Humans are created “in the image of God” is a very important tenet of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity; but their understandings of what “in the image of God” means are very different. Since both views are based on the same scripture, we decided to examine the ancient Hebrew text in which the phrase first appears. It is found in the opening account of Genesis (1:1-2:4a), specifically in the events of Day Six. Let’s allow that context to define the ancient meaning of “in the image of God.”
24 And God said, “Let the Earth cause to bring forth a living soul according to her kind; a large animal (cattle, oxen), small moving creature, and wild predatory beast of the Earth, according to her kind.” And it was so.
The first thing God does on the sixth day is command the Earth to bring forth a “living souls according to her kind.” The Hebrew word NEFESh is the word translated “soul.” The presence of a soul indicates the presence of life and the soul is the source of a creature’s appetites, desires, and longings. The soul the Earth brought forth is for three kinds of animals which will have appetites, desires and longings linked to the Earth -- large animals, small moving animals and wild predatory animals.
25a God made the wild predatory animal of the Earth according to her kind, the large animal according to her kind, and everything that moves on the Earth according to his kind.
Next, God made the three types of animals. After they were made, God measured His work by the same standard He had used to measure His actions on the previous five days.
25b And God saw that it was TOV
TOV is a Hebrew that is usually translated “good,” but understanding the contextual meaning of TOV in this account is very important. TOV describes “acts that is beautiful and pleasing to God’s eyes because they protect and preserve lives, make lives more functional and/or increase the quality of life.” Acts that measure TOV are “lives centered acts.”
Now God turns His attention to His next creation.
26 And God said, “Let us make an ADAM in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the winged creatures of the air, over the large animals, over all the Earth and over every moving creatures on the Earth.”
ADAM is the Hebrew word that has the following meanings -- a human, a man, mankind or the name “Adam.” Be sure to note that in this context ADAM is a “them.”
The central focus in this verse is on the word “us” and it has been the source of many debates and heated disagreements. For us, the first rule is always “view words in their immediate context,” which in this case is the events of Day Six. In the creation of animals God and the Earth were involved, therefore they are the most likely choices for defining the “us.”
Actions that are repeated in the same context in the ancient Hebrew text are not always written over and over. Since the subject is still the creation of creatures that will live on the Earth, God’s command to Earth to bring forth a living soul for the ADAM was not repeated. The part of the process that differs from the account about the creation of the animals is recorded.
27 God created the ADAM in His image;
in the image of the Creator it created him;
male and female it created them.
Now we know the meaning of “them” – they are a male and female human.
1. “The ADAM” is created in “in His image.”
2. “The ADAM” is a “them;” not a “him” or a “her.”
3. No individual human is “the image of God.”
4. “The image of God” is a collective that requires the presence of both genders.
5. “The image of God” is revealed through the collective actions of human males and females that do acts like Him.
28 And God blessed them:
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth; and subdue her;
and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the winged creatures of the sky
and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.
29 Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the Earth,
and every tree which has fruit yielding seed, it shall be food for you.
30 And to every wild predator of the Earth and to every winged creature of the Heavens and to everything that moves on the Earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.
In Hebrew, when God blesses something He empowers the thing blessed to do those things. The male and female are equally blessed by God. Each is empowered to do the things God has blessed them to do. This blessing is one of the most important acts of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, so pay close attention to what God empowered you to do.
1. “be fruitful and multiple – The male and female are empowered with fertility. They will produce creatures of their own kinds through sexual reproduction. Their fertility does not depend on annual rituals related to other gods.
2. “fill the Earth” – For humans, “making babies” is an easy act, but “filling the earth” takes years of commitment and work. Unlike many animals, after being born human babies do not get up, walk and start feeding themselves. Human offspring must be cared for and protected from before they are born until they reach a level of maturity in which they can do what is necessary to survive. Their physical and emotional requirements must be provided for them – water, food, shelter, clothing, protection, emotional support, affection, love, etc. They must also be taught and mentored to learn how to survive and function in life -- as well how to be parents of their future offspring.
3. “subdue her” – “Subdue” in English means “to conqueror; to bring under subjection.” The “her” is a reference to the Earth soul and “her” appetites, desires and longings. Animals are controlled by their “earthly” appetites, desires and longings” -- instincts control their lives. Humans are empowered to exercise impulse control and self-discipline. Fulfilling their earthly appetites, desires and longings must be done in ways that measure up to God’s TOV Standard.
4. “have dominion” -- The English word “dominion” means “to exercise power over; to rule over.” The human male and female are empowered to “exercise power as equals” and “do it collectively.” “Gender equality” is an inseparable part of being creatures created “in His image.” A note in The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Volume 3 (p. 1190) about the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “dominion” sheds new light on how humans are to exercise power -- “the basic meaning of the verb is not to rule; the word actually denotes the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock.” God empowered humans to exercise power like a shepherd exercises power over the animals of their flock -- power is exercised in ways that measure up to God’s TOV Standard. This theme is repeated throughout Jewish Scriptures.
5. “human diet” – The human diet is so important that God included it in His blessing. Humans are empowered to eat plants that yield seeds that reproduce their own kind and the fruit of trees that produce seeds that reproduce their own kind.
6. “non-human diet” – The diet of the other creatures are also important – creatures of the Earth and the winged creatures of the Heavens are to have a diet that consist of green plants.
Dr. John Walton sums up important points about humans and their functions as creatures created “in the image of God”:
● They have a function relative to God and the rest of God’s creatures.
● They are to serve the rest of creation as God’s vice regent.
● They are delegated a godlike function in the world where He places them -- reveal “His image” through words and actions that measure TOV.
● They have a function relative to each other as males and females.
● They have a function to reproduce and populate the Earth like fish, birds and animals.
God set up the creation to provide for humans and other living creatures. The focus of the first account in Genesis moves from the divine realm, through people, to the world around them. In other words, the focus moves from God through “His image” to the world in which He created.
“The image of God” is revealed through God’s words and actions. People are to learn how to live by studying what God said and did – and then imitate Him in their words and actions. Their mission is to learn how to apply God’s instructions, laws, wisdom and values to situations they face in their lives and then take those actions. This is the Jewish view of the “image of God.”
The Christian “image of God” is very different. It didn’t originate in the Middle Eastern culture of Jerusalem. It came from the Gentile cultures of Alexandria, Antioch, Athens and Rome – it is the product Hellenistic thought.
In Christian theologies God is viewed as a rational being who believes in human progress, more fully revealing Himself as humans gain the capacity to better understand. The focus is on progressively learning more about God, themselves and the Creation through reason.1
However, their differing understanding of “created in God’s image” affects “their views of history.” Judaism and Christianity both have sustained a directional conception of history, culminating in an End of the Age event.
● The Jewish idea of history stresses procession -- legal interpretation rests on precedent and therefore is anchored in the past. Today’s decisions are based on past precedents.
● The Christian idea of history stresses progress –God fully reveals Himself to humans as they gain the capacity to better understand Him, therefore the focus is on the future. We will know more tomorrow than we do today.2
Another defining account in the Hebrew Scriptures, in which different interpretations have a profound effect on the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, is the account of the events that took place in a Garden in Eden. We will let the ancient Hebrew texts reveal what happened there in the next blog.
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1 The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark © 2005; Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, NY; p. 11.
2 The Victory of Reason; p. 9.