What are we taught about the nature of humanity in Genesis 1-11?
In the first eleven chapters of Genesis the writers attempt to explain, in the cultural language of ancient Israel with metaphors and symbols, the story of the creation of the world by God. It contains a series of stories which explore the human condition and the nature of humanity.
In the first creation story, God created humans on the sixth day, in His own image or likeness (1:27). This phrase sets human beings apart from animals. It establishes them as being in a special relationship with God. The likeness is so basic to human nature that even humanity’s subsequent downfall did not destroy it. People are still reasoning, morally responsible and creative in a way that animals are not. We can imagine, dream, plan and shape our future. But being made “in God’s image” also means that humans are incomplete without God and are intended to be in close relationship with Him. The fact that all humans are made in God’s image also shows that, in the ideal world view, all are of equal value and importance. No one group in society, no one race, no one nation is of more importance than another.
In the second creation story the statement that there is “no man to till the ground” Genesis 2:5 shows that creation is not complete without mankind. In Genesis 2:15 humans are given a commission to take care of what God has created. We take responsibility for our environment and care properly for it. In the agrarian context of ancient Israel, tilling the ground is used as a metaphor for the trust God places on humanity. In Genesis 2:7 the closeness of humans and their world is emphasised by the similarity of two Hebrew words: the man (Hebrew Adam) was created from the ground (Hebrew adamah) ground and dust. The dust does not live and cannot live until God has given it breath.
In terms of other types of relationships, that between men and women, for example, was an essential part of God’s design for humankind. The relationship is based not only on companionship (Genesis 2:18) but also on procreation when men and women are encouraged to “have many children”. Genesis also challenges the traditional view of gender roles with the injunction that “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one” (Genesis 2:24). The couple, Adam and Eve are comfortable with one another and with who they are. They accept themselves and each other in harmony with the world and with God. So God established companionship and community with an emphasis on well-ordered harmonious relationships in the context of human community.
However, in Chapter 3, in this perfect world, there is the introduction of the snake, the standard symbol of evil in the ancient world, which leads to disobedience and thus the breaking of the relationship and trust in God. Both the man and the woman are aware of the prohibition and know exactly the boundaries in God’s world and that they should not eat of the forbidden tree. This prohibition is seen as unreasonable. The couple are lured by the promise of absolute freedom, by their own ability to become gods where there would be no boundaries, except those of their own making. Human selfishness and the destructive desire for independence and autonomy is part of humanity’s longing to be free of restrictions and limits, free to choose our own way with no consequences. Both do not trust in God’s love in his prohibition and think their judgment is wiser than God’s. Thus humanity is now outside the boundaries of God’s purpose. What was harmonious is now only mistrust, blame, guilt and alienation. Now their nakedness causes them to hide from God (Genesis 3:8) and it is a powerful symbol for the shame and guilt of disobedience. The chaos they have introduced into their world now includes their relationship not just with God but with each other (Genesis 3:12-13) as a kind of blame game starts, where the woman blames the snake and Adam blames the woman and implicitly blames God. It was you who gave me the woman in the first place. The chaos that begins to destroy their world starts with the couple themselves; their world collapses from the inside out.
The results spread wider. God’s curse on the serpent represents the break between humans and the natural world. Marriage and creation had been seen as part of God’s design (Genesis 1:27-28) but now the pain of childbirth and subsequent cares of motherhood are seen as part of the disintegration of God’s plan. Work in the divine plan was to be creative and pleasurable. Now it is backbreaking toil and in death humans go back to the dust from which they came. However, there is hope. God has breathed life into mankind. The symbol of the clothes made of skin implies that God still cares for human beings. This shows that in spite of human failure, pain and suffering with death to end it all, the world is more than meaningless chaos. There is hope. The first three chapter of Genesis are not describing a historical event but attempting to explain with symbols and metaphors the nature of all humanity and the reasons why we live in such an imperfect world.
The nature of humanity is further explained in the fascinating story of Cain and Abel. Cain is the archetypal man who resents the good fortune of others. The petulance he feels develops into hate and hate into murder. He says “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) And perhaps this is a cry of conscience and irresponsibility which can echo down the centuries. Human nature has destroyed God’s world and humans are doomed to “go stumbling and straying over the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Although Cain’s punishment should have been death God intervenes, with the protective mark on Cain (Genesis 4:15). God’s forgiveness is stronger than the ability of mankind to hate and kill.
The list of genealogies (Genesis 4:17) seems to suggest that Cain, the murderer, was the father of the people who built cities and developed civilisation. Perhaps this explains that at the very heart of even our own material and technological progress there is a form of self-will and selfishness. But all is not lost because the birth of Seth shows that the writers of Genesis believe that there is the possibility of faithfulness to God. Seth would share his father’s weakness, humanity’s weakness but symbolically point the way to a faithful minority who remain faithful to God.
The strange stories of Nephilim at the beginning of Chapter 6 attempt to show how the demonic power of evil has spread through the world and how human nature has debased God’s creation so completely (Genesis 6:5) “..every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil, all the time”. They are a prelude to the story of Noah and the Flood. Noah is the symbol of the righteous man and as such makes a new beginning possible. The story of the Flood shows that God accepts that humanity is prone to evil (Genesis 8:21). In his present fallen state humans must live in a relationship of fear with the natural world (Genesis 9:2-3) “The fear and dread of you will fall on all beasts of the earth”. Humans cannot be trusted to respect other’s rights and must be kept on a straight path through the fear of consequences, (Genesis 9:6). The covenant with Noah reflects a world in which human beings’ abuse of freedom has made inevitable. Compromise and self-interest are involved in every human action. Humanity is condemned by its own persistent distortion of the image of God in a world that is imperfect but with the image of the rainbow there is a vivid promise of better things to come.
Even after the Flood life is lived in tension and the story of Noah’s drunkenness shows this. Noah planted a vineyard and although intrinsically there is nothing wrong with wine (Ps 104:15), what can be seen as a blessing is also a source of temptation. Here the wine took control of Noah, thus showing that even the most faithful of human beings is, at times, not able to resist temptation and abuse the gifts of God.
The parable of the tower of Babel is perhaps the climax of the Prologue as it shows human inventiveness in the building of cities with bricks, rather than stones (Genesis 11:3) but human beings are at the centre of this civilisation with the chaos and disorder originating in Adam’s actions. Human beings with all their faults put themselves at the centre of the action and the result is confused babbling. Man wants to put himself at the centre (Genesis 11:4) and the city is a failure (Genesis 11:8).
The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe the world as God intended it to be and as human nature has in fact made it.
Holy Bible: New International Version
Alexander David: The Lion Handbook to the Bible (Lion Books 2009)
Atkinson David: The Message of Genesis 1-11 (Intervarsity Press 2007)
Drane John: Introducing the Old Testament (Lion Books 2011)
Neil William: One Volume Bible Commentary (Hodder and Stoughton 1962)