What is the significance of humanity, according to Genesis? How Genesis describes humanity, or “Adam,” and our significance, is different from how we have sought to define our uniqueness. (Genesis 1 ~ 2)
The universe was not created for our sake
Our uniqueness is not in our origin
Human existence according to Genesis
The Image of God
Adam is not Homo Sapiens
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( On the sixth day, according to Genesis, God creates humankind, or “Adam,” in the image of God; and with this, God completes the Creation of the world. )
For a very long time, long before Christianity, before there were written words even, we have thought about our place in this world, trying to put into words what makes us special among all other living things. And there are several candidates; we have language, we form social structures, we use fire, and make tools. But, these all derive from what we consider to be our defining characteristic: intelligence. This is why the human species is classified under the name of Homo Sapiens, which means “wise man.” ( Carl Linnaeus, Systemae Naturae, 1758)
Yet, there are other animals—especially among the primates—that communicates, form societies, or use tools. Now, we have far more complex forms of these things, but this still tells us that there is continuity between us and them—continuity that scientific accounts like evolution emphasize. And this has led some people to feel uneasy and unsure about our unique place in this world.
But, what does Genesis saying about human beings? And whereas we tend to focus on our ability—intellectual or otherwise—Genesis presents something larger, more expansive. What defines us, according to Genesis, is our relationship with God; it is less about how unique our abilities are, and more about how they enable this relationship; it is less about our status, and more about our responsibilities of this relationship.
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Welcome to "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our fourth episode of the second season, "Adam in Genesis was no Homo Sapiens. Our significance as the image of God.”
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It is clear that Genesis creation account accords a great significance to humanity. Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. With humanity, the Creation of the world is complete, and God rests. There is even a second, separate creation account that immediately follows the first, one that is entirely about the creation of the first human beings who were placed in the paradisal garden of Eden. We are significant, but why, and in what ways? And we typically have sought to find the meaning of our significance in the wrong places.
First, we thought our significance meant that we are the center of all creation. This was one of the reasons—and there were many others, some of which were quite reasonable—why we thought the sun and the stars revolved around the earth. This view still shapes our beliefs even now, for example, on God’s purpose for creating the world. Some Christians think that God created the world just so that we could exist. They are, of course, separate things. Our significance to God is one thing, and God’s purpose for creating the world is another. I mean, we can see this even in mundane human examples. Perhaps you have children, or are planning to have them in the future. No doubt many of the things you do are for your children. But, not everything is. You studied or trained for your career; you worked on a project in your job; you clean the house, cook the food, and do laundry; you may be raising animals like dogs or cats in your home; you have hobbies like fishing, reading, or board games. Now, all of these things can benefit your children—yes, even your hobbies. But, you likely didn’t do them just so that you can have children. At least, that wasn’t the only reason; after all, people without children do them too. Instead, there are things you do specifically for your children, like reading them bedtime stories, or cooking meals for them, or playing board games with them. But, just because not everything you’re doing is only about them, doesn’t mean that you don’t love them dearly, or that they aren’t special. I hope.
This was one of the main points we explored in the previous episode. Too often, especially in arguments involving science, Christians and atheists argue whether the universe, or Nature, or evolution of Life, somehow reveal a purpose—that is, God’s intention—to bring us into existence. I mean, the universe is structured so that we can exist, because here we are. And the Christian Bible will affirm that we are meant to be here—as in God did not create humanity by accident, any more than God created anything else by accident. But, that’s very different from saying that, for example, time and space emerged through the Big Bang, just so that we can come into existence later. And not even the Bible will tell you that.
In the Genesis account, God speaks, saying “Let there be,” and each time, this brings new things, from Light, sky, seas, earth, life, stars, to living creatures; and each time, God sees it as good. God does not wait until the creation of humanity, to call His creation good. God brings forth a world where something happens in time, and this was good. God separates the world so different things and different possibilities can exist, and that was good. God calls forth a world that has definite forms and shapes—what we’d call matter—and makes it capable of bringing forth Life, and that was good. God brings forth the stars, and sets order and regularity in the heavens, and this was good. God calls forth living things to multiply and fill the world, first the seas, then the air, then the lands, and again it was good. Each time, God could have stopped, and Creation would have been good as it is; it would still be what God spoke them to be. Even if God had not created us.
