There are themes in the Genesis creation narrative that are also present in the creation narratives of other ancient civilizations of that time. Other accounts describe a violent war between gods, with the victorious god establishing his will in the creation. Such a narrative was a distortion that conveniently suited the violent nature of the kingdoms that promoted it. The emperors of these kingdoms followed the image of their false gods, inflicting violence on those who threatened their rule. This was the worldview of all ancient civilizations.
Spiritual warfare of a different kind is hinted at in the Genesis narrative. Here, we see the existence of darkness. Alternatively, when we go to the end of the book of Revelation, we find there is no darkness, no night. There isn’t even the need for the sun to give light. God’s presence is the light of his creation. These are symbols to show that, in the end, evil has been eradicated from creation. It is destroyed, symbolically, in the lake of fire, into which death itself is also thrown. These are symbols to show that evil and its fruits have been completely eradicated from all creation. It is the final victory of Christ’s kingdom.
One way of looking at creation is to suggest that God is using this period to allow evil to have its expression, to allow the devil’s advocate his voice, so that, in the trial of history, evil will reveal itself and be overcome by the gospel. We see in the book of Job that God doesn’t forbid the voice of evil, but allows it and overcomes it justly, by mercy and by selflessness. We can see similarities here with the Sermon on the Mount. When we look at the circular movement of scripture, we see that evil is present in creation, symbolised by the sea and darkness. In contrast, in the book of Revelation, evil within God’s whole creation has been finally banished, symbolised by the absence of sea and night.
This is, therefore, the message regarding spiritual warfare in Genesis. God doesn’t exclude evil from his creation, but he holds it at bay, setting its parameters. He says to the sea, “You can come this far and no more.” (Job 38:11) Here, evil is permitted in order that mankind might have a choice. The devil’s advocate says that, without this choice, mankind would be a robot and creation wouldn’t be free, thus making God illegitimate. So God gives the accuser this space within creation to allow man a choice, and we see this with the serpent being allowed access to the Garden. In light of this, the word of God in the Garden was the same as the word of God to Israel in their land: “Choose this day whom you will serve… I put before you life and death.” (Deut 30, Josh 24)
This doesn’t mean God is responsible for the “serpent’s” evil. Evil exists in any creature because of freedom of choice. There is no darkness in God. (1 John 1:5) When God said in Isaiah that he makes light and darkness, good and evil, he was speaking of raising up one nation and bringing down another. (Isaiah 45:7) He was speaking metaphorically of his decrees of blessing and judgement through allowing circumstances in nations to run their course.
The choice we each have to make is between self and community. We choose God’s self-giving way as seen in his Son, or our self-centred way that destroys other people, creation and ourselves. Putting ourselves first has the fruit of greed, which results in the destruction of creation. This is the way of evil. On the contrary, Genesis reveals God as the creator and community builder and he calls us to join him in this task.
God ultimately overcomes the accuser himself in a just manner – by the cross, by his own self-giving. He establishes this new, selfless kingdom life in the church as the way in which Satan is overcome. He destroys the powers by what seems foolish to the world: the opposite of worldly selfcentredness, in his Spirit-filled people (1 Cor 1:27-28, Rev 12:11).
In Genesis God doesn’t fight evil in a violent way, as happens in the creation narratives of other civilizations. Spiritual warfare is not a physical battle, nor is it, in any way, violent from God’s part. He is sovereign and no one can fight against him. He simply speaks and it is done. In Genesis, spiritual warfare is purely a moral choice. The narrative calls us to say ‘no’ to evil, showing us that, in that choice, God will help us and evil will not overcome us. Even at night the stars and moon shine so we won’t stumble in darkness. “The light shines in darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” (John 1:5)
In some other ancient creation stories, evil is represented by the Leviathan and the Dragon of the sea. This is similar to the image of the sea in Genesis, something which represents a power that will come against God’s people. These themes are also mentioned in the book of Job, in Isaiah 27 and in some of the intertestamental literature of the Jews. In Isaiah, Leviathan and the Dragon (serpent) are simply the powers of evil that inspire Egypt and Assyria against Israel. Again, evil is represented symbolically by the sea or raging rivers. In the book of Revelation, the gentile beasts also rise out of the sea.
