Genesis 1, the Bible’s opening chapter, should not serve as the center for Christian theologies of creation. Yes, its first verse is a site of grammatical contest between competing conceptions of God and the world: in some translations (e.g., NIV and NKJV), we read “in the beginning, God created,” or that God makes creation out of nothing, whereas in other translations (e.g., NRSVue, CEB, JPS), we read “when God began to create,” or that God shapes creation from preexistent raw material. Likewise, Christian deliberation about human dignity often invokes the imago Dei, the image of God, an idea fashioned from Genesis 1:27: “God created humans in his image, in the image of God he created them” (NRSVue). Christian debates about sexual ethics relentlessly circle the following half-verse—“male and female [God] created them” (1:27c)—and frequently under the doctrinal auspices of orders of creation. Lastly, too, Christian accounts of the human vocation vis-à-vis other creatures must perforce negotiate the so-called dominion verse: “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (1:28 NKJV). A cloud of commentary surrounds this line. It is either a license to exploit or a commission to care.[1]

Yet beyond these specific verses and their related areas of theological inquiry, Genesis 1 looms large in Christian reflection because of its overall function within the whole classic theological panorama of divine activity toward creation. Relative to God’s later works, Genesis 1, it is commonly understood, spells out the pristine, initial conditions: the benchmark of divine purpose toward all that is not-God. That is, for many generations of Christian theologizing, Genesis 1 articulates the utopian high point, the protological high-water mark of harmony between God and world. As such, the chapter constitutes the first step in the traditional two-step plotline involving God and world. The second step is, of course, that creation is followed by the fall.[2]

In this way, the details of Genesis 1 take on special importance. Taken together, they provide the ideal that God through subsequent divine initiative seeks to recoup, or that humans, in imitation of God, labor to repristinate. This biblical chapter therefore sets our Christian expectation, and to some extent, it orients our ethics. Recent work on creation theology has thus noticed the multiple agencies that the chapter depicts. Humans are not the only beings whom God deputizes. God also commissions celestial bodies: sun and moon exercise rule, under God’s authority, over their respective domains of day and night (Gen. 1:16). God creates but so do other beings, such as the earth, which brings forth living creatures at God’s behest (1:24). Nor are humans the only recipients of God’s blessing. The beasts that swarm the waters and the birds that flock the air also, like the humans (1:28), comply with God’s charge to be fruitful and multiply (1:22). If humans distinctively image God, they do not exclusively image. All these insights follow from the importance laden onto the chapter by its role as the golden age.[3]

But this basic construal of Genesis 1 as the utopian high point of creation is mislaid. It is out of sorts with mainstream pentateuchal scholarship, which has successfully maintained for two centuries that Genesis 1 belongs to the so-called Priestly stratum. In the judgment of historical criticism, the same authorial hands responsible for crafting the schematic days of creation, and the culminating Sabbath rest, in the Bible’s first chapter also wrote the many chapters at the end of Exodus, most of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of Numbers. These literary units respectively instruct the people of Israel how to build the tabernacle, service the tabernacle, and transport the tabernacle. Just in terms of literary distribution, then, the Priestly texts dedicate far, far more attention to the tabernacle than to the creation of the world. In a real sense, Genesis 1 is but the preface and antechamber to this vast pentateuchal meditation on the dwelling place of God.[4] Even if Christian readers usually find Genesis 1 interesting and accessible and the Sinai materials dry and cumbersome, reading the latter apart from the former does not make exegetical sense. It breaks an integral whole and proportions attention inversely to the grain of Torah. 

More importantly for the present essay, the allocation of literary real estate within the Priestly materials corresponds to a theological claim. The reason the tabernacle fascinated the Priestly writers far more than creation at its outset is because God is present in the tabernacle in a way that God was not in the beginning. In Genesis 1, the spirit (or breath) of God hovers over the waters. Mostly, though, God speaks, as if by a disembodied voice, offstage. God utters and creates, effortlessly, and all creatures instantly obey. Yet for all that divine power and creaturely compliance, God is not there within the narrative frame. As Benjamin Sommer writes: “The theme of God’s distance from the world appears not only in the narrative of rupture [the flood] but also in the original act of creation itself, for the subject who creates stands outside the object created.”[5] This is not so in the tabernacle. The climactic event of the entire Pentateuch is the descent of the kabôd—the glory; the radiant, manifest presence of God—into the tabernacle, which takes place at the end of the book of Exodus. God enters personally—bodily—into creation. The finale verses of Exodus 40 read: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (40:34–35 NRSVue).

