Creation and the Image of God: Parashat Bereishit

Normally when one thinks of David Attenborough’s documentaries, one ponders over the wonder and beauty of this planet – whether it is the lusciousness, the extravagance, the colour, the variety under the surface of the seas in The Blue Planet: the Seas of Life (2002), a series on the natural history of the world’s oceans, or the teeming of life on earth in The Life of Mammals (2002), or the sheer beauty of this miraculous life-giving ball in the cosmological heavens in his greatest classic series, Planet Earth (2006). However, his latest documentary, Extinction: The Facts (2020), is about destruction not creation, about the threat this world faces now that will make the past five mass extinctions in the history of the world look like child’s play. Millions of species are now at risk. And the risk is man-made this time.

The current crisis of biodiversity has enormous consequences. It threatens all of life on earth, our food security and our climate and even the multiplication of more and more threatening pandemic diseases. The surprise is that the film is not simply a tale of calamity, but a story of love, a story of faith, a story of ingenuity, a story of how the creativity of man can surge forth at the last second of history and save this wondrous planet.

Make no mistake about it, we are on the verge of an apocalypse. We have to reverse the losses underway in only ten years. It is our last and only chance. However, this documentary is not a portrait of despair, but a paeon to human ingenuity and creativity. One million species of animals are now threatened with extinction according to a recent UN report as animals, as wildlife, as the fish in the seas, are pushed to the edge of oblivion. According to David Attenborough, we must find a way to put the wild back into the world.

After watching Extinction: the Facts, I wondered why the Genesis story, the story of the origins of our world, never mentions extinctions or mass destruction. Why is it only a tale of creation? Why is it a story in which God pronounces that what has been created is good?  The universe that we know of is 14 billion years old. The Earth is 4.6 billion years old. The first known life forms appeared about 3.6 billion years ago. Approximately 9/10ths of evolution took place before we have a record of mass extinctions. During the last half billion years, there have been five mass extinctions that devastated the biodiversity on the planet at that time. Each time, a very large percentage of all known living species became extinct.

 Species LossMillions of YearsCausesCharacter
Ordovician-85%440Continental DriftPlanet-wide ice age Rapid Melt
Devonian-80%375Land ColonizationOcean oxygen loss Temperature decline
Permian-96%250Volcanoes & MeteorsLoss of oxygen Extremophiles
Triassic-Jurassic-50%200Meteor Strike & VolcanoesChange in ocean PH
Cretacious-Tertiary-75%  65Asteroid ImpactRadical alteration of atmosphere

The beginning of God’s creation, the beginning of the invisible life force of creativity, moves from chaos to greater order. The periods of reversal are omitted. Why? Because it is not a history of nature but of the invisible hand of creativity. The story of destruction will come through science. The Torah is literature. This is the story of the sustenance of the world that depends on creativity.

In the beginning of God’s creating the heaven and the earth, the earth was unformed and empty of all life. Water covered the entire planet and winds swept unhindered over the surface with wild and uncontrollable storms. As I wrote above, the earth was 4.6 billion years old. But so is the sun. The earth and the sun are coterminous. Light is created on the first day. There could be no life on this planet without the sun, without its light and energy. There could also be no life without the periodicity of the darkness. The earth went round and round creating day and night. And it went around the sun creating the seasons.

The earth rose out of these waters as mountains and volcanoes. And gradually evaporation from the seas replaced the toxic gases from the volcanoes and the fire storms beneath the earth’s surface that spewed their poisons into the atmosphere. Violent molten rock withered away as water fell back to earth and hydrogen-consuming microbes grew and recirculated oxygen and carbon dioxide. From them we received vegetation. Life forms began to evolve at higher and higher levels of complexity.

But how can Chapter 14-19 on “the fourth day” witness the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars, the preconditions for the first few days. Because what we then obtain are “set times,” days and nights, seasons and years. Nature begins to stabilize and its rhythms are then set. Only then on the fifth day do we get the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea and the animals that roam the earth.

What happens then? On the sixth day (verse 26), God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” to “rule the fish in the sea, the birds of the sky” and the cattle and creeping and creepy creatures that slither across the earth. Maimonides thought that the core of humanity was reason and that God was rationality incarnate; man’s reason was the image of God’s. It was through the intellect that humans attain their religious and spiritual goals. But nowhere does the text mention reason or even thought in the first chapter of Genesis.

Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Akiva thought that man was made in the image of God because he possesses moral decency. It is that decency that declares that the works of God are good. After all, Deuteronomy (6:18) reads, “You shall do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.” God’s essence is not constituted by thought let alone reason, but by deeds. But there are all kinds of deeds. If I assign a mark to a student, that is a deed. But the only deeds mentioned are acts of physical creation, of making something out of nothing, order out of that which seemed to lack order. Further, the deeds were not declared “good.” The things created are called good.

Humans are made in the image of God because they have ingenuity, they have creativity, they can bring novelty into the world. Bible scholars suggest that since man is instructed to “rule” over all of nature, this means that humans are God’s managers of life on earth. Humans, all humans, each and every individual and not only a king, are God’s viceroys and stewards. We are all equally responsible for the well-being of the biosphere. Humans have as their first and paradigmatic value the protection and nurturing of that biosphere.

Yet the earth is within cosmic seconds of total devastation. In the dialectic of desire, of envisioning and creating interacting with the duty and responsibility to sustain life, man has failed in his foremost responsibility. Life is sustenance. Life is survival. But man’s creativity and ingenuity has endangered that life. Create and sustain, not imagine and destroy – that is our duty and obligation. God is one only when the two, when desire and life dance together.  Only when the two waltz into the future can the earth be appreciated as a work of art and amazement. Only then can we wonder in awe over creation.

But we now stand on the precipice of fear. But David Attenborough says that it is not too late. Joe Biden says it is not too late. We can both live our lives and repair rather than destroy the world. Only then can we be earth’s guardian angels. Only then can we repeat the movement from chaos to order instead of order to disorder. Only then can we move from the inanimate to the animate instead of the reverse. Only then can we become our higher selves. Only then can we live in the image of God. Only then can we be partners of God in the work of creation.

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