Sunday, October 29, 2023

Crown of Creation

I'd like to invite you to imagine a scene with me. It's set twenty-six centuries ago now.  Just past the north wall of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar has ordered a second palace to be built for himself, deeming the massive one already standing inside the city walls insufficient to do justice to his own royal majesty.1 Among the thousands of workers building for the king with all their might, I picture three laboring by carrying baskets of baked bricks to the bricklayers. And they begin to talk amongst themselves. Tarību, born and bred in Babylon, says to the others: “Can you really be surprised that this is what we do? In the beginning, the Igigi-gods did this sort of labor, until they grew weary of it and threatened to wage war against the higher gods. So the decision was made to 'create a human being, let him bear the yoke..., let man assume the drudgery of god.'2 And thus the gods imposed their slaving toil onto humans, 'and set the gods free.'3 We are merely slaves before these gods, mass-produced like these bricks from the kiln so that the gods might have leisure and joy. But the king is not like us. Is he not, like Tukulti-Ninurta, 'the eternal image of Enlil'?4 Is he not 'the image of Marduk,' and is not his 'word... just as final as that of the gods'?5 As we are slaves of the gods, and as the king is the image of a god, what could be more natural than to toil at Nebuchadnezzar's new palace, a great shrine for this living image of a god?”

The second man, Pa-Isiri, answers him: “Friend, you know that I was taken here captive from the battlefield, that I was born in Egypt. We had a saying when I was a child, that all of us men of flesh and blood are simply the cattle of the gods. Like cattle they raise us, like cattle they tend us, like cattle they view us, like cattle we may be slaughtered at their pleasure. This is only right. But the pharaoh, like your Nebuchadnezzar, he is not like us mere men. He is 'the living image of Amun.'6 To the pharaoh alone it is said by the god Amun-Re: 'You are my beloved son who came forth from my members, my image whom I have put on earth; I have given you to rule the earth in peace.'7 So what could be more natural than to build great pyramids like his slaves, we cattle who bear these burdens to serve the image of the god?”

Through all this, the third man had kept his silence. But after a pregnant pause, Shelemiah, taken into captivity from Jerusalem, begins to speak: “It is not as you say. In the beginning of the creation, when the eternal LORD God made humanity, he did not make us merely to be slaves, merely to be cattle. For God has no needs to be met. Nor did he one day make the commoner and another day form the king. For it is written: 'God created the human in his own image. In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them' (Genesis 1:27). And all heaven resounded with the cry: 'Adam – in our image, after our likeness!' (Genesis 1:26). It was not the Son of David in Jerusalem who alone heard, 'You are the image of God.' This word is for the farmer in his field, the digger in his ditch, the mother tending her children, the merchant peddling his wares, the slave dreaming of freedom, the infant drawing that precious first breath. For Adam, in whom was every human – Adam, whose life lives on in every child of every nation – was created in the image of the God higher than highest heaven, the God before whom your Marduk and Amun-Re are but dreams of dust. We humans fall but an inch short of godhood on the earth, offspring of a Creator who crowned us with glory (Psalm 8:5). What you say in awe of your mightiest kings, I dare – in the name of God – to say of myself and my children, and of you and yours. What you deny yourself in fear and trembling, I call you freely and openly, in common with all from highest to lowest, of every tribe and every tongue. Honor your king, yes, but know we are all of royal blood, created not to toil in slavish abjection but to reign in honor by each other's side. Shake off these chains that bind your souls, take my hand, and come walk in the light!”

Let's take leave of our three men now, and return to ourselves. For weeks we've been learning about what it means to be human – not just what we are, but who we are and why we're here. In a world where phrase 'image of a god' was a way of setting the king apart as the keystone of human society whom all subjects were bound to serve, as being the one man who had absolute rights, and who ruled his world with the authority of the gods... well, it's in that world that Genesis snaps us out of their royal spell. Because what they said to distinguish the king from all other men, Genesis proclaims boldly for all human beings.8 It's quite a revolutionary declaration, don't you think?

