Frequently overlooked in Christian discussions on the doctrine of creation is the 2000-year old Jewish tradition. In many ways, Jewish thinkers shared the same concerns as their Christian counterparts; ever since the conflict with Greek philosophy, the rabbis and Jewish philosophers responded in similar ways as Christians to defend the biblical account of creation or to harmonize it with the challenges of their day, whether it be creation ex nihilo or mounting evidence for an old earth.

But interest on the part of the Jewish community in the doctrine of creation extends beyond the interface of the Bible with science; and one of the most notable contributions to biblical thought is from a Jewish scholar on the problem of creation and evil. When the book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Harper Row, 1988), first appeared, author Jon D. Levenson was associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. It merited a reprint edition with a substantial new preface (Princeton University Press, 1994). Levenson currently serves as Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at the Harvard Divinity School. Due to its provocative nature, the book received mixed reviews. But as a young pastor at the time, I found the book biblically sound and pastorally relevant. Critics chipped away at the edges and at some of the details, but the core message of the book was cogent and profoundly helpful. To this day, after several more decades of pastoral and educational experience, many of the book’s propositions continue to occupy an important place in my own teaching on creation and the problem of evil.

Levenson argues three main theses: (1) an emphasis on creation ex nihilo has masked the important theme of God’s ongoing mastery over creation by giving a false sense of finality to his creative work; (2) inattention to the temple theme in Genesis 1 has led to the neglect of the role of humanity in the maintenance of order; and (3) the link between creation and history, expressed through the biblical covenants, merits more emphasis.

The Challenge to God’s Mastery

Levenson argues that the primary concern of creation theology is “the establishment of a benevolent and life-sustaining order, founded upon the demonstrated authority of God who is triumphant over all rivals”; an “environment ordered for peaceful human habitation and secure against the onslaughts of chaos and order” (p. 47). Genesis 1 asserts the eternality of God’s sovereignty (p. 6); however, other texts offer a more complicated picture of the ongoing realities.The experience of God’s people shows that his protective care appears to slip at times, and it is these circumstances that give birth to texts affirming God’s need to master evil chaos. Psalm 82 demonstrates that the realization of God’s mastery over creation is not complete—unjust powers remain in the divine council. The conflict between God and anti-creation forces is expressed in Ps. 74:12-17. On the one hand, the psalm’s language for the aquatic monsters aligns most closely with the imagery of Ugaritic myth, which has no connection to creation in the Ugaritic stories. On the other hand, the close link in Psalm 74 between cosmic battle and creation imagery points conceptually to the Mesopotamian tradition where Marduk orders the world after defeating the sea. Levenson recognizes the possibility that Psalm 74 echoes redemption after the Genesis flood (Gen. 8:22) and so might not allude to the original creation. Nevertheless, even in the Ugaritic myth, “if Baal does not create, he does renew creation” (p. 10); the sea challenges from within the created order and Baal’s victory enables order to endure. Similarly, even if Psalm 74 alludes to the flood account, not Genesis 1, it establishes the point that the created order was disrupted by chaos (undoing of creation) and healed once again by God’s mastery. The motif of battle against aquatic monsters appears as well in Isa. 51:9-11, where the utilization of such imagery underscores the capacity of destructive forces to emerge from within creation, necessitating God’s reassertion of mastery over them. Levenson’s point is this: “Adversarial forces were not annihilated in perpetuity in primordial times” . . . “Rising anew, they have escaped their appointed bounds and thus flung a challenge at their divine vanquisher.” (p. 12).

In texts such as Ps. 104:6-9 and Job 38:8-11, Levenson “detect[s] a position somewhere between full-fledged combat myth of creation of Psalm 74:12-17 (and elsewhere), and the idea of creation through the unchallenged magisterial word of God” found in Genesis 1 (p. 15). These forces are still sinister and in need of containment. Still other texts portray the sea monster as nothing but a “rubber ducky” for God’s sport (Job 41:1-8; Ps. 104:26). But even these texts teach the confinement or captivity of chaos, not its eradication. Life remains precarious without God’s protective watch. The experience of God’s people shows that his protective care appears to slip at times, and it is these circumstances that give birth to texts affirming God’s need to master evil chaos (Psalm 74; Isaiah 51; Psalm 89 [esp. vv. 9-13]). Such lingering forces will not be fully banished until the end of time (Isaiah 24–27 [esp. Isa. 27:1]). The fact that God’s people reproach him for such lapses of blessing shows that there is “no limited God here, no God stymied by invincible evil, no faithless resignation before the relentlessness of circumstance” (pp. 24-25). Rather, there is only the “cognitive pressure of faith and realism” (p. 25). God’s sovereignty is absolute, but often enough his people experience him as idle. It is this faith that finds expression in the cult (temple worship) . . . God is “one who can still be aroused, who can still respond to the anguished cry of his cultic community” (p. 50).

