God Works to Create the World (Genesis 1:1-25)
Genesis continues by emphasizing the materiality of the world. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). The nascent creation, though still “formless,” has the material dimensions of space (“the deep”) and matter (“waters”), and God is fully engaged with this materiality (“a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”). Later, in chapter 2, we even see God working the dirt of his creation. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Throughout chapters 1 and 2, we see God engrossed in the physicality of his creation.
Any theology of work must begin with a theology of creation. Do we regard the material world, the stuff we work with, as God’s first-rate stuff, imbued with lasting value? Or do we dismiss it as a temporary job site, a testing ground, a sinking ship from which we must escape to get to God’s true location in an immaterial “heaven.” Genesis argues against any notion that the material world is any less important to God than the spiritual world. Or putting it more precisely, in Genesis there is no sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual. The ruah of God in Genesis 1:2 is simultaneously “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” (see footnote b in the NRSV or compare NRSV, NASB, NIV, and KJV). “The heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1; 2:1) are not two separate realms, but a Hebrew figure of speech meaning “the universe” in the same way that the English phrase “kith and kin” means “relatives.”
Most significantly, the Bible ends where it begins—on earth. Humanity does not depart the earth to join God in heaven. Instead, God perfects his kingdom on earth and calls into being “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). God’s dwelling with humanity is here, in the renewed creation. “See, the home of God is among mortals” (Rev. 21:3). This is why Jesus told his disciples to pray in the words, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). During the time between Genesis 2 and Revelation 21, the earth is corrupted, broken, out of kilter, and filled with people and forces that work against God’s purposes. (More on this in Genesis 3 and following.) Not everything in the world goes according to God’s design. But the world is still God’s creation, which he calls “good.” (For more on the new heaven and new earth, see “Revelation 17-22” in Revelation and Work.)
Many Christians, who work mostly with material objects, say it seems that their work matters less to the church—and even to God—than work centering on people, ideas, or religion. A sermon praising good work is more likely to use the example of a missionary, social worker, or teacher than a miner, auto mechanic, or chemist. Fellow Christians are more likely to recognize a call to become a minister or doctor than a call to become an inventory manager or sculptor. But does this have any biblical basis? Leaving aside the fact that working with people is working with material objects, it is wise to remember that God gave people the tasks both of working with people (Gen. 2:18) and working with things (Gen. 2:15). God seems to take the creation very seriously indeed.
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 15.
Creating a world is work. In Genesis 1 the power of God's work is undeniable. God speaks worlds into existence, and step by step we see the primordial example of the right use of power. Note the order of creation. The first three of God’s creative acts separate the formless chaos into realms of heavens (or sky), water, and land. On day one, God creates light and separates it from darkness, forming day and night (Gen. 1:3-5). On day two, he separates the waters and creates the sky (Gen. 1:6-8). On the first part of day three, he separates dry land from the sea (Gen. 1:9-10). All are essential to the survival of what follows. Next, God begins filling the realms he has created. On the remainder of day three, he creates plant life (Gen. 1:11-13). On day four he creates the sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14-19) in the sky. The terms “greater light” and “lesser light” are used rather than the names “sun” and “moon,” thus discouraging the worship of these created objects and reminding us that we are still in danger of worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. The lights are beautiful in themselves and also essential for plant life, with its need for sunshine, nighttime, and seasons. On day five, God fills the water and sky with fish and birds that could not have survived without the plant life created earlier (Gen. 1:20-23). Finally, on day six, he creates the animals (Gen. 1:24-25) and—the apex of creation—humanity to populate the land (Gen. 1:26-31).
In chapter 1, God accomplishes all his work by speaking. “God said…” and everything happened. This lets us know that God’s power is more than sufficient to create and maintain the creation. We need not worry that God is running out of gas or that the creation is in a precarious state of existence. God’s creation is robust, its existence secure. God does not need help from anyone or anything to create or maintain the world. No battle with the forces of chaos threatens to undo the creation. Later, when God chooses to share creative responsibility with human beings, we know that this is God’s choice, not a necessity. Whatever people may do to mar the creation or render the earth unfit for life’s fullness, God has infinitely greater power to redeem and restore.
The display of God’s infinite power in the text does not mean that God’s creation is not work, any more than writing a computer program or acting in a play is not work. If the transcendent majesty of God’s work in Genesis 1 nonetheless tempts us to think it is not actually work, Genesis 2 leaves us no doubt. God works immanently with his hands to sculpt human bodies (Gen. 2:7, 21), dig a garden (Gen. 2:8), plant an orchard (Gen. 2:9), and—a bit later—tailor “garments of skin” (Gen. 3:21). These are only the beginnings of God’s physical work in a Bible full of divine labor.
For a helpful discussion of the interpretation of the "Days" of creation, see Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 74-78.
For a long list of the many kinds of work God does in the Bible, see R. Paul Stevens, The Other Six Days (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 18-123; and Robert Banks, God the Worker: Journeys into the Mind, Heart, and Imagination of God (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008).
God is the source of everything in creation. Yet creation is not identical with God. God gives his creation what Colin Gunton calls Selbständig-keit or a “proper independence.” This is not the absolute independence imagined by the atheists or Deists, but rather the meaningful existence of the creation as distinct from God himself. This is best captured in the description of God’s creation of the plants. “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so" (Gen. 1:11). God creates everything, but he also literally sows the seed for the perpetuation of creation through the ages. The creation is forever dependent on God—“In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 7:28)—yet it remains distinct. This gives our work a beauty and value above the value of a ticking clock or a prancing puppet. Our work has its source in God, yet it also has its own weight and dignity.
Against any dualistic notion that heaven is good while earth is bad, Genesis declares on each day of creation that “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, with the creation of humanity, God saw that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). People—the agents through whom sin is soon to enter God’s creation—are nonetheless “very good.” There is simply no support in Genesis for the notion, which somehow entered Christian imagination, that the world is irredeemably evil and the only salvation is an escape into an immaterial spiritual world, much less for the notion that while we are on earth we should spend our time in “spiritual” tasks rather than “material” ones. There is no divorce of the spiritual from the material in God’s good world.