by Ed Gallagher
God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.Genesis 1:27
Read Genesis 1:26–31
On what day does God create humans? On the 6th day. So up to this point, God has been creating different things for 6 days. What is different about the way Genesis describes the creation of people from the way it describes the creation of other things?
Possible responses: God speaks in the plural, “Let us…”. It says that God creates humans in his image. Humans are the very last thing created. Humans are given a special task. The teacher may want to expound on all of these points, or ask the class to expound on them.
What does it mean to say that humans are created in God’s image?
Possible answers: having a soul or spirit; the ability to use reason and intellect; ability to love, relate to others, etc.
This idea that people are made in God’s image is explicitly mentioned in Scripture only a few times: Gen 1:26–27; 5:1; 9:6 (and that’s it!). Despite the infrequency of its appearance in Scripture, the idea of people made in God’s image is a core doctrine of Christianity, and this is signalled by its repeated appearance at the very beginning of the Bible.
What is an image? What do we normally think about when we hear about an image of a god? We normally think about an idol. The Hebrew word for ‘image’ (tselem) appears 15x in Scripture. Besides the times in Genesis already mentioned, ‘image’ appears in Num 33:52; 1 Sam 6:5, 11; 2 Kings 11:18 // 2 Chron 23:17; Ezek 7:20; 16:17; 23:14; Amos 5:26. What does the word mean in these passages?
If that is what ‘image of a god’ means, then does this idea help us to think about what Genesis means when it says that people are made in the image of God? It seems to mean that we are representations of God, that we are his images. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Israel is not supposed to make idols of their God (Exod 20:4), because they themselves are (in a sense) the idols, the representations of God on earth.
Read Psalm 8. What does this psalm say about the role and status of people?
As you think about this concept within an ancient worldview, do you think that this idea of people made as God’s earthly representatives would have been widely accepted?
No, certainly not. In the ancient Near East, the king alone was the image of God, he spoke for God, represented God. Hammurabi is depicted as receiving his laws directly from Shamash the sun god (seated in front of the standing Hammurabi).
Genesis 1:26–27 represents a radical democratization of this concept in which all people, not only kings, represented God.
The concept of the image of God can be taken in two directions, and both of them are helpful for us to think about.
- By nature, or inherent (ontological). We are God’s images by nature, not because of what we have done or what we can do. It’s a part of our very creation.
Note that the image of God is not lost or destroyed in us because of sin. People are still created in God’s image, even if they are sinners (Gen 9:6).
What implications does this teaching have for our society? For the way we treat others? For controversial issues in today’s world?
Think about abortion, racism, how we treat people from different cultures (immigrants), how we treat our enemies. Think about how this teaching should influence the way we treat the elderly, the way we treat the disabled. Note also that God’s image includes men and women (Gen 1:27).
- Functional. As God’s representatives on earth, we have a job.
What is the task that humans are given immediately after their creation in Genesis 1? Humans are given dominion over the earth with instructions to subdue it (Gen 1:28). What does this mean? We exercise rule over the world as representatives of God. We see how we ought to rule by observing how God rules. In Genesis 1 specifically, God sets things in order, creates space for creatures and sets them in their proper place. A major part of our ruling task is to bring order to the world, a world that is full of disorder.
Often we are not very good at representing God. Jesus, the perfect image of God, has shown us what it should look like (2 Cor 4:4–6; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3).
The notion that humans are created in the image of God, as God’s representatives on earth, is a revolutionary idea in the ancient Near East and in our world today. Giving attention to this idea will help us understand our function in this world, and help us treat others as God’s images, as they are whether they realize it or not.
Additional Questions for Discussion
What does the phrase ‘image of God’ bring to your mind? Are there any other stories in the Bible that talk about images of God?
In what way(s) are humans the image of God?
Read Psalm 8. According to this psalm, what is the status of humans?
Since humans are made in God’s image, what implications does this teaching have for the way we treat other people?
Which modern social concerns could be affected if people realized that every human is made in God’s image?
If you’re looking for a book on “the image of God,” I’d recommend the one by Richard Middleton that appeared in 2005. You might also want to think about how the image of God is manifest in someone with a disability, upon which much has been written recently. In a chapter in this book, John Goldingay reflects on disability and the ‘image of God’.
Here are a few good video overviews of the Image of God
First up is the Bible Project, which traces the theme throughout Scripture.
Here is a short one by Ryan Reeves, exploring the two avenues for understanding the image of God.
Finally, one by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission which is especially good at exploring the implications of humanity’s creation in God’s image with regard to our behavior toward others.