Temple and the Maintenance of Cosmic Order

God’s creation was “good,” but evil persists. Even when evil forces seem benign (Ps. 104:26) and maintained within boundaries (Ps. 104:6-9), human evil rises to challenge God’s rule, driving his people to prayer for his intervention (Ps. 104:35; p. 58). This stress on the worshipping community leads to the second major point of Levenson’s book, the nature of temple as a “microcosm” that enlists God’s people in a drama between God and the forces of chaos. Long before it was fashionable in Christian theology to recognizeThis stress on the worshipping community leads to the second major point of Levenson’s book, the nature of temple as a “microcosm” that enlists God’s people in a drama between God and the forces of chaos. the link between Genesis 1 and cosmic temple (cf. John H. Walton’s helpful synthesis), Levenson cogently summarized some of the evidence. The schematic nature of “seven-fold” in Genesis 1 is based on the ubiquity of this pattern in literature and liturgies all over the Ancient Near East as well as its repetition many times within Genesis 1, where multiples of seven abound (pp. 67-68). The seven-fold schema for temple building is found not only in the Ancient Near East but within the Bible itself—the tabernacle instructions (Exodus 31–35, which is the context for Exod. 31:17 and its parallel in Exod. 20:10); parallels between Genesis 1 and the the erection of the tabernacle (Exodus 39–40; pp. 85-86); as well as the building and dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs. 6:38; 8:65-66).

Levenson nicely summarizes the correspondence between cosmic geography and temple architecture (pp. 92-95). He writes, “Collectively, the function of these correspondences is to underscore the depiction of the sanctuary as a world . . . and the depiction of the world as a sanctuary” (p. 86; cf. Ps. 78:69; Isa. 66:1-2). Isaiah’s vision of a reconstructed temple city draws on creation language similar to Gen. 1:1 (Isa. 65:17-18). The theological point is, in both creation and in his temple, that God vanquishes his foes and invites human participation in the task (pp. 90-91). This temple theology was recognized even by the ancient rabbis. Consequently, worship serves to advance the ideal of creation, which culminates in sabbatical rest. Chaos was neutralized in the cult:

It is through the cult that we are enabled to cope with evil, for it is the cult that builds and maintains order, transforms chaos into creation, ennobles humanity, and realizes the kingship of God who has ordained the cult and commanded that it be guarded and practiced. It is through obedience to the directives of the divine master that his good world comes into existence (p. 127).

Creation and Covenant

Throughout his book, Levenson draws links between creation theology and the theology of the covenants. He devotes the last section of the book to what he calls “the dialectic of covenantal theonomy.” This means that the covenantal relationship calls upon humans to continually surrender their autonomy, with freedom and dignity, in the service of their suzerain king, who woos his vassal (pp. 140-44). Such submission comes with enormous risk, but “only as the enormity of the risk is acknowledged can the grandeur of the faith be appreciated” (p. 156).

Personal Reflections

Levenson’s theology has shaped my own thinking about creation and the painful realities of life in important ways. Persistent evil is destructive even when contained within its boundaries (Job 1–2). Insufficient attention has been given, even in Levenson’s treatment, to the close link between Job’s experience and his own lesson about the cosmic forces that crushed him (Job 3:8; 7:12; 9:8-13; 26:12; 38:8-11; 41:1) The key is the parallel between the permissions granted in the prologue to Job and the Lord’s allusion to such forces when he instructs him in chapters 38–41. In contemporary experience, forces of chaos would not only destroy us as individuals but also as a Church (Eph 6:12). To suffer in such a cosmic war is not only our calling but a high honor. I have often quoted the eloquent words of Derek Kidner that mirror Levenson’s thesis:

Where we might wish to argue that omnipotence ought to have stamped our evil at its first appearance, God’s chosen way was not to crush it out of hand but to wrestle with it: and to do so in weakness rather than in strength, through men more often than through miracles, and through costly permissions rather than through flat refusals. Putting the matter in our own terms we might say that he resolved to overcome it in fair combat, not by veto but by hard-won victory.Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job & Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to Wisdom Literature (Downers Grove: IVP, 1985), 59.

Creation is a tapestry in which the physical cosmos is inseparably woven with the actions of personal agents (cf. Rom. 8:19-22). This interplay is undetectable by science, which can only measure physical entropy and not the moral fabric to which it is bound. Dimensions of reality exist that human experience senses but that modernity ignores.Creation is a tapestry in which the physical cosmos is inseparably woven with the actions of personal agents. Recognizing these dimensions opens possibilities for imagining a more complex natural history, one that neither appears on the scene en toto, nor one that unfolds in bio-mechanical fashion.

While we no longer participate in the physical dynamics of temple worship, Christian worship now comprises the context in which a new humanity, the Church, is shaped corporately as a new creation (“new humanity,” Eph. 2:15; “a new creation,” 2 Cor. 5:17, see NRSV and 2011 NIV). It is the community in Christ that models for the world how God’s design for creation ought to look. Tragically we fail through our infighting and displays of hypocrisy. The new humanity still looks too much like the old. Levenson underscores what the biblical text emphasizes, namely, the very real experience of God’s intervention alongside human action, both in ethical behavior and community life forged in the context of worship. This is indeed a “drama” in which God’s people participate in the ongoing transformation of God’s creation.