By far, this event exceeds the good conditions at the start of creation. The light that God flicks on by God’s word in Genesis 1 is a different light, and a lesser light, than the fiery luminescence of God’s own self that touches down within the tabernacle. The thriving and harmony of all creatures ought not to be judged by their flawless obedience to God’s commandments or by God’s blessing on them at the beginning of creation. These are but the starting circumstances. Creation is, rather, at its fullest stretch, reaching to its highest and best capacity, functioning in its most orderly and beautiful way, in the tabernacle—as proven by its reception of God’s very person. To put a finer point on it, the utopian high point of creation is not Genesis 1 but rather the coming of God into the mobile shrine. Creation reaches its pinnacle not at the front of the biblical story but at the midpoint, when Israel, newly delivered out of Egypt, was gathered at the foot of the holy mountain. The overall shape of the pentateuchal story is not a U, with God at work to restore creation to its original settings, but rather a diagonal: beginning well and experiencing deterioration but then reaching far higher after history has spiraled and unspooled.

For that is what the intervening pentateuchal chapters narrate: a history by which creation assumes a quite different form from that of the beginning. The great caesura is the flood. In the Priestly telling of this event, it is not the violence of humans alone that occasions the deluge. Instead, “the earth became corrupt in front of God; the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11 Feldman).[6] In Genesis 1, God’s constitutive action is to “separate” each creature out from the undifferentiated churn; each being receives its distinct task and its habitat from God, each keeps to its lane, reproducing “according to its kind.” In the lead-up to the flood, however, this neat but fragile arrangement falls askew: “All flesh had corrupted their assigned roles” (Gen. 6:11). The integrity of the separate wholes is quirked; the basic fear of the Priestly writers, of a mixing between kinds, is realized.[7] More than that, the mixing appears to happen in service of transgressive eating.

The Priestly writers are nothing if not attentive to dietary protocol, and this can be seen from the Bible’s first chapter. It may come as a surprise to some readers, but in the Priestly vision, according to Genesis 1, God intended for humans and animals alike to be vegetarian. Addressing humans, God says: “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Gen. 1:29 NRSVue), and then, “to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:30). The violence that precedes the flood runs afoul of this dietary code. Humans and animals have begun to kill each other, likely in order to eat each other.[8]

Remarkably, instead of re-upping the original protocol after the flood, God makes an allowance. God revises the code to permit a certain measure of violence, a controlled burn, as it were, and a dietary concession: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, and just as I gave you the green plants, I [now] give you everything” (Gen. 9:3). The situation has changed. Instead of harmony, fear characterizes the new regime—“fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth”—and accountability: “I will require a reckoning for human life” (Gen. 9:2 and 9:5). Killing and consumption are baked into the postflood creation. The memory of loss, incurred through the flood, is kept and tended, even by God; the bow that God sets in the clouds is a memorial.

This postdiluvian creation, “red in tooth and claw,” is the world that we Christians today know and inhabit. Mistrust and fear of nonhuman creatures is commonplace, even prudent. By contrast, the all-vegetarian world that Genesis 1 sets forth is barely imaginable. It is as alien to our actual experience as Isaiah’s prophecy of the lion laying down with the lamb (Isa. 11:6). Even if it lies within our power to promote a vegetarian diet for ourselves as humans, there is no way, even in cli-fi (climate fiction), to restore wild creatures to their primeval Genesis diet. And I argue that this remoteness from the present real world significantly curtails the usefulness of Genesis 1 for Christian theologizing about creation. Perhaps in some sense, in the words of our Lord, “it was not so at the beginning” (Matt. 19:8), and we ought to call to remembrance God’s first purposes, for human marriage as for human ways of eating. Yet the kind of conceptual gymnastics it requires to bring Genesis 1 into an actionable relationship with the ecosystems we encounter makes the whole exercise counterproductive. The lions whose savannas we can protect or not are not vegetarian lions. The microbes in the soil are not herbivores. Death and predation are intimately wound into the entire biological realm.

Unlike Genesis 1, the tabernacle is robustly postlapsarian. And this makes it far more useful for Christian reflection on creation. As noted, the capstone theological moment in the Pentateuch occurs in the middle of history. God personally indwells this little outpost of creation, the tabernacle, on the far side of all the spiraling and adjusting that the first chapters of Genesis describe. The instructions for building this shrine are also calibrated to the postdiluvian world. So, for example, the raw materials for the tabernacle include wooden artifacts: the chest that contains the covenant is to be made from acacia (Exod. 25:10–22), as are the carrying poles and the table for the showbread. This is an implicit transformation from the scenario at the beginning of the Pentateuch: there, in Genesis 1, God makes fruit trees and authorizes all creatures to eat their produce, but the text does not imagine built structures, panels, poles, and cornices hewn out of dead trees. The fact that creation achieves its crowning purpose (of divine inhabitation) in and through such reuse of dead trees is powerful for Christian theology. God’s instruction, oriented toward God’s presence, takes up the tragedies and losses of history. Deadened creatures are not left behind. Even after the trees no longer bear fruit—their entire original charter!—they are repurposed, recrafted, and sanctified.

