A basic Christian belief is that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. This understanding, derived from Genesis 1:27 and often referred to by the Latin phrase imago Dei, has had a profound effect on Christian thought.
Genesis 1:27 says:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
This verse comes near the end of the first creation account. The word translated ‘made’ is the Hebrew bārā’ ברא which is only used when God is doing the creating, and then not always. The fact that bārā’ is used 3 times in this passage highlights the importance of the passage, and so the importance of God creating humanity. The passage also emphasises that humanity bears the divine image and stresses that this divine image is shared by both male and female. This in itself is a critique of common Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) ideas on the place and purpose of humanity, with the Biblical account showing humanity as the climax of creation and cared for by God, rather than as an afterthought created by the gods to provide them with food, as ANE myths did.
However, unlike the word דמות ‘likeness’ (an abstract noun derived from the verb דמה ‘to be like, resemble’), a more specific understanding of the word צלם ‘image’ is problematic, due to its comparative rarity in the Bible (17 times) and the uncertain nature of its etymology. There’s no known Hebrew verb to clarify its meaning, and the nearest words in other related languages (such as Arabic) don’t really help. This has led to suggestions that it may have been an obscure word at the time. But, its more probable that the concept was understand by the original hearers as otherwise a more detailed explanation would have been given. So, although the case as the concept of “image and likeness of God” is only used in three passages (Genesis 1:26f, 5:1, 9:6), other passages are usually interpreted as explaining it, both within Genesis and within the rest of the Old Testament, such as Psalm 8. Given the lack of clarity, there has been quite a a range of proposed theological interpretations of the meanings of ‘image and likeness’. Thiselton, in his excellent, detailed book on doctrine (The Hermeneutics of Doctrine 2007), argues that three interpretations “retain some kind of exegetical warrant”.
One traditional interpretation that is no longer regarded as tenable is Irenaeus’ exegesis of ‘image and likeness’ being separate aspects of humanity, with ‘image’ seen as referring to people’s natural qualities including reason, and ‘likeness’ seen as referring to people’s God-given gifts. But, it now seems far more probable that ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ were near synonyms which were used together to define more clearly the range of meaning that was intended.
Thiselton (2007:226-235) discusses in some detail the three interpretations that do retain the support of modern theologians. To summarise:
1. The imago Dei is represented by humanity’s capacity for reason and wisdom. This is supported by the emphasis placed on wisdom throughout scripture. However, whilst this seems probable it is also very open to reading things into the text (eisegesis), given the lack of definite information actually provided.
2. The imago Dei is represented by humanity being God’s representative here on earth. This is supported by, amongst others, Brueggemann who in his commentary on Genesis argues that the image of God is a “mandate of power and responsibility” to humans over the rest of creation. The view that humanity is envisaged as God’s earthly vice-regent can also be supported through an examination of the ANE parallels, where similar language is used of idols, priests, and kings and where royal statues were seen as in some sense embodying the king. However, this does rely on an understanding of the royal terminology of the ANE which is not explicitly supported by the text.
3. The imago Dei is represented by humanity’s capacity to relate to God. The third interpretation is supported most influentially by Barth, who argued that the distinctive divine ‘image’ in humanity is the God-given capacity to relate to God, and cannot be linked to any particular inherent qualities or attributes. This has been criticised for being rather too vague to be of much use. But, this relational understanding is often used by theologians, often though in conjunction with at least one of the other interpretations.
It is of course possible that the imago Dei was a concept that was deliberately left ambiguous and open-ended, to encourage reflection on the liberating understanding that humans are uniquely made by God, are closer in their relation to him than the rest of creation, and through this have a special relationship with God, with their fellow humans, and with the rest of creation. Brueggemann summarises the complexity of this passage: “the power of the text transcends every interpretation.”