Being Human – Part Four

This is the fourth installment in a series exploring some aspects of the biblical call to be human. Here is where you can find parts 1, 2, and 3.

The discussion of what humanity is centered on the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-28. Today, I want to briefly trace one way that idea is used throughout the Bible. As a refresher, here is the text from Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

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.”

As we have already noted, being human is descriptive of a way of life rooted in relationship with God as his image bearers. Being human is more of a vocation than it is anything else. We have been created to be fruitful, multiply, fill, subdue, and hold dominion over God’s creation, on God’s behalf.

Much later, Israel’s Poet in Cheif – King David – will pick up this same language when reflecting on nature and the place humankind holds in it (Psalm 8):

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David draws on the human dynamic we outlined in the last post. Humankind has been created “a little lower than God,” but has, “been crowned with glory and honor” and has been given, “dominion” over the work of God’s hands. When David contemplates the place of humankind in God’s cosmos, he draws on the Genesis language of vocation. This is what it means to be human.

Again, much later, the Hebrews writer will pick up David’s language (which echoes Genesis’ language) in making her or his case about the supremacy of Jesus. After quoting from Psalm 8, the Hebrew writer observes (Hebrews 2:8-9):

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The argument is simple and powerful. God created humanity to rule as his representatives but we see that has not happened. Humankind has rejected and muddled up that vocation in endless ways, both large and small. But, Jesus came in flesh- “made lower than the angels,” as we are – and fulfilled the human vocation where the rest of us had not. At every point we have forgotten or forsaken our divine calling, becoming less than human, Jesus sided with God’s intention, being what he (as a human) was meant to be.

There are lots of things we want to say about this – and we will in future posts without throwing too much out at once. Here, let’s begin by repeating something we said last time and by adding something new.

First, Scripture takes a high view of humanity. Sin doesn’t reveal our humanity – “Oh, I’m only human, after all.” Sin reduces our humanity. It makes us less than human.

Second, in not sinning, Jesus got Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 right where we have not. Jesus is the only genuine human. In that, he stands to show us what it looks like to return to our humanity. Importantly, the Hebrew writer is eager to point out, he also makes that return possible.

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Being Human – Part Four

Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright provides a framework for evaluating culture. In his context, he is providing a helpful framework for understanding the cultures of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, but this tool can also be used to understand our culture – or how culture works more generally.

His framework is simple. Any culture will have stories, questions, symbols, and practices that serve as entry points to understanding what that culture is all about. Noting that humans use stories to make sense of the world around us, Wright argues a fundamental function of culture is to provide just such a narrative. He goes on to say,

… from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution? All cultures cherish deep-rooted beliefs which can in principle be called up to answer these questions. (pg. 123)

In any culture, this story (and the way it answers fundamental questions) is embodied in cultural symbols, into objects or practices that serve as touchstones to reinforce and root us in the story, values, and practices of the culture. For instance, in Christianity, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist serve as symbols. They are embodied retellings of the narrative that fundamentally makes us who we are. In the same way, from the earliest days of the church, the cross has been used as a symbol in Christianity to call us back to our identity and values. These symbols serve to root us in our narrative, to remind us of the sorts of things we should value, do, and be. Holidays, ceremonies, family traditions, rites of passage, flags, statues, and memorials all serve within a culture as these kinds of symbols – and as such, they are formative.

All this is to suggest that our symbols are never “just symbols.”

Good or bad, they are never amoral “parts of our history.”

They are meant to communicate something about what a culture or people group holds valuable or sees as the way forward in the world. This is precisely why such symbols are created in the first place.

Symbols aren’t “Just Symbols”

Being Human – Part 3

We’ve been talking about what it means to be human. In the past two posts (here and here), we’ve focused on how we might read Genesis 1:26-28 in its original context. Here, let’s come at it from a slightly different angle to help us continue fleshing out this idea of being human.

In the creation narrative of Genesis 1 there are three sorts of living beings:

First, there is God. Although we often forget it, we represent God as image-bearers, but we’re not God.

Second, there are the “living creatures.” These merit a little more explanation. In Hebrew, the phrase is nepes hayya. It is used four times in Genesis 1: twice in reference to sea creatures and birds (vs. 20-21); once in reference to land animals (vs. 24); and once in a summary fashion for everything that has the “breath of life” (vs. 30). The precise theological term for the nepes hayya is “critter.”

It is important to note the phrase is also used twice in Genesis 2. It is used in verse 19 when Adam named all the critters. It is also used in verse 7: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and, the man became a living being.” That is, God created man as a critter just like all the other animals. This fact creates a tension in us as we don’t like to be reminded of our creatureliness (an interesting example here) but we are nepes hayya nonetheless.

