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The Image of God: Genesis 1, part 2

November 8, 2010

This essay picks up where the previous one left off, at day six of Genesis 1. It’s probably worth reading that article if you haven’t, since I cover a lot of introductory information. However, this article will cover Genesis 1:26-2:3.

Nearly the last act in Genesis, day six, is the creation of human beings. Before we begin to examine it, though, we should note that the early Hebrews would already be familiar with a number of creation myths. The ones they would be most familiar with, the ones from the Mesopotamian cultures, were fairly consistent when it came to the creation of human beings. The gods created human beings because the gods didn’t like doing work and so they needed slaves. This is reflected in the Atrahasis narrative and in the amazingly callous way Enki (an important Mesopotamian deity) and Nimmah (his female consort) treat humans. Specifically, after creating them to be slaves, they play a game (while drunk) which is perhaps best titled “Who can create the most crippled human ever?” Enki wins when he creates a human who is little more than a blob of flesh and Nimmah cannot figure out any skill or feature to give this poor person to allow him to survive. Needless to say this story ends with praise to Enki, despite his status as a divine sociopath.

Having said this it should be obvious that Genesis 1 is a radically different way to imagine human beings. “Let us create man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion,” is much different than, “Let us create man so that we can have slaves.” Western culture takes it for granted that God loves us or is, at worst, disinterested in us. We normally don’t stop to consider that maybe God is interested in us and that this interest should frighten us. The influence of Genesis 1 is an important part of this idea of God.

The image of God is also hugely important here. The image of God has been debated extensively and most popular answers attempt to label a specific aspect of humans as “the image of God”. I don’t buy that. Image and likeness are not normally restricted to single characteristics and I tend to suspect that being in the image and likeness of God has more to do with being enough like God that we can engage with Him than it does with whether we have any specific characteristic in common with God. What’s more, image and likeness are terms that already have meaning in this context. Being in the image of a god is something that a lot of Near Eastern kings seem to have claimed as part of their right to rule. Those of you who have paid careful attention to the names of the Aramean kings of Damascus (some translations call this people group “Syrians” but I think this incorrectly implies some degree of continuance into the modern Syrian state) will have noted a number of Hadads, Benhadads, and a Hazael. Benhadad is, of course, “son of Hadad” which makes plenty of sense except that Hazael’s son is also named Benhadad. A king named Hadadezer also appears in the Aramean state of Zobah which points us towards what is really happening – Hadad is an Aramean deity and Aramean kings are styling themselves as this deity, or as the son of this deity, and, in the last instance, using the name Hadad in a theistic name “Hadad is my help” or perhaps “Hadad’s helper”. To be the image of a god was to bear their authority which meant, for a king, legitimate rule.

The phrase “image and likeness” appears in one other place. It might not be particularly notable except that the word “image” is normally reserved for idols and so its usage for anything positive is a little odd. This makes me suspect that when Genesis 5:3 tells us that Adam fathered a son “in his likeness and as his image” we are supposed to hear echoes of Genesis 1. In this case the phrase appears to mean that Adam fathers a son who is a man like Adam. Again, this suggests that what God is passing along with His image is more than just a characteristic or two. In fact, God making man in his image reminds me most of the “I give them as you have given me” language in Jesus’ prayer in John 17. It’s a passage about inheritance. Humanity, in Genesis 1, is not a stockpile of slaves for the gods but, rather, a group of fully deputized God-images with an appropriate suite of powers, authority, and responsibility. This is fully reinforced by how God acts next, placing humanity as rulers over the earth and asking them to expand their reign across the earth. Rather than a system in which God rules and the king rules below him we see one in which God rules and all the people inherit rulership from God. This is an amazing egalitarian concept for the Ancient Near East, but it’s about to get crazier.

