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The Subdue and Rule Mandate, Made in God’s Image

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female. (Genesis 1:26-27)

There’s an axiom in the real estate industry: the most important thing about buying or selling a house is location, location! Just as “location” is critical in the real estate market, it’s even more critical with Bible study. We can do word studies for meanings and verb tenses like we previously did, but if we take those words and tenses out of their God-inspired locations, we can easily twist God’s words into saying what He never intended them to say.

In my humble opinion, that’s a sin.

During Bible college, my professors pounded the idea of context into my head. “Context, context, context!” was their rallying cry. “If you take a text out of context, you have a pretext,” they would yell like overly zealous drill sergeants. That’s a compliment, by the way. I’m deeply indebted to my mentors, who held God’s word in such high regard and taught me to handle it accurately and with care.

The word “context” comes from a Latin root that means “joining together,” as in to weave. All the threads are needed to make a fabric strong, functional, and beautiful, just as designed.

“Pretext” means “a reason or excuse given to hide the real reason for something” (American Heritage Dictionary). Therefore, when we take a text out of its context, we risk misrepresenting God’s word. At best, it’s inadvertent or born out of lazy scholarship. At worst, it’s done with the intention of purposefully changing the meaning and application to fit one’s agenda. (See Satan.)

So, in the name of accuracy and intellectual honesty, let’s look at the Subdue and Rule Mandate, humanity’s command to bring creation under control and manage it, and see how it rests within the context of Genesis 1. For that, let’s look at Genesis 1:26-27. The word for “rule,” radah, is our main thread. So, what’s the other textual thread that weaves it into God’s design?

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule (radah)…’” and “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God.”

It doesn’t take a genius to see that God’s image is woven together with our command to subdue and rule God’s creation. Therefore, there must be something about God’s image in us that clues us in about why and how we are to subdue and rule and something about subduing and ruling that tells us about being made in God’s image. So, here are the three big questions I want to answer. What is God’s image? What does it mean that we’re created in God’s image? And how does being created in God’s image guide our proper exercise of the Subdue and Rule Mandate? With that, we move to our next foundation stone.

Foundation Stone #3: People Made in God’s Image

First question, what is God’s image? Simple. God’s image reveals Himself – who He is and how He acts. In Genesis 1-2, we’re introduced to God, who is sovereign over His entire creation because He made it.

We understand God’s basic self-revelation (His image) most clearly through His actions, by what He does. So, what did God do in “in the beginning?” He created the world and shaped it. As Creator of His realm, He is the Sovereign God, the Owner and Master of all He surveys, which is, to say the least, incomprehensible in physical and spiritual terms. As the Shaper of His realm, God has reserved the right to make of His creation what He wills. By what standard? Himself. Therefore, God’s glory (a reflection of Himself) is seen clearly in His creation’s design and function (Psalm 19:1, Romans 1:19-20). God reveals Himself revealed throughout His entire creation as an artist reveals their self through their work. In that sense, God’s image is embedded in His creation.

According to the late Dr. Dwight Pryor, God’s image reveals everything He is (His being) and everything He wants (His will). Therefore, all of God’s creation reflects His being and will. This means that He alone is the standard for right being and doing in all creation. Since God reveals Himself through His creation, how much more does He reveal Himself through the pinnacle of His creation, us? Do you want to know how to be a proper person? God’s traits and His character are your only measure. Do you want to know how to make the right decisions and act right? His will and nothing but His will is your metric.

Second question, what does it mean for humanity to be created in God’s image? It’s God revealing Himself in and through us via our being and actions.

There’s a lot of scholarly debate about “people created in God’s image.” But stay with me as we take a quick look at three views of God’s image in people – the substantive view, the relational view, and the functional view (from Dr. Millard Erickson, Christianson Theology). You’ll feel so much smarter knowing this. Trust me.

The substantive view describes God’s image in us as a physical, psychological, or spiritual quality. This view has been the main view within Christian theology. God has intellect, emotions, character traits, and free will. His image in us means we share those same things in our being, but just not at His level of divine perfection. We also know stuff, have strength, and exist, but we’re not all-knowing, all-powerful, or everywhere and ever-present as God is. God’s image in us comes through the attributes we share with Him.

The relational view sees God’s image in us by how we stand in our relationship with God. In short, we reflect God’s image most fully when we are in a relationship with Him and proper relationships with one another. This view has merit but is not widely held.

The functional view explains that God’s image is seen in us by what we do, our function as human beings as part of His creation. In other words, we reflect God’s image when we act like Him according to His being and will – who He is and what He wills.

So, which view is correct regarding our Sovereign God in Genesis 1-2? This question is where Hebraic thinking is valuable. Western thought (as passed down by the Greeks and Romans) uses linear step logic. In other words, an idea starts at one point and moves “tightly to the next in (a) coherent, rational, logical fashion. The conclusion, however, was usually limited to one point of view – the human being’s perception of reality” (Dr. Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham). Therefore, only one of the above views can be correct by Western thought standards.

