Man, God’s Regent
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
In looking at the account of the creation of man by God in Genesis 1, we have already seen two points that are emphasized. First, man is created. This is repeated three times in verse 27, obviously for emphasis. Second, man is created in God’s image. This is repeated four times in verses 26 and 27. Following this clue to what are the most important ideas, we come next to the teaching that man was to rule over creation as God’s regent. This is mentioned twice, in verses 26 and 28.
Who is this who is to rule God’s creation? What is he like? What are his gifts? To whom is he responsible?
For the purpose of this study I want to follow the substance of an address given by Dr. John H. Gerstner, a former professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, to the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in 1977. His address considered five things about man as God made him. First, man was created, and he still is. Second, man was created male and female, and he still is. Third, man was created body and soul, and he still is. Fourth, man was created dominant over the animals, and he still is. Fifth, man was created holy, and he still is—not.
Created by God
We have already seen that man’s being created in the image of God involves his having a personality, a sense of morality and spirituality. But in relation to his rule over the animals, to which we have now come, man’s creation involves responsibility as well. If man were his own creator, he would be responsible to no one. But he is not his own creator. He is created by God, and this means that he is responsible to God for what he does in every area of his life and particularly for how he carries out the mandate to rule over creation. These verses record God as saying, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (v. 26). To man he says, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (v. 28). Dominion of any kind, but particularly dominion of this scope, implies responsibility.
Today in the western world there is a tendency to deny man’s moral responsibility on the basis of some kind of determinism. It usually takes one of two forms. It may be a physical, mechanical determinism (“man is the product of his genes and body chemistry”), or it may be a psychological determinism (“man is the product of his environment and of the earlier things that have happened to him”). In either case the individual is excused from responsibility for what he or she does. Thus, we have gone through a period in which criminal behavior was termed a sickness and the criminal was regarded more as a victim of his environment than as the victimizer. (Recently there is a tendency at least to reconsider this matter.) Less blatant but nevertheless morally reprehensible acts are excused with, “I suppose he just couldn’t help it.”
The biblical view of man could hardly be more different. As Francis Schaeffer correctly notes, “Since God has made man in his own image, man is not caught in the wheels of determinism. Rather man is so great that he can influence history for himself and for others, for this life and the life to come.” Man is fallen. But even in his fallen state he is responsible. He can do great things, or he can do things that are terrible.
God created the man and woman and gave them dominion over the created order. Consequently, they were responsible to him for what they did. When man sins, as the Genesis account goes on to show that he does, it is God who requires a reckoning: “Where are you?… Who told you that you were naked?… What is this you have done?” (Gen. 3:9, 11, 13). In the thousands of years since Eden many have convinced themselves that they are not responsible. But the testimony of Scripture is that this area of responsibility still stands and that all will one day answer to God at the judgment. “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (Rev. 20:12).
People are also responsible for their acts toward others. This is the reason for those biblical statements instituting capital punishment as a proper response to murder; for instance, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). These verses are not in the Bible as relics of a more barbarous age or because in the biblical outlook man is not valuable. They are there for precisely the opposite reason: Man is too valuable to be wantonly destroyed. Thus, the harshest penalties are reserved for such destruction. In a related way, James 3:9–10 forbid the use of the tongue to curse others because these others are also made in God’s image: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.… This should not be.” In these texts murder of another and cursing of another are forbidden on the grounds that the other person (even after the fall) retains something of God’s image and is therefore to be valued by us, as God also values him.
Male and Female
Second, man was created male and female, and it is still so. In our day many say that there are no essential differences between men and women, or that whatever differences there are, are accidental. This is understandable from those who think that mindless evolution is the means by which we have become what we are. But it is entirely incomprehensible from the standpoint of the Bible, which tells us that nothing is an accident and that sexuality in particular is the result of the creative act of God. Maleness and femaleness are therefore good and meaningful, just as other aspects of God’s creation are good and meaningful. Men are not women. Women are not men. One of the saddest things in the universe is a man who tries to be a woman or a woman who tries to be a man. “But who is superior?” someone asks. I answer: A man is absolutely superior to a woman—at being a man; a woman is absolutely superior to a man—at being a woman. But let a woman try to be a man or a man try to be a woman, and you have a monstrosity.
