What Constitutes Human Nature?

The view of the Hebrew Bible can surprise us.

Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

What constitutes human nature? It’s time, I think, we paid more attention to the ancient Hebrew answer.

We can begin by noting what is said in the two creation stories that we find in Genesis 1 and 2. They don’t give the full Hebrew answer, but they do provide an important starting point.

Humans Embedded in Nature

First, Genesis 2:4-23. This account is not as stately as Genesis 1, which has the feel of a liturgical procession. Genesis 2 reads more like a colorful folk tale. It starts out its account of God’s creative activity with the creation of a human being. But note how it expresses this wonderful creative moment:

…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

God, like a potter, creates a kind of figurine out of the elements of the ground. Then God breathes upon it, and the lifeless figurine becomes a living being.*

Though the author has used mythological language (I do not take Genesis 2 as an actual historical account), the statement firmly situates a human being in the order of nature. Humans are made out of the same chemical elements as the rest of the earth and its living beings. We arise out of the physical world and remain embedded in it.

In this respect the Genesis account agrees with modern scientific thought. Both the evolutionary theory and the Genesis account see human beings emerging out of the physical world. We are one with the rest of nature.

That has an important consequence for the Hebrew view of humanity. The natural drives and hungers that motivate men and women are good, not evil, as is clear by God’s blessing upon the physical creation (see Genesis 1:31). Those drives can be corrupted and need to be controlled, but they are not to be denied and despised. Here some forms of Christian asceticism have departed from their Hebrew roots.

Likewise our physical bodies contribute an essential dimension to our individual identities. We recognize each other by those bodily features that are unique to each of us–our body shape, our face, our voices, our gait, our fingerprints.

So important are bodies to our unique identities that the ultimate hope of the Biblical tradition is the hope for resurrection. How can each of us be said to survive with a unique identity in the kingdom of God without our bodies? Hebrew and Christian thought cannot imagine that.

The Contrasting Greek Mindset

This contrasts dramatically with the conception of human beings that prevailed to a large degree in the ancient Greek mindset. That mindset assumes that a radical duality constitutes human nature, a duality that pits body against soul.

The essence of an individual human being is to be found in his or her soul. That identity defines who he or she is. And it is immortal. It will survive physical death as the immortal soul returns to the divine realm from which it comes. During this earthly life the body provide a physical dwelling for that soul, but it will be shed at death. And good riddance, the Greeks thought, for the soul will escape its confining prison. **

Human nature, therefore, is not a unity (as in the Hebrew conception), but a division. And that is the fundamental cause of human misery. The human soul longs to return to its divine realm, a realm of order, rationality, and static perfection. The body, on the other hand, accounts for all the afflictions of life–disease, instability, disordered longings, and ultimately death.

This Greek conception of human nature had some stark practical consequences. The duality in human nature that Greek philosophy assumed meant that the Greek tradition placed a high premium on the things it associated with the soul: order, hierarchy, rationality, and stability. It also assumed that men gravitated towards these things, so that men were naturally superior to women.

The Greeks in turn placed a low value on those things that they associated with the body: appetites, emotions, and manual labor. And since women gave birth to and nursed infants, they gravitated to this physical realm. For the good of an ordered society, they had to be placed under the governance of men.

For the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, the source of the miseries of life is not our physical nature, but our disordered wills, wills that betray our call to loving relationship. Instead we seek autonomy and other-denying independence. This idea is the contribution of Genesis 3, the story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.

Images of the Triune God

Which leads to the other Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4). This account adds another crucial dimension to the Hebrew Bible’s view of human beings. In this account the creation of human beings climaxes God’s creative work, not initiates it.

The contribution that this account makes to the Hebrew conception of human beings comes in Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them,

male and female he created them.

Although human beings are one with the rest of the physical creation, there is nonetheless something godlike about them, even though they are not divine. We cannot think of human beings solely in physical terms. That is a misleading form of reductionism.

Biblical scholars have debated for centuries just what constitutes this image of God in human beings. Some have identified it with our rationality, others with our dominance over nature. The Biblical text never fully identifies it.

But if this image mirrors God, then maybe what we are created to mirror is the character of God as relationship. That is the surprising contribution that the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity can make to the discussion.

By that doctrine, the character of God is fundamentally one that consists of relationship, the movement of giving and receiving in love. It is that movement that creates the unique identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are, therefore, most godlike in our capability for relationship, especially relationships of love. We image this God when we grow in our ability to give and receive with others in love. Yet in all this we remain mortal.

This conception of human beings also has practical consequences. The exalted virtues in Biblical thought are moral ones, fundamentally the virtues of trust and loving commitment. This was expressed in the central role and value the Bible gives to covenant, relationships grounded in mutual commitment between God and human beings, and between human beings with one another.

When human beings live out this commitment to covenant in the conditions of their physical, mortal existence, they most fulfill their unique calling within the wide world of nature.

* I discovered another statement of this Hebrew conception in 2 Esdras, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Its author describes the creation of Adam in these words:

O sovereign Lord, did you not speak at the beginning when you planted the earth—and that without help—and commanded the dust and it gave you Adam, a lifeless body? Yet he was the creation of your hands, and you breathed into him the breath of life, and he was made alive in your presence. (2 Esdras 3:4-5)

Clearly the author of 2 Esdras knew the Genesis account and took it as authoritative.

** The classic expression of this Greek view of death is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. It recounts a discussion on the meaning of death between Socrates and his disciples just before his execution.


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