Art in Creation: God as Sculptor

(A guest post by Bryan Lilly)

The idea of art is found all throughout the creation narratives of Genesis. Creation is, of course, more than art, but it is certainly nothing less. Take the idea of aesthetics, for example. In the same way that a painter, who has been working on specific details of his painting, will often step back to remind himself of bigger picture and judge whether the element he has been working on brings the aesthetic he wants, so too God steps back from working on the details of his creation to view it in light of the bigger picture. He does this no less than seven times in Genesis 1, and each time he does so he gives it a value judgment: “this is good.” In his commentary on Genesis in the Interpretation series, Walter Brueggemann argues that God is not giving a moral/ethical judgment, but an aesthetic judgment. Brueggemann is certainly overstating his case- there’s definitely an ethical element involved- but I don’t think we need to take it as an either/or issue.

Aesthetics is not where I want to camp out today, however. I want to look at the creation narrative in light of the idea of God as sculptor. This idea, appropriately, is rooted in the beginning. Genesis 1:1-2 states that God created, and that the creation was initially formless and empty. The verb translated create here (bâʾrâ) is always used of a divine act. God created the material that would be contained in all things, but had yet to give shape to any of it. The ancients reading this narrative would have recognized the idea of chaos latent in this description. The creation narrative is one of overcoming chaos, fashioning matter into an orderly world. The picture presented in the text is very much a like a sculptor standing before an untouched block. All the material he needs is before him, but he has yet to give it shape, to give it order. Slowly and surely, the sculptor begins to chisel, order, and form- the creation begins to take shape. Land emerged from the chaotic primeval waters, trees and plants sprouted and grew, animals, fish, and birds came and roamed the newly ordered world.

At each step, God stood back to view his masterpiece as a whole. He sized up how each element fit together with the rest, how each thing fit together with every other thing- like several strands of thread woven together in a system that produces a larger fabric. He worked on the details of time- light and dark, seasons, orbits- then moved on to the next detail of land. But not before stepping back and declaring that this was good. This was beautiful. And so it was after every divine act of creation. This is good. This is beautiful. I wonder if the two are somehow connected- that in the shalom; of paradise, part of the aesthetic beauty was it’s ethical goodness.

God has given order to chaos. He has shaped the formally formless material much the way a sculptor brings forth a sculpture out of a slab of rock. Finally, the movement of God’s creating acts brings us to the high point of the narrative- the creation of Adam and Eve. Here, we find a surprising statement: “Let us make human beings in our image.” The amount written on what this phrase means is legion, and I won’t begin to dive into that discussion here. What I want to focus on is how the idea begins to play out. Immediately, after creating Adam and Eve, God gives them this charge: subdue the earth. What does it mean to subdue the earth? At it’s most simplest idea, God means for them to cultivate the earth. They were to take the elements of creation, and fashion and shape them in order to harness it’s potential and use it for their benefit. In other words, they were to continue shaping God’s great creation. They are called to participate in the great sculpture. They were not called to join in the act of bâʾrâ; which only God can do, but to cultivate the result of it. We, too, are called to this creation mandate. Part of the image of God, whatever it is, is the expression of the creativity shown in these creation narratives. Not in the sense of bringing something out of nothing, but in the sense of shaping, of bringing order out of the chaos. In sculpting this world for the glory of God.