Humanity, as such, is fundamentally the royal species, set apart from the nearest others as much as the king on his throne was sacredly set apart from even the noblest houses. And we are a royal species, an image-of-God species, as “the most godlike... of the creatures.”9 It's a sharp contrast to the way Babylonians and Egyptians saw us. It's also a vast contrast to all the modern ways of thinking that see humans as interchangeable units of production or consumption, or as self-authored individuals, or as empty intersections of identity classes.10 We are so much more than all of those reductive, demeaning lies. As one scientist puts it, humanity is “a species... both trivial and terrifying..., the only linguistic and industrial species with the power to save or destroy our environment.”11 In a way no other creature on earth can be, “the entire human race is God's royal stand-in,”12 “the image of the highest glory and the representation of divine authority on earth.”13

And as royalty on the earth, you and I have tasks that are both powers and responsibilities. No sooner did we get proclaimed as God's image than God blessed us and said to us, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). It's that last bit we're talking about: 'subdue the earth.' The verb for 'subdue' in this verse literally means to put something beneath your foot. A related noun was used for the golden footstool attached to Solomon's throne (2 Chronicles 9:18). The prophets use this verb to show what God does with our sins: he crushes them underfoot, stomps them to little bits (Micah 7:19). More generally, it means to tread down the land, laying claim to it as your own. When Israel invaded Canaan at God's direction, the goal was for “the land will be subdued before you” (Numbers 32:29). And so, when they assembled at Shiloh under Joshua, “the land lay subdued before them” (Joshua 18:1). It could also apply to conquering a neighbor nation to put them in a subordinate position, as with “all the nations David subdued” (2 Samuel 8:11).

This is a surprisingly militant verb, “the language of conquest.”14 When we get to Genesis chapter 3, we'll get a better clue why the language here is so militant.15 For right now, we can say that subduing even a peaceful earth isn't necessarily effortless. To take possession of the earth, to make it part of the human kingdom, might take real work. We're born by nature with assertive impulses, but those innate passions are to be turned not toward conflict with each other, competing over land or vying for power over our fellow man, but – first and foremost – toward achieving God's will in making this world a most proper habitat for humanity.16

In practice, how would Adam and Eve have done that? Most likely by farming – tending, shaping the land and its growth, harnessing its fertility in healthy ways – and also clearing modest space for settlements, quarrying stone and mining metals, diverting the course of rivers, and various other ways of shaping the earth that lay open around them.17 They would have marched as glad-hearted warriors of hope, claiming their global home armed not with swords but with seeds. After all, when God subdued the earth by his word in creation, he made it green with life – so how could his images subdue earth otherwise?18 For the earth we're called to subdue is the same of which it's said, “The earth is the LORD's, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1). Nor are we called to monopolize for our human selves that Lord-owned earth, which by God's word of command we share with so many other species as our natural neighbors (Genesis 1:20-25).19

And so each of us, in our own little place, is to make our royal mark in God's name and in God's way, claiming our home, stewarding its resources, cultivating it, bringing order to chaos.20 One way ancient kings laid claim to greatness was that they planted the prettiest possible gardens in their capital cities, proving the king was gardener-in-chief by subduing the earth to shape a space of supreme beauty.21 The proof of human greatness is for us to be God's gardeners-in-chief, subduing the earth to shape spaces of beauty and benefit. Israel's mission to subdue their land was a trial run for subduing the promised earth to make it all fruitful and flourishing.22

If we're supposed to make the earth fruitful and flourishing, sadly we often achieve the opposite in practice, but there's no doubt we've certainly subdued the earth. One biologist called us “the first species to become a geophysical force.”23 We've reshaped the earth into “a world created by human energies and activities.”24 As one modern environmentalist confessed, “ours is the only species in all the long period of life on earth that has ever spread around the entire world, occupying every continent and nearly every island, effectively subjugating all the animals and plants natural systems it has encountered, and, over a relatively short period of time, establishing itself in vast numbers as the single most dominant species of all.”25

