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Recovering Our Place in Creation

Monday, 2 March 2015  | Len Hjalmarson

Place has its own history, its own story, and our ability to perceive and to talk about “place” is conditioned by culture. As a result of some historical distortions, we have some work to do in recovering a biblical theology – and then a Christian practice – of place. Recovering these things requires that we also re-place humankind within the creation. For what purpose were we created?

Genesis 1 and 2 offer complementary accounts of God’s work in creation. The sixth day, Genesis 1:26-27 has dominated our vision. On this day God makes human beings, and we discover we are made in God’s image, created for a purpose.

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image,
according to Our
and let them rule …


We are told to “subdue” and to rule. In the second account (Gen. 2:7-9, 15) we discover the manner of our making, more about our purpose, and what we share with other creatures. Humankind, the Genesis account of creation asserts, is a species among species, fully embedded in the natural world, created not just from the same matter, but coming out of the creation itself, “dust from dust.” We are created both imago Dei, in the image of God, and imago mundi, in the image of the earth. We share a kinship with the rest of God’s creation. We are beings in relation: first to God, and then to God’s creatures.

This sense of participation in the larger life of creation is nearly lost to us. Our dualisms of God and world, sacred and secular, nature and super-nature, pushed God out of the world. The church separated itself from the rest of reality by locating religious activities and symbols in one sphere, and defining the rest of the world as separate and secular. What’s left is a perceived natural world devoid of the sacred.

But Eastern views are more relational, so that the participation of God in the world, and of the world in God, is mediated by the Spirit. As in Col. 1:15-17 Christ, “upholds (present tense) all things by the word of his power.” This accent on God’s immanence mirrors the Hebrew vision we find in the Psalms, as Psalm 65: "You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. … [T]he valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing."

Much of our self-understanding in relation to creation hinges on a word and a phrase. The word is dominion (KJV; NASB “rule”), and the phrase is imago Dei. The word for dominion is a strong word. Ellen Davis translates radah as, “skilled mastery.” She notes that the word suggests something like a craft or an art in our mastery.

Yet human beings are not, in the Genesis account, just a species among species because we alone among all of the creatures are made imago Dei, in the image of God. At times this idea has been distorted and secularized to support domination more than dominion. The current environmental problems we face, what St. Paul describes as the groaning of creation in Romans 8, demonstrate the dangers of domination.

A recovery of a sense of our relatedness to creation helps us move away from the detachment that leads to abuse. The Trinitarian renaissance that is under way has reinforced the turn to relationality, while also helping us to escape some of the interpretive dualism of the Enlightenment, which led to secularization. Part of this movement was to conceive of the Imago as an inward reality, expressed outwardly not through embodiment but through rationality. Salvation, in turn, became an inward and private experience. But if we let imago rest in the text and not tradition and culture, embodiment and relationality are the horizon. God’s fiat is itself relational (“let US make man”) and its outcome is plural and implicitly relational (“in the image of God he created THEM”).

The Eastern tradition begins with the relationality of the three divine persons. In John Zizioulas, relational personhood is constitutive of being: a component of essence. There is no personal identity without relationality. What does this mean for the imago Dei? It means that personhood is a relational quality. Put another way, to speak of persons we must speak of relations, and not merely being.

Some interpreters argue for a functional reading of the Imago over a substantive reading. In this approach, the text is not so much a description of the being (ontology) of humanity, as our purpose and function in the creation. Thus imago Dei indicates that God created humanity to represent him in ruling the world. John Walton demonstrates, through comparative ancient literature, that the Genesis creation account does not describe material origins but rather a functional ontology. In this account something exists only when it has a role and a purpose in an ordered system. In the first six days, God sets up a cosmos to function for human beings. The seventh day then becomes the climax of the story.

In traditional readings of Genesis, the seventh day is often treated as a theological appendix tacked on after the important details are out of the way. But a reader in the ancient East would read the Genesis account and immediately see what modern readers miss: Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. The temple was the control room from which the god exercised control of the cosmos.

