The Bible’s View of the Human Body 1: Creation and Fall

Between the apathy and reductionism of those who think our biological bodies don’t matter and the vanity and superficiality of the celebrity culture that places ultimate value on appearance, the Bible offers a surprisingly elevated view of the body that engenders respect but not worship.  In a world of sexual harassment, abortion, and sex reassignment surgeries, adopting a biblical view of the body provides a welcome framework that curbs destructive behaviors while unleashing human flourishing.  In what follows we will work through the Bible’s conceptual framework for understanding the body, including our bodies’ origin and how the fall has affected us.

Creation

In the beginning, God created humanity in His own image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27).  He formed the first man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life (Gen 2:7).  Next, he put the man to sleep and fashioned from his rib the first woman (Gen 2:21).  When God presented her to Adam, he said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23).[1]  Although our culture makes much of gender differences à la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, that is not what impressed Adam when he first met Eve.  Rather, her similarity to him caught his attention.[2]  Having named all the animals, most of whom had partners, he finally saw one that was like him and rejoiced at finding his mate.  He called her woman (אִשָּׁה isha) since God took her from man (אִישׁ ish).  Some critics have taken offense at God’s statement, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18), opining that the word “helper” is used to imply subservience. Such a misogynistic reading is impossible once we realize the word “helper” (עֵזֶר ezer) describes God Himself in the majority of its uses in the Torah.[3]  Furthermore, the word for “fit” (נֶגֶד neged) means “opposite” or “counterpart,” and implies equality not inferiority.

 

Getting back to the text, it says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).  Here, God establishes the marital union right from the days of paradise before sin had tainted humanity.  This noble view of marriage contains a beautiful mutuality as the two become one.  The chapter ends with two perfect humans in paradise, naked and unashamed, in relationship with each other and God.  In the creation narratives, we do not find even the slightest hint of criticism about the bodies of our first parents.  Even thousands of years later, once Israelite wisdom literature reached its peak, the sages thought of a wife as a gift from God (Prov 19:14).

 

From a biblical perspective, human bodies are God’s good design.  They are not the result of a cosmic rebellion like the Gnostics taught, nor are they the tomb of the soul as Philo put it.[4]  In fact, the Scriptures exult bodily pleasures, including eating, drinking, manual labor, and intercourse within their proper boundaries.  This elevated view of human origins places a staggering amount of value and sanctity on human life.  Because God carefully crafted us in His own image, we have inherent dignity.  Our intellectual capabilities are not a fluke, nor are our bodies randomly thrown together.  Biologists working in anatomy, physiology, and genetics marvel at the complex interconnected systems woven throughout our bodies.  It’s hard to disagree with the psalmist who exclaims, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14).  Yet, the value God places on human life does not arise from our complexity or functionality, it’s innate by virtue of God’s declaration and creative act.  It’s clear that this imago dei is not limited to our first parents when we read God’s later command regarding capital punishment.

 

Genesis 9:6 Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed, For God made man in his own image.

 

Precisely because people are in God’s image, human lives have value.  We cannot kill whomever we want.  Those who would snuff out someone’s life face the same result.  There’s no hint of utilitarianism here.  People’s lives are not worth more if they contribute more to society.  All of us are in God’s image.  This perspective has shaped how God’s people have thought and acted over the centuries.  For example, James balked at the elitism common in his own day when he warned nascent Christian communities not to show partiality to the wealthy (Jam 2:1-9).  Additionally, the Bible ascribes dignity and worth to the disabled as evidenced in David’s treatment of Mephibosheth (2 Sam 4:4; 9:3-11), Jesus’ healing ministry,[5] or Paul’s own physical weaknesses (Gal 4:13-15; 2 Cor 12:7-10).  Lastly, as an extension of this creation theology, the Bible affirms the value of slaves, women, children, and the elderly even though these groups historically faced marginalization.

Fallen Flesh

Notwithstanding humanity’s divine origins, subsequent human history tells a disturbing story. To see how this works, we return to the Garden of Eden and consider the temptation that led to our fall.  When the serpent addressed Eve about the forbidden fruit, he appealed to her desire for greatness.  After assuring her that the fruit would not kill her, he told her, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5).  The serpent’s question drove a wedge between God and humanity.  Can we trust that the limitations He puts on us are for our well-being, or should we take matters into our own hands?  Are the boundaries God sets for us holding us back from reaching our true human potential, or are they for our own good?  Or to sharpen the question, could it be that God’s restrictions are precisely what makes human flourishing possible?  We know that Eve believed the serpent because she followed through and ate from the forbidden tree.  It’s worth noticing how integrated her mind and body are throughout the process.

 

Genesis 3:6-7    6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

 

The temptation was at once tactile (a piece of fruit) and intellectual (hidden knowledge).  Eve’s aesthetic sensibilities conspired with her psychological yearnings so that she pressed beyond God’s boundaries and ate.  They both ate. Afterward, their mental eyes opened so that they now became aware they were naked.  Now, they experienced fear for the first time—a mental state connected with a physical state.  They heard God walking in the cool of the day, and they hid themselves among the trees (Gen 3:8).  When he asked them about this aberrant behavior, Adam replied, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself” (Gen 3:10).  Their mental awareness of their physical condition resulted in deceptive behavior that ultimately introduced separation from God.  After God inquired what happened, He immediately pronounced punishments on the serpent, the woman, and the man.

