Teaching series from Genesis

What Does it Mean to Be Human?

Genesis 2:5-25

Teaching t14072


Genesis means “beginning.”  The book of Genesis is a book of beginnings (our world; humans; sin; salvation; etc.), and is foundational to the biblical world-view.  In our study of Gen. 1 last week, we saw how it emphasized that humans are somehow higher than the rest of the created order.  Whereas other creatures multiplied “after their kind,” God created humans “in God’s image” (re-read 1:26-28).  What does this phrase mean?  Chapter 2 focuses on the first humans and unpacks this distinction.

What does it meant to be human?  How are humans similar to/different from the rest of nature?  How are humans similar to/different from God?  This is one of the most pressing questions of our day, as we will soon see.  In a post-Christian culture, powerful voices give very different answers to this question, and their voices are creating a philosophical and ethical and cultural tsunami.  The average American has no clearly thought-out answer to this profoundly important question, and so is subject to the conforming force of these other voices.  Genesis 2 gives several answers to this question.  Let’s look at some of them . . .

Humans are both material & non-material

Read 2:5,6.  I take this to be simply a description of the landscape (of what later became the Garden) prior to humans’ arrival.[1]  The author seems to be saying that the area that became the Garden of Eden was not a garden until after God created the first humans to cultivate it.

Read 2:7.  Here we read a concise but tremendously significant statement about humans – we have a material base, but we also have a non-material aspect – a soul or spirit.

Humans are made materially of 11 elements.  We share this physicality with the rest of the plants and animals.  Unlike later Greek thought and Gnosticism, our bodies are not “prison-houses” of our souls, an obstruction to our spiritual development.  Humans are embodied spirits, and so even in the next life we will have real physical bodies that are suited to life in God’s eternal kingdom.  Unlike our current desire to overcome our bodies’ limitations to be more “connected,” optimal communication requires bodily presence.[2]

But humans are more than material – God “breathed the breath of life” into Adam so that he became a living nephesh.  Although nephesh can mean simply a living creature, the verse indicates a special act by God to differentiate humans from other merely material creatures.  God is spirit/not material, and He created humans in His image with a non-material aspect as well as a body – and therefore capable of consciousness and of relating to God as well as to other persons.  Thus, nephesh should probably be translated “soul.”[3]  Thus, 2:7b rejects materialistic reductionism – the belief that humans are nothing but physics and chemistry, that our consciousness is simply sophisticated wet-ware.[4]

Humans have an aesthetic sense

Read 2:9-14.  The author goes out of his way to describe Eden as a historic place with a real geographical location.  It lay “toward the east” of the original audience’s homeland.  Its river divided into four rivers, two of which still exist.  The rivers flowed around regions with which the original audience was familiar.  The author notes certain mineralogical features that still characterized some of these regions (“the gold of that land is good”).

But notice how the Garden is described (2:9a) – as containing trees that not only bore fruit that was good to eat, but also that those trees were “pleasing to the sight.”  The trees were beautiful, and God obviously gave Adam the capacity to appreciate their beauty.  That is, God designed humans to have an aesthetic sense.  If humans are only material, trees’ utility (food) is all that matters.  God expressed His aesthetic sense when He said about His creative work “It was good/very good,” and He instilled this into humans.

This is one of the profound differences between humans and other (even higher-order) animals.  Dogs don’t respond to a Rembrandt painting or a Beethoven symphony the way we do – they evidently just see smears of color and hear sounds.

So our aesthetic sense is not just some evolutionary accident that is without ultimate significance.  This is something to glory in!  God’s creation has incredible beauty, and He has given us the faculty to appreciate this beauty, and to infer from it that God must be supremely beautiful (Ps. 145:1; 147:7,8,16).   

But we are not only aesthetic beings.  Hedonism (sexual, artistic, culinary, etc.) is another form of dehumanizing reductionism.  We are more than this . . .

Humans are designed to work

Read 2:15.  Adam wasn’t put in the garden to just lay around admiring the trees while fruit dropped into his mouth!  Neither did he have to get a job as a punishment for disobeying God.  He was created to work (in the image of the God who worked and is still working) – to be productive, to accomplish something so that the garden was better because of his presence in it.  1:26 (read) is not a license from God to exploit and rape nature, as many have charged.  Humans are stewards of God’s creation, to care for the environment and bring it to its fullest potential as well as to provide for our needs (refer to Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man).

So this is part of what it means to be human – to work, to be productive, to accomplish, and to enjoy what we have accomplished (Eccles. 5:18,19).  Yes, there is now a negative aspect to our work since the Fall – we’ll discuss that in a couple of weeks.  But this image of God remains with us.  Yes, we need to rest and recreate – but if your picture of the ideal life omits cultivating an enjoyment of active and productive labor, you’ll be disappointed because you’re confused about who you are.

This is why we should pursue excellence in our jobs – not just to make money, not just “work to live,” but even more so because God designed me to work and do it before Him, affirming His design (Col. 3:23).  This is why working hobbies are good and therapeutic (GARDENING; WOOD-SPLITTING).  This is why our culture’s view of retirement is unbiblical and unhealthy.

And of course, those of us who know Christ can also get involved in His work of sharing God’s love and truth with others in what we call “ministry” (see Jn. 4:34), in which we can all be involved in regardless of our age, health, etc.

But we are more than workers.  This is why reductionistic ideologies (e.g., Marxism) and workaholic lifestyles are ultimately unfulfilling and dehumanizing.

Humans have free will & moral responsibility

Read 2:16,17.  We’ll discuss the significance of the names of these two trees next week.  Right now, we need to notice that the opportunity to revolt against God’s will (along with the consequences for doing so) was a feature of the good world.  If God didn’t want humans to revolt against Him, why did He put the second tree in the Garden?  Because a key part of being human is having freedom to choose.  There is no morality in a robot universe, nor is there any love – because love requires the capacity to choose between moral alternatives.  Therefore, in addition to God providing abundant food and satisfying work, God gave a moral boundary, giving humans the opportunity to freely choose to love and trust Him.

Therefore, because humans are created in God’s image, we reject all forms of determinism (chemical, psychological, environmental).[5]  We are not machines.  Yes, we have machine features (cells; organs), we can’t do whatever we want (fly, live forever in this body, etc.), we can be conditioned to a certain extent (discipline and reward in learning), and heredity and environment play significant roles.  But this is not all that we are.  We are made in the image of the freely choosing God, and we can make real, un-programmed, significant choices.  Realizing this and its implications is crucial if you want to live a fulfilling life.

One implication free choice is full responsibility for the choices we make (not God, other people, or our circumstances).  Most importantly, we are responsible to God for our choices – and therefore we have true moral guilt before Him (see below).  Another implication is that we may not dictate the consequences of our choices (2:17 infer both of these).  We teach our children this from a very early age because their lives will be set on fire if they don’t learn it.  Yet many in our culture are miserable because they prefer the short-term relief of denying their responsibility to the long-term sanity that comes from affirming it.

Our range of freedom has been restricted by the Fall, especially in the moral area (Jn. 8:34).  But the Bible teaches that in one crucial area, God has preserved our freedom – the ability to choose to return to Him.  And if you choose to return to Him and follow Him, He will increase the range of your moral freedom (Jn. 8:31,32; GOSPEL).

Humans are designed for scientific inquiry

Read 2:18-20.  God is doing at least two things at once here.  God didn’t name the animals for Adam – He had Adam name them.  His naming of the animals was not simply random labels.  It probably involved careful observation and then selecting a name that described this animal and differentiated it from others.  Through this exercise, God introduced Adam to the discovery of the complexity of His universe, understanding how it works and is inter-related, and forming categories in his mind that corresponded to external reality.  In other words, He introduced Adam to scientific inquiry.

Because we are finite, we can never have exhaustive knowledge.  And now because of the Fall, we tend to use our minds in unproductive ways (2 WEEKS).  But despite these limitations, the image of God remains in our marvelous ability to learn, and in our delight in learning. This is why scientific investigation is good, and why it grew out of the biblical world-view rather than from animistic or pantheistic cultures (60% of Nobel Peace Prize winners are theists), and why it points to an intelligent Creator.[6]

But we are more than scientific inquirers.  God had another reason for having Adam explore the Garden . . .

