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.