The manner in which God created all that exists was a rather humble undertaking, especially when compared to the creation myths of ancient Israel’s cultural relatives. Many other ancient creation myths tell the story of cosmic war, of a battle being waged between the gods where the loser’s carcass becomes the earth and its drops of blood becomes humans. (Or other such things.) In this scenario, all humanity is meant to serve the victorious god as his slaves, providing for his various wants and needs. But in Genesis, we see creation accomplished by the mere act of God’s speech. There is no violence; there is no victory. There is only, “And God said…and it was so”.
Humanity, in Genesis, is not placed on earth to be God’s slaves, providing for his miscellaneous divine needs. Instead, they are placed on earth to rule and subdue it, to be fruitful and multiply. They are, most profoundly of all, created in God’s image. God is neither so immanent that he requires human slaves to meet his divine needs, nor is he so transcendent that he would not deign to have a creature represent himself on earth. God, in his deep humility, created human beings just a little less than himself, and set them apart from creation to bear his image and rule the world for its and their own good.
We bear God’s image in that we are free moral agents. God intentionally created us with the freedom to choose to obey him or disobey him. This is remarkable! God had every right to create intelligent beings without freedom; beings who would always choose to obey him no matter the circumstances. Instead, he created us: intelligent beings who could freely use their powers for evil—people who would set themselves up as rivals to God. God knew this would happen, and yet he showed such unconcern for his own unique majesty that he created free moral beings, a little lower than himself, and gave them the charge of ruling creation. In this he has revealed not simply his all-surpassing power, but the infinite well of humility out of which all else that is true of him flows.
When human beings used their God-given freedom to rebel against him, sin entered the world and poisoned everything good that God had made. At that time, when confronting Adam, Eve, and the serpent, God promised that, one day, one of Eve’s offspring would contend with the serpent and overcome him. This is the first promise of a Savior, or a Messiah. Thousands of years passed, however, before God began to set that plan into action. The man he chose was a pagan named Abram, whom God called to leave his homeland and go to Canaan.
When reading the account of God and Abram, the humility of God is not necessarily self-evident. It crops up here and there, but really the story is about God creating a nation through Abram’s offspring—of which he has none, though he is quite old. But there is one strange passage that holds the whole story together, and in it we see God’s humility on display unlike anywhere else in the Old Testament.
Genesis 15 | The Lord Makes a Covenant with Abram
1 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.”5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites,20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites,21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”
In the ancient near east, covenants like this were made (literally cut—because of the cutting of the animals) between two parties, one greater (the suzerain) and one lesser (the vassal). The suzerain determined the terms of the covenant, and the vassal was required to obey them. The vassal symbolized his agreement to the terms by passing between the pieces of the animals, saying, in essence, “If I break the terms of this covenant, may it be to me as it has been done to these animals”. But in this covenant, the vassal (Abram) does not pass through the pieces. Instead, the suzerain (YHWH) does. In this act, God is saying to Abram, “If you [or your descendants] break the terms of this covenant, may it be done to ME as it has been done to these animals”. God kept his promise, but Abram’s descendants failed to keep faith with this or any other covenant they made with God. He knew this would happen, and yet God made this covenant with Abram anyhow. Nothing shows his humility more than God’s willingness to die for the faithlessness of his creatures.