God invested human beings with a special authority over and responsibility for the rest of his creation:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And 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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28).
In this text, Moses reveals that special authority and responsibility in several ways:
First, he says that God created human beings “in his image.” The word for image that Moses used is tselem. This word has a particularly important background in Ancient Near Eastern politics. It is in that context that we learn of “powerful kings in the ancient world” who “placed their tselem (statues of themselves) to represent their sovereignty in territories where they were not present.”1 Moses, being trained in the courts of Pharaoh in Egypt, would have been fully aware of the political implications of that word. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he chose that word to describe the status of human beings.
Some of the implications seen in the use of tselem as a description of humanity are as follows:
1. As already seen from Genesis 2:7, human beings are created beings. Their status as tselem does not change that fact. Individuals loyal to the king were fully aware that the tselem represented the king, but the statues did not have the same nature as the king. No subject of a king in the Ancient Near East would have ever suggested that the tselem was “flesh and blood” like the king. The tselem was a mere representation.
2. As a representation, the tselem was to be honored and revered. This honor was appropriate because the tselem was representing the king – to whom the honor and reverence was rightly due. When the tselem was a mere object, that honor and reverence was obviously limited. When the king had biological tsalmim (that is, sons or grandsons), they were to be treated with the same deference as the king himself – because they represented him. In Genesis Adam and Eve were recognized by the other creatures as special representatives of God.
3. Biological tsalmim were also expected to take on special responsibilities that went along with representing their father or grandfather. They were princes, and were given territories where they were to reign as representatives of the king. In Genesis, the Garden of Eden was to be tended by Adam and Eve.
The second way that Moses reveals that special authority and responsibility humans have been given at creation is the use of the word “likeness.” This word can imply a physical resemblance. It is not clear that the word is being used in that way by Moses. Instead, it appears to be used here as a parallel and synonym to tselem. When the two words are used together, they are an example of hendiadys, where two words are used for the same idea. Hebrew is a language that uses parallels constantly. Even in English we often use hendiadys, as in the phrase “nice and warm” to describe the day.
The third way that Moses reveals that special authority and responsibility humans have been given at creation is the use of the word dominion. This word implies that the other creatures of God’s creation will require someone to supervise their lives – to make decisions for them. Moses specifically mentioned in the text the fish, birds, and land animals, but he said it in such a way as to imply that their habitats are also included as humanity’s responsibility.
A fourth significant word is subdue, which is similar to the idea of having dominion, except that the object is different. Humans were to have dominion over the other creatures, but they were to subdue the earth. Eventually this mandate would produce in human beings all the branches of knowledge now encapsulated by the broad term science. In our endeavor to subdue the earth, we had the need to understand it. This became particularly important after the fall, which turned the earth into something analogous of a wild animal, which, if not tamed, would turn against us.
Along with the mental drive to know our environment, these two commands (have dominion over the inhabitants of the earth, and subdue the earth itself) imply the drive to protect and cultivate the environment as well. It is unfortunate that modern science has ignored this implication. The damage godless human beings have done to a planet we had the responsibility to protect is an indictment upon us. It is not a coincidence that nations who have largely abandoned God for atheism and agnosticism and secularism have led the way in the raping of the planet, irresponsibly gutting its natural resources while poisoning its ecological systems.
It is tragic that some of this irresponsibility has been shared with nations who have a Judeo-Christian background, and thus should have known better. Ironically, some have actually appealed to these same texts as somehow approving of irresponsible use of the earth’s resources. Also, some who believe that Jesus will have no use for this planet after his second coming have appealed to that belief as justification for a hands-off approach to environmental issues. After all, if “it’s all going to burn anyway” why conserve or protect the environment?2
Questions like this reveal a pragmatic approach to ethics. They show an attitude that is more interested in what one can get away with than what one should do out of principle. They also reflect the same kind of dualism that the ancient Greeks infected Western civilization with. The Greeks drew a line in the universe between the physical, material world and the noumenal, spiritual world. They viewed the material world as evil and eternally insignificant.3 Only the world of the mind and spirit was important because only it is real and permanent.
The worldview reflected in the first chapters of Genesis is not like that. The cosmos was not presented as a throw-away wrapper, from which only humanity (or merely the souls of humans) was to be protected and preserved. The cosmos is the sphere of responsibility and authority from within which humanity was to exercise its due place. There is no hint in the Genesis account that human beings are given the planet to do with it whatever they will. Instead, numerous specific commands (and later prohibitions) from God reflect the fact that the earth is important to him, and must be treated fairly. God placed limits on the sovereignty of humanity over the creation. That was entirely consistent with the notion of tselem.
