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It’s humanity’s job to ‘help Creation flourish in all its beautiful diversity’

Dr. William Brown goes to the psalter to help explain competing accounts of Creation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Calvin Craig via Unsplash

MONTREAT, North Carolina — In the beginning, Dr. William Brown said on Tuesday, God created a dialogue.

“It has everything to do with our place and our role in Creation,” said Brown, Old Testament Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, said during the second installment of his “Dialogue, Dissonance & Debate in the Bible” course at the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship & Music Conference being held this week at Montreat Conference Center.

The first issue addressed in the Bible is humankind’s place in Creation, Brown noted. He asked those in class to stand and hold their breath while he read the first Creation story. Class members could let out their breath once he said the word “let.” It took a while.

“Aren’t you glad I’m a fast reader?” he quipped after everyone had gratefully exhaled.

Brown’s translation of Genesis 1:2 includes God’s breath hovering over the face of the water. “The longer you hold your breath, the greater the urge to let it out,” he said. “It’s God’s breath that drives the unfolding of Creation, every day for six days.”

In verses 26-27 we find “a unique passage for Genesis 1. Only humankind is invested with the image of God, the risk or privilege of exercising dominion,” he said. As for the “let us make humankind in our image,” Brown said the Christian tradition proposes that it’s the Trinity at work. But this writing in Genesis is of course pre-Christian. In the Jewish tradition, Wisdom is at work. In the ancient world, it’s a divine council at work, angels and other divine beings, Brown said.

When God commands plant life to appear, God says to let the Earth produce vegetation. For marine life, God says let the waters produce swarms of living creatures. For land animals, it’s “let the Earth create them.”

“I’d say with who’s involved in ‘let us make humankind in our image,’ why not the Earth and waters as well. They’ve always been involved,” Brown said. “God does not like to work alone. It’s a corporate, collaborative project — not just for humanity, but all life, created in collaboration with other agents. That’s a pretty cool account of Creation — God working with others.”

For the Priestly author of Genesis 1, language about the image of God “includes you and me. We are all made in God’s image. The Priestly author is democratizing the language of the image of God,” Brown said. “I like the image of God working democratically and collaboratively.”

If we’re all bearers of the royal image of God, we’re also to exercise dominion over creatures of God. “How has that worked out so far?” Brown asked. Lynn White, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, wrote a 1967 article for Science magazine called “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” White said it’s “God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”

Dr. William Brown, Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, is leading a class called “Dialogue, Dissonance & Debate in the Bible” at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Brown said he believes “this is correct in the way Genesis 1 has been used for domination and exploitation. It has been received as a license to exploit, a license to kill, for products and luxury and affluence in the world. Some of our Christian siblings believe that if we use up all our resources, we can usher in the second coming. There is such a thing as dominion theology,” Brown added. “I consider that our greatest theological heresy today.”

To rescue the word “dominion,” take a look at Psalm 72, Brown suggested, a psalm he said is a job description for the king. “The king is supposed to care for the poor, champion the needy and crush the oppressor,” he said. “That gives us a whole new twist on Genesis 1. Thanks be to God for Psalm 72! You can’t read texts in isolation — even the Creation texts.”

The creation of Adam

In the original Hebrew, God formed the adam from the dust of the adamah, the earthling from the Earth. Brown then displayed an image of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” Rather than God stretching a finger out to the adam, a more literal approach would have Michelangelo depicting God “breathing into a dirty, soiled body,” Brown said.

Notice the adam is not created a man. The adam is genderless, Brown said, a nonbinary or intersex individual. The binary dynamic comes later, in verse 27.

“Theological dialogue can never be rushed,” Brown told attendees who wondered how it would go if they mentioned this fact back home in their church. “It has to be cultivated.”

Brown contrasted Creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, with Genesis 1 listed first:

Humans are created in God’s image … and in the image of soil.

Human dominion over Creation … and humans serve the soil.

God as king of the cosmos … and God as king of the compost, the divine farmer. In Genesis 2, “God trades the royal scepter for a garden spade,” Brown said.

So, which is it? Are we kings? Servants? Who is God?

Brown said he loves Psalm 8 — “Who are humans that you are mindful of them? … You have given them dominion over the works of your hands” — “but I chafe at the language of dominion. Thanks be to God, there is Psalm 104, the greatest Creation psalm in the psalter.” John Calvin’s favorite part was verse 15, which thanks God for “wine to gladden the human heart.”

For Calvin, “Creation is not meant to be consumed, but savored and enjoyed,” Brown said, adding Calvin also warned us to “be sure to be moderate in our consumption of wine.”

Brown concluded his talk by showing a gif depicting three views of Creation. In one, humanity is at the top of a pyramid. The second has us in a line of many species. The third shows all the creatures in a circle, which made Brown think of Psalm 148, where “the call goes out for all Creation to give praise,” Brown said.

It’s humanity’s role to integrate the dominion model, the servant model and Psalm 104. “Creation has to be flourishing to give praise to God, and humans have to enable Creation to flourish,” he said. “It’s a journey that ends with an ecology of praise. We have a distinctive role in Creation. We have to help Creation to flourish in all its beautiful diversity.”

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