Mark Smith on the Violent Imagery of God as Creator

In his powerful new book, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, Mark Smith writes,

While we may be–and arguably should be–uncomfortable with the idea of a God who takes up violence to punish or test, such a way of looking at the world reminds us that God both cares about the world and cares enough that God is prepared to act. When we feel our discomfort at this side of God, we may also be forgetting the terrible violence of the ancient world in which Israel lived–and in which many people around the world live today. To my mind, the first model [of God creating by might and through conflict] acknowledges not only God’s power; it also calls us to resist human power and human structures in which our lives are intractably embedded. Moreover, I am often struck by the comfort that the first model [of God creating by might and through conflict] gives to people who themselves have little or no recourse in this world. While I recoil at the idea of the violent God, many people who take comfort in it are consoled not so much by the picture of divine violence, but by the sense of divine attention and care that it conveys to them for the possibility of overcoming terrible human power in the world. I may recoil perhaps in part because I can afford to; as a fairly privileged upper middle-class American, I suffer little from the world’s violence and thus far–thank God–it has not intruded much into my existence. But this is hardly the case for the vast number of people who look to the Bible for how it may speak to their lives. (32-3)

Theology, if it is worth anything, will recognize the context that gives it life. The violent imagery of God creating the world has profound implications, but these implications will vary in light of the worldview of those who encounter the imagery. Smith’s wariness of such imagery only makes sense in light of the many ways in which people both past and present act violently in the name of God, and yet his willingness to see this imagery through the eyes of those who “have little or no recourse in this world” offers a new perspective that breaths life into the text. However much our “enlightened” perspective on the world helps us to better understand the text of Scripture, it is just as likely to prove a hindrance to our understanding of the theology of Scripture.

References

Smith, Mark S. The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

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2 thoughts on “Mark Smith on the Violent Imagery of God as Creator

  1. The notion of Genesis one as implying ‘violence’ in the creative act must be read INTO the text, since it is certainly not read from the text itself. I find the evidence of God subduing ‘enemies’ in this passage to not even be implied. The context never suggests such a notion (although other Hebrew Bible passages do so). In fact, Gen. 1 is strangely enough NOT like other ANE creation accounts in that this feature is actually lacking. It is part of what sets the Genesis account apart as significantly different. We might expect ‘tohu webohu’ to be defeated, conquered, etc., but we do not. Instead we simply find the LORD bringing order which is differentiated from conquering or doing violence. There is no violent motif to creation here despite the likes of a Batto (“Slaying the Dragon”) or others like him who prefer to find here such a reading. I would personally argue for looking elsewhere in the Hebrew text for such things as it is FULL of such language. Why try to find something that is not there, when it may readily be found elsewhere?

  2. Smith isn’t implying (here) that Genesis 1 pictures God creating through violence. This excerpt comes from his introductory chapter where he describes the three dominant models of creation in the Hebrew Bible, the first of which was creation through conflict (with Psalm 74:12-17 as his example). I can’t recall if Smith argues Genesis 1 belongs to any one of the three models; I think he suggests there are at least echoes of each, though it seems to me that he is headed in a direction that will set Genesis 1 apart as truly unique (i.e. Priestly). The quote above and my own comments reflect on the phenomenon of God creating through conflict, whether or not the motif is present in Genesis 1.

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