God made the heavens and earth, and over a series of ‘days’ He created everything there is – waters, land, sun and moon, plants, and animals. At every point He declared that what He had made was ‘good’. But then came the sixth day, when He made something entirely different. Humankind – male and female – the pinnacle of His creation. Over humanity alone He made the superior declaration, ‘this is very good.’
It’s a common way of summarising Genesis 1, particularly when preachers want to emphasise the unique role humans have, and the special love God has for us, which would lead Him to come to Earth as one of us and die in our place. All of creation is ‘good’ but humanity is ‘very good.’
I have summarised Genesis like this many times. And there is, of course, a sense in which this is true. There is something different about humanity that marks us out from the rest of creation. We alone are made in God’s image (v26-27) and given the unique role of subduing the earth and having dominion over creatures (v27-28). But there are at least three senses in which this is not a true or accurate summary of the Creation account.
Firstly, in the narrative flow of Genesis, it is not day six that is the pinnacle of Creation, but day seven. When God rests, once all the work is done, He calls that day holy, not day six (2:1-3). God rests to celebrate the fullness of what he’s made, of which we are only a small part.
Secondly, although humans are distinct from Creation, we are also embedded in it, far more than we often realise.
‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’Genesis 2:7
There’s a play on words here. The Hebrew word ‘man’ is ‘ādām, hence the name ‘Adam.’ But the word for ‘ground’ is ‘ădāmâ. Humanity is literally a being of the earth. We are an intrinsic part of Creation. God didn’t make the world and then import us from elsewhere to manage it. We’re part of the eco-system itself. Born out of the ground.
Thirdly, we were not the only things created on day six. On the very same day,
‘God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.’Genesis 1:25
If the writer of Genesis had wanted to show that we are totally unlike other creatures, we would have been made on a different day. But we were not.
What’s more, God did not say that each part of his creation – the sea, the plants, the animals – were just ‘good’ but humans are ‘very good.’ No. When God said on day 6 ‘this is very good’ He was talking about ‘everything He had made’ (v31). The whole created order, of which we are a part.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying humankind is no different from animals or other parts of the created world. But I am saying we have a lot more in common than we typically emphasise. This is important to state, because often we overplay humanity’s uniqueness in a way that leads us to an unhealthily anthropocentric (human-centred) view: this world is all about us and it is here for our good. We see ourselves as apart from creation rather than a part of creation.
This human-centred reading of Genesis means that we often miss the fact that a lot of the things God gave us in the Genesis story, He also gave to all creation. For example:
- Food: God gave humanity every plant for food (v29). But in v30, He says the very same thing to the animals. We are literally meant to share our food with the animals. Which raises the question, if our approach to food production means we harvest food for humans at the expense of animals being able to eat, is our human-centred view of the world directly contradicting the decree of our Creator?
- Agency: God gave humanity delegated responsibility to rule Creation. But He also gave the same to the rest of Creation. ‘The Earth brings forth (yāsā’) vegetation, and the waters bring forth (yāsā’) creatures’ (v11-12, 20). The Sun and moon rule the day and night (v16-18). This should make us ask, are we humans in danger of outworking our agency in such a way that the rest of the creation isn’t able to ‘bring forth’ as God intended? If our actions make the land less fertile, or the seas less hospitable to life, are we actually undermining God’s creation plan?
- Blessing: God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful, increase in number, and fill the earth (v28) and that may just be the only bit of His mandate that we’ve got on and done, to an extreme level! But notice, in v22 the same blessing of fruitfulness and multiplication is given to the birds and sea creatures. So if one of the effects of our over-populating the Earth is that other creatures get squeezed out, we’ve got to stop and ask if something is wrong!
My point is, we can easily read Genesis in such a way as to overstate our uniqueness, and give us fuel for believing that this world is here to serve our needs. Whereas in reality, God has made us to be part of this thriving world, and we should work out the blessings and responsibilities He has given us, in partnership with the rest of the created order, not at its expense.
That said, there is a specific role that humans are given, which isn’t the same for other creatures. God made us in His image, as His representatives, and commissioned us to ‘subdue the earth’ and ‘have dominion’ over creatures (v27-28).
Those words ‘subdue’ (kābaš) and ‘rule’ or ‘have dominion’ (rādâ) are important words to understand. If you hear those words and think they provide us a God-given license to plunder the earth and use it selfishly as a resource for our own ends, then the result will be that you destroy rather than care for the earth. But that is not what those words mean. And to act like that would undermine what it means to be an image bearer!
Look at what God said to Adam and Eve in chapter 2:
‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it (‘ābad) and take care (šāmar) of it.’Genesis 2:15
The Hebrew words ‘ābad and šāmar mean to serve and protect. They’re the very same words used to describe the role of the Priest in the Tabernacle (e.g. Numbers 3:7, 8; 8:26). The true way to ‘rule’ creation is not as a slave-master, but a servant. We are to ‘have dominion’ by serving and protecting this world of which we are a part.
Read Psalm 72, for a beautiful depiction of the ideal ruler, who exercises dominion properly. As God’s representative, he rules and reigns by standing up for the vulnerable and pursuing justice. An image bearer who rules like that is compared to the rain that waters the earth and causes creation to flourish. This is what it means for us to care for our world.
So my question is this: how do you understand day six? Do you see yourself as the pinnacle of God’s creation, and do you tend to treat this world as a habitat made for you, in which you can do whatever you wish? Or do you see yourself as Genesis presents you; an integrated part of creation, with a God-given mandate to serve and protect it, so it can thrive and flourish as He intended?
For more on this, listen to my sermon Peace with Creation.
And here are a few of my favourite books on a theology of creation and creation care: