The Image of God – Part II

In the previous post I attempted to clarify whether mankind constituted the image of God or each individual human. Grammatically, the collection of humans (= mankind) was the image of God, not each individual person. In this post, I try to divine the meaning of the Hebrew word commonly translated as ‘image’, צֶלֶם (tzelem). In two of the most famous verses in the Bible, Genesis 1:26-27, God announces to His heavenly court that he will create mankind in1)This preposition is grammatically a Beth of Essence and is probably better translated as ‘as’ instead of ‘in’. Why is this important? Because the use of ‘as’ suggests that mankind is the image of God and not a simple representation of God – like an image in a mirror. His image and then does exactly that.

However, I will fail in what has become a task of sisyphean proportions. Oceans of ink have been spilled and an eternity of graduate student time has been spent in the pursuit of the best English understanding of this word, tzelem. I hope it will not surprise you (but it does most people as it did me) that ‘image’, while a decent translation, does not really convey what the author would have us understand about the relationship between God and his created image. Nor does there appear to be a better choice. Nevertheless, let’s see what we can come up with.

The controversy orbits around the meaning of tzelem principally because its meaning is neither consistently attested in Holy Scripture nor in other languages cognate with Hebrew (e.g., Aramaic; for example Daniel 2:31 in which tzelem is usually translated as a statue that metaphorically represents a series of kingdoms). Of the seventeen instances of its use, three of the verses rightly understand tzelem as various kinds of physical images – of boils (1 Sam 6:5), of men (Ezek 16:17), or of idols (Num 33:52). But in the other six verses in which tzelem is used, its translation to ‘image’ is tenuous. Indeed, when the meaning of tzelem in these other verses — a shadow (Psalms 39:7, 73:20), an image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6) and of Adam (Genesis 5:3) — are taken into consideration, the common understanding of tzelem as ‘image’ seems manifestly too narrow.

So, what do we know so far (let’s continue to use tzelem so as not to presuppose the conclusion)?

  1. Mankind is created to be God’s tzelem (Gen 1:26-27).
  2. The tzelem is passed from father to son (Gen 5:3).
  3. To murder a person is anathema to God because the murdered person is God’s tzelem2)The wanton killing of an animal, though proscribed in the Hebrew Bible, is not viewed as a capital offense.(Gen 9:6). God therefore values those who are as His tzelem above and beyond those that are not.
  4. Psalm 39:6 implies that a disordered tzelem leads to a life without thought or purpose and constitutes a recipe for disaster. In this verse, tzelem might be likened to a moral compass that when rightly ordered keeps us on the straight and narrow.
  5. God judges people by how they lived out their lives as God’s tzelem (Psalm 73:20)

With the exception of its use as representing a shadow or a moral compass, most occurrences of tzelem are in the context of physical idols or some semblance of the divine.

An arguably better understanding of tzelem used in the context of creation is a functional one. By ‘functional’ I mean to argue that the context and grammar of Genesis 1:26-27 suggests that tzelem, no matter what the word literally meant to its original audience, is used by the Genesis author to confer an ability to mankind – the ability to rule over God’s creation. Let’s take a closer look at that notion:

Here’s Genesis 1:26:

Then Elohim said, “let us make mankind as our image according to our likeness – that they may rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the beasts of the earth, and over every creeping thing creeping upon the earth. So Elohim created mankind as his image; according to His likeness He created it; male and female He created them.

One of the important interpretations of this verse is the observation that God’s tzelem confers upon mankind the ability (and authority?) to rule over the God’s creation3)c.f. Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 from which arises the idea of the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov as conferring the ability of man to rise above his natural animal instincts.. To this end, for example, are translations from the NIV and the NET:

“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.”(NIV)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”(NET)

The NIV and NET translators understood the second clause to be subordinate to the first. In other words, the second clause clarifies and substantiates the first thereby establishing the purpose for which God conferred His image on mankind, i.e., that they may rule. According to this interpretation, the tzelem possessed by mankind, no matter what its literal meaning, is understood as a divine quality that marks mankind as possessing the responsibility, ability, and obligation to be stewards of God’s creation.

David singing in Psalm 8:5-6a seems to support this idea when he wrote/sang,

You have made him4)Refers back to the word enosh in 8:4, meaning ‘man’. Both Harris et al, and the BDB suggest that enosh may denote man as a frail and helpless creature. In any case, by using this term for ‘man’ rather than adam or ‘ysh, David may be contrasting the majesty and awe of God with the frailty of man for its literary effect. a little lower than yourself [because of the tzelem] and crowned them with glory and honor [because of God’s likeness]. 6 You enabled mankind as rulers over the works of your hands;

What do you think?


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