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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 38–48 

Genesis and Human Origins: What Makes a Human ‘Human’ and Why Does it Matter?

Mark D. Wessner

How, when, and why did the world begin? If you are looking for a conversation starter (or conversation killer), this is a great question! While most people have a personal opinion about the origin of the world (especially the origin of human life), many of us are often uncomfortable with having a conversation about our beliefs with others.

Humans are distinct from other creatures not just because of our functional ability, but because of our functional ability plus our identity and calling.

When it comes to the question of origins, I wonder if the unfortunate infrequency of genuine dialogue and conversation stems primarily from our differences in terminology, assumptions, and agreement about what the “important” questions are. When it comes to origins, what should our discussion include? While there are a number of possible approaches, I have found Gerald Rau’s Mapping the Origins Debate 1 immensely helpful in establishing a basic framework through which to explore the many questions of origins. Rau suggests there are four specific subcategories of origins that a truly comprehensive model must incorporate; for a particular model of origins to be “good,” it must adequately address all four topics: {39}

  • The origin of the universe (primarily a question of cosmology)
  • The origin of life (primarily a question of biochemistry)
  • The origin of species (primarily a question of biology)
  • The origin of humanity (primarily a question of anthropology)

As fascinating as these topics are, the scope of this paper is limited to the question of human origins, and therefore it touches on only the last two of Rau’s four areas. As we will soon see, the focus of this essay is even more limited as our core question is primarily theological: What does Genesis say about what makes a human “human”?

Before we explore the Bible itself, let me briefly summarize some commonly held beliefs in Western society about what sets humans apart from other creatures. Although there is minor variation among various groups and academic disciplines, the core “defining features” of humans are often identified as these five: language and symbolic thinking, brain size, bipedalism, creation and use of tools, and social ability. 2 Note that this picture of humanity is essentially function-based—that is, humans are humans simply because of what we can do, in contrast to other creatures.

Perhaps, though, humans are more than just physically and socially superior creatures. It is the narrative of Genesis, I believe, that shatters this narrow and limited perspective, and describes for us a humanity that is distinct not because of functional ability alone, but because of something much greater.


Before diving deeper into Genesis, though, we should first explore our motivation for doing so. What outcome are we hoping for? As preachers, teachers, disciple-makers, and followers of God, we are often tempted to jump right into the text of the Bible and “see what it says.” We sometimes think to ourselves, “Why waste time talking about the Bible, when we should spend our time in the Bible?” While I applaud our desire to dive deeply into God’s Word (which is one of my favorite features of our MB community!), I believe it is valid to step back at times and ask ourselves why we read and teach the Bible in the first place.

A number of years ago, while I was in an overly-reflective mood about my own preaching and teaching and questioning the point of it, I came across The Four Voices of Preaching 3 by Robert Stephen Reid. Reid suggests that there are four voices for preaching and we need to know which one is our dominant voice, so we can use it effectively. The four voices are directly connected to motivation:

  • The teaching voice—you love to explain the meaning of a text or topic by using careful and logical arguments. {40}
  • The encouraging voice—you love to facilitate a genuine encounter between your listeners and God.
  • The sage voice—you love to explore possibilities through analysis, often leaving the response up to your listeners.
  • The testifying voice—you love to engage with tradition by articulating the commonly held beliefs and values of your community.

All four are valid (and necessary) voices, but each of us will have one voice that most resonates with us. I have discovered that I primarily teach and write with the encouraging voice, although in terms of motivation, teaching is my second voice. It is my hope that this short paper on Genesis and human origins will somehow draw you closer to God himself, and that you will actually encounter and respond to God through his Word. I pray that engaging with this paper will be both an intellectual and spiritual exercise!


Take a minute now and ask yourself this question: Are you a person who sees the trees or sees the forest? In other words, do you gravitate toward individual pieces and details, or toward the big picture and overall themes? Both are valuable and necessary, but which tends to be your “default setting”?

When you think of Christianity, does your mind go to specific spiritual beliefs and practices, or does it lean toward the big ideas of the faith? Again, both viewpoints are valuable and necessary, but we each tend to default to one more than the other.