Speaking of 'dominance,' that brings us to the second royal task Genesis tells us about. When God plans us, he plans us for a purpose: “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” (Genesis 1:26). And as soon as we show up and hear God tell us to subdue the earth, he explains that that includes achieving and exercising dominion over the animals of sea, sky, and soil (Genesis 1:28). This word, 'exercise dominion,' could apply to the relationship between a boss and his workers (1 Kings 5:16), or between a master and his servants (Leviticus 25:43), between a king and his subjects (1 Kings 4:24). At heart, it's a political term, “the language of government,”26 a rule ideally imposed on those who welcome it and see its wisdom, but imposed regardless, whether embraced or resisted.27

As the royal species, the psalmist says to God about us: “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:6), that “nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls.”28 And so we “work with, breed, and care for plants and animals in ways only hinted at in other species,” making us “a species marked by its ability to tame and domesticate other species.”29 

A tall order! It's easy to see how we have dominion over horses, sheep, chickens, cats, any of the few dozen species we've truly domesticated.  We rule by caring for our pets and livestock, in training and protecting them and, to what extent we employ them, using them humanely; and because of our care, not a single domesticated species is endangered.30  It might be a bit harder to see how we exercise dominion over lions, tigers, and bears (...oh my...), but we keep predatory wild animals at bay, yielding them their natural food chains away from our pets and livestock; and as for the creepy-crawlies of the earth, our buildings from barn to bedroom are aimed at keeping them out, not always as successfully as we'd like.31 The beasts, birds, creatures of the deep, even species we've yet to discover – we'll have dominion (Psalm 8:7-8).

James wrote that “every kind of beasts and birds, of reptiles and sea creatures, is subdued and has been subdued by humankind” (James 3:7), and now it's been said “even the insects and the bacteria fall increasingly under human control.”32 In the words of one conservationist, we're “the sole superdominant species.”33  Even Darwin conceded that the human being, at his least technologically advanced, would still be “the most dominant animal that ever appeared on earth,” such that “all others have yielded before him.”34

But Israel's kings were condemned when they “exercised dominion over” Israel “with force and harshness” (Ezekiel 34:4). In Israel, a king's first act on taking the throne was to write out God's Law, reminding him how he too was under authority (Deuteronomy 17:18). He was warned “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers” (Deuteronomy 17:20), that is, not to take his special position as a cause of prideful boasting but to consider it a ministry of service in leading and guiding those who were fundamentally his family. And he was charged not to acquire excessive horses, wives, silver, or gold (Deuteronomy 17:16-17), that is, not to exploit his position for personal enrichment at the expense of his subjects or the cost of his mission.

And if that's the rule for David's dominion, then why would Adam's look any different? We may be the royal species, but we remain a species under authority. The authority we have over creation is a gracious gift of God, to whom we're accountable and whose character we're meant to reflect. As animals animated by a spiritual soul, our dominion is exercised over creatures who are partly our brothers and sisters, born of the same creation at the call of the same Creator. We merely have “a natural vocation of headship that guides and governs so that things can flourish according to their proper purposes.”35 “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). We aren't meant to puff ourselves up for being the image of God in a way ants and eels and apes ain't. Nor are we to exploit the earth to enrich ourselves at the cost of our calling. In the same breath God grants us our food, he grants all creatures theirs (Genesis 1:29-30). “Every beast in the forest is mine,” he says (Psalm 50:10). So they therefore are “not at our disposal for unbridled greed or the pursuit of pleasure.”36

Even the pagans, at their best, recognized a king was there to care for his subjects, in the likeness of a god “who like a shepherd cares for all living creatures.”37 One such king said his “shepherdship of his nation” was given by his god to “care for the living ones like a shepherd, to make their land safe, to establish water in their midst, to make their days long.”38 Well, if we're all in the image of a Good-Shepherd God who rules his creatures by feeding them, sheltering them, delighting them, and blessing them (Psalm 104:27-28; Psalm 145:15-16; Genesis 1:22), then our dominion is given us for making earth safe, providing food and water and delight and shelter, promoting life on the earth and blessing it.39