Throughout this article I’ve been using the term “man” and I suspect some of you are wishing I’d use “human” since that is what I’m describing. The term being used in the Hebrew text here is אדם (“adam”, which eventually becomes Adam’s proper name) and it means “man”, hence my usage. However, Hebrew is a little more complicated than this. Unlike English Hebrew completely lacks grammatically neuter terms. The closest it comes are words like “sun” and “road” which can take either masculine or feminine grammatical gender. A group of men and women cannot be grammatically neuter in Hebrew as such a group can be in English. Instead, such a group is male. This means that the term “men” can mean either a group of men or a group of men and women. What’s more, there are two words for men. One of the words, אש (“ish”, pronounced “eesh”), means man as opposed to being a woman or a child. While its irregular plural can be used for mixed-sex groups it is as specific a word for men only as Hebrew has. אדם is more inclusive. It primarily means man as opposed to being an animal. This is the word used here for the creation of man and so it would be perfectly possible to argue that “God created man in His image” meaning that He created women in His image too. Odds are good most men in the ancient Near East would think that was crazy but it could be argued from the text. However, the text does not leave this decision up to us. Instead we read, “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.”

Crucially, we need to determine if “them” and “him” are the same. Either God created man in the image of God and He also created, in a separate thought, men and women or God created mankind in the image of God and also created mankind male and female. Some of you have probably simply assumed the latter – I think it’s the most natural reading of the sentence. Some of you haven’t assumed anything, though, which I won’t fault either (bad reading, after all, frequently starts from a bad assumption). However, this question can be answered. In Hebrew the definite article is used both in cases that correspond to English usage (“the man”) and in cases where a type is meant. English does not do that. We say “the war” to indicate a specific war but “war” to indicate the category that contains all wars. Hebrew would say “the war” for both. See, for example, Isaiah 40:6, which, out of context, would be translated “all the flesh is grass”. The context makes it clear, though, that the definite article on “flesh” indicates that we are discussing the type of thing called “flesh” and not a specific meaty being, and so no sensible translation should include the word “the”.

So what does this mean for our passage? It means that “the man” (the actual rendering in Genesis 1:27) is grammatically “him” even though what is meant is the very plural sum of all humanity. “Them” and “him” are the same group – humanity – in both its sexes. Not only are strangers and foreigners equally heirs to God’s image (with its connotations of kingly rule) but so are women. In fact, Genesis 1:29-30 hammers this home as God blesses a humanity described as “them” with rule in the same terms as before . If you’re saying, “So what? This isn’t news,” (perhaps with the caveat “to me”) congratulations, Genesis 1 has worked. You’ve learned its vastly inclusive lesson, an inclusive lesson that Jesus’ own ethical teaching both reminds his audience of and jumps off from.

Day six ends a major section of Genesis 1 which is perhaps why the chapter break (added long after the text was written) was inserted in that place. God looks at everything He has made, which I tend to think means not just the day six material but the whole nearly-week’s worth, and declares it very good. Again, God has a plan. He’s looked at what He’s done and the plan has come out great. This is not the end of the story, however.

The very last thing God does is rest. He’s done. He takes a day off. Then, having rested, He blesses the seventh day. This blessing is, of course, the Sabbath, the day of rest. This isn’t explicit in Genesis 1, although it’s a little clearer in the Hebrew where rest and Sabbath are the same word, but it’s hard to imagine that any reader of the text would not know what the meaning of this blessing is. This is important for the point of the passage. If God rested and commands humanity to rest He is doing one last thing that is violently opposed to the Near Eastern idea that humanity was created to be slaves to the gods. You do not command your slaves to rest.

The sixth and seventh days of Genesis 1 are foundational for Christianity. The cultures that surrounded Israel produced, amongst other things, an illustrative proverb: “A man is the shadow of a god and a slave is a shadow of a man.” Genesis 1 allows for neither. Humans do not relate to God as slaves to masters, and even a slave inherits the image and likeness of God. All people are heirs to God’s work, agents of His power in this world. This article is quite long enough without answering the question, “So then what does God want His agents to do with their power?” but it’s a question worth asking.

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