What is Man? Gen 1:26-31


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Genesis 1:26-31

That the creation of man, of human beings, of both man and woman, is the climax of God’s creative activity and the point of it all is indicated by several things. First, it is the final act of the creation week. Second, more attention is paid to it than to any other part of God’s creation work. Third, it is the only part of his creative activity about which God is said to deliberate: “let us make man.” Fourth, the account is enlarged and significant detail is added in the reprise given us in chapter 2. No act of the creation week is narrated twice except the creation of man. Fifth, God relates man to himself in a way quite different from the rest of the created order. Other animals, for example, are God’s creatures, but only man is made in God’s image and likeness. Sixth, man is given authority over the rest of creation. And seventh, as the Bible continues we learn that the story of the life, the fall, the judgment, and the redemption of man is the story of the Bible. The rest of the creation provides the environment, the context, but biblical history is, at the last, human history, a fabulously important fact people don’t think about often enough.

Text Comment

v 26   The first question we must ask is: why does God say “let us make” and not “let me make?” Jewish commentators have taken the statement to refer to the heavenly court, the angels, to whom God is addressing himself. Others have seen it as a statement of “self-deliberation,” God, as it were, speaking to himself. Others have taken it to be a plural of majesty, akin to the usual word for God in Hebrew, which is always plural though matched with singular verbs. This was a feature of Hebrew syntax that was used to express the particularly exalted nature of a subject. However, while the noun could be a plural of majesty, the pronoun “our” cannot be. In Hebrew pronouns are always “countable plurals.” [Waltke, Genesis, 64] But that also means it is unlikely that “our” refers to God and the angels. Man wasn’t made in the image of angels, but in the image of God. Let’s take it as a statement of self-deliberation or self-address. True enough, we cannot immediately derive the doctrine of the Trinity from this statement, but, looking back from the vantage point of the NT, the reference to the Holy Spirit in v. 2 and this use of plural pronouns certainly seem to be at least hints of plurality in God. This, by the way, is not the only time we encounter this “us” in this part of Genesis (e.g. 3:22; 11:7) or the rest of the OT (e.g. Isa. 6:8).  [Collins, 59-61; Letham, Union with Christ, 11-12]

A second question concerns the use of the word “man” for the human being, both male and female. This was, the Bible leaves us in no doubt, a God-given name. Genesis 5:2 makes this even more explicit where we read that God named them “Man.” You are aware, perhaps, that the Hebrew word “man” is the same word as “Adam,” the context alone determining whether we should read the noun or the proper name. Due to the influence of the Bible, human beings have been called “man” or “mankind” ever since. But this way of speaking about the human race has become highly controversial in our feminist age. The cultural prejudice, very new but very powerful, against this biblical manner of speaking has made its way into the practice of Christian churches and institutions. Evangelical colleges and seminaries are now recommending, if not requiring, that students write papers employing only gender neutral terminology: “person” replacing “man”; “he/she” or “they” replacing the generic “he”; even “spouse” replacing “husband” or “wife.” New Bible translations are featuring this change. In some there is no longer “man” at Gen 1:26, though that’s what the Hebrew says, but “human beings” or “humanity” or “humankind” or the like. At the same time, “you guys” has become the preferred mode of address for a couple or group of people, both men and women, so Genesis 1:26, though dead still speaks!

I still wait for an argument in favor of this abandonment of the Bible’s way of speaking about the human race that does not patronize the Bible itself. People who supposedly revere the Bible as the very Word of God have, in large numbers, joined the chorus for changing the Bible’s consistent pattern of referring to human beings as “man.” I fear, however, that they do not care much that this seems so clearly to amount to passing judgment on the Bible and its teaching, as if, somehow, God couldn’t find the proper words to use in referring to the human race. “Man,” after all, is the term God himself used; it is the name he gave to mankind. The fact that it happens also to be the name for one sex of the two, the one that God made first and to whom God gave headship in human life, is his doing. Had he wanted another name he could certainly have found one; he did not. What is more, he consistently maintains this way of speaking all the way through the Bible and he relates this order suggested by the name “Man” to many other features of the biblical doctrine of gender, teaching us that to call the race “Man” is a reflection of the nature of human beings as God made them. We can rename the animals if we want to, because God left it up to man to name them in the first place; but to rename man is, it seems to me, an act of rebellion against God, a refusal to wear the name he has given us, because people today do not want to accept its implications or significance.

