deu. 23:6; 1 Ki. 10:7; Job 36:11; Ecc. 7:14; Zec. 1:17). A helpful way to think about “goodness” is in the way that George MacDonald explains it: ” ‘They are good’; that is, ‘They are what I mean.’ ” 1 Whenever a thing is as God intends it to be then it is “good.”
Second, the word “blessed” (Heb. barak), among other things, means to wish or to cause flourishing/prosperity. For example, “The LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you. The LORD will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings” (Deu. 28:11, 12 italics mine). To bless something is to bring about its good, its life, its flourishing. Notice the parallels between life, prosperity, and blessing:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity [Heb. tov] … I have set before you life and … blessings [Heb. barakah]” (Deu. 30:15, 19).
Now to get to the Story. When God creates his world the chorus of the creation song is “It is good” (mentioned 6 times: 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) ending with the grand climax “It is very good” (1:31). This means that initially all of creation was good, i.e. as God intended it to be. It was ripe for flourishing. And God intended it to continue to flourish. The only two times “blessed” appears in the chapter it is followed by the command to flourish: “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth’ … God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth …'” (1:22, 28, italics mine). God’s intention for all of creation was life, not death. Man did not eat the animals and even the animals did not eat one another (1:29, 30; cf. 3:22; 9:2, 3). Death, corruption, and all things which “taste” of death, oppression, injustice, dishonesty, etc. do not belong in God’s good world.
Sadly, this Story takes a horrible turn. After the primal pair turn away from God (the very source of life/flourishing) they welcome death, not life, into the world (3:19; cf. chp. 5). They bring a curse, not blessing, upon creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:17, 18).
But the goodness of God was not undone, only infected. Much like a person with a terminal disease is not dead but has the “sentence of death” in him, a kind of “creeping death” which will eventually claim his life. Much good remains, but that good is now stained.
If we were to stop here and predict how the rest of the Story would play out we could probably guess. Like any good Story what has gone wrong will now be put right. Like Narnia waited for the eternal winter of the White Witch to be lifted, so creation now awaits its redemption (Rom. 8). Death will pass away and all that takes part in death (Rev. 21:4). That is exactly what we find. God moves from Genesis 3 onward to reverse the curse.
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6-9).
Death disappears. The curse of our body is gone. And when the curse of the body, which is made from the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7; 3:19), is undone so shall the curse of the earth itself be undone.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 55:10-13)
So, God never gives up on his original intention for creation. He wants it to live and flourish. Through the agency of his people Israel, culminating in the representative Israelite, and human being, Jesus Christ, God won the victory over all that would corrupt his good world (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 57). In the end God will purify his world from all that is bad bringing about a New Heaven and a New Earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-13). God wins and fixes what went wrong. All that was lost in the beginning is restored in the end:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:1-5, italics mine). This is the vision about which Isaac Watts sang in his beautiful hymn:
“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found”4
So what does this have to do with being human? That will be explored in more detail in Part 2 of this article but I want to point forward for just a moment. There are two important things to draw from this:
1. The Story is not “our” Story. The Story of the Bible is about the mission of God in the world.2 This means God is the Lord, not us. He is the focus of the Story, not us. He is the Savior, not us. Therefore, to be human is to be an actor in a Story which is not our own but which we are invited into. We are granted a place in an amazing work, the greatest Story every told. To have a role in this great drama3 is an honor indeed.
2. Creation matters. God cares so intensely about all he created that he does not intend to give a single bit of it up to the enemy. All will be redeemed. Every thing is precious. Every “rock and tree and creature.” We are created beings intended to care for created things (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). We can have confidence that the things we care about will not be forgotten because God cares about them too.
This is the Story we live in. This is what it means to be simply human.
©M. Benfield 2016
1. “George MacDonald: An Anthology“, C.S. Lewis. 251.↩
2. “The Mission of God“, Christopher Wright.↩
3. “The Drama of Scripture“, Craig G. Bartholomew, Michael W. Goheen.↩
4. “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts.↩