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The Image of God in Scripture


I. Introduction


Most believers are aware of phrases such as “image of God”, “likeness of God”, and the idea that God created mankind “in or after his own image” are infrequent in Scripture.One finds only four references in the OT:

KJV Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

KJV Gen 1:27 So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

KJV Gen 5:1 This [is] the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;

KJV Gen 9:6 Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Several NT verses mirror these verses, and include several references to Christ as BEING the image of God (as opposed to possessing it) -II Cor. 4:4 and Col. 1:15.We'll talk about what that means in a bit.


Preliminary Certainties from these Genesis texts:

a)   Both men and women are included in (what we’ll call for now) “image bearing”

b)   The image is that which makes mankind distinct from the rest of the Genesis creation (i.e., plants and animals); The text does NOT teach us, however, that the image makes us distinct from angelic beings (which were already in existence at the time of creation – Job 38:4-7).

KJV Job 38:4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. 5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? 6 Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; 7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

In fact, it can be argued that at least the highest class of angelic beings, the Myhlo) ynb , also possess the same image (whatever that may be) or something very similar – cf. Gen 1:26 “us”

c)   There is something about the image that makes mankind “like” God in some way

d)   There is nothng in the text to suggest that the image has been or can be bestowed incrementally or partially.You’re either created in God’s image or you aren’t.One cannot speak of being “partly” created in God’s image.


ARTICLES OF PRIMARY IMPORTANCE, then, in accurately determining what the Scriptures mean when they say mankind is created in God’s image, are:

1.   This “image” must make mankind distinguishably and certifiably unique in relation to any created thing that makes the physical universe its home.

2.   Every member of the human race must possess this “image” equally and to the same extent.

3.   This image must be something shared with the God’s own being and nature


II. What the Image of God is NOT: Critiquing the Traditional View


A. The Traditional Understanding: 

Intelligence, rationality, emotions, the ability to know God/ commune with Him, the possession of a “soul”, a free will, a conscience/sense of morality, the ability to communicate

What’s the problem with the traditional view?3 Things


1.None of these categorizations are distinguishably and certifiably unique to humankind.

2.They cannot be said to be present equally among all human beings.

3.They cannot be said to be present actually among all human beings.

In other words, all fail the essential articles above drawn from the texts in Genesis.


B.What do I mean by "not present equally or actually"?

Simply put, some of these faculties are not uniformly distributed to humanity, and are possessed only potentially by some humans.

For instance, what about the fetus (or better yet, the fertilized human egg, or the zygote) – it doesn’t possess these things yet – does that mean the fetus only gets the image at birth (in which case it still would lack them) or at some point later when intelligence becomes measurable?

What about those born severely retarded (or those who are born in a vegetative or near vegetative state)?

What about those born with some other defect that nullifies our categories?

In regard to free will, conscience/sense of morality, and the ability to communicate, none can be said to be held in actuality to humanity, in reference (again) to infants, the fetus, the fertilized human egg, the zygote, the severely retarded.

In regard to intelligence, if the image of God referes to intellectual capabilities, do smarter people have more of the image?More emotional people? (the so-called “EQ”?)

If one loses the ability to reason or remember (Alzheimers) has the image been lost?


C.What do I mean by "not distinguishably and certifiably unique to humankind"?

1.In reference to the intellect, emotions, and communicative ability


What about non-human intelligence and emotions?If the image is what makes mankind unique to everything else in creation, then what about . . . 

Animal intelligence – if humanity does not have a corner on intelligence and the ability to have and demonstrate feelings, the definition falls.It would be difficult to define intelligence or the acquisition of intelligence, or the ability to be taught in such a way that one could exclude every member of the animal world while including the human infant.

Illustr. - animal cognition tests / results

This category also speaks to free will if one means the ability to exercise self control, resist compulsion, or a freedom to act contrary to some congenital behavioral instinct.All one would need would be to produce instances of just one animal refraining one time from instinctual activity, or refusing to do something it had been trained to do, or being trained to do something totally contrary to its instinct.The field of animal intelligence deals with such issues, and has produced such results.

