“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” Genesis 1: 27-28
In the first chapter of Genesis, we find the beginning—the genesis—of everything. We see God create the world and everything in it ex nihilo, out of nothing, and He did so in only six days. We also see—appropriately enough the very first time we are introduced to Him—one of the most majestic depictions of God; He speaks, and things happen. Just as earthly kings demonstrated their power by speaking commands that their subordinates would carry out to completion, God demonstrated His power by speaking His commands into fulfillment; He is able to speak order and form into the chaos and void. Right from the start, Genesis is presenting us with the power and majesty of our mighty Creator-King God.
There is an important structure to note in Genesis 1. We repeatedly see throughout the creation narrative God speaking, the command being fulfilled, God saying that the created thing is good, the evening and the day, and then the cycle begins again with the next installment of the creation. This cycle builds to a crescendo with the culminating—the crowning—event of the entire narrative: the creation of man on day six. The event is so significant that we see in verse 27 the first instance of poetry written in the Bible, and it is a recounting of God making humankind in His image. This brings us to an important question: what does it mean to be made in God’s image?
The first clue as to what this means is given with the first commands that God gives to humanity: to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. Each of these words may carry with them different meanings in other contexts, so we must be careful to examine them in the context of this text. We already explored how God is portrayed as a mighty regal figure throughout Genesis 1, and we see Him now bestowing that same royalty upon the pinnacle of His creation. When God tells humanity to subdue the earth, He isn’t telling them to pillage it and exploit it to their benefit; rather, He is telling them to use their abilities and resources to assert their will on the earth, so that life there will flourish even more abundantly. Think of it this way: a patch of dirt left unattended will be overgrown with vegetation; but if a gardener comes along and asserts his will upon that patch of dirt, it can yield goods that can be beneficial to the gardener and to others. God is telling humanity to cultivate and take care of the earth so that it can flourish even more abundantly for them; He’s using gardening language. This is fitting since man was placed in the Garden of Eden.
The language of dominion is the most apparent iteration of God’s pre-fall intentions for humanity; mankind was to rule over all creation just as God rules over everything. Humankind was at the very top of the created order and was to rule justly over it. It must be noted that mankind was to rule over the things beneath them in the created order, there is no mention of man ruling over fellow man here. Such a straying from the original egalitarian intent is a product of the fall and a direct result of sin. But God’s own words show us that He created us to be kings and queens over creation, just as He is King of the Universe.
Intertwined with the commission to rule with God over creation, there is also contained in the notion of “image” a sense that something within us represents God’s holiness; not only do we represent God’s rule over the earth, we also act as icons of his holiness. This is evident in the fact that the Hebrew word translated into English as “image” is more often translated in the Old Testament as “idol.” In the same way that idols are innate visible representations of false gods, humanity is a living visible representation of the true God. With this in mind, it brings a new level of understanding to the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” (Exodus 20:4). Mankind worshipping false gods depicted as creatures of the world is a total betrayal of the created order. It is a complete inversion and perversion of the order of creation for mankind—the pinnacle of creation, the rulers of creation, and the representations of God—to worship a god who did not make them and who is represented as a creature that is inferior to them. God did not desire mankind to form graven images for themselves to represent fictitious gods, for humanity itself is a graven image carved by God to represent Himself.
It is quite hard, nearly impossible at times, to see evidence of these truths from Genesis 1 evidenced in the world around us today. It is much easier to see the evidence of the fall and the rampant nature of sin that abounds all around us. But it is imperative that we, as God’s people, remember these truths—that mankind was made in God’s image to rule over and cultivate creation, and that humanity is a representation of God Himself—for if God’s people do not remember these things, then who will? We must remember that all of human life, whether it is in the womb or on the deathbed, bears the image of God. We must not forget that all humans were made to be kings and queens over creation. Though sin entered the world and deprived many people of their royal birthright, through Christ, we can once again receive this royal birthright. We now must help our fellow Image-bearers, our fellow kings and queens, who are lost to be restored in Christ to what is their God-given inheritance.