This is a hard ask. We are separated from those early Hebrew people by some 3,500 years. We have little knowledge of those days, except from the scriptures, from archaeology, or from surviving writings of other civilizations of that era. We today come from cultures that are, in many ways, different. We may think in many different ways. Our literary traditions and styles of writing today are also often different. How can we put ourselves in the shoes of those early Hebrew people to see how they thought about the Genesis narrative?
Western culture views the scripture in a linear fashion. Our theology is in straight lines and scientific categories, whereas, contrary to this, God presents himself in history with mysteries, through a style of text that appeals to our imagination, talking of a new world, and of transforming us and our communities inwardly. This imagination is crucial to God’s purpose in us, enabling us to wake from our sleep and grasp a vision of a new, different kingdom and the possibilities for living it out in our present societies. Hebrew text wasn’t written in a linear way. It is telling a story from the past to the future, but it does so in a poetic style. It is this poetry that speaks, in the Hebrew mind, of themes which are often missed by our present day cultures.
A common factor in Hebrew poetic style is repetition. This can be seen in its simplest form in the Proverbs. A statement is made in one sentence and then repeated in different words in the next sentence for impact. There is a circular movement in the writing. This circular movement is seen in the broader scriptural message as well. God moves from creation in Genesis 1 & 2 to a creation of a new people/nation in Deuteronomy. That is, the Pentateuch ends as it started, with creation. And in Deut 30:6 God speaks of yet another new creation in the New Covenant. And the Bible as a whole, from Genesis to Revelation, starts as it ends, with a new world, with heaven and earth conjoined, with God fully present with his creation. The circular movement shows how God wants us to interpret his word and gospel message.
The poetic structure of Hebrew writing reveals much of God’s underlying message. The whole Bible is written in this way, from Genesis, to the Gospels, to the New Testament epistles, to the book of Revelation. First, there is a background painting (setting), which is the story of creation and Exodus, the story of the call and history of Israel, from creation to new creation. This setting is in the minds of the authors and Hebrew people who receive the message from God. The message they receive from God is written over the top of this background painting in their minds. Often, in Western theology, we are only interested in the text as a series of propositional statements. We fail to see the poetic imagination in the text, because we are viewing it from a different cultural base.
Discipleship then often becomes a call to sign on to a series of propositional statements to be “correct” or in line with God and with those of our group, rather than a call to new creation lifestyle. The result of seeing the narrative as intended is that we now build bridges rather than walls.
Over the years Western theology has thrown out this background setting to the text. New church fathers came from a Greek background. In the new empire context of the church, since Constantine’s time, Jewish people were seen as the enemy. The letters of Paul took on a whole new dimension. Instead of Paul’s letters being a critique of the division in the church, where he was calling circumcised and uncircumcised together at one table in Christ, they were read as an intolerance to the circumcised (Jewish people) as a whole, not just to the divisive “party of the circumcision”. Theology became almost entirely Greek, or Western. Jesus was seen more as a new sudden revelation from heaven to start a whole new history and gospel, rather than as a direct fulfilment of Hebrew and Jewish hope. The Old Testament became merely a source of proof-texting for the divinity of Christ, while we applied an entirely new meaning to Jesus’ coming and purpose. Our harsh treatment of the Jewish people since then has been a legacy of our new way of interpreting the scripture.
Genesis 1 & 2 speak symbolically of God bringing order out of chaos. Light is separated from darkness. This means, symbolically, that good is separated from evil. The land is also separated from the sea. Sea and foaming rivers, in the Old Testament, often symbolise the torrential character of human nature, and the nations’ oppressive armies, as opposed to the still, peaceful waters of Siloam (Isaiah 7:18, 8:6-7). The circular motion of scripture is seen from cover to cover when, in Revelation 21 & 22, the scriptures end by saying there is no sea. This is symbolic for the healing of the world, of its cultures and of humanity in Christ.
