Dr. William Brown goes to the psalter to help explain competing accounts of Creation
August 10, 2023
In the beginning, Dr. William Brown said recently, 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 Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference held at Montreat Conference Center.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service, Communications, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Dr. William Brown, speaking at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Alonzo Johnson, Coordinator, Self-Development of People, Compassion, Peace & Justice, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Carlton Johnson, Associate Director, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Let us pray
Lord our God, we thank you for calling us to be your people. We pray that we may in gratitude extend your love to the many who still need your touch. We ask that you will reveal your will for us daily and grant us the grace to yield to the prompting of your Spirit and to walk in your will. Amen.