God and Grammar

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 27th, 2013

This afternoon in class, we’ll spend an hour and fifteen minutes talking about Genesis 1 and 2. It is to my advantage that Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I could go for hours today.

It is to my distinct disadvantage, on the other hand, that this is one of those parts of the Bible that everyone is quite confident they know. Familiarity can be a liability when it comes to learning. If my students assume they know what I’m going to say before I say it, they are much more likely to tune me out. So my job, as I see it, is to make this familiar story strange enough that they can see it afresh.

One way I’ll do this is by trying to convince them that Genesis 1 and 2 are not ultimately about creation. Creation is the setting but not the subject. The subject is God himself, the Creator. I know this because grammar told me. “God” is the subject of nearly all the verbs in Genesis 1 especially:

“In the beginning God created”

“And God saw”

“Then God said”

“Then God rested”

A previous generation of Christians misinterpreted Genesis 1, especially, by insisting that it is a scientific explanation of the origin of the world. That the primary purpose of the chapter is to silence Darwin and his kin by undermining modern evolutionary theories about where we come from. This isn’t entirely wrong; the author of Genesis absolutely wants us to know that the earth exists and people inhabit it because God chose freely to create all things. We are no accident. Nevertheless, too often defenses of the creation account take the focus off God as its subject. People start talking about radiocarbon dating, the definition of yom (the Hebrew word translated “day” in Genesis 1), why 6,000-year-old rocks would look like they were billions of year old. And so on. More often than not, the subject of those conversations is the creation itself.

My generation makes a different but equally dangerous mistake. Many of us are less interested with trying to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts of the beginning than our parents and grandparents were. Instead we talk more about what the creation story means in practical terms. And for many of us that translates into a concern for creation care. We recycle, eat sustainable and local foods, use cloth diapers, bike to work, or whatever because we feel responsible to be good stewards of God’s good creation. Unfortunately, we are just as likely to make creation itself the subject of our conversations: “Creation is good.”

We are right to insist that the earth and everything in it exists by design and not by chance. And we are right to ask, in light of that fact, how we ought to treat the planet. But I hope I can help my students see today that if we set these issues aside for a moment, the grammar tells us God is the subject of the story. The author wants us to be preoccupied with his character and not his creation.


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