Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.”
So God created man in His own image;
He created him in the image of God;
He created them male and female.
In order to understand what it means for man to be made in God’s image, we will need to know what God has revealed about himself.
Plurality of God
First is the question of the plurality in this text. Notice that God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” What is that about? Here are some views:
Heavenly Court – I have never personally held this view. The reason is simple: man was not created in the image of angels, and the court did not participate in the creative act of man.
Plural of Majesty – this is what I gravitated towards, in keeping with the original context only, and not allowing for any development of meaning. Other ancient writings employ this device when royalty is speaking. I was thinking that it couldn’t mean the Trinity, because that’s a New Testament thing.
Trinity – I never used to grant this. It was typically used as a quick reference to support the Trinity. But certainly the Trinity is not what the plurality in Genesis meant, right? Not necessarily. Apparently, Jewish commentators recognized the tension between the singular subject and the plural verb, and sought to eliminate the plurality! They did not resolve the tension with the “plural of majesty” explanation. In fact, the “plural of majesty” was first used by the Persians, long after the writing of Genesis.
Hence, Moses and the Israelites likely recognized this tension as well.
This doesn’t mean Moses and the people understood the full implications of this revelation, so does that remove the Trinity as the meaning of the plurality in this text?
If we were relying on merely the human author, then yes. However, is there only a human author of Scripture? No. The ultimate author is God. And God often revealed more to his prophets than they understood. We must remember that revelation is progressive. And the revelation of God as unity and plurality, triune, is progressive from Old Testament to New Testament. Scripture can have a sensus plenior (fuller meaning), despite the limited understanding of the original audience. Indeed, we should expect that, given that the New Testament provides clearer understanding of the Old Testament.
So, reading Genesis from the New Testament perspective, Genesis 1:26 is a reference to the Trinity. Indeed, Genesis 1:2 mentions the Holy Spirit, and Colossians 1:16-17 says Jesus was Creator. We know that God is triune, and the Triune God said let “us” make man in “our” image.
Image and Likeness of God
What exactly is the “image of God” that man is? What does “image” mean, and is it different from “likeness”? This has to be one of the hardest theological questions. There are many possible explanations
Here are some choices, laid out by J.V. Fesko in Last Things First pg. 46. Some of which you may be familiar with.
1. Image and likeness are distinct, they mean different things. Image refers to the natural qualities of man (e.g. reason, personality) while likeness refers to the supernatural graces that make redeemed man godlike. This was the view of the early church.
2. The mental and spiritual faculties that man has in common with God, such as intellectual and moral abilities, and original righteousness.
3. A physical resemblance, namely, that man looks like God.
4. Man rules on earth as God rules over the creation.
5. Man’s ability to relate to God.
6. Man’s ability to create in an analogical fashion like God.
Which is it? Or, are several of these explanations necessarily mutually exclusive? Perhaps, more than one of the options fits the text?
It is important to note that the Hebrew words translated “image” and “likeness” are used interchangeably in the Bible. Also, man had no need of redemption when he was created, so grace toward redeemed man cannot be part of the definition of the image of God. That eliminates the first option. And no, we don’t physically resemble God, because God is spirit. Option three is out.
The rest of the options are all possibilities, together. J.V. Fesko says,
“It seems plausible, though, that God’s image is a combination of options 2, 4, 5, and 6, with option 4 having primary emphasis. This combination appears to be the definition stated in verse 26b when God gives man dominion over the creation. One finds the image of God primarily in man’s role as God’s vice-regent over the creation, and secondarily in his mental and spiritual faculties, his ability to relate to God, and ability to create like God.” –pg. 47
“involving both the structure of man (his gifts, capacities, and endowments) and the functioning of man (his actions his relationships to God and to others, and the way he uses his gifts). To stress either of these at the expense of the other is to be one-sided. … To see man as the image of God is to see both the task and the gifts. But the task is primary; the gifts are secondary. The gifts are the means for fulfilling the task.”
The ruling task as primary makes sense even in light of eschatology, since we will rule with God.
Let’s refer to the ever-helpful Westminster Confession of Faith, 4.2:
“After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it…”
Now, recall one of the purposes of the Genesis creation account, as a polemic. So how does this story of God’s creation of man in his image, having dominion over the earth, compare with the original theological/religious context? How is it an alternative story?
And, how will the original historical context help us understand what man made in God’s image meant to the original hearers of Genesis?
Egyptian inscriptions describe man being made in the image of the god Re, formed by the potter Khum, and given life by the breath of Re or Hekat. A different account has man made by the tears of Atum. Man made in the image of the god showed his rule over them. This also is the basis for a man being king.
According to Mesopotamian creation accounts, man is typically said to be formed from the blood of a god mixed with clay. Other times, man comes out of the ground or is shaped in molds. In the Enuma Elish, man is created to work for the gods, because the gods are tired. Man is merely a slave.
