Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 1:26

Genesis 1:26
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” (NET Bible)

Humans as Merciful Kings under God

Did you ever see a rat with morals or a guppy that could read Shakespeare? No, I thought not! And you have probably never wondered why no such creature exists. Perhaps you should.

Evolutionary naturalism, the prevailing secular viewpoint, cannot explain why we see human beings with moral systems and the ability to read Shakespeare when the rest of animal life on earth has no such ability. You would think a cogent explanation would emerge from the secular model, if it is true.

Does the Bible explain why human life profoundly differs from all other life? What are the implications of this difference? What does this difference demand from us?

Few verses in the Bible offer as much insight into humanity as Genesis 1:26! First, it answers some fundamental questions. A human is like the animals as a biological system, but made to be like God in fundamental ways that animals do not share. So, a huge gap exists between humanity and the other life forms on earth. As we will see, that is not all.

Genesis 1:26 has a startling change in wording that Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke explains: “The impersonal ‘let there be’ (or its equivalents) of the seven preceding creative acts is replaced by the personal ‘let us.’”[1] Not only has the language shifted, it has moved to plurals. What are we to make of these plural forms?

Many Christian interpreters of past eras have not resisted the tendency to read fully-developed New Testament theology back into Genesis, so they have interpreted the plurals to refer to the Trinity. However, numerous Old Testament scholars who firmly believe in the Trinity do not accept that view. Biblical scholar Gordon Wenham says: “Christians have traditionally seen this verse as [foreshadowing] the Trinity. It is now universally admitted that this was not what the plural meant to the original author.”[2] Waltke notes that, “The primary difficulty with this [Trinity] view is that the other four uses of the plural pronoun with reference to God ([Gen.] 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8) do not seem to refer to the Trinity.”[3]

What, then, do the plurals mean? The NET Bible Notes put matters plainly:

In its ancient Israelite context the plural is most naturally understood as referring to God and his heavenly court (see 1 Kings 22:19–22; Job 1:6–12; 2:1–6; Isa. 6:1–8). (The most well-known members of this court are God’s messengers, or angels. . . .) If this is the case, God invites the heavenly court to participate in the creation of humankind (perhaps in the role of offering praise, see Job 38:7), but he himself is the one who does the actual creative work (v.27).[4]

Next we consider God’s purpose in creating humanity: to “rule” over the created world. Such a purpose gives humanity an astounding importance in carrying out God’s creative purpose. Only Genesis explains the basis for the value and dignity of humanity. Only by comparison to this intended role can we see how terribly sin ruined the greatest product of God’s creative power. Before we consider what the “image of God” might be, we will consider God’s purpose for humanity more closely.

In relation to the powerful verb translated “rule” by the NET Bible, commentator Victor Hamilton offers the following word study:

Verse 26 has begun by stating man’s relationship to the Creator. It now progresses to spelling out man’s relationship to the rest of the created order. He is to exercise dominion (r?dâ) over all other living creatures. . . . The majority [of r?dâ examples] deal either with human relationships (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53 — a master over a hired servant; 1 Kings 5:16; 9:23 — an administrator over his employees; 1 Kings 4:24; Ps. 72:8; 110:2 — a king over his subjects), the rule of one nation over another (Lev. 26:17; Num. 24:19; Neh. 9:28; Ps. 68:27; Isa. 14:2, 6; Ezek. 29:15), or a shepherd’s supervision of his flock (Ezek. 34:4).[5]

This understanding of humanity’s mission under God accounts for the parables of Jesus which teach that we must manage the Lord’s affairs until he returns (Luke 12:35–40; 12:42–48; 19:11–27; Matt. 24:45–51; 25:14–30).

Understanding God’s purpose leaves us in a better position to understand what is meant by the clause “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26a). After surveying the numerous suggestions for the meaning of the image and likeness, Wenham concludes: “None of the suggestions seem entirely satisfactory, though there may be elements of truth in many of them. The strongest case has been made for the view that the divine image makes man God’s vice-regent on earth.”[6]

Hamilton also gives insight by saying: “Gen. 1:26 is simply saying that to be human is to bear the image of God. This understanding emphasizes man as a unity. No part of man, no function of man is subordinated to some other, higher part or activity.”[7]

To inherit such a high calling is daunting to say the least! Waltke sensitively says, “Like God, we are to be merciful kings.”[8]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 64.

