What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Psalm 8:4 NASB
What is man – It’s the wrong question, isn’t it? We would ask “Who is man?” We expect a list of personal attributes like “free will agent,” or “sinner,” or “decision-maker.” But the Hebrew is ma-enosh, “What (is) man?” What is ish? And after all this study, we have some answers. They aren’t answers you will find in our anthropology or psychology textbooks. They are biblical answers, uncomfortable biblical answers. The Psalmist asked the right question. What is ish?
Here is a summary, a résumé, of ish:
1. Man (ish) exists only in relationship. Without community there is no man.
2. That relationship exists by creative act with YHWH, the Creator, but until it is acknowledged and adopted, man is only a biological entity, not a human being.
3. To be human is to be related to the Creator and to other human beings. It is not good for man to be alone. In fact, man alone is a theological impossibility.
4. Man is essentially the “choosing one.” He is created with both yetzer ha’ra and yetzer ha’tov, the bad inclination and the good inclination, because, like his Creator, he is a moral agent expected to choose what is right and good. He knows what is right and good because his Creator has given him instructions. Man is creative in his choices, bringing about reality from possibility.
5. Man’s primary task is to order the world as God would order it, introducing into the world the fingerprints of God through the domestication of the yetzer ha’ra in the service of the yetzer ha’tov. When Man does this, he fulfills his purpose and God’s plan. When he does not do this, he sins, that is, he does not fulfill his purpose and he delays God’s plan.
6. Man can experience the divine favor of his Creator. The Creator does not withhold this divine favor because the Creator loves what He makes. Man does not earn this divine favor. It is simply given to him because he is a created expression of God’s will.
7. Once Man experiences divine favor, a bond relationship, originally established at the creation of Man, is re-established. This bond relationship entails mutual obligation. God enters into this obligation without any possible wavering. Man is expected to do the same, but experience has shown that Man often turns away from this obligation. Even so, the obligation endures. God is willing to have it restored and has provided for that restoration, but Man must embrace the incumbent obligation in order to maintain the relationship bond.
8. Under the relationship bond, God promises protection and blessing in accordance with His purposes and plans. Man can experience these benefits as long as he acts in accordance with the expected obligation.
9. The question, “What does God demand of me?” is answered by the explication of the obligation in Torah. Torah is God’s instruction about meeting the obligation. Those who decide not to live according to Torah have elected to remove themselves from the mutual obligation of hesed.
10. “Grace” is but another word for “mutual loyalty expressed in action.” In this definition, “action” is the fulfillment of the mitzvot, the Torah. Grace and Torah are one. The man who embraces Torah embraces grace and experiences grace in his every deed. Faith and works belong together. The man of God is a man who responds to the obligation of mutual expectation with rejoicing, knowing that he has found favor with God and is now a part of an identity in community.
What (is) ish? Now you know where to start answering that question. Be assured, there is a lot more.
Topical Index: ish, grace, hesed, man, Psalm 8:4