Sure, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but how are we supposed to do that? The best way to find out is to see what God told man to do when He made him.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”Genesis 1:28
Gen 1:28 in Eden
Genesis 2 explains how man was originally supposed to obey this command. He is put in the garden to work the ground (Gen 2:15) so the plants would grow (c.f. Gen 2:5). He was restricted from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), which (spoilers!) would involve ruling over the serpent. As ruler of the animals, his first task was to name them (Gen 2:19). The woman was made to help Adam fulfill his mission (Gen 2:18-22).
The original plan was to spread Eden throughout the world. Man would rule the earth as God’s representative, spreading God’s kingdom throughout the world. God would continue to walk with man in the garden (c.f. Gen 3:8). The difference between Eden and the rest of the world, besides God’s presence, is its fruitfulness. The surrounding wilderness would be conquered and subdued to meet the needs of man, for the glory of God.
Man was meant to glorify God by spreading His kingdom, both by working and by raising godly children. These two tasks are essential, and should not be put in opposition to one another. Feminists tend to think that work is more important than family, and Christians tend to think that family is more important than work. But ideally, these two tasks are mutually reinforcing. Work meets the needs of a family, allowing parents to raise godly children. Raising godly children means filling the earth with workers. Neither of these tasks are the ultimate end, but both work together to spread the kingdom of God for the good of man and the glory of God.
Genesis 3 explains how the mission gets derailed. God’s small kingdom has a clear hierarchy: God is the head of man, man is the head of woman, and together they rule the animals. The serpent completely subverted this hierarchy by deceiving the woman, who led the man into rebellion against God. The man was no longer welcome in God’s kingdom, so it did not spread throughout the earth.
Gen 1:28 East of Eden
In Genesis 4 man begins to multiply, and we see Adam’s sons at work. Cain works the ground, and Abel keeps sheep. They are continuing to do the work that Adam was made to do, and they use the fruits of their labor to worship God. In a sense this is how it was meant to be, except now God apparently requires the blood of sheep to atone for sin (Gen 4:3-5). Cain envies his brother, and is called to obey Gen 1:28 in the way his parents failed to do: rule over sin. He must rule over the serpent and not be subdued by him.
Cain fails to subdue the serpent, but he is allowed to live, multiply, and work. He builds a city (Gen 4:17), and his descendents begin new family trades to pass onto their descendents. Jabal’s family makes tents and keeps livestock (Gen 4:20). Jubal’s family makes musical instruments (Gen 4:21). Tubal-cain makes tools from bronze and iron (Gen 4:22).
Man is taking the materials God made, and bringing them to their potential, for the good of man. But is it for the glory of God? A sign pointing to “no” is Lamech, who brags to his two wives that his vengeance is more terrifying than that of God. The line of Seth provides some hope that man will glorify God (Gen 4:26), but they are corrupted by the sinful world (probably Gen 6:2). As man multiplies and fills the earth, he is not subduing it for God, but for Satan. Another way this has been said is that Cain built the city of man, not the city of God. The more man multiplies, the more sin multiplies. This leads to 40 days to slow the spread.
After the flood, we’re right back where we were in Genesis 4: one sinful family (according to Gen 8:21, no less sinful than before the flood). But for some reason, God allows man to continue in this state. God makes a covenant with the earth, promising to preserve the natural order of days and seasons. He renews his command to man: “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen 9:7). Despite sin, God has not given up on his intentions for man.
The entrance of death into the world brings two notable changes to the mission. First, animals fear us (Gen 9:2), and we eat them (Gen 9:3). Our rule over the animals necessarily involves violence. If we don’t want our house overrun by cockroaches, termites, and mice, we should be prepared to use lethal force. It is possible to survive without eating animals, but God explicitly allows us to eat meat. Second, God establishes the death penalty as the just retribution for murder. This demonstrates the need for governments in a fallen world, to justly punish criminals and to protect from foreign invaders.
While we’re on the subject of how sin changes the mission, I should mention that in a fallen world, charity is necessary. The source of this need is seen in the four groups who receive charity under the law of Moses: widows, orphans, immigrants, and Levites. Ideally, work meets the needs of the family; but widows and orphans do not have a man to provide for them, and immigrants and Levites do not have land to work. In our modern world, those with families, houses, land, and jobs should help take care of those who lack such blessings.
To Be Continued
I thought Abraham would be the final section of this post, but he deserves his own post. Here are some spoilers: With Abraham, Genesis 1:28 changes from a command to a promise. It begins to be fulfilled in Abraham’s family and in the nation of Israel, and it is finally fulfilled in the Kingdom of God under Jesus Christ. I’ll discuss what this all means for Christians and even for singles. Later posts in this Ethics From the Ground Up series will discuss work, family, charity, church, and politics in more detail.
What have we learned so far? Man was made to work and raise godly children. These two tasks are mutually reinforcing, and serve the ultimate end of glorifying God. Adam’s family works the ground, makes tents, keeps livestock, builds cities, makes music, and makes tools. In a sinful world, we must rule over our own sin, punish criminals, and provide for the needy.