Though feminists perfectly well understand the importance of changing the name for the human race (it is a characteristic tactic of revolutionaries to change the names we use for human beings. In the French revolution they called everyone “citizen;” in the Russian revolution, “comrade”), evangelicals blithely accept the change as harmless, as if changing the terminology does not, in any important way, change the meaning. The feminists themselves know better. Listen to Daphne Hampson, a feminist scholar who renounced Christianity and who sees clearly that feminism and orthodox Christianity, that is historic, Bible-believing Christianity, are in agreement that one either accepts the Bible’s way of speaking about men and women or one gives up Christianity altogether:

“Feminism represents the death-knell of Christianity as a viable religious option….It is conservative Christians who, together with the more radical feminists, perceive that feminism represents not just one crisis among many. For the feminist challenge strikes at the heart of Christianity….Christianity is a religion of revelation with a necessary foot in history. It cannot lose that reference as long as it remains Christianity. And that reference is to a patriarchal history.” [Theology and Feminism, pp. 1, 5; cited in Touchstone (Fall 1995), p. 23]

She is right. If the Bible is wrong about the way in which it speaks about human beings from beginning to end, then our confidence in it is misplaced and we must seek a new authority for our thinking. But the Bible is not wrong; modern society is wrong; feminism is wrong; and nature proves it a thousand times a day. And the Bible will still be here and still be true, and men and women will still be constrained by the nature God gave them when feminism is no more. People can throw off the name but they cannot throw off the nature God gave them, a nature that God described by naming the human race “Man.”

Let me explain my practice. I want to be sensitive to my generation and put no unnecessary obstacles in the path of those who do not yet believe. I too will use “him and her,” “he and she,” etc. however clumsy a way of speaking. But, I will also continue to use the generic masculine and refer to the human race as “man”. To do anything less, especially when the world is clamoring for the church to abandon the Bible’s way of speaking, in my judgment would be to betray Holy Scripture with a kiss.

v 28   This is the famous “creation mandate,” or “dominion mandate,” the divine commission given to man to rule the earth, to be responsible for the earth and all that it contains, as God’s vice-regent. He remains the Sovereign of course! We are to be his stewards. This is the consequence, of course, of the divine image. It is because man alone bears God’s image that he has either the capacity to rule the world or the accountability for the world. (No animal creates culture, can exploit the resources of the world as man can and has. Or as James puts it in 3:7-8: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man.” Of course, the fall has made that dominion often deeply selfish, foolish, and harmful in its consequences for the world and for man.. But here is the foundation of a true and enlightened environmentalism. We are the stewards of the wonderful earth that God has made.

v.30   We are all, as creatures, dependent upon God for our existence. He must give us our food!

We have come to the most important few verses in the prologue to the book of Genesis, the verses that relate the creation of man. We have here the definition of a human being. Can you define yourself? Can you explain to yourself or to someone else precisely what you are? I suspect most human beings can’t do that and that failure to know ourselves is the beginning of all our troubles. The Bible’s definition of a human being is straightforward but impossibly profound. Human beings are creatures made in the image and likeness of God. That is what you are, that is what I am. We are creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

Man is a creature. That is the first thing. He was made by God. We read: “So God created man…” Man owes his existence to God. In this he is like all the rest of the creatures. He is utterly dependent upon God for his existence and for the nature of that existence. In several ways in this account there is an accent on man’s creatureliness. He shares the sixth day with the rest of the sentient creatures. Later, in the more elaborate account of man’s creation we are given in chapter two, we read that man was made of the dust, the stuff of the earth, just as the other creatures were as read in 1:24. In vv.29-30 we read that man was provided with food in the same way that God provided nourishment for the other land animals he had made. In fact the same Hebrew word, nephesh, is used of us as is used of those other animals; animals with breath in them. Comparing 1:22 with 1:28 we learn that man reproduces in kind, under the blessing of God, just as the rest of the living creatures do. In all of these ways, and many others not specifically mentioned in the creation account, man belongs with the other creatures, is like them, and is certainly like them in his utter dependence upon the provision God made for his life.