Born of the special love of God, humankind was created the crown of creation, “God's supreme creature, capacitated and blessed to control and dominate the natural world” for the world's own good and God's own glory.40 Of course, we know we've smeared the dust of death all over our glory – a sad truth we've yet to reach in Genesis, but it's coming. By our refusal to subdue the serpent, sin and death laid claim to dominion, for death-birthing sin was enabled to “reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (Romans 6:12). And only once we have dominion each over our own hearts and bodies, only once we subdue sin and death underfoot, can we at last unveil the shining crown of creation again.

And so God sent into the world his Son, taking up the human calling to overthrow these false dominions. If you want to know what it means to be human to the utmost, God's image to the utmost, to subdue and rule beyond all Adam lost, just look at Jesus Christ. “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever!” (1 Peter 4:11). And “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12), restored to the fullness of all we were meant to be. So go, shake off your chains, take Christ's pierced hand, walk into the light, and abide there. Live like the crown of creation you were and, though now opposed, still are. Govern well the slice of the world where you've been put. Subdue it, cultivate and harness it for God's glory. Reign over the creatures not with cruelty but with the compassion of Christ. Embrace the royal family being even now restored in him. For it is written: “They will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5)! Amen.

O Lord, our Lord and Father, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavenly heights.  But when we stand in awe of your shining heavens, we can't help but wonder what we humans are, that you would bother being mindful of us.  And the answer you reveal is that in you we are more than we think.  You crowned us in the beginning with glory and honor, you put all things below your heaven under our feet, you gave us dominion over all these works of your hands, from the monumental to the microscopic.

Amidst them all, you made us the royal species, images of your authority, and you commissioned us to conquer and control, but only ever in your name and only ever in your way.  For if we be governors of this worldly realm, yet you are King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We may be the crown of creation, crowned with honor, but we cast our crowns before you, lost in wonder, love, and praise for your creating and shepherding and redeeming love.

You sent your Son to save us, to be for us all we were meant to be and more, for from the beginning humanity was modeled after him, who is eternally the True Image of the Invisible God.  He is the Son of Man in humanity's unbroken fullness, and to him belongs all dominion on earth beneath and in heaven above.  He sends forth his Spirit to subdue our hearts and banish sin, to make righteousness rule and reign in those who believe.  So not only birds, bugs, and beasts bow now before him, but we spiritual animals, with all angels also, crown him with all the crowns we can, our Matchless King, our Perfect Man.

We thank you, Father, that he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters, we who are being redeemed, we who are being prepared for our fuller dominion yet undreamt.  We thank you for the hope that, by enduring these days of death's dominion, we may yet share with the Son of Man the human kingdom as it becomes at last the kingdom of God and of his Christ, whose praise can never fail throughout eternity.  Amen.

1  Nebuchadnezzar II, stone tablet, viii.27-ix.45. <>.

2  Atraasis ii.195-197, in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 235.

3  Enki and Ninma i.30, and Enuma Elish vi.34, in W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Eisenbrauns, 2013), 337, 113.  See also Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (University of Chicago Press, 2001), 100-103, and Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 78-79.

4  Tukulti-Ninurta Epic i.18', in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 301.

5  Adad-shumu-usur, letter to Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal: Letters of Priests 46, lines rev. 11-12, in State Archives of Assyria 13:43.

6  The literal meaning of the name 'Tutankhamun' (King Tut) – see Writings from the Ancient World 33:106.

7  Inscription found near the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, quoted in David J.A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19/1 (May 1968): 85.

8  Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 12; Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan Academic, 2001), 66; Bruce T. Arnold, Genesis (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 45; William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), 42; J. Gordon McConville, Being Human in God's World: An Old Testament Theology of Humanity (Baker Academic, 2016), 19; and many more.

9  Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003), 37.

