Reading Genesis 1 brings back memories of listening to and occasionally joining in discussions about the origins of the universe. Is the earth 6,000 years old or 6 billion? Are the “days” of Genesis 1 literal, 24-hour spans of time, or are they simply a literary device meant to hold the story together? The opening lines of the Bible have been dissected with scientific rigor and made to support one argument or the other.
But you can’t use bunsen burners and microscopes to analyze the opening lines of the Bible any more than you can T.S. Eliot. Genesis 1 reads more like poetry than prose — and certainly more like poetry than scientific text.
Which is pretty cool, really. For Jews and Christians, whatever else these words may be, they are in some way God revealing himself to us. God decides to start a conversation, and his first words take the form of a poem.
When I read Genesis 1, it hits me: the God behind these words is a God who values beauty. Not just beauty in what he creates (which the text calls “good” not once but seven times — very significant to Jewish readers); he values beauty in the description, too.
The first words of the Bible are not that concerned with the how of creation. They’re all about the who (God) and the why (for us). The details are carefully arranged to make not a scientific point but a theological one — about who God is and the way the world was meant to be.
God begins by creating a world that is formless and empty. It’s dark. Unfit for human (or any other) habitation. But his presence, the spirit hovering over the deep places of the world, changes everything.
The progression of creation is significant — again, not for scientific but theological reasons. The world is formless, so God starts off by giving it form and definition: light/dark, water/sky, sea/land. It’s also an empty world, so then he goes about filling with all kinds of living creatures: plants, birds, fish, wild animals.
The acts of creation are arranged in order of importance; the last thing created is the most important, the crowning achievement, the reason for everything else. Which, if you’re a woman, should make you feel pretty good about being created second in the Genesis 2 version of the story.
Back in Genesis 1, it’s only when human beings appear that the writer declares that creation is not just “good” but very good.”
God is making a habitat suitable for humans. And then, like a landlord closing the deal with his tenants, he hands over the keys and tells Adam and Eve to take care of the place.
Which is one of the things that fascinates me about this chapter. The Bible’s first command to humans, sometimes called the “cultural mandate,” is a command to look after the planet. The Hebrew concepts of “subduing” and exercising “dominion” over the earth have more to do with stewardship than endless consumption. The image here, literally and figuratively, is one of cultivating a garden, not pouring concrete. Cultivation is about more than what you take from something; it’s what you put back into it.
To put it another way, words like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” are Genesis 1 ideas.
Something else fascinates me about Genesis 1. The very first blessing spoken by God in all of the Bible wasn’t given to humans. It was given to fish and to birds. It’s same word, barak, that appears a few lines later when God blesses human beings. Which has me thinking about something I saw on TV.
Channel 4 (UK) recently aired Hugh’s Chicken Run, a documentary exposing the realities of intensive (battery) chicken farming. When the presenter, UK celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, learned that intensive chicken farms weren’t about to open their doors to his film crew, he decided to build his own, raising intensive and free-range chickens side by side.
Intensive chicken farming isn’t pretty. Thousands of bird crammed into a windowless barn 24 hours a day, with practically no room to walk around and no opportunity to be outside in a chicken’s natural environment. They spend all day and night standing or sitting in their own feces, legs burned and bodies blistered by the ammonia.
Around 95 percent of the chicken we we eat is farmed this way.
Not long ago, this wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. My reaction would have been, “Who cares? They’re chickens. Food.”
But in Genesis 1, chickens get the first blessing. So now I’m compelled to ask: is this how we were meant to treat a creature blessed by God?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m an enthusiastic meat eater. (There’s a (free-range) chicken in the oven as I type this.) In the end, he met the exact same fate as his intensively farmed cousins. I’m OK with that. But many cultures before ours believed that it was important to respect the food they ate. When (and why) did that change?
Something about a chicken existing in its natural environment before it ends up on my dinner plate seems to fit the created order of Genesis 1 better. Maybe that’s because one of the lessons of Genesis 1 is that it matters how we treat the creation, how we treat other living things blessed by God — even if they were put on this earth for our benefit.
After all, this is God’s planet. And how we treat an object is an extension of how we treat the object’s creator or owner. What we do with this earth reveals what we think of its maker.
P.S. Another reason to eat free-range chickens? A side-by-side nutritional comparison with intensively farmed chicken showed that free-range birds have higher protein content and less fat.