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Created in the Image of God

In the Old Testament, to be “created in the image of God” is to serve as God’s representative on earth.

Neo- Assyrian wall relief from Nimrud

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Does it mean that human beings and God share similar physical characteristics? Does it suggest that humanity and the Divine Being share a similar moral compass?

Most Christian (and to some extent Jewish and Muslim) interpretations of this passage are influenced by Greek philosophy, which posits a dualism of body and soul. Thus, theologians over the centuries have asserted that it is the divine spark within human beings—whether that element is free will, rational thinking, spirituality, or a moral compass—that is imago dei (Latin for image of God). However, the authors of this passage lived prior to notions of a “soul,” especially one that was distinct from the body. The biblical writers were also a lot more comfortable with the idea that God could have a body. Once we peel back centuries of interpretation and the influence of Greek philosophy, what were these biblical writers really talking about?

Gen 5:1-3 states that humanity was created in the likeness of God, saying that Adam begat his son Seth in his own “image” and “likeness.” The Hebrew word behind the English translation “image” (tzelem) refers to a three-dimensional representation such as a statue. In most cases, the biblical texts condemn the fashioning of such representations, understanding them to be idols. The Hebrew word for “likeness” (demut) refers to a physical or external likeness or similarity. Early Israelites may have believed that the human body was similar to the body of God and other divine beings. Just as a child inherits many physical traits from a parent, humanity has inherited physical traits from God. While this belief may have existed in ancient Israel, it is unlikely that the particular authors of the first chapter of Genesis held this highly anthropomorphic belief, since these priestly writers eschewed any idea of God having a body.

The Hebrew word tzelem is not very common in the Bible, but it is used in Mesopotamian royal ideology, where the king is designated as “the image of god” (Akkadian, tzalmu). In these contexts, to be in the image of the national god means to serve as the god’s representative on earth, to share in divine authority. Instead of representing God physically, the authors of Gen 1 may have been using the imagery from their Mesopotamian neighbors to argue that not only the king, but also all of humanity, serve as God’s representatives, with all the associated responsibilities and privileges.

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    Tamar Kamionkowski is professor of biblical studies and former vice president for academic affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is the author of the Leviticus commentary for the Wisdom Commentary Series (forthcoming, 2017), coeditor of Bodies, Embodiment and Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2010), and author of Gender Reversal and Cosmic Chaos: Studies in the Book of Ezekiel (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2003).