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.


Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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