This is thought to deny equality before God, as if equality means indistinguishability. But this thought is neither biblical nor rational. The man and the woman are equal before God, but they are not indistinguishable. In the economy of the family (and the church), the man is to lead, protect, care for, cherish, act upon, and initiate. The woman is to respond, receive, be acted upon, bear, nurture, follow. In this the human family is a deliberate parallelism to the Trinity. We say in theology that within the Trinity the three persons are “one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” But there are also distinctions according to which the second person of the Godhead, the Son, voluntarily subordinates himself to carry out the wishes of the Father in redemption, and the third person, the Holy Spirit, voluntarily subordinates himself to the united wills of the Father and Son.
The subordination of the woman to the man in marriage is a voluntary submission. As Gerstner writes, “No woman need accept the proposal of any man. But when she enters voluntarily into holy matrimony with that man, she becomes as 1 Peter 3 demands, ‘submissive’ and ‘obedient’ to her husband.” In the same way, children are under the divine command to “obey” and “honor” their fathers and mothers. “We know from sorry experience that many of them choose not to do so, but if they do (as they are under a divine mandate to do), they must do so voluntarily. So there is in the economy of the human family, which God made in his own image, a replica of the divine Trinity itself, in which there is a proper and voluntary subordination.”
Body and Soul
Third, God made man body and soul, and he still does. There is a debate at this point between those who believe in a three-part construction of man’s being and those who believe in a two-part construction (the position Gerstner takes in the address I am following). But the debate is not as significant as it sometimes seems. All parties recognize that the human being consists at least of the physical part that dies and needs to be resurrected and the immaterial part that lives beyond death. The only question is whether this immaterial part can be further distinguished as containing, on the one hand, a soul or personality and, on the other hand, a spirit that alone relates us to God.
Here the linguistic data should be determinative, but unfortunately it is not as clear as one could wish. Sometimes, particularly in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, soul (nephesh) and spirit (ruach) are used interchangeably. But in other places, particularly in the later parts of the Old Testament, ruach increasingly comes to designate that element by which men and women relate to God, in distinction from nephesh, which then meant merely the life principle. In conformity to this outlook, “soul” is used in reference to animals, while “spirit” is not. Conversely, the prophets, who heard the voice of God and communed with him in a special sense, are always said to be animated by the “spirit” (but not the “soul”) of God. In the New Testament the linguistic data is similar. While soul (psyche) and spirit (pneuma) are sometimes freely exchanged for one another, as in the Old Testament, pneuma nevertheless also expresses that particular capacity for relating to God that is the redeemed man’s glory as opposed to mere psyche, which even the unsaved man possesses (1 Cor. 2:9–16).
In this area the particular words are possibly less important than the truths they convey. Those who insist on the unity of man, nevertheless believe that he is more than mere matter. If they adhere to a two-part scheme, they recognize that there is that about him that sets him off from animals.
The body is the part we see, the part that possesses physical life. We have a body in common with every living thing.
The soul is the part of the person we call personality or self-identity. This is not a simple matter to talk about. The soul is related to the body through the brain, a part of the body. It is also related to the qualities we associate with spirit. Nevertheless, in general terms soul refers to what makes an individual unique. We might say that the soul centers in the mind and includes all likes and dislikes, special abilities or weaknesses, emotions, aspirations, and anything else that makes the individual different from all others of his species. It is because we have souls that we are able to have fellowship, love, and communication with one another.
But man does not only have fellowship, love, and communication with others of his species. He also has love and communion with God, and for this he needs a spirit. The spirit is that part of human nature that communes with God and partakes in some measure of God’s essence. God is nowhere said to be body or soul. But God is defined as spirit. “God is spirit,” said Jesus; therefore, “his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Because man is spirit (or comes to possess a spirit by means of the new birth) he can have fellowship with God and worship him.
