Order and 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.

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virtuous and royal image bearers of God

What does it mean to be made in God’s image? Many theologians and philosophers down through the ages have offered their best thinking to this question, and the question is so large that there is no pithy answer. To be made in the image of God means more than we can possible understand, given that it is impossible for any creature to fully comprehend his Creator. To be an image-bearer means many things, and Gregory of Nyssa, in his essay On the Making of Man offers this important insight: “the fact that [human nature] is the image of that Nature which rules over all means nothing else than this, that our nature was created to be royal from the first.” In other words, humans are royalty. Not just some humans, as we have seen throughout history, but all humans. Every person is cosmic royalty because every human being was created in the image of God. We were designed to be little-rulers of God’s vast creation, representing him in wisdom, courage, and humility.


We must be virtuous in order to faithfully execute our royal office.

That last part is the key. We must be virtuous in order to faithfully execute our royal office. In the end, it is virtue that separates us from the animals. In making us in His own image, God has, according to Gregory, marked us with the virtues of “purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature.” God created us to be like Himself, limited only by the fact that we are created beings and not Being itself. This limitation does not apply, it would seem, to goodness. While we never be The Good, we can be – and by the transformative power of the Spirit will one day be – good. We will be so good, in fact, that our desires will align perfectly with our nature (as God intended it), that sin will be impossible for us. But all of this will not happen until the resurrection, for it is impossible to achieve perfection in this life.

What we can be, however, is virtuous. In fact, the pursuit of virtue is required by our station. It is virtue that makes us human. It is virtue that makes us kings and queens. To neglect virtue – whether from laziness or the wrongheaded assumption that, since we are saved by grace there is no need to be good – is to reject the divine imaged-ness of our nature. It is to say to God, “You do all the work, and I will just sit back and wait to enjoy the eschaton.” As Jesus might say, “You wicked and lazy servant!” Is God your servant? Is the image bearer above the one whose image he bears? Again, from Gregory, “There is a great difference between that which is conceived in the archetype, and a thing which has been made in its image: for the image is properly so called if it keeps its resemblance to the prototype; but if the imitation be perverted from its subject, the thing is something else, and no longer an image of the subject.” You are the image of God; therefore, be the image of God.

To be virtuous means to be faithful to our Creator, to live in accordance with the intention for which He created us. You cannot find out who you truly are by indulging every desire, following your heart, or realizing your dreams. Undisciplined, those inevitably move us further from our truest selves. The only real path to self-realization is self-denial. As the Lord told His disciples, “Whoever wants to find his life must lose it.” If we are, in fact, created by God to be royalty, we must educate our desires in the way of Jesus. We must put on the virtues, even when it feels fake. (Honesty is a virtue, but authenticity – as we understand it – is not. It is important to learn the difference.) We cannot rule God’s creation in wisdom, courage, and humility until we learn to do those things which we know we must do even we do not want to do them. We will only become our true selves by putting on virtue, which comes only from obeying the commands of God rather than the commands of our desires.

To enjoy God and His world...
…[I]n the same manner the rich and munificent Entertainer of our nature, when He had decked the habitation with beauties of every kind, and prepared this great and varied banquet, then introduced man, assigning to him as his task not the acquiring of what was not there, but the enjoyment of the things which were there; and for this reason He gives him as foundations the instincts of a two-fold organization, blending the Divine with the earthy, that by means of both he may be naturally and properly disposed to each enjoyment, enjoying God by means of his more divine nature, and the good things of earth by the sense that is akin to them.
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man

I love that bit in the middle of this half of a sentence (yes, this is only half of the sentence): “assigning to him as his task not the acquiring of what was not there, but the enjoyment of the things which were there.” God created us to enjoy our environment, which in Eden included Himself. However, in our perpetual discontent and ambition, we seek to acquire for ourselves that which is “not there.” We bend nature to our desires and remake ourselves in the image of our longing. We recklessly pursue contentment in that which is not yet because we stubbornly refuse to receive, with gratitude and humility, that which has been given. But God has given us all things that we need; and all things that he has given us are for our enjoyment.

Above all, God has, in creation, given us Himself. The gods of other nations, who desire power above all, have crafted their creation myths in such a way as to elevate themselves, not only above the other gods, but especially above humans. Man is, for them, an instrument of their pleasure, a mass of disposable paeans whose sole purpose is to give themselves completely to their service. But these gods offer man nothing; nothing, that is, but punishment and affliction. When they deign to show their face to mankind it is violent, selfish, and capricious. But Israel’s God, though he also demands that mankind give themselves fully to Him, does so as a covenant of reciprocation, for Israel’s God has given Himself first to man, before any man or woman could give themselves to Him. God, in creation, reveals His nature to man by giving man a nature that can perceive His revelation. For God, creation is not a demonstration of His power, but of His humility, in that He condescends to reveal Himself in fellowship to His rational creatures.

The genesis of our telos, the beginning of our proper end, is to enjoy God and the world He has made. Though we are commissioned to rule God’s creation, we cannot rule it unless we first love it. Neither can we serve and obey God unless we first love Him. To love God means many things, but it cannot mean anything less than to delight in Him, to enjoy His presence as our life-giving fellowship. In the same way, we love God by delighting in His creation, overawed by the vase expanse of space, by the surging power of the ocean’s depths, by the majestic mountain landscapes that pepper every continent. Even, dare I say, by standing in awe of our fellow man; fallen though he may be, each and every one of us still bears the image of this God who delights in our delight of Him and his world.

Photo by Aniket Deole on Unsplash

Yogi Durbin

There isn’t a single person on this earth who loved softball more than Yogi Durbin. He often joked, even from the pulpit that we shared at Hope Church, that if he had his choice, he wanted the Lord to take him right there on the softball field. Everybody always laughed, but I think that’s what he actually hoped for. He wanted to die doing what he loved, able-bodied and of sound mind. In a tragic way, he got his wish. Yogi had a massive heart attack after a softball game, and though he lived for another two weeks, from what I understand his last living memory was of being on the softball field, playing the beautiful game with people he loved. When he finally did pass from this life into the arms of Jesus, he was surrounded by his family, who loved and admired him deeply. May God be with the whole Durbin family.

Yogi loved people. He was a pastor in the truest sense of the word. Whether it was after service on Sundays, in his home during the week, or, most importantly to him, doing hospital visitations, Yogi loved the people that God brought to him. He was always looking for ways to help people, especially those who had fallen on hard times. But he wasn’t the kind of person to just cut a check and trust that money would solve someone’s problem; he was ready to jump into the lives of people who seemed to chronically find themselves in hard times. His instinct wasn’t to judge them, but to lead them out of their often self-inflicted troubles, if he could. That takes a lot of work. And commitment. Not many people have the patience to love people that way.

Yogi wanted everybody to meet Jesus. He loved Jesus, and knew that, no matter what else is going on in your life, if you’ve got Jesus you’re going to be alright. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and Yogi was gripped by the reality that the only way to God the Father is through Jesus the Son. He didn’t want anybody to miss out on that because the consequences are eternal. What Jesus offers is better than anything that the world can offer, and he was deeply saddened by how many people choose the world over Jesus. That’s why he was in ministry – to preach the Gospel. And he did. He preached the Gospel and expounded the Scriptures faithfully, like a good servant of Jesus Christ. He did not preach as many do today, to be approved by fallen men and women who are captive to the world’s way of thinking. He taught as one approved by God, and who sought only God’s approval.

Yogi led Hope Church well. When we arrived there, the church was in a difficult place. But there were good people there, and we brought good people with us. Together, with the Lord’s help, the Spirit’s power, and Yogi leading the way, we made Hope Church work. That sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to be able to take a church on the downswing, combine it with a church plant, and make it not just survive, but thrive. But that’s what happened. Hope wasn’t Yogi’s largest church or his most fruitful ministry, but it is a significant part of his legacy. While my time there did not end how or when I would have liked, it was an honor to serve with Yogi for those three years. He was not afraid to make hard decisions, and he always did what was best for the church. He left that church a lot better than he found it, and that is quite an accomplishment.

Finally, Yogi deeply loved his family. He was so proud of his kids and grandkids. He always spoke of them in glowing terms – especially the grandkids. He was the consummate Grandpa, a true Poppy, full of energy and life for those sweet little souls. We didn’t get to see the family together often, but I imagine the little ones swarming him at first sight, climbing all over him, and I can see his face beaming with pride and delight. My heart breaks especially for them, because in this life they have lost a good Poppy, a faithful protector, and a mutual source of joy and happiness. But I hope they know that his face toward them will never change, an eternal grin and sparkling eyes. Yogi’s body may have been taken from this world, but the love and delight he had for his family remains with them for the rest of their lives, until it is fulfilled in glory when they all meet again in the presence of Jesus Christ.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
-Romans 8:35,37-39

Last Wednesday I spoke at the Ash Wednesday service of Heritage Christian Church. It was a bit of a “full circle” moment for me, as Heritage is where I started off in ministry after graduating from seminary. Our family has been attending there since I left the ministry last August, and it has been a good experience for all of us. You can watch the entire service here.

At the end of the sermon we stood and prayed this prayer of renunciation of appetite:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you alone satisfy and fill me. Your way leads to life. My way leads to death. Place me, now, in your way.
I renounce my appetite for food beyond what I need to sustain me for your service.
I renounce my appetite for money beyond what I need to live generously.
I renounce my appetite for sex beyond the bounds of marriage.
I renounce my appetite for power not used in service of others.
I renounce my appetite for attention that brings me glory instead of you.
I renounce the indulgence of every appetite that conflicts with your righteousness.
Rescue me, Jesus, by the power of your death and resurrection, from this life of slavery to my appetites. Fill me with the Holy Spirit, that I may walk in the ways of the Father all the days of my life. Amen.

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