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.