For example, that we should be able to find in other animals some of the same organs that are found in the human body or that we should share some of the same powers that other animals have, should surprise no one. We animals all have the same Maker. We have all been fitted to live in this world, to eat the food, to breathe the air, and so on.

But that man is a creature is a conception of his nature that is under direct attack in our day. To refer to man as a “creature” implies that he has a creator. While there are influential people nowadays who are happy to admit that man is an animal, the highest of all animals indeed, they would hotly deny that man is a creature. In their view man wasn’t made; he just happened. We are, of course, right to scoff at the very idea. It is an idea so ridiculous it should be made to seem ridiculous. No accident of chemistry or biology could ever have produced a human being (or an animal for that matter!); no million or ten million accidents could have. But we should not only scoff at the idea that man is an accident of nature. We should remind anyone who will listen that it is man’s creatureliness that is his only hope and the only foundation of his dignity. If man has no maker, he has neither importance nor a future. It is only if he has a maker that he has true value and may have a future beyond this life!

But man is not only a creature, like the other animals in many ways. He is at the same time something entirely unique and utterly beyond the animals, so much so that still today, even in our evolutionary age, people find it difficult to think of human beings as animals. We belong in a class by ourselves! All of this is indicated by the statement that God made man in his image and after his likeness. What does that mean? Well, to begin with take note that the expression “image of God” is used only in reference to human beings. This sets them apart from the other creatures. [Waltke, 65]

But what are the image and the likeness of God? It is very likely that the two phrases are synonyms; the one phrase clarifies and emphasizes the other. In Genesis 5:1 we read that God made man in his likeness; nothing is said there about man being made in the image of God. You can say it one way or you can say it the other, or you can say it both ways at the same time. And a few verses later we read that Adam fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. There too the terms refer to the same thing. Now if we want to understand these terms, we need to understand how they were used in that time and place.

“Image” and “likeness” were terms of art in the ancient near east. A remarkable find was made at an archaeological site in northeast Syria in 1979. It is a statue, an idol, with an inscription on it in Assyrian with an Aramaic paraphrase. Aramaic as you remember is a language very much like Hebrew. The Aramaic refers to the statue both as a “likeness” and an “image.” [Collins, 65] In other words, the idol was like the god or was an image of the god. There was a kind of unity between them, a significant similarity. In ancient near eastern thought an idol represented the presence of the deity, his power and his authority.  It was an image, a likeness, not the god himself; it was a representation not a facsimile. But it was a potent and functional representation. In the ancient near east it was widely believed that the spirit of a god lived in the statue with the result that the image in stone or wood or metal could function as a representative of or substitute for the god. To honor the image then was to honor the god. In Egypt to feed the image was to feed the God and so on. But among men in the ancient world only the king was ever said to be the image of god. [Waltke, 65-66]

Well you see the great differences here. The image is not limited to the king; rather every human being is made in the image and likeness of god, a radical thought in the ancient near east. And God’s presence is not contained in the image or likeness as in paganism. Human beings are definitely not God! In the ancient near east women would never have been thought to be the image or likeness of god, as they are said to be here in Genesis 1. In all these ways the terms are used very differently. But still in certain ways human beings are like God! We are a representation of God. We are not God, to be sure. To be made in God’s image and likeness distinguishes us from God as well as likens us to him. We often notice how the Bible describes God anthropomorphically, as if he were like a man. We read of God’s eyes and ears and hands and feet, of his heart being grieved, of him walking, looking and smelling, and so on. But here, as it were, human beings are described theomorphically. What distinguishes man among the animals is the ways in which he is like God, the ways in which he lives and acts in a God-like way.