Please note that, in observing this, we are not saying Genesis isn’t historical text. It is. God reveals himself in actual and real history. The Bible is historically reliable. But the Bible is also more than that. In the Hebrew mind the scriptures record historical events revealed in redemptive narrative. Through God’s acts in history, he is revealing his redemptive mind and plan for the creation he loves, nurtures and redeems. God’s eternal plan shines through in rich Hebrew literary styles.
When Israel crossed over the Red Sea, God was speaking to them in every book of their Pentateuch. He was saying to them that he was separating them form their disorder and chaos, from the bondage in slavery. He was freeing them from their oppression under Pharaoh. He was also calling them to holiness, separating them from the idolatry of Egypt and of the other gentile nations. They were to be separate in their hearts and actions from idolatry, but not superior or distant from others. They were to be holy and to serve.
God made mankind in his image, male and female. And he put them in a Garden. He gave them a commission to the nations. They were to subdue the world and have dominion over it. Adam and Eve were God’s priesthood. To be made in God’s image meant they were to reflect that image into the world. They were like mirrors, called to reflect God’s character and caring nature throughout his creation, and, by doing so, keep creation in wholeness (shalom), rather than abusing it in greed. As a priesthood, they were also to reflect back to God the praises of creation, through the graces and goodness their communities were to experience daily. This was also the call to Israel. Israel was called a nation of priests. Their calling wasn’t for themselves, but for others. They were called to serve and bless the nations.
As stated, God gave Adam and Eve dominion, but this dominion wasn’t understood by our fallen human cultures until Christ came. We have taken it selfishly, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden when tempted. However, in Christ, we see the true nature of this dominion. It is shown to us in Phil 2:5-11 in Paul’s epistle. Christ humbled himself to serve the world. He became obedient. He gave up his rights in order to help others. Therefore, God gave Christ dominion over all, so that at his name – to this type of serving character and life – all things will be renewed and restored. This example is our commission today, and how the church is to go about its work in the world.
God also gave Israel a garden, called the Promised Land. In that land he placed his tabernacle and presence. As he walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, God would now once again walk with his people. Once banished from the Garden, God’s people were now returned from exile to their land and to the presence of God. Their land was a temple of the Lord, just as Adam and Eve’s Garden in the first creation. And the purpose of these temples was to bless the earth.
After working for six days, it was said that God rested. In the language of that time, this means that God entered into his creation for communion and as a place to dwell with his people, to experience the joy of life and to work together. To rest means to take up residence and to reign, to spread your benevolent rule to all inhabitants (see Psalm 132:8, Isaiah 11:10). This is temple language in Genesis 1 & 2. We see God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden. God’s purpose was to dwell with them and, through their agency, bless the world. This temple message in Genesis 1 & 2 is one of the important themes in the creation narrative. It shows us God’s purpose for the temple theme right through the scriptures: to fill the earth with his glory and blessing (see Isaiah 6:1-4). The temple is where heaven and earth join and through which God’s kingdom comes to earth.
The temple theme is then duplicated with Israel in Canaan, but only finds its fulfilment in the body of Christ. The fullness of the godhead dwells (tabernacles) in Jesus and his coming to earth was the coming of God’s reign and kingdom to this world. Today, God’s temple on earth continues to be Christ’s body, the church. We see here the purpose of the gospel, not to take us to heaven, but to unite heaven and earth for new creation and renewal, changing our homes, communities and nations. This temple fulfilment which transforms all nations on earth is the theme of the end of the book of Revelation. The purpose of the gospel is to join heaven and earth together, not discard the earth. Our eternal destiny is a united heaven and earth.
We see here what the opening of Genesis means. Ancient civilizations often depicted their gods taking rest in their temple after their god’s enemies had been vanquished and they had brought order to the world. This is a corruption of the Genesis account, reflecting the violent lives of these kings, but it does reflect upon the temple narrative in Genesis. After God brings order to his creation, he settles into rest with Adam and Eve in a temple narrative. God’s presence “walks up and down” in the garden, depicted by the same Hebrew word for his presence with Israel in their tabernacle.
