The Sixth Day: Genesis 1:24-31

Synopsis:

This is the last event of the six creation events in which God completes creation with the creation and blessing of higher forms of life, including mankind. Mankind, unlike other forms of life, is made in God’s image and therefore conferring upon mankind the authority to rule over all of God’s creation. This is unique in the ANE1)Ancient Near East. In the Genesis creation story, the authority of God’s image is democratized across all of humanity. In the competing pagan mythologies, a god’s image is only conferred on a single ruler or king. 

On this day, the climax of God’s creative activity is achieved — the creation of mankind and its installation as God’s vice-regent on earth. But, interestingly, the process by which mankind was created is quite different than the means by which God made His other creations. First, God announced His intention to create  mankind. No other creation was heralded. God simply decided and then created. Second, He announced the purpose for which mankind was created. While other creations were described as having purpose after they were created, God explains mankind’s purpose prior to its creation. Third, God announces what He will bestow on mankind in order that it may fulfill its divinely ordained purpose.

Once mankind was created, God more clearly defined the scope of mankind’s dominion. In the announcement, prior to creation, God only sets the scope of mankind’s purview to be  dominion over all living things (vəkhal-chayah).  But, immediately after mankind is created and separated into the two genders, mankind is given the further charge of subduing the earth (after its creation mankind’s purview was extended from all living things to include the inanimate). Thus we see in verse 1:28 that  mankind was commanded to subdue the earth. Here the author makes a deliberate distinction between the inanimate (which must be subdued) and the animate (over which mankind will rule). To accomplish the subjugation of earth, God instructs mankind to increase its population. By doing so, the text reveals, they will be able to meet the second objective – the exercise of  dominion  over God’s living creations.

At this point, God’s ceases all creative activity and delivers a very curious epithet. Where before He described His creations as ‘good’, at the end of this day, God looks back “on all He had made” (asah) and judges His work to have been very good.

Didn’t God know that all would be ‘good’? The answer of course is… no! He did not know because God had created the very physical laws that establish limits to the power of nature. These limits are the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics whose underlying processes, at their most fundamental level, are stochastic.

Genesis 1:24-25

And Elohim said, “Let the earth bring forth living beings each belonging to its kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals each belonging to its kind.” And it was so. Thus, did Elohim make the wild animals each belonging to its kind and the cattle each belonging to its kind, and all the creeping things of the ground.

And Elohim saw that it was good.

The construction of these two verses illustrate a literary technique, common in many ancient languges, called chiasmus, and used throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Cattle,
creeping things
Wild animals
. . .
Wild Animals
creeping things
Cattle

In a chiasm, the author repeats an idea (or phrase) but reverses the grammatical structure. Chiastic structures (also called inverted parallelism) are commonly found in ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts. Chiastic structures often extend beyond a few sentences (like the chiasm above) to whole narratives. One of the most famous of these is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain in mentioned first, then Abel twice, then Cain twice until the story ends with a final mention of Cain2)The pattern is CAACCAA..ABBA. Chiastic structures are used to call attention to similarities, or in the case of Cain and Abel, to differences.

Let the earth bring forth: This verse mirrors the creation of vegetation on the third-day in which God initiates, but does not carry out, the creation of living things. In this verse the author uses the same phrase as in 1:12 תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ (totzei haaretz) once again to express the idea that it was the earth, not God, that created life. Like verse 1:12, the verb totzei (bring forth), is expressed as the causative or hiphil stem (see Genesis 1:12).

living beings: Translated from the noun, נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) and its adjective, חַיָּה (chayya), the text’s word-for-word translation is elusive. The adjective is straightforward – it means “living”. However, nephesh has a wide semantic range that, depending on context has been translated as life, soul, creature, person, appetite, and mind among other words3)The King James translation uses over twenty different words when translating nephesh.. However, its verbal root, נָפַשׁ (naphash), means the act of breathing, so that one might reasonably claim that nephesh hayya refers to a living thing that breaths. Scholars such as Sarna understand nephesh to be the animating life force that distinguishes between the living and the non-living.

wild animals: here translated from חַֽיְתוֹ־אֶרֶץ (chayto-eretz), this also is difficult to translate4)Not the least of which is grammatical. Chayto is formed by adding the 3rd person, masculine suffix ‘to’ meaning ‘his’ or ‘its’, to the noun chayah meaning “living thing”. Literally translated, chayto means “his living thing” or “its living thing”. The problem is that none of the other masculine nouns in this verse make sense as the antecedent of the indefinite pronoun.. Including this verse, chayto occurs 8 times in the Hebrew bible meaning beast of the forest (psalm 50:10, 104:20, Isaiah 56:9), beast of the field (psalm 104:11, Isaiah 56:9),  and beasts of herds (Zeph 2:14).

Genesis 1:26-27

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. And Elohim blessed them

The controversies raised by the theological uncertainties of these two verses are legion. The major controversies are these:

  1. What is meant by the use of the plural form “Let us…”
  2. Would the phrase, “in our image” be better expressed as “as our image” or “be our image”?
  3. What does the Hebrew word, tzelem (commonly translated as ‘image’), mean in the context of this verse.
  4. Does the author distinguish the creation of mankind from the creation of male and female?

