I have long been intrigued by the account of the creation of human beings in Genesis 1:26, where God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…” Then one verse later, Genesis 1:27 says “So God created humankind in his image,/in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them.”
Human beings are said to be created in the image of God. What does that mean? I don’t presume to try to explain all that the “image of God” means, but we can examine the context around this Biblical proclamation as a good place to start. Genesis 1:26–28 comes toward the end of an account of creation built around six “days.” However you envision these “days,” it is obvious that there is a certain progression in the story of creation. God begins by creating and separating. Light is created and is separated from darkness. The waters above (what we would call rain) are separated from the waters below, what we would call the oceans and seas. Land is created and separated from the seas. Plants are created on the land, birds are created for the sky above, and for the seas, there are “sea monsters” and other sea creatures.
Finally, on the sixth day, God creates the “living creatures,” land animals. Genesis 1:25 says, “God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.” It sounds like that about wraps it up.
Yet, God is not finished. God does not leave the created earth as a random collection of life forms. Instead, God has one final act, the culmination of creation. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’” The wording that follows shows that there are two main purposes in the creation of humanity. Both purposes illustrate the meaning of the “image of God.”
The first purpose is relationship. Up to now in the Genesis account, God says, “Let it happen,” and it happens. The Creator creates parts of creation. Now, in verse 26 “God said, ‘Let us make humankind…’” Who is the “us” in this sentence? Space doesn’t permit going into all of the possible reasons for the plural “us” and “our” here. But it is significant that this is the language of relationship. Elsewhere, God is called “the Lord of hosts, and the language here indicates that God, in effect, gathers up the whole host of heaven and says, “We in heaven will have a relationship with these particular creatures on earth. And the human creatures on earth will have a relationship with us in heaven. And these human creatures will have a relationship with each other.
So, to be made in the image of God means that we as human beings are capable of having a relationship with the God who created us, the God of relationship. We each have a will of our own and thus the capacity to respond to God, to communicate with God, to relate to God. We are beings like God and yet distinct from God.
Genesis 1:26–28, however, goes on to give a second purpose for God creating human beings. This is found in the words: “…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.” God wants beings that will help with the task of watching over the animals and the rest of creation. This second purpose can be described in the word, “management.”
So, after “God created humankind in his image,” (Genesis 1:27), both male and female, v. 28 has God’s instructions. Essentially, those instructions are to participate with God in an ongoing process of creation and management of creation.
- “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” God creates, but human beings are to “procreate” with the result being more human beings who then carry out the rest of the instructions, each in his or her time and place.
- “…and subdue it… The basic meaning of this word is to “bring under.” The rest of creation is to be brought under the management of human beings for the purposes of God.
- “…and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This essentially gives humanity authority to oversee the rest of creation. God, the Creator and “Owner” gives authority to managers, managing agents who exercise authority or dominion.
An older word for someone who is in charge of what belongs to someone else is “steward.” In the church, we often use that old word, “stewardship.” Yet, the word “steward” and related words are rarely used in current secular society. However, I was recently struck again with how many examples we have of this concept in our own society, and it is called management. It is increasingly unusual to find a business owner who actually runs the business. In almost every case, customers deal with managers, not owners. Managers are authorized agents of the owners to carry out the actual day-to-day business.
Thus, God creates human beings in God’s image in order to be managers in God’s creation. That also means carrying out God’s purposes. A manager of a business does not keep his or her job long by abusing the position and acting against the mission of the business and the will of the owner. So, whatever “subduing” and “having dominion” mean in the secular world, they do not mean abusing creation for selfish purposes.
Notice that both male and female are to be managers together in God’s creation. There is nothing said about managing each other or managing in different spheres of authority. Exploring this more will be left to a future article.
Being made in God’s image is a sacred trust from our Creator. It means to be in relationship with God and our human colleagues. It means that together as men and women, we watch over and care for each other and the rest of creation as God’s managers. This has profound implications for our relationships with each other, our care for the environment, and the way we carry out our everyday work and, indeed, live our entire lives.