The same dynamic applies in an even more obvious way in the case of animal slaughter. The plan of the tabernacle, communicated to Moses, specifies an altar (Exod. 27:1–8). It, too, is to be fashioned from acacia wood and covered in copper. But its very name in Hebrew indicates its purpose: it is a mizbeaḥ, a “slaughter-site” in the literalizing translation of Everett Fox.[9] The altar’s first use according to the tabernacle instructions is at the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. On this occasion, they lay their hands on the head of a bull, they “slaughter the bull in the Lord’s presence” (Exod. 29:11), and then they smear its blood on the horns of the altar, pouring the rest of the blood out at the altar base. A similar procedure is then performed with a ram. The Exodus text gives no explanation of what this sacrifice and blood manipulation means, or what they ritually accomplish (the Priestly materials claim merely that “life is in the blood,” Lev. 17:11). But again, this activity was utterly foreign to the creation at its outset. No provision for animal death appears in Genesis 1, let alone instructions for purposeful killing of animals. As already observed, the killing of animals represents a concession to violence. The flood did not correct the creaturely propensity to aggression, so God adjusted the code. Now, in the tabernacle instructions, God redirects such violence toward the arrival of God’s own self. Human harmfulness toward the nonhuman world is now brought into the sanctuary: it is made into a mysterious prerequisite of God’s presence. The blood is reserved for God (compare to Gen. 9:4: “you [humans] must not eat meat with its life, its blood, in it”).

What does this postdiluvian appearance of God mean for Christian theologizing? We can and we must face fully into the histories of creation. Ours is not a recovery operation, seeking to regain a lost utopia, but a matter of discernment that involves spotting how God intends to take up, reclaim, and repurpose the tragedies, concessions, losses, sins, and complexities of created life. And to that end, the tabernacle is a more useful template than Genesis 1 for creation-related theologizing precisely because of its potential to help us think about discerning God’s divine presence in our world today. But further than that, I propose that, contrary to the creation described in Genesis 1, the tabernacle presents a creation that is secured by God. It is held inviolable, beyond the ravages of chance and time. This quality comes into focus especially through the Hebrew term tabnît.

Genesis 1 contains one level of representation: God makes humans “in his image” (1:27), as a replica of God, a likeness (from the Hebrew word demût). The word for image in 1:27 (that is, the Hebrew term ṣelem) elsewhere in Scripture betokens a statue (see Num. 33:52 and 2 Kgs. 11:18), and both terms, ṣelem and demût, image and likeness, occur together on an actual statue from ancient Syria. So, too, the Aramaic counterpart word in Daniel 3 identifies the golden statue that king Nebuchadnezzar creates. But there is another level of representation in the Pentateuch that is often overlooked; this level pertains, not to humans replicating the divine original, but rather to the built environment of the tabernacle—which also, and arguably more importantly, replicates its divine original.[10] The term that designates this copy is tabnît, or pattern. God exhorts Moses: “In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern [tabnît] of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exod. 25:9). The Epistle to the Hebrews expands on this same idea: there is a sanctuary made with hands that is “of this creation,” and it is but a duplicate of the more real, heavenly sanctuary that is “not of this creation” (Heb. 9:11–12). My point is that the tabernacle, creation at its fullest stretch, mysteriously conforms to a reality that already is. The deepest truth of creation lies outside of it, ahead of it, hidden with God. Its unfolding here below in history is a catching-up to its ur-version.

 This is an almost Platonist framing: the creation “here below” corresponds to its uncreated original. Interestingly, though, this relationship applies not to creation at large but rather only to its microcosm and high point, the tabernacle. Creation in general is not safe. It is vulnerable to “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Genesis 1 describes a world that is in danger, a world that then succumbs to the dangers besetting it. In fact, the world of Genesis 1 is a lost world, a bygone and superseded form of creation, wiped away by the flood and relitigated by God. By contrast, the tabernacle is safe, or rather, its uncreated original is safe. It is invulnerable, because it exists elsewhere, in the heavenlies, with God. If the creation of Genesis 1 is subject to corruptibility—and it is: “the earth became corrupt in front of God” (Gen. 6:11 Feldman)—the tabernacle not made by human hands is incorruptible.

