The fundamental features of the nature of human beings are laid down in the opening chapters of Genesis.
Richard M. Davidson
A virtual consensus within biblical scholarship considers the opening chapters of Genesis as foundational for the rest of the canon: “whether one is evangelical or liberal, it is clear that Genesis 1 through 3 is the interpretive foundation of all Scripture.”1 Scholars also widely recognize the significance of Genesis 1 to 11 as the interpretive prologue to the Pentateuch and the rest of Scripture. The basic contours of biblical anthropology, what it means to be human, are found here, too, at the beginning of the biblical canon, and form the basis for other statements in the Hebrew Bible on this subject.
The first two chapters of Genesis provide foundational insights into biblical anthropology. Genesis 1 presents humanity as created in the image of God, while the constitution of humans is set forth in Genesis 2.
Humanity’s Original State
The Imago Dei (Gen. 1:26–28; 5:1-3; 9:6)
Genesis 1:26 to 28, “the locus classicus for the imago doctrine,”2 is “the high point and goal . . . toward which all of God’s creativity from verse 1 on was directed”3: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26–28, NRSV).4
While the purpose here is not to discuss the history of interpretation of the image of God, some sense of the major views that have been set forth, especially by Old Testament scholars in modern times, is important for this study. Seven main views have been advanced as to what constitutes the image of God. The first two views see the imago Dei as structural (resemblance), the third and fourth as relational, the fifth and sixth as functional, and the seventh as multifaceted.
1. Spiritual/immaterial interpretation. The dominant interpretation over the centuries has been the spiritual/immaterial interpretation, which regards the divine image in humankind as comprising one or more spiritual qualities. This interpretation, first fully developed in Philo and based on Platonic dualism, insists that the human body was totally excluded from the divine likeness. Christian theologians in the early centuries likewise tended to see the divine image as humanity’s spiritual likeness to God and exemplified in such qualities as reason and freedom. Irenaeus, distinguishing between the “image” (imago) and “likeness” (similitude) of humanity, argued that, at the Fall, humanity retained the “image” of God (rationality and freedom) but lost its “likeness” to God. Augustine’s view of the divine image in humanity was that it consisted of a trinity like that in God, consisting of memory, understanding, and will (humanity’s capacity to remember, know, and love God). Aquinas located the image of God primarily in the human intellect or reason. Martin Luther broke with the distinction between image and similitude and argued that the image of God in Adam was original righteousness, which was lost when he sinned. The Reformers insisted that at the Fall, the image of God was essentially destroyed, but a relic still remained. Some scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries up to the present have continued to see the image of God as a human mental endowment. Spiritual/mental attributes seen as part of the divine image through the sweep of Christian history have included consciousness, free will, rationality, intrinsic value, objective morality, equal rights, etc., tending to reflect the concerns of each age.5
Many of the attempts to define the image through the centuries have sought to establish the fundamental distinction between humans and animals, although most of these presupposed spiritual/immaterial distinctions. (Humans, unlike animals, possess a soul, have capacity for rational thinking, language, moral self-consciousness, etc.) These have now been shown to be unfaithful to the biblical text.6 Throughout the history of interpretation, the imago Dei “almost universally excludes the body from the image (whether explicitly or by omission), thus entrenching a dualistic reading of the human condition.”7
2. The physical interpretation. At the end of the 19th century, two Old Testament scholars (Theodore Nòdeke and Hermann Gunkel) argued independently for a second view of the imago Dei, breaking from the traditional spiritual/immaterial interpretation, regarding the image of God as consisting of the human being’s “external appearance,” which resembles that of God. Nòdeke built his case upon a study of the etymology of the Hebrew word translated as “image,” and argued that this term refers primarily to a “plastic image,” and should be translated thus in Genesis 1:27. Gunkel, arguing from ancient Near East parallels with other creation stories and the usage of image in Genesis 5:1 to 3 and 9:5 and 6, concluded that the term must be taken in its plain meaning to refer to the external form of humans, which resembles the form of the Deity.8 Studies by others in the 20th century also argued for the physical interpretation. However, because of the almost universal contention among scholars that God does not have an external form, this view has been virtually ignored in subsequent scholarship.
3. Man-woman-in-relationship (sexuality) interpretation. In the first half of the 20th century, a third major view of the image of God was popularized, especially by Karl Barth. This view does not see the image of God as consisting of something within human nature, whether physical or spiritual, but rather as consisting of the experiencing of a relationship. Barth specifically focused this relational image as the fellowship between male and female: the “I–Thou” relationship of male and female as the essence of the imago Dei. For Barth, Genesis 1:27b was the exposition of verse 27a: Mankind-in-fellowship as male and female was what it meant to be in the image of God. This view was taken up by Old Testament scholars, and has been expanded recently by feminist scholars in support of the basic equality between man and woman.9
4. Wider relational views. Other scholars, such as Claus Westermann, followed in the path of Karl Barth, but widened the interpretation of the divine image from the male-female relation to include all human relationships.10 Stanley Grenz summarized this fourth major interpretation: “the image of God is primarily a relational concept. Ultimately, we do not reflect God’s image on our own but in relationship. Thus the imago Dei is not primarily what we are as individuals. Rather, it is present among humans in relationship.”11 Others add the relational concept of “sonship” to the content of the imago Dei, based on the usage of the image and likeness terminology in Genesis 5:1 to 3 with reference to Adam’s son Seth. While most systematic theologians today continue to emphasize relational interpretations of the imago Dei, biblical theologians have largely moved to functional interpretations.