But at the same time, isn’t it equally clear we are more than critters? Which leads us to …

Third, there is humankind. Humans clearly aren’t God, but they have been given the vocation of representing God – they bear his image. At the same time, while humans are “living creatures” like all the other critters, our image-bearing vocation sets us apart from them as well. We’ve already looked at Genesis 1:26-28. Psalm 8 also speaks to this tension:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Humankind is “a little lower than God” and “over the works” of his hand. Humanity, as God intended, lives in the tension between those two.

One way of thinking about dehumanization and sin is to say they happen when we get that tension out of whack, either supposing we are gods or acting like we’re nothing more than critters. For example, some sins – like pride or the impulse to subjugate others – are sins because we forget we are “a little lower than God” and overreach, generally wreaking havoc as we go. Other sins are abnegations of our humanity in that we cast off our image-bearing role to act as though we were nothing but animals. Whenever we find ourselves dehumanizing another human, using them for the sake of fulfilling some urge – whether it be to feed some sexual hunger or commit violence to calm some primal fear – this is the move we make. Of course, many times our dehumanization and sinning is a little bit of both at the same time. Sticking with the examples we’ve already given, there are always those primal acts of sex or violence foisted on others in an attempt to exert god-like control over other humans.

(At this point in the conversation, you may have noticed I have yet to engage what makes humans different than animals other than their image-bearing vocation. What sets humans apart from animals? Souls? Free will? A capacity for self-reflection or abstract thought? You will note the Scripture is largely silent on the issue – and this is especially the case in the creation narratives of Genesis, which are [again] much more concerned with why God created us than how he created us and out of what. I would argue that whatever ways we might discover that humans differ from their fellow nepes hiyya, those ways are rooted in our carrying out the God-given vocation to bear his image. They are tools given to do the job we were created to do.)

As we begin to tie together the various strands of what the Genesis creation narratives say about humanity, we will want to make several observations. There are a few more strands to consider before looking at many of those, but let’s make an initial observation now:

Scripture has a high view of humanity. Human is what God created us as and to be human is to take up the task of bearing God’s image. In moments of failure, we often times say, “I’m only human!” but I hope you are starting to see this is a misrepresentation of humanity. The effect of sin (which we’ve only begun to hint at) is not to demonstrate our humanity but to strip us of it. Sin is dehumanizing. It makes us less than human.

 

Being Human – Part 3

Being Human – Part Two

This is the second post in a series asking what it means to be human. In the first post, I argued that Genesis 1 defines humanity in functional terms – that being human is more a vocation than anything else. Genesis 1:26-28 sits at the heart of this claim:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

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.

Two times in these verses, God holds the creation of humankind together with the vocation of ruling as his representatives: “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.” It is in living out this vocation of ruling over creation that we serve as God’s image-bearers.

Here, let’s think a little more about what that might mean. Namely, we can find three relationships in the idea of being God’s image. I want to argue (and will do so at greater length past this post) that human flourishing is found in tending these relationships as God intended.

First, bearing God’s image necessitates a proper relationship with God.

This is the easiest, most difficult, and most important of the three relational dynamics involved in being human. We are created to represent God, to rule over what he has made, on his behalf. As such, our humanity is always connected to his being.

I’m going to lay this out without much explanation here, but we’ll come back to it later and give it more attention: Image-bearing language functions as priestly language. In ancient Israel, the notion of a priesthood was larger than the Levitical priesthood that officiated at the temple, conducted sacrifices, etc. In one sense, the Levites served as Israel’s priesthood, but in another sense, the entire nation was called to serve as priests (cf. Exodus 19:6). Israel’s call to be a “royal priesthood” is tied to God’s determination to make them his “treasured possession out of all the peoples” and a “holy nation” (vs. 5-6). Belonging to God, Israel was tasked with representing him by embodying a different way of life – God’s way of life – before a world that had rejected him. In the context of the Exodus narrative, Israel’s call was really a call back to the original human vocation rejected in Genesis 3. God was calling Israel back to what he had always intended humans to be.

Being with God and representing him in our way of life. This is the fundamental task of image-bearing, the fundamental task of being human. When we are as God created us to be, the human vocation is to reflect God’s character, glory, and purposes into the creation he has placed us over. Everything else flows from this dynamic.

Second, bearing God’s image necessitates proper relationships with one another.

This shows up in an obvious way in Genesis 1:26-28. The human vocation includes the call to “be fruitful and multiply.” That would necessitate human interaction. (This is a contender for understatement of the year, I suppose.) More broadly, however, God has more than marital relations in mind in this text. In Genesis 1, the creation of humankind is not an individual event and the call to bear God’s image is not an individual mandate. That is, God does not establish a human as image-bearers, but all humans. The task of representing God – filling, subduing, holding dominion – is something we do jointly.

