Adam, Noah, and Abraham: The Divine Mandate for Humanity


The broad theme captured in Genesis, which runs throughout the Bible, is the interaction between a gracious God and a flawed humanity.  More specifically, this theme sharpens at the bestowing of God’s divine mandate on an incapable human race.  In the book of Genesis, we see God initiating His divine mandate for humanity three times.  First, He creates Adam to be His vice-regent on earth.  It is not long, however, before Adam succumbs to his own lusts thus disqualifying him from successfully implementing his calling.  Second, God calls Noah to restart the human experiment along with his family.  Even the “perfect” Noah, however, fails to adequately re-launch the human vocation.  Third, God begins anew a final time with Abraham who, although imperfect, receives an unconditional set of promises, which ensure the eventual success of God’s redemptive plan.  As Gordon J. Wenham aptly observes, Noah and Abraham become second Adams in God’s attempt to inaugurate His plan for humanity:

The promises to Abraham renew the vision for humanity set out in Genesis 1 and 2.  He, like Noah before him, is a second Adam figure… In this way the advent of Abraham is seen as the answer to the problems set out in Genesis 1-11: through him all the families of the earth will be blessed.[1]

By taking a closer look at these three ancient men of Genesis I hope to glean a framework for understanding God’s purpose in creating humanity and perhaps shed some light on the original meaning of life.

Adam, Noah, and Abraham all enter the narrative during or immediately after a period of chaos.  Consequently, in order to understand the divine mandate for humanity it is essential to investigate the following three episodes of disorder, from which God’s purpose for the human race emerges.

Creation & Calling:

The creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 make the profound point that God has reversed a formless (tohu) and empty (wabohu) wasteland into a world of structure and order, effectively transforming chaos into rest.[2]  The focus of the first creation account is not to attest that God created matter from nothing, but rather to assert that by the power of His Word, He was able to bring structure and wholeness out of a meaningless vacuum.[3]  The image that is painted of pre-creation is one of darkness covering the face of the deep while a wind – or spirit – from God swept over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2).  It is a picture of a dark, turbulent, and foreboding ocean, which we are sure to revisit in the Flood narrative.  Almost immediately God speaks, introducing light to contrast this darkness (Gen. 1:3-5).  Throughout the first and remaining five days of creation God encounters no opposition and on the seventh day He rests.  Day seven is a perfect antithesis to the unrest that is described in Genesis 1:2.

From this creation account we learn several things about God.  First, God is a god who speaks with authority.  His Words create worlds.  Second, unlike other Near Eastern creation stories, in Genesis there is no other god(s) for God to contend with.  Third, God perfectly designs structures and creates boundaries so that life is able to flourish.  Fourth, God creates time, giving Him all sovereignty over history. [4]  Fifth and finally, God’s objective for creation is rest.  These attributes of God will become increasingly important as we discuss God’s mandate for humanity.

Having effortlessly created the universe, God decides to create human beings in His image.  Although much debate exists about the meaning of the phrase, “Created in God’s image,” the text invites us to expect that it includes being an agent for the outworking of the divine will for creation.

The specific task given to the original Man and Woman, whom we will associate with Adam[5] and Eve on account of chapter three, is to “fill the earth and subdue it and to have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth (Gen. 1:28).”  In other words, Adam is charged to manage the order and rest already accomplished by God through creation.  In chapter two, this mandate is further developed as God brings all the animals to Adam to be named (Gen. 2:19-20).  The act of naming is further expression of humanity’s dominion over the animal kingdom.[6]

In a very real sense God is transferring on Adam aspects of His own sovereign authority.  Although it is God, and God alone, who is able to bring about order and rest where there once was chaos, it is also true that the all-powerful God creates Adam to be His vice-regent in the created world.[7]  Consequently, Adam enjoys facets of what we have previously observed to be the attributes of God.  Just as God speaks with authority, Adam too speaks with authority, as is evident in his naming of the animals.  Just as God contends with no other god(s), Adam too contends with no other creature.  Just as God creates boundaries in order that life might flourish, Adam too is instructed to subdue the earth, presumably so that life might flourish.  Just as time has no power over God, Adam is told to eat from the Tree of Life so that he too is without recourse to time (Gen. 2:9, 16).  Finally, just as God rested on the seventh day, He also blessed and sanctified the seventh day, presumably making it a day of rest for all creation, including Adam (Gen. 3:2-3).

