The most popular television shows in our house are mostly nature documentaries – usually about strange animals in some far-flung part of the world (at least far-flung to us!). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched different types of lemurs – ring-tailed lemurs, mouse lemurs, wooly lemurs, bamboo lemurs – climb through the trees of Madagascar. I’ve learned more than I care to know about the deadliest snakes and spiders in Australia. My kids never seem to grow tired of nature’s marvels and the entertaining men and women who love to chase them down. Even more than a decade after his death the Crocodile Hunter is still a legend in my home. I’ll never forget the day I caught a glimpse of my fourteen-year-old and nine-year-old heading down our street, dressed in old khaki and camouflage clothes and rubber boots, carrying their makeshift snake hooks (old paint rollers attached to broomsticks) on their way to wrangle up some reptiles in the park!
One of the lessons that I’ve learned from these years of nature documentary immersion is that animals remain unencumbered by humanity’s sense of fairness or any semblance of mercy and compassion. I’ve never seen a lion struggle with regret as it lies in the shade licking the blood of a baby gazelle off its paws. Watch them long enough, and you’ll soon realize that animals are not like us. They don’t possess an innate sense of right and wrong. They don’t worry about the morality of their actions. They do what’s best for them and their offspring. This truth is so self-evident that we’ve taken to calling people “animals” when they behave with the same disregard. We are not like animals.
Except when we are. Turn on the evening news or watch a Dateline special and you’ll be reminded that sometimes we do behave like animals. Sometimes we act with little regard for the good of others. We focus only upon what benefits us – even if that results in demeaning, belittling, and cheating our neighbor, or, in too many cases, acts of violence toward others. Though we are hard-wired as we are to recognize injustice (Romans 2:14-15), we are also prone to disregard justice in the pursuit of our own desires. All of us feels profound loss and sadness and heartache when we hear of school shootings or buildings crumbling on television because of the actions of a crazed gunman or handful of terrorists. Yet school shootings and terrorism are perpetrated by other human beings.
I’ll never forget the sense of confusion I felt when seeing a picture of Osama bin Laden, as a young man, wearing western clothing and hanging out with his (very “normal-looking”) friends. This “kid” would grow up to be the mastermind behind the greatest act of terror on American soil in history. The images broadcast in the wake of 911 show a vengeful man driven by an ideology of hate. In one image he is one of “us” – just another young person enjoying life. In another he is a symbol of evil and hatred. In truth, all of us are these two people. We all have an “instinct” for right behavior, and we all act against that instinct when it suits us. We humans are not like the animals that surround us, but we’ve found frightening ways of imitating them.
Strangely enough, the explanations for our innate moral compass and for the indifference we often display toward one another can be found in the same place. To understand who we are and why we all show signs of brokenness we need to travel back to the beginning. We need to understand what we were designed to be and how we have fallen short of our Designer’s blueprints. We need to travel back to the only certain account we have of humanities’ origins. We need to look back in time through the opening pages of the Bible to understand our origin and our demise, so that we can then turn to see the great hope that lies before us and face the challenges within us and around us with courage and purpose.
THE WORLD MADE READY
The first chapter of Genesis tells the story of God’s creative work, bringing the world, humanity, and all other things into existence by the power of his Word. After the summary/introductory statement made in verses 1-2, we see God creating, forming, and shaping the cosmos, and the earth (=land) in particular, into a place not only suitable for man, but ideal for humankind. Through six days of creating the writer of Genesis pronounces everything that God has made “good” six times (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). This should not surprise us. After all, if God is good it stands to reason that his creation will be good as well. As the master painter produces a masterpiece, so the good Creator brings a good world into existence.
Regarding humanity’s origin, at least two things stand out as we move through this slice of primordial history. First, humanity is distinct and, in some way, “better” than everything else God makes. At the end of the sixth day, and only after creating the first man and woman, we hear Moses declare that God’s creation is “very good.” In other words, the creation of human beings elevates God’s entire creative project from “good” to “very good.”