Three more commands found in this passage of Genesis are important and helpful in defining the extent to which humans have been given authority over the planet. The three are practically synonymous as well – so this appears to be an example of hendiatrys. Adam and Eve are told to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
This mandate to procreate has never been ignored by humanity as a whole.
There have been times, however, when people have struggled with the ramifications of overpopulation, and rightfully so, because the responsibility to manage the planet includes making sure its resources are protected and preserved. Even humans do not have approval for decisions that would endanger the survival of the world as a whole. So, even within the mandates from God in Genesis there is indication that rightfully ruling the planet will require a balance between preserving the human species and preserving the habitat of humanity and all the other species and resources it contains.
God made a covenant with Adam – a covenant which he never rescinded. Human government is responsible to him to continue to meet the stipulations of that covenant. When Christ returns, he will take his place as king of kings and lord of lords.4 One of the functions of the millennial kingdom which he will set up is the restoration of this planet. It will be an undoing of all the damage done to the world by man under the influence of demonic powers. The result of this reign will be a planet that reflects its initial goodness, and brings glory to its Creator.
The Bible also tells us that believers who serve Christ now will reign with him then.5 At least part of what that means is that we will share in the task of restoring this earth to its original intended glory. Our reign will have purpose, and that purpose will reflect back on the original intended purpose of humanity at creation. Eternity promises to be more of the same, but the millennium is important because before we can take on the task of serving and worshipping Christ in the rest of the universe, we must participate in the undoing of sin’s effects upon our original charge: planet earth.6
Christians have a role in promoting two things as part of our present-day fulfillment of the creation mandates. First, we have an obligation to continue to fill the earth with people who reflect God’s glory. That is more than biological reproduction. It means evangelism, and preserving the means by which we can continue to evangelize. Isaiah predicts a time when “the earth will be filled with people who know the LORD.”7 This vision of our future is as much prescription as description.
Second, we have an obligation to continue to preserve and protect the earth from the various things that endanger it. Christians should be vocal and persistent in environmental efforts. They should support laws which restrict the abuse of the land, and laws which protect the species which inhabit it. They should support farmers who choose to grow food that is healthy and toxin free. They should also support the grocers who stock their products. They should also support politicians who make the environment a key theme in their policies.
Too often churches totally ignore the environmental issues that are clearly put forth in the creation mandates. Christians often complain about the state’s interference when local governments restrict them for environmental reasons. But such activities are legitimate for government, and should be encouraged by the church. With the power to rule comes the responsibility to protect that which we rule.
This is one of the many areas where the Church should cooperate with the State. Each should reinforce the other’s efforts in promoting a healthy environment for the good of all citizens. In the fight for a decent world to live in, if Christians choose to “sit this one out” it sends the message that this is not a serious matter to God.
Such indifference ultimately reflects negatively on God’s glory. Thankfully, many protestant denominations are starting to take this responsibility seriously.8 Such efforts will help restore the reputations of both God and his people, because the world has been led to believe that neither cares about the planet God created.
A word of caution is due, however. The mandates in Genesis did not require that human beings be merely passive, in fear that we upset some God-given balance in nature. God did not command the earth to rule over us. Instead, he invited his ultimate creation (humanity) to share with him in the management and support of everything they see. This challenge to rule is a tremendous one. Homo Sapiens has taken up that challenge and has continued to learn more and more of this tremendous complicated universe God has placed us in. We continue to adapt this world to meet our needs and wishes. Yet – as we learned in Babel – there are limits to our nature.
There are limits to which our Creator will not allow us to go. Humans can become godly, but they cannot become deity. We are limited by our nature, which includes the fact that our time on this earth is limited by our mortality. It is this limit that we will explore more fully in the next chapter.
1 James M. Childs, Greed: Economics and Ethics in Conflict (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 25.
2 Matthew T. Dickerson, David O’Hara, Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 142.
3 Nikolaĭ Berdiaev, Spirit and Reality (Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 2009), 75.
4 Rev. 19:16.
5 Rev. 20:6
6 For more information on the millennium, see chapter 62, “The Kingdoms,” and chapter 65, “The Reign.”
7 Isaiah 11:9 NLT.
8 See Robert Booth Fowler, The Greening Of Protestant Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 16.