[2] Wenham Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 27.

[3] Waltke, Genesis, 64.

[4] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 1:26. Waltke supports this view, Genesis, 64; so does Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 28.

[5] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 137.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 31–32.

[7] Hamilton, Genesis 1–17, 137.

[8] Waltke, Genesis, 71.


Replica of Noah’s Ark Nearing Completion

The New York Times has published an interesting article about a Dutch businessman who is nearing completion of a full-size replica of Noah’s ark. Yes, it is 450 feet long, three stories high, 75 feet wide, and made of Swedish pine.

Johan Huibers, owner of a construction company and builder of the ark, explained his reason for building it: “It is to tell people that there is a Bible. And that, when you open it, there is a God.” Huibers is apparently a man of few words, but he makes them count!

According to the Times, Huibers has discussed his project with business associates in Israel. Huibers reports: “They say it’s not a Christian ark, it’s a Jewish ark. They say I stole it.”

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.


Short Introduction to the Study of Genesis 1-11

No book of the Old Testament has received as much scholarly attention as Genesis. But that is not necessarily good news because, like the Internet, Genesis scholarship contains ample amounts of trash mixed with the treasure. In the brief discussion that follows we will rely on comments from evangelical Christian scholars whose views are generally consistent with what the church held to be true for the first seventeen centuries after Jesus rose from the dead.

Definition of a few terms

Before presenting a few quotations to clarify Genesis, we will establish a few terms. The Hebrew word Yahweh (yhwh) is what God revealed as his personal or covenant name, first in Genesis 2:4. Yahweh is usually translated Lord in English Bibles. One of our early quotes will include the phrase Yahwistic faith, and that uses the divine name in the form of an adjective; Yahwistic faith means faith in Yahweh.

When the Hebrew authors of biblical books used the word God in a more general sense, they used the Hebrew word elohim. This Hebrew word is sometimes used to refer to God, as in Genesis 1:1, and other times used to refer to the false gods worshipped by unbelievers.

Two other words will prove useful. The word primeval means: Belonging to the first ages; pristine; original; primitive; primary.[1] The word patriarch means: The father and ruler of a family; one who governs his family or descendants by paternal right.[2]

The nature of biblical history

The historical viewpoint of Genesis also pertains to the whole of the Bible. Old Testament scholar Alan Ross says:

The biblical account is actually a unique distillation of history…. It is less interested in recording events for the sake of history than in using these events as vehicles for communicating the verities of biblical faith. The Bible presents an interpretation of significant events from the perspective of Yahwistic faith.

In the biblical idea of history, the conviction concerning the reality and authority of Yahweh is the point of departure for any evaluation. Robinson says, The Bible takes it as axiomatic that God controls history, reveals himself in history, and directs it towards a final goal.[3]

The literary classification of Genesis

Those who cannot abide belief in a supernatural God who created the world and humanity like to categorize Genesis as myth or saga. Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton says, Anything that is treated as the work of a supernatural being, but which a scientific worldview would interpret as the operation of impersonal laws and forces, is by this position understood as myth.[4]

The faithless approach described above emerged from the rise of a philosophical rationalism which seeks to put the Bible under the skeptical judgment of human scholarship. Of course, philosophical rationalism is not the view we accept or use in this study guide. We begin with the understanding that Genesis is part of Gods revelation to mankind, and we seek to understand how God has presented it.

Ross gives a useful description of the mixed literary types we find in Genesis:

It may be necessary to classify the three sections of Genesis individually. The primeval events [Genesis 1-11] are ancient traditions cast in a poetic narrative form that lends itself readily to oral transmission. The patriarchal events [Genesis 12-36] are reports about the ancestors that were retained in the family records. And the Joseph material [Genesis 37-50] forms a short story with its arc of tension and its resolution.[5]

The themes of Genesis

Ross presents some essential ideas that will help the reader understand what Genesis is all about:

Even a casual reading of the Book of Genesis reveals the prominence of the theme of blessing. The entire book turns on this motif and its antithetical motif, cursing. . . . There is another side to this tension between blessing and cursing, a conflict that works out on the human level and corresponds to the blessing and cursing. The motifs of good and evil characterize the human activities and circumstances in this struggle. That which is good is harmonious with the divine will; that which is evil conflicts with the divine will.[6]

Hamilton has drawn attention to another prominent theme. After noting that the patriarchal history constitutes about four fifths of Genesis, he says: Almost everybody who has written on the subject agrees that the theme of divine promise unites the patriarchal [accounts].[7] Hamilton then presents the findings of D.J.A. Clines. Clines identified three major promises in the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) known collectively as the Pentateuch. The promises from God relate to descendants, a relationship to God, and a land. Clines data breaks down like this:

  1. promise of descendants: Genesis, 19 times
  2. promise of relationship: Genesis, 10 times; Exodus, 8 times; Leviticus, 1 time
  3. promise of land: Genesis, 13 times; Exodus, 5 times
  4. allusions to the promise: Genesis, 17 times; Exodus, 11 times; Leviticus, 11 times; Numbers, 37 times; Deuteronomy, 50 times[8]

After establishing his view that the kingdom of God is the theme of the Bible, Bruce Waltke says the following themes of the kingdom emerge from Genesis: the seed [spiritual sons of Abraham], the land, Gods rule, the Ruler.[9] Whether you agree with this analysis, the attempt to tie Genesis into the entirety of the Bible is useful.

The literary structure of Genesis

Readers of Genesis will notice a refrain that repeats throughout the book: This is the account of . . . or These are the generations of . . . . The Hebrew behind these English words is regarded as a structural marker separating various sections of the book.

Ross expresses the meaning of the Hebrew marker (tledt) as: this is what became of ____, or this is where it started from (with reference to the following subject).[10] So, when we find the marker tledt in Genesis 2:4, it means, This is what became of the heavens and the earth. In Genesis 6:9, the term means, This is what became of Noah.

So, we have a sequence of stories that explain what became of the heavens and earth and important people such as Adam, Noah, Isaac and Jacob. But we must also notice a perceptible decline from the beginning of Genesis to the end. Ross quotes commentator Derek Kidner about this decline by saying: Man had travelled from Eden to a coffin [Josephs], and the chosen family far from Canaan to Egypt.[11]

Along with decline we have a narrowing of focus. In Genesis 1 the focus is universal when God creates the heavens and the earth. By the end of Genesis we are almost exclusively involved with the children of Jacob, whose descendants soon fell into disfavor with a new Pharaoh (Exodus 1). But they are the inheritors of Gods promises, and his hand is upon them.

Within each major section of Genesis the reader will find a deterioration due to sins pervasive reach. While God started the creation in pristine condition (very good, Genesis 1:31), by the time of Noah evil had become so widespread that God found it necessary to destroy all life on earth except for the family of Noah and those animals he took with him (Genesis 6). Similarly, Abraham exhibited greater faith than Isaac or Jacob. The reader should watch for this theme, which is unstated or implicit in the manner of most narrative literature.

The Flood

Genesis chapters 6-9 tell the somber story of how God destroyed his original creation by flooding it with water because of rampant violence. Many otherwise orthodox Christians wonder if this story is just a legend, but we offer three key reasons for upholding a world-wide flood which destroyed all but the tiniest part of human life, which God chose to spare:

  1. The Bible presents the flood in the same language as for all other historical events.
  2. Jesus plainly stated that the flood occurred just as Genesis describes it (Luke 17:27; Matt. 24:37-39).
  3. Dozens of cultures around the world have ancient stories of a world-wide flood. For an excellent chart and comparison, see http://nwcreation.net/noahlegends.html.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 115, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987).

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).

Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996).


Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988). [Recommended]


Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008). [Recommended]

Recommended Reading!

Tremper Longman III, How To Read Genesis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

[1] “primeval.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Aug. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/primeval>.

[2] “patriarch.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Aug. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/patriarch>.

[3] Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988) 59.

[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 56-57.

[5] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 63.

[6] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 65-67.

[7] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 39.

[8] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 42.

[9] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001)45-54.

[10] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 72-73.

[11] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 74.