My hunch, based primarily on many conversations I have had, is that most of us tend to discuss, embrace, or argue about the details of the Christian faith, but spend significantly less time thinking about the “big picture” of Christianity. If we do not occasionally look at the whole forest, though, we might not see how it works as an integrated ecosystem (rather than just a collection of trees). In the same way, in the context of this paper, the Genesis description of creation (including human origins) is part of a larger picture of God’s work in and through the world.

Let me paint a picture of the Grand Narrative 4 of Christianity by looking at the Bible through a thematic model of four big “scenes.”

Scene 1—Order out of Chaos—The opening scene of the Bible starts with the radical idea of a God who brings order out of chaos. The imagery is powerful—the physical nature of reality is described as “waters of the deep,” “formless and empty”—nothing solid, nothing permanent, nothing stable. The voice of God speaks into this context and brings order; {41} not in a mechanistic process of assembly, but rather as someone who brings something good and purposeful out of what was previously chaotic. In the first two chapters of Genesis, God is described as one who brings physical, missional, and relational order out of chaos. It is in Scene 1 that humanity is introduced. Today, for many modern followers of Jesus, a human life transformed from chaos is not just a theological ideal; it is also a personal (and often powerful) experience.

Scene 2—Chaos out of Order—The very next scene, though, takes a tragic turn for the worse. In the following chapters, we see example after example of humanity making a mess out of the world that had just been made “good” by God. Lying, betrayal, murder, and the list could go on, each one a logical expression of deep-seated self-centeredness. Even the physical world did not escape the damage. Humans, unfortunately, have a long and consistent history of bringing chaos out of order. We have a proven track record of putting our own interests ahead of everyone and everything else. If you are wondering if it still happens today, simply spend a few minutes looking through your favorite news site or watching TV. Alternatively, do an honest assessment of the patterns in your own life.

Scene 3—Partial Recovery of Order out of Chaos—Thankfully, however, the story does not end with Scene 2! Starting with Genesis 12 (even earlier, if we look closely) and going all the way to Revelation 20, we see the story of a God who not only wants to redeem and restore the world from its self-inflicted brokenness, but also wants to partner with humanity to achieve the restoration. The bulk of the story of the Bible takes place within Scene 3, and we encounter people such as Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Esther, Daniel, Paul, Peter, John, and many more, each of whom wrestles with what it means to follow God and partner with him to bring redemption and restoration to all of creation. Within Scene 3, the high point is undoubtedly the arrival and presence (and subsequent departure) of Jesus among first-century Jews and non-Jews in the cities and countryside of ancient Israel. It is in Scene 3 that we see powerful pictures of the partial victory over chaos—physical healing, spiritual healing, life transformation, nature miracles, resurrection, and more. (While these stories seem most intense in the four Gospel {42} accounts, they are actually scattered throughout all of Scene 3.) The recovery is not complete, though, as both ancient and modern people live in a world that is simultaneously broken and being redeemed. Order is here (often expressed through the New Testament concept of “kingdom” 5), but it is not yet complete.

Scene 4—Final Restoration of Order out of Chaos—Finally, the experience of restoration and recovery is shown to be complete and final in the “not yet reality” picture described in Scene 4. This final act in the Grand Narrative is a scene of hope, a scene of the future, and we see it described in the last two chapters of Revelation. Here, for those who have embraced God and his desire to restore and redeem creation from its life-numbing chaos, the experience of renewed order and goodness looks remarkably like Scene 1. A picture of beauty. Of wholeness. Of goodness. Of completeness. Of restoration. As the pages of history turn to Scene 4, the story will be complete. Once again, chaos will be defeated. God (and goodness) will reign.

Wow—what a story! Even in a few short paragraphs, the ride is remarkable. Imagine living that kind of life! Humanity that is all about restoration and redemption. Humanity that has purpose and meaning beyond our individuality. Humanity that experiences transformation and partnership with God himself.

We are, of course, still living in Scene 3 (restoration is not yet complete), but our goal in this paper is to carefully explore Scene 1 and the essence of humanity.


