Bereishit

What Does God Want from Humanity? A New Perspective on the Creation Chapters

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Yakov Nagen

The Torah, and in many respects the entire Bible, recounts primarily the story of the Jewish people. Only a few chapters discuss or address other nations. The exception is in the beginning of the book of Genesis, with the accounts of Creation. These chapters are unique in that God speaks to all of humanity, addresses how humans are to interact with the world, and lays out what God requests and expects from His creations who were created in His image and placed in His world.

A penetrating study of the opening chapters of the book of Genesis will allow us to grow aware of the general human story and how it forms the basis of our identity. We will then be open to forging a different way of relating to other peoples and other religions.[1]

Mitzvot Between People and the World

Traditionally, mitzvot are divided between those that are person-to-God and those that are person-to-person. But if we examine the account of creation, we observe something surprising: neither category reflects God’s initial commands to humanity.

Commandments to foster a relationship with the Divine – via prayer, performance of rituals, or otherwise drawing our attention heavenward – are conspicuously absent in the creation stories of the first two chapters of Genesis. Similarly, there is no call to pursue justice or righteousness vis-à-vis other people; there is, in fact, no human society in which to practice such precepts. God’s charge to humanity in these chapters may instead be categorized as relating to mitzvot between people and the world. Humans are to direct themselves to the reality outside themselves, and by performing tasks within the world into which they were placed, fulfill their purpose.

Let us consider three salient examples:

1. Arguably, the first mitzva given to Adam is procreation: “God blessed them, and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The objective of this mitzva is explicit: to fill the earth.

God creates the heavens and the earth so that people will settle the earth and fill it, rather than leave it uninhabited. We can gain insight into the meaning of filling the earth from the story of the Tower of Babel. Those who built the tower, according to Rashbam, abrogated their obligation to the world: to settle it and fill it up with people. Commenting on the clause, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4), he writes:

According to the [text’s] straightforward meaning, what was the sin of the generation of the Dispersion?… It was that the Holy One Blessed be He commanded them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and conquer it” (Genesis 1:28), and they chose for themselves a place to settle and said, “lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). Therefore, [God] dispersed them from there by His decree.

God’s intention is that humanity be destined for greatness. He commands them to reach every point on the globe and to cultivate national identities and distinctive languages and cultures. But human beings shrink from fulfilling their mission. They cluster in one area, speak one language, and center their efforts on one task: to build the Tower of Babel. In reaction, God “guides” them back to the proper path:

The Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the whole earth, and they desisted from building the city. Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded [balal] the language of all the earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:8–9)[2]

2. The next mitzvah given to humans is to rule over the animal kingdom: “Fill the earth and conquer it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Given the statement of the Sages that Adam was not permitted to eat animals, what was his dominion over them meant to entail? Rav Kook proposes that Adam was to use his power to do good for the world:

One should not understand this as referring to the dominance of a cruel dictator who uses those whom he rules over for his own desires and his own pleasures, to fulfill his own purposes. Rather, this is dominion that is for the benefit of those being ruled over, to shepherd them with knowledge and understanding, with an upright scepter of his kingship. (For the Perplexed of the Generation, chapter 8)

3. After God places Adam in the Garden of Eden, He commands him to “cultivate it and to preserve it.” His attention is to be directed toward the Garden itself: to the need to act to sustain it and to his obligation to undertake those actions: “The Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to preserve it” (Genesis 2:15).[3]

The Foundation of Human Obligations – Being Created in God’s Image

What is the controlling principle behind these mitzvot? Rav Kook suggests that this system of mitzvot is based on the idea that human beings were created in the image of God. The opening words of his book For the Perplexed of the Generation are, “The fact that man is created in God’s image is the basis of the Torah.”[4] Indeed, the mitzva to procreate and the mitzva to rule over the animals both appear in the context of people having been created in the image of God:

God said: Let us make man in our image after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them, and God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and conquer it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26–28)

These verses indicate that God lodges His presence in the world by means of human beings, who have been created in His image and who thus link Heaven and earth. This is the meaning of creation in the image of God. Human beings are to direct their attention downwards, rather than upwards. They constitute a “transition,” God’s channel for touching and acting upon reality. Human activity in the world is the extension of God’s activity in Creation.

