One of the greatest mysteries of our humanity is that we’re able to question ourselves: Who are we? Where do we come from? How can we flourish? Knowingly or not, we live out answers to these questions every day, for better or worse.
This week, I look at Genesis 3-4 and its responses to these vital questions. Rather than outdated mythology, the Bible’s earliest chapters offer us an inspiring and honest vision of human identity. I believe it’s key to our flourishing today.
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What does it mean to be human? Who are we in our depths?
Genesis 1-2: God’s Image and Complex Flourishing
Genesis 1 answers that we’re made in God’s image (1:26-27). Religious objects in temples don’t embody God’s holy presence in the world. People do. And not just elite people like rules and priests with power over others. Each and every person, male and female, is made as a personal representative of God with all the dignity and responsibility of this sacred status.
So the first chapter of the Bible asks us to reimagine human life and how we see people. Don’t go looking for God in religious places or only among big people. Open your eyes and see the Creator of the universe in each person around you. Live in the world with that vision of yourself and others.
Genesis 2 zooms in and answers that we’re complex creatures whose flourishing requires several vital relationships.
First, we’re physical creatures whose bodies were made from the soil (2:7a). Unlike so many spiritualities, Genesis doesn’t ignore or devalue our bodies. It teaches that our bodies are crafted by God and fundamental to our identity. Matter matters.
Second, we’re spiritual creatures who come alive with God’s breath (2:7b). Our relationship to God is meant to be as basic and vital to us as inhaling and exhaling oxygen. We’re not self-enlivening, self-sustaining gods. Instead, we flourish when we welcome God into the core of our being.
Third, we’re moral creatures with freedom to make decisions that matter (2:8-9, 16-17). We’re neither puppets nor masters of our destiny. We’re truly free when we trust God’s generous wisdom and voluntarily follow God’s word, rather than defining “good and evil” for ourselves.
Fourth, we’re vocational creatures who were made for meaningful work (2:15, 19-20). Rather than reclining in paradise, Genesis 2 pictures humans as designed to be actively involved in cultivating God’s creation. We flourish when we live with purpose and contribute to the wellbeing of the world.
Finally, we’re relational creatures who were made for one another (2:21-25). Genesis 2 pictures Eve being made from Adam’s “side” and the two as partners bringing mutual fulfillment to one another. When we flourish, we’re bone of each other’s bone and flesh of each other’s flesh in shameless union.
Genesis 3-4: Divided and Disordered
But the story doesn’t end there, and Genesis 3-4 adds another crucial insight into who we are as humans: we’re divided and disordered creatures.
Genesis 3 tells the story of our primal temptation and devastation. The snake, the symbol of cunning, questions if God’s world-creating word is truly reliable (3:1-5). We observe the forbidden fruit and are seduced by its appearance: it strikes our eyes as beautiful, intelligence-enhancing, and life-extending (3:6). And thus we revolt against God’s generous provision and attempt to become the masters of our destiny. We consume what we think will make us “like God” (3:5) and ironically forget that God had already made us “like God” from the start (1:26).
This is the first breakdown: our conscience has become corrupted and we misjudge what is truly valuable. Instead of trusting and loving what God has given, we try to possess something superior for ourselves. And this misguided autonomy sets off a domino effect of division and disorder within and between us.
Genesis 2 pictures humans as breathing God’s breath. In Genesis 3, we hide from God and become spiritually asphyxiated or breathless (3:8). Instead of drawing close to God and inhaling God’s goodness, we see God as threatening and to be kept at a distance. Genesis 4 will pick up on this alienation with the stunning words, “So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence” (4:16). We have become spiritually alienated, gasping and grasping for sources of life that only leave us insecure and unhappy.
Genesis 2 pictures humans as the other sides of one another. In Genesis 3, we blame the other as the cause of our downfall (3:12). Now instead of seeing the other as the primal source of our fulfillment and fellowship, we look on the other with anger and domination (3:16). In Genesis 4, Cain murders his brother and callously asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9). We have become estranged in our relationships and blind to the image of God in others.
Genesis 2 pictures humans as made for meaningful work. In Genesis 3, God laments that humanity’s labor will now be filled with frustration and pain (3:16-19). What was intended to energize us with purpose will now be laced with agony. Strikingly, we learn that Cain’s children become the first metalworkers and musicians, the makers of civilization (4:17, 21-22). There is subtle but fierce warning here: violence is woven into the roots of disordered human progress. By the end of Genesis, Egypt – the height of human civilization – is mass-producing slavery (47:21). Our powers of action have become selfish and destructive.
Finally, Genesis 2 pictures humans as crafted from the soil. In Genesis 3, the ground is cursed, we’re exiled from the garden, and we’re told that our destiny is the dust (3:19, 23-24). The artwork of God is now burdened with mortality and bondage to decay. Our bodies – God’s original gift – are ticking time bombs of fragility and death.
Primal Wisdom for the Human Condition
This is the primal wisdom of Genesis 1-4’s vision of humanity.
First, each and every person is created in the sacred image of God. And, second, we were designed to flourish in the interwoven complexity of our humanity. But, third, we’re also deeply divided and disordered creatures – in our moral judgment, in our relationship with God, in our relationship with others, in our work, and in our bodies and environment. Yes, we’re originally good and to be cherished as precious – divinely precious! It’s an attack on God to say otherwise (Genesis 9:6). But we’re corrupted beings, and it is folly to believe and behave otherwise.
There are many practical implications to Genesis 3-4’s analysis of who we are. But I see two as particularly important.
First, we can’t be fully trusted. It’s wise to live with a healthy suspicion of our selves and others, an awareness of our fallibility and fallenness. What we see as good – morally, spiritually, vocationally, physically, relationally – is often entangled with our hunger for power and our drive to overcome the divisions within ourselves. Genesis 3-4 subtly calls for a culture of limited power, critique, and accountability.
Second, we depend on mercy. We are fragile and fallen creatures. Perfection and self-sufficiency are not options on our table; in fact, they can be dangerous temptations. We are needy creatures who desperately depend on the “keeping” – the kindness and care – of our brothers and sisters. Ultimately, our hope is beyond ourselves in the redemptive power of God to re-create us and our world.
Genesis 1-4 calls us to cherish and critique our humanity. It calls us to flourish and face our fallenness. Human life is precious but problematic. To live well in our world, we need to hold together these portraits of who we are: the image of God, designed to flourish, but divided and disordered in the depths of our being. Accountability and keeping one another – justice and love – are our calling as we ache and hope in God’s beloved but broken world.