With that big picture in mind, I encourage you to either listen to an audio recording of Genesis 1–2, or read Genesis 1–2 uninterrupted and without stopping to analyze details. Why? Because there is something powerful and eye-opening about experiencing large chunks of Scripture at a time, rather than diving in and immediately dissecting it into pieces. In fact, there are whole disciplines of biblical criticism that are built on the existence of large, overarching narratives. The big picture of Genesis 1–2 must be our foundation for understanding individual verses and words. And as readers and teachers of the Bible, we cannot become so obsessed with the trees that we miss the forest. 6

We should not read the opening chapters of Genesis and self-centeredly ask where we fit or what it says about us. To do so misses the point of the {43} narrative! Genesis is the story of God—his creative power, his sovereignty, his ability to bring order and beauty out of chaos! Whatever we discover about the essence of humanity as described in Genesis 1–2, it is secondary to the picture of God that Genesis unfolds before our eyes and imaginations!

Now let us turn our minds to the specific words, phrases, and details found in Genesis 1–2. For the purposes of this paper, let me suggest that the frequently noted distinctions between Genesis 1 and 2 will be distracting. I am not denying scholars’ countless years of research regarding the JEDP theory, the differences in meaning between “God” and “Lord” etc., but rather, that these nuances are not immediately relevant to our discussion about what makes a human “human.” So too, attention to the occurrences of adam, hadam, and ladam is limited, given that no obvious pattern in their usage is evident.

Instead, in order to help us unpack what the Genesis account might be saying about the essence of humanity, we will turn to another ancient source—the Septuagint. The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), often quoted in the New Testament and used by early Christians and even many committed Christians today. It will serve as a valuable guide in our exploration of the opening chapters of Genesis.

The Septuagint translates the Hebrew adam as either anthropos or Adam, and a pattern is discernable. The first emphasizes uniqueness at a large scale (generic humanity), and the second, particularity at a small scale (individual humans).


Anthropos (a common noun) is a rich term that can refer to humanity, the human race, a human being. It is a generic “large group” term, rendered “man,” “mankind,” or “humankind” in English translations of the Septuagint. It is used nine times in Genesis 1–2. 7 These verses tell us that

  • anthropos is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26–27). The essential idea is that of resemblance and/or representation. Just as my Mom often told me, “You’re just like your Dad!” in moments of either frustration or appreciation, to say that anthropos is made in the image and likeness of God carries the same connotation. Note that this applies to all humanity, both pre- and post-fall (cf. Gen 9:6; James 3:9).
  • anthropos is expected to “manage” the earth (Gen 2:5, 15). Again, this applies to all humanity, both pre- and post-fall (cf. Gen 3:23). It is interesting that outside of Genesis 1–4, abad (sometimes rendered “cultivate”) can also carry the idea of “serving.” {44}
  • anthropos was breathed into (Gen 2:7).
  • anthropos was a living being (Gen 2:7).
  • anthropos was placed in Eden (Gen 2:8).
  • anthropos was set apart (Gen 2:8).

From these observations and others in Genesis 1–2 we learn that there are at least three elements of the essence of anthropos:

  • Humanity is not unique because of process. There is little in Genesis 1–2 that suggests humans are distinct because of the process of their physical creation and/or development. Humans and other creatures have the breath of life (Gen 2:7; 7:22). Humans and other creatures are living beings (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30; 2:7, 19). Humans and other creatures were formed from the ground (Gen 2:7–8, 19).
  • Humanity is unique because of identity. Nothing else in the creation account is described as being made in the image or resemblance of God. That designation is reserved for humanity alone. Part of what makes humans “human” is that each of us (and all of us) in some way represent God himself.
  • Humanity is unique because of calling. It is only humanity that has a purpose higher than simple self-reproduction. Every human is called to manage and serve the rest of creation. And not for its sake (as if the earth somehow deserves it), and not for our sake (so that we get something out of it)—humanity is to manage creation for God’s sake.