Second, all of God’s creative work leading up to the creation of Adam and Eve is preparatory for the entrance of man and woman into his world. When we recall that the word “earth” literally means “land,” we are reminded that later in this same book God will promise a piece of “land” to his people that stands more or less at the center of the earth. That “land” represents the whole earth that will be renewed in the future for redeemed humanity. Just as God will, some day, renew the earth, making it suitable for his people, so here in Genesis 1 God is preparing the land for his people. From the creation of light to the placement of the sun, moon and stars; from the making of the sky and the seas to filling them with birds and sea creatures; from the creation of the land and plants to the animals who eat them, God is preparing the world as a place for his people.
All of this tells us that God has something special in mind when he finally creates man and woman in verses 26-28. Even before we read the account itself, we know that God is about to do something spectacular! He is the artist preparing the canvas, the builder leveling the land. God has a purpose and a plan for his world, and that purpose and plan center upon humanity.
Saying things in this way sounds very man-centered. In reality, though, in Scripture we see that even the exaltation of man in the creation account (and at the end of the story!) leads to and has as its ultimate goal the exaltation of God. When God finally gets to the business of crowning his creation with mankind, we learn something spectacular about God himself. In verse 26 he says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Now, we should not read this statement as if God has two separate ideas in mind when he creates humanity. He not making us in his image and in his likeness, as if these are two separate properties. Instead, these are two ways of describing the same reality. He is giving us a more vivid picture of his purpose for mankind.
The word “image” is used most often in the Bible to describe idols. In the ancient near east an “image” was thought to be a physical, visible representation of a divine being or even a human king. Images were usually made to look like the god or the object they were supposed to depict. Sometimes images of a conquering ruler were even set up in foreign, occupied territory as a reminder of who the true ruler was. The word “likeness,” has a similar meaning. It can be used to talk about something made after the pattern of another object. Quite simply, it indicates that there are shared characteristics between two people or two objects. Taken together, these terms tell us that human beings exist to represent God before the rest of creation and to reflect his greatness and his glory before the cosmos. Like a foreign ambassador, we represent the King. And like a mirror, we reflect the brightness of his glory. We do this in two primary ways. First, by ruling over the rest of creation and, second, by living in relationship with God and other image bearers.
When we think of a representative government, we usually imagine a system with elected officials who are tasked with carrying out the desires of those who voted them into office (even if this rarely happens in reality!). When we speak of mankind as God’s representatives and as those who rule in his name, we are thinking of something quite different. Humanity has been sent by a king, not chosen by the rest of creation. We have been tasked with mediating the King’s rule and reign over the earth and all that is on it. Read carefully the words of Genesis 1:26-28.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'”
In these verses, God reveals his plans for humanity: we are to “have dominion” over the earth. This is why he made us. Part of what it means to be made in the image of God is to be in charge. Before we get carried away with a sense of entitlement, though, we must recognize that this calling comes with great responsibility. God, acting as King and Sovereign, also commands us to “fill the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion…” In other words, ruling is more than a right; it is a responsibility. We have been commanded by our King to rule upon the earth. We are representing the sovereign Ruler of the universe when we exercise this right and obey this command. God does not for one moment relinquish his sovereignty over the world when he puts us in charge. If anything, the story that follows shows us that God is the true King. He places limits one what man can do and then curses him with hard labor on the land after he transgresses those limits. We are not the owners of the world in which we live. We are stewards; he is sovereign. This is why the Psalmist can sing, “For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.” (Psalms 22:28).
Of course, God is more than a King in Genesis. He walks with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. He speaks to them, provides for them, and covers them with redemptive love in their shame. Being made in God’s image means not only that we are made to be representative rulers, but that we have also been designed to live in relationships with God and with others. We see this reality reflected in two key places in Genesis 1. In verse 27 we learn that when God created man in his image, “male and female he created them.” In other words, God designed his image bearers in such a way that they would need to form relationships with other image bearers in order to rule over his creation. We cannot fill the earth apart from interacting with and forming bonds with others. This is a part of God’s design for us.
In Genesis 2 we are given a much more detailed account of the creation of the first man and woman. We are told that God goes to great lengths to help the first man see just how much he needs a companion suitable for him.
“Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man,’ ” (Genesis 2:18–23).
Remember that according to Genesis 1 God has seen over and over that his creation is “good.” There is no change in this assessment until we reach the end of God’s creative work. After creating mankind, God then sees that everything is “very good.” But now in chapter 2 we learn that between the last “good” found in verse 25 and the “very good” of verse 31 another pronouncement was made: “not good.” Most surprisingly of all, this pronouncement comes after the formation of the first man. How can this be? How can God’s creation, apart from the Fall, be anything other than good or very good?
We cannot conclude that God made some kind of mistake in his creative work. We cannot say that there was an oversight on God’s part. He is the sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of all things. If there is any deficiency in his image bearer, then that lack must be a part of God’s plan. Adam was deficient by divine design. God’s design for humanity is “male and female.” By himself, Adam cannot obey God’s command to be fruitful and multiply and therefore cannot exercise dominion over all the earth.
In order to teach Adam about his own deficiency, God first shows him that he lacks something that even the beasts of the earth possess. He brings the animals to Adam for him to name (a function of Adam’s authority), and Adam sees that for every male animal there is a corresponding female animal. God wants Adam to become aware of his need for a suitable companion. Once the man acknowledges (and laments) this great need that the has God creates woman and places here before the man. Adam is so overjoyed at the sight of her that he bursts out in song! “At last!” he exclaims, “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”
God has created woman like man, out of his own flesh. She bears the image of God as surely as he. She possesses all the value and worth and dignity of the man. Yet she is different. She is “suitable” for him. Quite literally, she “correspond to” him. She is not given a separate mandate, but neither will she operate in exactly the same way as the man. She will help him carry out the mandate that he has been given; together they will exercise dominion over the earth, each with distinct but complementary roles.
All of this is shows us the centrality of relationship to the image of God. “Male and female” is more than a biological necessity; Adam has a deep spiritual need to relate to another image bearer. He is a social creature, requiring authentic, genuine, God-glorifying relationships for him to be whole.
No matter how independent we think we are, none of us is ever an island unto himself or herself. God has designed us so that we need one another. We need relationships. As we form those relationships, we reflect God’s own nature and character.
Indeed, God is not an island unto himself any more than we are. Note carefully God’s own words, “Let us make…” Who is the “us” in this verse? Biblical commentators have speculated that God may be speaking to angelic creatures, or that he may be using some sort of “plural of majesty,” much like the Queen of England. These solutions won’t do. There is no such thing as a “plural of majesty” in the language of the Old Testament (Hebrew). That is simply not an option open to the interpreter of Genesis 1. In addition, there has been no mention of angelic creatures in the narrative up to this point. In any case, human beings are not made in the image of angels. We are made in God’s image. In fact, the answer to the question, “Who is the ‘us’?” of Genesis 1:26 is not found in the book of Genesis at all. The only thing we can say at this point in the story is that Moses (the writer of Genesis) is telling us that God is in some sense a plurality. There is only one God, but this one God can address himself as “us.”
As God’s revelation progresses we see that while there is indeed only one God, God has also existed throughout all eternity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There are, and have always been, three distinct Persons within the one God. We get a glimpse of the intimate relationships that exist within the Godhead in Jesus’ prayer in John 17:
“And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed… The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world,” (John 17:5; 22–24).
Before Genesis 1:1, the Son of God possessed glory along with his Father. Before Genesis 1:1 the Father loved the Son. In this prayer we are given a peak into the most intimate, loving relationship in existence! Therefore, when God says, “Let us make man in our image,” we should understand that God is now making a creature who will reflect the very love that exists between God the Father and God the Son to the rest of creation. We do that by loving God himself and by loving other image bearers. This is why Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” (Matthew 22:37). He goes on to add, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:39).
In short, we have been created with the unique capacity and the great responsibilities of ruling over creation as God’s stewards and of reflecting his glory in God-glorifying relationships of love. Though we may say that being made in God’s image entails more than these things, we cannot say any less. God made us for his own glory, and we glorify him in ways that the rest of creation cannot: representing him as rulers and reflecting him in our relationships.