5. Royal-functional interpretation. The royal-functional interpretation was suggested at the turn of the 20th century, and “the last thirty years of the twentieth century saw the royal interpretation of the imago Dei come virtually to monopolize the field.”12 This view, also called the “representative” interpretation, argued that the imago Dei consists of human dominion over the animal world as God’s representatives. The most detailed argument for this view was provided by Walter Gross in 1981.13 This position takes its cue from the second clause of Genesis 1:26 (“‘let them have dominion . . .’”) and Psalm 8:6 (“You have given them dominion . . .”), and this dominion mandate is seen to define the image. Further support for this view is found in ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian parallels, in which the monarch functioned as the “image of God” and set up images of himself throughout his empire to represent the royal claim to dominion.
6. The ecological interpretation. Building upon the functional interpretation, a number of studies in the past few decades have argued that the representative dominion allotted to humans over the earth is actually an ecological mandate to take care of God’s creation. Recent studies dealing with a theology of creation care focus upon this ecological mandate in Genesis 1:26 to 28 and see this mandate as part of the functional imago Dei.14
7. Multifaceted interpretations. Some scholars point out that these various interpretations “need not be mutually exclusive”15 and that more than one aspect may be involved. For example, Gerhard von Rad supported a combination of the “spiritual,” “material,” and “functional” interpretations.16 Theodorus Vriezen found evidence for the “spiritual,” “material,” and “relational” views.17 Gordon Wenham surveyed the five major views, and concluded: “None of the suggestions seem entirely satisfactory, though there may be elements of truth in many of them.”18 Anthony Hoekema suggested that “the image of God involves both structure and function.”19
Evaluation of Views on the Imago Dei
This is not the place for detailed exegesis, but a brief look at the biblical text is necessary to determine which one or ones of the seven main views of the imago Dei have substantial bases of support in Genesis 1:26 to 28 and its immediate and extended contexts.
A careful semantic examination of the word translated as “image,” its etymology, and its 17 occurrences in the Old Testament, reveals that (as summarized by Bruce Waltke) “aside from its two possibly figurative usages, tselem always refers to a physical image, having a formed body.”20 John Goldingay has drawn this implication: “An image is the visible representation of something, which suggests God’s image lies in humanity’s bodily nature. . . . The First Testament . . . systematically presupposes a correspondence between God and humanity in its bodily as well as its inner nature.”21 With solid biblical data, David Carr countered the common notion “that Genesis 1 must be talking about something else—anything else—than actual physical resemblance between God and humans.”22
The second Hebrew word in Genesis 1:26 depicting the resemblance between God and humanity is the abstract noun translated as “likeness.” In its 25 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible, this term refers most often to abstract qualities, although it also may occasionally be used for material objects. It “is generally used to signify the ‘appearance,’ ‘similarity,’ or analogy’ of nonphysical traits.”23
Thus, the Hebrew words translated as “image” and “likeness,” although possessing overlapping semantic ranges, in their juxtaposition in verse 26 appear to emphasize the concrete and abstract aspects of the human being respectively. Ilona Rashkow summarized the implications of this juxtaposition: “God says that his intention is to make Adam both ‘in our image’ (that is, physically similar, whatever that may mean), and ‘in our likeness’ (having the same abstract characteristics).”24
This recognition that the imago Dei is both concrete (outward/physical resemblance) and abstract (inward/spiritual/mental/moral resemblance), seems to lay the foundation for the anthropological duality (not dualism) throughout the Old Testament, which conceives of the human being outwardly in terms of physical “‘flesh’” (Gen, 6:3) and inwardly in terms of spiritual-moral faculties called (among other designations) the “heart” (6:5; 8:21).
At the same time, the two expressions image and likeness are used together in Genesis 1:26 (“‘in our image, according to our likeness’”) with no conjunction separating them, and both terms are used alone as a cipher for the two together (verse 27 uses image, and 5:1 uses likeness, thus implying that these terms should not be taken as describing two separable components of the human nature, as presumed in Greek dualism and as attempted throughout much of the history of interpretation (under the influence of such dualism). Rather, these two terms indicate that the person as a whole—both in physical/bodily and spiritual/mental components—is created in God’s image. In his commentary on Genesis, von Rad insightfully concluded with regard to Genesis 1:26: “One will do well to split the physical from the spiritual as little as possible: the whole man is created in God’s image.”25 Likewise, Vriezen contended that the whole human being is created in the image of God.26
Thus Genesis 1:26 supports an understanding of the imago Dei as resemblance—both inward (spiritual) and outward (form). Many of the inward/immaterial qualities suggested throughout Christian history as part of the image of God, are actually supported in the context of Genesis 1 to 3. For example, the divine prohibition in Genesis 2:16 and 17 implies human free will to make moral choices; Adam’s naming the animals (vss. 19, 20) implies rationality and analytic mental power; Eve’s dialogue with the serpent (3:1–5) demonstrates memory, understanding, linguistic abilities, and reasoning powers; her response to the serpent’s invitation to eat of the forbidden fruit reveals an aesthetic sensitivity (vs. 6); the loss of the covering of light (vs. 7) implies a loss of innocence (righteousness).
At the same time, many expressions of divine and human activity in the Garden imply an outward resemblance of form and feature between humans and God: both God and humans speak; God plants the Garden, and the humans are to tend and keep it (2:8, 15); God forms or shapes (animals and Adam, 2:7, 19), and Adam names the animals that are formed; God breathes and has breath, and Adam has nostrils (vs. 7); God performs an anesthetized surgery upon Adam, removes one of his ribs, and constructs Eve (vss. 21, 22a); He brings Eve to Adam, and officiates at the first garden wedding (vss. 22b, 23); He comes “walking” in the Garden in the cool of the day (3:8), conducts a personal investigative judgment of the guilty pair (vss. 8–19), and makes tunics of skin to clothe Adam and Eve (vs. 21). The language throughout these chapters implies that the image of God is not physical or spiritual, outward or inward, but both—and in harmony with a wholistic and unitary view of human beings.
