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Purpose, Goodness, and the Imagination of God

Genesis chapter one is all about purpose.

Verses 6-7:

“And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that above the expanse. And it was so.”

So God says the expanse – the sky – is necessary to separate the waters. That’s its purpose, its job, and it’s a job fundamental to its essence.

What about the trees and the plants? They have a unique and essential purpose too:

“And God said, ‘let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed…”

Here’s another example. Verses 14 and 15:

“And God said, ‘let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and for years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so.”

Thus the purpose of the lights – the moon and the stars and the sun – is to separate day and night, to provide light, and to dictate – or illustrate – the passing of time.

Skip ahead a bit, to chapter 2 where God rests. He blesses the 7th day for on it He rested. Even the 7th day itself has creative purpose. How meta of God.

Then we arrive at the part where man is created.

What was man’s stated purpose? To tend the garden, to work and to keep it, no small thing considering its value, considering its stated “goodness”. Note that man’s purpose here is fundamentally creative: to be fruitful, to multiply (that is, to take one and make it many). His job is to bring forth fruit, and to enable the garden to do the same.

Yet Adam isn’t only told to care for the earth. He is also instructed to name all the animals, another fundamentally creative act and the first reference I can find to man’s relationship with language. His first language-based job was to create names for God’s creatures. This is wonderful and amazing. God enabled his creatures to create identities, universal symbols by which all men on into eternity will identify other creatures, and he enables man to do this by language, the very tool with which He himself created (and assessed).

This alone is enough evidence to suggest that there is a hierarchy in the created order. No other creature is given this gift, this magical, powerful, fundamentally unique gift. Language matters and we’re the ones who are allowed to use it. (On this I heartily recommend Wendell Berry’s essay Standing By Words and the book of the same title).

One of my favorite verses in all of Scripture is verse 19 of chapter 2.

“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name”.

I love that: “God… brought them to the man to see what he would call them”. There seems to be a playfulness in God here, a curiosity. He’s like a parent who brings home a puppy for his kid and tells her that she can pick any name she wants. I guess he has to hope she doesn’t name that puppy “poop”.

I wonder if God said to Adam, “Well, okay, if that’s really want you want to call that thing…” followed with a long questioning look that Adam didn’t recognize as a subtle nudge.

Then God promptly created woman so man would learn to read signals.

All joking aside (Or was I joking? I’m not really sure…), what was her purpose? Verse 18 says that God intends to make a “helper” for Adam. But what is she supposed to help him do? Was she supposed to help him name the animals? Was she supposed to keep him from being lonely? Was she supposed to help him endure the temptation that was that one particular tree?

I think that Eve too was created for a fundamentally creative purpose, so that together she and man could be fruitful. Note that I don’t say that she was created so that man might be fruitful but so that together they might fruitful.

That’s the recurring creative command we find in these early chapters of the Bible. Be fruitful and multiply he told the plants and sea creatures and the animals and the humans. Sure that involves making babies. But it also involves raising them and caring for them and enabling them to flourish. It’s of all that. The tending is as important as the planting. The raising is as important as the making.

And in creating Eve, God founded a creative partnership by which a flourishing, growing, “good” universe might more accurately and truly reflect Him, a relationship that incarnates the imagination of the creator in whose image they were themselves created.

In being like Him – in creating, in speaking, in naming, in tending – we glorify Him. And we fulfill our purpose.

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