Deity rests in a temple, and ancient temples were made functional in a seven day ceremony. On the seventh day the deity was brought in and the temple then existed: could function as it was designed to do. Walton writes,

Genesis 1 is composed along the lines of a temple dedication ceremony… The functions center on the royal and priestly roles of people, but the imagery is defined by the presence of God who has taken up his rest in the center of the cosmic temple. Through him, order is maintained, and nonfunctional disorder is held at bay – through him all things cohere. (The Lost World of Genesis One, 61)

Walton’s work brings out the broader telos of the biblical narrative: our destiny is both kingly and concrete -- to rule an earthly kingdom with Christ. More than this, however, we serve as priests in God’s earthly temple, which is at the center of God’s work in the cosmos. (See in particular Isa. 66:1-2)

The cosmos is seen as a temple, with God resting at the center. How does this connect to place and place-making? Following the Hebrew priority on function, we are priests at work in God’s temple. Place-making is more than the creation of a temporary culture: it begins here and now in the common and ordinary places of this world and extends into the kingdom of God. Moreover, if God sits at the center of his creation, then all the earth is sacred space. Walton notes, “The most central truth to the creation account is that this world is a place for God’s presence.” (Walton, 83-84)

Imago, Land and Sabbath

From the beginning, in the first accounts of God and humankind in creation, purpose and function is at the fore. What did God create humans to do? Ellen Davis notes that dominion (radah) suggests “skilled mastery.” Now we need to notice the narrative that connects the two accounts of the creation of humankind. We read in Psalm 132,

Let us go to his dwelling place;

Let us worship at his footstool—

“arise, O Lord, and come to your resting place,

You and the ark of your might.”

For the Lord has chosen Zion,

He has desired it for his dwelling:

“This is my resting place for ever and ever;

Here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.”  Psalm 132:7-8, 13-14


The Psalm pulls together the idea of divine rest, the temple, and enthronement. After creation, God takes up his rest and rules from his place of residence in the cosmos. From this place he assumes control of all things.


Therefore human dominion, the six days work to which we are called, find its pattern in God’s activity, and its beginning and end in God’s rest. The earth not only belongs to God, it is inhabited by God, and is a gift from God. Our more destructive patterns reveal that we easily treat the earth as our possession rather than as the place where God rules. “When the Creator God is eliminated from the question of land-creation, then the land question is characteristically resolved… on the basis of power, without any question about legitimacy.” (Brueggemann, “To Whom Does the Land Belong?” 29)

This role of mastery under God is revealed in two other powerful ways. First, by another mandate given in Genesis 2:15, “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate (shamar) it and keep it.” The word shamar means to keep, protect, preserve, watch, and guard. Often, the word is used to talk about how God cares for humankind, as in Psalm 121. The psalm contains a beautiful expression of this idea in verses 5-8:

The LORD is your keeper [shamar];
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.

The sun will not smite you by day, Nor the moon by night.

The LORD will protect [shamar] you from all evil;

He will keep [shamar] your soul.

The LORD will guard [shamar] your going out

and your coming in from this time forth and forever.

In Genesis 2:15, the Lord tells humanity to shamar the land – to watch over it, protect it, guard it, and keep it, as stewards given a trust. We are called to participate in Christ's role as sustainer of creation. Walton notes that these roles – creator and sustainer -- are less distinct than once we thought. Because Genesis 1 is not a material account of origins so much as a functional account of God’s enthronement, the focus is on God’s continuing work in creation. God “is not only the Creator of the original state of affairs but of all present and future realities.” (Walton, 121). He is intimately involved in our world.

Secondly, the role of mastery is relativized by Sabbath. Sabbath requires the humility of knowing that we obtain nothing by our anxious striving. Sabbath reminds us of this by offering a full six days of labor and a seventh day to confess our failings, to seek God’s wisdom, and to rest in dependence on God who rules. The accent is not on inactivity, but acknowledging that God remains active. Even while we sleep, God is at work. In Living the Sabbath, Norman Wirzba writes, “Our role as stewards or servants of creation is to actively seek to promote creation’s ability to enjoy the [rest] of God, and to enable creatures to attain their potential… (Lev. 25:24).” (Living the Sabbath, 151)


Len Hjalmarson lives with Elizabeth on the shores of Lake Superior in north Ontario. He is a member of the Parish Collective and the Missio Alliance, and he holds a doctorate from Trinity Western University. Hjalmarson is the coauthor of Missional Spirituality (2011), and recently completed No Place Like Home: A Christian Theology of Place (2014). He has also completed two short volumes that bridge the academic and aesthetic worlds (in full color): Introduction to a Theology of Place and Introduction to a Missional Spirituality (2014). Hjalmarson is an adjunct professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and a Faculty Advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, in Portland, Oregon.

Keywords: theology, eschatology, geography, place, land, covenant, ecology

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