The aspect of personal relationship as part of the imago Dei is highlighted by the analogy of God’s own differentiation and relationship in contemplating the creation of humanity. It is hardly coincidental that only once in the creation account of Genesis—only in Genesis 1:26—does God speak of the divinity in the plural: “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’” (italics supplied). There have been many attempts to account for this use of the plural, but the explanation that appears most consonant with both the immediate context and the analogy of Scripture identifies this usage as a plural of fullness, which “supposes that there is within the divine Being the distinction of personalities” and expresses “an intra-divine deliberation among persons’ within the divine Being.”27
Genesis 1 not only indicates God’s intention for an “I-Thou” relationship between male and female made in His image, but also begins to fill in the picture of what is involved in that wholistic relationship. Together, in intimate fellowship and relationship with each other and with God, man and woman are to procreate: “‘be fruitful and multiply’” and “‘fill the earth’” (1:28).
The added blessing of procreation is thus also part of the image-bearing, with the introductory “‘let us’” and the concluding clause with “male and female” supporting the “man-woman in relationship” interpretation. Referring to both male and female as created in the image of God presents them as equal partners.
Moreover, the reference to “‘let us’” describes an “I-Thou” relationship that transcends sexuality, and the reference to “male and female” is not limited to sexual relations, but also encompasses all aspects of human relationships between and within the two genders, in line with the “wider relational” interpretation of the imago Dei. The parallel between humans in the image/likeness of God and Seth in the likeness/image of his father, Adam (5:1–3), supports inclusion of the relational aspect of sonship as part of the imago Dei.
The larger immediate context of Genesis 1:26 indicates that man and woman together in relationship are also to be the creative shapers of the new creation (vs. 28): “‘fill the earth and subdue it’”—not by exploitation, but by “shaping the creation into a higher order of beauty and usefulness.”28 Man and woman in fellowship together are also to be co-managers of God’s creation (vs. 28): they are to rule over the animal kingdom, again not by exploitation, but by judiciously representing God’s sovereignty in the earth (implicit in their vegetarian diet, free from the slaughter of animals [Gen. 1:29]). Adam and Eve are not slaves to do the menial work of the gods, as in the ancient Near Eastern stories, but co-regents, the king and queen of their earthly dominion. Neither is the designation “image of God” reserved for the ruling monarch, as in Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources; all humans are in God’s image, His representatives on the earth. Psalm 8:5, after language reminiscent of Genesis 1:26 and 27 (“you have made him a little lower than God”), immediately connects this with humanity’s God-ordained function of ruling over the living creatures of earth (vss. 6–8). These contextual connections support functional views of the imago Dei (royal-functional and ecological).
The functional views are also supported by the discovery of a ninth century B.C. Aramaic inscription at Tell el Fakhariyeh, which describes the statue of King Haddu-yisi, using both terms (image and likeness).29 This statue illustrates the common practice in the Ancient Near East referred to by von Rad, and the correlation with the divine image: “Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man is placed upon earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth.”30 While this is the point usually drawn from those who have discussed the relationship between the imago Dei and the Tell el Fakhariyeh inscription, it is also important to recognize that the statue that was in the “image/likeness” of the king, not only represented (functionally) the king, but also resembled the king, especially in its physical form. Thus, this inscription is significant in showing that the terms for “‘image’” and “likeness” include a physical dimension, and support the representational views of the imago Dei as well as the royal-functional interpretation.
In sum, there is biblical evidence to affirm essential features of the various views of the imago Dei in scholarly literature, when they are seen together as an organic whole. The creation narratives apply the concept of imago Dei to the whole person, including structural, relational, and functional elements. In parallel with our treatment of the various views of the atonement, it is inappropriate to impoverish the reality by eliminating any view that has support in the biblical text. We must recognize the wholistic, multifaceted reality of the imago Dei and take seriously its implications for understanding biblical anthropology.
Some suggest that “the notion of humanity ‘in the image of God’ plays no primary role in Old Testament articulations of humanity; it does not constitute a major theological datum for Israel’s reflection on the topic.” Therefore, it is concluded, “the theme falls beyond the scope of Israel’s intention concerning the subject.”31 However, even though the explicit terminology of “image” and “likeness” does not appear throughout the Hebrew Bible, nonetheless the basic understanding of humanity set forth in Genesis 1:26 to 28 is presupposed in the rest of the biblical canon. With Vriezen we affirm that the imago Dei pronouncement in Genesis 1:26 and 27 is “the outstanding feature of the conception of man in the Old Testament.”32
The Constitution of the Human Being (Gen. 2:7)
The second “locus classicus of Old Testament anthropology” is found in Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (NASB).
In a previous age, it would be necessary to argue from this passage for the biblical concept of anthropological wholism, against the strong scholarly opposition upholding the traditional dualistic anthropology. However, “in the last two centuries, biblical scholars have increasingly moved toward a consensus that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament provide a holistic model of the human person.”33 It has become increasingly apparent that Genesis 2:7 (like 1:26) articulates a wholistic view of the human being; he or she does not have a soul, but is a soul, a psychophysical unity.
Genesis 2:7 gives the basic formula for the constitution of humans: dust + breath of life = soul. Let us look briefly at the basic Hebrew vocabulary for human constitution, as set forth in this verse and continued elsewhere in Scripture:
Dust, flesh/body, flesh and bones. The “dust . . . from the ground” refers to the basic material elements of which the body is composed. The name for “the human” or “Adam” is etymologically related to “the ground,” implying the source of Adam’s material substance. Later the whole person is viewed from his physical perspective as “‘flesh’” and “‘bones’” when Adam states his oath of solidarity (or marriage vows) regarding Eve: “‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’” (Gen. 2:23). In Genesis 6:3, humankind is described as “flesh,” a term that occurs 270 times in the Old Testament, and “designates the corporeal substance of a living human being or animal, with emphasis on the visual and graphic.”34 In the New Testament the Greek term for “flesh” can refer to “all parts of the body constitute[ing] a totality . . . dominated by sin to such a degree that wherever flesh is, all forms of sin are likewise] present” (e.g., Rom. 7:18), whereas “the Old Testament lays no stress on a necessary relationship betw[een] flesh as a substance, and sin.”35 In the Old Testament, the word basar emphasizes humanity in its weakness in contrast to the divine being. The terms bone and flesh together indicate a biological relationship or bond of solidarity.
Breath/breathe, nostrils, breath of the spirit of life, breath of life, spirit. The phrase “breath of life” in Genesis 2:7 is equivalent to “spirit of life,” or the longer form “breath of life,” in the Flood narrative (Gen. 6:17; 7:22), Elsewhere in Scripture, when referring to the constitution of humans and alluding to Genesis 2:7, writers often shortened this terminology to the single word spirit (Job 33:4; Ps. 104:29, 30; Eccl. 3:12). The narrator in Genesis 2:7 used the full expression, including the terms for “breathe,” “nostrils,” and “breath of life,” making clear that this breath is not understood as a conscious entity within the human being, but rather as referring to the animating “life principle” or “vital power” bestowed by God on living beings.
The term translated as “wind” or “spirit” occurs 378 times in the Old Testament, and when used of humanity is “an expression of the human being’s dynamic vitality.”36 It is often used to refer to the “complex, yet unified, physical-psychical constitution of a human being,” either emphasizing “physical vitality” (best glossed as “breath”), or psychical vitality (best glossed as “spirit”).37 Not even once is the term used to denote “an intelligent entity capable of existence apart from the physical body, so far as man is concerned.”38
Living being, “soul.” According to Genesis 2:7, the physical material (“dust of the ground”) plus the divine life principle (“breath of life”) equals the living being. In his monumental and classic work on Old Testament anthropology, Hans Walter Wolff has shown that the word in Genesis 2:7 should be translated as “person, being, individual,” and that, in its 754 occurrences in the Hebrew Bible, it “is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being, in contradistinction to the physical life, and even capable of living when cut off from that life.”39 Wolff states emphatically: “man does not have n[efesh], he is n[efesh], he lives as n[efesh].’40 Many others echo this conclusion. The term nefesh depicts the entire human being, seen from the perspective of a person’s “passionate vitality,” one’s “élan vital, vibrant with energy.”41 As Gerhard von Rad elaborated, “[Gen 2:7] distinguishes not body and ‘soul’ but more realistically body and life. The divine breath of life which unites with the material body makes man a ‘living soul’ both from the physical as well as from the psychical side.”42
Since the early 1950s and the rise of the biblical theology movement, this view has become the standard interpretation, leaving no room for a platonic/philonic dichotomy of body and soul. Rather, the picture of the constitution of humans throughout the Hebrew Bible is one of wholism.
Sexuality According to the Divine Design
Not only is human sexuality presented as a basic fact of creation, but an elucidation of the nature and theology of sexuality receives central, climactic placement in the Genesis creation account. Within the cosmic scope of the creation narratives, the disproportionate amount of space devoted to the subject of sexuality also underscores its special significance in the theology of the Hebrew Bible. We can here only summarize the 10 components of a theology of sexuality that emerge from Genesis 1 to 3, and which are assumed and developed throughout the rest of Scripture, especially in the Song of Songs, as a return to Eden: (1) created by God, and not part of the divine realm [i.e., sacralized or divinized]; (2) heterosexual marital form; (3) monogamous marital form; (4) full equality of male and female partners in the love relationship; (5) wholistic sexuality, in which the lovers need each other to be whole, and their love involves the whole being [not just the physical]; (6) married sexual relationship as exclusive; (7) a permanent relationship in marriage; (8) an intimate married relationship; (9) sexuality primarily for the sake of love (unitive purpose) as well as procreation; and (10) sexuality as a wholesome, beautiful, and joyous gift from God. Each of these components of sexuality is affirmed by biblical writers, but is also shown to be distorted among God’s professed people by a counterfeit of the divine plan for sexuality.
Humanity’s Fallen State
The Fall, Human Nature, and Death (Genesis 3)
The biblical account of the Fall describes drastic changes that take place in the nature of humanity, which center on the fallen couple’s “nakedness” and their divine judgment by God.
Nakedness of Adam and Eve. To understand Adam and Eve’s nakedness before and after the Fall, one must first recognize that Genesis 2 and 3 utilize two different Hebrew words for “naked.” In Genesis 2:25, the word for “naked” is ‘arom, which elsewhere in Scripture frequently refers to someone not fully clothed or not clothed in the normal manner. Genesis 2:25 does not explicitly indicate in what way Adam and Eve were without clothes in the normal sense, but the semantic range of the original word is consonant with the conclusion toward which the parallel creation/Paradise passage in Psalm 104 points, namely, that Adam and Eve may have been originally “clothed” with “garments” of light and glory. If such is the case in Genesis 2:25, then the contrast with Genesis 3 becomes clear.
In Genesis 3:7, 10, and 11, the Hebrew word for “naked” is ‘erom, which elsewhere in Scripture always appears in a context of total (and usually shameful) exposure, describing someone “utterly naked” or “bare.” As a result of sin, the human pair find themselves “utterly naked,” bereft of the garments of light and glory, and they seek to clothe themselves with fig leaves. The context is rather one of fear and dread before God. Adam says to God, “‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself’” (vs. 10, NASB).
Adam’s nakedness described in Genesis 3:10 is also obviously more than physical nudity, for Adam depicts himself as still naked even though already covered with fig leaves. The nakedness of Genesis 3 seems also to include a sense of “being unmasked,”43 a consciousness of guilt. Likewise, God’s clothing of Adam and Eve with skins appears to represent more than a concern for physical covering, more than a demonstration of the modesty appropriate in a sinful world, though these are no doubt included. The skins from slain animals may be seen to intimate the beginning of the sacrificial system and the awareness of a substitutionary atonement, because of which humans need no longer feel unmasked or ashamed.
This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the nature of sin, so powerfully set forth in Genesis 3 (even though the word sin is not mentioned). But as a result of the fall of Adam and Eve, there is a drastic change in their human nature. Not only does the biblical account reveal a sense of fear and guilt, but also both the man and the woman begin to blame others for their situation (vss. 12, 13). Fear, blame, and guilt, the essential aspects of psychological disturbances, were manifest—and still form the basis of most psychoses. Psychology today is studying the psyche of fallen humanity. The change in human nature after the Fall is made more explicit in connection with the divine judgment scene of Genesis 3.
Divine judgment and the penalty of death. When God came to the Garden after Adam and Eve sinned, He initiated an encounter that constitutes nothing less than what some prominent interpreters have called a “legal process,” a “trial punishment by God.”44 God began the legal proceedings with an interrogation of the “defendants,” and the defensive and accusatory responses by Adam and Eve (vss. 9–14) indicate the rupture in inter-human (husband-wife) and divine-human relationships that had occurred as a result of sin. Following the legal interrogation and establishment of guilt, God pronounced the sentence in the form of curses (over the serpent and the ground, vss. 14, 17) and judgments (for the man and the woman, vss. 16–19).
The judgment flows forth from the one prohibition given by God to humans before the Fall: “‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen. 2:16, 17, NKJV). The wording of this prohibition clearly implies that the first humans did not possess innate immortality; their immortality was conditional upon their obedience.
Both man and woman disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit. How then does the divine statement “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” find fulfillment that day? The context implies several ways. First, the legal death sentence went forth on the day they disobeyed (Gen. 3:17–19). Second, on that day, their death was ensured as they began the process of dying, by being expelled from the garden and no longer having access to the tree of life (vss. 22, 23). Third, they would have died on that very day if it were not for the first gospel promise, of a Substitute that would take the death penalty they deserved (vs. 15). Fourth, using New Testament language, it may be said that they did “die” spiritually that day, as their moral nature became depraved, bent inward in selfishness, and they became “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1, NKJV). Fifth, the divine judgment specifically refers to the future reality of death for fallen humanity: they will inevitably return to dust (Gen. 3:19).
Becoming “like God, knowing good and evil.” As discussed in detail above, Adam and Eve were created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Then the serpent enticed Eve to sin with the insinuation that she and her husband could actually “‘be like God, knowing good and evil’” (3:5). Adam and Eve imagined entering a higher state of existence, but instead opened the floodgates of woe upon themselves and the world. They did not become “like God” in the sense that the serpent had promised or as they had envisioned; yet, after the Fall, God acknowledged that “‘the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil’” (vs. 22, NKJV). While many suggestions have been made as to the import of this divine statement, the most straightforward understanding is to recognize that human beings now knew by experience what God had already known in His foreknowledge and by His experience with the fall of Lucifer in heaven (Isa. 14:12–19; Eze. 28:11–19; Rev. 12:7–9). Adam and Eve experienced evil, mixed with the good, which God never intended that they would have to experience. Derek Kidner commented: “In the context, however, the emphasis [of this expression] falls on the prohibition rather than the properties of the tree. . . . The tree plays its part in the opportunity it offers, rather than the qualities it possesses; like a door whose name announces what lies beyond it.”45 Although he did not espouse this view himself, Gordon Wenham summarized the view of a number of commentators: “‘The knowledge of good and evil’ is simply a description of the consequences of obeying or disobeying the commandments.”46 The “knowledge of good and evil,” he continued, refers to “moral autonomy, deciding what is right without reference to God’s revealed will.” He saw support for this view “by the allusions to Genesis 2, 3 in Psalm 19:8–10 [HB 7–9] where the law is compared to the tree of knowledge: The law makes wise the simple and enlightens the eyes (cf. Gen. 3:6).”47 Hamilton clarified how this “moral autonomy” makes humans “like God”: “Man has indeed become a god whenever he makes his own self the center, the springboard, and the only frame of reference for moral guidelines. When man attempts to act autonomously he is indeed attempting to be godlike.”48
The nature of death. From this discussion of the constitution of the human being, building upon Genesis 2:7 and the testimony of later biblical writers, it is clear that the Hebrew understanding was one of anthropological wholism; the human does not have a soul, but is a soul—a psychosomatic whole. This is recognized almost universally by biblical scholars today. At the same time, the debate still rages as to whether this wholism is only existential-functional, or also ontological. Are human beings functionally wholistic in their existence, but ultimately dualistic in their being? John Cooper claims that this “can only be determined by discovering what the Hebrews thought about death and survival.”49 Many acknowledge that Hebrew anthropology was wholistic, yet contend that in the Hebrew worldview, something conscious survives death, and thus ultimately (ontologically) human nature is dualistic. Is such a picture of the afterlife accurate?
This question is already answered decisively in the third chapter of Genesis. The serpent contradicted God’s warning of death for disobedience, with the bold assertion to Eve: “‘You will not surely die’” (3:4, NKJV). The judgment upon the man describes the nature of the death they would eventually suffer: “‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return’” (vs. 19, NKJV). This passage is clearly referring back to Genesis 2:7, indicating that human beings would not experience any intermediate state after death, but rather cease to exist. It is not just the body that returns to the ground/dust, but the whole being ceases to exist as a living entity, and returns to dust. God said to Adam: “‘till you return to the ground. . . . Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.’” No conscious entity survives in a nonmaterial form. No immortal soul continues on. Later inspired commentary on this passage, by the psalmist and Qoheleth (“The Preacher”), give even more details that show death to be the reversal of the process that brought about the living being: God removes the “spirit of life” that animated the person, and the person (“soul”) dies; nothing is left but the dust (Ps. 103:14–16; Eccl. 3:19, 20). The creation of the wholistic human being in Genesis 2:7 and the announcement of its reversal in Genesis 3:19 and later biblical passages make clear that this wholism is not only existential-functional, as some have claimed, but ontological wholism, ontological monism (not ontological dualism).
This view of the nature of death is consistent with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, despite numerous claims to the contrary. It may useful here to summarize some major studies that support ontological monism versus ontological dualism. Regarding the term Sheol, which many consider to describe the underworld, the abode of the conscious dead, a published dissertation by Eriks Galenieks shows the opposite to be true. After analyzing all 65 occurrences of the term in the Hebrew Bible, Galenieks concluded: “the Hebrew Scripture provides no support for the idea that the term Sheol is somehow associated with one’s after-death existence in the so-called underworld.”50 Rather, Sheol is consistently “a poetic designation of the grave.”51 Galenieks came to the same conclusion regarding related terms translated “pit.”52
Careful study has likewise shown that the term Rephaim does not refer to conscious “disembodied spirits” or “shades,” as widely assumed by biblical scholars, but is a poetic term (like the other terms mentioned above) used in highly figurative contexts for the dead who “dwell” in the dust (i.e., have returned to dust). Regarding the story of Saul and the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28), which many have regarded as describing a “postmortem appearance of Samuel” and providing “the clearest example we have of what the dead were thought to be like” in early Israel,53 recent studies provide solid exegetical evidence in support of the conclusion that “the real Samuel was not at En-Dor on the basis of the text itself” and that “1 Samuel 28 is compatible with a view of conditional immortality and a biblical anthropology of wholism.”54
Sin as a Pervasive Reality in Humanity Outside the Garden
The image of God after the Fall (Gen. 5:1–3; 9:5, 6). Throughout the history of the Christian Church, it has often been maintained that humankind lost the image of God after the Fall. However, Genesis 5:1 to 3 makes clear that the image/likeness was not totally lost. God created Adam in His image, after His likeness (1:26), and Adam “begot a son in his own likeness, after his image” (5:3, NKJV). The continuity of language implies that the image of God was not totally obliterated in the posterity of Adam.
At the same time, Genesis 5:1 states only that humans were created “in the likeness of God,” with no mention made of “‘image,’” as in Genesis 1:26. Although it is true that just one of these terms can be used as a cipher for the two together, emphasis upon likeness in Genesis 5:1 may be significant, focusing especially upon the inward/spiritual/moral resemblance between God and humankind (without eliminating the outward resemblance). Furthermore, Genesis 5:3 reverses the order of terms used in Genesis 1:27 in describing the begetting of Seth, placing “likeness” first, and the verse does not say that Seth was in God’s likeness/image but in the likeness/image of Adam. By these important shifts in terminology, the narrator seems to be highlighting in particular that Seth, and succeeding generations, inherited the same sinful nature as Adam after the Fall, not the likeness of God, with a sinless nature. By using both terms likeness and image for Seth’s relationship to Adam, the narrator also seems to imply that the entire imago Dei, seen wholistically, was adversely affected by the Fall.
That the image of God was not totally obliterated at the Fall is also implied by the third and final “‘image of God’” reference in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 9:6: “‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man’” (NKJV). According to this passage, “to kill another human being is to destroy one who is a bearer of the divine image. . . . There is no evidence here that sin has effaced the divine image. It is still resident in post-Flood, post-paradise man.”55
Human nature at the time of the Flood and thereafter—flesh. Regarding antediluvian humanity, “the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years’” (Gen. 6:3, NKJV).
Each clause of Genesis 6:3 is fraught with questions of translation and interpretation. The first clause should be translated as above, in line with many modern versions (NKJV, NASB, NIV, WEB). The Spirit is “striving for” the antediluvians, with divine grace pleading and interceding on humanity’s behalf. The thrust of the passage is not divine condemnation, but divine grace seeking to win human beings over to God, warning them of the consequences of their sins, and entreating them to exercise repentance and experience reformation.
This interpretation makes sense of the next clause of Genesis 6:3, which has been almost universally mistranslated in modern versions. Most versions read similarly in verse 3b: “‘for he is indeed flesh’” (NKJV). But the word translated “for” is not simply the causative because, as found several times later in this chapter (vss. 7, 12, 13). Why would Moses use this cumbersome method of stating cause, when throughout the chapter he has elsewhere consistently used the causal preposition because? Furthermore, the particle which is never elsewhere used in the Pentateuch! Thus, it would be most unusual for him to employ the shortened form in this one place alone. In addition, as Hamilton pointed out, if the translation “because” is the correct one, then “the verse says that the stimulus for God’s retaliation is man’s nature—he is flesh—rather than man’s activity. It is what man is, rather than what man has done, that incites God not to permit his Spirit to remain in mankind forever.”56 This interpretation goes against the thrust of the chapter, which sets forth specific actions of humanity as the cause for bringing the Flood. Furthermore, as shown above, the word translated as flesh in the Hebrew Bible does not imply sinfulness, as it may sometimes in the New Testament, but rather refers to “what is frail, transient.”57
The marginal reference of the NASB has recognized an alternative interpretation to this expression, one noted by many other commentators, and one that commentators recognize “easily circumvents the awkwardness of this verse.”58 The clause could read: “in their going astray he/it [i.e., humanity] is flesh.” While commentators like Hamilton find this solution attractive, the objection is raised that the verb shagag describes “sins committed ‘inadvertently,’ [i.e.,] sins that result from negligence or from ignorance,” and this does not fit the situation of the antediluvians “who act neither from negligence nor out of ignorance.”59
However, the meaning of the verb shagag is basically “to go astray,” and is not limited to inadvertent sins; it can describe the entire range of conscious and unconscious sins. R. Laird Harris concluded that the sense of the verb shagag is “‘goes astray in sin’ or ‘does wrong’ or the like.”60 It may be added, however, that, at least for the Levitical system, the shagag sin is one that is not defiantly high-handed, as is made clear from Numbers 15:22 to 31, which contrasts shagag sins with “high-handed” sins. “Sinning ‘in error is not merely sinning through ignorance. . . , hurry, want of consideration, or carelessness . . . , but also sinning unintentionally. . . ; hence all such sins as spring from the weakness of flesh and blood, as distinguished from sins committed with a high (elevated) hand, or in haughty, defiant rebellion against God and His commandments.”61
If this distinction is maintained in the usage in Genesis 6:2, the verb shagag is well suited to describe the actions of the antediluvian world, and the reference to “their going astray” precisely fits the theological context of the entire verse. In the first part of the verse, God states that His Spirit would not indefinitely continue to “strive for” or “plead with” humanity. In the next part of the verse, the clarification is made (not reason given) that in their going astray, humanity is demonstrating its frailty and transience.