Now, science can discover the laws that govern the emergence of time or space, or the structures of matter, or the formation of stars, or the evolution of all living things; (each of these laws is what the Bible would call the Logos of God ) and each of these is what Genesis would recount as God speaking the words, “Let there be.” But, none of these is about us. None of these guarantee our grand entrance: none of these laws, none of these “Let there be”s. The universe could have existed for just a single moment in time—enough for a single blaze of Light in the darkness; it could have expanded to seemingly empty vacuum of space sizzling with quantum possibilities; it could have become an expanse of countless stars burning too hot or too cold for Life; or Life could have multiplied and filled every world, yet never led to our appearance. All this was possible, according to scientific models. Yet, the Genesis account suggests that even if that had happened, that would be what God spoke and created, and saw as good, delightful, and lovable.
However, Genesis continues to say, when everything else was created, God then speaks and says, something along the lines of, “Now, let’s take this to the next level.” Then, God created human beings, and then the world was very good, and so God rests. The universe was not created for us, nor does it become worthless without us, because God repeatedly calls it good before we made an entrance. But, it seems we do add something new—a new layer to reality, and new worth to all creation. The great song of Creation would still be hauntingly beautiful even if our voice never joined its chorus; but, we are the new theme and melody in that symphony, a new stanza in that poem.
So, what is this new layer? What has God calling the world not just good, but very good, once humanity is created? It seems it has something to do with humanity being created in the image of God. But, what makes us that image?
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These questions lead to how we’ve sought to find the meaning of our significance in yet another wrong place; we thought that our significance meant we are unique among all created things. Now, we are unique, according to Genesis, because we are created in the image of God, and blessed by God to fill the earth and subdue it, and to rule over all living creatures on earth, air, and the seas. And to be sure, we are unique among all other species, in our power to shape and affect the world we live. This is what the early proponents of evolution like Thomas Huxley, who was called “Darwin’s bulldog,” failed to grasp, due to his position that humans are just another species of animals, evolved along similar lines of other primates. And this led him to reject the calls to regulate overfishing when he headed the British Royal commission of sea fisheries. He thought that the human species cannot exhaust the seas of fish, that we are not capable of affecting the world to that extent. His opinion, bolstered by his scientific authority, has led to devastating consequences, as 150 years later, we discovered that we can affect the oceans, and terrifyingly so. Huxley failed to realize that our biological origins, and our uniqueness, are entirely different things. However our species may have emerged, we are unique; and what we do profoundly affect all other living things, on earth, air, and the seas.
But, we have tended to put something more to our uniqueness—that God created us so that we are fundamentally and utterly different from all other living things. We reason; we communicate through language; we make tools; we feel, think, and plan. But, we’ve known for a very long time, that animals can feel and think; and some of them can use simple tools and even have rudimentary language. Even the ancient Hebrews knew; there’s even a story in the Bible that suggests that, for example, donkeys can think and feel sort of like we do, but just can’t speak to us. The difference between us and them was that of degree. But, still we sought to find some distinction that cannot be crossed—some qualities that make us “the image of God,” while no other creatures are. One idea was that God created us in some unique way that is completely different from all other creatures.
Evolution struck at this very thought. Now, Christians can believe that God created different living species through the process of evolution; that’s how many of them thought when Charles Darwin first presented his theory. Christians can say, as I have repeatedly, that the principles governing evolution, is God speaking. But, there’s yet another problem that evolution raised for Christianity. If humanity also came into being through evolution, like any other species, would that not mean that God created us in the same way that God created any other living things? If we evolved from a species common to, say, all the other apes, what distinguishes us from them? What makes us unique? Again, we obviously have capabilities to shape the world that far, far outstrips all other apes, for good or for ill—often for ill. But, the line is blurred. We wanted our origin to be unique.
And we looked to the second chapter of Genesis, the second creation account that is entirely about the creation of the first human beings to find this uniqueness. In that account, the perspective flips, so that it focuses on us. It does not begin with the dark, fathomless depths of water that represent infinite possibilities, but with earth already formed and watered by the mists that rise from below. From here, God takes the dust from the ground and forms man—the first man, “Adam”—and breathes into him, so that he becomes a living being. ( God then plants a garden, called Eden, in which “Adam” would dwell, and tend to. ) This second account is not about the creation of the cosmos, the creation of all of time, space, matter, life, and then us; the detailed, special account of creation is given for “Adam” alone.