“You split the sea by your strength and smashed the heads of the sea monsters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan and let the desert animals (other nations) eat him. You caused the springs and streams to gush forth, and you dried up rivers that never run dry. Both day and night belong to you; you made the starlight and the sun.” (Psalm 74:13-16) Here, the same symbols of darkness and sea are used to speak of the enemy nations. God restrains their power and rebukes the Red Sea to deliver his people from Egypt. He resides over all the affairs of the nations to bring forth his justice.
However, the destructive powers of the sea are not representative of the gentile kingdoms alone. In the Old Testament they also inspire Israel in many ways, and eventually bring them into judgement. Jesus, in speaking to the Jews, said that, if they didn’t repent, they would be assigned to Gehenna; news which shocked the Jews. The word ‘Gehenna’ used here designates the final self-destruction of evil. This evil is symbolically called Gog and Magog, as was Assyria, whose army was thrown into Gehenna outside Jerusalem in Hezekiah’s day. Jesus was saying that many in Israel could also be part of Gog and Magog.
When evil has its way, in Genesis, it comes in by sea, overcoming the earth and destroying all life. We read in Genesis of how, in those days, the “sons of God” destroyed the earth by taking all the women they wanted and building great empires of oppression, even destroying nature. The term “sons of God” refers to the men of renown, mighty warriors. These were great, oppressive rulers like Nimrod, the later king of Babylon, men who called themselves deities and God’s sons, who took harems of thousands of women, even as Solomon did. They destroyed the earth with their armies and theft. In the parables of the Book of Enoch, these sons of God are depicted as spiritual beings who act through men’s self-centred desires, leading them in their destructive paths. The princes in the book are Daniel and depicted in the same way. They are the rulers of nations, tempted and led by self-centred evil.
There is a thin line in scripture between the devil outside and the nature of fallen mankind who follow his bidding. Man seeks his own glory and steals and kills to obtain it, all the while being the accuser of others. It is the nature of the Pharisees, men who accused the woman caught in adultery before then accusing Jesus. They had come to steal, kill and destroy, while Jesus, in contrast, came to love the sheep with his own life. They find scapegoats to blame and call society against others as the evil doers, all the while hiding the Satan in themselves. This becomes the rule of our human culture, not caring for foreigners but saving ourselves instead: “It is good that one man perish that we be saved.” We are called to be delivered from this scapegoating nature within us by following Jesus. The kingdom of God comes in total contrast to this satanic nature within our lives and cultures.
In Genesis we see the nature of evil, both in symbols and in history. Evil is the disordered sea that brings chaos. This doesn’t mean that Genesis 1:1-2 depicts a real battle between God and Satan at the dawn of creation. The sea in creation is good, it is only used symbolically because of its natural ability to harm. In Revelation, evil is called Abaddon (Destroyer). Evil is symbolised by darkness, indicating self-centeredness. Evil is also revealed in the Garden as the accuser. This evil constantly accuses God and God’s people. This is why Jesus died and, in doing so, defeated evil.
How do we defeat evil in the world? By doing the opposite of what evil does. Instead of destroying life and creation, we seek the good of others. Instead of violence, we enact care and restorative mercy. Instead of darkness, we come into the light through forgiveness and kindness. Instead of accusing others, we seek to heal those who err. In short, we resign from evil’s agenda of destroying and accusing and join God’s agenda as creator and justifier through giving ourselves to build up others, our communities and our world.
