Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Creation and Evolution 3: Creation Psalms

Young Earth Creationists (YECs), including “creation scientists” who claim the universe is only 10 thousand years old, was made in six 24 hr. days, and claim that evolution is inherently atheistic, base their claim on a very wooden, literalistic, reading of Gen. 1 & 2–as one narrative. (Intelligent Design creationists also deny biological evolution, but they accept standard geological datings of the earth and astronomical datings of the universe and are less likely to be biblical literalists. So, my arguments with them are different.)  I have already given my response to YEC readings of Gen. 1 & 2, but I also have long had a beef with the way their view of creation is based on such a small part of Scripture.  A true theology of creation would be informed by everything that Scripture says about creation–not just two chapters of Genesis. Of course, it is much easier to keep to literal 7 day view of creation if one doesn’t deal with other creation texts.  We can’t examine every biblical passage on creation, but we can widen the scope beyond Gen. 1 & 2.

There are several “creation Psalms” in the Bible–psalms inspired by God’s handiwork displayed in creation or reflections about God’s role as Creator.  At least the following psalms (maybe more) are creation psalms:  Ps. 8, 19, 29, 33, 65, & 104. 

Psalm 8 is the most well-known, having been paraphrased in numerous hymns and “contemporary Christian” songs.  It bears numerous similarities in vocabulary to Gen. 1 (but begins by invoking YHWH, not El, as Adonai or “Lord”), but instead of God speaking the universe into being, it is described as the work of God’s “hands”–demonstrating the personal care and “hands on” approach shown in Gen. 2.   The heavens, moon and stars are described as the work of God’s “fingers” and as being things God has “established,”–they are not rival gods or forces.  As in all the creation passages in Scripture, the strong Hebrew monotheism comes through–the denial that GOD is simply some tribal god of Israel whose power is limited and who must contend with other gods, demons, etc.  As with many of us who have stared into the night sky (or through a telescope), the psalmist is overwhelmed with the beauty and majesty of God’s universe and feels insignificant in comparison (“What is ‘man’ that Thou art mindful of him? The son of man that Thou dost care for him?”  N.B.: I usually believe in inclusive language, especially for humanity, but, in English, this verse loses all of its poetry and much of its literary power in more modern versions.) But the psalmist goes on to affirm (against pagan deified animals) that God has “crowned [humans] with glory and honor [all humans, not just kings or nobility]” and given them dominion over the rest of the created order. This is not because humans have earned such honor, but as part of the free grace of GOD.  That glory and honor is so great that humans are, according to the psalmist, made only “little less than God.” The KJV here says “angels,” but the word is elohim and so must mean either YHWH GOD or “gods,” such as those translations which say “heavenly beings.”  I think the RSV and NRSV are right, though: humanity has been made only a less than GOD–an amazing affirmation.  To be continued . . .

UPDATE:  Sorry, Gentle Readers,  I had meant to put this unfinished post on “draft,” not “publish.”  Oops!

Okay, as some commenters have noticed, the biblical writers seem far more interested in WHO is Creator ( YHWH GOD), not with HOW creation was done–not in any mechanical way.  If we look at the Bible literalistically and ask “how” God created the universe, then we get contradictions: Gen. 1 says God spoke the world into existence in 6 days out of watery chaos; Gen. 2 says that God formed the world from dust and used “hands” to create both man and woman (separately); Ps. 8 says the heavens are the work of God’s “hands” and “fingers.” If we accept these as poetic descriptions, then there is no contradiction.

Of course, not all “how” questions are ignored–it is important to see that, unlike the rival pagan creation myths, Jewish and Christian Scriptures affirm that Creation is not an act of violence–that it is peaceful and good.

Psalm 19 links God’s creation of the universe with God’s creation of the Law.  Here divine speech and “handiwork” are combined with the wonderful metaphor of a “tent for the sun,” that is, a home much like the formerly tent-dwelling Israelites would have known. And the sun comes forth from that tent “like a bridegroom leaving his chamber!” Notice that this is a geocentric cosmology.  The biblical writers all assumed that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun traveled around it (or across the dome of the sky).  I know of no one, not even the most stubborn Young Earth Creationist, who continues to hold to a geocentric universe–all have apparently decided that Copernicus and Galileo were right and that the earth and planets of the solar system really do circumnavigate the sun.  They do not think that they have therefore “denied the Bible.” So why do they take a different tact on evolution?

In Psalm 29 the focus is not on what we might call “large scale creation,” but on the map of the Ancient Near East.  God is praised for creating storms, fire, the cedars of Lebanon, and Syria (and God makes these nations skip!). The Psalmist here is seeing God’s presence in some of the most awesome–yet dangerous–aspects of the natural world: storm, earthquake, forest fire, and flood.  Truly the voice of YHWH “shakes the wilderness!”