Let’s look at each of these four puzzles.

Let us make…: This phrase derives from word נַֽעֲשֶׂה (naaseh), a plural form of the verb oseh (he made). Which naturally raises a theological question: why did the author use the plural form? Is there more than one God?

The most popular explanation, and the one I favor, is that God is speaking to His heavenly court – His seraphim, cherubin, and angels5)Seraphim and cherubim are thought to be God’s heavenly attendants – and the highest ranking members of His court. The seraphim (pl. of seraph) are fiery, serpent-like creatures who surround God and proclaim His glory (Isaiah 6:2-3). As for the cherubim – they are not winged-babies! They are described by Ezekiel as having four faces: that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle and are closely associated with the Ark of the Covenant. They also play a guardian role (Gen 3:24. A second, less well accepted thesis explains

The throne of God surrounded by His heavenly court

The throne of God surrounded by His heavenly court

this verse as illustrating the “plural of deliberation”. This construction arises, say its supporters, when the speaker is conferring or consulting with himself.

I do not claim to completely understand the rationale for the “plural of deliberation”, and therefore am not inclined to prefer it over the explanation advanced by Philo and what seems to be a majority of scholars, namely that God is addressing His heavenly court. The existence of a heavenly court would be entirely consistent with Isaiah 6:8 and Genesis 11:7.  For example, consider Isaiah 6:8. A perfectly equivalent paraphrase might be something like “Whom shall I send [on behalf of myself and my heavenly court]? Here am I; send me!”6)The NRS translates Isaiah 6:8 as follows: “…Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”  Phrased this way, the meaning of the paraphrase is identical to the actual text.

Does the existence of a heavenly court imply polytheism? Again, most scholars would argue otherwise for nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures do we find members of the heavenly court engaging in divine acts (creation, redemption, etc.). And nowhere are members of the court compared as equivalent to mankind. Moreover, the use of the grammatically singular conjugations of the verbs for creation (vayyivra and bara) suggest that members of the heavenly court played no role in the creation of mankind.

Nevertheless, the existence of the heavenly court certainly seems to be related to general idea of polytheism, but a closer examination of this expression actually serves as a polemic against the polytheism of the cultures surrounding the ancient Hebrews.  Let’s see why.

In contrast to the other creation accounts, the Hebrew Bible portrays members of the heavenly court as servants of the one God – guardians like the seraphim and the cherubim, or messenger angels such as appeared to Abraham (Gen 18:2, 22; 19:1) and to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15).  In other words, the portrayal of members of the court as subservient to God and without any power except as granted by God, does itself constitute a repudiation of the polytheism that surrounded the ancient Hebrews. In addition, the peculiar choice of verbs to describe creation also seems to point to a repudiation of polytheism.

make: In 1:26 God announces His intention to make (vayyaas) mankind. Yet in 1:27, when He actually performs the creative act, the verb used is vayyivra.  What’s going on here? Why the change in verbs?

The two verbs are more than just synonyms. Vayyaas and its root, asah, can be thought of as creative activity relegated to nature7)Recall that God commands the earth to bring forth vegetation and fruit trees. There, the verb meaning “bring forth” is a conjugation of asah.. By contrast, the verbs vayyivra and its root, bara, are a creative activity reserved for, and performed only by, God.

As will be recalled, vayyaas is a form of asah, a general and commonly  used verb for make, build, or form.  Unlike the verbs of divine creation (bara, vayyivra) which are reserved to God, the author uses vayyaas to describe ‘making’  by both God and nature.  As mentioned above, in 1:26, God announces to His heavenly court His intention to make (vayyaas) mankind. Perhaps God uses vayyaas because it expresses the concept of creation in a way understandable to those other than God. In this text, the use of vayyaas, when speaking to His court, is the manner in which God invites them to identify with what He is about to do. However, when He actually creates mankind, He uses the divine creative ability, vayyivra.  By using the two different forms of the verb, the author is able to distance God’s power from the power other cultures invested in their gods. Only the one God can vayyivra.

mankind: The usual translation of the Hebrew noun, אָדָם (adam), is the English word ‘man’ (e.g., KJV, NAS, NIV, RSV). This translation is arguably misleading. When translated as ‘man’, the text can be (and has been!) miscontrued in two significant ways: first, adam has been translated as the proper name, Adam. The second misunderstanding, and much more damaging, is to understand adam as meaning the male gender of the human species. Neither is correct.

In Hebrew, like English,  proper nouns do not take the definite article. For example, one never expresses something like “Let’s ask the Bob to drive tonight”.  Hebrew is no different, yet in this verse the literal rendering of adam is “the adam” (הָֽאָדָם   – haadam). Clearly the author did not intend for the audience to view adam as the name of a single person.  Instead, adam is viewed as a singular, collective noun as, for example, the English word “flock” [of geese] or “school” [of fish].

as [our image]: This section deals with whether the translation of 1:26-27 should use the preposition ‘as’ or ‘in’.  Most English bibles use ‘in’8)The only English translation of which I am aware that does not use ‘in’, is the LXA, the Brenton translation of the Septuagint. so the use of ‘as’ in my translation merits a strong argument. In effect, by using ‘as’, I claim that mankind is the image of God, not simply a representation of God as is commonly understood.