This everlasting and untouchable quality of the tabernacle, at least in its pattern or tabnît, has interesting implications for Christian theology of creation. It supplies a hopeful motivation for actions to protect the earth and its creatures, a motivation that differs in important ways from calls to action that appeal to crisis. These latter summons are familiar: they bid the Christian to take responsibility for creation in view of its vulnerability. They say the natural world is in danger of even greater losses and corruptions than it has already sustained under capitalism, and therefore, we must exercise our agency. Theologizing with the tabernacle, however, incentivizes environmental activism on a different basis. It appeals not to the vulnerability of creation but rather to its invulnerability. With an eye on the tabernacle “not of this creation,” it says that the truest version of creation lies in some (mysterious) sense beyond the reach of history’s ravages.

And while one might think that this reassurance could sap efforts to conserve the earth and its creatures, hoping for creation because of the tabnît energizes action. In Colossians, we read that our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3 NRSVue); in some mysterious way, our truest selves are elsewhere, celestial, inaccessible—secure. This truth then galvanizes action to bring our actual practice into alignment: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly” (Col. 3:5). Security begets endeavor. Likewise, in the case of the tabernacle, Exodus assures us that creation in its most concentrated, beautiful, and truest form is hidden with God—secure. And we human and Christian actors thus work in line with the grain of reality when we then shape creation toward its tabernacle ideal.    

Even as the plan of the tabernacle is fixed, held by God in the heavenlies, the humans who bring it into reality at the foot of the mountain show significant creative discretion. Whereas Genesis 1 is telegraphic, with each creature directly heeding God’s injunction, the tabernacle texts are more luxurious; they indicate at length the improvisation and generosity of those who receive God’s commandments. These more richly rendered agents in turn provide a more capacious model for Christian theology and responsibility. Genesis 1 gives some creative independence to one character, namely to the earth. But to other beings, God specifies the product of their creative work, and it corresponds precisely to the parent: be fruitful and multiply—each according to its kind—humans making humans, birds making birds, and so on. Only in the case of the earth does God give leeway, saying simply, “Let the earth put forth vegetation” (Gen. 1:11). Notably, the issue from the earth is different than its parent; the earth is responsible for subcreating beings other than itself.[11]

The tabernacle texts at the end of Exodus, however, portray agents of God’s creative purpose operating with a far greater degree of independence. Several human artisans lead the tabernacle-building endeavor. They are very much their own individually named persons. If the spirit of God hovered over the waters in Genesis 1:1, in the tabernacle texts the spirit fills craftsmen. God singles them out to Moses (Exod. 31:2–6):

See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge, and every kind of skill, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you.

These men are not automatons of the spirit. They are true deputies, artists who had spent a lifetime honing their ability. They teach others (Exod. 35:34), and they respond dynamically to the spontaneous generosity of the people (Exod. 36:4–5). They build according to Moses’s commands—such that Moses blesses them, and all Israelites, at the end of the process when they bring all the structures and appurtenances to him (Exod. 39:42)—but neither God nor Moses shows them the tabnît blueprint. Instead, they improvise; relying on their long practice, their knowledge, and their keen eyes, they freely fashion beauty together with the inspiration of the divine life-giving spirit. Amos Yong puts it this way:

The lines are blurred between understanding the divine spirit as transcendent over or above human spirits and viewing the divine and human breaths as collaborative . . . the spirit of creation can be seen to harness the energies of those with the breath of life for divinely redemptive purposes, not as if descending from above or arriving from without, but as heightening and intensifying creaturely endowments from within, as it were.[12]

Alongside the craftsmen and their autonomy, the tabernacle texts depict the human community of Israel acting with spontaneity and generosity: “All the congregation of the Israelites . . . came, everyone whose heart was stirred and everyone whose spirit was willing and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting” (Exod. 35:20–21). No counterpart to this liberality exists in Genesis 1; there, as observed above, creatures enact God’s commandments quickly and directly. At most, the earth shows a certain creativity. Exodus, however, points out the willingness of the whole assembly to donate to the cause of building God’s place. Indeed, they give to excess: “the people continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning. So, all the skilled workers who were doing all the work on the sanctuary left what they were doing and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than enough for doing the work the Lord commanded to be done’” (Exod. 36:3b–5 NIV).