Artificial intelligence – if we achieve this, have we re-created the image of God?Will it henceforth be known as the image of man?Emotions are probably not an issue here (even DATA needs an emotion chip!)

            illustr.-IBM's Deep Blue and its "reasoning"

Extraterrestrial intelligence (of even the “animal level”) – man would surely no longer be unique, and perhaps even inferior.Whose image did ET get?

b.Communicative ability

What about animal communication?Communication does not have to be verbal (cf. The deaf/ signing or “body language”)

Illustr. - insect world; building a beehive takes coordinated communication 

There are a good number of examples, perhaps even personal ones, where higher order animals can and have communicated with humans.

      Illustr.-Koko the gorilla and others

and just because most animals cannot communicate with humans, why should we define communicative ability as the ability to communicate across species?Is there some reason that communicative ability must not or should not be defined in terms of communication within species?There are a plethora of examples of this capability in the animal world.


2.   In reference to the possession of a soul .

a)The word is nephesh, and Scripture is very clear that animals possess this as well (it refers to animation or “conscious life”).I've boldfaced the word below that corresponds to nephesh:

RSV Gen 1:20 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens."

RSV Gen 1:21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

b)If one retreats from the “soul” idea by saying that the difference is man has a “spirit”, the Scriptures (esp. the OT) is clear here that the spirit of mankind often refers to man’s intellectual, emotional, volitional, or immaterial makeup (the latter being synonomous with “soul” above):

The spirit as intellect:

KJV Exo 28:3 And thou shalt speak unto all [that are] wise hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they may make Aaron's garments to consecrate him, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office.

KJV Job 32:8 But [there is] a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.

The spirit as emotional faculties:

KJV 1Ki 21:5 But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said unto him, Why is thy spirit so sad, that thou eatest no bread?

KJV Job 21:4 As for me, [is] my complaint to man? and if [it were so], why should not my spirit be troubled?

KJV Psa 34:18 The Lord [is] nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.

The spirit as volitional capacity:

KJV Exo 35:21 And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, [and] they brought the Lord's offering to the work of the tabernacle of the congregation, and for all his service, and for the holy garments.

KJV Deu 2:30 But Sihon king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him: for the Lord thy God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into thy hand, as [appeareth] this day.

The spirit as synonomous / interchangeable with nephesh :

KJV 1Sa 1:15 And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I [am] a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord.

KJV Job 7:11 Therefore I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.


[OK Heiser, so what is the image of God? ]


III.  What the Image of God IS :the Image in light of Hebrew Grammar and Context


We've seen the three things that a first look gives us as to the meaning of the image (the three necessary statements we can make about the image).We've also seen how the traditional view fails those basic exegestical requirements as well as logic.Now we'll look at the text more closely to discern what the image really is.In doing this we'll make primary use of the grammar of the passage, and secondary appeal to the ancient near eastern context of the text (by this I mean that the second is brought in as secondary validation - not that the second is used to produce the first).

A.The Grammar and Wording of Genesis 1:26-27


1.The Prepositions  


Part of the debate over what the image of God is concenrs the interpretation of the prepositions in the phrase "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."In the Hebrew text, both of these words are actually single letters attached as prefixes to the nouns they govern.  The two prepositions at issue in the debate are thus b "b" and k "k".   We noted before in Part I of the sermon that the phrases concerning the image are God are seldom used in the OT (or in the Bible for that matter).Below is an exhaustive list of the phrases of Genesis 1:26-27 (and similar possibilites) and their use elsewhere in the OT.Included are the prepositions used in each reference:


Phrases in Gen. 1:26-27

"in (b "b") our image"

"in (b "b") his own image"

"in (b "b") the image"

"after (k "k") our likeness"

KJV Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.


the phrases above used elsewhere

"in (b "b") the image of God" - Gen. 9:6

Gen 9:6-Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

"in (b "b") our image"

"after (k "k") our likeness"

"in (b "b") his own image"

Not used outside Gen. 1:26-27


similar phrases elsewhere:

"after the likeness" - not used

"in (b "b")the likeness of God" - Gen 5:1

"in (b "b")his own likeness" - Gen 5:3

"after(k "k") his image" - Gen. 5:3

Gen 5:1 - This [is] the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him

Gen 5:3 - And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat [a son] in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth:


Observations:You'll notice that the prepositions are used interchangeably in the text ( b / "b" is used with both "image" and "likeness" and so is k /"k").Two conclusions may be drawn from this:(1)the biblical author cannot be seen as trying to make some distinction between the terms via his use of prepositions; (2)the terms "image" and "likeness" are interchangeable.Hence we must find a grammatical use for each prepositions that is also interchangeable.

As in English, prepositions in Hebrew are used to denote different ideas.Let's take the two prepositions before us and their primary dictionary definitions to illustrate:

("in" - as English Bible versions have in Gen. 1:26-27).But does "in" mean the same thing every time we use it? :


"put the dishes in the sink" (location)

"written in pencil" (means / instrumentality)

"we're alike in some respects" (limitation)

"I want membership in the club" (inclusion)

"he broke the statue in pieces" (result)

"here's what you say in reply" (purpose)


In the same manner, b has many different uses, and how one translates the preposition depends on the context in which it is used.bcan be used in all of the above ways, but none of these possibilities fit in Genesis 1:26-27.

There is a special use ofbthat many Hebrew scholars believe is the point of the author in Genesis 1:26-27 - the meaning of "functioning in the capacity of."Usually, English translates this idea with one word - "as".For example, this would be the meaning of "as" in the following sentences:"I served AS chairman of the department"; "I worked AS an editor."

In Hebrew, the above sentences could have the prepositionb where the English "as" occurs:

"I servedb/b-chairman of the department"; "I worked b/b-editor." 


Hence we should understand the phrases with battached to the word "image" in Gen. 1:26-27 as mankind being created "to function in the capacity of the image" of God.

Likewise k("k") typically means "agreement in kind or manner", and so it is often translated "like, as."The leading Hebrew grammarians agree that "k" refers to identifying a correspondenceof the noun to which it is attached to another noun (to be "like" something or someone).But since God is invisible, and since the image is possessed equally by men and women, the point ofk("k") cannot be "corresponding in appearance."Rather, the point being made is CORRESPONDENCE IN FUNCTION.Hence when k/ "k" is prefixed to "image" in Gen. 5:3, the point being made is NOT that Seth looked exactly like his father Adam (what if he'd had a girl?), but that Seth had been given by God to take Adam's place as God's representative to carry out his commands (which we'll note later), Abel having been murdered, and Cain having been banished.

All of this points to viewing the image in a FUNCTIONAL sense (i.e., we are created to "image" God) as opposed to a QUALITATIVE sense (as thought the image is some quality or ability given to us; i.e. the image is some possessed attribute).


"Let us create humankind AS our image - to be our IMAGER"

But if we are to "image" God, what does THAT mean?To determine this we need to look at the meaning of the two interchangeable terms "image" and "likeness"

Once this is defined, you'll see that this view of the image avoids all the logical problems associated with the traditional view, for every human being images God - every human being, regardless of developmental stage or physical disability, shares this status.


2.The Vocabulary (we'll just do the main word, mlc - tselem) 

mlc (tselem) - In many instances in the Hebrew Bible, this word is used to signify the physical images of gods/idols (i.e., a statue):

2Ki 11:18 And all the people of the land went into the house of Baal, and brake it down; his altars and his images brake they in pieces thoroughly, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest appointed officers over the house of the Lord.

Eze 7:20 As for the beauty of his ornament, he set it in majesty: but they made the images of their abominations [and] of their detestable things therein: therefore have I set it far from them.

But the word often means more than just a material image, and even in the examples above it can be argued that more is alluded to than just a concrete object.For example, see the two verses below:

Psa 39:6 Surely every man walketh in a vain display (Mlcb): surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up [riches], and knoweth not who shall gather them.

Psa 73:18 Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction. 19 How are they [brought] into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors. 20 As a dream when [one] awaketh; [so], O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image (i.e., their existence, not a picture of them or their physical apearance).


These verses show that the basic meaning ofMlc is "reflection" or "representation" rather than a concrete object."Reflection" or "representation" accounts for these two verses, whereas the other meaning does not.

I believe that "image" in our texts should likewise be understood in this manner - that is, the "image" in those texts refers to a representation of something, that something being God.In other words, when Scripture speaks of mankind being created in the image of God, what is meant is that mankind has been created to represent God on earth.This is different than the incarnation, which was God veiling himself in flesh - but explains why Jesus is referred to AS the veryimage of God in passages like:


2Co 4:4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Christ served as the ultimate image or reflection of what God is and does, and it was God's original intention at the very beginning of makind's existence that this created thing, above anything else on the planet, should be his representative - God's stand-in or understudy as it were.


3.The Syntax (the phrases / commands linked to the creation of mankind as God's image) 

To this point I have argued that the prepositions and the meanings of the nouns to which those prepositions are attached point to the idea that the image of God is a FUNCTION, not a thing put into a human.The syntax (structure and relationship of the clauses) also points in this direction:

let us make mankind as our image . . . after our likeness

and let them rule over . . .

so God created as his own image . . . 

i.e., God deliberately created mankind to rule the earth, and to accomplish this purpose, he created man as his own image - He made man his co-regent / representative ruler


One important parallel passage supports the idea we've been driving at - that when God created mankind in his image, what is meant is that he was making a being sufficient to the task of ruling over and stewarding his creation.

Psalm 8:4-64 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. 6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all [things] under his feet:

When mankind was created he was "crowned" - made a ruler, according to God's deliberate purposes.


B.The Resulting Definition / Explanation

God's intent was to put someone in charge, and so he created mankind in his image to fulfill this purpose.We then "image" God by "running His world" - a job that necessitates discovering what "makes the world tick" - and encompasses social organization (remember, God would shortly thereafter ordain government - that humankind could - and must - exercise authority over other humans - in addition now to the animal world).


This job encompasses not only agricultural pursuits (as with Adam and Eve), but gives meaning to academic pursuits, application of knowledge in the form of technology, pursuing right relationships with all mankind, and caring for the resources God has given.Ultimately, we know that it was God's intention that every human being has a specific role in accomplishing this end (because the image is inextricably tied to being human, which is inevitably generational).In other words, God has specific tasks and responsibilities that need to be done on earth that humanity - and no one else - is destined to fulfill.But only God knows the purpose He intends for each life, and how that purpose will be accomplished.


This goal was pre-Fall, and we know from Genesis 9:6 (killing God in effigy) that the high, unique, position of mankind is still intact after the fall.The fall did not result in the overturning or dismissal of God's plan.It's just that now we have sin to contend with as an obstacle and the self-centeredness that it brings.Humankind must be redeemed to truly fulfill its position as God's vice-regent.God can use the talents and efforts of any person - for humanity's status is not linked to redemption - it was bestowed prior to God's redemptive work in history.But Christians, more than anyone else, ought to feel compelled to represent God in every area of life (particularly as it realtes to WORK) and in every situation.



The image of God then, refers to our unique status as human beings, rulers in God's stead, according to His own will.We are created AS his image - to function as he would were he administering His own affairs directly.Our abilities - unequally given to us in the Providence of God are not THE image, but only a means to carrying out His expressed and often secret end.

A.ONLY humans are God's imagers / representatives - 

nothing else and no one else occupies an equal status.To be human is to have this divinely-ordained status.

- animals do not share this status (it isn't necessary to deny animal intelligence)

- machines will not share this image if artificial intelligence eve gets to the point where the human brain can be mimicked.

- non-human life (extraterrestrial) does not share this status.Earth belongs to mankind under God, and no one else, regardless of future claims.

B.EVERY humanbeing IS an imager / God's representative -

- regardless of the stage in the womb (the contents are human - genetically there can be no other conclusion)

- regardless of physical disability

C.WORK has inherent value - it is the means by which we rule the earth and discover, utilize, and steward the creation.