This simple question, as it happens, shapes one of the most substantive claims in all of Judaism and Christianity – that we are, in some way, representative of God. The question to be answered is whether we resemble (“in the image”) God or are imbued with some quality of God (“as the image) ? If the former, then the verse means that we are like God in the same way that a photograph captures a likeness, or a mirror reveals a reflected image. In this interpretation our resemblence to God is superficial, only skin-deep because photographs and mirrors can only capture a reflection of the surface of an object.  To put this more starkly, when comparing a photograph of Hitler and Mother Theresa, no conclusions can be drawn about the moral character or personal capacities of either.

But, perhaps the author meant to convey the sense that mankind is imbued with, or carries with it, some quality of God and that this quality constitutes an essential distinction between mankind and nature.

The controversy of ‘in’ versus ‘as’ arises from the translation of a single Hebrew word בְּצַלְמֵנוּ (bətzalmeinu) where the preposition in question is its prefix, בְּ (bə). In the Bible the large majority of its occurrences, bə is correctly translated as ‘in’ (and less frequently as ‘when’). However, under rare circumstances the preposition bə refers to the essence9)The bet essentiae or bet of essence – see Gesenius 119 for a full discussion of its grammar. of its object and not the spatial relationship with its object. For example, study the following two example sentences:

  1. Bill is in a shadow.
  2. Bill is as a shadow.

In the first sentence, we understand Bill to be inside, under, within, or covered by, a shadow – perhaps Bill is reclining under a beach umbrella on some tropical beach. In the second sentence “as a shadow” might arise from Bill’s profession as a cat burgler who dresses in black in order to burgle rich widows during the dead of night. Where the first sentence suggests Bill’s relationship with the shadow is spatial, the second sentence conveys the idea that Bill exhibits some essence of a shadow. The table below categorizes some common prepositions according to the sort of relationship they have with their object.

Basis of Relationship Prepositions
spatial, physical in, under, on, beside, within
essence of, kind as, like
temporal when

In Hebrew, bə can convey either a spatial relationship, an essence relationship, or a temporal relationship (see discussion of verse 1:1). Which one is the best choice in this verse depends on grammar and context – the subject to which we now turn.

When bə refers to the essence of its object, grammarians call this the beth essentiae or the bet of essence. A bet of essence is usually translated using ‘as’, ‘like’, “according to”, or similar wordings. So, how do we know that the bə  as used in bətzalmeinu is a bet of essence?

Grammatically, a bet of essence should always be considered a viable translation when its object is a predicate noun10)A predicate noun renames or describes the subject noun. GCK, section 119, also Jouon-Muraoka: A Grammar of biblical Hebrew, 133 or R.J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 45, section 249.. For example, in the sentence from a previous example above,

Bill is as a shadow

The word ‘shadow’ is a predicate noun because it describes the subject noun, Bill. Were we to translate this example into biblical Hebrew, we would translate the preposition ‘as’ to be a bet of essence and use bə. Why? Because Bill, in some unspecified way, exhibits the essence of a shadow.

The Hebrew text of Exodus 18:4 is a good example of how the bet of essence is used with a predicate noun. Here’s the NIV’S translation of the verse:

and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

Let’s examine more closely the underlined text, the Hebrew of which is translated word-for-word in the following snippet (read from right to left):

בְּעֶזְרִי אָבִי כִּי־אֱלֹהֵי
as-my-help my-father For-the-God-of

In this text the prefix bə (בְּ) is a bet of essence, hence its translation to ‘as’ instead of ‘in’.  The predicate noun in this sentence is ‘my-help’ and redefines or in some way describes God. This verse is almost translated as “The God of my father [was] my help”. In this text, the ‘as’ and the verb ‘was’ are redundant in which case the translators rightly decided not to translate the bə11)The bet of essence and the implied verb, is or was, are almost always redundant and therefore one or the other is often not translated for English readers..

Now, let’s ask whether bə in 1:26 (and 1:27) is a bet of essence? In English we have…

Let us make mankind our image

The question is: Do we translate bə  to mean ‘in’ or to mean  ‘as’? For the latter, we must show that the  words “our image”, like “my helper” in the Exodus verse above, constitutes a predicate noun.  In this verse image manifestly renames or describes mankind and bə should be translated as a bet of essence using ‘as’, not ‘is’.

Now, this is revealing. Why?  Because if bə is a bet of essence the following two translations are equally valid,

  1. Let us make mankind as our tzelem
  2. Let us make mankind to be our tzelem

In other words, a correct understanding of bə reveals that we are God’s tzelem. We are not like God’s tzelem nor do we resemble God’s tzelem. We are God’s tzelem!

