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

Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3

This is another port from a previous blog space. It is the sequal to the blog post linked below that I transferred over earlier in the week.

In a previous post, I shared some things I’ve been thinking about concerning sin and death. Specifically, scripture seems to suggest we have a death problem rather than a sin problem — though sin is inextricably bound to the death problem — and that in a post-fall world, our fear of death drives much of our sinful behavior.

Today, I want to tease that out a little more by looking at how our anxiety over death plays into the curses of Genesis 3. Genesis 3:16–19 serve as a poetic framework for understanding how the world changed when sin and death entered at the fall. In a later post, I want to go back and look at the first part of Genesis 3 and explore how it plays into this theme.

To set the stage, take a look at a familiar passage from Paul:

Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. (Romans 5:12)

Through one human, sin came into the world, opening the door for death. As such, death has now spread to everyone because we have all sinned. What I’m arguing here is simply that once death was set loose in the world by that first sin, our anxieties about death subsequently become the de facto drive behind many subsequent sins. This emphasis on anxiety seems to be present in the earliest descriptions of our broken world in the “curses” of Genesis 3.

Take a look at Genesis 3:16:

To the woman he said, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.”

Let’s focus on the first part of the text. This is Hebrew poetry, and the two lines of the curse represent a synonymous parallelism, which means we read the second line as restating the first in synonymous terms. We should note a few things.

First, in Hebrew, the phrase very painful refers to the certainty of pain rather than the severity of pain. The English Standard Version picks up on this rendering the phrase “surely multiply your pain.”

Second, the word we translate painful (issabon) is a rare word, only used three times in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 3:16, 17; 5:29), and taken by itself could refer to either physical or emotional pain.

Third, while the first reference to pain is ambiguous as to whether physical or emotional pain is in view, it’s parallel in the second line (eseb) more commonly refers to emotional pain or anxiety. Further, both words share the same root which is commonly used to refer to emotional distress or anxiety.

Fourth, as we will see, issabon is used in verse 17 in a context that more clearly refers to anxiety rather than physical pain. This is also the case in its only other use in Genesis 5:29.

On the whole, it is more likely the curse refers to the introduction of anxiety or emotional distress into the experience of childbirth rather than physical pain. This provides a more coherent reading of the whole text. Eve and her daughters will now experience anxiety associated with the birth of their children. Why? Death has entered the world. Prior to this, one would not need to ask questions common to us:

“Is the baby all right?” “Is the mother all right?” “What kind of world have I brought my children into?”

There is a powerful counterpoint to this idea in Isaiah 65. If Genesis 3 describes the point at which everything falls apart, Isaiah 65 looks forward to the point when God will put everything back together. In the new heavens and the new earth, mothers will no longer “bear children to a world of horrors.”

Sin has let death loose on the world and a mother’s anxiety at this possibility (or awareness of its inevitability) is the heart of the new reality she helped create.

A similar thing is happening in verses 17–19:

To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’ cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread — until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”

Again, there are several things to notice.

First, this curse is set against the backdrop of the abundance we find in Genesis 1–2. In God’s good creation, things thrive, and multiply, and fill the earth, skies, and sea. Adam and Eve have an abundance of food at hand. Therefore, the news that the earth will now fight back against humankind is about the introduction of scarcity. Now, Adam and Eve will have to tend to their next meal.

Second, within this context of scarcity, the curse is not that Adam will now have to work. It is not even necessarily the case that he will have to work harder — although that could be a part of it. Work was an integral part of the original human calling to bear God’s image. In Genesis 1, humans were called to bear dominion over God’s creation. In Genesis 2, this is expressed in terms of farming and taking care of the garden. Whatever the curse is about, it is not the introduction of work into human experience.

Third, we find the second instance of issabon in Genesis 3:17. Here, it is paralleled with an Ancient Near Eastern idiom for anxiety: “the sweat of your face.” The idea is not that Adam will suddenly start sweating for the first time. Rather, this expression is similar to saying someone “broke out in a sweat” when they became nervous, anxious, or frightened.

Fourth, notice the curse here is explicitly tied to death. You will experience this anxiety until you “return to the fertile land.”

The idea here seems to be sin has now introduced an element of scarcity which hits humanity at it’s most vulnerable — the table. As such, Adam will now work with an enduring anxiety about where the next meal will come from.

At first glance, we may seem far removed from this sort of anxiety in America. I would argue that it is not so far off, that we have gone to great lengths to assure “food security” and that we would go (and have gone) to greater lengths still to keep it. Nonetheless, millions around the world do have this experience on a daily basis.

Anxiety ushered in by death is right at the heart of this early description of what our broken world looks like. My contention is that from Genesis 3:16 onward this deeply rooted fear becomes the driving force behind much of our sinful behavior.

Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3