God’s activity is even described in human terms, as six days of labor followed by a day of rest. This anthropomorphism provides the framework for seeing human activity as the continuation of God’s activity. Indeed, afterward we too are commanded to engage in labor for six days and then rest on the seventh day, following God’s model. As the Kotzker Rebbe would say, “‘In the beginning God created’ – God created only the beginning; the rest is up to human beings.”[5]

The Power to Name

The Godly creative potential lying within human beings is illustrated most powerfully in the remarkable account of Adam naming the animals and the other elements of Creation:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man would call every living creature, that was to be its name. And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the heavens, and to every beast of the field… (Genesis 2:19–20)

The tableau is startling, even shocking; God brings all the animals and birds to Adam, and, as it were, waits patiently, curious “to see what he would call them.”[6] Only after Adam bestows the names do they receive God’s endorsement: “and whatever the man would call every living creature, that was to be its name.”

This description stands in contrast to the parallel account in the Koran. There, Adam’s greatness lies not in his creativity in naming the animals, but in the fact that he knows the animals’ preexisting, God-given names.

When your Lord said to the angels, “I am placing a successor on earth,” they said, “Will You place in it someone who will cause corruption in it and shed blood, while we declare Your praises and sanctify You?” He said, “I know what you do not know.” And He taught Adam the names, all of them, then he presented them to the angels and said, “Tell Me the names of these, if you are sincere.” They said, “Glory be to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. It is you who are the Knowledgeable, the Wise.” He said, “O Adam, tell them their names.” And he told them… (Sura al-Baqarah 2:30–33)

Comparing the two accounts is instructive. In the Koran, the essence of man is submission. Hence, Adam’s greatness lies in his ability to receive and learn God’s teachings. The Torah, on the other hand, sees humanity as operating as God’s partner and agent in the world.

This depiction of Adam as the bestower of names to the animals and birds secures his status as a shaper of the world, continuing God’s creative activity. In the first chapter of Genesis, it is God who bestows names on various elements of Creation: He calls the light Day, calls the darkness Night, calls the dry land Earth, and calls the gathering of the waters Seas. In the second chapter, Adam is the one who names the animals. Naming, according to the Rabbis, not only describes reality, but shapes it as well:

From where do we derive that a name affects [one’s life]? Rabbi Eliezer said that the verse says: “Go see the works of the Lord, who has made desolations [shamot] upon the earth” (Psalms 46:9). Do not read shamot, rather shemot, names. (Berakhot 7b)

Postmodernism has greatly expanded on the principle that language and perspective shape reality, but this idea has ancient roots in Judaism.[7] The Zohar teaches that naming shapes a person and their fate, using Noah as the exemplar: “He called his name Noah, saying: This one shall comfort us [yinahamenu]” (Genesis 5:29) – and indeed, Noah “found favor in God’s eyes” (Genesis 6:8).[8]

To Choose

The power to bestow names, a function of our having been created in God’s image, points to the essence of being human: free will. Let us return to Rav Kook’s statement above: “the fact that man is created in God’s image is the basis of the Torah.” He continues, “The main character of ‘the image’ is the complete freedom that we find in man, by virtue of which he possesses free will.” We fulfill the Godly part of our nature through exercising our free will.

But this raises a puzzling question: If the ability to choose between good and evil is the essence of being human, why was it considered a sin to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the very tree that facilitated and created the space for humanity to choose? One possible answer is that while humanity was meant to have free choice, the choice was not necessarily intended to be between good and evil.

Originally, humans were created to exercise choice in the sense of creativity. They were supposed to use their choice to express and shape their lives more fully and deeply. Today as well, the more meaningful choice we face is not merely to avoid evildoing, but to plan the directions and channels in which our lives are to develop. What “name” will we bestow upon our lives? It is choice that is at the foundation of creativity, and it is only due to the sin of eating from the tree that the choice is transposed to doing good versus doing evil.

Implications

The biblical accounts of Creation present a scenario in which God’s active presence in the world shrinks post-Creation, with the slack to be taken up by human beings. Since they are created in God’s image, they are charged with instilling Godliness in the world, thus constituting a bridge between Heaven and earth. Humanity’s mission, according to the Creation chapters, relates principally to creation and to the world; people are to safeguard, sustain, and develop God’s cherished creation and continue His creative work.

