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.