The simple meaning of the terms is that human beings are like God in ways no other creatures are. They take after God. We use the terms in this way still today. We say that a son is the “spitting image” of his father, or we comment on how like his father he is. The argument has long been how we are like God; how we are his image. The text here doesn’t say and, in fact, nowhere in the Bible is the image defined in so many words, but taking all the evidence together we learn such things as these.

  1. It is because we are made in God’s likeness that we can have fellowship with God, can be his children and his friends. This is the summary idea: we are like God in that we too are persons! The image makes us persons.
  2. The image has also to do with God’s moral perfections. Paul speaks of Christians being remade in the image of God and means that we are becoming more righteous and good.
  3. But man remains a bearer of God’s image even after the Fall. So he is Godlike in certain ways even as a sinner.
  4. Jesus Christ is said in the NT to be the express image of God. As a man he was as much like God as a man could be.

Surely one dimension of the image or likeness of God is all of those ways in which human beings are equipped for fellowship with God. We speak as the animals do not do, Dr. Doolittle notwithstanding. I reminded you recently of the extraordinary significance of that fact and that it has been confirmed countless times in modern linguistic studies. Much as so many scientists would like it not to be true, it is true, this profound difference between all the other animals and man that is the power of speech. We think at a much higher level than do the animals. We are inventive, creative as God is. We appreciate beauty as God does. We are inescapably moral creatures, evaluating everything and everyone all the time in moral terms, in terms of right and wrong, as God does. And, as we read immediately in v. 28, we exercise rule and dominion, we cannot help it, it is our nature made as we are in the image of God. And what remarkable accomplishments have been made in the exercise of that dominion: from art and literature and music, to medicine, from engineering and transportation (now even space flight), to manufacturing (consider the cell phone in your purse or pocket), from animal husbandry, to agriculture (I read the other day that an acre of corn a century ago produced 20 or 30 bushels; today the same acre produces 150!), to nuclear power, and so on. Human beings are the only creatures who have or can produce culture, an organized way of life that can be transmitted to the rising generations so that we can accumulate the things that we learn and can build on the achievements and the discoveries of previous generations. We are also ineluctably relational creatures. Human beings are creatures made for companionship; we do not like to be alone. At every moment of every day you see these characteristics of human life on public display. That is what persons are! That is what persons do!

Another dimension of the image is the righteousness and moral integrity with which Adam and Eve were made. They were creatures who lived well and did good; they loved God and one another, and wanted nothing else but to continue to do so. That came to an end, but the longing for good and the thirst for integrity still fills every human heart. A remarkable thing! This too utterly distinguishes us from the rest of the animals.

Even at his worst, man reflects the nature of his maker. Jack Collins likens man after the fall to the rescoring of a Beethoven symphony for the piano. One can still recognize the original, but a great deal has been lost. Or think of the ruin of a great cathedral, say the old cathedral in St. Andrews, Scotland that I know many of you have seen. The walls or much of them still stand. You can visualize what the church once had been, but it is a ruin, a shadow of what it once was. So is man, which is why God has gone to such great lengths to remake us through Christ. This is his masterwork and worthy to be remade into its original splendor.

What is perfectly plain is that his likeness to God is what distinguishes man among all the creatures; it is the emphatic new thing in the creation of this last of the land creatures on the sixth day! Had God left only the animals lower than man in the world, the world would be today as it was on that sixth day, the life of living things continuing in the same channels marked out by the limitations of their natural life and governed by the unchanging pattern of natural determination and instinct and not by creative intellect. Only man is what someone has called “a creature of option.” [Hoekema, p. 6] In other words, only man has that godlike freedom of thought and action, only man can choose to live in one way or another. Only man can profoundly change his lot for better or for worse.

