WHAT DO WE FIND when we look at the beginning of Scripture for clues about culture? If culture is what human beings make of the world, we’d expect to find our first clues when human beings take their place in the world’s unfolding drama. And this is exactly what we find in the first mention of humankind on the sixth day of creation in Genesis 1:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Gen 1:26-28)
Even in translation from the original Hebrew, we can see culture at work in the way this story is told. In an age without bold face, capital letters or even written vowels, how would you convey to readers that one section of your text, more than another, was of special importance? In an age long before the invention of paper, when papyrus and parchment were precious, repetition was not something a writer engaged in lightly. The biblical writers, and the oral traditions on which they drew, lavished space, time and breath on the most important parts of their stories. Up until this point each “day” of creation has taken a carefully measured amount of words. But the sixth day stretches out on the first page of my Bible for nearly as long as the previous five days together, and here at the climax in verses 26-28 two key ideas are repeated.
First we are told twice, once as intention and once as instruction, that humans’ likeness to God will equip them to “have dominion” over animals in sky, sea and land. We shouldn’t pass over this three-part taxonomy too quickly. The author clearly intends us to grasp the extent of human beings’ responsibility—they are made to rule not just a few easily domesticated animals like cattle, chickens and goldfish, but the whole panoply of the animal kingdom. It’s extraordinary that a biblical author who had seen neither airplanes nor submarines, and for whom boats were small and rudimentary affairs, could anticipate humankind being able to “rule” over fish and birds in any meaningful way. Either the author’s conception of rule and dominion is much less about the naked exertion of power than we might imagine, or this text anticipates millennia of cultural developments that would eventually bring us to the point where we truly have the power to shape the destiny of most species on the planet. Perhaps both. In any event, the repetition and comprehensiveness of description makes it plain: human beings will be responsible for the creation in its totality, not just for their immediate neighborhood.
But the double description of the animal kingdom is matched by a quadruple repetition: No less than four times we are told that human beings are made in God’s “image” and “likeness.” Similar to the language of dominion, the language of likeness is repeated in two contexts
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