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Human identity – part 1 – representation

In the previous posts I set out something of my thinking regarding the directions this series on atonement would go. We now come to look at Genesis to get a grip on what we, as humans, were created to be. Remember, our aim here is to look at our purpose and our nature as well – what can be referred to as our ‘ontology’. There will be several installments.

Reading in Genesis 1 26 we see:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea …”

identity representation

What does it mean when it says:
‘ … man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…’

It is a much talked about principle that you have to read scripture within its context if you are going to get an accurate picture of what is being said. This means a lot more than just reading the verse before and after the one you are looking at. One of my lecturers said he had spent his adult life ‘trying to get into the mind of a Jewish contemporary of Jesus.’ There are many ways to do this. While I am clearly no ancient languages scholar, we are going to look at some of the words used and what light this can shed on how the authors of Genesis were thinking.

A First Look at Image and Likeness

Much ink and many bytes have been used in thinking over what it means to be created in ‘God’s image and likeness’. One view that was, and still is, very popular is that ‘image & likeness’ refer in some way to the rational, non-physical part of humanity. Rational meaning – knowledge, reason, logic. Much of the early church regarded image and likeness as two separate aspects of humanity – one natural, one supernatural. The majority of theologians, until recently have gone with various metaphysical analogies or asked questions like “In what way are humans unlike animals, and like God?”

It does not require much thought to see that this idea is lacking. Recently I viewed a ‘bird show’ in which beautiful parrots, who mate for life, flew just above our heads, and wing-tip to wing-tip. Apparently these parrots are as intelligent as a five-year-old. So they have a lot in common with us then? So the likeness and image must be something else. Self-awareness is trickier to dismiss – and how could you disprove that intelligent animals are not self-aware? There is value in this approach, but not too much!

So let’s dive into a short word study. This was uncomfortable for me when I first heard it, but we want to follow where the scriptures take us….

Looking Deeper.

Image is a translation of the word ‘tslm’ (Tselem). Likeness is the word ‘dmwt’ (Demuth). You will see both of these words in the Old Testament, and in different forms. I used an interlinear to check up on some of these. (see references).

Tselem is used 17 times in the bible, and clearly refers to an idol … yes, a cult image, which in the common theology of the aNE (ancient near east) is precisely a localised, visible, physical representation of the divinity.

Demuth occurs 25 times, means likeness, and refers to a ‘general term of comparison’.

Put together these two words clearly imply that we are made as a physical, representation of God – such that can be compared to him. But the side of ‘tselem’ that is to do with idols is troubling…

A Farmer Went out to Sow…

In 1979 a Syrian farmer was enlarging his field with a bulldozer – and yes, he really did find treasure; a life-size male statue of a court official wearing a skirt. The big deal with this statue is that has it has two inscriptions, one in an Assyrian cuneiform and the other in Semitic (with an Aramaic dialect). The Aramaic text is a clear translation of the Assyrian. As always, there is debate about the statue’s age, but it is somewhere around 800 BCE.

Intriguingly, the Aramaic contains the words for ‘Image (tslm)’ and ‘likeness (dmwt)’ to translate phrases in the Assyrian that clearly refer to the statue itself. In other words here is evidence about what these words meant to the writers who used them. Genesis is suggesting that humanity is a physical representation of Yahweh.

When Genesis 1:26 talks about ‘image and likeness’ it is not referring to some ethereal,  ‘willo-the-wisp’ idea like intellect, rationality, self-awareness or feelings. Neither is it referring to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. A brief look at the original words leads us to see that the writers were referring to the WHOLE person. Our complete physicality, and all that comes with it. All of it. Hebrew anthropology (ie what it means to be human) is, to use a modern work, holistic.

We have introduced the idea that ‘image & likeness refers to a physical representation. Humans can be thought of as ‘statues of God’. In the ancient near eastern cultures a king would set up a statue, and the people would see a ‘representation’ of their monarch. In the same way, God has created us to be his representation on the earth.

If you are thinking ‘this is no big surprise to me’ – then great….

In the next post we will look at the royal element of this and dig into the disturbing idol references.


I wrote an essay entitled ‘What is a human?’ which is fully referenced and which you can read.
Hebrew Interlinear bible
T. Fekheriyeh statue (pdf)
Crispin Fletcher Louis – lecturer notes, WTC

About maxelcat

Moderately into just about everything I live in North London where I am run a tutoring physics/science business and drink a lot of coffee.
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