The World is Sacred Space

Lake and SkyIn his new book Seriously Dangerous Religion, Iain Provan begins by sketching the vision of the world and of creation that the authors of Genesis portray. This vision is contrasted with that of other religious views (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), with the philosophy and religion of the Greeks, and with the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) religions. Today I will focus on the main points he draws about Genesis.

1. Genesis portrays a world with a beginning. The world is not eternal.

2. The world was created by a person, that is God is spoken of in personal terms.

These are important points that set the image portrayed by Genesis apart from most other views of the world.

It proposes that a personal God created the heavens and the earth. This is only the first of many ways in which, to echo Blaise Pascal’s words in his Mémorial, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of whom Genesis speaks is not the god of the philosophers (insofar as the term “god” is even an appropriate term for the “One”that these philosophers envisage). (p. 26)

3. Creation is ordered. “The book of Genesis explains [this order] in terms of a personal creation; the Creator has produced order.” (p. 27) In Genesis 1 days one to three give shape to the formless and void creation as the darkness is contained, a space for life is created, and the seas are tamed, while days four to six fill the created and shaped space. “The Creator makes things the way they are, providing both the habitations and the inhabitants that make up our world.” (p. 28)

The Queen of the Night represents an Ancient Mesopotamian goddess, perhaps Ishtar or her sister and rival Ereshkigal or the demoness Lilitu. Babylonia ca. 1765-1745 BC (in the British Museum)

The Queen of the Night represents an Ancient Mesopotamian goddess, perhaps Ishtar or her sister and rival Ereshkigal or the demoness Lilitu. Babylonia ca. 1765-1745 BC (in the British Museum)

4. Creation is not divine. God is present in creation, he acts in creation, but creation is separate from God. This is distinctly different from other ANE thinking. According to Provan the ANE gods are seen as products and/or substance of creation. They are part of the world not separate from it. Genesis is different.

Creation is essentially separate from God, who sustains and interacts with it from “outside.” The cosmic phenomena of the heavens and the earth are therefore not manifestations of divine attributes, although they are understood to be instruments of God’s sovereignty. (p. 30)

According to the authors of Genesis the “heavenly bodies are not divine managers of the cosmos, but only creatures of God-and impersonal ones at that.” (p. 31) It is significant that Genesis 1 does not use the usual words for sun and moon, which would have been understood by many in the original audience as also the names of gods in the ANE pantheon. Provan takes this one step further, drawing a contrast with the shape of the ANE understanding of the world.

In general, for the peoples of the ancient Near East, “nature” was entirely personal – the very place where the gods were to be found. That which they perceived to be beyond the world was resolutely impersonal and ultimately irrelevant to their lives. Biblical faith, conversely, sees nature as impersonal, divesting it of the many gods who might be worshipped there. What lies beyond the world, however, is profoundly personal and profoundly relevant to life. (p. 31)

5. Creation is sacred. This is seen in both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. The first chapter presents the world using the metaphor of a temple. The temple in the ANE was not a as much a place for worship as it was a residence of the god. Provan goes into more detail, but his conclusion cuts to the chase.

In Genesis 1:1–2:4, then, we read about the construction of a temple-cosmos. This cosmos is neither merely utilitarian nor solely functional.It is sacred space. (p. 33)

The metaphor of the garden in chapter 2 also describes the world as sacred space. Provan argues that the garden is not intended to portray a place in the world, but rather it represents the whole earth. Because this is likely a novel view for many, Provan walks through his reasons, including the rivers and the trees present in the garden and their parallels in the ancient Near East.

In Genesis 2, then, the whole world is sacred garden space. It is into this space that human beings are placed by God, just as they are placed into the temple-cosmos in Genesis 1. They are located there for a particular purpose: “to work it and take care of it” … From the biblical perspective, then, the work of human beings in God’s world is religious work. We are to look after sacred space—the dwelling place of God—on behalf of the one who created it. (p. 37)

Provan looks at a number of Old Testament passages to understand the significance of the garden – in Ezekiel and Isaiah and Song of Songs. Some of these texts speak of the garden as a recent experience or a possible experience. This is a conundrum if the garden was a place long ago. It is better understood in terms of relationship. Residence in the garden is a state of being in the world. “It is the experience of being in right relationship with God and with creation.” (p. 40)

6. Creation is good. The world that was created by the personal God is not a problem to be overcome, something evil to be subdued. Both Eastern religions and Western philosophies have often viewed the world as a problem to be overcome. Christian thinking has sometimes leaned this way as well. But this is not the view of the Old Testament.

In Hebrew thought, the world is categorically not a problem to be overcome. It is not a mistake. It does not trap human beings in a place where they were never meant to be and in which they do not truly belong. … Its physical, sensual pleasures are not traps set to ensnare the soul. On the contrary, in biblical faith the world is a wonderful place, created in such a way as to be exactly the right place – a good and a beautiful place – for the flourishing of the creatures, personal and otherwise, who have been created by the One who is personal. (p. 45)

The Old Testament perspective on creation is powerful, and distinct from the surrounding cultures. It is also distinct from the views of Eastern and Western philosophies. Provan sees Genesis 1 and 2 as parallel passages casting the same kind of image. In summary, God is personal, relating to the world, but he is not identified with the world. The world is sacred space, a good space, designed for human flourishing. The ancient Near Eastern authors used ancient imagery known to the original audience, but used it consistently to cast a distinctive view of God and his creation.

This isn’t just another ancient story of origins.

Is Eden a place in this world? Does it make sense to view Eden as the whole world?

If so how should this shape our interpretation of the creation narratives in Genesis and elsewhere in the Old Testament?

Is the world still sacred space?

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