“Then God Created Humankind”
Later this week, we will celebrate a major milestone. Since 1970, Americans have observed Earth Day every year on April 22nd. This Wednesday, Earth Day turns 50. Several months ago, the ministers made the decision that we would celebrate Earth Day, and we invited our own Rev. Sarah Macias and her colleague, Rev. Abby Mohaupt—both of whom are perfectly suited to lead us in a celebration of Earth Day because of their expertise in environmental ministry and eco-theology. And once we are able to return to in-person worship together safely, they have agreed to lead us in that Earth Day celebration.
But, a 50th birthday is such a major milestone, that I could not let this Earth Day pass without acknowledgment. Considering how important our planet is to us, I think it is right and appropriate to celebrate it twice. So today, in observance of Earth Day, we have heard a reading from Genesis. I like to think of this story as an origin story—one of many ancient accounts of the origin of the planet and of humanity. How we interpret origin stories like this one informs our understanding of humanity’s purpose. And how we understand our purpose, may affect how we interact with our environment.
I want to share a little bit about my own origin story. Many of you may know that I was not born in this country. I was six years old when my family emigrated from Germany to start a new life in the United States. As you might imagine, adapting to life in a new country while learning an entirely new language is not easy, and it can be particularly difficult for adults. Sometimes things get lost in translation, and that can make for some funny stories.
One story from my childhood, illustrates this perfectly. This story took place more than 20 years ago. As I remember it, my mom returned home one afternoon from a doctor’s appointment, and she recounted an exchange she had with her physician. Following the exam, my mom asked the doctor, “can you give me a recipe?” But her request was met with a look of confusion from the doctor. Perplexed, my mom left the appointment empty-handed, not even realizing her mistake until much later. You see, in German—my mom’s native language—the word Rezept translates in English to recipe or prescription.
Translation matters. The way we translate a single word can change the entire meaning of a sentence, or even a passage of scripture. What does it mean when God says to humankind, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”? The word dominion has received a lot of attention from biblical scholars, especially in light of growing concerns over our environment and the health of our planet. Many scholars have argued that this passage from Genesis grants humanity limitless power and license to exploit the earth’s natural resources for our own benefit. For these scholars, and many Christians, the word dominion is synonymous with the word domination.
And let’s be honest, domination is deeply embedded in our culture. We dominate our planet, stripping it of its natural resources to turn a profit and satisfy our greed. We dominate the earth’s living creatures, caging them for our entertainment, exploiting them for food, and hunting them for sport. We even dominate our fellow human beings, using war, violence, and imprisonment as tools to intimidate and control. Our leaders understand very well that using the language of domination is often the most effective way of framing a problem—the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on Coronavirus, just to name a few. Domination permeates every aspect of our culture, so maybe it is not so surprising that some would cite this passage to justify their selfish actions.
But translation matters. Yes, the Hebrew word radah used in Genesis 1 can mean to “have dominion” over something or someone; it can even mean “to dominate.” Both are valid translations. But radah can also mean “to rule.” Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, radah is used to describe the authority of masters over their servants, or kings over their subjects. God does grant us authority “over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth,” but what matters is how we exercise that authority. The use of the word radah (to rule) begs the question, what kind of rulers will we be? Will we rule over the planet and all its living creatures harshly, or will we rule with compassion, benevolence, and mercy? We have a choice. We have the power and authority to exercise our free will. We have to ask ourselves, how would God want us to act?
For me, the key to answering this question is found in our scripture reading—“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’… So God created humankind in [God’s] image; in God’s image, [God] created them; male and female [God] created them.” I don’t know about you, but when I want to convey a point that I feel is really important, I state it more than once. Maybe I’ll even restate my point another way to stress how important I feel it is. The author of this text is doing the same, so we need to understand what the phrase “the image of God” meant to the author.
Scholars tell us this phrase was commonly used in writings from antiquity. In ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts, to be created in the “image of god” was to be set apart and designated by the gods as their representative on earth with a divine mandate to rule. The adoption of this expression in our text suggests that humankind has been set apart and assigned a divine status and special purpose.
Indeed, God has created us to be unique. More than any other living thing, humans have the capacity to create extraordinary things out of the earth’s natural resources. While we don’t have the ability to create something out of nothing, we have been gifted the ability to repurpose, reorder, and re-create out of what God has already created. Humankind is both creator and created. We hold a special place in God’s creation—we are called to be co-creators with God. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the second account of creation found in chapter 2 of Genesis.
In this account, “God made the earth and the heavens.” But “God recognized that there was nobody to till the ground, so “God formed man from the dust of the ground” and breathed life into his nostrils. “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it…Then God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Genesis 2:15, 18-19).
God created human life out of the dirt, placed humankind into the garden, and commanded humanity to till the ground and cultivate further life from the dirt. The word for till or cultivate used here literally translates to “serve.” This creation account puts humankind in the role of servant or caretaker. The story recognizes us as God’s partners in the creation process. And yet, we are reminded that we are created out of the same dirt as our co-creations, our futures are intertwined with one another’s. Our life and our livelihood are completely dependent on the earth that we were created to serve. Humanity only survives if we tend to the needs of creation.
This concept of codependence is found in many of our world religions. In Buddhism, there is a teaching called Dependent Origination. It is an understanding that nothing exists on its own, and that all things are influenced by many others. Everyone and everything are interconnected and interdependent. Every action we take sets off a string of reactions that has a cascading effect on other people and other things. All things are dependent upon cause and effect, and one thing flows into the next. The cup of coffee I drank this morning would not have existed without the person who ordered the bag of coffee beans, which could not have arrived at the store at which I bought them without the truck driver that delivered them, or the fuel that was pumped to power the truck. Or without the person who roasted and packaged the beans, the boat that transported them, and the crew that operated the boat. I could not have had my morning coffee without the farmer that picked the beans, or the water, soil, and sunlight needed for the plants to grow.
We live in a world in which everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent. Our actions can have far reaching consequences—for our fellow human beings, for our environment, for our planet. We are all connected like a giant web. Both creation accounts in Genesis remind us that we are set apart by God for a divine purpose—to co-create with God; to act as God’s representatives on earth, ruling over creation with compassion, benevolence, and mercy, just as God would do; to cultivate the dirt, serve our planet, and act as good stewards of creation.
Translation matters. So, perhaps it is time for an updated translation that honors our role as benevolent rulers, divinely appointed caretakers, and co-creators with God. It might go something like this:
Genesis 1: 26-28, 31 (The Inclusive Bible)
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.”
Humankind was created as God’s reflection:
in the divine image God created them;
female and male, God made them.
God blessed them and said, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth—and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth!” … [And] God looked at all of this creation and proclaimed that this was good—very good.