Seven Pillars of Creation

I recently read Michael P. Brown’s “The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder“, an exploration of scripture in light of modern science, with emphasis on our current ecological crisis here on Earth. Brown, a Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, explores what the Bible and science have to say about our proper relationship to the earth, to nonhuman life, and to each other.

Brown does this by exploring each of the seven creation narratives that he identifies in the Bible. Genesis is the the most famous creation narrative, but there are clearly others.

The following are the seven pillars identified by Brown, along with some of the themes that he highlights for each one:

  • Genesis 1 – Six days of creation and one of rest. Brown explores many themes here, but to give one example: “The hoarding of resources is implicitly forbidden in the account: seed-bearing plants and fruit trees are granted to animals and humans alike (1:30).” And of course, looking upon creation, “God saw that it was good.”
  • Genesis 2 – Eden. Brown highlights the kinship of the first human with the earth, from which the human is taken. Brown emphasizes the service of the man and woman to the garden, and to each other; all of this turns into something very different after the couple succumb to “fear, blame, and the will to power.”
  • Job 38-41 – God’s answer to Job from the whirlwind. God takes Job on a tour of the wild edges of creation, giving him a close look at animals that may appear as alien, untamed, repulsive, threatening, beyond human explanation, yet always admirable in the eyes of their creator. Brown calls this speech by God a kind of Copernican revolution, because it shows Job that humanity is not the center or apex of creation and reminds us that God loves all of it. And this has obvious implications for how we are to treat it.
  • Psalm 104 – The psalmist expresses God’s joy in all of created life. This creation narrative, more than others, pays attention to plant life. Again the general theme is God’s delight in creation.
  • Proverbs 8:22-31 – This is the account by Wisdom, who was present with God at the creation. The world appears in this text as Wisdom’s plaything, as well as her house; and caring for creation is wisdom.
  • Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 (+3:1-8, 12:1-8) – This is the text famous for declaring that “all is vanity” but that there is a time appointed for “every purpose under the heaven” (1:2, 3:1, KJV). Brown’s chapter is entitled “The Dying Cosmos.” Creation here is an infinitely old recycling, in which nothing is new under the sun (1:9), yet the good life is still possible: it is a life in which abundance is not grasped for, not accumulated, but gratefully accepted as God’s gift.
  • Isaiah 40-55 (excerpts) – Israel is promised a return from exile in Babylon. Second Isaiah, the author of these chapters, likens this renewal and restoration to a re-creation, even a new creation: a repairing not just of humans but of the earth.

Brown explores all these themes while holding a running dialogue with modern scientific knowledge. His goal is not, like biblical creationists, to present the Bible as inerrant and scientifically accurate; nor does he come from the other end, trying to debunk the Bible as a backward text with no valid meaning for moderns. He does compare the ancient text with modern knowledge, and he discusses the points at which the ancient text is or is not contradicted by modern science. But the goal is not to grade the Bible as a scientific paper. The goal is a dialogue.

For example, we read in Genesis that God looked upon creation and “saw that it was good.” Brown asks what this might mean in light of quantum mechanics, in particular the famous “observer effect” — the fact that “observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes it.” For Brown, this fact suggests that God did not merely look passively upon a finished product, but that God’s looking was part of the creation — part of what finished the process and made it “good.”

Brown has several further reflections on what the creation narratives might be saying in light of modern cosmology, Darwinian evolution, chaos theory, scientific definitions of time, etc.

Some of this may be well-trod territory. But as a lifelong reader of the Bible — and not a scientist — I found it consistently interesting. And though the book covers fairly well-known science such as the Big Bang, I learned some new ideas about the possible ultimate fate of the universe (ch. 9: “The Fabric of the Cosmos”), and the possible origins of art and religion.

Brown also mentions an interesting theory linking gender with the evolution of intelligence in primates (ch. 7: “Wisdom’s World”).

There are a couple of things in this book that I think are especially useful:

  • An appendix gives us a chart of the seven biblical creation-narratives. Here you can see at a glance what each of these narratives says about creation, life, God and humanity. Also provided: the modern scientific understanding of each of the themes or events related in the narratives.
  • In the Job chapter, Brown writes up a speech that God might give to a modern-day Job. This is eye-opening because, though the ancient text clearly meant to take Job on a tour of the alien, untameable and least-understood of God’s creatures, we moderns look at the animals mentioned by God and see them merely as any animals you might encounter in the pages of National Geographic. So Brown gives us speech by God that takes Job to the bottom of today’s oceans, to encounter rarely seen and poorly understood creatures that still impress moderns as alien, undomesticated, or “weird.” God, as he does in the ancient text, admires all of this life.

See also: A Review of the Seven Pillars of Creation.

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