However, if anything, this account highlights the sheer physicality of human beings, and their commonness with other living things. The very name of the first human that God created is significant. “Adam,” simply means man, or “humankind,” male and female. In the original Hebrew, Genesis recounts that God created “Adam” in His image and that God created “Adam,” as male and female. But, “Adam” comes from “Adama,” which means “ground.” This is because God created Adam from Adama; that is, humanity is created out of the dust from the ground. Yet, the same account goes on to say that God had formed other living creatures also out of the ground. At this point, this should remind us of the first creation account, where God speaks and imparts earth, the dry ground the capability to bring forth Life, in the form of seed-bearing things. So, the creation of humankind from the ground is the extension of that idea. There’s more; God breathes the breath of life into Adam that he formed out of the ground, so that he became alive. But, again, the original Hebrew that describes this process points more to our commonness with other creatures, rather than our uniqueness. This phrase of “breath of life,” appears in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, to describe every other living thing that breathes, including livestock. And when God breathes into Adam, he becomes a nephesh, or “living being.” But, this same Hebrew word used for every other living creature; so, in the opening creation account of Genesis, God speaks, “Let the waters teem with nephesh,” and “Let the earth bring forth nephesh, according their kind.”
We were formed out of the earth; so were every other creature. We were given the breath of life from God; so did every other creature. We are a nephesh; so are all other creatures. And the reason why the second creation account describes only the creation of human beings may simply be because that is its focus; it is an issue of the shift in narrative perspective. After all, the first account already includes the creation of human being, male and female.
Humanity is unique, according to the Bible. But, we’re seeking our uniqueness from the wrong place. It is not our biological origin that defines our uniqueness, or indeed, our significance as the “image of God.” There is a line spoken by a prophet named John the Baptist in the Bible. When religious leaders of the day said that Abraham is their father, that is, they were biological descendants of a holy man who walked with God, John replies drily, “I tell you, God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones on the ground.”
Then, where should we have sought our significance—our uniqueness? I would say that it isn’t about how we were created, but for what we were created.
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Our significance in Genesis account is found in what God speaks regarding us. We are created in the image of God; we are to fill the earth and subdue it—or, literally, gain mastery over it—and reign over living creatures in the sea, air, and land. And so we have. What God spoke, is our existence, and our nature. And like it or not, we have filled the earth; and we have subdued it; and if we consider that earth represents for the ancient Hebrews, something like matter, or the material world, we have indeed gained mastery over it. And like it or not, we do rule over other living creatures, not only because we have domesticated many of them, but even more so because our actions have profoundly affected all other living species —so much so that the emergence of humanity has been correlated with a mass- extinction event at a geological scale. That is, we have so far been an equivalent of a massive meteor, striking the earth and killing off all the dinosaurs. We are unique; our impact on the world has been, tragically unique.
Now, if all this sounds terribly negative, we will get to that in the later episodes of this season. For now, this highlights the unique capability of humanity. We have the capability, the power to fulfill what God spoke. But, it’s just as that famous line from the Marvel comic book franchise, Spider-man, says: with great power, comes great responsibility. We have the power, but have we fulfilled our responsibility?
What is our responsibility though? To be the “image of God,” yes, but, what does that mean? If that “image” is not in the uniqueness in how we came into being— our biological origin—or even simply in our powers and capabilities, but in our responsibilities, then what does it mean to be the “image of God”?
For Christians, we can peek at an answer from the portions of the Bible that were written long after Genesis—the New Testament, and specifically in the letters of Paul. According to the New Testament Bible, Jesus is the perfect image of God ( 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15 ) Why is Jesus the “image of God”? Because Jesus represents God to the world; Jesus is in a perfect relationship with God, and so, he presents God’s character, purpose, and love, to all other human beings and to the rest of creation. This is why, for Christians, Jesus is Lord. This is how Jesus rules. And likewise, humanity was to be the image of God. Humanity was to represent God to all other living creatures; that is what it meant for humanity to rule.
However, to represent God, humanity must first relate to God in a way no other creature has, so far. And this is where our capabilities become relevant. Before I explain how, I need to point out what the biblical scholars have discovered about the term, the “image of God.” Now, the peoples and nations that lived around the ancient Hebrews considered their kings to be the image of their deities; that is, their kings were the living representatives of their gods. So, the king of Babylon was their Marduk; the Pharaoh of Egypt was their Horus while alive, and their Osiris, after death. Genesis uses the same idea of this “image,” but in two radically different ways from that of these neighboring peoples. First, every human being, every “Adam,” male and female, is the image of God. That is, not only kings, or heroes, or priests, but every person, regardless of status, power, age, or gender, represents God. Second, God that “Adam” represents is not a god. We’ve already explored why God, with the capital “G,” is not a god, in the first season, but for this has profound implications on what it is to relate to such God, and represent Him.