Taking up the external responsibility for order and rest, otherwise unique to God, Adam thus is created in God’s image.[8]  Clearly we are invited to make this association since God juxtaposes His intention to create humankind in His image with a statement about the dominion humanity will enjoy – and be burdened with – in the world (Gen. 1:26).  Clearly, however, Adam and Eve, quickly move to mar God’s image by deliberately acting disobediently when they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3:1-7).  Order, rest, and the divine mandate for humanity are intimately interwoven with the will of God, thus reinforcing that it is God, and God alone, who is able to control chaos.  Once Adam departs from the divine will, chaos is reintroduced into creation with deadly consequences.

Un-creation & Re-creation:

Whereas God creates, bringing order from chaos, in Genesis 1 and 2, He invokes His sovereignty to un-create in Genesis 6 and 7.  Although God is clearly in control throughout the Flood narrative, we see Him deliberately bringing what humanity had corrupted to final ruin, reconstituting apparent chaos in the world.[9]

Having established structure, life, and rest through His primordial creation in Genesis 1, God looks at what He has done and sees that it is good (Gen. 1:31).  In stark contrast, in Genesis 6, God looks at the world and sees that it is corrupt (Gen. 6:12).[10]  Growing from Adam’s original disobedience to the divine will, order and structure have reverted to corruption and violence (Gen. 6:11), which is perhaps an allusion to the formlessness and emptiness of Genesis 1:2.  Human beings have perverted what was originally good, effectively reversing what God had accomplished in creation.[11]  The horrific irony is that God had created and commissioned humanity to be fruitful so that they might actively serve as good stewards on His behalf.  Sadly, however, Adam’s race is destructive instead of helpful in maintaining God’s purpose for creation.

Walter Brueggemann suggests that God is therefore left with no choice but to un-create what humanity has spoiled:

The narrative [of the Flood] begins by bringing us face to face with the God of Israel.  This God takes with uncompromising seriousness his own purposes for creation.  And he is impatient when those purposes are resisted.  God holds an expectation for his world.  He will not abandon it.[12]

In other words, God initiates the un-creation in order to re-create what has been lost from His original goal.  The temporary chaos of the Flood is necessary for the greater good of creation.  Humanity has wreaked havoc on what God had entrusted to their care and in order to restore creation God is prepared to begin again.  The description of the Flood is similar to the description of Genesis 1:2.  Land is covered as waters swell.  Mountains are swallowed by rising seas and all life is blotted out (Gen. 7:17-24).  The repetitive repetition in this section emphasises increasing pandemonium, as the world returns to the state from which we found it at the beginning of Genesis.

Within the vast turmoil of un-creation, however, is a small pocket of order and “rest” preserved.[13]  God commissions Noah to build an ark so that he might maintain dominion over two of every living creature (Gen. 6:22).  It is interesting that God’s command to Noah is presented in much the same way Adam had been originally commissioned.  God speaks to Adam (Gen. 1:28):

  • [A] Have dominion over
    • [1] the fish of the sea and
    • [2] over the birds of the air and
    • [3] over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

To Noah He says (Gen. 6:20):

    • [2’] Of the birds according to their kinds, and
    • [3’a] of the animals according to their kinds,
    • [3’b] of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind,
  • [A’] two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.

With the exception of “the fish of the sea,” which would not find adequate refuge in the ark, Noah is instructed in almost identical terms as Adam had been.  Birds are mentioned first, followed by animals that move along the face of the earth.

Furthermore, in order to preserve the three-fold cadence of Genesis 1:28, the absence of [1], “the fish of the sea,” is compensated for by changing [3] “every living thing that moves upon the earth,” to, [3’a] “And of the animals according to their kinds,” and [3’b], “of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind.”  This needless redundancy helps to recapture the three-part rhythm, therefore, reinforcing the allusion to the original commissioning account and thus encouraging us to compare Noah with Adam.  To have dominion is to seek the well-being of those under one’s care.[14]  In Noah’s situation, therefore, his dominion over the animals is to keep them alive during and after the impending deluge.

