Image and Function in Genesis 1:26-28
Another significant fact related by these verses is our creation in the image and likeness of God. We cannot here enter into all the debates about the imago Dei, but some few things should be said.
Firstly, God does not say ‘according to My likeness.’ He says ‘Our likeness’. The “Let us” statement is no plural of majesty, since it appears to be ideational, and is to be understood (I believe) as a statement of plurality in the Speaker. The question arises then, in what way is God a plurality? This question is not fully answered until the NT era. Or, on the other hand, and as much OT scholarship insists, is the plurality meant to convey some sort of heavenly council scene, such as one finds in ANE accounts of the assemblies of gods?
If the latter is the case then one will have to go outside of the Bible for added data to interpret the passage. This indeed is what many scholars in the evangelical community do. But if we pause for a moment and read the context we quickly see that such an interpretation must be wrong; for the Speaker goes on to say, ‘Let us make man in our own image, according to our own likeness.’ And, in line with the words/actions pattern which we have already noted, it says, ‘So God created man in his own image’, and underscores it right after with, ‘in the image of God he created him.’ That ought to clear up the interpretation.
“Man” (adam) here is plural: ‘male and female’. Both are made in God’s image. There is no hint of a conversation between God and the angels (which would not mirror an ANE council of divinities anyway). Angels are nowhere said to be made in God’s image and likeness. Plus, creation is a grand prerogative of God. Why would the Creator discuss His creative proposals with creatures? Angels have no part in the work of creation (See Isa. 48:11).
The passage also states that man was to be given dominion over ‘all the earth’ not just Eden. This must be kept in mind when we reach chapter 2. The dominion applies to the function of man and woman as God’s image-bearers.
In the third place, just what constitutes the image of God? Again, many today would claim that the image includes the function as well as the constitution of man. Unsurprisingly, resort to ANE records features largely in their arguments. But the text appears to make the function contingent upon the image. In other words, man and woman cannot fulfill their function until they are made in God’s image. This would restrict the image to at least our material and immaterial natures.
But then we must enquire whether the image assumes the material part of human beings along with our immaterial natures. Here I think we are on safer ground if we define the image and likeness classically along non-physical lines. If we make the image merely physical we run into the problem of what God looks like. Our difference from the rest of the created realm is not just physical. Fish and birds and cattle and creeping things differ physically one from another as much as we do from them, so it is doubtful that we image God merely physically.
On the other hand, can we dismiss the possibility that both the soulish and the physical aspects of man image God? Authors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum point out that,
“the traditional view is inadequate… because it does not come to grips with the fact that “image” normally refers to a physical statue and cannot be exegetically validated as the author’s intended meaning or the first audience’s natural understanding of the text in terms of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and linguistic setting.”
But this begs a rather crucial question. Did Moses report the words God actually spoke in Genesis 1:26-27? Nobody else was around, and certainly God meant what He said in the rest of Genesis 1, as we have seen. That being so, the matter of whether people of the ANE living in or after Moses’ time (ca. the fifteenth century B.C.) thought “image” meant a physical statue is by the bye, and may even be anachronistic. The context will have to tell us. Gentry and Wellum opt for “rulership and sonship” as the image. But this leaves us with the problem of the spread of little rulers and sons of God upon the earth. If everyone is a ruler then surely nobody is. (and if “image” equates to sons, what about daughters? In OT times – if we’re insisting on “cultural setting” – daughters did not enjoy the same rights as sons). The biblical text leans toward thinking of the image primarily as non-physical and the body as the vehicle for the expression of the image in the extended world.
Anticipating the Human Form?
Reading the progression in Genesis 1, we follow a logical as well as a chronological order. Dry ground comes before plants and trees. The plant kingdom is readied before creatures are made to live off them. The apex of the creation week is the fashioning of man from the dust of the ground. Man is God’s image-bearer: a stupendous privilege and responsibility, and he is given dominion over what God has just created.