In speaking of soul and body, Gerstner has a good insight. He notes that “the quirk of human nature in its present state, unlike its original condition, is that we have a tendency to recognize that the other person is a conscious, rational and moral soul, but that we treat ourselves as if we were merely a combination of chemicals and reactions. A boy once said to his mother, ‘Mother, why is it that whenever I do anything bad it’s because I am a bad boy, but whenever you do anything bad it’s because you are nervous?’ That is the principle. When the boy does something bad the mother recognizes that he is a spirit. He is a morally responsible individual who can be properly reprimanded for his misbehavior. But when she does the same thing … she reminds her son that she is a body of nerves and should somehow not be responsible.”
But we are responsible. The soul does have dominion over the body. Consequently, whatever our weaknesses may be, we are responsible to subordinate our fleshly desires and live for God.
Dominion Over the Animals
Fourth, man was created dominant over the animals—the point particularly stressed in these verses. Martin Luther wrote in his lectures on Genesis that in his opinion Adam in his original state was superior to the animals even in those points where they were strong. “I am fully convinced,” he said, “that before Adam’s sin his eyes were so sharp and clear that they surpassed those of the lynx and eagle. He was stronger than the lions and the bears, whose strength is very great; and he handled them the way we handle puppies.” Later on, as he begins to think of Adam’s intellectual powers, he says, “If … we are looking for an outstanding philosopher, let us not overlook our first parents while they were still free from sin.” It was with such capacities that man ruled creation.
At the present time we have this horrible situation. In his sin man either tends to dominate and thus violate the creation, subjecting it to his own selfish ends, or else he tends to fall down and worship the creation, not realizing that his debasement is brought about in the process. As the Bible describes them, the man and the woman were made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (Ps. 8:5); that is, they were placed between the highest and lowest beings, between angels and beasts. But it is significant that man is described as being slightly lower than the angels rather than being slightly higher than the beasts. That is, man’s privilege is that he is to be a mediating figure, but he is also to be one who looks up rather than down. The unfortunate thing is that when man severs the tie that binds him to God and tries to cast off God’s rule, he does not rise up to take God’s place, as he desires to do, but rather sinks to a more bestial level. In fact, he comes to think of himself as a beast (“the naked ape”) or, even worse, a machine.
Holy and Still is—Not
This brings us to the last point: God created man holy, and now he is—not. The other items we have considered remain, though they are distorted by sin in each case. Man is still a created being, though weak and destined to die. He is still male and female. He is still body and soul. He is still dominant over the animals. But man was also created holy as God is holy, and of this original righteousness not a vestige remains. Rather, as the Scriptures say, “Every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5).
This is why man needs a Savior. God made man upright, but he sought out his own devices. In turning each to his or her own way man brought ruin on the race. Now, not only is no one holy, none is capable even of regaining that holiness. Before the fall, to use Augustine’s phrase, man was posse non peccare (“able not to sin”). But he was also, as Augustine also faithfully declared in accordance with the Bible’s teaching, posse peccare (“able to sin”), which choice he exploited. Now he is non posse non peccare (“not able not to sin”). It is as though he jumped into a pit where he is now trapped. He must remain in that pit until God by grace through the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit lifts him out.