Finally, after 150 days, the un-creation ceases and a wind – or spirit – from God blows over the Flood waters so that land once again emerges (Gen. 8:1-5; compare with Gen. 1:2).[15]  The world is newly created, only this time a man, his family, and a zoo of animals already exist to help fulfill God’s plan for His creation.

Emerging from the ark after the waters recede, Noah continues as a second Adam responsible for regenerating human life after the Flood and for maintaining dominion over the earth and the animal kingdom.[16]  Just as Adam was told (Gen. 1:28-29):

  • [1] Be fruitful and multiply, and
  • [2] fill the earth
  • [3] and subdue it; and
  • [4] have dominion over
    • [A] the fish of the sea and
    • [B] over the birds of the air and
    • [C] over every living thing that moves upon the earth… See,
  • [5] I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food,”

Noah is also instructed (Gen. 9:1-3):

  • [1’] Be fruitful and multiply, and
  • [2’] fill the earth.
  • [3’] …
  • [4’] The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on into your hand they are delivered
    • [B’] every bird of the air,
    • [C’] on everything that creeps on the ground, and
    • [A’] on all the fish of the sea;
  • [5’] Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.

Noah, like Adam before him, becomes an agent of order after a dramatic episode of chaos.  The un-creation brings humanity back to the beginning and Noah is commissioned almost exactly as Adam had been.[17]

This time, however, humanity is permitted to eat both plants and animals for food and the command to subdue the earth is not mentioned.  Turner suggests that the modifications are the result of God’s cursing of the earth after Adam and Eve had sinned (Gen. 3:17-19), making “human subjugation of the earth problematical.”[18]  As a result of Adam’s original disobedience, therefore, it seems that the divine mandate for humanity has been adapted according to the consequences previously outlined by God.  Nevertheless, Noah is commissioned to populate the earth just as Adam had been and human beings maintain clear dominion over the animal kingdom.  In spite of the encroachment of sin into the human condition, God confirms that Noah is still made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6), confirming that he remains God’s agent for preserving order and rest in the world.

Like Adam before him, Noah immediately fails to act uprightly before God.  Just as Adam eats forbidden fruit to the dismay of all his descendents, Noah too imprudently consumes fruit, bringing ruin on his descendents.  In Eden the naked Adam eats from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and upon recognizing his nakedness he covers himself with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7).  In contrast, having toiled in his vineyard, Noah eats from the fruit of his vines and becomes drunk.[19]  He then disrobes himself so that he is naked (Gen. 9:20-21).  Just as Adam’s act initiates curses for his descendents (Gen. 3:16-19), Noah’s too leads to the cursing of his grandson, Canaan, and his descendents (Gen. 9:25-27).[20]  The clear allusions in this episode to Adam in the Garden remind us that God is working with a flawed humanity.  All has not been regained by sending the Flood and safeguarding Noah.  Wenham summarizes this stark reality well:  “Even the most righteous and their offspring may fall from grace in an unguarded moment.”[21]  Accordingly, God must find another way to redeem humanity if humanity is expected to fulfill the divine mandate given to it.

Babel & Blessing:

Abraham[22] is introduced immediately following the description of yet another divinely inspired chaotic event.  This time, however, instead of cosmic disorder or an ecological disaster, the mayhem is anthropocentric.  Having successfully repopulated much of the world, the descendents of Noah gather at Babel to build a city and a tower in order to make a great name for themselves and to prevent being scattered across the face of the earth (Gen. 11:4).  In response, God confuses their language and spreads them across the earth (Gen. 11:7-9).

Brueggemann astutely reminds us that such a scattering is actually the outworking of the divine mandate given to humanity in Genesis 1:28: “Fill the earth and subdue it.”[23]  Resisting such a “filling of the earth,” therefore, is to act in direct opposition to the divine will.  What seems like order – the cooperative coming together of Noah’s descendents at Babel – is in reality chaos insofar as it contradicts the divine intention for creation.  Likewise, what seems to be anarchy – the confusion of languages and the scattering of people – is actually required to fulfill the mandate given to humanity at the dawn of time.

