Two contrasting metaphors are used to describe humanity in Genesis. They form the basis of the Judeo-Christian understanding of what it means to be human and our role on this planet.
Dust of the Earth
On one hand, it is clear that we are creatures, part of God’s magnificent opus of creation. Genesis claims that we are made of the dust of the Earth. In recent decades, science has enriched our understanding of this passage in Scripture. On the physical level, we share the same origin as the rest of creation in the Big Bang, and are influenced by the same physical laws that govern the cosmos. On the chemical level, we are formed not only of the same constituent atoms as that of the Earth, but that of the Sun, moon and the stars as well! All the carbon in our bodies were formed in the nuclear furnaces of the first few generations of stars, and were distributed throughout the Galaxy in huge stellar explosions called supernovae. On the biological level, we share a common ancestry with the rest of all life on Earth.
Image of God
On the other hand, Scripture says that we are more than that. We are imbued with the breath of God, as if God has imparted a bit of himself into humanity. In Genesis, the term ‘image of God’ is used. What does it mean? This is linked to the whole question of purpose, which sets us apart from the rest of creation. For it is only us humans (for now at least, on Earth) who grapple with such questions of meaning and purpose. In Mesopotamian culture, images of kings or gods were meant to be their representatives in whichever province or temple in which they were erected. We are therefore representatives of God on the Earth. To add a modern twist to the metaphor, our role as image bearers is to reflect God into the world. We do this by:
- being co-creators with God – We play a part in God’s work of continuing creation, which not only includes the functional, but also the aesthetic. God made not only trees that were ‘good for food’, but were ‘pleasing to the eye’ too (Genesis 2:9). This passage is therefore the basis for both engineering and the arts!
- working the garden – This forms the basis of our vocation. Any work that we do, be it as an accountant, a scientist, a lawyer or a farmer should be seen as part of the collective human effort to bring forth produce from the resources that have been given to us for the benefit of all.
- caring for the garden – We need to work the garden wisely, as we are also called to be custodians of the Earth and everything in it. Here is the call for environmental stewardship and creation care. That Christians are one of the slowest to respond to our global environmental crisis is a travesty.
- being creatures of relationship – The early chapters of Genesis introduce us to a God that is deliberately relational. He sought after Adam and Eve even as they hid from Him. God created Eve when He saw that Adam was alone. We are communal creatures, created for relationship with God, other human beings, and all creation.
Reflections go both ways. Just as we are to reflect God’s image in the world, we also reflect the world and all creation unto God. As the image of God and the priesthood of God, we represent all of creation to bring praises and worship to God. N. T. Wright sums it up wonderfully in this short video from Biologos.
Metaphors in Tension
It is important to keep both these metaphors in tension as we reflect on our humanity. Too much focus on one over the other can either lead too an overly low or high view of ourselves. The first metaphor calls us to humility, reminding us that we share a common heritage with the rest of creation. The second gives us our purpose and our dignity, reminding us that we are more than ‘just animals, or ‘nothing but a mish-mash of atoms and molecules’. Of course, we humans have fallen short of being the perfect image bearer. We therefore look to Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation’ in Colossians 1:15. Through Jesus, we see what it means to be truly human.