Discipleship and Human Flourishing

Genesis 1 establishes that God brings order and creates conditions for humans to flourish. Rather than a completed work, creation is handed over to humans who are tasked with continuing the work of pushing back the darkness and providing for humans. This was the spirit of the Sabbath and is the essential work of the peacemakers.

In the beginning was chaos.  Darkness.  A world that was empty and lifeless.  There was an absence of order, function and productivity.  The earth was covered by the sea – a consistent symbol of chaos and danger.

God is introduced to us as a God who brings order, a God who brings peace.  Throw yourself back in time 4,000 years.  The world was a scary place.  There was no mechanical scientific understanding of how things worked.  Nature was red in tooth and claw.  Modern medicine didn’t exit.  Band-Aids, Panadol and online shopping hadn’t happened.  Mobile data coverage was abysmal.  The world was an awe inspiring but uncertain place.  The sun came up each day but what if it didn’t?  The winter rains were essential to your family’s survival but would they come this year?  God introduces Himself into the world of the early Hebrews as the one who was pushing back the boundaries of chaos and establishing order in an otherwise disordered world.  The sun would rise because God so decreed.  The seasons would happen because He caused them.  Darkness and the wild oceans would operate under the limits God established. 

However the God of Israel is interested in more than just an orderly functioning world.     Gen 1 shows God as caring and providing for human needs and the role gave them.  When we have plants introduced there are two types mentioned, vegetation/grass and fruit bearing trees.  Food for man and beast.  The seasons are established; why?  Because seasons underpin a predictable farming calendar.  The land animals are given in three classes, domesticated ones, creeping stuff and the wild animals.  Domesticated animals are not born domesticated but God wants us to know he provided them specifically for us.  Humanity is then introduced and given leadership over the functioning fruitful earth God has set in order.

We know Genesis 1 so well but what do we take from it?  From a young age we are drilled on what happened on what day.  Day 4 the sun moon and stars and we show the kids these awesome pictures from the Hubble telescope (a device which demonstrates again the theory of relativity and the astonishing age of the universe).  Perhaps our favourite as a kid was Day 5, the amazing birds or the clever dolphins.  Day 6 is popular nominee for best day of creation.  From Sunday School we remember the many cute fluffy animals made on Day 6.  Lions and tigers,elephants, rabbits and poodles.

We read Genesis 1 quite differently to the ancients because we live in a different world to the Hebrews.  We tend to think about the stuff God made.  We might miss the critical ordering and setting up of humanity to flourish which is going on in Genesis 1.  We can understate the movement from barren emptiness to a flourishing productive world, from a place of chaos and darkness to one of order and peace.  This is more important than the arrival of even poodles.

The creative work was not finished on day 6

There is a continuation of creation implicit in the record.  God commissions humanity to continue the work of bringing order and flourishing to the world.  We read:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground

Gen 1:28

The words “subdue” and “rule” mean pretty much what the English translations say.  I would have preferred a statement on stewardship but that is not what God says.  The word “subdue” is used as follows:

According to TDOT:

[Subdue] is one of several [words] that express the exercise of force. The meaning of kāḇaš can be realized in various contexts: in military hostilities, when whole territories and their populations are subdued, in the conquest of established kingdoms, but also in individual cases, when someone is enslaved, or in the sexual realm when a woman or girl is importuned and assaulted. The verb always presupposes a stronger party as subject and a weaker party as object[1]

Wagner, TDOT

Sometimes such rule can be for a positive outcome eg Mic7:19, but even then it is contrary to the natural wishes of the weaker party.  An examination of the 13 occurrences of the Hebrew makes it clear this is a negative word.  Josh John van Ee summarises the meaning as:

denotes an active pursuit of dominion through the use of force over someone who is offering some degree of resistance. In other words, vbk involves a conflict in which the stronger gains control of the weaker[2]

The word subdue is not a positive one – the idea is imposing your will on another party that does not want to co-operate.

The second word is translated “rule”.  Rather than being benevolent leadership, the word is consistently used in a manner consistent with its root meaning “to tread down”.  So having first subdued the opposition, humans are to have dominion/rule over the creation.  The Hebrew occurs some 22 times and comes from a root word to tread (down).  It is rendered as follows:

What does the word imply about the quality of the rulership?  Some examples to illustrate (all from the NET):

  • You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God Lev 25:43
  • I will set my face against you. You will be struck down before your enemies, those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee when there is no one pursuing you Lev 26:17
  • His royal court was so large because he ruled over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River from Tiphsah to Gaza; he was at peace with all his neighbors 1 Kings 4:24
  • These men worked for Solomon as supervisors; there were a total of 250 of them who were in charge of the people 2 Chron 8:10
  • May he rule from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth Psa 72:8
  • The Lord extends your dominion from Zion. Rule in the midst of your enemies Psa 102:2  
  • You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them Ezek 34:4

The rulership is about control – treading down.  It can sometimes yield peace (per Solomon’s reign and Psalm 72) but in these instances it is a rulership that controls the hostile nations to enforce peace.  When used of ruling God’s people it has a negative connotation.  Eg Solomon’s labour managers and the priests who exploited the people.

The Complete Word Study Dictionary says:

A verb meaning to rule, to have dominion, to subjugate. This Hebrew word conveys the notion of exercising domain, whether legitimate or not, over those who are powerless or otherwise under one’s control. It is related as the exercise of authority by the priesthood (Jer. 5:31); by slave owners over their slaves (Lev. 25:43); by supervisors over their workers (1 Kgs. 9:23); and by a king over his kingdom (1 Kgs. 4:24[5:4]).[3]


The word is not neutral like the Hebrew word used for the rule of the sun and moon in Gen 1:16 a word which means:

dominion, rule, authority, province, realm. Often this term denotes the ruling power which one in authority exercises over his domain or kingdom…In other places, the word refers to the territory over which one rules or governs…Once it refers collectively to an envoy of powerful ambassadors, such as rulers, princes, or chief officers[4]


Now to see the words “subdue” and “rule” as being so strong is not popular and many commentators resist it (possibly because of a precommitment to what “very good” means in Gen 1:31?).  But see it this way – God had pushed back the darkness and introduced light, He had set the bounds of the violent chaotic sea (cp Job 38), He established order and fruitfulness in what was once barren and lifeless.  Now we are to continue to do the same.  This is part of our service to the God of creation – and it might not be easy.

Subdue versus destroy – an aside

Sometimes Christianity is criticised because in the last 200 years humanity – mainly those from Christian nations – have mechanised the exploitation of natural resources with devastating effect.  While Gen 1:28 says humans would have to struggle to exert their will and then rule over creation this doesn’t give licence to industrialists plundering the earth, levelling its forests and tearing resources from its heart. 

We need to see the words in the context of a first nations mindset, a culture where the link to the land is an inherent part of identity, history and future.  The sea or the wild beasts of the forest are dangerous and pitted against human wellbeing.  They threats need to be confronted.  But the Israelites would understand “subdue” and “rule” as providing for all human flourishing and order.  It wasn’t permission to undo creation.  The words cannot be bent to mean humans can undertake perpetual destruction and return the earth to a state of being without form and void. 

What the passage does is charge humanity with extending creation.  Of pushing back chaos and darkness and instead building a world where all humans can flourish (along with the rest of creation).

Of course the struggle to impose order and human flourishing goes further than the natural world. 

The metaphor of light and dark is pretty familiar to us throughout the Bible.  Those who walk in darkness (John 3:19) are those who oppose God who dwells in light (1Tim 6:16) and is called the Father of lights (James 1:17).  At the end of Revelation in the new Jerusalem there is no darkness – the presence of the Lamb means even the sun and moon are no longer required, there’s not even night anymore (Rev 21:23-25). 

So too, the sea or the floods are consistently used as metaphors for chaos and opposition to God.  In Isa 57:20-21 the troubled sea is an explicit metaphor for the wicked.  James 1:6 and Jude 13 similarly use the sea in negative imagery.  God is depicted in various passages as putting the sea under His control (eg Psa 93:3-4, 98:7).  Part and parcel of the kingdom imagery in Revelation is the sea.  When the new heavens and the new earth are established in Rev 21:1 it is unsurprising that there is no more sea.

So please don’t imagine we should limit our application of the struggle to bring order and flourishing to just the natural world.

The climax of creation is day 7

The Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton in 1227 started splitting the Bible into chapters.  Unfortunately he messed up the very first one.  Genesis 1 should end at Gen 2:3 at the conclusion of the 7th day and before the “These are the generations of/This is the account of” statement which commences new sections each of the 13 times it is used in Genesis.  Unfortunately this can mislead us. 

The natural reading of Gen 1 would lead us to conclude that the conclusion, that the climax of creation is the creation of humanity.  Now all men and women being God’s image bearers is a powerful and valuable thing to grasp, but it is the second most important point in the story of creation.