In this way, the Babel account is very similar to the Flood narrative.  In both instances, human initiative corrupts the divine will.  To remedy the ill effects of human failure, God intervenes with episodes of seeming chaos.  The Flood blots out human corruption and violence from the face of the earth so that God can begin again with Noah and his family.  The Babel experience confuses human collusion at Babel so that God can scatter people across the face of the earth as per His original intention.  In both episodes, therefore, temporary divine chaos reinstitutes the divine ordering of the human vocation.

Even though we are introduced to Terah and his family at the close of Genesis 11, it seems that the human experiment has failed yet again.  There is a cultural chaos that divides families into distinct nations, which are strewn across the face of the earth by God (Gen. 11:8-9).  Terah and his family, therefore, seem to be just one of many ethnic groups travelling away from what had once been a structured and unified homeland (Gen. 11:10-32).

We quickly learn, however, that Terah’s ancestry is not arbitrarily provided since his son, Abraham, is immediately given a divine command and a set of promises which restore hope for God’s original vision for humanity (Gen. 12:1-3).

Whereas Adam is:

  • [1] given a garden to manage (Gen. 2:15),
  • [2] told to fill the earth by being fruitful (Gen. 1:28),
  • [3] intended to be a blessing to the animal kingdom by having dominion over them (Gen. 1:28, 2:19-20),

Abraham is promised:

  • [1’] a land that God will show him (Gen. 12:1),
  • [2’] that he will become a great nation of people as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen. 12:2, 15:5, 22:17, 26:4),
  • [3’] that he will be a blessing not only to the animal kingdom but to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:2-3).[24]

In addition, Abraham is promised the very thing that had been the root cause of God’s intervention at Babel.  The people at Babel wanted to make a great name for themselves, thus invoking divine intervention against them (Gen. 11:4-8).  Here, however, God promises to bestow on Abraham what He had rendered impossible for the people at Babel.   By making a great name for Abraham, God promises to reverse the chaos He had previously introduced.  Whereas all the families of the earth were scattered at Babel, through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3).  Abraham, therefore, personifies the promise that humanity will fulfill its divine mandate for creation.

Unlike Adam and Noah, Abraham is never instructed to be fruitful and multiply, although he is promised a son who will become a great nation (Gen. 15:4-5).  He is also not explicitly given dominion over the animal kingdom, although he, like Noah, presents animal sacrifices to God (Gen. 12:9-11), surely implying clear authority over them. And finally, he is not told to fill the earth, although he is promised that he will be a blessing to all the families who have already spread across the face of it.

It seems that as God begins again with Abraham, He is taking no chances.  God will fulfill His purposes through humanity in spite of Abraham’s flaws and the flaws of his descendents.  Abraham, therefore, is not a continuation of the setbacks encountered in Genesis 1-11, but rather he represents the beginning of a new redemption, one that depends solely on God for its success.[25]  Abraham marks a turning point in the Genesis narrative.  Whereas the human condition has been stained by curses since Adam and Eve, we now see unconditional blessings being promised instead.[26]  Genesis 12:1-3, therefore is a hinge on which the whole human drama swings.  Through promises given to Abraham, humanity begins to ascend out of perpetual corruption and into eventual restoration.


The aim of creation was to establish order and rest out of absolute turmoil.  Genesis 1 clearly illustrates that God was able to accomplish this objective by the power of His Word.  As a part of His creation, God made human beings in His image to maintain the order and rest He had accomplished.  In order to successfully manage this task, however, it is imperative that humanity cling to the divine will, which Adam, Noah, and Abraham all failed to do.  The descendants of Adam filled the earth with corruption and violence and the descendants of Noah resisted being scattered across the face of the earth.  The descendants of Abraham, on the other hand, were promised as a blessing to all the families of the earth.  The difference of Abraham was not that he was inherently blameless, but that he was the recipient of a divine unconditional promises.  Although imperfect, God committed Himself to ensuring that through Abraham’s family line humanity would finally realize its divine calling.

The meaning of life is wrapped up in these three ancient stories.  The ultimate goal of creation is rest but true rest can only be experienced when all things exist in perfect order.  Although God alone has the authority to restrain chaos by creating and maintaining order, He has invited humanity to share in this holy experience.  He created us to assist Him even though He does not need our assistance.  He desired to share dominion over all created things with us even though we cannot even rule ourselves.  He asked us to help life to flourish even though we have always been bent on killing.  He wanted to give us eternal life even though we consistently choose dying. He called us to rest with Him, even though we are incapable of resting.

The hope we have does not rely on the human condition and thank God it does not.  Adam, Noah, and Abraham all illustrate that were we expected to innately comply with God’s intention for us, we would surely be a lost and miserable people.  Our hope rests completely on the unconditional promises given to Abraham and fulfilled in his descendant and Lord, Jesus the Christ.  For it is in Jesus – and Jesus alone – that humanity is redeemed to fully participate in the divine mandate to help God establish order and rest for His creation.  And it is in Jesus alone that humanity becomes the perfect image of the invisible Creator God.


[1] Wenham, Gordon J.  Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically.  Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids, 2000, 37.

[2] Turner, Laurence A.  Genesis.  T &T Clark International (Sheffield Academic Press):  London, 2000, 21.

[3] Goldingay, John.  Old Testament Theology (Volume One):  Israel’s Gospel.  InterVarsity Press Academic: Downers Grove (Illinois), 2003, 81.

[4] Mathews, Kenneth A.  New American Commentary:  Genesis 1-1:26.  Broadman & Holman Publishers: USA, 1996, 117-121.

[5] Alter makes the point that the Hebrew word, ‘adam, used in the first and second accounts of the origin of humankind, is a generic term for “human being,” from which we derive the proper name, Adam:  Alter, 5.

[6] Wenham, Gordon J.  Genesis 1-15.  Word Books:  Waco (Texas), 1987, 33.

[7] The adamant monotheism of Genesis stands in stark contrast to other Near Eastern polytheistic theologies and creation stories.  Wenham, Story as Torah, 24.

[8] Dumbrell makes the point that although being made in the image of God refers to the whole person, i.e. to both internal character qualities and external functionality, the emphasis is clearly on the external role of humanity in the world:  Dumbrell, William J.  The Faith of Israel.  Baker Academic:  Grand Rapids, 2002, 16.

[9] Turner, 43; Goldingay, 170.

[10] Turner, 46.

[11] Alter, Robert.  Genesis.  W.W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 1996, 28.

[12] Brueggemann, Walter.  Interpretation:  Genesis.  John Knox Press:  Atlanta, 1982, 77.

[13] Although Wenham suggests that Noah’s name suggests, “rest,” he argues that its relevance to the narrative is simply that it is a mere expression of his father’s hopes.  He then compares Noah to similar figures from Near Eastern Flood stories, such as “Ziusudra” (finder of eternal life) and “Atrahasis (exceedingly wise).  His point is that unlike the glorified role of protagonists in comparative Flood narratives, Noah is not an active or heroic lead, but rather a passive and responsive character.  I would argue, however, that if we understand rest to be the goal of creation, an allusion to rest in Noah’s name carries extreme significance during a time of chaos:  Wenham, Genesis, 165.

[14] Wenham, Genesis, 33.  Alter disagrees with Wenham that the context of “dominion” in Gen. 1:28 implies benevolent rule.  Rather, he suggests that the Hebrew word, radah, employed here is best translated as “hold sway,” suggesting “an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery:”  Alter, Genesis, 5.

[15] Wenham, Genesis, 207.

[16] Wenham, Story as Torah, 34.

[17] Dumbrell, 25-26.  Wenham, Genesis, 206.

[18] Turner, 52.

[19] Mathews also observes that just as Adam was commissioned to care for a garden, Noah plants and cares for a garden of his own.  This connection strengthens the allusions between this episode and Genesis 1-3:  Mathews, 416.

[20] The cursing of Canaan is the result of Canaan’s father, Ham, having seen the nakedness of his father, Noah.  Alter and Turner speculate that this episode might suggest that Ham sexually molests his defenseless father:  Alter, Genesis, 40; Turner, 54-56.

[21] Wenham, Genesis, 206.

[22] For the sake of consistency in this paper I will refer to Abram by his God-given name, Abraham, throughout (Gen.17:5).

[23] Brueggemann, 98.

[24] Adapted from: Wenham, Story as Torah, 37.

[25] Wenham, Story as Torah, 37.

[26] Alter, Genesis, 50.

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