When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, . . . what are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Two eyes are better than one, because they make depth perception possible. The same goes with ears. Two ears make it possible to locate the direction of a sound. And we often say that two heads are better than one, because we know that insight from multiple perspectives adds wisdom.
The same is true with stories. We can best think of the Bible not as one tidy story with many chapters, but as a wild and fascinating library with many stories told from many perspectives. On any given subject, these multiple stories challenge us to see life from a variety of angles – adding depth, a sense of direction and wisdom. So, we’re given four Gospels to introduce us to Jesus. We’re given dozens of parables to illustrate Jesus’ message. We’re given two sections or Testaments in which the story of God unfolds. And right at the beginning, we’re given two different creation stories to help us know who we are, where we came from and why we’re here.
According to the first creation story, you are part of creation. You are made from common soil . . . soil that becomes watermelons and grain and apples and peanuts, and then they become food, and then that food becomes you. As highly organised dust, you are closely related to frogs and tortoises, lions and fieldmice, bison and elephants and gorillas. Together with all living things, you share the breath of life, participating in the same cycles of birth and death, reproduction and recycling and renewal. You, with them, are part of the story of creation – different branches on the tree of life. In that story, you are connected and related to everything everywhere. In fact, that is a good partial definition of God: God is the one through whom we are related and connected to everything.
'we all bear God’s image, no exceptions.
In the first creation story, we learn two essential truths about ourselves as human beings. First, we are good. Along with all our fellow creatures, we were created with a primal, essential goodness that our Creator appreciates and celebrates. And second, we all bear God’s image. Women and men, girls and boys, toddlers, the elderly and teenagers, rich or poor, popular or misunderstood, powerful or vulnerable, whatever our religion or race or marital status, whatever our nationality or culture . . . we all bear God’s image, no exceptions.
What is the image of God? An image is a small imitation or echo, like a reflection in a mirror. So if we bear the image of God, then like God, we experience life through relationships. Like God, we experience love through our complementary differences.
Like God, we notice and enjoy and name things – starting with the animals, our companions on the Earth. Like God, we are caretakers of the garden of the Earth. And like God, we are ‘naked and not ashamed’, meaning we can be who we are without fear.
Back in ancient times, this was a surprising message. Yes, kings and other powerful men were seen as image-bearers of God. After all, since they were powerful, rich, sophisticated and ‘civilised’, they could reflect God’s power and glory. But in Genesis, the term is applied to a couple of naked and ‘uncivilised’ hunter-gatherers, a simple woman and man living in a garden with no pyramids or skyscrapers or economies or religions or technological inventions or even clothing to their credit! Centuries later, Jesus said something similar: the Creator loves every sparrow and every wildflower, and so how much more precious is every person – no matter how small, frail or seemingly insignificant? Every woman, man and child is good! Every person in every culture has value! Every person bears the image of God! It’s all good!
But that’s not the only story. The second creation account, which many scholars think is a much older one, describes another dimension to our identity. In that account, the possibility of ‘not good’ also exists. God puts the first couple in a garden that contains two special trees. The Tree of Life is theirs to enjoy, but not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life is a beautiful image – suggesting health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigour and all we mean by aliveness. What might that second tree signify?
'God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful and restorative.
There are many answers, no doubt. But consider this possibility: the second tree could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation – all of which God considers good – as evil. Do you see the danger? God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory and devaluing. So when we judge, we inevitably misjudge.
If we humans start playing God and judging good and evil, how long will it take before we say this person or tribe is good and deserves to live, but that person or tribe is evil and deserves to die, or become our slaves? How long will it take before we judge that this species of animal is good and deserves to survive, but that one is worthless and can be driven to extinction? How long until we judge that this land is good and deserves to be preserved, but that river is without value and can be plundered, polluted or poisoned?
If we eat from the second tree, we will soon become violent, hateful and destructive. We will turn our blessing to name and know into a licence to kill, to exploit and to destroy both the Earth and other people. God sees everything as good, but we will accuse more and more things of being evil. In so doing, we will create in ourselves the very evil we claim to detect in others. In other words, the more we judge and accuse, the less we will reflect God . . . and the less we will fulfil our potential as image-bearers of God.
So the second creation story presents us with our challenge as human beings. We constantly make a crucial choice: Do we eat from the Tree of Aliveness – so that we continue to see and value the goodness of creation and so reflect the image of the living God? Or do we eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – constantly misjudging and playing God and as a result mistreating our fellow creatures? It’s a good and beautiful thing to be an image-bearer of God. But it’s also a big responsibility.
We can use our intelligence to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
We can use our physical strength to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
We can use our sexuality to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive. We can use our work, our money, our time and our other assets to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.
Think of your hand. It can make a fist or it can extend in peace. It can wield a weapon or it can play a violin. It can point in derision or it can reach out in compassion. It can steal or it can serve. If the first creation story is about the gift of being human, the second story is about the choice all humans live with, day after day. To be alive means to bear responsibly the image of God. It means to stretch out your hand to take from the Tree of Aliveness – and to join in God’s creative, healing work.
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time when someone played God and judged you, or a time when you played God and judged someone else.
3. Tell us about a person who has reflected God to you in some special way.
4. For children: Think about your hands. What is something kind and creative you can do with your hands? What is something mean or harmful you can do with your hands? How can the same hands do both kind and mean things?
5. Activate: If part of being image-bearers of God means that we represent God in caring for the Earth, it’s important to learn about your corner of the Earth. You know your postal address (road, town or village, county, postcode). What is your environmental address? Learn about your watershed, what makes it special, and the environmental issues it faces.
6. Meditate: Observe a few moments of silence. Let a silent prayer rise from within you.