By using the term shagag, which indicates humanity’s going astray but not a “high-handed” sin for which there is no forgiveness (in harmony with the usage in Numbers 15), God is implying that antediluvian humanity had not yet reached the point of no return. There is still probation lingering, before the antediluvians have (in New Testament terms) committed the sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31)—become so hardened in sin that there is no longer any human response possible to the pleadings of divine mercy.
In this light, the last part of the verse also makes excellent sense. The clause “‘yet his days shall be 120 years’” does not refer to God’s lessening the lifespan down to 120 years. Rather, of the first part of the sentence, where the Spirit “strives/pleads” with humanity, the clause refers to a probationary period of 120 years before God brings executive judgment upon the antediluvians if they do not repent and reform their ways. God recognizes the “going astray” of humanity in their frailty and transience, but also reckons with the fact that persistence in such “going astray” will ultimately lead from the shagag (forgivable) kind of sin to “high-handed” or rebellious and defiant sin—sin against the Holy Spirit in which the sinner has become totally “corrupt” and thus unresponsive to the Spirit’s promptings. Such a condition of “corruption” is exactly what Genesis 6:5 to 12 portrays, prompting God to engage in an investigative judgment, followed by the executive judgment of the Flood. The narrative thus implies that God’s destructive work in the Flood is simply allowing corrupt human beings to reap the consequences of their choices.
The human heart’s “bent” to evil (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). The Flood narrative not only introduces the description of humankind as “‘flesh’” (6:3), but also provides a depiction of the human “heart” (6:5; 8:21). The Hebrew term translated as “heart,” occurs 853 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, making it the most frequently occurring anthropological term. Waltke points out that this term “is the most important anthropological term in the Old Testament, but the English language has no equivalent to it.”62 He further shows how the Old Testament attributed the whole gamut of physical, mental, and spiritual functions to the heart. Wolff, likewise, illustrates the breadth of activities connected to the heart. The word refers to the physical organ and its physiological functions, and especially to the heart as the seat of the feelings and emotions, desires and longings, and moral decisions of the will and reason. In short, the heart is “the center of the consciously living man. The essential characteristic that, broadly speaking, dominates the concept is that the heart is called to reason, and especially to hear the word of God.”63
The condition of the human heart at the time of the Flood was totally depraved. Genesis 6:5 reads: “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (NKJV). This description is not surprising, given the depiction elsewhere in the Flood narrative of the wickedness, corruption, and violence that prevailed in the antediluvian world. What is surprising is that after the Flood, God described the remnant who came out of the ark in similar terms: “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done’” (8:21, ESV). At first glance, both verses seem very similar. However, in the first instance, human evil in the heart brought the Flood, while in the second instance (after the Flood) such evil in the heart does not bring punishment. How can this be?
The seeming contradiction in God’s actions is softened somewhat if one takes the conjunction as “although” instead of causal (“‘for, because’”), based upon the context (NKJV, NIV, NLT). God will not curse the ground again although humans are still sinful. Yet, even with this translation (which is far from certain), the seeming discrepancy in God’s actions remains; God punishes actions in the Flood that He does not punish after the Flood. Did God change His standard of justice? Or has something been missed in the comparison between Genesis 6:5 and 8:21?
A closer look at these two verses provides a powerful insight into human nature after the Fall, and suggests the difference between the antediluvian condition and postdiluvian survivors. The key to understanding these passages is the realization that the word usually translated “intent” actually means “inclination,” “bent,” or “propensity.” At the time of the Flood, the wicked were characterized by an “inclination” of the “thoughts/intents/inventions” of their heart that was only evil continually. But after the Flood, the faithful remnant who came out of the ark are described with a subtle but significant difference. The “inclination/bent” is not of the thoughts/intents of the heart, but of the heart itself. As noted above, the heart is the seat of the emotions, the essence of the moral nature of the human being. The text of Genesis 8:21 describes the human heart as bent toward evil in its very nature, not the thoughts/intents constantly inclined toward evil, as at the time of the Flood. Humans after the Fall have a sinful nature, naturally inclined toward evil “from his youth,” which can refer to one’s time of infancy (Job 31:18). This expresses a state or condition; thus, “in its earliest pages the Bible gives indubitable proof of the natural depravity of the human heart.”64 This phrase clearly implies that “evil is innate in man.”65 But this sinful nature is not accounted against him. Why not? The context supplies the answer: It is in the immediate context of the offering of the burnt offering by Noah and his family, and that God “smelled the soothing aroma.” On the basis of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ typified by the animal sacrifices, God does not punish human beings for their sinful, depraved nature.
