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

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.

Ephesians 1

My wife, Breena, is in a Bible study at church on the book of Ephesians. The study material is written by a famous Calvinist, and Ephesians 1 is one of the key passages that Calvinists use to develop their doctrine of predestination/election. Neither of us are Calvinists, and so we interpret Ephesians 1 significantly differently from our brothers and sisters who believe that God has chosen before time began those who would be saved. Last week, I published a post in which I explained how I interpret Ephesians 1, but I got caught up in technical language, and didn’t produce an article that would be beneficial to most people. So I hope that this post will be something a bit more accessible.

Jesus and Abraham

Breena and I had a long conversation about Ephesians 1, and she found a couple of things very helpful. First of all, when New Testament authors talk about Christians being “chosen,” they aren’t inventing a new concept. The Jewish people were God’s chosen people. Christianity came out of Judaism, and almost all of the first Christians were Jewish. So when someone like Paul talked about being God’s chosen people, or how Christians are chosen in Christ, he was building on a long standing Jewish idea, using terms that were very familiar to him.

The Jews were God’s chosen people because they were the descendants of Abraham, the man that God uniquely chose to form a new nation that would bless all the nations of the earth. They weren’t chosen in the sense that God picked a bunch of individuals out of a crowd of humanity; rather, they inherited Abraham’s chosen-ness like a birthright. They were born into being chosen.

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