Mark Twain once quipped that “Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.” This tongue-and-cheek comment from the classic rabble rouser both highlights the perennial question of the value of human life and inadvertently points to the source of the Christian answer, namely to the opening pages of the book of Genesis,
“26 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.” 27 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. 28 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]
It was a commonly held view in antiquity that the cosmos was created for the benefit of the gods. It was conceived as gods’ domicile. John Walton sums it up well that in the ancient Near Eastern thinking, “the cosmos function for the gods and in relation to them. People are an afterthought, seen as just another part of the cosmos that help gods function.” In Egypt, for instance, as part of a daily ritual in some temples, they would clothe the god, feed the god, wash and bathe it, anoint it with oil, and put makeup on it. Very elaborate recurring rituals were involved in caring for the physical image, the idol, because it was believed to be the true manifestation of the god in the midst of the people. Genesis 1.26-28 takes a radically different approach. The cosmos comes into existence neither to meet divine needs nor to augment divine deficiencies. Rather, the world is crafted by God for creatures. The key is in found in verse 27, where the reader is told that God blessed humans. Out of the abundance of who He is, God brings forth humanity with the intent of being the source and the medium of their flourishing. Thus, in the Genesis account, humans do not serve as auxiliary to the whims and desires of the gods, but are rather brought forth by God to be given an exalted position in the creation.
Across the ancient Near East, the prevalent view of human identity was that of the slaves of gods. For example, the ancient Babylonian story of creation, Enumma Elish insists that humans were made “to bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.” In contrast to this commonly held view, Genesis 1:26 insists that humans were made by God in His own image. What does the language of image and likeness imply? It was a common practice in antiquity to place the images of gods in their temples. In the ancient Near East a deity’s presence in his temple was marked by an image in which the reality of the deity was thought to be embodied. Significant for the ancient temple coming into existence was its inauguration ceremony which typically lasted seven days. Of many inauguration texts the most detailed is the one describing the dedication of the temple of Ningirsu by Gudea about 2100 BC. A part of the inauguration was assigning the destiny and the powers of the temple. The text describes the process of installation of the temple functionaries and their roles, “To keep the temple true; to keep the temple good; to give instructions to his city, the sanctuary Girsu.” By naming the functions and installing the functionaries and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence - it is created in the inauguration ceremony. In similar fashion, Genesis 1 pictures the entire creation as God’s grand palace temple brought into existence by God’s wise design which creates and assigns function to every aspect of creation just as any wise temple-builder would. This worldview is clearly echoed throughout the Old Testament, especially in texts such as Isaiah 66:1, where YHWH asks a rhetorical question, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” The entire creation is God’s Palace-Temple and into this marvelously designed masterpiece he places human beings as His image bearers.
Another Babylonian story, the Atrahasis Epic, gives further details to the commonly held view in antiquity that the creation of humanity was to replace the workload of the lesser gods, primarily the digging of irrigation ditches. Commenting on the destiny of humankind, the Atrahasis states it bluntly, “Let him bear the yoke, the task of Enlil. Let man assume the drudgery of god.” In a striking contrast, Genesis 1 envisions humans carrying out a two-fold responsibility of ruling and subduing which in antiquity were two prerogatives of a king. Though these terms could carry a negative connotation but not necessarily so. The language of rule here clearly evokes the notion of kingship. In the Old Testament, human kingship is understood as rightly exercising power under God as the ultimate King [see Psalm 72]. Thus Genesis 1 envisions humans as God’s vice regents who carry out their responsibility of ruling. Furthermore, the idea of subduing gets more clearly fleshed out in Genesis 2, where human role is expressed in terms of care for God’s garden, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” [Genesis 2:15]. The language of work [‘avad] and keep [shamar] are very interesting. The Hebrew verb that stands behind work is most often used in reference to the farming activity of cultivating the soil while the Hebrew verb standing behind keep is used in the context of the Levitical responsibility of guarding sacred space. In agricultural contexts it is used as a reference for people who were guarding the crops against the intruders, human and animal, intent to destroy or to steal them. Thus, the genesis account envisions the human destiny as vice-regents of God entrusted with a dual royal task of guarding and cultivating His beautiful creation. It is no wonder that Shakespeare would put these words in Hamlet’s mouth,
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculties!
In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!
Written by Dr. Bacho Bordjadze