In our search for the original blueprint for a better world, in which justice and care for the needy and oppressed prevail, we would do well to examine the creation models for human relationships found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. These paradigms contain the elements that enable human beings to find their value, engage in mutual love and trust, and regard all others as worthy of equal treatment as themselves. The command of Leviticus 19:18c—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”—rests upon the assumptions built into our creation, that God created us for goodness and we are valuable, not because of what we earn, do, or accomplish but because—and only because—God created us. Of course, Jesus’ death for us demonstrates our value, but it does not establish it like God’s creation of us does; it merely confirms it. That is, we did not lose our value in God’s eyes through the fall; that is why Jesus came to us and died for us (John 3:16).
Even more significantly, our creation in the image of God elevates us, above all the natural world, to a level of acting as representatives of who God is to that world. In contrast to ancient Assyro-Babylonia, the language of the Hebrew Bible indicates clearly that we are created in God’s image, not as his image. That is, even in our origins, we were not created as gods. But there’s more to this: Assyrians and Babylonians viewed their divine images as doubles of or as substitutes for their deities. As doubles, the image could only speak, act, or behave exactly as the god for which it served as its image. The image had no autonomy or freedom to think or act for itself. By contrast, because human beings were created in God’s image and because God is a God of freedom, human beings could resemble God by thinking and acting for themselves within the boundaries of love and trustworthiness. They could further act in that image by allowing all those around them to think and act for themselves.
However, as stated in Genesis 1:28, the first humans were not only to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth;” they were to subdue that world and have dominion over nature. Like many Hebrew words, the word translated, “subdue” has a spectrum of meanings including to “subjugate” something, to humble someone into slavery through force, or to rape a woman (HALOT 460). On the surface it sounds as though violence and force lie behind this term when applied to human governorship of the natural world. Why would creation, in its pristine state, need “subduing”? If we keep in mind that Genesis 1 is written from the backdrop of a concern for monotheism, we can better understand this strong language. To subdue nature meant, in ancient Near Eastern thinking, to subdue deities and other divine entities that represented various elements of nature. In ancient Mesopotamian perspectives, these divine elements were their masters and human beings were their slaves. Instead of humbling oneself as a slave to these gods and elements, human beings were to bring the natural elements they represented to heel as subordinates to themselves. This dominion, therefore, elevated human beings to a higher level than nature but not to the level of divinity. And nowhere does living in God’s image give any human license to dominate, abuse, or control another human being.
To further enlarge the scope of what it meant to be created in God’s image, Genesis 1 alludes to three models by which that image represents God. These are nature and natural law, family, and Sabbath. (Admittedly, for the family model, I will draw a little from Genesis 2, since Genesis 1 merely gives only limited parameters for families.) Since we can use these models to outline the ingredients of our human value, they serve as timeless reminders of who God created us to be and how we ought to treat one another even in our less-than-perfect world.
Nature and Natural Law
What binds together all the elements of nature we call “natural law.” By the word “natural,” we often mean that the laws that allow plants, animals, and other living things to live and flourish stem from the intrinsic elements that make up their nature. Nothing in nature is arbitrary (forced into place and without a reason for existence) and everything operates within cause-and-effect relationships. For this reason, we can depend on the natural world’s reality without fear that something unexpected will take place. For example, we can plant corn and not find, a few weeks later, spinach instead. All nature conforms to the principle of inevitability in which we recognize that the kernels of corn we plant will, given the right set of circumstances (sunlight, water, and good soil), inevitably produce stalks containing ears of corn. These kinds of cause-and-effect actions form the basis for an orderly, predictable universe and serve as the foundation of human reason. Without these natural laws, chaos would ensue. As an extension of these laws, human beings were to live under similar laws of love with love leading to love and trustworthiness leading to trust.
Still another principle, equally significant, emerges from a study of nature—its interconnectedness. Nothing in the natural world operates disconnected from the rest of the whole. Our natural world is holistic and everything depends on everything else. The great ecosystems of our planet provide a complete nurturing sequence such as the streams flowing into the oceans, the oceans giving rise to weather systems that bring rain clouds to the land that water the streams. These close connections illustrate something of the love God intended every creature to experience, not as an island, but in close bonds that in the human sphere, we call friendships or families.