We must be cautious here:  Too often people see God’s “hand” SO directly in natural phenomena that they think God causes natural disasters as punishment for sin.  Thus, according to this theology, the people of New Orleans were so sinful that they deserved all the damage of Hurricane Katrina. The wildfires of Southern California were punishment for “Hollywood lifestyles.” And the floods that have swept away most of Tobasco state and the mudslides of nearby Chiapas state in Mexico must be punishment for the way that crime and drug smuggling have pervaded these poor Mexican states.  On and on it goes.  This is wrong. While the Deists were wrong to see God as uninvolved in Creation after making it, there is a certain “autonomy” to natural laws and processes.  The issues of divine action (often called miracle) and providence and theodicy are very thorny ones–and more complex as we learn more about natural processes–and how human action complicates such forces and often increases natural disasters.  We have to find ways to affirm God’s working in the world without claiming God’s direct (and punishing?) control over natural forces that often cause great harm.  (For help in such reflections see the following:  Keith Ward, Divine Action:  Examining God’s Role in an Open and Emergent Universe (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007) & the series “Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action” published by the University of Notre Dame Press.)

Psalm 33 connects God’s role as Creator of the Universe with God’s role as Lord of History.  The God who “gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle” is the same Lord who “brings the counsel of the nations to nought;” and “frustrates the plans of the peoples.” Neither economic nor military might can prevail against the plans of God. who delivers those who fear God and keep God’s commands.  Here again we must walk a tightrope:  We cannot have a Deistic “hands off” god.  To be faithful Christians, we need an understanding of God that allows for the liberation of slaves from empires and a God who can raise Jesus from the dead.  But if our understanding of God’s sovereign power is too wooden, then we make God responsible for evil and we deny human freedom–and thus our moral agency.  It is often very difficult to believe in God’s liberating power in a world of oppression, injustice, and evil in which “what’s dead stays that way” as one poet put it. To claim with the psalmist and with Martin Luther King, Jr. that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is truly an act of faith.  Further, when see evidence of God’s sovereign power  in nonviolent revolutions or in miraculous healings, etc., it is far too tempting to conclude either that others who died of the same disease or whose nonviolent actions were crushed brutally were not faithful enough, were too sinful, did not pray hard enough, etc.  And the other temptation is to avoid blaming the victim only to make God out to be capricious by saying that God “could have intervened but chose not to for mysterious reasons known only to God.”  (In navigating these treacherous waters, I recommend especially E. Frank Tupper, A Scandalous Providence:  The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God (Mercer University Press, 1995) which has the added bonus of being one of the most “preachable” works of serious theology written! )

In Psalm 65, God’s care for Creation is linked to God’s willingness to forgive sin! 

Ps. 104 is my favorite Creation psalm and one of the longest.  It would be foolish to read it in a wooden, literal manner:  To say that God is “clothed with honor and majesty” or covered “with light as a garment,” doesn’t mean that God has a body (as Mormons believe) or wears any clothes! But if that is obvious, so should the non-literal nature of the Psalmist’s claim that God “has stretched out the heavens like a tent” or that God makes the clouds God’s chariot.  The ancient Greeks may (or may not–certainly by the time of Socrates the metaphorical nature of this language was clear to many Greeks) have considered the sun to be a literal chariot actually ridden by Apollo daily across the sky, but the Psalmist is using poetic language to describe the way Creation demonstrates the majesty and power of God. (Insert favorite praise song here. I’ll go with “Lord of the Starfields.”)

Psalm 104 also shows the continuing (post-Edenic) care of God for all of Creation–for cattle and plants and hills and birds, storks, and goats, badgers and lions as much as for humanity.  And though Ps. 104 continues the theme of Ps. 8 that humans are the special creation of God, this Psalm goes further in asserting the value of plants and animals in themselves and not just in their value to humans. God does not just tend to the cedars of Lebanon, for instance, because people like to use them for lumber, but because birds make their nests in them. The young lions “seek their food from God”–the Psalmist is praising God for providential care for a non-domesticated predator–a predator who could be a real threat to flocks or people. 

Much more could be said.  By the nature of this study, my comments have had to be maddeningly brief.  A good commentary on the Psalms would add abundantly to these reflections.

The Psalmists rightly sing of God’s Creation and how it displays God’s glory and care–but not in ways that can be put in any “Creationism museum” nor in any way which rejects or denies the natural discoveries of scientists.  Since the creation psalms are of an entirely different order than scientific inquiries, there is nothing here which either supports or denies biological evolution–the concerns of the Psalmists are elsewhere and when Christians think theologically about Creation, our concerns ought to be elsewhere, too–though the discoveries of science can certainly stimulate our theological reflection and even our prayer practices.

November 9, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, science & faith | 12 Comments