The Book of Genesis opens with the story of creation told in two different ways. The first, Genesis 1 – 2: 3, tends to be better known, and it quickly works into a nice pattern: God commands, creation happens, God declares creation good.
By the time God, using the royal we, creates human beings “in our image and after our likeness,” it seems that the major thing we know about that image and likeness is that it involves creating good things. If human beings are to be like God, then we ought to create good things as well. Indeed, it’s in part through this passage that we can claim human beings are co-creators with God: sharing in God’s image means sharing in God’s way of being and acting.
Yet we shouldn’t rush too quickly past the opening verses of Genesis’ first chapter if we want to know more about what God is up to in the act of creation. Unlike the later Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, from nothing, Genesis 1:1-2 tells us that there was something: a dark, formless abyss covered by water. While water is necessary to sustain life, in this case the biblical imagery is of water’s chaos. Creation stands in opposition to chaos, and it is the breath of God—God’s Spirit—that sweeps over the waters to bring forth life.
Moral theologian James Keenan, S.J. describes mercy as entering into chaos to help others in their need (1). If we use that definition to reflect on Genesis 1, then God’s creation is not only splendid and good but also meaningful: creation is an act of mercy.
The second creation story begins in Genesis 2:4. Unlike the first story, in which human beings are created after six days, in this version humans are created before the other animals. The first creation story communicates God’s power to create by fiat—simply by commanding. The author of this second story, however, enjoyed puns: In Hebrew, “adam” means “human being,” and is similar to the word for ground, “adama.” Building on that pun, God forms Adam from the earth, an image that calls to mind a potter working with clay. God makes other creatures out of the ground as well to find a companion for Adam, but with no good match until Eve is created from Adam’s body.
The two stories of creation are told differently in order to communicate different truths about God, ourselves, and other creatures. Yet, similarly to the first account, in the second creation story, God’s breath brings life: God not only forms Adam from the earth but also breathes the Spirit into Adam. Human beings are shaped to receive the divine breath and come alive through the Spirit.
If we are created in the divine image and likeness, then mercy is the purpose of being co-creators with God. If we conspire—breathe with—the Spirit of God, then God’s mercy is not only the principle of our own life, but is also what our lives are meant to embody. Formed by God in the divine image and likeness, we receive the Spirit who enters into the chaos to create life from the watery abyss. Conspiring with mercy is neither easy nor free from risk. But it is good.
(1) James Keenan, Moral Wisdom (Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010) 118.