The Purpose of Creation and How It Lends to Understanding New Heaven/Earth
When one reads the creation account in Genesis 1, a learned reader who has been schooled in Hebrew will immediately pick up on the architectural language that’s being used. However, to the unlearned reader, I’d only point out the significance of such architectural language. By using such specific terminology as the author does in Genesis 1, we’re left with the impression that God is making an edifice suited for Himself to dwell in. This was what the gods did in the ancient world when they fashioned temples. The sole purpose of temples was for the deity to rest in rather than as a place for worshippers to gather—though it served that function as well. One of the final acts of making a temple was to adorn it with images of the deity, and in this account, the image of God is adam (human). An ancient near-eastern understanding of the image was that it did the work of the deity and embodied the god’s qualities. We, as the progeny of Adam, still exist in God’s image as it were, but we are shattered images—broken and bruised by sin, but now, we can be remade in the image of Christ.
Temples in the ancient world were very much connected to the cosmos. That’s to say that the temple resembled the intricacies of the world. Hear the words of Josephus who wrote of the Jerusalem temple, “Every one of these objects [in the architecture of the temple] is intended to recall and represent the universe” (Jewish War 3.7.7). Usually, gardens adjoined temples, so when we read about the Garden of Eden, we are reading about something that people could have easily identified within their nearby vicinity. Because temples were viewed as sacred spaces, this creation of the world communicated that God’s world was a sacred space where He dwelt with His image-bearers. At the conclusion of God creating the world, we read that He rested. This was the purpose of temples: a place of divine rest for the deity. Is it to say that God needed to rest? No. The rest was more or less on the heels of resolving a calamity or upon stability being achieved. Since God had just completed creating the world, stability was achieved. Therefore, He took His rest (cf. Ps. 132:7–8, 13–14).
Anytime a temple was defiled, however, the deity departed from it until it was once again cleansed (cf. Ezek. 8:6; 10:18–19; Ps. 78:58–60), so when sin polluted the earth, God casts man out of the Garden and has the tree of life guarded by cherubim (Gen. 3:22–24). Heaven and earth are no longer joined but separate up to a point. This isn’t the totality of the separation, however. God still walked with man, though, because even after such we see the two in one another’s presence: God distinguished offerings between Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:3–16); Enoch walked with God (Gen. 5:24); Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9). However, as time went on God destroyed (cleansed) the earth by flood, though the earth itself remained, and earth became its own realm and heaven separate from it.
For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, but which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. (2 Peter 3:5–7)
After the flood, we read about the first-ever mention of an altar (Gen. 8:20). Just because this is the first mention of an altar doesn’t at all mean that sacrifice hadn’t taken place before, because God made garments from animal skins to clothe Adam and Eve and hide their shame (Gen. 3:21). Also, Abel brought offerings of animal fat to God (Gen. 4:4). What’s different here is that whereas Abel brought his offering to God, Noah presents an offering on an altar to God instead of in person. The close communion of humanity with God was cut off after the flood. Heaven and earth are not one any longer, but separate realities. God comes down to earth when it suits Him (Gen. 11:5), but otherwise, He remains in heaven separate from humanity and our corruption.
Something very much removed from our twenty-first-century lenses is the significance of what’s taking place in Genesis 1. Many who read it today do so to determine whether or not the earth was created in seven literal days. This kind of reading removes the original meaning from the text itself because this is not so much the concern that Moses had when he authored this account.
Some Christians approach the text of Genesis as if it has modern science embedded in it or it dictates what modern science should look like. This approach to the text of Genesis 1 is called “concordism,” as it seeks to give a modern scientific explanation for the details in the text. This represents one attempt to “translate” the culture and text for the modern reader. The problem is, we cannot translate their cosmology to our cosmology, nor should we. If we accept Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, then we need to interpret it as ancient cosmology rather than translate it into modern cosmology. If we try to turn it into modern cosmology, we are making the text say something that it never said.
What Moses was writing, and what ancient hearers and readers would have understood as taking place was that God was creating a temple. When the new heavens and new earth are created, they will be one and not separate because Jesus has dealt the death-blow to sin and futility. Because we understand God’s original purpose behind creation, we can appreciate what He intends with the new creation.