What does it mean to be human? (Genesis 2:15-25)

Genesis 2 introduces such an intimate picture of the one who structured heaven and earth according to his command. We receive our identity from him. He sculpts the human from clay, and breathes his own life into him (2:7). In the grounds of his palace he cultivates a garden. From his own person flows the abundance that sustains life—the tree, and the river, and the riches (2:9-14).

The sovereign calls the human to participate in his reign. His task is to work and guard the palace grounds (2:15). The kingdom of God is a partnership: we join with him, to work with him and protect his honour.

And our king has a name. Genesis 1 described Elohim (God) establishing his realms with the commands of his mouth. Now he is called “YHWH Elohim.” YHWH is his name, and Elohim is his title. “King YHWH” might be the nearest equivalent (reminding us that Elohim incorporated sovereignty as well as deity in the ancient world).

In his generosity, the sovereign gives his viceroys permission to enjoy the thousands of trees in the palace garden, with a single exception: “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” is reserved for the king, not for his servants (2:16). The king alone determines the realm’s laws; he alone decides good and evil. The subjects must not usurp the sovereign’s power, overturning his commands and acting as if they themselves know good and evil. To rebel against their king would be to disconnect from their life-source, with deadly consequences (2:17).

In this idyllic setting, the human begins to exercise the authority he has been given over the animals. He must identify them if he is to care for them. Naming them begins that process (2:19-20).

But something even more significant is happening. King YHWH wants to make the human aware that we were created for community. Human identity does not reside in the self; it resides in our connectedness (2:18). This is one of the most desperately needed truths of our time.

As the human observes the animals, he realizes they each have mates. He becomes aware of his aloneness (2:20). Now he is ready to receive the sovereign’s richest gift. There is another who quite literally is him—bone of this bone, flesh of his flesh. Yet, she is not him: she is her own person—drawn out of his very being, yet given her own distinctiveness. Both share the same life—they are one life; yet each has their own identity.

At the most intimate level, marriage is that shared life. But it is also family. And community. All forms of shared life. The kingdom of God is not an individual experience. It is community, under the reign of and in partnership with our sovereign.

That is who we were designed to be: living sculptures of our ruler, palace garden dwellers, animated with divine breath, provided with everything we need, tending and protecting the honour of our sovereign, caring for his creatures, experiencing community under his governance. Could there be any greater honour?

That’s not the end of the story, but it will be where the story ends.


What others are saying

Peterson, Eugene, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005). 36-37:

Our core identity comes out as persons-in-relationship. Each person is a one-of-a-kind creature made in the “image of God.” Whatever else that phrase means, it conveys a sense of enormous dignity and thorough-going relationality. …

The Biblical story that gives us this metaphor in Genesis 2 makes it clear that the breath that flows through our neck/soul is God’s breath. And if God’s breath is gone, the human being is gone. Apart from God, there is nothing to us. …

But in our current culture, “soul” has given way to “self” as the term of choice to designate who and what we are. Self is the soul minus God. Self is what is left of soul with all the transcendence and intimacy squeezed out, the self with little or no reference to God (transcendence) or others (intimacy).

How does this chapter shape your understanding of what it means to be human? Leave a comment expressing your thoughts.

Read Genesis 2:15-25.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be human? (Genesis 2:15-25)”

  1. Thanks Allen. A couple of observations. it is interesting that the role of the human is to both work and guard. Both of these ideas indicate something that is not often thought of as relating to the Edemic state. There was the necessity of having to work, implying that this is not a ‘perfect’ state, a place where everything worked exactly as it should but rather a place where there was still order to be brought out of chaos. that is the role of the human was to continue the work of God, much like the role of the church is to continue the work of the Messiah in bringing God’s kingdom to earth again.

    The second interesting thought is expressed in your words”There is another who quite literally is him—bone of this bone, flesh of his flesh. Yet, she is not him”. This phrase has a strong trinitarian flavour. The emphasis on the persons of the Trinity often vastly overshadows the relationship community of the Trinity. God is both “in each other but not each other” and the emphasis of the incarnate God is not the individualness of God but the community of God; after all this is what Jesus prayed for, that we would be ‘in us’ as ‘I am in the Father’.


  2. Thanks, Graham.
    Yes, working with God was what he intended in the beginning. The kingdom narrative starts with a couple and ends with a city. Even after the rebellion, we still work with God, though we are no longer trusted with the guarding role (Gen 3:23-24).
    And yes, there is much going on in Gen 2 regarding the oneness between husband and wife, seeds that open up later in the story. As you say, Jesus draws us into this “oneness” with him. Paul understands the story this way too in Eph 5 (where he quotes Gen 2:24).It sounds like Paul is considering Jesus as the man who left his father to seek his bride and be joined with her. That’s a pretty amazing understanding of the whole story in a nutshell. Gene Edwards took that line in “The Divine Romance” (Tyndale, 1993).
    Comments appreciated.


  3. Its quiet interesting. Man is not expected to live a soul life but of connectedness and unto God. Huuumm!
    Self is minus God. That is a great illumination. Thank you


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