3) Gen 1:26 continued: A second major issue in this verse concerns the nature of the image (tselem) of God, and how that term relates to the “likeness” (demuth) of God.[1]

Unlike other creatures, which God created “according to their kind” (min) (Gen 1:21, 24–25), he made humanity in his own image. Although this concept forms the basis for understanding Genesis and the rest of Scripture,[2] the phrase “image of God” appears in only two other verses in the Old Testament (OT) (Gen 1:27 (2x); Gen 9:6).[3]

Complicating matters, this Hebrew word for “image” occurs only seventeen times in the entire OT. Ten of those refer to physical models or idols (e.g. 1 Sam 6:4–5; Ezek 16:17; Num 33:51–52).[4] Of these, only the images in 1 Samuel remain free from condemnation as illicit representations.[5]

Two uses of “image” in the Psalms compare human existence to a fleeting image or shadow (Ps 39:6; Ps 73:20).[6]

In the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) perspective, the gods created the world for their own enjoyment. They made humanity as an afterthought to relieve them from the drudgery of doing their own labor.[7]

According to Enuma Elish, the gods tired of working to obtain food, so they came up with a plan to create others to feed them:

The hero Marduk announced, “Blood I will mass and cause bones to be. I will establish a savage. ‘Man’ shall be his name. Truly, savage man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease!”

Then Marduk slew the god who had incited the cosmic sea monster Tiamat to rebel. Ea mixed clay with Kingu’s blood to fashion people to work as their slaves.[8]

Throughout the ANE, only a king or high-ranking official could be designated as “the image of God.”[9]

For example, Egyptians revered pharaohs as both kings and the incarnation of a god.

One Pyramid Text states, “For the King is a great power who has power over the other powers; the king is a sacred image, the most sacred of the sacred images of the Great One.

And whomsoever he finds in his way, him he devours piecemeal…Thousands serve him, hundreds make offerings for him.”[10]

One man wrote, “To the king, my lord, and my sun god say, ‘Thus Biridiya, the true servant of the king. At the feet of the king, my lord, and my sun god, seven times and seven times I fall.’”[11]

According to an Akkadian proverb, “ Man is the shadow of a god, a slave is the shadow of a man; but the king is like the (very) image of a god.”[12]

While in Egypt, Moses’s original readers would have believed that the sole reason for their existence was to work for the pharaoh. In contrast, Gen 1:26 uses royal language to describe all of humanity, from the greatest king to the lowliest slave.[13]

People living in the ANE believed that an image carried the essential nature of what it personified.

An Egyptian stele states, “[Ptah, the Creator-god,] fashioned the gods…He installed the gods in their holy places, he made their offerings to flourish, he equipped their holy places.

He made likenesses of their bodies to the satisfaction of their hearts. Then the gods entered into their bodies of every wood and every stone and every metal.”[14]

Consequently, those worshiping an idol considered their activity equivalent to adoration of the god whom the idol portrayed. While a statue may not have looked exactly the same as the god, it could accomplish the deity’s work.[15]

Similarly, the Hebrew concept of “image” (tselem) does not necessarily specify an exact physical likeness.[16]

In Mesopotamia, a son could be born in the image of his father, but only a god could be created in the image of the gods.[17]

As a result, ancient rulers set up images of themselves in distant parts of their realms to represent their authority. That is why Nebuchadnezzar expressed such  outrage when three Hebrew men refused to fall down in worship before the statue he had erected (Dan 3:1, 8–15).[18]

The Assyrian emperor Shalmaneser III recorded his victories on a black obelisk, noting that after defeating the people of Hattina and installing a new ruler, “I fashioned a heroic image of my royal personage; I had it set up in…his royal city, in the house of his gods.”[19]

A phenomenal example of this concept appears in Abu Simbel, Egypt. Ramesses II had this temple complex carved out of a cliff side along his border with Nubia, almost certainly to assert his power. It depicts his claim of victory over the Hittites at Kadesh.

