Human Identity: The Complex Creature


What does it mean to be human? Who are we when we’re truly alive?

The foundational chapter of the Bible dares to make a heretical statement: humans are the image of God. When we see one another correctly, we recognize that people are the embodiments of God’s presence in the world with a calling to creatively serve the world’s flourishing. Against a worldview that saw idols, kings, and priests as God’s image, Genesis 1 insists that each and every person – including women – carries this divine dignity and responsibility. No one is lesser or lower.

Imagine if we learned to see others through this ancient lens. Indifference, discrimination, and hatred would be replaced with attention, reverence, and love.

If Genesis 1 is the Bible’s big-picture vision of humanity as God’s image, Genesis 2 is the Bible’s in-depth vision of the core elements of our humanity. Genesis 2 is subtly saying, “Humans, this is who you are in the depths of your being. This is what you need to flourish. Don’t forget.”

(I presented a 6000-word version of this interpretation to Harvard University in 2006 and was offered a Presidential Fellowship. But I’ll leave aside the scholarly details for this short essay.)

  1. Dust / Body (2:7a, 8-9)

We are dust.

In Genesis 2, God takes the dust of the earth and fashions our bodies like an artwork. The human (adam) comes from the soil (adamah). Humans are humus.

Genesis 2’s vivid point is that humans are physical creatures that belong to the earth. Against other ancient spiritualities, our bodies and their earthly imbeddedness are not debasing prisons to be escaped. Our bodies and their dependence on the earth are God’s gift.

The body is the bedrock of our humanity. Centuries later, Paul would describe the body as a holy temple (1 Corinthians 6:19). The body should be embraced and cherished.

  1. Breath / Spirit (2:8b)

    We are breath.

God next breathes the breath of life into our soil-sourced bodies, and we come alive. The simple but astonishing point is that humans are spiritual creatures made for a self-transcendent relationship with our Creator. We cannot be fully human by ourselves. We are made for more than ourselves, just like our bodies can only live when they inhale oxygen from outside our bodies.

I love that Genesis 2 doesn’t picture our spirituality as religious ritual or mystical meditation. Spirituality is meant to be like breathing: an unceasing rhythm of welcoming what is beyond ourselves into the core of our being. Rather than ignoring or overcoming the body, this spirituality engages and enlivens our bodies.

Humans are self-transcendent creatures, who are made to welcome God’s Spirit into all that we are.

  1. The Tree / Conscience (2:16-17)

We are conscience.

God next gives humanity all of the trees in the Garden as his gift. God is radically generous. But God warns us not to eat the fruit of just one tree – “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

What does this mean?

Humans are moral creatures made with freedom and responsibility to make choices that matter. Here we face ultimate questions. What is the good life? What should we say Yes to or No to? What limits need to be respected in order to care for our humanity?

According to Genesis 2, human flourishing requires moral freedom and responsibility, and every person is faced with a choice. Will we govern our lives by our own desires and wisdom, defining good and evil for ourselves? Or will we trust God’s word, and allow God to define good and evil for us?

Ethics – what we love and thus how we live – is fundamental to humanity. Rather than being slaves to our desires, Genesis 2 calls humans to trust and follow God’s generous wisdom, acknowledging the limits of our own moral knowledge.

  1. Garden and Animals / Vocation (2:15, 19-20)

We are workers.

God hasn’t created humans simply to eat, drink, and be entertained. In the next moment of Genesis 2, God gives humanity the task of cultivating the garden and naming the animals. Rather than slave labor, Genesis pictures this work as joining and expanding God’s own creative agency. While other religious traditions describe God as teaching Adam the names of the animals, I love that God in Genesis 2 gives humanity the creative freedom to name the animals themselves. There is a sense of real freedom and creativity in our vocation to serve the world.

In the beginning, work is not a curse or merely a means to an end. It is part of our essential vocation to exercise our agency for the flourishing the world God made and loves. The labor of our bodies and minds – in all the sweat and brilliance of cultivating the soil and practicing zoology – is seen as sacred service.

  1. Rib / Relationship (2:18-25)

But Genesis says something is still missing for human flourishing. We can have our bodies, a relationship with God, moral conscience, and meaningful work, but this is not enough. God himself says, “It is not good for the human to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So God puts the first human to sleep, removes one of his ribs, and creates a companion for him. In response, Adam exclaims with joy, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23).

Humans are fundamentally relational creatures made for life with others. Quite astonishingly, Genesis 2 indicates that our relationship with God isn’t enough without fellowship with others. And Genesis uses a powerful metaphor to capture this. The other person is our “rib” or “side.” In our depths, we are the other sides of one another, made to compliment and complete one another – bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh.

No doubt, Genesis is alluding to the joining of our bodies in sex. But it is also making a larger and more profound point about our deep, God-designed need for relationship, significance, and love, which comes from other humans. This is why loneliness and isolation are so devastating to us.

Primal Humanity

Genesis 2 gives us a multidimensional vision of human identity and flourishing. We’re not only spiritual or only physical creatures. Genesis rejects these reductive over-simplifications that stunt our humanity. Instead, humans are complex creatures. We’re dust, breath, conscience, work, and rib. When we’re fully alive, we are the integration of profoundly physical, spiritual, moral, vocational, and relational elements.

As in Genesis 1, I am struck that Genesis 2 is silent about any ethnic or religious markers of identity as being fundamental to our humanity in God’s original design. Instead, humans are called to embrace our soil-sourced bodies and belonging to the earth. We’re called to inhale God’s life-giving breath that comes to us from beyond ourselves. We’re called to make free decisions that trust God’s generous word. We’re called to do work that contributes to the flourishing of creation. And we’re called to come together in relationships that bring human personhood into fellowship and fullness. This is what it means to be human and flourish as creatures according to God’s original design.

Ultimately, humanity comes from one family with this shared identity and calling. When we see each and every human as created in God’s image and made for the integration of these five dimensions, the reductions that devalue and divide us can be challenged and a more unified vision of human flourishing comes back into focus.

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