The Creation accounts proclaim: the world has value. Its existence matters. According to Kabbala, the material world functions as raiment for God’s light, as in the verse, “You cover Yourself with light, as with a garment” (Psalms 104:2). Therefore, human presence in the world constitutes an encounter with the Divine, and repairing the world – the material world – is service of God. The human perspective, bestowing names, appreciating the beauty of the world – all these exalt God’s creation and complete it. When humanity, the pinnacle of creation, uses its power in the world to work goodness and to repair rather than to ruin, it becomes part of how Divine beauty manifests in the material domain.

This reading of Genesis has practical implications. Among them:

1. Seeing ourselves as continuing God’s creative activity and as bearing primary responsibility to the world puts the modern movement promoting environmental consciousness at center stage. Our generation’s increased commitment to environmental sustainability dovetails well with the Genesis accounts of humanity’s beginning.[9]

2. Recognizing that our mission relates to the material world can operate as the foundation for broad fellowship among all nations and peoples. Human partnership with God need not be confined to the classically “holy” arena, but can also encompass life-affirming pursuits that are more material and “secular,” as part of the grand calling shared by all the children of Adam.

God Waiting for Humanity

Until now we have examined the accounts of Creation in terms of their implications for humanity’s obligation to our world. How can we also incorporate a more familiar aspect of Judaism: our relationship with God?

There is a profound point in the fact that there are no ritual commands in the opening chapters of Genesis: God leaves space for human beings to pursue Him on their own. Initially, humanity is not given commandments to facilitate this pursuit or strengthen this bond, whether by means of prayer, sacrifice, or any other ritual practice. People  come to adopt these methods later, acting on their own initiative and their deepest desires. Later, God transmits to the Jewish people an elaborate system of commandments that direct and define the proper ways to actualize a relationship with Him.

But on the most basic level, we can say that in the Creation chapters, it is left to human beings to seek God; just as God waits patiently to see what names Adam will bestow, so too does He wait to see in which ways and through which “gates” people will find their way to express and realize their connection to Him. A few examples:

1. Cain and Abel bring a sacrifice: This, the first ritual act in the Torah, is undertaken not in response to a command, but as an authentic expression of their inner feelings.[10] Cain offers agricultural produce, and Abel offers the first of his flock and their fat. God did not appear to them and command them to do so; rather, they were moved to do so naturally, spontaneously.

2. Noah builds an altar and offers sacrifices upon it: Here too, it is not written that God commands Noah to do this; rather, Noah offers the sacrifices from his own initiative and free will – and the sacrifice is accepted with favor: “God smelled the sweet savor” (Genesis 8:21). A Midrash goes even further and suggests that he did so specifically because he had not been commanded:

Noah sat and mused in his heart and said: The Holy One Blessed be He rescued me from the waters of the Flood and removed me from that confinement. Am I not obligated to offer before Him a sacrifice and burnt offerings? Immediately, Noah brought from among the pure animals. (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 23)

This is Noah’s emotional, spontaneous reaction upon recognizing God’s kindness to him. He furthers the natural movement to seek God that Cain and Abel began, as the midrash goes on to explain: “he built up the first altar, upon which Cain and Abel had brought offerings.”

3. Prayer, or “calling upon the name of God”: This is a bottom-up phenomenon, like the ones listed above, a movement of human origin: “To Seth as well, a son was born, and he called his name Enosh; then was the beginning of calling upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26).

The straightforward indication in the text is that this is a positive movement of human impetus to recognize and serve God. As people encounter hardship, prayer makes an appearance.[11] They begin to call upon God and entreat Him not because they are fulfilling any command to pray, but because they are naturally moved to do so, en masse. The wording of the phrase “this was the beginning” suggests that prayer arises spontaneously out of human intuition and yearning.

Nevertheless, while prayer may have begun as a popular, generalized movement, the Midrash suggests that later, particular individuals “activated” new forms of prayer, which then became available to others. The life experience of such people prompted them to pioneer heretofore untried ways to communicate with God. For example, in being the first to call God “Master” (Adon), Abraham enabled others to recognize and relate to God’s aspect as Master of the universe. Similarly, Leah was the first to verbalize her gratitude to God: “this time I will thank the Lord” (Genesis 29:35).[12] She demonstrated this mode of speaking to God and appreciating His blessings, and made it available to future generations.

