While I’ve spent considerable time on the question of my individual purpose, I can’t say I ever loitered very long on the issue of humanity’s purpose in general. Perhaps it’s because the question seems unanswerable.
Growing up in the charismatic church, I heard plenty about our purpose being to know God and make Him known. And I don’t disagree, really. But what about life in the physical world? We were created physical beings on a physical planet for a physical purpose. But why?
The first account of Creation tells us more about God’s heart on the matter. What He was thinking when He fashioned us. Let’s take a look:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth (all the wild animals), and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them.
Let them rule. That was the first stated purpose.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
In that passage, the mandate evolves into more detail:
- Be fruitful
- Increase in number
- Fill the earth
- Subdue the earth
- Rule over fish, birds, and every living ground creature
So for all the creatures that live and breathe on the earth, humans were given the mandate to rule.
Side note: I was taught the phrase “Be fruitful and multiply” was a single phrase encapsulating a command to reproduce more humans. But with some distance from that mindset, I see now that being “fruitful” and “multiplying” are, or at least can be, two entirely separate and different mandates. To be fruitful is to do work that bears much fruit. To multiply is to reproduce. Those are not the same thing. Very different, actually. And it’s important to recognize that there’s a mandate to be fruitful in our efforts.
What about tending to the garden? Weren’t they given a mandate to steward the land as well?
I believe we were, but the mandate looks different because the mindset of Mosaic Israel (the time when this book was most likely written) would have seen ruling to be an act one does over living creatures, not plants and soil.
But the issue of plants didn’t go unaddressed. Here’s what He said on the matter:
Then God said: “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
So we see the language is different. Humans aren’t commanded to rule the plants. But every seed bearing plant and tree with seeded fruit belongs to us for food.
So we have ruling over the creatures and eating the plants. We have labor that bears much fruit. And we have making tiny humans. And this odd notion of subduing the earth.
In English, “subdue” means to overcome, quieten, or bring under control. We’ll discuss this more further, because I think this is where the stewardship mandate comes into play. Take a moment to think about the earliest description of Creation. We know that people were created in God’s image. Perhaps in the story of Creation before mankind arrived we will see some sort of pattern which we are to follow. After all, if we are made in God’s image, we ought to be living and doing things that also follow His nature and pattern.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good…
This is our starting point. Being made in God’s image, perhaps God saw fit to give man and woman an Earth that was somewhat formless and void, and empowered them to “subdue” it. What if subdue is our call to be like God and take something that has greater potential than it has fulfilled and to form something functionally beautiful and coherent?
To be continued…