28. And God blessed them. This blessing of God may be regarded as the source from which the human race has flowed. And we must so consider it not only with reference to the whole, but also, as they say, in every particular instance. For we are fruitful or barren in respect of offspring, as God imparts his power to some and withholds it from others. But here Moses would simply declare that Adam with his wife was formed for the production of offspring, in order that men might replenish the earth. God could himself indeed have covered the earth with a multitude of men; but it was his will that we should proceed from one fountain, in order that our desire of mutual concord might be the greater, and that each might the more freely embrace the other as his own flesh. Besides, as men were created to occupy the earth, so we ought certainly to conclude that God has marked, as with a boundary, that space of earth which would suffice for the reception of men, and would prove a suitable abode for them. Any inequality which is contrary to this arrangement is nothing else than a corruption of nature which proceeds from sin. In the meantime, however, the benediction of God so prevails that the earth everywhere lies open that it may have its inhabitants, and that an immense multitude of men may find, in some part of the globe, their home. Now, what I have said concerning marriage must be kept in mind; that God intends the human race to be multiplied by generation indeed, but not, as in brute animals, by promiscuous intercourse. For he has joined the man to his wife, that they might produce a divine, that is, a legitimate seed. Let us then mark whom God here addresses when he commands them to increase, and to whom he limits his benediction. Certainly he does not give the reins to human passions, but, beginning at holy and chaste marriage, he proceeds to speak of the production of offspring. For this is also worthy of notice, that Moses here briefly alludes to a subject which he afterwards means more fully to explain, and that the regular series of the history is inverted, yet in such a way as to make the true succession of events apparent. The question, however, is proposed, whether fornicators and adulterers become fruitful by the power of God; which, if it be true, then whether the blessing of God is in like manner extended to them? I answer, this is a corruption of the Divine institute; and whereas God produces offspring from this muddy pool, as well as from the pure fountain of marriage, this will tend to their greater destruction. Still that pure and lawful method of increase, which God ordained from the beginning, remains firm; this is that law of nature which common sense declares to be inviolable.
Subdue it. He confirms what he had before said respecting dominion. Man had already been created with this condition, that he should subject the earth to himself; but now, at length, he is put in possession of his right, when he hears what has been given to him by the Lord: and this Moses expresses still more fully in the next verse, when he introduces God as granting to him the herbs and the fruits. For it is of great importance that we touch nothing of God’s bounty but what we know he has permitted us to do; since we cannot enjoy anything with a good conscience, except we receive it as from the hand of God. And therefore Paul teaches us that, in eating and drinking, we always sin, unless faith be present, (Rom. 14:23.) Thus we are instructed to seek from God alone whatever is necessary for us, and in the very use of his gifts, we are to exercise ourselves in meditating on his goodness and paternal care. For the words of God are to this effect: ‘Behold, I have prepared food for thee before thou wast formed; acknowledge me, therefore, as thy Father, who have so diligently provided for thee when thou wast not yet created. Moreover, my solicitude for thee has proceeded still further; it was thy business to nurture the things provided for thee, but I have taken even this charge also upon myself. Wherefore, although thou art, in a sense, constituted the father of the earthly family, it is not for thee to be over-anxious about the sustenance of animals.’2
Some infer, from this passage, that men were content with herbs and fruits until the deluge, and that it was even unlawful for them to eat flesh. And this seems the more probable, because God confines, in some way, the food of mankind within certain limits. Then, after the deluge, he expressly grants them the use of flesh. These reasons, however, are not sufficiently strong: for it may be adduced on the opposite side, that the first men offered sacrifices from their flocks. This, moreover, is the law of sacrificing rightly, not to offer unto God anything except what he has granted to our use. Lastly, men were clothed in skins; therefore it was lawful for them to kill animals. For these reasons, I think it will be better for us to assert nothing concerning this matter. Let it suffice for us, that herbs and the fruits of trees were given them as their common food; yet it is not to be doubted that this was abundantly sufficient for their highest gratification. For they judge prudently who maintain that the earth was so marred by the deluge, that we retain scarcely a moderate portion of the original benediction. Even immediately after the fall of man, it had already begun to bring forth degenerate and noxious fruits, but at the deluge, the change became still greater. Yet, however this may be, God certainly did not intend that man should be slenderly and sparingly sustained; but rather, by these words, he promises a liberal abundance, which should leave nothing wanting to a sweet and pleasant life. For Moses relates how beneficent the Lord had been to them, in bestowing on them all things which they could desire, that their ingratitude might have the less excuse.