Evil itself, though, is often a mystery. We could say evil comes from choice; from choosing self. We might say it is the opposite of love. Love gives freedom for us to choose. If we choose to serve ourselves, this creates evil through its impact on others around us. Evil is what happens when God gives us freedom to live for ourselves instead of living for his good purpose and instead of serving. All evil on the earth comes from this wrong choice by humanity. It produces a sea of destruction in the world, which God either holds back and, by grace, restrains, or, in judgement, he takes away his restraint and allows evil to go on and destroy itself and those involved with it.
Scripture tells us that evil in the world will come to an end. Those who side with it shall perish by their own fruit. This way, evil will be banished from the world. Isaiah speaks of the reign of Christ on the earth where the whole world is a land full of goodness, a place where the oppressor and evil doer are gone forever.
“Your eyes will see the king in all his splendour, and you will see a land that stretches into the distance (literally: full of goodness). You will think back to this time of terror, asking, “Where are the Assyrian officers who counted our towers? Where are the bookkeepers who recorded the plunder taken from our fallen city?” You will no longer see these fierce, violent people with their strange, unknown language.” (Isaiah 33:17-19)
This is the vision shown to us in the last chapters of the book of Revelation, fulfilled through the gospel extending to the nations and becoming its healing leaves. In the vision, God had moved his creation from Genesis to Revelation, from mortality to immortality through the promise of the gospel, and all those who tried to stop it had defeated themselves and perished.
Other ancient cultures held to a combative creational view. For example, in the ancient Canaanite tradition Baal conquered the sea god and brought order to the cosmos. So the wisdom of society was that we likewise pass from chaos to cosmos (ordered civilization) through combat, through demonising other groups and conquering them. This has become traditional human culture throughout the world, often even among Christian societies today. We face the same choice in creating “cosmos”: caring for the needs of others, building through kingdom of God principles, or perpetuating non-redemptive responses towards those we perceive as wrong.
In the Old Testament we see God using this dominant combative view to reveal his own counter values. The sea and the river and the monsters in them portray the nations which are enemies of Israel, and at times the spiritual powers behind them. God conquers them by allowing their violence to come upon themselves. And in Christ we see God transforming the dominant cultural cosmos into a new culture and cosmos that renews our lives. He speaks in the language of the fallen cultures, but reveals who he is through that language.
Through his King and Son, “God will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers… I will make him the firstborn and the highest of the kings.” (Psalm 89:25-27) Christ conquers the earth, in which he brings order from chaos. This follows traditional pagan culture, where a king conquers all others to create order. But here is the transformation. First, God fights through reconciling and redemption. His armour and weapons are truth, mercy, righteousness, self-giving and the cross. His warfare is moral. Order doesn’t come by separating one people against another, but by separating right from wrong behaviour towards others. Second, his King doesn’t conquer for himself, or for a particular nation, but to restore sonship and the image of God to all tongues and peoples in his new creation.
God uses pagan cultural language to subvert and transform its values in Christ, making a new kingdom and new creation out of his church. Its common “contextual” ministry: he speaks to us in the language we understand, to implant within us a new kingdom value. When David says, “He teaches my hands to war and my fingers to battle”, we now see this through the gospel, by the actions of God coming in flesh, and this renews our world. It is wonderful how God consistently transforms this Old Testament era pagan warfare language into reconciliation and redemption through Christ. The warfare God teaches us is overcoming the enemy in our relationships with each other, as he builds a body that heals. This is God’s new cosmos. As Christ said to Israel, evil isn’t the other, but it can be Israel itself. It is the choices we each make.
In Genesis 1 &2 the children of Israel, when coming out of Egypt, saw a God who brings cosmos from chaos, or from disorder. The six days of creation represented God bringing order to his world, until everything he made was “very good.” So Israel reflected on this and saw that God was doing the same for Israel in their Exodus from Egypt. God was bringing them out of slavery, out of the idolatry of the gentile sea, and he was bringing them into a good land. It was the Torah that made everything “very good”, renewing their hearts towards their neighbour. All this points us to the gospel, in which Torah becomes written on our hearts by his Spirit, and from that God brings us out of darkness and chaos into a new cosmos of community and healed creation.