Put another way, God intended humanity to be played out in community and for human flourishing to occur, the way we tend relationships within those communities is crucial. Succinctly, if our task is to represent who God is in every aspect of our life, this begins with the way his character and purposes shape the way we treat one another as we go about the human vocation together. After all, Jesus tells us the greatest commands are to love God and love neighbor (cf. Matthew 22:34-40).

Third, bearing God’s image necessitates a proper relationship with our environment.

Again, this is a summary post outlining themes we can take up in more detail later. But, the third relational dynamic in the human vocation is the way we relate to the world around us. (Depending on where you stand, you may have to do some work to disassociate this notion from political agendas on the right and left of the American political spectrum. It’s tricky! But this was a biblical topic well before it was a point of contention on talk radio.)

To look ahead a little, Genesis 2 provides another perspective (or perhaps additional information) on the account given in Genesis 1. Here, God is said to place humankind in the garden to “till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). While those terms – tilling and keeping – beg for more definition, their mere mention calls us back to an obvious truth of Genesis 1:26-28: Humankind was created to steward God’s creation. As with our relationships with one another, this relationship with our environment is built on our fundamental call to reflect who God is.

___

There’s a lot more than can be said here – and we will want to say more, but we’ll stop with this summary for now. Humanity as Genesis envisions it is about representing who God is in our relationships with Him, with one another, and with our world.

Being Human – Part Two

Being Human – Part One

Let’s pick up and look at some of the big themes in Scripture. First up, what does it mean to be human?

Beginning in the beginning, take a look at Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

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.”

Put simply, being human is to be tasked with being God’s image-bearer. I say “put simply,” but that notion of image bearing needs some explanation as well. If being human means bearing God’s image, what does it mean to be an image-bearer? In our contemporary context, we don’t use image-bearing language very often, but it was common across the ancient world. For instance, look at the way “image” was used in 2 Kings 11:18:

Then all the people of the land went to the house of Baal, and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces, and they killed Mattan, the priest of Baal, before the altars.

When Genesis records God saying, “let us make humankind on our image,” it invokes language familiar to its original audience because just as God created his image-bearers, everyone else worshiped gods that had “images” or “idols” as well. As the 2 Kings text indicates, these images played a representative role. No one believed the images were Baal – “his alters and his images they broke in pieces.” In the culture Genesis 1 spoke to, images were representatives of divine presence.

To bear God’s image is to represent him.

Second, we need to give some consideration to what “create” would have meant in context of Genesis 1. We want to do this in order to gain some insight into what it means to say God created humankind in his image.

In the post-Enlightenment West, we tend to think of creation in material terms. We naturally read a creation text like Genesis 1 as the account of God making something from nothing. Nearly every side contemporary debates about creation and evolution agree that the discussion is about material origins. For instance, Young Earth Creationists interpret Genesis 1 as saying that God brought the material universe into being in seven days. On the other hand, proponents of evolution will counter that the material universe formed gradually over a huge expanse of time. Both are debating about how all this stuff got here.

However, Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern scholars like John Walton remind us ancient Israel likely didn’t think of creating in material terms. Rather, they thought of it in functional terms. While they didn’t deny that all the stuff of the universe came from God, they thought of creation more in terms of bringing order and function into an otherwise chaotic situation.

We sometimes think in these terms too. For instance, I used to frequent a restaurant in South Texas, grabbing a Coke, reading, or talking to other regulars. Across the way was a strip mall with several abandoned storefronts. The space that businesses once occupied materially continued to exist and several of those spaces contained remnants of those businesses – papers, equipment, displays, etc. However, the businesses no longer existed. While the material space was there already, the businesses didn’t come into being – they weren’t created – until they began to function as businesses. When that function ceased, the businesses ceased to exist even as the material space continued on.

Read Genesis 1 in terms of function and you will see it everywhere. It is a text about ordering and assigning function.

Indeed, on day one the material universe already exists – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (vs. 1-2). (Again, they would have held God materially made this universe as well, but that’s not what Genesis 1 is interested in.) On days one through three, God orders the various spheres of creation. For instance, he creates light by pushing back darkness and establishing bounds for each – “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (v. 5). Days two and three feature similar accounts of separating, establishing, and ordering. On days four through six, God establishes functionaries over these realms: the sun, moon, and stars over the heavens; the creatures of the sea and the birds of the air; the land animals; and, finally humankind.

Function is the primary concern throughout the Genesis narrative.

But, what does all this have to do with being human? Simply put, in Genesis 1 being human is more about vocation than composition. While we think of being created in the image of God in terms of what we are made of, Genesis 1 wants to talk about our creation in terms of why we were made.

Read Genesis 1:26-28 again, but this time in its functional context. God ties our creation as image-bearers with the vocation of ruling over his earth two times in three tight verses. When God created humans, he created them to rule over what he had made – not as sovereigns, but as his representatives. This is fundamentally what the Bible says being human means.

Of course, this idea needs more unpacking. We’ll do that in the next post.

Being Human – Part One