One of the best places in Scripture to begin understanding human leadership is in its opening pages. The Genesis creation account has profoundly layered descriptions of the role of the first couple in the newly created paradise. What was true about them is still true for us today.
There would have been several arresting features of the biblical creation story to an ancient reader. There is no record of a primordial battle among competing gods, often personified in the forces of nature. Neither is there a climactic inauguration of kingship for a particular dynasty ruling from a divinely appointed regal-ritual city. Instead, a single, sovereign deity creates the world by his words, and places humans in charge of it all. It’s hard to imagine how this radical democratization of leadership would have been received. Though scholarship has long debated the meaning of the imago Dei (image of God), it clearly has leadership implications for all men and women. Genesis 1:26-28 explicitly couples the proclamation of the making of humans in divine likeness and image with ruling.
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, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So 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 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.”
(Gen 1:26-28 NIV)
To be in his image means to function as his royal vice-regents, much like the faithful steward Joseph ruled over Egypt in the place of Pharaoh. Leadership is intrinsic to humanness.
There is another function of the humans in the creation account that is subtly reinforced throughout the early scenes in Genesis. The paradise that God created was meant to be a garden sanctuary with Adam and Eve serving as prototypicalpriests. It appears that Moses deliberately placed links in these chapters to anticipate the descriptions of the priesthood and tabernacle in Exodus. Here are a few: The “spirit of God” that hovered over the face of the waters in Gen 1:2 later inspires the craftsman Bezaleel in the construction of the tabernacle (Exod 31:3; 35:31; cf. 1 Chr 28: 11, 12). The word for light in Gen 1:14-16, ma’or, shows up repeatedly in descriptions of the menorah in Exod 25:6 et al. The phrase “so the Lord finished his work” in Gen 2:2 is echoed in “so Moses finished his work” in Exod 40:33. There may be a correlation between the phases of tabernacle construction prescribed in Exodus 25-31 and the seven day creation account in Genesis, both dramas moving forward by the word of God and culminating with the installation of priests and the celebration of the Sabbath. Other details include references to gold in Gen 2:11-12, used comprehensively as a cover for tabernacle implements, and “onyx” in Gen 2:12, an unusual stone featured on the garments of the priests (Exod 25:7 et al). The priestly imagery is more explicit with the charge for man to “cultivate and keep” the garden in Gen 2:15. These two common verbs have a double meaning, referring often to the priestly work of serving and guarding the tabernacle (Num 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:7). The expulsion of the priestly couple is punctuated by the placement of “cherubim” who will responsibly guard the sacred garden. These gold-plated celestial figures will later sit atop the Ark of the Covenant, watching over the most important reality in common among the garden and Israel’s structured sanctuaries: the potent presence of God on earth.
As royal representatives of the King of all Kings, we humans have a central place in bringing about His reign on earth. As priests, we are guardians of God’s Spirit and mediators for those who need reconciliation to Him. What was once a garden, and later a shrine, is now a sanctuary comprised of those who extend God’s reign throughout the earth. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor 3:16 NIV).
While this summary of background and intertextual links is brief, it should adequately prompt wonder at the reality that all humans were designed to serve God in majestically significant ways. Let me conclude with the identity-defining words God spoke to His people on Mt. Sinai and repeated to those of us in the New Covenant: “You will be to me a ‘royal priesthood.’” (Exod 19:6; cf. 1 Pet 2:9).