The Task of God’s People in Genesis

In Genesis 1, we see the first example of the task that God has given humanity:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,     in the image of God he created them;     male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

However, we need to be very careful when loading too much assumptions about what “rule” consists of, and how that rule has been affected by the fall.

Genesis 2 expands this idea of rule into caring for the garden. There was no garden because ‘there was no one to work the ground’ (v5). The man is then put into the garden ‘to work it and watch over it’ (v15) This rule is clearly not just an expression of hierarchy, but a calling to do actions directed towards creation for the good of creation.

God also provides a helper in a fellow human being. Note the word helper here is not subordinate in any way (for that discussion you need to go else-where), in the psalms, God is our helper using the same word. So this passage is not saying that woman is man’s servant, but hat people are called to serve each other. (This is not saying that I disagree with the order-in-gender discussion, because I do not, however Genesis is simply not talking about this issue. the order issue needs to be determined in the NT)

The dynamic of Genesis 2 and 3 indicate a separate task that was not specified, but is made clear in the narrative: humanity is to obey God. The command-sin-punishment cycle shows how central that task is. Failure to obey God leads to a broken relationship with creation, and a changing of the task of caring for it. Instead of tending a garden, humanity now fights the dirt and the thistles to get food. With the pain of child birth, the command to fill and subdue the earth is now filled with pain.

At this stage we shall depart from an examination of the task of all of humanity, and will instead focus on the unique task of God’s people as a sub-set of humanity, or perhaps as truer humanity, or redeemed humanity, or however you want to put it. We will see a pattern of returning to and redeeming that initial role of humanity, but I suspect we will see specific tasks that are allocated to God’s people as his representatives. This concept, of course, echoes back to one of the possible meanings of ‘image’ in Genesis 1 – the role of being God’s representative in his world.

The Flood

Noah gives us an example of a faithful man of God amongst a world who reject him. God gives him a command, and so we see the very least that he is supposed to do is obey the command. Secondly, there is some indication that Noah’s role will be redemptive. Or, at the very least, participating in God’s redemptive acts. God is saving people and animals, and he is using Noah as his tool for that purpose.

One of the interesting questions – which is explored in more detail in Providence in Genesis – is the place of initiative in the role of God’s people. Are we supposed to do things of our own initiative or wait for God to command them? At the very least, we do not see an example here of God having a general preference towards redemption and Noah taking the initiative to fill that preference. Here, God gives detailed instructions and expects Noah to follow them. Even at the end of that account, in chapter 8, we see the Ark sitting on dry land, but it is not until God commands Noah to come out (v16) that he actually does. In such a situation, where God is so clearly in control, Noah is notable for doing only what he is instructed to do, and not extemporise.

Chapter 9 re-emphasises the command to fill the land. In the context of Genesis 1-2, it would be safe to assume that this is a re-statement of the whole command to fill, subdue rule the land as people who hold the image of God (a reality re-iterated in 9:


This command to spread out and fill the earth is significant because it is exactly what the people of Babel were trying to avoid. In his response, God takes action to ensure that the spreading and filling continues.


The Abrahamic covenant introduces a significant new direction in the analysis of the task of God’s people. Up until now, there has been a general assumption that all people are god’s people. With Abraham, we see a selection of one people-group to be God’s people in a special way. This group is created and identified by God’s covenant. So now there are two potential people-groups when considering the role of God’s people. there are the people whom God created (i.e., all of them) and there are the people whom God has chosen and entered into a covenant with. Firstly, that covenant relationship is initiated by God, and there is no pre-requisite that made those people the ones whom he chose apart from his choice. It is, in NT terms, entirely by grace. Secondly, a new set of commands come to the covenant people from within the covenant – that is, after they are chosen (in the initial case, the command is simply “go”, but these commands will develop in time). This raises the important possibility that the commands apply to those who are in the covenant, but do not make any sense or give any value to those who are not (this is considered in a bit more detail in Ethics in Genesis). At the very least, for this topic, the division between covenant and non-covenant people calls us to move from the generic task of all humanity and focus now on the additional tasks given to the covenant people. At this stage, we must be open to the possibility that the task for God’s covenant people might be an addition, or even a replacement, for the general task we have observe d so far.

The first task we see is similar to the task required of Noah: to respond to the command. Again, that response requires a significant level of trust (faith) in the one giving the command, that he has things in hand. In Noah’s case, it was building  big boat and looking stupid. In Abraham’s it is leaving the safety, support and family ties of his homeland and going into a foreign and hostile land. The promises that God then gives in later chapters add an extra level of needed faith, since all of them seem patently impossible (for more detail, see Providence in Genesis).

Narrowing our focus

The Providence series will spend quite a bit of detail arguing for the position that, first and foremost, God is in control of his world. He them delegates aspects of his plan and mission to his people. We are called to fulfil those aspects that he has given us, but are not called to attempt to go outside of that mission because that would be trying to take God’s tasks from him and do them ourselves (and we would do a pretty bad job). This proposition is being examined and challenged or supported in the Providence topic. From here on in, this topic will focus on the question of what roles God has delegated to his covenant people, and how we see those roles being shaped and/or changed throughout biblical history.

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