Finally, Genesis 5:3 (the story of Cain and Abel) suggests that bə in verses 1:26-27 should be translated as a bet of essence. In 5:3 the son of Adam, Sheth is described using image (tzelem) and likeness (d’mut). But this time, the preposition prefixed to tzelem is כְּ (kaf) which is the standard preposition for ‘as’ or ‘like’. In other words, the preposition bə used in 1:26-27 is interchangeable with kaf, the more common preposition meaning ‘as’.

So, why is ‘in’ so prevalent? Probably because 90% of the time, ‘in’ is the best and correct translation of this preposition. However, its theological implications are interesting. A topic to which we now turn.

Theologians and biblical scholars have spilled oceans of ink debating what are the attributes of God implied by this phrase. In other words, even though the English reads “in His image”, most of us discuss and understand its meaning to be that we carry some essence of the divine. My translation to “as His image” simply makes explicit that which has been widely, although implicitly, understood.

image: The Hebrew word from which image is translated comes from the Hebrew compound word, bətzalmeinu – a word not well understood (a nice way of saying that its meaning is controversial). A prodigious amount of research has been done to understand the meaning of this word and the corresponding literature is endless.

The controversy orbits around the meaning of the root word of bətzalmeinu, the noun צֶלֶם (tzelem). The meaning of tzelem is neither consistently attested in Holy Scripture nor in other languages cognate with Hebrew. 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 context of these other verses — Psalms 39:7, 73:20 and Genesis 1:26-27, 5:3, 9:6 — are taken into consideration the common understanding of tzelem as ‘image’ is manifestly too narrow.

So, let’s look more broadly at these seven uses of tzelem without any preconceptions. Accordingly, in the verses that follow, we will read ‘tzelem’ where the English bibles use image or some other rendering.

First, we have Genesis 1:26-27:

(1:26a) Let Us make mankind as Our tzelem according to Our likeness…

In this, the first clause of 1:26,  we learn that mankind is to be made to be God’s tzelem. No other creature bears this distinction. Clearly, being God’s tzelem is the hallmark of mankind. Mankind’s unique position among God’s created life strongly suggests that He has a purpose in mind and to fulfill that purpose requires that mankind to be a tzelem of God. We learn from this text that, in the context of this verse, tzelem likely confers upon mankind a set of attributes (authority, skills, etc.,) that enable mankind to fullfill this purpose.

The second clause of 1:26a, “according to our likeness…” is ambiguous. Likeness to what? In this verse, the word likeness (d’mut, in Hebrew) could refer either to mankind or to tzelem. In the first alternative, mankind is made to resemble God by virtue of being God’s tzelem. In this alternative, God’s tzelem might be viewed as a token or a badge. In the second alternative, God’s tzelem is a token given uniquely to mankind and to no other life form.

At the same time, the following phrase “according to Our likeness” raises an interesting albeit implicit question about the nature of the tzelem. Do all living things receive a tzelem, but the tzelem received by mankind is the only one that is characteristic of God? Or, is the author referring to the unique and only tzelem of God?

In the latter, mankind is given something uniquely and characteristic of God. In the former understanding, all life forms have a tzelem, but only mankind’s resembles God’s.  There is no clue in the biblical text that would favor one interpretation over the other. However, the next verse, 1:26b, clarifies the purpose of being God’s tzelem. Mankind is to rule and as God’s tzelem, mankind is uniquely given that role.

(1:26b) …that they may rule over [all of God’s creation].

In this context, tzelem is better understood as a mark or badge of divine authority12)שֵׁבֶט (sheivet), or sceptre is understood as a badge of divine authority conferring kingship on its holder (e.g., Amos 1:5)..

We now have a sense for one of the characteristics of being God’s tzelem – the charter (and ability) to rule over all of God’s creation. In this sense,  any tzelem could be associated with any number of attributes such as a sense of responsibility, leadership, initiative, strength of character. And, while we still can not know how to translate tzelem into English from this single verse, the text seems to suggest quite clearly that by virtue of being God’s tzelem mankind is able and obligated to rule.

What can other verses and their contexts tell us about the meaning of tzelem? Genesis 5:3 contains the next occurrence of tzelem. Here we learn that Adam’s son, Sheth, was born with the tzelem of his father.

When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son as his likeness according to his tzelem, and named him Seth

The most obvious lesson from 5:3 is that tzelem is something that is passed from generation to generation13)Interestingly, not only is the the phrasing of ‘likeness‘ and ‘tzelem‘ are reversed relative to Gen 1:26, but so are the prepositions. The preposition bə is here prefixed to the word for likeness (bidmuto) and the preposition kə is prefixed to tzelem. The suggestion is that when speaking of tzelem and d’mut, the prefixes bə and kə are interchangeable.. Clearly, tzelem can not be understood as a physical ‘image’ since it is biologically and topologically impossible for a child to be an identical image of its parents. While we learn little about what tzelem means, the context here suggests that tzelem has little or nothing to do with physical resemblance. Keeping in mind the idea that tzelem is a badge of divine authority, we can imagine such a badge passing, metaphorically, from generation to generation.

