As noted in the introduction post to our series on God and Violence, we will be walking through the narrative of Scripture in order to discover God’s heart for creation and how He relates to violence. The most natural place to start is the beginning of that narrative, in Genesis, with the creation of the world. This creation story is the first peek we get into the nature and character of our God, as He calls everything into existence.
In the creation narrative, we learn about 1) the nature of the creative act, 2) the nature of creation itself, 3) the nature of God, and 4) the nature of humanity. These are crucial components in our understanding of the Problem of Violence because it answers some of life’s basic questions: Who are we? Where are we? Who is God? and What is He like? Of course, these few chapters in Genesis do not provide a comprehensive answer to the Problem of Violence, but they do provide a foundation for our look throughout Scripture. The Creation and Fall narratives provide a lens through which we read the rest of the Bible.
At first glance, we know almost immediately that creation was created “good.” Seven times in the first chapter of Genesis God sees and affirms the goodness of creation. It is interwoven with peace and harmonic interrelation. This was the original creation: abundant food, plentiful water, and a profound lack of violence. All was at peace. It is this original order that God is working to restore.
If creation was originally meant to be peaceful and good, it makes sense that God created peacefully and without violence. It seems simple for us, and we take it for granted, but this is a profound statement to make in the ancient context. In the majority of Ancient Near Eastern creation narratives, the god wages war on chaos and violently forces it into order. One of the most prominent and worthy of consideration is the creation account of the Babylonian God, Marduk, in which the chief god (Marduk) slays Tiamat, the personification of chaos) and creates a world from her body. In the Ugarit narrative, Baal battles another personification of chaotic water, defeating them in order to make order of the world. So, it is significant that the Hebrew creation narrative says nothing of conflict between God and the elements, implying that conflict is not implicit in creation, nor in the nature of the Creator God. (The above information is found on page 18 and 19 of Jerome F. D. Creach’s book, Violence in Scripture). Instead of creating out of sheer force, God simply speaks and allows creation to respond in obedience.
Instead, we find a sort of harmony in the interaction between God and His creation, even in the creative act. God creates everything out of nothing, calling into existence all that is separate from Him, and it is immediately obedient to Him, participating in the furthering of creation. God speaks ordinances, and the earth brings forth green plants for Him. And there is no mention of conflict, defeat, or death, only life abounding in the wake of His voice. Where God’s voice resounds, life responds in joyful obedience.
And humanity, being created in God’s Image, bears His reflection. Thus, humanity is endowed with a similar nature as the God who creates a peaceful world abounding with life through peaceful means. Counter to the Babylonians, who believed they represented Marduk in their violent conquest, all human beings bear the image of the Creator God and are made to represent Him in the world. The Babylonians used their creation narrative to legitimate their conquests, which they saw as creating order out of peoples they conquered (Creach 22). In contrast, God’s actions are seen more in line with those of a Master Gardener than those of an Almighty Conqueror. In like manner, men and women were created with the primary function of a gardener, continuing to shape and reshape creation which would–in responsive ease–bear fruit for them to enjoy. Their harmony with the rest of creation was meant to mirror the peaceful dance God enjoyed with all of His works.
So violence is far from the created order, and far from the intent of God. The base identity of all of creation is peace and harmony, not violence. Violence was seen as the opposite of the created order, known only in the warning God gave them about eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Sadly, humanity rebelled, and the just reward for its rebellion was death. As we read, our hearts should break at the fall of humanity as we wait in suspense; it seems the only response to expect is swift, violent justice. To our surprise, we see God bless the rebels! This is God’s first recorded opportunity to engage in justified violence, but He instead chooses patient mercy and abundant grace! Not only do we find God mercifully sparing the immediate penalty of hopeless death, but we also find that God graciously provides clothing for them as well as the hope that He will again set things right (Gen. 3:15).
Still, death enters the world as a result of sin as God slays an animal to clothe Adam and Eve, and for the first time as we know it creation–previously teeming with life–is stained with blood.
It is typical to isolate the Fall narrative to chapter 3 of Genesis, but Jerome Creach does well to point out that “Genesis 4 should perhaps be read as a continuation and completion of the account in Genesis 3”, in that it reveals to us the radical effects of the Fall. In the first recorded act of human violence, brother rises to slay brother. Cain kills Abel in a premeditated act of jealousy. Here our hearts break again, because violence has found its deepest assault in the destruction of the Image of God at the hand of a fellow human being.
It is in this story that we first encounter the word sin, which we find crouching at the door ready to have its way with Cain (Gen. 4:7). In this story, sin is personified as a violent force intent on the destruction of Abel, an Image Bearer. This would lead us to believe that sin is actively at work in the world with the primary desire to destroy and kill.
But how does God respond to this act of violence? Is it with His own justified act of violence? No. Instead, God again acts in grace and mercy, working to limit the spread of violence not only by sparing Cain’s life but also marking Cain to protect him from violent attempts on his own life (Gen. 4:15). Again, in this, the second time we would expect to see divine judgment, God prefers patient mercy to swift justice. This is profound; when we expect God to judge humans in just anger, He instead chooses just mercy and love.
So, what do we learn in following God from the creation account to the Cain and Abel narrative?
- God is by nature peaceful, and creates through peaceful interaction.
- Creation’s base identity is peaceful and harmonic.
- Humanities primary role is to bear the Image of God as a peaceful gardener.
- Violence is seen as the problem–the intruder–threatening God’s good creation with destruction and death.
- The intent of God is life and peace, while the intent of sin is death and destruction.and finally,
- God, when presented with the the options of merciful grace and justified penalty, prefers peace. In fact, God not only spares the guilty but blesses His rebellious creation in spite of their sin. This is not an incident of God ignoring justice, but in His goodness passing over the sin in an equally justified manner of mercy.
This study has yet to be completed. We have not asserted anything about the Christian ethic in regards to violence, but what we can all agree on is that God’s heart has a strong propensity toward peace, grace, and mercy, even when given the option to deal out justified violence in response to sin.
This is our foundation, not our building. Moving forward, everything must be read through the lens set before in the opening pages of Scripture.