Anthropos often emphasizes the uniqueness of humanity within (and distinct from) the rest of creation. Humans are distinct from other creatures not just because of our functional ability, but because of our functional ability plus our identity and calling. 8


Whereas anthropos is often used to differentiate humanity from the other living creatures, Adam (a proper noun) is often used when describing elements of individuality within humanity. In the ten times 9 that Adam occurs in Genesis 1–2, we can see a picture emerge:

  • Adam spoke and was spoken to by God (Gen 2:16, 23). No other creature speaks and has dialogue with God. 10
  • Adam was given a one-time opportunity (Gen 2:19–20). This is interesting—Adam was presented with an opportunity to name some of what God had created, but it seems that Adam had the choice of how to respond. Perhaps this is a picture of God delegating responsibility to Adam. {45}
  • Adam was in need of the gunh (woman) and was physically distinct from her (Gen 2:20–24). This role of partnership 11 could not be fulfilled by any other living creature.
  • Adam and the gunh felt no shame (Gen 2:25).

What can we learn from the usage of Adam in Genesis 1–2?

  • Humanity is unique because of an external relationship. As described in the opening chapters of Genesis, humans are designed to have a relationship with their Designer. Dialogue, engagement, and delegation are all indicators that humanity was not simply a product that God produced to populate a location that he created; rather, humanity alone could (and should) have a relationship with God.
  • Humanity is unique because of internal relationships. Similarly, humans were also designed to have relationships among themselves. Interdependence, but also distinctiveness, are indicators that humanity was not designed to live in isolation or only in relationship to God. Humans were designed for each other.

As we have seen in this brief survey of the Septuagint, the usage of Adam often emphasizes the unique relational capacity of human beings, both with God and with each other. Far from just social ability, human relationships are more intimate than are the relationships of other creatures, and the human-divine relationship is absolutely unparalleled.


What makes a human “human”? What is it that makes humans different from every other creature on earth? Is it simply a matter of functional ability? Can humans just “do more” than other creatures? Or is there something else?

As we have seen through the lens of the Scriptures, to be fully human is to live as a representative of God (anthropos) and to live in relationship with God (Adam). To do anything less is to fall short of who we were designed to be.

There are undoubtedly countless follow-up questions that could be asked about this topic. Here are four to start with:

How can we talk about being in the “image of God” with someone who has no picture of God or an inaccurate one?

This is a great question, as we may not be starting with the same assumptions. For example, if I talk with someone about the image of God and it becomes evident that we are not working with the same idea of who {46} God is, it is an opportunity for me to “back up” and explore the nature of God. What a great conversation to have with someone! We could talk about theology, the person’s spiritual background, and this would be a chance to explore the Bible itself and how it describes God. As a practical idea, working through the nature and mission of God in the first few chapters of Genesis and the first few chapters of John could be a great place to start.

Should we or should we not partner with other groups to care for creation?

That depends. Assuming the “we” refers to your particular church, it would be helpful first to identify the mission and vision of both your church and the other group. Are they in sync? Are they in conflict? Do they complement each other? If the two organizations’ visions and purposes fit with each other, then a partnership just might work well! If not, it might be best to look for partnerships elsewhere.

What are the doctrinal and missional challenges to talking about the historicity of Genesis 1–3 in a church community?

In my own church, there are very few challenges as we love to engage relevant issues and ask questions about all kinds of topics. But one challenge in the larger church community is that there may not be relationships in place that serve as a foundation for this kind of discussion. You may not share the same assumptions. If that’s the case, it is important to state that the historicity of Genesis 1–3 is a topic that is “in process” for me. In other words, my thoughts are just that—simply thoughts. The thoughts below are not conclusions, so be sure to take them with a grain of salt.

Thought #1—What do we mean by “historical”? Do we mean that Adam and Eve were the two literal and physical human beings from which all human beings biologically descended? Do we mean that Adam and Eve were two specific individuals belonging to a larger group who became the common ancestors of all other human beings? Or does historical mean something else?