God is not a god of any particular thing or a domain. God is not the sun, moon, or any of the stars, nor the sky, nor the earth, nor the seas; God is not the god of thunder, or the rain, or light, or darkness, or the birds, or the beasts, or even the monsters of the deep. God is none of these; but, God is also encountered through all of these, because all of them, every one of them, is created by God speaking them into being. Thus, ancient Hebrews declared that if they were to ascend to the highest heavens, or delve in the deepest depths, or hide within darkest night, God is there, that all belongs to God. Then, what would it mean to relate to such God, and represent Him? One way is, to go everywhere. Or, as God spoke to humanity, “to fill the earth and subdue it.” And so we have. Our feet have taken us to every land on every continent, from the mountains to the valleys, the rivers to the desert, the plains to the forests. Then, we built boats and ships and traversed across the oceans and the seas, to the most distant islands. Then, we’ve trekked across the icy north and south poles, and built planes to fly into the sky, and submarines to dive into the ocean. And then, we’ve shot ourselves from the Earth to the moon. And the message of Genesis is, “There too, you will encounter God.”
The other important idea that Genesis presents regarding God that humanity is to represent, is that God speaks all things into being. In Genesis, all things come into being when God speaks, “Let there be,” and they become what they are, when God names them. And thus, Light, day and night, sky, waters, earth, seas, sun, moon, and the stars come to exist. Then, in the second chapter, after God creates “Adam,” God brings to Adam other living creatures, so that Adam may also name things, with his own words. The idea here is the following: reality is like a speech, and so we can come to understand it with our speech. And we have. From the earliest times we’ve painted animals and the world around us on rocks and in the caves. We sang songs and told stories. Then, our paintings became writing, and our speech moved us to develop new words, new concepts, and even new ways to describe our world, such as mathematics. Our stories became literature, history, philosophy, and science. And we even glimpsed the principles that govern how things come to be, and be what they are—what the Bible calls the Logos of God, God speaking. And we’ve done so with our logos, our reason, and our language, and so gained greater mastery over world we live.
The capabilities that define humanity—our adaptability, our desire to explore, our language and our thoughts—enable us to relate to God and to understand what God is speaking, and thus represent Him. Yet, there is still one critical missing piece. In Genesis, God calls it as such, and speaks, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The word, “good,” here is the very same word that God spoke when God created all other things. So, every time God created something, it was “good,” but, a lone human being was not good; every other created thing fulfills its purpose, but a lone human being cannot fulfill their purpose, which is to represent God. So, God creates a “helper.” The word, “help,” which is ezer in Hebrew, is usually used to describe how God accomplishes what humans could not do on their own. And God creates this help, someone “Adam” needs to fulfill his responsibility. And it is here that the gender of this lone human, “Adam,” finally becomes relevant to the story; he is male, and God takes one of his ribs and with it, creates a female.
I will leave aside what it means for God to have created the woman out of the man’s ribs, because whatever that is, the significance of what God has done is found in what “Adam” says regarding it. “This is now the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Which is the Hebrew idiom of saying, this is the best of me. “Adam,” or man, is formed out of the ground, like all other living beings. We are creatures of earth like other animals; but other people—especially those we love—are more than mere “adam,” just another living thing formed from earth; they are the best of us. Other people, and our love for them, lift us out from the ground from which we were formed, and enable us to gaze into something more. For just as we represent God to creation, others represent God to us.
And so, together, with those we love, humanity encounters God, relates to God, and represents God. Together, we explore all that God is presenting us, all that God is speaking, and together our conversations and our speech imitates God who speaks. And together we become something more than the earth we are formed out of. That is what it means to be humanity; that is our significance.
And this at last brings us to the title of this episode. With our modern evolutionary account of how humanity emerged, a number of people nowadays have been asking, “where is Adam in all this?” Is he supposed to be the first of the Homo Sapiens? But, what about other hominid ancestors of modern humanity? What about the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, or even Homo erectus, and such?
But, such questions miss the profound account of humanity that Genesis presents. Genesis is not presenting a biological classification of humanity; “Adam,” is not a Homo Sapien; They are not “wise men.” They are rather the image of God, the living representatives of who God is, and what God is speaking.
John Stott, an influential evangelical leader and theologian in the late 20th century, called “Adam,” Homo Divinus. A “divine man.” Perhaps “Adam” was a Neanderthal, or perhaps, a Homo Erectus, or perhaps a Homo sapiens. But, for Christianity, humans are first and foremost, Homo Divinus, a “divine person” who represents God. And a Homo Divinus can be Homo sapiens biologically, but doesn’t have to be. Maybe in a distant future, this Divine person will come from a new species; perhaps the next Homo Divinus will not even be biological creatures like us! But, they will, like us, explore all that God created, encounter God who speaks, face each other with wonder and love, and in so doing, represent God to each other, and to all creation.
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Thank you for listening, and please join me next week as we explore further what it means to be the Divine person that represents God, by stepping into the daily life in the Garden of Eden.
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