The climax of Genesis 1, the most important thing we should pay attention to is Day 7.  It is all about Day 7.  Day 7 is the day which is celebrated and built into the spiritual calendar of Israel. 

The conclusion of the creation record – Day 7 is:

The heavens and the earth were completed with everything that was in them. 2  By the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day all the work that He had been doing.  3   God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it He ceased all the work that He had been doing in creation

Gen 2:1-3 NET

Part of the genius of the construction of the 7-day record is the repetition of the number 7.  In this final stanza of the composition there are three lines each of 7 words.  But that’s just by the by.  What is going on with God resting?   

To quote from John Walton:

in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have “settled down.” Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.[5]

John Walton

Walton points to Psa 133:7-16 as consistent with this[6]:

Let us go to His dwelling place! Let us worship before His footstool!  8 Ascend, O Lord, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength! May Your priests be clothed with integrity! May Your loyal followers shout for joy!

Psa 133:8-9 NET

So we see this idea, God is present in his temple – His location being symbolized by the ark – and once He is there, resting, his followers praise him.  Again in v 14

He said, “This will be my resting place forever; I will live here, for I have chosen it.  I will abundantly supply what she needs; I will give her poor all the food they need. I will protect her priests, and her godly people will shout exuberantly.

Psa 133:14-16

So God “rests” in His temple.  He is not inactive, rather everything is going well and God is blessing the people who in turn respond with praise.

When God ceased His creative work He is enthroned in creation ready to be praised by His subjects for bringing order and making the world a place when humans can flourish.  Things have moved to a new phase where God works with and through His delegates.  Day 7 is when God passed the baton of creativity, of order making, of human flourishing, to the humans.

The Sabbath and peacemaking

We know the 7th Day was celebrated as the Sabbath and all self-interested human labour was to cease.  But the Sabbath was not a day of ceasing work – it was meant to be a day of continuing God’s work, of exercising the commission given to humanity in Gen 1.

Isaiah made this clear:

Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the Lord?  No, this is the kind of fast I want. 

Isa 58:5-6

The people were complaining that God didn’t reward them for their pious religious activity.   They did the fasts.  They did religion!  Why didn’t God make things better?!  They completely missed what God wanted from the Sabbath:

I want you to remove the sinful chains,  to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,  to set free the oppressed,  and to break every burdensome yoke.  I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! 

Isa 58:6-7

Can you see what God wanted people to do on the Sabbath?  He wants them to continue His work started in creation.  Make the world a place where all humans can flourish!

Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behaviour will go before you, and the Lord’s splendour will be your rear guard.  Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond; you will cry out, and He will reply, ‘Here I am.’  You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.  You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. 

Isa 58:8-10

God would respond to their work, He is enthroned in the temple of creation wanting His image bearers to spread His character to continue His purpose.  And if the nation was willing to take up this commission God would work with them and continue the creative work:

Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday. The Lord will continually lead you; He will feed you even in parched regions. He will give you renewed strength, and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring that continually produces water.

Isa 58:8-11

What did God want?  He wanted His people to continue the work, to provide for human flourishing to work against oppression.  If they did that God would work with them and there would be more light, more fruitfulness, more blessings. 

The Sabbath was instigated to prompt Israel to continue God’s creative work and that meant real concrete action to make the world better.  It meant opposing sin, resisting oppression and providing for the needy as surely as God provided for all humanity.  It was meant to remind Israel to work to extend creation so ultimately they too could enter God’s rest – that creation ultimately would be the place God wanted to share with them.

But my life is chaos & darkness

We said that God was pushing back the boundaries of chaos and creating order.  But what if my life doesn’t always feel ordered?  What if there is no peace? 

We all have tension and struggle.  We can be very aware of the darkness in our lives – literal and spiritual.  I read some lovely words by Rabbi Artson who wrote:

It is precisely here, at the face of Tehom, that the breath of the Divine flutters…the breath/wind/spirit of God returns again and again to the edges of disorder and chaos, unsettling the norms, disrupting the habitual, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, cracking an opening for novelty to emerge…The divine vibrating resiliently invites chaos toward cosmos… The work of creation is never ending and never static. ..The ruach continues to vibrate across the face of tehom, through us, in us, with us: continuous creating[7]

Being in the dark doesn’t mean we are divorced from God.  It was on the dark troubled sea that God first moved.  The Creator has a purpose with us and will work no less powerfully in us than He did in creation. 

For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ

2 Cor 4:6

The same Creator God with the same power, the same plan is working in you to bring light, to overcome the darkness.  God’s purpose in creation wasn’t frustrated by a lack of will.  There was no lack of power of or wisdom to accomplish the impossible.  The darkness, the chaos didn’t win then.  It won’t win this time either if we are open to the creative power of the spirit in our lives.

