Marduk was the chief deity of the Babylonian pantheon. Every aspect of ancient Near Eastern society was arranged around the temples of the gods: humankind existed, so it was thought, to care for the gods. Genesis 1 and 2 is written in the shadow of ancient Near Eastern temple mythology. It dismantles the dominant worldview of its time and builds an understanding of the world that gives hope. Not enslaved to the gods, God’s people are launched into society to love the world with God as their strength.
We similarly live in the shadow of the Western worldview. We affirm Christ as Lord, yet the Western cultural edifice casts a shadow over our lives that is nearly impossible to escape! The consumerism, individualism, and narcissism of our culture shade our reality, a reality built by Facebook, iPhones, and television sets.
The shadow of the Western worldview stretches to our classrooms also. The Western worldview is our default. Yet Christian teachers I know are aware of this danger and intentionally nurture students to step out of the cultural shadow to bring the light of the gospel to bear on God’s world. I write this article in appreciation of such teachers. It is my hope that Genesis 1 and 2 is fresh inspiration as you pursue the task of Christian education.
We will take practical tips for education from three motifs of Genesis 1 and 2: the garden, four rivers, and humankind bearing the image of God. These motifs are a part of the semantic library of the ancient Near East. They speak the language of the ancient world in order to turn the ancient world upside down! Let’s see how Genesis 1 and 2 maintain constant dialogue with the ancient Near Eastern worldview.
The Garden: Value and Delight
Marduk’s temple had a garden. Gardens were a part of ancient Near Eastern temple complexes. Temple gardens supplied food for the gods. A well-fed god, so it was thought, was more likely to act favourably towards people. So, three times per day, priests set out food for the gods from the temple garden. What Babylonians believed about the garden they believed about the world: the world existed only for the benefit of the gods. The world is an unimportant backwater location, a second-class scene.
The garden of Genesis 2 dialogues with this worldview. It rejects the notion that the world exists for the care of the gods, and proposes that the world is valuable in itself, a place where humanity and animals can thrive and find delight.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food (Gen. 2:8–9).
God had created a first-class world. What he creates is truly “good.” And this garden is a place where humanity can thrive. “Pleasing to the eye and good for food,” the trees and the garden function both to sustain life and offer pleasures. God does not stop at feeding Adam and Eve, but he also delights and woos them with aesthetic beauty.
What does this imply for Christian discipleship? Christian discipleship begins with delight and wonder, delighted immersion in God’s world, full of praise and wonder. Christian education begins here, too. As students learn to delight, their response to God befits his fatherly care and creativity. Delight is also the impetus for deep investigation of God’s intricate world.
It helps to recognise that the default posture of our culture towards the world is not wonder but convenience. Our culture of convenience and consumption has a Babylonian, second-class view of the world. Sometimes we are too busy to pause and delight in the world that God has made. Georgia O’Keefe once said, “In a way, nobody sees a flower really, it is so small, we haven’t time—to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
Delight ought to be a dominant tone of our classrooms. We must guide our children to take the time to “see.” A teacher friend of mine gave a lesson to primary-aged children, most of whom didn’t know Christ. How could these children be brought to delight as they gaze upon God’s world? He began the lesson with two blades of grass in his hands. One was regular green grass, long enough to be sprouting seeds. The other was a head of wheat, golden, attached to a long stalk. He also took along a basket of bread. “Both of these are grass,” he explained. “But we only get bread from one—the wheat. What is it about wheat that it can be used to make bread? Wheat is a kind of grass that holds its seeds. Most grass can’t produce bread because most grass drops its seeds too early.” As children observed the difference between the two grasses he added: “The only way we can have bread is if there is grass that holds its seeds. And there is—wheat! Amazing! Isn’t God wise to give us grass that holds its seeds? Isn’t he good?”
The children agreed. They had begun to delight. And it is often a short distance from delight to worship. Then they read together Genesis 1:29: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth . . .’” The teacher explained that this verse is probably referring to the very phenomenon they had been speaking about: God supplying the earth with grass that holds its seeds.
Four Rivers: Gift and Gratitude
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah . . . (Gen. 2:10–11).
While these four rivers seem strange to us, this was recognisable imagery in the ancient Near East. Marduk’s temple was built next to a river. In ancient Near Eastern mythology, four rivers flowing from the temple was a common motif. The idea was that fertility and blessing flow from the divine presence at the temple.
Genesis 2 uses this image: four rivers flow from Eden. For Israel and her neighbors, the lesson is clear: Israel and every other nation is given life and sustenance by God. The steady flow that sustains the world has Yahweh at its source. These four rivers guide us to a central theme of the Old Testament—God’s generous supply. God gives breath and life, rain in its season, and grass for cattle. We might say it like this: at the heart of reality is a generous God. Gordon Spykman writes: “God’s creation is evidence of the caring hand of the Creator reaching out to secure the well-being of His creatures, of a Father extending a universe full of blessings to His children” (178). I will go as far as to suggest that this theme is central in scripture, and it is foundational for Christian education: at the heart of reality is a generous God.