28 The importance of the blessing in v. 28 should not be overlooked. Throughout the remainder of Genesis and the Pentateuch, the divine “blessing” remains a central theme. The living creatures were blessed on the fifth day (v. 22); thus the author’s view of the blessing extends beyond humankind to all God’s living creatures. In v. 28 humanity is included in God’s blessing. The blessing in these verses consists of “posterity”: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth.” Thus already here the fulfillment of the blessing is tied to humankind’s “seed” and the notion of “life”—two themes that will later dominate the narratives of Genesis.
The imperatives “Be fruitful,” “increase,” and “fill” should not be understood as commands here, since the introductory statement identifies them as a “blessing” (wayebārek). The imperative, along with the jussive, is the common mood of the blessing (cf. 27:19).
1:28–31 / God empowered humans with a special blessing in which he commanded them to be fruitful and increase in order that they might fill the earth and subdue (kibbesh) it. While the human capability to reproduce is inherent in the human physical constitution, fertility results from God’s blessing. This belief differentiated Israel’s understanding of fertility from that of its neighbors, who believed that fertility rites practiced at local shrines enabled their lands, flocks, and wives to produce abundantly.
God assigned humans rule over all animals: the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and … every living creature that moves on the ground. “Rule” (radah) means that humans are to promote the well-being of the animals and protect them from danger just as a monarch fosters the welfare of the citizens. “Subdue” (kibbesh) is even stronger than “rule”; it means “conquer, subjugate.” B. Lohfink demonstrates that this word should be translated with as little drama as possible; he suggests “take possession of” (The Theology of the Pentateuch [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994], pp. 10–11). Although these commands empower humans to be masters of the animal kingdom and by extension the earth, they do not give them the right to abuse or to kill animals wantonly. Nor do they ordain humans to rule imprudently by abusing the earth so that nature no longer supports the various species. Such an abuse of authority would be a distortion of God’s purpose, which includes working for the benefit of those under human authority. That God made animals and humans on the same day, and the fact that they belong to the same classification of living creatures, attest to their closeness. Consequently, in promoting the welfare of animals, humans advance their own well-being.
In addition, God gave humans access to every seed-bearing plant … and every tree that has fruit, and God assigned to all the animals every green plant for food. This beneficial word on behalf of the animals, given in the context of God’s blessing humans, confirms that God entrusted the care of the animals to humans.
On the sixth day God saw that all that he had made … was very good. Every part of creation supported all life forms as God had made them. Everything was beautiful in a setting of complete harmony. The entire created order honored the human exercise of moral obedience to God.
1:28–31. The image of God in humanity also includes human beings created to represent God on earth and rule as His regents under Him. Of all created living beings, only humanity has been given dominion over God’s creation, and it extends over all other living beings, whether in the sky, sea, or land animals (v. 28; Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 95).
God’s blessing of humankind, like His blessing on the animals in v. 22, is fundamentally concerned with the expansion of life. Further, God then charges both the man and the woman (God said to them) to subdue the land and rule over its animal life. The same command to subdue the land, moreover, was given by God to the Israelites with reference to the land of Canaan.
The picture of this day closes with God instructing the couple on what they are to eat (a pattern repeated after God’s “resetting” of the world in chap. 9). They are to eat of the same two groups of vegetation (plant[s] yielding [lit., “sowing”] seed [i.e., “crop” plants] and fruit trees) mentioned in vv. 11–12 that were created on the third day. Verse 30 also refers to a third group of vegetation, the green plant, mentioned here for the first time not because it was here created, but because it is only now relevant for man. The chapter concludes for the seventh time (and for the first time with the intensifying adverb “very”), And God saw … that it was very good. The addition to this utterance of the adverb very is equivalent to what one might otherwise express in English as, “It was the very best that it could possibly be.” The divine work of special creation (i.e., fashioning the raw material of creation into a home specifically good for humanity) was brought to a close—though one crucial point yet remained to be made.
 Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Vol. 1, pp. 97–100). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.