Thought #2—Regardless of how we define the term, I am not sure that the historicity of Adam and Eve is a core concern of the author of Genesis 1–3. These chapters seem more interested in the nature of God (e.g., sovereignty, majesty, creativity, power), the nature of humanity (e.g., made in the image of God, a capacity for intimate relationship), and a radically different worldview (e.g., the existence and supremacy of one God), than with the specific process and mechanics of creation. I think the opening chapters of {47} Genesis paint a picture of something bigger than just an historical process.

Thought #3—To determine the importance of the historicity of Adam and Eve, I think we need to look elsewhere in the Bible. What about Adam in the rest of the Old Testament? What about Adam in the Gospels? What about Adam in the Epistles? When Adam is referred to in these other texts, is the intent to prove his historicity? Does the argument in the various passages require that Adam be the specific physical human being from which all other humans descended? What is at stake? In other words, if Adam was not the single, original, and physical human ancestor of all others, does it make a difference to any key orthodox Christian beliefs?

Thought #4—It seems to me that the description of humans in the opening chapters of Genesis was not designed to prove or disprove Adam’s historicity, but rather to show that humanity distinctly represents God within the rest of creation and that we are made to have a relationship with him. I wonder if one of the keys to reading this section of the Bible is not to ask what it says about me (about humanity), but instead to ask what it says about God. Perhaps Genesis is better understood as theocentric than anthropocentric.

In terms of engaging both the biblical text and my local community, what are my next steps?

With the topic of origins, the door is wide open. I just need to be intentional about making time to have the conversations. And let’s remember that as followers of God, as we talk with others about human origins, we should make every effort to speak with understanding, with humility, and to speak and live invitationally! 12 The ball is in our court. Let’s get the conversations going!


  1. Gerald Rau, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012).
  2. The Smithsonian’s “Human Origins Initiative,” for example, suggests these six human characteristics: walking upright, tools and food, bodies, brains, social life, language and symbols.
  3. Robert Stephen Reid, The Four Voices of Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006). {48}
  4. This four-part overview came out of a Sunday morning series called “Origins,” which I taught at Westwood Church from January to February 2012.
  5. For a recent and insightful analysis of the concept of “kingdom,” refer to Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, The Kingdom of God: Theology in Community (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  6. What I have discovered as I talk with people outside of our Christian communities is that this big picture can be an amazing point of connection to talk about spiritual things. We live in a society with a completely different metanarrative, but the Christian narrative itself has not been excluded. Unfortunately, it is often our presentation of the narrative that is rejected. Rather than aggressively argue for the validity of precise theological details, what would happen if we first built relationships and invited people into the Christian story (i.e., the Grand Narrative) to explore and experience it with us?
  7. Gen 1:26, 27; 2:5, 7(2x), 8, 15, 18, 24.
  8. Also of significance is that image and calling are not limited to followers of God. Every human is in the image of God, and every human is called to manage/serve creation. Just think for a moment what would happen if we communicated this to people outside of our churches. Validating the distinctiveness, value, and calling of all humanity would be a powerful message to send! Would it change how Christians are perceived? Absolutely. Would it change how we relate to and serve others? Without a doubt!
  9. Gen 2:16, 19(2x), 20(2x), 21, 22(2x), 23, 25.
  10. While other passages in Genesis1–3 describe divine communication, the direction is only one-way: the command to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen 1:22), and the curse on the serpent (Gen 3:14–15). A mutual relationship is neither stated nor implied.
  11. Various English versions translate ezer/boethos as companion (NET) or helper (ESV, KJV, NAS, NIV, RSV, etc.), but it is critical that we not understand the term to imply inferiority in any way. In other texts using the same term, God himself is the powerful “helper” of his people Israel (cf. Ex 18:4; Deut 33:7, 26, 29).
  12. In part, these three values are what motivated me to write Talking with God: Conversation Starters about Religion, Spirituality, and Culture (Kindle Direct Publishing, 2012) to equip us to initiate meaningful conversations outside of our churches.
Mark Wessner is the lead pastor of Westwood Church in Prince George, BC. Mark has a PhD in Old Testament studies and is an adjunct professor at both Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Canada (Langley, BC) and Briercrest College and Seminary (Caronport, SK).

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