“Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness”
Every semester I ask my students what this passage means in relation to God. Inevitably, the overwhelming response is that God must, somehow someway, look like us. Of course the English translation lends toward such an interpretation, an interpretation which is probably bolstered by the long Christian tradition (I teach at a Catholic school) in which God is depicted in art. Second that with the visual nature of our society, it is natural to link “image” with what one sees. But is that really what the passage means? Is that what the the authors of the first creation story meant?
One thing one must keep in mind when interpreting this passage is the writing of the text. Though the Bible opens with this creation story, the general scholarly consensus is that an author (or group of authors) known simply as the Priestly authors composed this story in the 6th century before the common era, likely during the time of Babylonian Exile. That means it was written several hundred years after the events of the book of Exodus were said to have taken place. Moreover, such events include the 10 Commandments, the second of which prohibits the making of images of God.
Because God has no form, no shape–no image as we imagine the word.
So what are we to make of the passage? In proceeding I will pay particular attention to the terms “image” and “likeness,” looking at both the Greek of the Septuagint and the original Hebrew text.
Beginning with the Greek, the word in the Septuagint translated as image is eikón (εἰκών), from which the English “icon” is derived, and “means to be similar, like…comparison, likeness, representation, simile” (Verbrugge 164). To be similar or like something is not to be the same as. Now in Classical Greek thinking, the image shared in the reality of that which it represents; thus the “essence of the thing appears in the image…the god is himself present and operative in his image” (ibid).
But of course in ancient Judaism the creation of images of God was strictly prohibited (Exod. 20:4, Deut. 27:15). Contrary to the Greek understanding, for the ancient Israelites, “an image was not the full reality” (Verbrugge 164). Understanding the context of this passage’s writing is instructive and should be understood not so much in light of Classical Greek thought, but their more immediate neighbors, immediate in time and place.
Again, at the time of this passage’s writing, the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and taken many an Israelite into captivity. For such ancient Near Eastern peoples, the “image of a god served as a means of controlling the god. It was a source of power in the priests hands” (ibid.). Such betrays how the Babylonians related to their gods. In contrast, “Israel’s relationship with God was based on his covenant and word” and “Religious images reveal nothing of his nature” (ibid.) Furthermore, “only human beings can be called the ‘image’ of God” (ibid.). Why? Because God has no image and thus we are made, so says the text, in the image of the imageless.
Returning to the Greek for just a moment, the term eikón was, in addition to those meanings set forth above, understood to mean “reflection, a mirror like representation” and “assumes a prototype of which it not merely resembles, but is drawn” (biblehub.com). As such, to say humankind is created, that is shaped (see previous post) in the image of God is to say humankind reflects God, God being the “prototype.” The notion of reflection here can be misleading, for we moderns most likely associate a reflection with that which is seen again in the mirror and thus we remain caught in a visual metaphor. This “reflection” is mere resemblance and so too is the understanding of eikon as a comparision, a simile, instructive.
Take the famous line “Love is like a red red rose.” This is eikon. The author who penned this line is not saying love is the same as the red red rose–love, like God, cannot be depicted in, nor equated to, any created form. The author is making a comparison to try to explain what love is like. Humankind being created in the image of God is simply that: a comparison, a comparison to what humankind is like, not the same as.
The Hebrew term in the original text is tselem (צְלֵם) and means image, an image as something “form, cut out, a likeness, a resemblance” (biblehub.com). Thus again do we find in the original term similar notions–that in being “cut outs” humankind is given shape, is given form. Humankind possesses form, God does not and this form is only a likeness, it only resembles, that which is imageless, formless.
So if the image of humankind does not correspond directly to the image/form of God, then to what does this image refer?
Following along, we read that that this image is “according to our likeness.” A simple dictionary search for “accord” reveals the following meanings: “in agreement with, to be in harmony with, to correspond.”
The Greek text uses homoiósis (ὁμοίωσις), meaning “making like, likeness, resemblance” (biblehub.com), for the Hebrew demuth (דְּמוּת), meaning, gain, “likeness, similitude” (biblehub.com); demuth, in turn, is derived from the verb damah (דָּמָה), meaining “to be like, compare, resemble” (biblehub.com).
A typical Bible reads: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, so that they may rule…” Note the punctuation. Here, there seems to be a doubling, as if “in our likeness” emphasizes, or just repeats, the previous “in our image.” But the original Hebrew text did not include punctuation and thus would read “Let us make man in our image according to our likeness.” The difference is significant for without the punctuation “likeness” does not simply repeat “image,” it modifies it in that the image in which humankind is created is in itself a likeness.
There is, in a way, a “double removal” of sorts. Understanding that humankind is not a duplication of God, but something “similar, or like,” that likeness of the image is itself a likeness according to a likeness. We might read it as such: “Let us make humankind in our likeness according to (that is, in agreement with) our likeness.” The likeness that is demuth seems to me to take a “precedence” of sorts and thus the likeness that is the image is a likeness that is made to accord with the likeness that is demuth. One is like, but not the same as, that which like, but not the same as, God.
Such “double removal,” the like of that which is like, underscores God’s incomparability.
So how is humankind “like” God?
Well, we must complete the passage, for as the text continues, God creates humankind in his image “so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Now the issue of dominion is a weighty one and worthy of comment, but such would take the current discussion too far afield. Maybe another post for another day.
God grants humankind, the last of his creation, power over the earth. Not insignificant is the name used for God in this passage: Elohim, a name that includes the meanings “great, judges, mighty, and ruler” (biblehub.com). But the power that is given to humankind, we who are made in God’s image according to his likeness, is a pale reflection, a pale likeness to the power of God.
But perhaps too we must consider the entire text in so far as that in being made in God’s image we might reflect back and look at what God has done in this text. He has created and in creating humankind, finished that creation. Thus to say we are made in God’s image is to say that we too are creators and as much as I discussed previously in my post on the goodness of creation, our capacity to create is what God deems as “good,” that is enjoyable and, moreover, beneficial.
So to be made in the image of God according to God’s likeness is to say that perhaps our greatest ability, our God-given nature, is to create and be creative, for in creating and being creative we are being like God.
This power to create, of course, is a double edged sword, for what we create can not only bring great benefit, but also great harm.
As such, humankind is given a weighty responsibility and we must act as such with what we create and the world we create.