I do not mean to disparage the animals, of course. They are beautiful and wonderful and what they can do is marvelous beyond words: the eagle in his flight, the cheetah on his run, the migrating birds and butterflies, and so on. Because God created the natural world –invented it out of his love and artistry — it demands our reverence. The animals are also a demonstration of the genius and glory of God who made them. They do, of course, think in a certain way, communicate to a certain degree. In strength and speed and adaptability to environment, etc. they often surpass man. But they do because they were not created, as man was, with the capacity to rule and so recreate the environment to their own advantage. The animals cannot build cities, invent ever more sophisticated tools, develop language or art, or engage in education or commerce. It has been said that monkeys will warm themselves at a fire, but they have never been observed to feed the fire by throwing fresh wood on it or to have lit a fire in the first place. The animals cannot exploit the resources of the natural order to produce something entirely new. Only a godlike creature could do that and that is what man has been made to be.

The Bible in speaking about human beings always returns to these two great facts about human beings: they are God’s creatures and they are like God, with all the opportunities and responsibilities that such a remarkable nature gives them.

In his address to the Athenians, Paul stressed man’s creatureliness: “God gives all men life and breath and everything else,” and “in him, we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:25, 28). He makes the same point even more bluntly and absolutely, in Romans 9, when he says that God is the potter and man is the clay.

But at the same time the Bible is always holding man accountable for the way he thinks and speaks and for what he chooses to do. He has tremendous powers and so he has a great accountability for the use of them. So you remember how James speaks of the sins of the tongue?

“[The tongue] is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be.”

What a remarkable power is human speech, but then the sins we commit with our tongue are all the more evil precisely because of the greatness of that power, the one who gave it to us, and the dignity and worth of people made in God’s image. For their godlikeness they deserve our honor and our love, not our verbal abuse.

We often prefer animals to some human beings precisely because the animals are not human beings: our expectations of animals are so much lower and so much more easily met. Human beings, with all of their moral and intellectual abilities and powers, ought to be so much more than they are. They are a chronic disappointment to us. Only of human beings has it ever been said, could it ever be said, that we are “one vast need.” It is because they are men that they can be so evil; it is because they are men that they can be so good; it is because they are men that they so disappoint us; but it is also because they are men made in the image and likeness of God that they can so please and elate us. Being human beings ourselves, we can too easily take for granted what a breathtaking thing a man or woman actually is. A creature yes; but in fabulously important ways a creature that is also like God.

When asked why he was so resistant to the conclusion — suggested by so many converging lines of evidence — that man may well be the only intelligent life in the universe, Stephen Hawking (the English astrophysicist) replied:

“The human race is so insignificant, I find it difficult to believe the whole universe is a necessary precondition for our existence.” [Cited in F. Heeren, “Home Alone in the Universe,” First Things 12.1 (March 2002) 38-46]

That the whole thing, all those billions and billions of galaxies and their billions and billions of stars separated by those vast distances that we can compute but cannot comprehend, that it all is just legroom for man and woman, seemed to him impossible.

But that argument melts away if man is what the Bible says he is: God’s creature and the only one made in the image or likeness of God. Perhaps the entire universe exists for man to contemplate, to explore, and by which to prove to himself the greatness of the God who made him and gave him life! After all, it was for these men and women, these godlike creatures that the creator of heaven and earth eventually came into the world himself, suffered, and then died the most impossibly ignominious death. They must be worth something extraordinary to be worth that! Their life, when restored, must be something too marvelous for words.  We are going to stand agape when we see what a human being actually can be, how much like God he or she can be. You, my friends, are God’s masterpiece. That is how wonderful and important you are, every one of you. You forget this constantly. It doesn’t impress you the way it should. But you should never forget this. You should remember it, revel in it, and recognize the responsibility that inevitably comes with having a life that is in so many remarkable and important ways like God’s own. Or, as Rabbi Duncan once put it: “Oh what a solemn thing it is to be man! Made so exalted, fallen so low, capable of being raised again so high.” It is a very large part of true wisdom to live every day in the constant awareness of that single fact! Truly to know God one must first know himself.