By granting them the right of dominion over the natural world, God did not intend that they abuse nature, but rather refuse to allow it to dominate them. In ancient times, one either ruled or became subservient to someone who ruled. There was little space in between those two roles. Yet by right of the fact that God created both male and female in his image, no human was to rule another, male or female. That meant that the original family unit was not about who was in charge but about bonding in trust. This concept finds its voice in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). In the patrilocal aspect of the “house of the father” that dominated much of the second millennium Near Eastern social landscape, the bride left her father and mother and clung to her husband. In consequence, she became ruled by him, his mother, and his father in the compound in which such families often lived. Genesis 2:24 turns this social norm on its head indicating that the husband was to leave his father and mother. Though not stated, the idea may have been that both were to leave their families to form a new household. There then would be no room for the patrimonial father (the husband’s father) to rule.
This verse breaks up the “house of the father” in other ways. The verb “cling to” interestingly is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible of the Leviathan’s scales knit so close together that the wind could not come between them or of the close attachment of skin to the body. This “joining” of two people could only occur in bonds of love and trust that would prepare them for the ultimate attachment of “one flesh.” No economic arrangement or political connection could allow the couple to truly become “one flesh.” This level of intimacy would only happen to the extent that neither dominated the other in their committed love to each other. In their “fruitful multiplying” of offspring, they would also create bonds of love and trust that would provide a non-hierarchical heritage to pass on to their children. A community of such bonding would likely treat those outside their households with the values they held as families.
Though in Genesis 2:1-3 God does not directly give the Sabbath to humankind, He blesses and sanctifies it. Since he has just given the planet to the first humans, he would hardly bless and sanctify the Sabbath for his own interests alone. Blessing and making something holy is usually done with those in mind who are present when he makes that blessing and sanctification.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Sabbath comes to represent many things: God’s completion of his work of creation; the Israelite deliverance from slavery; and a sign that Yahweh is God and that he sanctifies his people who keep his Sabbath. Consequently, in the two treatments of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath commemorates God as Creator (Exodus 20:8-11) and as Deliverer from slavery (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Sabbath then models both the original template for humanity in creation and the right of human beings to equal treatment. Certainly, according to Deuteronomy, there were no slaves on Shabbat. Furthermore, the Sabbath as a sign suggests that the weekly Sabbath brought a divine message or revelation of a God forming yet another sanctifying bond between himself and his Sabbath keepers in “a sign between me and them” (Ezekiel 20:12). This lies in contrast to the divine judicial verdicts ancient Near Eastern diviners read that prescribed doom or blessing. The Sabbath, then, was to tighten the bond between Yahweh and his people, akin to that of marriage. Once established, that same trust and love should be extended to all peoples everywhere.
Not long after Eden, humanity began the long trek away from the three models founded in creation. As they lost their bond of love and trust with God, they correspondingly found that they could not love or trust everyone else. In a desperate effort to save themselves from fraudulence, theft, adultery, violence, and murder, they devised models of their own. The Mesopotamians contrived three models—economics, hierarchy, and contractual relationships—for how to keep some semblance of trust and loyalty between themselves and others. In consequence, they began to lose their creation value, coming to view themselves and others as valuable for what they earned, made, or accomplished. Instead of working together with one another, they competed against one another. Objectification of persons, stratification of society, and arbitrary imposition of one will over another all but obliterated the bonds of love and trust. Self-interest dominated all three models. Without mutual trust, all forms of relationships found viability in contracts that bound one another in legal relationships. With hierarchical leaders at all levels of society, dominance and control became the norm, and these, in turn, affected relationships to the extent that posturing, flattery, and pretense took the place of authenticity. Moving increasingly away from nature and its laws, humans came to view all events in their lives as decreed by the gods, and subsequently lost their internal locus of control and personal responsibility for the results of their poor choices.
Because of these changes, all societies everywhere needed reminders to love their neighbors as themselves, to leave the edges of their fields for the poor and the immigrants, not to withhold the wages of a day laborer until morning, not to show partiality to the poor or defer to the great, not to obstruct the way of the handicapped, not to slander anyone, not to oppress the immigrant residing with them in the land, but to love the immigrant as themselves. These verses in Leviticus 19 merely serve as extensions of the original creation models for how to treat others.
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Jean Sheldon is professor of Old Testament at Pacific Union College.
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