The dean at the Southern Baptist college where I was teaching paused in his chapel message to address “the ladies.” “You need to mow your lawn,” he said. Your body is a “house,” he explained, and if “your phone isn’t ringing,” it’s because you’re “not taking care of your house.” But, be careful, because we all know what we call the sort of “house” that too many men come in and out of: a “crackhouse.”¹
The lie that women exist for male domination and male sexual pleasure is common enough, though it’s not always as explicitly stated in college chapel services. It’s the sort of thinking that undergirds the pandemic of sexual abuse in the church and devastates the lives of real, flesh-and-blood humans. Lies have a way of doing that—of getting into our hearts and minds and dictating what we believe about—and how we act toward—ourselves and others, with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences.
The Genesis account counteracts a similar lie that its original audience had been taught to believe about themselves. Not only had they grown up as slaves in Egypt, the prevailing religious thinking in the ancient Near East also taught that slavery was their God-intended function. For example, the Mesopotamian Atrahasis Epic taught that humans were created to pacify the rebellious lesser gods who had grown weary of the “drudgery” of laboring for the higher gods. Humans were there simply to care for the needs of the gods and complete the tasks that the gods deemed too burdensome or beneath them. In sum, humans were in no way unique or special; they were simply a means to an end, a way for the lesser gods to avoid supplying the needs of the higher gods.
Lies have a way of doing that—of getting into our hearts and minds and dictating what we believe.
In addition to showing that Yahweh, the true creator of everything, was nothing like other so-called gods, Genesis 1 also counteracted the lie that humans were created for slavery by telling the true story of our identity and our function. First, it speaks to our identity. All humans—not just the wealthy, the powerful, or the male—were made in the image of God: “And God created humanity in his image; in the image of God he created it. Male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27, my translation). Prominent Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter points out that the Ten Commandments’ prohibition against making “images” of God relates at least in part to Genesis’s creation of humans in his “image.” In an ancient Near Easter ritual called “mouth washing,” the spirit of a god would supposedly enter an idol, thus animating it, in much the same way that God breathed into humans and animated them. Thus, God prohibits humans from casting images of God because God has already created an image of himself.²
To know what God is like, then, we only need to look at the apex of his creative work. Humans were not created as slaves to sustain the gods, such as carving out riverbeds to irrigate crops or harvesting those crops so the gods would have something to eat. Instead, we were created as living, breathing, walking-around reflections of the God who made us, a God who, it turns out, provides for humans, not the other way around.
Just as ancient Near Eastern creation myths tied human identity (“slave”) with human function (slave work), the biblical creation account ties our identity with our function. As image bearers of God, though, human function is not to do the work the gods didn’t want to do. Rather, Genesis 1 teaches that the human function is to do what God does, that is, to create and rule. Humans are supposed to “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth” (Genesis 1:28 CSB). As humans go about these tasks of ruling and creating, they are demonstrating God’s reign and rule over the entire creation. As God’s image bearers, wherever humans go, their presence declares “This space belongs to God, creator of heaven and earth,” in much the same way ancient boundary markers bearing the images of kings would mark out land that the king had granted to a vassal.
Lecrae speaks to the damaging effects of believing that you were born as and forever to be a slave:
Worthless, worthless, 400 years we done heard that
My family came here on slave ships
Some herd cattle, some herd blacks
Know some of ya'll done heard that
My kin was treated less than men
That's why we raised to hate each other, cause we hate our skin
Lies you told about yourself that you don't realize
I must be a thief, she locked the doors when I was walking by
They must be whores cuz the master rapes them and leaves the child
So dead beat daddy was taught to me way before my time ³
As Lecrae points out, there are real-world, current-day implications for how we view our identity and function as humans. And while I’m not—and you may not be—the descendent of enslaved Africans, there remain lies we propagate about what it means to be a human being. And those lies—like thinking that Black and Brown people are somehow less human than white people or that women exist for male pleasure or that worth is somehow tied to one’s sexual “purity”—devastate us. Genesis 1 confronted the lies that the Israelites believed about themselves and showed them what it means to be human, and now Genesis 1 tells us the same true story about who we are: nothing less that the image bearers of almighty God, created to create and demonstrate his righteous reign over all the earth. We are not slaves.