The creation stories found in the opening chapters of Genesis are among the most famous accounts in the Bible. Christians fight over whether to take the stories literally or figuratively. I am more interested in what they mean. As I read the creation story found in the second chapter of Genesis, I find an important spiritual truth: we are earthlings!
That may not seem like a new revelation to most people, but it is more revolutionary than you may imagine. In everyday speech we talk about our origins very differently. We talk about coming into this world at birth and departing this world at death, as if we were from someplace else. We inherited this way of thinking from Greek philosophy and the later books of the New Testament, which were not written by Jesus’ apostles but by a later generation of Christians deeply influenced by Greek dualism.
The First Letter to Timothy says, “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can take nothing out of it.” In his second letter this same author says of his forthcoming death, “the time of my departure is at hand.” The Letter to the Hebrews says we are “foreigners and strangers on earth.” The First Letter of Peter calls us “aliens and sojourners.”
If we see ourselves as aliens, it should come as no surprise that we are “alienated” from the earth. The way we treat the earth reflects our attitude. This earth is seen as something disposable that we will leave behind one day. It will be eventually destroyed by God in eschatological fire and replaced with a newer model, so it doesn’t matter very much how we treat it. Jesus is coming soon to take us to heaven, so to hell with the earth!
But the Hebraic biblical stories in Genesis present a more holistic view of our origins. We are not aliens temporarily residing on earth. Genesis says we came from the earth, and we have been given a divine responsibility to care for the earth. The Creator is pictured as a potter who forms humans from the clay of Eden and breathes life into us.
In fact the Hebrew word for “human,” as well as the proper name of the first human, Adam, is the masculine form of the word for earth. Adam emerged from adamah. Etymologically and physically humans are earthlings. God makes that clear later in the story: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
We are literally earthlings, birthed from the womb of the earth. Every molecule of us is earth. We were earth before we were born. We will be earth after our death. We are earth now. We are not strangers to this planet. We are not spiritual beings who fell to earth. We are the earth, related to every other life form on earth. As the earth we are 4.5 billion years old! All of a sudden I am feeling very old.
The first creation story in the Bible (which is actually the second creation story chronologically; Genesis 1 was written centuries after Genesis 2) adds another dimension to human origins. It says that earthlings were created “in the image of God.” Theologians have argued for millennia over what that phase means. But it seems clear that it has something to do with the spiritual dimension of our existence.
I think it most likely refers to consciousness. In particular the type of self-consciousness which seems to be unique to humans – at least on this planet. We are the earth conscious of itself, and that consciousness is our divine connection.
Now consider the fact that earth was born from the universe, which is 13.7 billion years old. Every element on earth – which includes every element in our bodies - was forged in the interior of stars, which exploded their contents into space to form galaxies, solar systems, planets, and eventually life. We are made of the universe. We are not only earthlings, we are universelings. We are the universe conscious of itself.
But most people do not live from that reality. Instead we convince ourselves that we are separate entities. We view ourselves as mortal creatures, little islands of temporary consciousness imprisoned in bags of flesh and skin, which will one day die. If we hold to a religious tradition, then we vary the narrative somewhat.
In the West we see ourselves as souls who sojourn for a few years on earth until we return to our true home in heaven. As the old hymn says, “This world is not my home. I'm just a passing through.” If we ascribe to an Eastern religion, we are spiritual beings reincarnated on earth again and again until we realize it is all illusion and are set free from the bonds of material existence.
But the biblical Creation stories – backed up by science – tell a different story. This earth and this universe are home. We do not come into it or leave it. We are it. We are earthlings and universelings. We are the universe conscious of itself, and that universal consciousness is divine. The spiritual life is the quest to realize and live our true nature in everyday awareness. This is who we are. This is the Kingdom of God. Welcome home, earthlings.