Next, in Genesis 9:6 we read that to shed the blood of someone who possesses God’s tzelem warrants capital punishment.

Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by a man shall his blood be shed; for as his own tzelem God made mankind.

This text does not reconcile the controversy of whether tzelem means ‘image’ or something else. However, that issue does not seem to be of interest to the author. Rather, the murder of someone who serves as (or possesses) God’s tzelem warrants capital punishment. In other words, we learn that to be a tzelem of God connotes something of great value.  Nahum Sarna correctly suggests, I believe, that tzelem, no matter how translated, is something God values and values infinitely14)More intriguing, though, is the requirement that the capital punishment be executed by another human – himself a tzelem of God. But if humans are so valuable to God, then why doesn’t God reserve capital punishment for Himself? Why burden mankind with the responsibility of avenging murder?.

But then in Psalm 39:2-6 we read,

I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.”  2 I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse,  3 my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue:  4 “LORD, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.  5 You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.  Selah.

6 As a tzelem everyone goes accordingly. But they are in turmoil over nothing; they heap up [wealth], but do not know [what will become of it]”15)Literally, “who will gather it.”

The context here is that King David has taken ill and believes he is about to die. This psalm, then, is his reflection on the shortness and futility of life. Man is ephemeral, sings David. One minute they are here and the next they are gone.  They make trouble for themselves and spend their lives accumulating wealth yet after death such wealth is of no account to them. It is unclear what the author meant by tzelem. This text makes perfect sense if tzelem is read as reflecting a life in which everyone goes about their daily lives as robots, without thought or purpose. Here the connotation of an automaton seems especially apt.

Finally, in Psalm 73, the psalmist asks the question why do the wicked prosper? In verse 20 we learn what God thinks of them:

They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking You despise their tzelems.

The wicked, it seems, vanish because God despises their tzelem. Like characters in a dream, writes the psalmist, the wicked vanish as if they never existed. This would have been a terrible and frightening fate for the ancient Hebrews who first heard this poem.

What do we learn from this verse? Metaphorically, the psalmist tells us that among the many ways in which God may judge His people, both good and bad, the tzelem is an important criterion. A wicked person is one whose tzelem has become offensive to God for reasons we can not discern from the text. However, given that being God’s tzelem comes with obligations, perhaps the wicked are those who fail to fulfill these obligations.

Let’s summarize so far:

  1. Mankind is created to be God’s tzelem (Gen 1:26-27).
  2. Dominion over all living and nonliving things arises from being the tzelem of God (Gen 1:26, cf Psalm 8:4-8)
  3. The tzelem is passed from father to son (Gen 5:3).
  4. To murder a person is anathema to God because the murdered person is God’s tzelem16)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.
  5. The implication here is that a disordered tzelem leads to a life without thought or purpose and constitutes a recipe for disaster. (Psalm 39:6)
  6. God judges people by how they lived out their lives as God’s tzelem (Psalm 73:20)

We learn from all of these verses, including the ones in which tzelem is translated into the English word, ‘image’, that the Hebraic understanding of tzelem is much broader than mere physical likeness. There also seems to be a functional meaning. To possess the tzelem of God seems to confer great responsibility and infinite worth.

Many (most?) scholars do not view man as physically modeling God. Rather, they seem to understand that being God’s tzelem is to bear in a more or less unspecified way, God’s moral and intellectual capacities. No matter how translated though, to be God’s tzelem marks mankind as qualitatively distinct from the rest of God’s creation. In other words, while we evolved according to the same principles as did the rest of  God’s biological creations, God thought to endow us with qualities He alone possessed – these qualities, whatever they may be, constitute the tzelem we are to be. A reasonable guess as to what those qualities might be are those qualities that make for a good ruler. Such qualities might be, but are not limited to:

  • Self-awareness and the consciousness of our own mortality. With these qualities we are able to contemplate (and respond to) the consequences of our actions. Self-awareness also implies empathy, the ability to emotionally understand the joy and pain of others.
  • A moral sense, i.e., the urge to establish norms of right and wrong. For example, in mankind, the emotions of joy, sadness, and anger stimulate a moral impulse; a conscious effort to define the behaviors that lead to these emotions as either good or evil, right or wrong. It seems unlikely that similar emotions in, say Chimpanzees, lead to the establishment of ethical norms. Why? They simply do not possess God’s tzelem. Therefore, being the tzelem of God renders humans judgmental – for good or bad.
  • Related to morality, being a tzelem of God endows humans with a sense of sacrifice and a willingness to sacrifice for others (altruism). Leaders and rulers, in the best sense of the word, serve those they rule. Good leaders are able and willing to sacrifice to fulfill their obligation to serve.
  • Finally, being a tzelem of God constitutes a binding to the Creator, as a child is bound to its parents (Gen 5:3). Thus, for a person to order their life in ways inconsistent with leadership and responsibility, is tantamount to rejecting the role of a living being bearing the tzelem of God.

that they may rule: The word I translate as ‘That they may rule’ is from the Hebrew word וְיִרְדּוּ (vəyirddu) whose root means “he ruled”17)The noun form of vəyirdu is often translated as dominion.. In this verse, vəyirddu can be translated either as “let them rule” or “that they may rule”. The issue here is not so much the definition of the word, but whether God’s phrasing constitutes a command. And, here, once again a little grammar can help us.

In this verse, vəyirddu is a verb in the jussive mood — by which grammarians mean that it can be translated as either a volitional or an imperative action. So, what determines whether ruling is obligatory or voluntary?

It turns out that in biblical Hebrew whether a jussive verb is volitional or imperative depends, by and large, on the relationship between the parties involved. If the speaker is a superior, the verb is assumed to be an imperative and is often expressed as they shall <do something>.  On the other hand, if the relationship is one of equals, the jussive is viewed to be volitional and in the form of “let them <do something>”.

In this verse, the relationship between God (the speaker) and His heavenly court is not that of equals, but as a superior to one’s subordinates. Therefore, vəyirddu is best translated as the imperative “that they may rule”. Can a superior express a desire to an underling without the wish being interpreted as a command? Certainly, but if we’re bound to God’s will, His wish is surely our command and this, I believe, is the reason why God’s jussives to His creation(s) are best understood as commands.

On the other hand, the NSRV, JPS, KJV, NIV, NAS, and the RSV Bibles translate vəyirddu as a volitional action; an action in which God’s created order allows for mankind to determine for itself whether to ‘rule’ or not. The grammar does not, I believe, warrant these translations.

He created it (בָּרָא אֹתָֽם – bara oto): Commonly translated as He created him/them, the grammar of the Hebrew reveals that the correct translation is “created it” because the Hebrew pronoun,   אֹתָֽם (oto), is singular. Specifically, the pronoun ‘it’ is a 3rd person, singular object pronoun (him, she, or it). But, since Hebrew is inflected for gender (unlike English), the antecedent pronoun must agree with the gender of adam (which is male). This leaves us with two choices for the translation of oto: him or it. I will argue for the indefinite ‘it’, because by using him we leave open the possibility that adam refers to a single man named Adam (as, for example, does the King James Bible).

In verse 1:27 adam is a singular collective noun. Such nouns are common in all languages. In English, for example, we have the words herd, flock, and school.  In English, antecedant pronouns referring to singular, collective nouns can be either plural (them) or singular (he, she, it). For example, either of these two examples are correct:

  • He created him.
  • He created it.

Where him and it refer back to adam, the singular, collective noun translated as mankind. Now, whether to translate oto as the plural or the singular form depends on how the author conceived of adam. In this verse, the author chose to use the singular form for the antecedent pronoun, presumably because he wanted to emphasize that adam was unitary. In other words, he wanted his audience to conceive of adam as a single entity. Why? Again, the last word, oto, suggests a possible answer.

In the Hebrew,the final word of a phrase or sentence is marked with a special punctuation mark called an atnah (e.g., the inverted ‘v’ under the middle letter in the Hebrew word below).

אֹת֑וֹ

In practice, it tells a speaker (or reader) to insert a pause after the word and before the next segment of the verse. What seems to be evident is that the author intended for there to be two independent thoughts here.

  • So Elohim created mankind as his image; according to His likeness He created it [end of first segment]
  • male and female He created them [end of verse]

In addition to the presence of an atnah, there is another difference between the two segments that is obvious in the Hebrew, but completely obscured by the English. Here is the first segment with the Hebrew verbs transcribed.

So Elohim vayyivra mankind to be His image; according to His likeness He bara it.

Both verbs are identical in meaning! But, the first form is a very special form used to indicate a narrative flow18)These forms are termed waw conversive and, among other functions, signal to the reader that a narrative is beginning (or continuing).. In biblical Hebrew one often finds strings of verbal clauses that translate as a series of run-on sentences. Here is a made up example,

and he went to store and he bought three doughnuts and he came home…

Such narrative arcs are normally terminated with a non-narrative form. For example,

and he went to store and he bought three doughnuts and he came home. He ate the three doughnuts.

In this example, the act of eating the three doughnuts terminates the story and the sentence.

In first segment of verse 1:27, we have just such a construction in which the narrative is begun with the special form (vayyivra) and terminated with the normal form (bara).

The conclusion is unambigous: Verse 1:27 consists of two, independent clauses.

  • So Elohim created mankind as his image; according to His likeness He created it;
  • Male and female He created them;

The reason for this construction and its significance will become apparent in the next verse.

male and female He created them (זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָֽם – zachar unəqeyvah bara otem): In this phrase, the author uses otem, the plural form of the antecedent, because it refers, not to the singular collective noun ‘mankind’ but to both male and female persons.

What is interesting here is that the author depicts the creation of male and female in two steps. In the first step God creates (vayyivra) mankind, the single, collective noun. At this point, mankind is textually undifferentiated, asexual. There is no biological gender contemplated in the first part of the verse. It is in the next section that the genders are created and we are now able to view mankind as a collection of male and female persons. More important, I think, is that we pick up on the notion that we are not to view mankind as a collection of undifferentiated human persons. The author chose this peculiar way of expressing mankind’s creation because he wants to emphasize that God wishes for us to always keep male and female distinctions in mind.

Genesis 1:28

Elohim blessed them, and Elohim said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply that you may fill the earth and subjugate it; but over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth you shall rule.”

Elohim blessed them: (וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִיםvayəvarekh otam Elohim)

As we’ve seen before, God blesses the male and female persons, not mankind. This would be consistent with the basic meaning of being blessed; to be procreative.

subjugate … rule…

Among many of the puzzles that confront readers of the first creation story is the curious phrasing of Genesis 1:28. Here, for example, is the translation of the NIV:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Many (most?)19)In addition to the NIV, other Bibles that render the Hebrew as subdue include, but are not limited to, the NRS, LXE, NAU, NET, NKJ, RSV, KJV, NAB, NAU, and NAS. English Bibles render the underlying Hebrew verb as subdue, with one exception, the Jewish Hebrew Bible, uses the word “master”.

Many Jews and Christians understand this verse to mean that mankind is to be a good steward of God’s creation, caring for and building up what God has created. This is a wonderful sentiment and we should all wish that mankind would do more to advance this ethic. However, this interpretation would be wrong on at least two counts. First, the English word subdue does not accurately reflect the meaning of the underlying Hebrew, except in the most superficial and incomplete sense. Second, the two Hebrew verbs, normally translated as subdue and rule, contrast with each other in a way that emphasizes the distinctiveness of the nascent Hebrew religion.

To begin, here is a translation that somewhat better translates the Hebrew text:

God blessed them and said to them, “You shall multiply and fill the earth so that you can subjugate it… However, you will rule over all living things… .”20)The ellipses are used in place of phrases that are not in question or rightly understood.

While this translation is still not quite as good as it could be, the word subjugate is more in line with the meaning of the underlying Hebrew word, khivshuah21)khivshuah is the imperative form of the root verb, kavash (כָּבַשׁ). This verb and its various derivatives occur fifteen times in the Hebrew Bible. Its cognates in Akkadian and Arabic mean “to tread down” or “to stamp, knead, or press” respectively. In ancient Hebrew its meanings connote “to make to serve, by force if necessary.” (Harris, Archer and Waltke 2003) ref 951.0. In English, to subjugate (or in Hebrew kavash) a people suggests forcing them into bondage or servitude22)According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, subjugate means “to bring under control and governance as a subject”.. But, it can also mean, as in Esther 7:8, to ravish or rape someone. Not surprisingly, this verb is also used to describe the putative genocidal conquest of the Canaanites (e.g., Num 32:22, 29; Josh 18:1) or to force people into slavery (see 1 Chr 22:18, Neh 5:5, and Jer 34:11, 16). To use a more contemporary example, consider what Japan did to China during the prelude to subjugatedWWII. Japan invaded and subjugated the Chinese people forcing them into the service of the Emperor. Contrast Japan’s treatment of the Chinese with how the Allied forces treated Japan and Germany. In no case, did the Allies subjugate the Japanese or German peoples. Thus, when God commands mankind to khivshuah the earth, He means for mankind to conquer the earth and bend it to His service and to the service of mankind. We are, in a real and meaningful sense, to enslave the dirt, the rocks, the minerals, the water, and so forth.

The Hebrew word translated in this text as rule is rədu23)An imperative (command) form of the root, radah (רָדָה) meaning rule or reign.(from the root רָדָה, radah). Radah and its derivatives are used over twenty times in the Hebrew Bible. For example, this verb is used to express the reign of Israel over its enemies (Isa 14:2) and of the Gentile nations’ reign over their peoples (Isaiah 14:6). In Lamentations 1:13 radah is used in the sense of overrule. In this verse, as attested in other books of the Bible,  radah would have been understood by ancient Hebrews as a statement of regal authority that comes from a higher status. To express this concept in English we use the preposition ‘over’ as in “rule over”. Thus, in ancient times, a king was possessed of a higher authority and so ruled over them.

I stress the use of the preposition over, because all of the Semitic cultures in biblical times, with exception of the ancient Hebrews, believed that nature was the higher authority and, as such, was the ruler over them, not vice versa24)Especially the Canaanites, but also most, if not all other pagan cultures of the great fertile crescent of the Ancient Near East.. To the pagans, fate was tied to an animate nature; a living nature personified by multiple gods such as the sun, the moon, the stars, and so forth. A pagan in those long ago days, upon hearing verse 1:28, would have been shocked to think that mortal man could possibly reign over the sun, sea, moon, and stars.

With this understanding in mind, note that we are to restrict khivshuah to the earth (or metaphorically, all inanimate matter). On the other hand, we are to radah the living things.  Why should this be?

We can not know for sure, but my speculation is that the author meant to express the observation that living things respond to the exigencies of life.  By contrast, inanimate matter, being inert, must be shaped, formed, or manipulated if it is to be made useful. Thus, God commands mankind to radah living things (cattle, goats, people), but khivshuah non-living things (grain25)Interestingly, the ancient Hebrews did not consider plants to be animate (Sarna 1989) p.10, dirt, minerals, and water). Inherent in radah is the notion that all life is to be accorded respect. We learn, for example, that even beasts of burden are to be given rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12) and are even subject to judgment (Exodus 21:29-32).

Here, then, is a restatement of the 1:28, more in keeping with its original cultural and religious context:

You shall multiply and fill the earth so that you may subjugate it. But, over the living of all the earth you shall rule.

The meaning now is pretty clear. We may use the resources of the earth, both living and inanimate, to serve our needs. However, we are not to subjugate living things. Living things, even when forced into servitude (e.g., oxen to plow the ground) are to be treated differently than, say, a bucket of water or a field to be plowed. In the end, we are not to take advantage of those over whom we rule.

Genesis 1:29-30

Elohim said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Behold, I have given you…: There is nothing particularly remarkable about this verse except, perhaps, that meat was not mentioned as a source of food. Cassuto understands this verse to infer, but not mandate, that God desires for mankind to adopt a vegetarian diet26)(Cassuto 2012) – Kindle location 1437-1438.

Genesis 1:31

Elohim saw all that He had made and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

…all that He had made (אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, et kol asher asah ): Unlike the previous five days, God does not specifically judge the sixth day. Instead, God judges His creation as a whole (“all that He had made”)27)Presumably the sixth day is included in the judgment.. But why judge the whole of creation at this point? Scholars suggest that the implication of the phrase “all that He had made” suggests that this day constitutes the last day of actual creation.

and behold, it was very good (וְהִנֵּה־טוֹב מְאֹ֑ד, vəheeney tov məode): God judges the whole of His creation as “very good”, not as merely good. Why? The previous five days were judged as good, what is there about the totality of the creation process that merits a higher verdict?

First some background. By analogy, a great poem may be composed of stanzas, each of which the author judges as good because each meets the artistic goals for that stanza (rhyming, pace, meaning, etc.). But if the stanzas that constitute the entirety of the poem when taken together reveal an overarching beauty or meaning not captured by any individual stanza, the reader would surely regard the poem as greater than the sum of its parts. The focus must necessarily shift to the whole of God’s creation and to reach the sublimity of the entire creation story, the author wishes for us to contemplate the work as a whole, not its seven component paragraphs.

It is for this purpose that author represents God judging the whole of His creation as “very good”. While cognizant of each day’s goodness, He sees that the whole of creation is greater than the sum of its parts. Creation is God’s cosmic poem and each creation day a stanza in that poem.

the sixth day: The Hebrew of this phrase is very curious. In the Hebrew of the Genesis 1, the first five days of creation are indefinite (“a day”). By contrast the sixth is definite (“the day”).

In biblical Hebrew, like English, nouns are definite if they are preceded by the definite article, הַ (ha).  Otherwise, the noun is indefinite28)There are exceptions to this rule, for example, a noun is definite and need not be preceded by the definite article if it is associated with a name. This is not the case, in this verse.. With this in mind, study the table below:

  Word-for-Word Translation Common English
Hebrew
יוֹם אֶחָֽד a-day first a first day
יוֹם שֵׁנִֽי a-day second a second day
יוֹם שְׁלִישִֽׁי a-day third a third day
יוֹם רְבִיעִֽי a-day fourth a fourth day
יוֹם חֲמִישִֽׁי a-day fifth a fifth day
יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי day the-sixth the sixth day

Observe that only the sixth day is definite (exhibits the Hebrew definite article which is bolded)29)The use of yom (‘day’) with the definite article attached to an adjective (an ordinal number, in this case) is not all that rare (cf Exodus 12:15, 20:10, for example), and, in any case, is to be treated as definite.. Why should this be? Nahun Sarna argues that that the definite article signals the completion of creation because, in so doing, the reader anticipates the seventh day30)(N. M. Sarna 1989) p. 14. Gordon Wenham agrees suggesting that the special character of the sixth day is hinted at by the use of the definite article31)Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 1987) p. 34, however Wenham doesn’t specify what is so special about the sixth day.

In my own view, I follow Cassuto’s understanding that

each of the preceding days was merely one of the days in the series of days of creation, whereas this was the last day in the sequence, the day appointed for the completion of the task.

Here Cassuto argues that numerical harmony dictates the details of the narrative. In the ANE the number seven represented completion and order. That the  author employed a seven day motif is no accident. Like his Ugaritic and Akkadian counterparts before him, he viewed the concept of seven consecutive days as symbolic of a complete process. During the seven day period, these myth makers, including the author, told of important work being done on the first six days and its outcome and completion acknowledged on the seventh.

One idea might be that since the creation of mankind on this day was significant enough to occasion an announcement to the Heavenly Court, perhaps its creation is the pinnacle, culmination, and raison d’etre of God’s efforts. The use of “behold”, “very good”, and “the sixth day” constitutes, I think, a concluding announcement to the Heavenly Court. Paraphrased, the author intends to show God saying something along the following lines,

“Behold, the earth and the heavens are complete and to my great satisfaction. Finally, this is the day, mankind is ready and able to take charge for me.”

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