10  Christopher Watkin, Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (P&R Publishing, 2017), 101.

11  John H. Langdon, Human Evolution: Bones, Cultures, and Genes (Springer, 2023), vii, 37.

12  Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion (IVP Academic, 2015), 70.

13  Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch 1.2.2, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 137:56.

14  Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 225.

15  Seth D. Postell, Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh (Pickwick Publications, 2011), 100.

16  Martin Sicker, Reading Genesis Politically: An Introduction to Mosaic Political Philosophy (Praeger, 2002), 4; William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), 47-48.

17  J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Baker Academic, 2005), 60; Richard Bauckham, “Humans, Animals, and the Environment in Genesis 2-3,” in Nathan MacDonald et al., eds., Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012), 180-181; Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 227.

18  Douglas J. Green, “When the Gardener Returns: An Ecological Perspective on Adam's Dominion,” in Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block, eds., Keeping God's Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (IVP Academic, 2010), 270.

19  Richard Bauckham, “Humans, Animals, and the Environment in Genesis 2-3,” in Nathan MacDonald et al., eds., Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012), 181; Douglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (Zondervan Academic, 2018), 76.

20  G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (IVP Academic, 2008), 128.

21  Douglas J. Green, “When the Gardener Returns: An Ecological Perspective on Adam's Dominion,” in Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block, eds., Keeping God's Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (IVP Academic, 2010), 272; Catherine L. McDowell, The Image of God in the Garden of Eden: The Creation of Humankind in Genesis 2:5-3:24 in Light of the mīs pî, pīt pî, and wpt-r Rituals of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt (Eisenbrauns, 2015), 139-140.

22  Ellen F. Davis, “Propriety and Trespass: The Drama of Eating,” in Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson, eds., Reading Genesis After Darwin (Oxford University Press, 2009), 209; Richard J. Clifford, “Election in Genesis 1,” in Gary A. Anderson and Joel S. Kaminsky, eds., The Call of Abraham: Essays on the Election of Israel in Honor of Jon D. Levenson (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), 20.

23  E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Vintage Books, 1998), 303.

24  Patrick Manning, A History of Humanity: The Evolution of the Human System (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 3.

25  Kirkpatrick Sale, After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination (Duke University Press, 2006), 1.

26  Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 225.

27  John Goldingay, Genesis (Baker Academic, 2020), 36.

28  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 8.9, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:110.

29  Justin L. Barrett and Tyler S. Greenway, “Imago Dei and Animal Domestication: Cognitive-Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Uniqueness and the Imago Dei,” in Christopher Lilley and Daniel J. Pedersen, eds., Human Origins and the Image of God: Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (Eerdmans, 2017), 72.

30  Marcello R. Sanchez-Villagra, The Process of Animal Domestication (Princeton University Press, 2022), vii, 6.

31  Richard E. Averbeck, “The Meaning and Importance of 'subdue' (kābaš) in Genesis 1:28,” in James K. Hoffmeier et al., eds., “Now These Records Are Ancient”: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History, Language, and Culture in Honor of K. Lawson Younger, Jr. (Zaphon, 2022), 20-23.

32  Patrick Manning, A History of Humanity: The Evolution of the Human System (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 3.

33  David Western, We Alone: How Humans Have Conquered the Planet and Can Also Save It (Yale University Press, 2020), 136.

34  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols. (D. Appleton & Co., 1871), 1:131.

35  R. R. Reno, Genesis (Brazos Press, 2010), 54.

36  Paul Copan and Douglas Jacoby, Origins: The Ancient Impact and Modern Implications of Genesis 1-11 (Morgan James Faith, 2018), 58.

37  Sin-iqisham, inscription E4.2.11.1, in Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Early Periods 4:190.

38  Warad-Sin, inscriptions E4.2.13.20 and E4.2.13.21, in Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia: Early Periods 4:239, 242.

39  Raymond R. Hausoul, God's Future for Animals: From Creation to New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2021), 34-35.

40  Paul O'Callaghan, God's Gift of the Universe: An Introduction to Creation Theology (CUA Press, 2021), 252.

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