More than Mammals: Man Among yet Above the Animals in Genesis 1

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The self-understanding of humankind is one of the most conflicted arenas of modern thought. The contest can be revealed by asking the question: What does it mean to be human? Ask people that question, and you will hear different answers. Likewise, we see the conflicting ideas on what may or may not be done with human bodies, whether they be our own or someone else’s.

When I was in my early teens, I was amused by The Bloodhound Gang’s rather juvenile song The Bad Touch (1999), featuring the well known lyric ‘You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do it on the discovery channel.’ Certainly, this is at the cruder end of ethical thinking in the western world. But its message does highlight a serious point.

If we consider the different opinions that are held on ethical matters such as slavery, sexuality, abortion, we see different kinds of anthropology–or ‘doctrine of humanity’. The things we deem appropriate (or not) to do with human bodies show what we think of the value and dignity of human persons, even if we don’t deliberately think these things through.

Genesis 1:26-28 provides material for part of a biblical answer to the questions of what it means to be human and how to respect the human person rightly. It relates mankind, as both male and female, to God as a unique and crowning element of the created order. It won’t be convincing to sceptics, but it is nonetheless a crucial building block for constructing a well-developed Christian anthropology and its attendant ethic.

The most noteworthy feature of the creation of mankind is that they have been made in God’s image. Setting aside the question of what exactly that image is,[1] several other details in this chapter differentiate humans from the ‘other’ animals. By doing this, it shows us that human beings are not merely animals, but a special order of the animal kingdom that is bestowed with special dignity, made for relationship with the Creator with its consequent obligations and duties.

Made in God’s Image

The first and most obvious difference is the statement that humanity is created in the image of God, whereas the animals are not. Although undefined, this clearly sets humanity apart from the animals and somewhere closer to God, preparing the way for the blessing and commands which follow.

Furthermore, the wording of the narrative contains a few other suggestions which imply a divine-human relationship that is closer and more personal than that with the animals and God.

A Second Act on the Sixth Day

Secondly, the fact that the creation of Adam stands as a second act within the sixth day also serves to set humanity apart. Each of the five preceding days contains a single declarative act of creation prefaced by the words “And God said”. The sixth and final day contains two of these: one for the animals of the land, and another for the man (Hebrew adam). This indicates that human beings are not simply another of the land animals.

A Personally Invested Act

Third, the command pronounced in each of the days of creation is altered in the creation of Adam. Previously, each of the commands had been expressed in what is called the ‘jussive’ mood of a verb, as in: ‘let there be . . . ’. When we arrive at the creation of humanity, this shifts to a ‘cohortative’: ‘let us make . . . ’. This shift indicates a more personal involvement in human creation, which is further strengthened by the patterning of the image of God within this spoken action.

God Addresses the Human Creature Directly

Forth, the blessing and command given to the first man and woman is spoken to them, rather than simply over them as is done for the animals, implying a direct relationship between God and humanity (compare Gen. 1:22 with 1:28).

The commands given to the unique human creatures demonstrate their role of rulership as God’s image bearers. The commands to ‘exercise dominion’ and ‘subdue’ in 1:26, 28 indicate that they are placed over the other creatures. These commands are not filled out further in the text, but from their use in the OT it appears that they designate a ‘caretaking’ role over creation that entails a representative rulership on the behalf of God. Here, we have another distinction that places human beings among yet above the animals.

Four Features of Distinction

Human beings are clearly one of the animals. This is not a disputed point in our scientifically oriented culture. It is rather the overpowering idea about the nature of humanity. But Genesis 1 includes four features that highlight that we are different to as well as set above the animals, made specially for knowing and serving our Maker. This is underscored not merely by 1) our design according to the divine image, but also by the distinctive features of the act of our creation: 2) its position as a second action on the sixth day, 3) the more personal investment in that act, and 4) the direct address to humankind in their creation mandate.

Why Does This Matter?

Anthropology shapes ethics. In other words, what we believe about the human person shapes what we think are appropriate behaviours. Our nature as divine image-bearers puts us in a special relationship with our Creator which comes with unique privileges, duties, and responsibilities. These are first suggested in the opening chapters of Genesis, but are also the basis for the inspired development of doctrine throughout the rest of the biblical canon, as well as for the later construction of Christian thought.

The introduction of mankind in Genesis 1 therefore supplies us with an important starting point for the development of appropriate ethics, much like we see the Jesus and the Apostles doing in places like Matthew 19:4-6; Romans 1:26-27; Ephesians 4:20-24; Colossians 3:9-10, James 3:9, as well as in Ephesians 5:31-32 from Genesis 2.

As we reflect on the anthropology of our culture and the anthropology of our Bible, we can begin to do the same thing. We can develop a clearly articulated ethic that speaks to our world and tells it what it means for us to be human: made by God, and for God, to be pleasing to God.

[1] I have argued that it is the pre-incarnate Christ, on the basis of Colossians 1:15.

The research for this article is drawn from my 2012 MTh “Christus Imperator: Colossians 1:15-20 as Contextualized Christology”.