Jesus is the one who brought victory

Of course it was Jesus who was the fulfilment of the commission.  He overcame sin and darkness.  As the perfect image of God he embodied the spirit of Sabbath and the working with God.  As he said of himself he worked to:

proclaim good news to the poorto proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor

Luke 4:18-19

And in his death he subdued and beat down once and for all his human desires and surrendered completely to God’s will.

As you undoubtedly know we can draw a straight line from Genesis 1 – the dominion of humanity – to Psalm 8 where the writer marvels at God’s interest in man and the dominion given to man.  Further we go into Hebrews 2 where the writer particularises Psalm 8 as speaking particularly of Jesus gaining dominion over all things. 

Why was Jesus given dominion over all things?  Because says Hebrews 2, he fulfilled the commission, he set free the slaves to sin and death, he subdued the devil.  He was the perfect image of God who pushed back the darkness, who figuratively brought peace to the helpless and those experiencing the chaos.  Of course Jesus was given dominion by God! But Jesus did not gain dominion just for himself.  He allows us to share in his victory and that should be a source of confidence, of assurance, of peace.  As Jesus said himself:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage

John 17:27

Life will be a struggle – that was part of the creative order.  But we have something with us.  The peace of Jesus.  The knowledge that victory is achievable in him.  That dominion is within our grasp because of his victory and he wants to share his victory with his siblings. 

The peace of Jesus is knowing that he subdued everything and will rule in the kingdom.  The peace of Jesus is knowing that despite our struggles, victory has been achieved.  And as the writer of Hebrews goes on to say, the rest of Day 7 which God enjoyed will be shared by the saints.  It will be ours because of the victory of Jesus – that’s peace of mind, a peace of mind which provides more than adequate power to us because we have:

the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus

Phil 4:7

So while we are expected to continue the creative work it is with the certainty that we do so in partnership with our Lord because we are family.

Blessed are the peacemakers (Matt 5)

On the sermon of the mount Jesus said:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God

Matt 5:9

The children of God.  Those who continue the creative work of subduing over that which opposes.  Those who work against the darkness, the chaos, the injustice which prevents human flourishing. 

Someone was talking on this verse once and I wrote down what they said because I thought it was spot on:

The peace you build not the wars you wage define you as a child of God

God doesn’t need us to defend Him.  He doesn’t need us to condemn the darkness or to shout at the chaos.  Images of Christians holding up signs running people down; that’s not what God wants. He wants us to do what He started, to work for Him by spreading light.  To be united with His aims and make the world practically better for everyone. A peacemaker exists because there is conflict. Because there is darkness and chaos, because human flourishing is not perfectly possible. Peacemaking is not about pointing out problems it is a positive calling.

Being a peacemaker is an active calling.  Isaiah exhorted Israel to do it in many practical ways.  How we practice that in our lives – well – that’s for each of us to determine consistent with our energy, resources and capacity. 

We might not bring peace to the nations, but do we need to bring peace into our family through extending a gracious olive branch?  Could we share more of our time with the lonely and sick?  It might be a kind word with a neighbour, or some act of love to a member here.  Is it offering the light of the gospel to people?  There are many many ways to “make the world a better place”.  We are not called individually to do everything.  Jesus has won the victory – but we need to be engaged in our own way in the effort. 

I don’t know how you can be a peacemaker in the next few days.  What bridges you could rebuild.  What you could say or do.  That might be something for you to consider.  How am I trying to make God’s creation better?

by Daniel Edgecombe

[1] Wagner, S. (1995). כָּבַשׁ. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 7, p. 56). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[2] Joshua John Van Ee (2013), Death and the Garden : : An Examination of Original Immortality, Vegetarianism, and Animal Peace in the Hebrew Bible and Mesopotamia (https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0qm3n0mt, 2013).

[3] Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 1037). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[4] Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 624). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[5] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 72.

[6] Similarly Walton points to Deut 12:10 and Josh 21:44, 23:1 which all speak of God helping Israel conquer the land and them giving them rest.  The idea of rest is one of stability and normal operations rather than a ceasing of all work or relaxing as we might think of it.

[7] Bradley Shavit Artson, Vibrating Over the Face of the Deep: God’s Creating and Ours (https://www.openhorizons.org/vibrating-over-the-face-of-the-deep.html, n.d.). [Note the actual passage says “though us, in us” which I have corrected to “through”]

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