Adam and Eve are told to “serve and keep” the Garden. These two words used together in the Old Testament always refer to the priest’s work in the temple. The next verse in Genesis 2 is the Torah, or commandment, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the same order we see when God commands Israel. The priests are to “serve and keep” the temple, and then the commandments which they are to keep are given. The priests are to be gatekeepers, keeping the unclean out of the temple area, and watching over the Torah. Adam was to keep the serpent out and watch over the commandment God gave him.
A river issued out of Eden, and a river also issued out of Ezekiel’s temple and from the New Jerusalem in Revelation. Ezekiel describes Eden as a temple, and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) says the fallen creature who served in the temple of Eden in Ezekiel 28 is Adam, who is compared to the fall of the men of Tyre. The precious stones represent the priest’s tunic, showing Adam’s call. Likewise, God’s commission to Adam and Eve, to spread, to be fruitful and multiply, to reign, is repeated several times throughout Genesis, always in the context of a tabernacle which anticipates God’s temple (e.g. the most significant ones being Moriah and Bethel: Gen 22:15-18, 28: 13-15), showing both that Eden was a temple, and that God’s eschatological temple, by which his blessing fills the nations, is Christ’s body, which fills the earth and so “fills all things” (Eph 1:23), the goal of creation thus being fulfilled.
Throughout the biblical narrative the temple is tied to the commission of Adam and Eve, and then Israel, to rule and to the extension of God’s blessing through the world. The king/priest vocations were united in Adam and Eve, and are again in Christ and his church. The ancient pagan kings corrupted this biblical view, showing the purpose of their temples was to extend their oppressive, violent rule over others. The pagans carried on temple themes from the creation, the gods placing their image in their temples, like God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden to represent his rule. How can such clear Old Testament views, which existed throughout the Hebrew and other civilizations, be aborted by a Greek view of the gospel that God’s main interest is taking us to a spiritualised heaven, rather than the redeeming and reconciling of his whole creation?
There is much more to say about the view of Genesis from the perspective of ancient culture, within and outside Hebrew civilizations, but for our purposes here it shows us two things. The temple represents the cosmos, the heavens and earth which God is filling and blessing. Its shows us the consistent view of God in the scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, on his purpose in the gospel: that his personal presence will fill the earth. This also shows us the purpose of the church, to be God’s Adam in the world, reflecting his nature and blessing to the nations. The temple narrative in Genesis 1 & 2 shows what God is saying to us through the opening of our scripture.
The surprise for the Jewish people in Jesus’s day, and for us today, is what it means to watch over the commission of faithful stewardship God has given us, what it means to keep the unclean out, and to keep God’s Torah. It’s keeping uncleanness out of our own hearts, not embracing the message of self, violence and greed spread by the serpent, and the Torah we keep is that of loving sinners rather than separating from them in judgement. This is what we see in the Priest who fulfilled God’s commission: Jesus Christ.
The Pentateuch ends the way it started. God’s second creation, Israel, enters their land with God to reflect his image to the world. Israel is God’s new creation, his second Adam with whom God dwells. This is why Christ is called the Second Adam. He comes from Israel and fulfils their call to serve and heal the world. All who are in Christ are in God’s new-creation humanity/temple. Israel would have been very well aware of the parallels between Adam and Eve and their own calling when they read Genesis 1 & 2 and this would have given them enlightened understating of God’s purpose for them in the world. So when we read Genesis 1 & 2 today we see the same parallels between it and God’s call and purpose for us in the world through the gospel. This is the gospel message.
Note the gospel in these passages. God isn’t forming Adam, or saving Israel to take them to heaven while he destroys his beloved creation. Rather, it is about a God who, through love, is committed to his creation, who doesn’t cast it off because it disappoints him, and who calls his children to work with him in renewing his whole creation. This was the call for both Adam and for Israel, and it is also our calling in the gospel. As well as this, we are called to reflect this nature in how we deal with other people, with the same patience, personal sacrifice and forgivingness that God shows us. How we see God is how we treat others. If we see God casting off a world that has disappointed him we will do that to others. But if we see him committed unto blood to love them, we will reflect that also.