Four images of gods—including Ramesses the Great himself—sit at the back of the largest temple. On his birthday and coronation day, which are conveniently six months apart, a ray of light shines to the back of the temple, illuminating three of the four idols. Ptah, the god of darkness, remains unlit.[20]

“According to our likeness” more precisely defines the meaning of “the image of God.”[21]

Most scholars assert that this phrase affirms that some distinctions exist between the creator and humanity,[22] just as Seth could not have been completely identical to his father (Gen 5:3).[23]

The word “likeness” occurs three times in Ezek 1:26.[24] Notably, the prophet did not say that he saw a throne or a man,[25] but “something like” them.[26] Thus humanity bears great resemblance to God but does not comprise God himself.[27]

What makes sin so serious is that we use our God-given capacities to do things which offend the one who endows us with them.[28]

Yet, Moses did not define what constitutes the image or the likeness of God.[29] Some commentators suspect that we read what we most value about being human into the text, leading them to abandon any attempt to explain the term.[30]

Other theologians have been more obliging. They have suggested several major categories.

The first involves mental and spiritual capacities, such as the ability to reason and to determine a course of action, personality, intelligence, self-awareness,[31] moral sensitivity, a sense of beauty, creativity,[32] original righteousness, the ability to enjoy fellowship with God,[33] and the potential to love others sacrificially (Eph 4:32–5:2).[34]

Some scholars contend that the image of God consists of a physical resemblance. This interpretation comes primarily from Gen 5:3, for Adam “fathered [Seth] in his likeness, according to his image.”

As noted previously, the most common meaning of “image” involves physical appearance.

Since the OT stresses that God does not possess a body and is invisible, this interpretation remains problematic (Deut 4:15–16).[35] On the other hand, the Lord describes himself as having eyes and ears to communicate his awareness of the plight of the afflicted (Ps 94:9).[36]

To focus upon any one aspect of humanity when seeking to define God’s image is inadequate. Since people function as a unity of body and soul, we cannot elevate one aspect of the Lord’s likeness over the others.[37]

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “If the creator wishes to create the creator’s own image, then the creator must create it free. And only such an image, in its freedom, would fully praise God, would fully proclaim God’s glory as creator.”[38]

As redeemed people, our goal is to become more fully conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:4–11).[39] Nevertheless, even those without Christ continue to bear God’s image (James 3:8–9).

According to the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, “The image of God abides ever in the soul; ‘whether this image of God be so obsolete,’ as it were clouded, ‘as almost to amount to nothing,’ as in those who have not the use of reason; ‘or obscured and disfigured,’ as in sinners; or ‘clear and beautiful,’ as in the just.”[40]

Even John Calvin, who emphasized the frightful deformity of humanity,[41] wrote:

Scripture…tells us that we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honor and love.

But in those who are of the household of faith, the same rule is to be more carefully observed…as that image is renewed and restored in them by the Spirit of Christ.

Therefore, whoever be the man that is presented to you as needing your assistance, you have no ground for declining to give it to him.[42]

Thus the image of God remains inseparable from humanity regardless of the way one lives. We do not merely bear the likeness of our creator; we are the image of God.[43]

As a result, every person—no matter how marred that image may be—must be treated with respect. Every human life is sacred. Murder is an affront to the creator, for it destroys God’s image (Gen 9:5).[44]

That the Son of God came to us in flesh enables us to comprehend more fully what it means to be the image of God: it is to be like Jesus.[45]

Furthermore, as those in whom the Spirit of God resides, we have the ability to grow more fully into Christ’s image (Eph 4:11–16, 22–24; Col 3:12–15). As we develop character like Jesus’s, we better reflect God’s image (Col 1:15).[46]

In the ANE, the image of God applied to the king primarily in terms of his function and his presence.[47]

Consequently, in recent years the dominant view among scholars understands the “image of God” in Genesis 1 in terms of exercising dominion over the world, ruling as God’s representatives on earth.[48]

Even as emperors placed statues of themselves in the temples of their under-lords, so God made Adam and Eve in his image and placed them on earth to signify that the Lord rules the planet.[49]

Given the ANE context, this view has the greatest merit for defining the divine image.

For example, one pharaoh wrote this to his son:[50]

Well directed are men, the cattle of the god. He made heaven and earth according to their desire, and he repelled the water monster. He made the breath of life [for] their nostrils. They who have issued from his body are his images.

He arises in heaven according to their desire. He made for them plants, animals, fowl, and fish to feed them. He slew his enemies and injured [even] his [own] children because they thought of making rebellion.

He makes the light of day according to their desire, and he sails by in order to see them. He has erected a shrine around about them, and when they weep he hears.[51]

Note the depiction of commoners as the cattle of the sun god. Only the rulers who issued from the sun god’s body were made in the god’s image, not in physical appearance but in their privileges and power.[52]

In contrast, the OT view is highly democratic, for all people are created in the image of the Lord.[53]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Gen 1:26. In what way does the Hebrew view of humanity differ from that of the nations around them? Taking the ANE context into account, how would you define “the image of God”? How does recognizing the image of God in other people affect the way you treat them?







