Continuing my series on Genesis 1 I am going to cheat just a little bit. This is something I had written for a silent retreat back many years ago now. Someday it will go into that book I have mentioned before. But this is a slightly different form and it certainly continues my thoughts on Genesis 1 and moves us towards another larger theme I will begin to address as we compare and contrast Genesis 1 with chapters 2-3.
The Image of God
Genesis 1 presents humanity as the pinnacle of creation. We are the last things created and everything else was created for us. But we are more than just the last (or first) among equals. We are significantly different than the rest of creation, we were created in his image. (The plural, “let us make man,” is a possible reference to the angelic host or perhaps even to the Trinity.) But what does that mean? For millennia many people better than I have struggled to understand what exactly it means to be made “in the image of God.” One example of a concise answer can be found in the Episcopal Church’s catechism.
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
There are many ways that we could look at this and indeed, the “freedom to make choices” is a fundamental truth that lives in tension with God’s sovereign call and ultimately results in the tragic events of Gen. 3. But here I would like simply to note two things that stand out within this passage and should challenge us in our lives.
1) Just as God is the pre-eminent ruler of everything that exists, so he has appointed us to be rulers over this creation.
Gen. 1.28 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
When God blesses humanity, the only difference between the blessing that they receive and that of the other animals is the command that they “subdue the earth” and have “dominion” over its creatures. In the same way in which God has dominion and rules over all of the cosmos (even that which is unseen by us) we, humanity, are to be like God in that we will rule over the earth and its occupants. Note that there is already an understanding within Genesis that this will not be an easy task. The term “to subdue” connotes physical struggle and effort that would be required of humanity to work the soil even before the fateful events of Genesis 3.
The notion that humanity is ruler of all has not been very popular of late. As the western world has become more egalitarian and as our understanding of the magnitude of this cosmos has increased there has been a trend to view ourselves as merely one small specie among many. We are no greater or lesser than the dolphins, we have simply evolved along a different path which has allowed us to be more destructive of our surrounding environment. Genesis, neither Chapter One nor Two, agrees with this view.
[Comic after the jump.]
We were created to conquer this earth and to rule over the creatures that inhabit it. But this “conquering” does not initially entail destruction, rather the author envisions the struggles which humanity would encounter as they try and raise crops on rocky soil, build homes with nothing more than mud brick which would often be washed away in spring floods. Gen. 2 speaks of the idyllic Garden of Eden and at this point in the narrative all of creation has been declared “good” (and therefore perfect) by God. Gen. 1 looks beyond this moment to the complete mission and experience of humanity. We are to “tend,” to “keep,” to “guard” this world that God has given us (Gen. 2.15), but it will not be an easy task. It will require strength, intelligence, and endurance.
Our rule over the other creatures is to be understood in a similar vein. We are given a position of power and authority over the animals that is to be exercised as God himself rules over us. He loves and cares for us and provides for us everything that we need. God has provided for our sustenance and for the animals as well (vv. 29-31). When we go astray God seeks us out and shows us mercy. Our role then is to be a benevolent ruler. The analogy only works so far, of course, since the animals are not sentient beings, at least not in the same sense as humans, but this also helps to emphasize the point that this rule is not that of a despot, rather it is more akin to a mother caring for a very young child. We must be understanding and have concern for this creation that is unable to care for itself. We alone of all beings are able to make conscious decisions that can affect everyone and everything around us and we are to follow God’s model of a caring creator when we make such decisions.
While it is good for us to understand the nature of God so that we might understand what it means to be made in his image, the analogy of our ruling over this creation as he rules over everything fails in another way as well. His rule is absolute; ours is not. There is nothing of which God is not lord. Our domain is limited, not only to Earth and its immediate environs, but we are also limited to this physical realm and to this linear movement of time. None of this binds God. He stands outside this space-time continuum and is ruler of the spiritual realm as well.
Humanity rules by his decree. Our power is borrowed. So humanity is not equal to God. Like the image in the mirror, we resemble him closely, but we are a shadow of the Divine.
2) The second point to note in this passage is that both male and female are created in this one moment.
There is no discussion of the man’s need for a partner or his search for someone suitable. This will occur in Gen. 2. Instead we are told that when God created humankind in his image he created them male and female. Thus man alone does not represent the image of God (however we may ultimately define it). Nor does woman alone. Both are necessary in order to represent God’s image and both are required in order to fulfill God’s blessing/command. Woman and man are both needed in order to “be fruitful and multiply” and they are both equally required in order to subdue and rule creation. The ramifications of this understanding are extensive.
The fact that “the image of God” is represented by both male and female reminds us that God is neither gender. The Bible does consistently use masculine imagery (and verbs of which God is the subject are always conjugated in the masculine form), but this is more due convention and the confines of language than a theological position. When it is appropriate, God and his traits (e.g., wisdom) are described in feminine forms. Fundamentally, however, God transcends gender. Where he is complete and perfect, we are partial representations that require fulfillment in order to approximate his likeness.
This passage also emphasizes that we are to be partners with others in this life. The first man and woman were not created in isolation, but in a relationship with one another. Notice also that this relationship is not purely sexual. They are called to “be fruitful,” but also to work together in order to oversee the world and its care. Each have individual traits and characteristics which are most effective when in harmony with the other.
There is also no inherent hierarchy in this account. Man and woman are created at the same time and are given the same directive. Some who write on this topic refer to this as the “complementarian” model. Each brings different talents and has a different role to play. These roles, however, are not explicated here. Instead Gen. 1 presents us with a true equality of man and woman; created in the same instant the combination of both uniquely represent the image of God.
If Gen. 1 teaches us anything at all about the relationship between husband and wife, wife and husband, it is that they are equal partners in the divinely appointed task of reflecting God’s image and obeying his commands. Together we are to be fruitful, not just in procreation, but in all our works; we are to govern, not as a despot, but following the divine model of a caring and conciliatory king.