 

With the fall of humanity from its paradisal state of innocence, the problem of sin entered the picture more as a rabid bulldog than a whining mosquito.  Within the first earth-born man, rage and jealousy mixed like chemicals in a bomb, exploding in fratricide.  Even with Abel’s blood hot on his hands, Cain did not feel remorse.  When God asked him where his brother was, rather than confessing and repenting, he quipped, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).  Within a few more generations, the virus of sin had so infected the human species that “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).  As a result, God acted drastically, eradicating the infection with a flood that wiped out everyone except eight souls—Noah and his family.  Shortly after the flood, God separated people from each other at Babel so that a lack of cooperation would stem the tide of sin, providing the time necessary to enact His plan of salvation.

 

From that day until ours, it’s apparent that there’s something profoundly bent within humanity.[6]  As a species, we routinely use our God-engineered bodies to injure and kill each other.  We employ our God-given intelligence to steal from each other, ridicule each other, and deprive each other in countless ways.  We have darkness within us, inextricably linked to our physical nature.  The Apostle Paul called this condition “the flesh.”  For Paul, the flesh and the body overlap, but they are not identical.  Everyone has a physical body, but bodies aren’t the problem.  The problem is our bodies are fallen, infected with a propensity to rebel against what God says is right.  Our flesh is what makes it hard for us to do the right thing even when that’s what we really want (Rom 7).  However, those of us who are in Christ can find freedom.

 

Romans 8:3-8 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.  5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit.  6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.  7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

 

Because of what God has done through Christ, we can resist the inclinations of our flesh.  We can “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).  Of course, the Christian is still in the body, but he or she does not have to walk according to the flesh (κατὰ σάρκα), but according to the spirit (κατὰ πνεῦμα) (Gal 5:16-18).  Interestingly, Paul does not limit the deeds of the flesh to the appetites of the body, though he certainly includes them.  For example, apart from licentiousness and drunkenness, his list of the “works of the flesh” also includes mental sins such as idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy (Gal 5:19-21).  This means that our bodies’ appetites are not the sole source of sin, rather our condition is more complicated than that.  Our whole beings, both mind and body, are bent toward sin.

 

As a result of this theology of fallen flesh, the Bible has a much more pessimistic view of humankind than our present culture.  It does not teach that people start out basically good and then only those who suffer childhood abuse or trauma become damaged and dangerous.  Instead, our default is to follow the course of this world, living in the passions of our flesh, and carrying out the desires of the body and the mind (Eph 2:1-3).  We come into the world radically selfish.  This realistic view of fallen humanity helps make sense of egregious acts of heinous harm that all too often make headlines in the news.  Rather than merely writing off those who commit horrible crimes as mentally disturbed or insane, the Christian worldview recognizes the same beast in all of us.  We recognize that the difference between a law-abiding citizen and a school shooter is one of degree not of kind.

 

Next time, we’ll consider how Christ has redeemed us, including our bodies, from the fall.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from English Standard Version (ESV), (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles 2011).

[2] Mary Willson expertly makes this point in her talk “Is God a Misogynist?”, TGC Women’s Conference, Jun 17, 2016, available as podcast 133 on resitutio.org.

[3] Out of 8 references in the Pentateuch, 2 refer to Eve (Gen 2:18, 20), 5 refer to God (Gen 49:25; Ex 18:4; Deut 33:7, 26, 29), and 1 refers to other gods (Deut 32:38).  Rendering help has nothing to do with superiority or inferiority.  In the case of Eve, she’s to help Adam in the tasks God has given him: filling the earth and ruling over it.  For a more detailed treatment see David Lamb, God Behaving Badly (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), pp. 49-60.

[4] Philo, Legum allegoriarum 1.108, The Works of Philo Judaeus, the Contemporary of Josephus, trans. by C. D. Yonge, (London: Henry G. Bohn 1854-55): “…Now, when we are alive, we are so though our soul is dead and buried in our body, as if in a tomb. But if it were to die, then our soul would live according to its proper life, being released from the evil and dead body to which it is bound.”

[5] Jesus healed many disabled people including the blind (Mk 8:22; 10:45; Mt 9:27; Jn 9:1), lepers (Mk 1:40; Lk 17:11), paralytics (Mk 2:1), lame (Jn 5:2), mute (Mt 9:32; Lk 11:14), deaf (Mk 7:32), epileptics (Mk 9:14), a woman bent double (Lk 13:10), a man with dropsy (Lk 14:1), a man with a withered hand (Mk 3:1), many who were demonized (Mk 5:1), a woman suffering from a hemorrhage (Mk 5:25), and the man whose ear Peter cut (Lk 22:50).

[6] I take the term “bent” from C. S. Lewis’ enlightening and dramatic exploration of human history in his book Out of the Silent Planet (NY: Scribner, 2003, originally 1938), pp. 132ff.

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