Humans require human community

Remember, this exercise began with God’s verdict that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18).  Alone in what sense?  Alone in the sense that he did not have another helper (friend, partner – emphasis in on equality) who was like he was – he did not have another human being to relate to.  This is what God wanted Adam to become aware of as he named the animals.  Read 2:21,22.  And this is why Adam broke out in song and poetry when he met Eve (read 2:23-25).  Here (especially 2:24b) is something very deep – unity and diversity in relationship, or human community.  Adam and Eve are diverse in that they are separate persons and genders – yet they are a unity in that they can have a relationship in which they know and are known in a deeply intimate way.  They discover their true humanness not in isolation (“alone”), but in community.

How is this the image of God?  How can this be like God, if there is only one God?  Is not the essence of God that He is a solitary, powerful individual (e.g., ALLAH)?  Not according to 1:26a (read).  As we noted last week, this is probably the first hint of what the rest of the Bible reveals – that God is unity and diversity in relationship (explain grammar).  God is a community of love relationships.  This is why Jesus could say Jn. 17:24.  This is what 1:27 means (read) – not that God has gender, but that human community (especially the marriage relationship) we “image” who God is – unity and diversity in love relationships.[7]

If you don’t understand this and affirm it, you’re going to violate your design and really screw yourself up!  Much of the pain of human existence is rooted in either neglect of or perversion of personal relationships with other humans.

When we rip our sexuality out of its proper context (life-long heterosexual monogamy), there will be serious pain and damage (Rom. 1:27b).  What began 60 years ago as the “sexual revolution” has unleashed a tsunami of dehumanizing damage to our society.  But God can heal us of this damage, as we return to Him and His design. 

No amount of aesthetics or work or intellectual activity will ever make up for personal relationships.  Research continues to confirm that “it is not good for humans to be alone,” and that relationships with other people is essential to human flourishing.[8]  God can teach us how to build good, close relationships . . .

Humans are designed to have a relationship with God by trusting His Word

The thread running through this entire chapter that integrates who we are as human beings is to be in relationship with a speaking God (1:28,29; 2:16,17).  This is the axis around which all the rest was to revolve.  Here is the heart of the matter: Humans became separated from God by mistrusting His Word (NEXT WEEK) – but (because of God’s love and mercy) we can be reconciled to God by choosing to trust His redemptive word (read 2 Cor. 5:20,21).  Will you choose to be reconciled to God (EXPLAIN HOW)?



[1] “Earth” (erets) can mean the whole earth or a specific area (“the land”).  “Field” (sadeh) can mean “cultivated field.” 

[2] Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s research found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc.).

[3] “Soul, self . . . person . . . mind . . . the inner being of man.”  Strong, J. (1995). Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. Woodside Bible Fellowship.  See also 1 Cor. 15:45, which translates nephesh “soul” (psuche).

[4] Francis Crick: “You – your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity . . . are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

[5] “What is being abolished is autonomous man – the inner man   . . . The man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity.  His abolition has been long overdue . . . To man as (freely choosing) man we say good riddance . . . Only then can we turn from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulatable.”  B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom & Dignity (Knopf, 1971), pp. 200,201.

[6] “Modern science seems, almost irresistibly, to point beyond itself.”  John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science & Theology (Princeton Press, 1987), p. 75.

[7] “Sex . . . gives us subjectively a foretaste of heaven, of the self-forgetting, self-transcending, self-giving that is what our deepest hearts are designed for, long for and will not be satisfied until they have, because we are made in God’s own image and this (kind of) self-giving constitutes the inner life of the Trinity.” Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis (InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 95.

[8] “Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general of the United States, has said many times in recent years that the most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.” Billy Baker, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity.  It’s loneliness.” March 9, 2017.  See also Robert Waldinger’s similar conclusions from a long-term study of Harvard graduates: “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9iSkYvkVTo).