We saw that Genesis 1 reveals our sovereign establishing two realms: heaven and earth. The first half of this narrative (Days 1-3) culminated with the sovereign placing lights in the sky as signs that earth is under heaven’s rule. The second half (Days 4-6) also culminates with the sovereign installing images of his reign.
Our ruler assigned his creatures to their places where they would thrive under his providence:
Gen 1:20-25 (summarized)
The heavenly sovereign assigned to living creatures their places in his earthly realm—fish to swim in the sea, birds to fly in the sky, and animals to run or scurry across the land. He empowered his creatures with fruitfulness, the ability to reproduce others like themselves.
Then comes his final act of ordering his realm. He assigns authority to servants whom he has designed to represent his reign:
Gen 1:26-31 (paraphrased)
Then he created a living representation of himself, an earthly representative to rule over the other creatures on his behalf. Just as he placed the sun and moon in the sky as signs that earth is under heaven’s rule, he placed humans on the earth as living images of the heavenly king. He assigned to us the responsibility to manage the animals—the fish swimming in the sea, the birds flying in the sky, and the animals running and scurrying across the land. Our appointed role was to keep the animals under control and provide for them, just as our divine ruler governs us and provides us with food. Our sovereign was really pleased with his arrangement.
There are several crucial aspects to this appointment. In the ancient world, rulers often set up images that reminded their subjects who their ruler was. We are not stone statues but living images of the living God, empowered with his authority to care for and govern his creatures.
But read our commission carefully. What is not there? The sovereign does not authorize humans to rule over humans. As originally established, the kingdom of God involves God ruling humans, and humans ruling the other creatures.
There are no other humans at this point of the story, yet the people listening to the story would have been interested in the divine delegation of authority. It is not here. There is no human government in the first 8 chapters of Genesis. The ideal kingdom involves God ruling humans and humans ruling the animals.
The significance of this point will become apparent as the story unfolds, but there is another important detail to notice here. Genesis 1 makes the explicit point that both male and female humans are the image of God and so both are appointed to take authority over God’s creatures. There is no gender disparity, no difference in authority. Men were not designed to rule women, nor women to rule men: we were jointly to rule the animals, reflecting God’s rule over us. God’s reign was to be mediated to the world by humanity—male and female, jointly and equally. That was God’s original intention before humans rebelled. I think it still is.
So who are we? We are creatures designed to reflect (image) our sovereign. God’s plan is to make himself known through people.
What others are saying
Augustine, City of God 19.15.1:
For “let them,” He says, “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every creeping thing which creepeth on the earth.” He did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation,— not man over man, but man over the beasts. And hence the righteous men in primitive times were made shepherds of cattle rather than kings of men, God intending thus to teach us what the relative position of the creatures is, and what the desert of sin; for it is with justice, we believe, that the condition of slavery is the result of sin. And this is why we do not find the word “slave” in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature.
Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 660
Humanity is thus royal and is made in order to rule over creation as God’s vice-regent. The main functions of this royal reign in Genesis 1:26–28 include having dominion over the earth. On this perspective, God is a generous Creator who shares power with his creatures by inviting them and trusting them to participate in his reign over the world.
Consequently, humanity is the cosmic media for expressing God’s sovereignty and presence in the world.
Read Genesis 1:20-31.