LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1-4)
How glorious a picture of creation, and the astounding place of humanity in the vast array of the created order! But what does this remarkable description have to do with the biblical concept of justice? Quite a bit, we will see.
Last week we began to explore what the Bible says about this potentially nebulous concept of “justice,” trying to expand our vision beyond merely the punishment of the wrongdoer, towards a vision of the world where things work rightly, where things are in harmony. Where people, communities and nature itself, flourish. This, we saw, is what the Bible often refers to as shalom (“peace” in many English translations).
This vision of things working rightly together begins very early in the Bible; indeed, the vision is cast for us in the very first narrative of the Bible, that of creation itself.
There is no shortage of debate on the interpretation of the first two chapters of the Bible. What if we approach these first two chapters not by looking for specific answers to contemporary scientific questions, but rather as presenting for us a template on which the rest of the biblical narrative, and in fact the narrative of all of history, will unfold?
Consider Genesis 1:1-2:3. So much has rightly been said about this beautiful narrative, an account set against other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts to extol the absolute uniqueness of Israel’s God, the LORD, and highlighting both the extent (he created all things), the result (he declared things to be very good) and the highlight (humanity as male and female).
The creation account in Genesis 1, as is widely known, proceeds through a series of six days of creation, followed by a seventh day of divine rest. The account describes the creation of spaces and filling of these spaces: days 1 and 4, days 2 and 5, days 3and 6. Many scholars believe this structure, this framework, answers the two-fold problem in Genesis 1:2, that of the world being “formless” and “empty.” So, in the creation narrative, God forms spaces (days 1, 2 and 3), and then correspondingly fills those same spaces (days 4, 5 and 6). In this forming and filling we find the repeated refrain of “it was good,” climaxing in the pronouncement of the whole of creation being “very good” (Gen 1:31). Indeed, the very first chapter of the Bible paints an image for us of a “good” creation, a creation of justice, of the flourishing of creation – filling the spaces, with good rule established in those spaces. We might describe this vision of creation in Genesis 1 as reverberating with harmony. Rebellion against this powerful and just God is absent in Genesis 1 – but will quickly follow. Stay tuned.
Most importantly, the creation account of Genesis 1 crescendos to the creation of humanity as the jewel of the whole creation narrative. Humanity is created in the image of God, a concept that has generated an immense amount of theological reflection! At the very least, this “image-of-God-ness” is one of rule, of being like God, most particularly in his filling and ruling over creation (Gen 1:28). The intention of this filling and ruling is to care for creation and one another, as humanity reflects the very God who has spoken all things in to existence. Rather than “lording it over” creation, humanity is called to be a steward of the good creation.
Thus as we begin to ponder “justice” it behooves us to proclaim initially that we do not engage in “justice” simply because we want to be nice or acceptable people. Nor are we interested in justice because to be interested in justice is somehow in vogue in some corners of the world (interestingly, we might note that many of those so concerned about justice in the world do so from Western perspectives of privilege; I say this simply to resound the concern that our engagement in matters of justice must involve – or even revolve around – the voices arising from contexts where justice is denied, where creation and humanity do not flourish). We engage in justice, in shalom extension, as those who reflect the very God of a good creation, goodness spoken to humanity and indeed all things. To be truly human, then, is to do justice. In so doing, we reflect our creator. This is going to bear upon subsequent reflections throughout the biblical narrative.
This also may give us insight in to the marvel with which subsequent biblical authors meditate on the creation, for example in the Psalms of creation. In several Psalms (e.g. 8, 19, 139) the poet raises his eyes and looks at creation in its natural glory (Ps 19) and particularly in the wonder of humanity in our role as rulers (Psalm 8 and 139). From the perspective of justice, these creation psalms reverberate with the order and majesty so described in Genesis 1, and give poetic voice to the role of humanity in ruling justly over this creation.
A few further observations should be made about the creation narrative, which will come to bear upon our considerations the next few weeks. First, we note that in this first narrative in the Bible, God himself is the source of justice, of shalom, as stated above. So in our calling to follow Jesus in reflecting in our humanity and calling as agents of his justice in the world we really are recovering an original calling of humanity, fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We follow him as he is justice, as we see human flourishing in his earthly ministry, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection.
Second, and very importantly, the final day of the creation narrative is one of rest (Gen 2:2-3), and becomes the basis of the subsequent biblical legislation regarding the seventh day as a Sabbath (see Exod. 20:11). But more than being a day of inactive slumber, the Sabbath also reflects concerns of justice, of the less fortunate in the land enjoying the abundance, the flourishing of creation. Consider, for example, the legislation in Exod. 23:9-12. The pattern of the seventh day and the seventh year being one of “refreshing” all of creation (the land, animals, the poor and the foreigner) finds is roots in the creation pattern of six units of labor followed by a seventh of rest. Rest is not passive and inactive; rest is engagement in the acts of flourishing and justice.
And so, the biblical creation narrative sets out for us a wonderful picture of justice, of shalom. But something goes terribly wrong in the narrative, and the remainder of the biblical narrative is an expansive and comprehensive story of how God makes things not just right, restoring justice…but will make things even better through the work of Jesus Christ.