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Majesty and Mystery

by: David Atkinson

David Atkinson's exposition of the first chapters of Genesis evokes wonder through portrayal of God’s creative power, sovereignty, and beauty. Atkinson helps us gain a clear understanding of Genesis 1 and that God’s work of creation should be seen as an artistic ordering. He reminds us that as we study God’s works, such as creation, we should be driven to praise. Atkinson is not content to find the author’s intended meaning of a classic text; he is concerned with developing a Christian mind on many contemporary questions. We support his conviction that many of those answers are found in Genesis 1 and 2. Atkinson is also very concerned with the placing Genesis in the context of the whole of scripture.



In the beginning, we are told, God created (1:1a). The Hebrew word bārā’, translated create, always has God as its subject when it occurs in the Old Testament. The writer of Genesis 1 sometimes uses a different word (translatedmade). Thus God made (‘āśâ) the firmament (1:7); God made the two great lights (1:16);

God made the beasts of the earth (1:25). But alongside this there is the more special word reserved for the sort of creating God does—the word bārā’. In this chapter it is used six times: God created the heavens and the earth (1:1); God created the great sea monsters (1:21); and (three times) God created man as male and female (1:27). God rested from all his work which he had done in creation (2:3).

Although the word bārā’ when used elsewhere in the Old Testament does not necessarily mean creation out of nothing, that is certainly the implication here. Wenham writes: “there is a stress on the artist’s freedom and power,” and he goes on to quote W. H. Schmidt saying that bārā’ preserves the idea of “God’s effortless, totally free and unbound creating, his sovereignty.”¹

We have here God’s transcendent freedom to bring into being things that do not exist. In contrast to the Babylonian idea that matter existed alongside God from eternity, it seems likely that the Genesis author wants to stress that God created all that is out of nothing. There is nothing that co-exists eternally with God. Is not this the story that other biblical writers tell?

In the Old Testament, for instance, the psalmist calls on all the heavens, sun, moon and stars to praise the Lord, ‘for he commanded and they were created’,² and in Proverbs 8, the wisdom of God—the principle of all creation—was there “before the beginning of the earth.”³ In the New Testament that creative wisdom of God is embodied in the incarnate Word of God of whom it is said:

Without him was not anything made that was made.4

All things were created through him and for him.5

From him and through him and to him are all things.6

The world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.­7

It is important to see that what God creates is something distinct from himself. This chapter has no place for pantheism—the idea that God is another name for everything. It is true that God indwells the world, and the world has its being “in God,” but God remains God, and in transcendent distinction from what he has made.

It is important also to notice that elsewhere in the Bible, the word bārā’ is used in the context of salvation. The unique word for God’s creative activity is much more commonly used of his liberating and saving actions in history.8 The God who makes things is the God who also makes things new.9 The God who we see in Genesis 1 is the Creator of all, we learn from a broader biblical picture is also the Redeemer, Sustainer, Re-creator, and the One who brings all things to completion. God’s creative activity in history is not only the preservation of what he has made; it is a continuous, creative engagement with his world, leading it forward to its future glory.10

Full text available in print only.

David Atkinson

Atkinson was educated at King's College London and began his career as a chemistry teacher. He was ordained in 1973. From 1977 he was Chaplain (and a Fellow) of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and part-time Lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, then a Canon Residentiary at Southwark Cathedral and finally (before his elevation to the Episcopate Archdeacon of Lewisham. He served as Bishop of Thetford from 2001 to 2009. Atkinson has been Northrupp Visiting Professor at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, and Visiting Lecturer at St John's College, Hong Kong, and at the South Asia institute of Advanced Christian Studies. He is a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, and has served on the Board of Operation Noah. Bishop David is married with two children and eight grandchildren.

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