Go to Stewards of the Earth


[Related posts include An Israelite View of Genesis 1; Inhabitants of the Sea and Sky (Gen 1:20–23); Living Things from the Earth (Gen 1:24–25); Let Us Make Humanity (Gen 1:26); Stewards of the Earth (Gen 1:26 cont.); Male and Female He Created Them (Gen 1:27); The Blessing of Fruitfulness (Gen 1:28); God Evaluates His Creation (Gen 1:31);  Succumbing to Temptation (Gen 3:6); In the Likeness of God (Gen 5:1–2); In Adam’s Likeness and Image (Gen 5:3–5); Blood for Blood (Gen 9:5–7); In the Beginning Was the Word (John 1:1–2); The Light Shines in Darkness (John 1:3–5); The Firstborn of All Creation (Col 1:15–18); and Ancient Literature]


[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History or to Chapter 3: The Image of God (Genesis 1:26–31)]


[1]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 134.

[2] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 65.

[3] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 134.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29.

[5] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 135.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29.

[7] Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 1:31.

[8] “The Creation Epic” (Enuma Elish), ANET, lines 6.1–36, 68, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n93/mode/2up.

[9] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 135.

[10]Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969), lines 407–8, 82, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n509/mode/2up.

[11]W. F. Albright and George E. Mendenhall, trans., “The Amarna Letters, RA XIX,” in ANET, lines 1–10, 485, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n509/mode/2up.

[12]Robert F. Pfeiffer, trans., “Akkadian Proverbs and Counsels,” in ANET, 5.3, 426, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n451/mode/2up.

[13]Phyllis A. Bird, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” HTR 74, no. 2: 129–59, 144, http://www.bhporter.com/Porter%20PDF%20Files/male%20and%20female%20he%20created%20them%20Gne%201%2027%20in%20the%20context%20of%20the%20priestly%20account%20of%20creation.pdf.

[14]James H. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), 46, https://archive.org/stream/developmentofrel00brea#page/46/mode/2up.

[15] Walton, Genesis, 130.

[16] Swanson, “צֶלֶם” (tselem), DBLSDH, 7512.

[17] Walton, Genesis, 130.

[18] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 67.

[19]Daniel David Luckenbill, ed., Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia (ARAB): Historical Records of Assyria from the Earliest Times to Sargon, Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1926), 1:208–9, https://archive.org/stream/LuckenbillAncientRecordsAssyria01/Luckenbill_Ancient_Records_Assyria01#page/n223/mode/2up.

[20]History Channel, “Rameses’ Temple at Abu Simbel,” http://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/ancient-egypt/videos/ramses-temple-at-abu-simbel. This link is for a three-minute video.

[21]. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29.

[22] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 135–6.

[23] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29–30.

[24] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “דְּמוּת” (demuth), BDB, 198, https://archive.org/stream/hebrewenglishlex00browuoft#page/198/mode/2up.

[25] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 136.

[26] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29.

[27] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 66.

[28] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 70–2.

[29]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 137.

[30] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29.

[31] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 29–30.

[32] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 70–2.

[33] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 137.

[34] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 29.

[35] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 30.

[36] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 65.

[37] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 137.

[38] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 61.

[39] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 24.

[40]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province; New York: Benziger, 1947), 1.93.8, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/FP/FP093.html#FPQ93OUTP1.

[41] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 43.

[42]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 3.7.6, 624–5, https://archive.org/stream/institutesofchr01calv#page/624/mode/2up.

[43] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 65.

[44] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 31–2.

[45] Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 22.

[46] Walton, Genesis, 131.

[47] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 30.

[48] Ian Hart, “Genesis 1:1–2:3 as a Prologue to the Book of Genesis.” TynBul 46, no. 2 (November 1995): 315-36, 317–19, http://tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1995_46_2_06_Hart_Gen1Prologue.pdf.

[49] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 82.

[50]James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, 3rd Ed. (ANET) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 414, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n439/mode/2up.

[51]John A. Wilson, trans., “The Instruction for King Meri-Ka-Re,” in ANET, lines 131–5, 417, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n441/mode/2up. Italics mine.

[52] Walton, Genesis, 130.

[53] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 66.