I have undertaken a bit of reading around the book of Genesis these days, or mainly the early chapters of Genesis. The current popular discussions on early Genesis has created a whole hubbub of tension and debate amongst evangelical Christians of all types. And there is no doubt these opening chapters are important as an introduction to the biblical revelation of our God. If you want to understand any story, you need to start at the ‘once upon a time’, or ‘in the beginning’. And that’s just what Genesis provides.
In a lot of discussion around Genesis 1, a particular view has been brought forth surrounding the idea that this particular chapter describes the Hebrew God, Yahweh, as building his special temple. Some would advance this notion because of its somewhat parallel approach with other origins accounts of the ancient near eastern world where other peoples similarly described their god or gods building a temple. And, so, as God looked to make himself known to his people within such an ancient context, he accommodated, or utilised a particular method of the day, in communicating his revelation about the primal beginnings of the creation. As God always does, he ‘comes down’ into a particular contextual situation (see Ex 3:8)
One person who has championed this view has been Wheaton College professor of Old Testament, John Walton. You’ll find more in his book The Lost World of Genesis One. I’ve not read the book yet, but I am aware that he posits some kind of argument as described above. Others have also done so, including another Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns.
An uproar has been caused because of these suggestions, with some even suggesting that the Scripture, or even the gospel itself, can stand or fall on whether certain things are understood ‘literally’, i.e. that there has to have been a literal-historical couple named Adam and Eve, that there has to have been a literal-historical “fall” as exactly described in Genesis 3, and so on.
Now I do believe some of this could fall in the category of over-reaction, letting the fear and uncomfortability over the challenging of certain systems of theology direct us forward rather than truly trying to understand what is coming forward from people like Walton or Enns. But let’s just say that Walton and Enns (and others like Kenton Sparks) are absolutely wrong on much of what they have to suggest about the early chapters of Genesis. Let’s say that all events described in Genesis chapters 1-3, or 1-11 for that matter, are actual literal history. I would still say that the concept of God building a temple in Genesis 1 is an extremely Hebrew-Jewish, and thus biblical, concept that would be good for us all to agree on.
Why would I suggest such?
Think about God’s original intention, his original purpose as from the beginning. What is going on there? Here we have Yahweh creating all things, all things good. And he ends by creating humanity, male and female, in his image and they were to be his good representatives in his good earth. They were to walk in the blessing of God as they were fruitful, increased in number, filled the earth and subdued it on his behalf. This is what the first Great Commission is all about in Gen 1:28, which I would suggest Jesus merely restates in Matt 28:18-20.
God has built a temple in 6 days, and then he takes up residence in that temple and rests on the great 7th day. And now his priests, Adam and Eve, are to continue his work and his mandate, caring for the good earth, the good temple that God has created and given to them as a gift.
I believe this is exactly what is going on in Genesis 1. But let me also give you some other passages to think about, a couple from the book of Acts:
48 “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’ (Acts 7:48-50)
Stephen is actually quoting here from Isa 66:1-2. Heaven is Yahweh’s throne; earth is Yahweh’s footstool. So what kind of house, what kind of temple, are we really going to build for him? One made of brick and stone? Or where will he rest? He made the temple in the beginning and he desires to take up his rest right inside his own ‘hand-built’ temple. It’s his desire to dwell in it with his good glory (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14).
Later on, Paul tells the Harvard and Cambridge philosophers of his day:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. (Acts 17:24)
Are we getting a taste of God’s great purpose and intention for all heaven and earth, the whole cosmic temple that he built? It kind of reminds us of the psalmist’s well-known words:
The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it. (Ps 24:1)
Whatever is in the temple belongs to the Lord. Just as when the Hebrews built the tabernacle, all things were to be holy, or set apart, to the Lord. No sacred/secular split. It all belongs to Yahweh. So in this grander abode of the Creator.
This was God’s intention from the beginning when he, and he alone, built his temple. And this is God’s intention continuing in his redemptive work in Christ, as John the revelator tells us at the end of his prophetic visions and words:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)
It is a new heaven and new earth, meaning a complete restoration of the temple that had once been defiled. And no more death, crying or pain will exist in this temple (vs4), for he, Christ, will make everything new (vs5). A united people, a united city. And, even greater, we find that our God and the Lamb become the great temple within the temple (Rev 21:22).
So whether we get too entangled with the in’s and out’s of Genesis 1 and the other origins’ chapters, which are important, I think it would do us well to recognise common ground amongst all sides that God was actually building a temple ‘in the beginning’. This was to be his abode, his dwelling, and his priests were to carry on his work in his temple. We messed up miserably – our primal parents and ourselves. But a great priestly king entered history as the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and he was the faithful one on behalf of all those in Adam. He was the faithful one to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Jesus, God’s anointed, has made it possible for the restoration of God’s good temple.