Order in the Liminal Realm

This is a rather long, and dense, quote from John Walton’s new book, The Lost World of the Torah, but it is worth sharing because it helps us to understand some very important things about the Torah, and the world in which it was created. For context’s sake, this quote comes near the beginning of Proposition (what Walton calls chapters in his Lost World series) 14: Torah is Situated in the Context of Israelite Theology Regarding Yahweh’s Presence Residing Among Them.

[T]he seven days of creation are primarily concerned with God ordering the cosmos to serve as the domain over which he will rule when he takes up his residence and rest in Eden (which is effectively a cosmic temple). In the [Ancient Near East], the world outside of the divine realm was divided broadly into two areas: the human realm, where order was established and maintained, and the liminal realm, where it was not. The liminal realm existed on the periphery of creation and was home to dangerous animals; harsh and inedible plants; hostile terrain such as deserts, mountains, or the sea; and unworldly entities such as demons, wandering spirits, or monstrous demihuman barbarians. The ordered world was protected and sustained by the gods as they took their rest in their temples; rest here refers to active residence and rule, not passive relaxation. The gods do not rest in a bed or on a couch; they rest on the throne. In Genesis, this even days of creation describe the establishment of the ordered world. The process is completed on the seventh day when Yahweh enters into his rest. When Adam and Eve choose to take wisdom (the “knowledge of good and evil,” Gen 2:17) for themselves, they simultaneously become like God (Gen 3:22) and thereby inherit the responsibility to establish and sustain order. Consequently, they are sent out into the liminal world and charged with setting it in order themselves, which they attempt to do by establishing cities and civilization, the structures that were thought to establish order in the human world throughout the ANE. Genesis 4-11 records that these attempts were unsuccessful; cities and civilizations do not, in fact, lead to an ordered condition. The remainder of Genesis provides the setup for Israel’s proposed alternative, which is an order established by God through the instrument of the covenant. The covenant is not a return to Eden (which is neither anticipated nor desired in the Old Testament), but it does represent a kind of order that is sustained by the gods (Yahweh) rather than by humans through human efforts. This divine-centered order is finally established in Exodus with the ratification of the covenant and the construction of the tabernacle, where God takes up his rest among the people (Ex 40:34).
John Walton, The Lost World of the Torah

Walton offers a fairly radical (to us) understanding of the seven days of creation in this text, and he is building upon what he laid out in his excellent book, The Lost World of Genesis 1, which I reviewed here. I have also written about Genesis 1 before, so I won’t rehash all of that in this post. What really caught my attention was the idea of the liminal realm, or wilderness, for Ancient Near East peoples. The wilderness is where chaos reigns, where the world refuses to be subdued and ordered. The wilderness (which would have included the sea) was the home of the chaos monsters and the dark spiritual forces who resisted the will of the gods. The liminal realm was inhospitable to life, and only the accursed would go there.

That’s what makes Walton’s statement about Adam and Eve so interesting. They sought the wisdom of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thinking that it would make them like God. This was a direct act of disobedience and defiance, to say the least, and so God sent them out of the order of Eden and into the chaos of the wilderness. In other words, God judged them by giving them what they wanted. It’s as though he said, “Very well then, you want to be gods, go out into the chaos and create order. If you want to be gods so badly, go ahead and give it a try.” Even in God’s very first act of judgment, he is, as Paul says in Romans, giving them over to the desires of their hearts.

We thought we were becoming like the gods, but instead we became the chaos monsters.

Genesis 4-11 show us, with tragic clarity, that it is impossible for the humans to create order out of chaos. Our inclination is to exacerbate the chaos. The cities are no protection against the chaos, as we know all too well today. One cannot simply build walls in the liminal realm and expect to keep the chaos monsters at bay. We thought we were becoming like the gods, but instead we became the chaos monsters. And there is no place for a chaos monster in Eden. As I have said before, we are the walking dead.

God is the only one who can bring order out of chaos. How many times have you entered your own liminal realm, your own chaotic world, attempting to bring order to the chaos? Without God, we fail at this. We might be able to build a city, but that city will become a ghetto. We might be able to build a community, but that community will go to war with its neighbors. We might be able to raise a family, but that family will be crushed under the weight of our expectations. God is the one who brings order into our chaos, because he is the only one who is God.

But a funny thing happens when we humble ourselves and admit that we are not gods – we kind of become gods! But only kind of. When we humble ourselves before God and repent of trying to bring order to chaos in our own power, a remaking process begins. God responds to our humility by slowly and steadily remaking us into His image-bearers. We become like Him. Through the power of His indwelling Spirit, we are capable of bringing order into the liminal realms of our lives. We are able to make our wildernesses into Edens because God lives with us by His Spirit.

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