1.3 The Image of God
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, 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" (Gen 1:26).
The image of God is a key Biblical doctrine. Two Hebrew words are used to convey the idea of a close correlation between God and His human creation: image ("tselem") and likeness ("demooth"). From the use of these words elsewhere in the Old Testament, we can understand the relationship of man to God.
a. sonship. The same two Hebrew words are used in elsewhere in Genesis:
And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth (Gen 5:3).
You can't get much closer than this, the relationship of a son. Here there is a "transfer of essence" from the creator to the creation, a transmission of DNA. We would say they are of the same nature.
b. copy, model.
"Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country" (1 Sam 6:5).
These copies were representations meant to take the place of the real plagues, and by expelling the copies remove the real curses from the people. The copies were thus symbols of reality.
c. idol. Another use of the Hebrew word "image" is to describe false gods and idols.
All the people of the land went to the temple of Baal and tore it down. They smashed the altars and idols to pieces (2 Kings 11:18).
They were proud of their beautiful jewelry and used it to make their detestable idols and vile images (Ezekiel 7:20).
You have lifted up the shrine of your king, the pedestal of your idols, the star of your god (Amos 5:26).
This is a paradoxical distortion of the creative act. The same act that God performed in making mankind, man perverts in making his own false gods. The image is more than a copy, and there is no transmission of one's own DNA. Yet it has a spiritual quality, it is venerated, set apart, revered. It is a "special" creation, not of ordinary material. This was God's attitude toward His human images.
d. appearance. Ezekiel uses "likeness" to create some space between himself and God.
Upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it (Ezekiel 1:26).
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:28).
Here was Ezekiel, a poor POW, taken from his native land, living in exile over 500 miles from home, minding his own hopeless business, when "the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God" (Ezekiel 1:1). His mind was blown, he was overwhelmed. How could he describe the experience to his friends? "Hey, guys, check this out, I just saw God Himself in heaven." No, he was appalled, he was devastated, he knew his own wretchedness before the majesty of a holy God. He could not presume to say he had seen God face to face. It was only the "likeness" of God he had seen, or even the "appearance of the likeness." It was the glory of God filtered to his own meagre capacity to apprehend.
What this tells us about man as God's image is that God intended man to be His representative. Men are not God, but are "like" God. We are the filtered substitute for God, the 25 watt bulb instead of the 1000 watt one. Here is what we learn from the teaching that man is made in God's image:
a. These terms, when taken together, show the close affinity between God and humanity. We are not God's pets. We are of like nature as, but less than, God. No other aspect of God's creation stands so close to Him. If we depict Existence as a pyramid, God is at the apex, and we are one level below Him. All the rest of His 6-day workmanship is below us: animals, birds, trees, grass, earth, water. None of these bears God's image. This doctrine of human pre-eminence refutes the beliefs of modern pantheists, who assert divinity in natural creation: every leaf of every tree is sacred, a human life is of no more value than a rare salamander or an endangered species of bird. This is not true.
b. In addition to applying only to humanity, this Biblical doctrine applies to men and women jointly. Males or females alone do not fully represent the nature of God:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Gen 1:27).
Neither sex is sufficient in itself to be God's likeness. There is a dependency, mutuality and cooperation between the sexes that reflects some of the dynamics within the Trinity.
c. There are no racial distinctions, exclusions or preferences in the story of Creation. This is amazing when you think about it. This ancient Jewish sacred text has a universal application. It draws no racial lines. It took later mankind to "discover" races.
d. Lastly, we note that the image of God is something bestowed upon man, not achieved by us. There have long been superior individuals who have attempted to rise above the common herd of humanity through power, reason, wisdom, magic, holiness, and even attain to some higher level of consciousness. The Bible rejects this path of self-realization. Remember that it is "primitive" man, man "in the state of nature," that the Bible says is made in God's image: not the civilized man, the wise man, or even the man with clothes on.
This is a remarkable fact given the Bible's later history: it was used as a weapon by Western nations for colonizing the rest of the world, and to draw distinctions among men that the Bible itself denies. Literacy, machinery, learning, government, clothes -- these may improve the quality of human life, but they do not affect our status of being made in God's likeness. This is given to us, to all humanity, as part of our birthright.
Concerning the relative value of man and animals, Jesus' said,
"So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Mat 10:31).
Today, this statement is considered by secularists a form of hate-speech called "speciesism," because Jesus affirmed the superiority of man over birds.