But Hebraic thought uses block logic where ideas are fitted together as “self-contained units or blocks of thought” (Wilson). Therefore, the Hebraic answer to our “which view is correct” question is “all of the above.”

Hebraic thought takes those blocks of ideas, places them side by side, and embraces them. Why? Because God revealed them all in His word. Therefore, they all describe to some degree what God’s image in human beings means. And even if those idea blocks seem to contradict each other, God has no problem with that. The struggle with contradictions is your problem, O person of limited mental capacity, not His.

So, taking God’s Genesis-revealed image as Sovereign Creator and Shaper regarding His image in humanity, these three views can be unified as follows:

Functional – we rule over creation as an extension of God’s function as Sovereign King.

Substantive – we are kingly in our person as representatives of our King’s being and will in human form.

Relational – we are His vice-regents in our relationship with our Sovereign King and His creation.

All three views blend to highlight different facets of what it means to be made in God’s image. And here’s the fascinating part! The three views represent a top-down (how He tells us to function), straight on (what we share of God’s substance), and bottom-up (how we relate to Him) description of God’s image in humanity.

However, regarding the Subdue and Rule Mandate, the functional view of God’s image seems the most helpful. God’s image as to how we function clearly shows us the link between God’s image and humanity’s dominion because, in Genesis 1:26-27, God’s image in people links to action, how He wants us to function as His image on earth.

And now, the third question. How does being created in God’s image guide us to exercise the Subdue and Rule Mandate properly? After all, “ruling” is placed alongside being created in God’s image twice, thereby linking God’s image in humanity with God’s mandate to humanity to exercise dominion over God’s creation.

See for yourself. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image…’” is linked to “They will rule” (Genesis 1:26), and “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God” is linked to “…God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule…” (Genesis 1:27-28). Therefore, since God’s image is linked to our command to act, the functional view of God’s image in humanity is the best explanation.

Here’s something else that also helps us understand God’s image in us. According to Dumbrell (Covenant and Creation), Genesis 1:26 has a purpose clause showing that God created humanity in His image for the purpose of ruling God’s creation, “Let us make man in our image…They will rule.”

Further, humanity’s mandates to reproduce and rule are fused with God’s image in us. For as God creates and then rules his domain, so people are to create (children) and with them, rule over God’s world. In other words, God’s purpose for creating us was to provide additional humans who He has designated to subdue and rule the earth on His behalf.

Being created in God’s image was not an afterthought. It is an essential requirement for us to exercise our mandated rulership properly.

As a functional reflection of God’s image, the Man and Woman were created and commissioned to function like God, THE Creator and Shaper, as His “creators” (reproduce) and “shapers” (subdue and rule). And being made in His image, we were designed to “create and shape” only as He would as a perfect reflection of Him and His will.

God created us to be extensions of Himself, doing His work within His creation. As God’s physical representation on earth, the Man and Woman were not to function as they saw fit. God created humanity to function in His place (on earth), in His way (the tree prohibition), according to His command (reproduce/subdue and rule).

God intended humanity to exercise our Subdue and Rule Mandate only as He exercises dominion according to who He is (His being) and what He wants (His will). This parameter cancels the argument that “humanity made in the image of God” is a license to exploit the earth. God didn’t create everything, so He could “make use of (His creation) selfishly or unethically,” which is what “exploit” means. God created everything, including His most prized treasure – us – to nurture unselfishly and perfectly right. As God selflessly loves and cares for the pinnacle of His creation, we were (and still are) intended to function toward creation in the same way.

The functional view of God’s image in us tells us what to do – subdue and rule the earth. The substantive view of God’s image in us shows us how to do it.

In short, what God does, so we should do. What God is, so we should be.

Mull that over for a moment.

Since God is (along with His other attributes) compassionate, gracious, loving (Exodus 34:6), merciful (2 Chronicles 30:9), just (Psalm 48:10), tender, watchful (Isaiah 49:15), and wise (Psalm 104:24) toward His creation, so we should be as we subdue and rule the world around us.

Speaking of God’s attributes, what do you think the fruit of the Spirit is (Galatians 5:22-23)? A summary of God’s character traits! Therefore, the fruit of the Holy Spirit also guides us as to how we are to carry out our Subdue and Rule Mandate with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The three views of being created in God’s image, especially the functional view, explain why the Subdue and Rule Mandate is hard-wired into our human nature.

Simply put, God created us to function as His proxy on earth. But there’s more to explain what it means to “subdue and rule,” and for that, we need to understand how the idea of “God’s image in a person” was understood by ancient peoples.

Pastor Jay Christianson

The Truth Barista, Frothy Thoughts


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