Where God’s Space and Our Space Meet
If you’ve ever tried to read through the Bible from start to finish, you probably started Genesis with great intentions and ambition. But if you’re like a lot of people (myself, included), you probably started to lose steam once you hit the Old Testament laws about halfway into the book of Exodus, slogged through Leviticus, and gave up altogether when you hit the wall of census lists in Numbers. Welcome to the club.
Last year, I took the “Torah Journey” using the Bible Project app. While it’s not the first time I’ve made it through the first five books of the Bible - reading the Bible chronologically was a breakthrough for me – the Torah Journey made even Leviticus and Numbers not just survivable, but fascinating. The motto of the Bible Project is “a unified story that leads to Jesus”, and a big part of what unifies that story is the themes that run all through the Bible. One of the themes they identify is that of “Eden spaces”, and I’m coming to believe that this idea of Eden spaces answers the “big why”. Why we’re here. What our purpose is. The answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”
Something I never registered in all the years that I’ve heard or read the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2 is that the Garden of Eden was a unique place. God created the whole world – the whole universe – and declared it good. Then God created Adam and placed him in a garden that God had created. This garden, located in a region referred to as Eden, represents a special part of the world that God created. I like the way that garden, the “Eden space”, is described in the video, “Heaven and Earth”: it’s the place where God’s space (heaven) and human space (Earth) overlap. A place where God lives with humans in a special way.
What does that idea of “Eden space” have to say to us about the meaning of life? First of all, it tells us that we were created, as humans, to have a special relationship with God. That it’s something God was very intentional about, something God wants. That relationship with God is at the very center of the meaning of life for us as humans.
People often say that all religions point to God, or are all roads to truth. Yet, the centrality of relationship between humans and a God who loves and values us is actually quite unique to Judeo-Christian teachings.
My students and I recently took a look at creation accounts from different religions and what they say about who created humans, how and why humans were created, and how their creators regarded them. In no way is this intended to make fun of people from different times or cultures for what they believe (or believed). It’s just that the differences are pretty interesting, and often not compatible with one another.
Again, the creation story recorded in Genesis 1 and 2 tells us that for us as humans, being in relationship with God is at the core of the meaning of life. And when it comes to the nature of our relationship with God, that creation account tells us some things that are quite unique among creation stories across history and cultures.
First of all, the Genesis creation account tells us that God created us on purpose. That’s not a given in the creation stories of other religions. In Egyptian mythology, the eye of the sun god, Re, separated from Re. Shu and Tefnut, two of the children of the god, Atum, were sent to get the eye back but the eye resisted. As it struggled with Shu and Tefnut, the eye shed tears which then gave birth to humans. According to the creation story of the Bushongo people of the DRC, the god M’Bombo became ill and vomited out humans. And according to naturalism, humans are just the result of a lot of random genetic mutations and natural selection. Genesis, however, tells us that God declared that he would make humans in his image, deliberately took clay, formed Adam, and breathed his life into him. Later, God chose to create a partner – a “suitable helper” – for Adam, and created Eve. Genesis tells us that God created us on purpose.
Second, the Genesis creation account is unique in that God created us with much more dignity and worth than other creation stories afford humans. According to Greek mythology, the Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus were charged with creating humans, and with giving all creatures their special qualities. Sadly, by the time Epimetheus got around to the humans, all the good stuff had already been given out. Ancient Mesopotamian religion taught that the goddess Mami created humans to be slaves to the gods. Hinduism teaches that Brahma didn’t know who he was so he created woman – a human – so that, by understanding the “other” he’d learn who he, himself, was. When it comes to naturalism, humans might be the most highly evolved of the animals, but that’s purely accidental. We have no inherent dignity or value. Genesis 1 and 2 teach that God created humans to bear his own image, to reflect God’s own nature (contrast that with the Greek version where we just get the leftovers) and to rule together with him. The Genesis account is unique in the inherent value and dignity it affords us as humans – a value and dignity that also give us a tremendous degree of responsibility for bearing God’s image well.
Third, the Genesis creation account is unique in that it portrays a God who loves humans. We’re not just here to be slaves to the gods, doing all the grunt work and offering sacrifices so the gods can take it easy, as the Mesopotamians believed. The Greek gods didn’t seem to care much for humans, either. Prometheus was said to have felt sorry for humans just getting the dregs of the gifts, so he endowed us with the ability to walk upright like the gods (I guess that’s something), and later gave fire to humans. The gods were not so favorably inclined towards humans. They punished Prometheus for stealing fire from them to give to humans by condemning him to having his liver eaten by an eagle every day for eternity. (Ouch.) Brahma was seen by the other Hindu gods as being far too obsessed with the woman, and so they chopped off one of his five heads so he couldn’t perpetually watch her. The moral of the story is that any kind of desire is bad and one must strive to live with detachment. A God who loves is not at all detached. After he created the first human, Genesis 1 tells us that God declared him to be not just “good”, but “very good”. And the Bible has a whole vocabulary of Hebrew words that describe the many nuances of God’s love for us, including ‘racham’ – the deep, gut-level attachment that a mother feels for her child.
The image of “Eden space” in the Bible, beginning with the Garden of Eden, shows us that God wants to live in relationship with us. With the humans he created in his image. This is what he designed us for. He created us deliberately. He endowed us with dignity, responsibility, and purpose. And he loves us with a deep, personal and enduring attachment. That’s at the core of the meaning of life.
Genesis 2:20 ↑
Genesis 1:28 ↑