Fesko also notes that in Egypt and Mesopotamia the ruling monarchs were said to be god’s image. The name Tutankhamen in Egypt literally means “the living image of the god Amun.” It was common practice for ancient kings to set up images of themselves to illustrate their rule over that land; the image of the king represented their rule. G.K. Beale says, “Likewise, Adam was created as the image of the divine king to indicate that earth was ruled over by Yahweh.” (“Garden Temple”, pg. 5)
“So, then, against the backdrop of the literature of the ancient Near East we obtain a window through wich we can capture some of the significance of man’s creation in the image of God. The triune God created man in his image primarily to rule over the earth, endowing him with many other God-like qualities, to indicate that God ruled over the creation. He also created man in community, male and female, to reflect the divine community of the Trinity.”
–J.V. Fesko, Last Things First pg. 49
The original religious context gives us significant insight into how the Israelites would have understood “image of God.” They were more than familiar with the Egyptian Pharaoh’s identification with deity. Moses himself was in that royal family. Imagine, then, after seeing the true God Yahweh defeat the god’s of Egypt by the plagues, and delivering you out of 400 years of slavery, you then hear that man, mankind, is made in the image and likeness of God! It’s not just the king who represents the ruling presence of God, but it is all mankind. Every human being. Not just king, but slave. And not just man, but woman also. What a revolutionary perspective.
“All mankind, not just one king (as in Egypt), are intermediaries between God and creation, representing and ruling for God in his image.”
–Miller and Soden, In the Beginning. . . We Misunderstood pg. 104
In the biblical creation account man also works in obedience to God. Man serves. But in contrast to the Mesopotamian creation account, humans are not relieving the gods of work that they are tired of doing. Man is not made as a slave to relieve the gods’ burden. God has made man in his image, and Adam served God as a king and priest in his presence.
The implications for king-worship would be significant as well. Ancient kings who associated with diety demanded to be worshiped. We have several examples throughout the Bible of those who fear God refusing to bow down to kings.
Other aspects of the image of God, such as man’s reason and creativity, can be seen as well. There are far reaching implications for a Christian view of art, reasoning, etc. We’ll touch that later.
Apex of Creation
“Among creatures, only man is the image of God, God’s highest and richest self-revelation and consequently the head and crown of the whole creation, the imago Dei and the epitome of nature, both mikrotheos (microgod) and mikrokosmos (microcosm).”
–Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2, God and Creation pg. 531
The repetition in Genesis 1:27 indicates that mankind, man and woman, created in the image of God, is the apex, the crown of creation. The creation of man is given a place of prominence, at the end of the creation narrative.
So God created man in His own image;
He created him in the image of God;
He created them male and female.
Put yourself in the place of the original hearers. Freshly delivered from polytheistic Egypt. Anyone ever seen pictures or statues of the Egyptian gods? What do they look like? What is their image and likeness?
Dog. Frog. Falcon. Bull. Animals are the images of the gods. What a contrast is the true revelation, God’s true representation of himself. Why are we forbidden to make an image of God? Because God has already made it. Us. Man is image of God. Man is God’s image, not the animals.
Thus man forms a unity of the material and spiritual world, a mirror of the universe, a connecting link, compendium, the epitome of all nature, a microcosm, and, precisely on that account, also the image and likeness of God, his son and heir, a micro-divine-being (mikrotheos). He is the prophet who explains God and proclaims his excellencies; he is the preist who consecrates himself with all that is created to God as a holy offering; he is the king who governs all things in justice and rectitude. And in all this he points to One who in a still higher and richer sense is the revelation and image of God, to him who is the only begotten of the Father, and the firstborn of all creatures. Adam, the son of God, was a type of Christ.
–Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics pg. 562
Christ, the image of the invisible God
Christ, who is the image of God. —2 Corinthians 4:4
He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation. —Colossians 1:15
In keeping with the Christological focus of Scripture itself, we must understand the image of God in reference to Christ being the image of God. We cannot ignore what Paul says: he names Jesus Christ to be the image of God. Therefore, we are obligated to interpret the Genesis account of man made in God’s image in light of Christ, the image of God.
Fesko notes two important doctrinal points: (1) the image of Christ defines what man truly is supposed to be; and (2) it governs the goal of man’s redemption. (pg. 52)
Under the first point, we must acknowledge that Christology defines anthropology. The incarnate Christ defines what man is supposed to be. Jesus Christ is the perfect man.
How does Christ image God perfectly? He rules over creation. Adam, as we all know, failed to exercise dominion.
Under the second point, relating to man’s redemption, we take into account the fall. Yes, man was made in God’s image, but something happened after: the fall of man into sin. So, is man still the image of God? There is now the need for redemption, which there was not before. The image of God was not annihilated, but was damaged by sin. Calvin called it “frightful deformity.” So what does Christ as image of God have to do with our redemption? Paul calls Christ the last Adam. And remember what sanctification is: becoming more like Christ. Likeness to God. We are being restored.
For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son
So it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, then the spiritual.
The first man was from the earth
and made of dust;
the second man is from heaven.
Like the man made of dust,
so are those who are made of dust;
like the heavenly man,
so are those who are heavenly.
And just as we have borne
the image of the man made of dust,
we will also bear
the image of the heavenly man.
Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption.
—1 Corinthians 15:45-50
Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.
Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The New Testament perspective on anthropology is clearly defined by Christology. Christ is the image of God, and we cannot possibly understand what it means to be made in God’s image, apart from Christ as the perfect man.