There can be no denying that the fundamental truth about government in the Bible’s worldview is that the one triune God revealed in the Old and New Testaments is the sovereign ruler from which all authority flows (Rom 13:1-7).
Whatever man and human governments are, they are not to be confused with god(s), although they may make such claims. On the other hand, man and human governments are not mere usurpers upon the creation, as some environmental activists assert. Man is the pinnacle and destination of the creation coming from the hand of God.
The Psalmist, echoed by the writer of Hebrews in the New Testament, marveled aloud and poetically that God was “mindful” of man at all (Ps 8:4-6; Heb 2:6-8). But God’s purpose in man is too marvelous to contemplate, for he is/was/will be only a little below God himself. Adam and Eve, by design, were created for rule (Gen 1 & 2) in a universe whose complexity we are only now beginning to glimpse. Together they will be “blessed” in the pursuit of God’s mandate for their “rule” and “fruitfulness.”
The Nature of Man as Told in Genesis
This condition of Adam and Eve in the garden can imply nothing less than a full partnership. In the stead of all mankind, they together have dominion over God’s creation as his vice-regents. This narrative is polemically designed in the Pentateuch to assert that all mankind (and woman-kind) rule over the creation, but not over other men. And it is certain that the creation cannot reach its potential in the plan of God without them, for it is less than complete without a man to “till the ground.”
Within the Garden spot of Eden, man and woman walk as only kings and gods of Ancient Near Eastern cosmologies were supposed to walk. Made to enjoy, tend, and create from earth’s rich resources (made “resources,” instead of mere raw materials, by the mind of God endowed to man and woman), they alone carry the capacity to act from their own will, rather than to behave as mere animals.
They were given the rich capital of God’s image and likeness and all the creative capacity that implies, and the whole earth in its rich resources was theirs to command and exploit (in the best sense of the term). They were not created only to labor and toil and bear offspring, for it is not from these actions alone that rule and dominance will proceed.
This can only happen through the employment of creative genius and, by implications associated with the Garden as a mirror image of the tabernacle to come, the true worship and fellowship with God they were intended to enjoy. Man was created free under God’s rule and as God’s vice-regent for rule over creation. He is destined to return to this state in the new heavens and earth.
The Fall of Man as Told in Genesis
The original Adamic rule is marred, essentially destroyed in its true intent, by his failure to govern himself appropriately and to fulfill his original “dominion” in the Garden (Gen 3). Between the two termini of history, mankind’s fallen state intrudes, and governments have their function and purpose as sanctioned by the Creator.
The pre-flood world appears to have been “ruled” by “heroic” strong men whose only standard of conduct was their own whims and forcefulness, a characteristic foreshadowed in Cain. No external standard called them to “just” governance (though the “mark” put on Cain seems to imply God’s own direct intervention as his protector) so the world became “filled with violence.”
This violence has its origins not in structural evils but in the “thoughts and imaginations” of mankind’s inner nature, and it is a continual and pervasive problem (Gen 6:5-8). The biblical conclusion is that God’s judgment, in the form of the flood, was the only answer to man in his raw and ungoverned state. The effect is that chaos, now evident in sociological terms, returns in the natural world to wreak judgment. In this environment, only Noah “found grace” as a “righteous” man (Gen 6:9; 7:1) who could be called “blameless” in his time (Gen 6:9).
Governments of Men as Told in Genesis
The post-flood law is established among men to curb and avenge the violence they do to one another (Gen 9:5-6). This rule appears to establish the extreme limit at which vengeance may occur and includes those retributive actions that might accrue to lesser crimes. Further, as the statement of respect for man made in God’s image, it appears to limit the use of the death penalty. The patriarchal narratives show plausible examples of the interaction of wealthy nomadic clans in the Ancient Near East with local “kings” in both confrontational and contractual relations.
This localized and clannish rule is clearly in contrast to early contact with the Egyptian empire and fledgling Babylonian civilization of Nimrod, which God himself disperses. The intra-clan dealings between Jacob and Esau and Jacob and Laban are carried on with no apparent interference or oversight by any other local authorities.
The special case of Sodom and Gomorrah, both of which have “kings” (Gen 14:1), calls down the direct judgment of God. It is possible that the “cry” that “went up” to God (Gen 18:20-21) is a call for “justice and righteousness” (and is a cry against oppressive governance), standards to which God expects Abraham and his people to adhere (Gen 18:19).
This seems to explain the extended prayer/conversation/negotiation between Abraham and God on the subject: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25 ESV).
Ultimately, judgment again prevails.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the IFWE research paper, God and Government: A Biblical Perspective (The Bible and Limited Government) by Dr. Tom Pratt. Read the full paper here.