In the canonical presentation of Exodus, this generosity of the people follows the debacle of the golden calf (Exod. 32). We might say that the people’s donation-to-excess emerges from their experience of God’s faithfulness: after that decisive event of apostasy, at the very moment of covenant-making, the whole relationship of God to Israel must be founded anew on a yet deeper revelation of God’s love and mercy.[13] The people’s contribution to the construction work does not result only or simply from being filled with spirit. Rather, it reflects their forgiveness. They give graciously toward God’s home because God has shown grace toward them. Such a scenario is, as I have noted already, distinctively postlapsarian, and for that reason, far closer to our lives than Genesis 1. Unlike the creaturely creators of that text, these human contributors to creation are forgiven sinners. And so, the human actors in the tabernacle texts yield to Christian theology a far richer ethical template than Genesis 1.        

[1] For a recent opinion on the grammatical dispute in Genesis 1:1 and a helpful bibliography, see Brent A. Strawn, “bĕ-rēʾšît, ‘With “Wisdom,”’ in Genesis 1.1 (MT),” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46 (2022): 358–87; for a reflection on sexual ethics and the orders of creation, see James M. Childs, “Eschatology, Anthropology, and Sexuality: Helmut Thielicke and the Orders of Creation Revisited,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 30 (2010): 3–20; and for one much-discussed older piece within the vast literature on human dominion, see James Barr, “Man and Nature: The Ecological Controversy and the Old Testament,” in Ecology and Religion in History, ed. David Spring and Eileen Spring (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1974), 48–75.

[2] R. Kendall Soulen calls this classic panorama “the standard canonical narrative” (see The God of Israel and Christian Theology [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996]).

[3] See Mari Joerstad, The Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics: Humans, Nonhumans, and the Living Landscape (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 48–58.

[4] For an early definition of the parameters of the Priestly stratum, including Genesis 1, see Theodor Nöldeke, “Die s.g. Grundschrift des Pentateuchs,” in Untersuchungen zur Kritik des Alten Testaments (Kiel, Germany: Schwers, 1869), 1–144. I first came to this insight about the tabernacle as the centerpiece of the Pentateuch through Paul M. van Buren, who writes that “the center of [Israel’s] story was Sinai” (A Christian Theology of the People of Israel, part 2 of A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Rowe, 1987), 104.

[5] Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 136; my italics. Sommer goes on: “Within Christian biblical scholarship, not to mention Christian theology, one often finds an aversion or even condescension toward the priestly writings of the Pentateuch. . . . Yet it has become clear in this exposition that the P document is in fact the most Christian section of Hebrew scripture. As one reads through P beginning with Genesis 1, one can see that for all its attention to specifics, this narrative has a larger, overarching concern: the decision of a transcendent God to become immanent in the world this God created.”

[6] This is Liane M. Feldman’s translation: The Consuming Fire: The Complete Priestly Source, from Creation to the Promised Land, World Literature in Translation (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2023).

[7] Note that the term for perversion in Leviticus 18:23 derives from the Hebrew verb √bll, to mix.

[8] Feldman, Consuming Fire, 58n15.

[9] Fox, The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Schocken Bible 1 (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1995), 410; cf. Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber: Schlachtstatt (Die fünf Bücher der Weisung), Die Schrift 1 [Berlin, Germany: Verlag Lambert Schneider, 1930]).

[10] For more on ṣelem and demût, see Ali Abou-Assaf, Pierre Bordreuil, and Alan R. Millard, La Statue de Tell Fekherye et son inscription bilingue assyro-araméenne,Etudes Assyriologiques (Paris, France: Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1982); and C. L. Crouch, “Genesis 1:26–7 as a Statement of Humanity’s Divine Parentage,” Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 1–15. I owe this insight on the levels of representation to James Barr: “The P source had two great events in which something was made in an express analogy: firstly, man himself, created in the image of God, and, secondly, the tabernacle, built by men after a pattern revealed by God” (“The Image of God in the Book of Genesis: A Study of Terminology,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 51 [1968]: 11–26, here 16). See also Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical Typos Structures, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series 2 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1981), 367–89.

[11] Joerstad, Hebrew Bible and Environmental Ethics, 49n1.

[12] Yong, Mission After Pentecost: The Witness of the Spirit from Genesis to Revelation, Mission in Global Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 43. See also Richard S. Hess, “Bezalel and Oholiab: Spirit and Creativity,” in Presence, Power and Promise: The Role of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, ed. David G. Firth and Paul D. Wegner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 161–72.

[13] See Strawn, “Yhwh’s Poesie: The Gnadenformel, the Book of Exodus, and Beyond,” in The Incomparable God: Readings in Biblical Theology, ed. Collin Cornell and M. Justin Walker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2023), 26–44.