The four rivers that flow from Eden call us to gratitude. They call us to remember that all that brings us joy, our families, friendships, the scent of cypress, the snow, sun, and rain, fulfilling work, are (and always remain) gifts! Sometimes gratitude is a decision to live truthfully in the world, acknowledging the giver. How can we foster gratitude in the minds and hearts of our satiated students?
It may be that it has never been so hard to live gratefully as it is for us today in our Western world of consumerism. Consumerism is a culture of endless accumulation and desire. Consumerism schools us in insatiability. We are never satisfied, at least not for long. It is hard to stop and be thankful.
How to foster gratitude in our students? Prayers of thanks may be a good place to start. In the years before her death, my grandmother suffered from insomnia. Anxious thoughts kept her from sleep. One practice helped: lying in bed, she would literally count her blessings. Beginning with her grandchildren, she would list the good things that the Lord had given her. As the list unfurled in her mind she relaxed in the knowledge that at the heart of reality is a generous God. Can our classrooms become such places of thanksgiving?
Consider this, too: generosity and justice are reflexes of thanksgiving. Those who know they have been given much are naturally moved to give much. How can we make our classrooms places of generosity?
Image: Loving the World to Life
The motif of humankind as the “image of God” utilizes sacred ancient Near Eastern terminology. Across the ancient Near East selem, an ancient word for image, referred to the image of the god installed in a temple.
Marduk’s temple had an image, or selem, of Marduk. In the ancient Near East, an image was installed in the temple via a complex ritual. First, the image was carved by craftsmen. Then the carving tools were thrown away, sometimes into water, to imply that the image was made by Marduk himself. Rituals to bring the image to life followed, focusing on the throat, so that the image could eat and speak. Finally, the image was installed in the temple. The image represented the god; it brought the god’s presence to earth. Before the image, the people sought the gods for favor and guidance.
In this light, the biblical claim is remarkable:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image (selem), after our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).
Israel’s applying selem language to all of humanity is a worldview shift of inexpressible proportions. From here, everything changes! Every human being represents God in and to the world.
What does it mean to represent God? One aspect is this: humankind represents God in light of his role as creator and sustainer. Humankind is given the task of caring for the earth and its inhabitants as the Creator cares for it. This task includes developing creation in creative, life-giving directions. Bearing God’s image is a privilege with a wonderful task attached. We are the earth’s gardeners, given a mandate by the owner to build an award-winning botanical garden! We might express our task in this way: humanity is called to love this world to life.
Humanity fulfils this creative task in many different spheres including art, architecture, politics, engineering, and teaching. Students should have awareness that as they study science, mathematics, and English they are fulfilling their role as image-bearers. Students glorify God as they learn about his world and consider how they can use their knowledge to care for it and take it in new creative directions.
Christian education also addresses the ways in which we failed in our role of loving the world to life. In what ways have the gardeners become vandals? Where has care become exploitation? This awareness brings fresh impetus to our task: as followers of Christ we must truly live into our identity as image bearers. We must so live as to show the rest of humanity what being human is all about!
Consider the implications of our bearing the image of God for a unit on Canadian government. I still recall studying Australian politics when I was eleven years old. The Christian content of the course didn’t extend beyond praying for our politicians and our responsibility to submit to government. In light of our task as those who bear the image of God, this was insufficient.
Friends of mine have sought to bring the gospel to bear on the study of government. Curriculum development for a topic on Canadian government might begin with the question: In the light of all of scripture, how may politics be utilized to love the world to life? Such study might grapple with the following issues:
- What does scripture teach about rulers and about democracy?
- What does scripture teach about the value of humanity? What are the implications of this for politics?
- Which aspects of various political systems are compatible with scripture? Which aspects are incompatible?
- What does scripture teach about citizenship? immigration? law-keeping? war?
Such pedagogy requires sustained reading and reflection. It requires deep reflection on the implications of a Christian worldview for a given topic. A sound knowledge not only of subject areas and contemporary issues, but of all of scripture, is important. Needless to say penetrating pedagogy is almost impossible to attempt individually. It depends upon rich collegiality.
The Shadow and the Light
Many Christian teachers are guiding their students to step out of the shadow of consumerism, individualism, and narcissism and into the light of the gospel. In Christ Jesus, we learn that at the heart of reality is a God of limitless generosity. Genesis 1 and 2 insist on education that is not tame. It is restless; it radically dismantles the prevailing worldview, refusing the status quo. It compels us to open our eyes and to really see. It demands lives of delight, gratitude, and generosity. It launches its readers into the world with the task of loving the world to life.
- O’Keefe, Georgia. Cited in Metzger, M. ‘Twittering our lives away’ Cardus. http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/1173/twittering-our-lives-away. Web. August 28, 2009.
- Spykman, Gordon. Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.