All of this is the gospel message we see in Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. It’s the Hebrew Gospel of wholeness for his entire creation. This isn’t universalism. It isn’t saying everyone will be saved. It is saying that God is sticking with his original project until it comes to pass: until the whole earth is covered with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.
And so the poetic circle of the Pentateuch that reveals the gospel message begins in Genesis 1 & 2 and ends in Deut 30 with Israel in their “garden” reflecting God to heal the world. However, we see yet a second poetic fulfilment spoken of here. The Pentateuch ended in Deuteronomy by pointing Israel to their future, to yet another circular fulfilment when the gospel would come to Israel. This is the gospel we are living in today (Deut 30:6). Moses said God would bring Israel back from their captivity in Babylon and circumcise their heart and bless their land. After their return from Babylon Christ came to them as promised and initiated the beginning of God’s final new creation. He did this through Christ’s death and resurrection. On the cross Christ was banished from the land and presence, “outside the camp.” He bore our exile. God, in Christ as a man, tasted our forsakenness and, taking on death, defeated it. In the resurrection, we are all returned to the favour of God.
Therefore, from Deut 30 we see a clear poetic connection between Genesis 1 & 2, the Exodus of Israel, and the calling of the church. This connection is unmistakable to the Hebrew mind. “And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deut 30:5-6) God, in Christ, brings us back into a land with a temple, and, through his presence in our hearts by the New Covenant, he renews our world. This is both his final creation and the fulfilment of his plan. It includes all Israel who believe and all who are grafted in by faith, so that we too are Israel, and the land is the whole world (Rom 4:13, 8:19-26, Rev 21-22). God’s promises are about his presence with his people in a good land. His promises are about land – this earth – not about going to heaven. These promises can only be fulfilled through a circumcised heart, which he brings about in us through the Messiah.
God’s promises are not fulfilled through political or military coercion against other people, but through Torah in our hearts towards our neighbour. This is the content of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus taught in the Gospels about how God’s Promised Land comes to pass through the way our new heart is lived out in our communities and amongst our enemies. It is in this way that God’s promises are fulfilled in the world through the gospel renewing our inner lives and then our neighbourhoods.
God’s creation and people are healed in Christ, as it is at the end of the book of Revelation. The Pentateuch is a five volume book on the redemptive plan of God for the world, a plan fulfilled in his Messiah. The plan is described in history and in poetic form, moving us from Adam, to Israel, to Christ. As we begin this journey with Adam in Genesis 1 & 2, we see why God has come to us in the gospel. This shows us God’s plan for his church today. It isn’t simply individual salvation. It is service to our communities and to our world, partnering with God in his self-giving love to restore his people and the whole earth.
A note on postmillennialism: From my little understanding of postmillennialism (I have never studied it), it seems it is associated with triumphalism and the “cultural mandate.” Triumphalism is when we believe we have a commission from God to rule over others. This can be national, religious, or racial triumphalism. It can lead to “the end justifies the means” rational, where people are excused from doing what is right, because of their special calling for the “greater good.”
As far as I understand the “cultural mandate” ideology, it considers that Adam and Eve’s mandate to rule the nations is fulfilled through enforcing principles from the Law of Moses upon society today: an enforcement of Christian views upon others. This was the practice of the Pharisees. If postmillennialism is understood this way, I believe it is completely detached from the kingdom that the Prophets spoke of and which Jesus portrayed in his own life. Today, it seems, that Conservatism tries to elect a president who will implement a “cultural mandate”, or in the case of dispensationalism (premillennialism), a president who will attack “God’s enemies” to usher in the Second Coming, the way the Zealots of Jesus’ day tried to usher in the Kingdom.