Humanity’s Future State
The Messianic Hope and the End of Evil (Gen. 3:15)
The opening chapters of Genesis do not describe in detail the future state of humanity, but the “first gospel promise” of Genesis 3:15 gives us the basic contours to be filled in by later biblical writers. A monumental study of Genesis 3:15 by Ofalarin Ojewole66 has provided solid exegetical evidence (against many recent denials) for the traditional messianic interpretation of this passage as dealing with the warfare between Satan (“the serpent”) and the woman’s seed that comes to its climax in the death of Christ and ultimately in the eschatological destruction of Satan and evil by Christ (the crushing of the serpent’s head, as recognized by Paul in Romans 16:20 and Revelation 12:9 and 10). This foundational messianic passage of Scripture intimates what will be made more explicit in later biblical passages, that the representative messianic Seed will bring redemption to the spiritual seed of the woman, and will bring destruction to the serpent and his spiritual seed. From this it may be inferred that redemption/immortality is granted only to those who accept the provision of the substitutionary atonement of the Messiah, and that the spiritual followers of the serpent will ultimately be destroyed—along with the serpent and all evil.
Eternal Annihilation as Retributive Justice for Those Persisting in Evil
LeRoy Edwin Froom listed some 50 different Hebrew verbs that describe the final end of the wicked, and all of these speak of “the decomposition, of the breaking up of the organism and final cessation of the existence of being—never that of immortal life in endless suffering.”67
Edward Fudge examined in more detail many of these passages, as well as various Old Testament examples of destruction providing paradigms that are taken up by New Testament writers in describing the eschatological destruction of the wicked (note especially the Flood narrative of Genesis 6 through 9).68 He examined eight passages that deal directly with the final eschatological judgment (Ps. 1:3–6; 2:9–12; Isa. 11:4; 33:10–24; 51:3–11; 66:24; Dan. 12:2, 3; Malachi 4) and summarized their content with regard to the fate of the wicked as follows: “In these texts, we encountered fire and storm, tempest and darkness. The slain of God will be many—corpses will lie in the street. Amid this scene of utter contempt, worms and fire will take their final toll. Nothing will remain of the wicked but smoke and ashes—the righteous will tread over them with their feet.”69 This is the consistent picture of the Hebrew Bible regarding the final fate of the wicked.
The Resurrection and Afterlife of the Righteous
The same eschatological passages cited above also deal with the final salvation of the righteous, which Fudge summarized thus: “God’s kingdom will endure forever. The righteous and their children will inherit Mount Zion. Joy and singing will fill the air. The Redeemer has rescued. The Warrior has conquered. The Judge has vindicated his people. Finally, all creation will praise the Lord!”70
It is not the purpose here to elaborate on the consummation of redemption depicted in the Hebrew Bible, and elaborated upon in the New Testament, with God’s people being restored again to the image of God. But this study affirms that such hope entails a firm belief in the bodily resurrection of the righteous dead. While the topic can only briefly be dealt with here, it should first be pointed out that the resurrection hope is not a late development in Old Testament thinking, as commonly argued by Old Testament scholars, but is found in the earliest book of the Old Testament canon. Early Jewish and Christian tradition maintained that Moses wrote the Book of Job, and although modern scholarship has generally shied away from accepting this tradition, there is substantive evidence for Mosaic authorship of Job, and for the conclusion that the book was written about the same time as the Book of Genesis. If this evidence is taken seriously, as well as the early Jewish and Christian authorship tradition, then the Book of Job stands chronologically with Genesis at the introduction of Scripture. In the center of the book, at the very apex of its chiastic structure, is one of the most forceful affirmations of the resurrection hope, Job 19:21 to 29. A thorough study of this passage has provided literary evidence for the chiastic structure of the book, and sets forth solid exegetical evidence for interpreting the central passage of the book as affirming the eschatological hope of Job in a bodily resurrection at the time of the final judgment.
The hope of bodily resurrection is found in numerous passages throughout the Hebrew Bible, covering every period of Israel’s history. Several dissertations and articles produced by Seventh-day Adventist scholars have given careful exegetical grounding for this interpretation. The Old Testament also refers to the translation of righteous individuals to heaven without seeing death: Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1–18). The New Testament takes up this hope of resurrection for the righteous dead and translation of the righteous living, and fills out the contours into a rich doctrine that saturates almost the entire New Testament corpus.
The fundamental features of the nature of human beings are laid down in the opening chapters of Genesis, and these basic contours of anthropology remain the norm throughout the Hebrew Bible. Genesis 1 and 2 portray humanity’s original state: (1) humans are created in the imago Dei, which includes structural, functional, and relational dimensions; (2) the constitution of the human being (the “soul”), which is comprised of material elements animated by the divine breath, is wholistic/monistic; and (3) sexuality and the unity of male and female according to the divine design is multifaceted.
Genesis 3 depicts humanity’s fallen state: (1) Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence caused their nature to become depraved; (2) the imago Dei was marred and almost obliterated; (3) humanity came under the dominion of death, which is described as a reversal of creation (Gen. 3:19 contrasted with 2:7); (4) human nature is characterized by ontological and not just functional monism. This ontological monism is not contradicted by later passages that some have wrongly interpreted as describing human consciousness surviving after death.
The Genesis flood narrative (Genesis 6 through 9) clarifies additional points about humanity’s fallen state: (1) humans are not condemned because they are “flesh” (i.e., weak); (2) sin is a pervasive reality in humanity; (3) God brought about the Flood because the antediluvians had totally given themselves over to evil thoughts and actions; (4) fallen human beings after the Flood continue to possess a sinful nature, physically and morally (with a “bent” toward evil), but because of the atonement that would come through the Messiah’s death, they are not condemned.
Finally, the protoevangelium—the first mention of salvation in the Scriptures—of Genesis 3:15 intimates the future state of humanity: the redemption/immortality of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked. Other passages make explicit eternal annihilation as retributive justice for those persisting in evil, and the bodily resurrection/translation and afterlife of the righteous. In short, the opening pages of Scripture lay a solid foundation for the full-orbed theology of human nature and destiny set forth in the Hebrew Bible, upon which the New Testament writers built as they further articulated this foundational biblical doctrine.
Richard M. Davidson, PhD, is the J. N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES