My grandson Theo lives in Omaha. His family has an annual pass to the Henry Doorly Zoo, and it’s not far from where they live, so they go often. Already at age five, Theo has an appreciation of, and real-life experience of, the scope and wonder of animal life that I got only from books until I was two or three times his age.
How creative is our God who gave us such a kaleidoscope of animal life: antelopes and zebras and giraffes and elephants and dolphins and whales and eagles and elk and moose and lions and tigers and bears – not to mention cattle and horses and pigs and dogs and cats and mice and guinea pigs and hundreds more I could name, and thousands more I could barely pronounce.
The Omaha zoo has nearly 1,000 species on exhibit, and that’s but a tiny percentage of the number that exist, even though we humans are busily rendering animal species extinct almost as fast as you could name them.
God created this vast collection of life and pronounced it all good – and God was just getting warmed up. This morning we continue to explore the hymn of creation from the first chapter of the book of Genesis, starting at verse 26.
Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness…”
There is so much going on in those few words. Starting with: “Let us…” Who’s us? So far, God is the only actor in this drama of creation. How is God an “us”?
We Christians, of course, automatically think of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Israelites who first heard this story and the Jews who heard it for centuries afterward had no knowledge of God as Trinity. To them, there is no “us” in God. For them, as for the human author of Genesis, God is a singular presence.
They might assume that God is consulting a council of heavenly advisers, a team of angels or the like, the way God does later in the Bible in the book of Job. Or perhaps God is using the royal plural, famously employed by kings to make themselves feel more regal. “We shall dine on the veranda.”
However you explain God’s use of the plural, God says, “Let us make human beings.” Some Bible translations, get it way wrong here. I’m talking about the King James and older editions of the New International Version, among others. They say, “Let us make man” – and that is precisely what the text does not say.
The Hebrew text says “ha adám.” The “ha” is a definite article, like our word “the.” So “ha adám” means “the adám,” the human. “Ha adám” is a generic term for humanity. If the writer wanted to specify that “ha adám” was male, the writer could have used a different word. “Ha adám” is generic. No gender, male or female, is specified or necessarily implied.
(Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, and other works)
You might argue that when the King James came out, the word “man” may have been considered generic. Perhaps, but it was a sexist generic in which being male was considered the norm and females were strictly tag-alongs. Other terms could have been used besides “man” but were not.
Ha adám” also is not a name. Later, it will become a name – Adam, without the article “the” in front of it, for a male individual – but right now it means simply “human being.” Actually, in this context it means “human beings,” plural, because soon the story will say that God creates “them,” both male and female. So when God says, “Let us make,” God definitely does not say, “Let us make man.”
But you can see, can’t you, how that bit of mistranslation really changes the meaning of the story? God does not make man. God makes human beings, male and female. That’s the truth. Anything else is a lie. We’ve been fed a lie for centuries, and there are forces in all the churches that want to keep telling that lie because it keeps them in power, in control of others, specifically and especially women.
God says, “Let us make human beings in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion” over all the fish and birds and animals.
Whoa. Whatever does that mean? How are we made in the image and likeness of God? Some interpreters draw a distinction between the two. They say that we are made in the image of God, but we must live into the likeness of God. That is, we have to grow into the living likeness of the one in whose image we are made.
Terrence Fretheim, one of the great contemporary interpreters of Genesis, puts it this way: “Human beings are not only created in the image of God (this is who they are); they also are created to be the image of God (this is their role in the world).”
(Terrence Fretheim, God and the World in the OT, 49)
I appreciate what he’s saying. Our lives have a purpose, and sometimes we don’t live up to it.
At the same time, I agree with those interpreters who say that image and likeness are the same. Hebrew poetry works through repetition rather than rhyme. For example, Psalm 8 asks God, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8.3-4).
That’s poetic parallelism. Image and likeness are, too. They’re the same thing, poetically expressed twice. So what are they? Specifically, what is the image of God, the imago dei, that theologians have obsessed over for centuries?
Straightaway, note that it cannot be a physical likeness, because God has none. We don’t image God by looking like God, because God cannot be seen. Michelangelo and others frequently portray God as a male, and that’s colorful picture language, but it can’t be taken literally. God is above and beyond sexuality, so, to be blunt, God does not have the proper equipment to qualify as male.
The imago dei also is not an ability or capability you can name, such as intelligence or reason or will. “Image” refers to the entire human, not just some part. Therefore, it most likely refers to the relationship we have with God. Our relationship with God is such that this relationship authorizes us to represent God to the rest of creation.
We are created to mirror God to creation, to reflect God’s image to creation. We image God when we act the way God would act, if God were in our shoes. We image God when we accurately represent God and when we act on God’s behalf in the world.
(Douglas A. Knight & Amy Jill-Levine, The Meaning of the Bible, 206)
This is a radical notion that we’ll return to in a moment. First, let’s ask: how do we act on God’s behalf in the world? Verse 27 lists two ways. First, God gives us “dominion” over all living things. Second, God commissions us to “fill the earth and subdue it.”
“Dominion” is the authority to rule over and determine the fate of those dominated. There’s an interesting translation debate here. Some translations give humans dominion not only over all living things, but also over the earth itself. Others limit human dominion to the animals.
Either way, we are to exercise this dominion in a Godlike manner. We are to act as God would act. As Fretheim says, dominion is nurture, not exploitation. We do not have permission to rip things apart willy-nilly and wantonly destroy the planet. We are supposed to use it, not abuse it.
(Terrence Fretheim, The Book of Genesis, New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 1, 346)
The shepherd is the best illustration here, according to scholar Walter Brueggemann. He says: “…the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition.”
(Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation commentary, 32)
As for “subduing” the earth, Fretheim says that basically means to cultivate it, to make it grow food. If you think that’s a stroll in the park, ask any farmer how easy it is.
“Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells the first humans, and God blesses them. All who are stuck on the concept of “original sin,” please note that sin is not original. God’s blessing is original. Sin comes later.
Also not original, according to this account, is the eating of meat. God gives humans and animals alike “every green plant for food,” But no meat. Yep, humans are intended to be vegetarian. Animals, too, apparently. Humans don’t get permission to eat meat until chapter 9 of Genesis, in the account of Noah and the great flood.
What is original, and revolutionary, in this account, is the idea that every human being is created in God’s image. Racists and nationalists still deny that truth today. Historian Jill Lepore makes the helpful point that patriots love their country, but nationalism is “less a love for your own country than a hatred of other countries” and their people.
(Jill Lepore, This America, 23)
Both nationalism and racism are systems of hate, and hate flourishes best when you deny that those you hate are fully human. Genesis affirms that all humans are blessed by God and bear God’s image.
When Genesis was written, the idea must have been mind-blowing. People were used to saying that kings were created in a god’s image. That’s how kings claimed authority to rule. They represented the gods. But Genesis says, no, no. Every human being represents God.
That’s huge. Ancient Sumerians believed that the gods created humans to be their slaves. Ancient Egyptians believed that humans were the not even slaves of the gods; they were more like cattle. Genesis firmly says, no! Humans are of great worth because they are made in God’s image.
And not just some humans. All humans. And not just men, but male and female alike. And neither of them individually, but only together. Read it again: “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” That can be understood to mean that God’s image is never present in a male alone, or a female alone. God’s image is present only in men and women together. Exclude one sex or another from your group and you also exclude the image of God. If we really believed that, wouldn’t that change the way the world works?
Having created the world, and animals and humans to fill it, God closes the sixth day of creation by announcing that it’s all very good. Not just good, as God said already several times, but very good. So on the seventh day, God rests, and God blesses it and dedicates it as a day of rest. That’s a Saturday, by the way, and that’s why Jews and others make Saturday their day of rest. Understand, it’s not just God who rests on the seventh day. All creation rests.
God does not rest because God is worn out from creating everything. God rests because it’s the right thing to do. Rest is God’s shalom. Shalom is the state of peace and fulfillment that God wishes for all creation. To rest means to stop work and enjoy yourself. God models it for us from the very start.
It’s another radical idea that Genesis gives the world. Quit working one day out of seven to do nothing? You’ve got to be kidding! What kind of craziness is this?
How does God rest? Isaiah 66.1 gives us a wonderful image. “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.” You can’t take it literally, of course. But let your imagination savor the image of our creator, feet propped up on earth, leaning back to admire it all.
And, oh, there’s so much to admire! And, yes, it’s very good.
Next week we’ll hear another version of how God created things. Yes, there are two versions of the story, and if you mix them up, or get the details entangled, you’ll misunderstand both of them. Before we go to the second story, be sure to take delight in this one. The hymn of creation in Genesis 1 is one of the great marvels of human literature.
“Image” is a message in the series “Genesis: In the beginning…” preached Sept.22, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas, by the Rev. James Hopwood; Psalm 104.24-33, Genesis 1.26-2.3