Updating Our Perspective on Other Nations

We have learned two fundamental principles from the Creation chapters: (1) Being created in God’s image places humanity in a “world-facing” position: with obligations to the environment, sustainability, populating the world, and developing it in order to fully realize the commission God entrusted us with. (2) By omitting from the account of Creation any commandment to serve Him, God purposely provides us the space to find our own ways to seek Him out and connect to Him.

These principles go beyond abstract matters of philosophy or exegesis. If we deepen our understanding of them and apply them, we open ourselves up to profound change, to transforming our very identity as people who serve God. The classical approach sees the Noahide laws as condensed instructions for serving God, meant for non-Jews, and the Torah and its abundant mitzvot as a special privilege God granted to the Jewish people. But we must reconsider this in light of what we have learned through our examination of the Creation chapters, where the absence of specific laws dictating the terms of a relationship with God creates a space for humans to seek connection to the Divine.

The Noahide laws do not constitute a mission, a faith, or an identity for non-Jews. They do not establish affirmative expectations; rather, they command humanity to refrain from spoiling or destroying what God gave us. Consequently, by themselves they can never fully address God’s charge to humanity. It is necessary to add the two areas we have outlined: people’s responsibility toward the world (the essence of the Creation chapters), and the open space that people are given to seek God and build pathways to Him.

This suggests that there is room to rethink how we relate to other nations and faiths. It is a given that some ways of serving God will remain forever out of bounds, and the Torah is suffused with the theme of battling idolatry and its emptiness. Even so, when human beings freely and authentically seek out God, their expression can take diverse forms – and this is what God expects of us, His creations. The Jewish people is indeed privileged to be bound in a covenant with God, including the Torah and its mitzvot, but we also share the common responsibilities of all humanity toward the world and to seeking God. May we merit to fulfill the words of the prophets: “For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve Him of one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).

Translated by Ilana Sobel. Edited by David Fried


[1] In his book The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik sees the two accounts of Creation as representing two archetypes: the first account reflects man’s greatness and glory, whereas in the second account Adam is the “man of faith” who stands before God. I wish to suggest in this article that in both stories man stands before the world. While chapter 1 underscores human creative potential, we will see that this potential is for the sake of the world, and chapter 2 echoes this vision.

[2] See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2002).

[3] The command to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge appears only afterward. While it may be understood as akin to a person-to-God mitzva, part of the boundary line defining an appropriate relationship with the Divine, it could also be categorized with mitzvot between people and the world, as a direct continuation of the command to “cultivate it and preserve it.”

It is interesting to note that the Sages derived certain commandments from the verses describing Creation; tractate Sanhedrin midrashically ties each of the Noahide laws to a Divine command to Adam. Elsewhere, I have shown that the essence of the Noahide laws belongs to the level of commands to preserve the world and everything in it; deriving them from Creation verses serves to strengthen that argument even further.

[4] For the Perplexed of the Generation 1:1.

[5] Quoted by Norman Lamm, Derashot Ledorot: Genesis, A Commentary for the Ages (Maggid 1990) p. 39.

[6] While Sforno understands the word “see” to be referring to Adam, the straightforward sense of the text is that God is the one who brings the animals to Adam, as well as the one who waits to see what he will name them.

[7] See Peter Berger in The Social Construction of Reality, where he demonstrates that what we call reality is actually the consciousness with which we perceive it.

[8] The naming story sharpens our understanding of the story of the Tower of Babel: When they built the Tower, “the whole earth was of one language and one speech” (Genesis 11:1), but by the end of the story, there were multiple languages. When we understand that language has the power to shape an item’s essence, it follows that a profusion of languages plays a significant role in enriching the world.

[9] See the new book by Yonatan Neril and Leo Dee, Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary of Genesis and Exodus (The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development: 2020).

[10] Genesis 4:3–4.

[11] Rashbam on Genesis 4:26.

[12] Berakhot 7b

Yakov Nagen is a Musmakh of RIETS and holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University. He is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue.