Picture the following: a pile of walnuts in the shell, a knife, a hammer, an orange, and an apple. How would you categorize these items? In which category would you put each item? You might group the nuts, apple and orange together as food, and the knife and hammer together as tools. But you might also say the hammer goes with the nuts, as it can smash open their shells, and the knife goes with the apple and orange, because it allows you to cut them. Depending on how you categorized these items, you have likely given away the way in which you see the world – whether you associate items based on function or form. Form puts things in “like” categories, for example, food and tools. Function connects objects based on the functional connection between them, like the hammer and nuts; and apple, orange, and knife.
While this exercise is an interesting way through which to determine how you see the world, what does it have to do with Genesis? Recently I (Michael) discovered this exercise is extremely helpful in understanding the book of Genesis as a whole, but especially the opening creation narratives. In preparing to teach Genesis to the SBS at YWAM Turner Valley, I found a great deal of help in the Genesis: NIV Application Commentary written by John H. Walton. One of his primary focuses was the difference in worldview between the original audience and our contemporary worldview. He writes of the worldview of the ancient Near East (ANE), which we discover through reading the records left by different people groups who surrounded the Israelites when Moses wrote Genesis. While these people are different from us today in many respects, one of the greatest differences is that the people of the ANE were more interested in function, as opposed to our modern Western preference for form. Many of the questions I bring to Genesis come from my place of seeing form as primary. Because of the effect of Enlightenment thinking on my worldview, I see matter as all that matters. I see something existing because of how and from what it is made. People from the ANE, however, see something existing because of its specific function, with the form really coming from the function.
These ideas can have a profound effect on how one reads the opening of Genesis. Looking at function first does not remove classic interpretations of the text, but enhances them. Moses’s audience is not asking the same questions of the story of creation that we ask today, because their worldview is different. I am interested in how God made something out of nothing, and I would love for Genesis to give me the proof I need of how in seven days, God manufactured the materials of the cosmos. The interest of someone with a function perspective (like those of the ANE), however, is of how God created purpose, role, or function into creation. In the creation mythology (I’m not suggesting Genesis is a myth, but that in the ANE, myths were records of worldview), the true power of the gods was not in creating out of nothing, but in calling forth destiny into what was created. The God of Israel is shown demonstrating power, calling function out, and bringing order into chaos. In the six days of creation, this is what we see. On Day Two, for instance, the heavens are created. Their function was to separate the waters below the heavens from the waters above the heavens. What is not mentioned (to the frustration of our Western modern outlook) is where the waters came from in the first place. How they came to be is not as important to the author and the original audience, as the demonstration of God’s power in calling out the role of the heavens into being, with a word. The form will follow the ascribed function. This continues on through not only the first chapter, but chapter two, where we might wonder (as I did) why two creation narratives with slightly different details are necessary. The answer is that Moses shows two different functions within one creation, being brought further. The first is the function of the cosmos; the second the specific function of the blessing God has spoken over humanity: that they would be fruitful, multiply, and have dominion over the earth. This is why we see man and Eden and woman being created: so the blessing may have everything it needs to function.
We serve a God who speaks destiny, function, purpose, and role over that which is, as Genesis 1:2 says, “without form and void.” As a result, function, purpose, and role are created. Many of our lives could be said to be without form and void, covered in darkness before we surrendered our lives to Jesus, but after, when we are able to hear the words of God spoken over us, destiny and purpose start to take shape. We discover that the same God who spoke order into chaos in creation, can speak order into the chaos of our lives. This encouragement was needed by Moses’ readers, who stood on the edge of the Promised Land. They needed to know that the God who spoke out their role of being the people of God, was the same God who spoke the earth’s role over it. I hope you will trust the words of destiny, purpose, function, and role God has spoken over you, and in trusting God, step out into what God has spoken. If God spoke purpose and function into the cosmos, I believe He can be trusted to do the same in your life.