Mark’s recent posts on post-birth abortions emphasized how messed up our culture is when it comes to the value of human beings, especially the most vulnerable. And in my last post I presented the idea that one of the reasons our culture is so messed up is because we have a misunderstanding about the relationship of the human body to the soul. I mentioned that an improper understanding of this dualism– that humans are composed of two sorts of substances, material and immaterial– tends to lead to the view that what we do with our bodies and the bodies of others has nothing to do with who we are as human beings. Finally I said that we could combat this misunderstanding by embracing the reality that humans are made in the image of God.
Men and women are curiously said to have been created in the image/likeness of God in three places in the early chapters of the Bible– Genesis 11:26: “Let us make men in our image after our likeness”; an additional reference to man’s creation “in the likeness of God” in Genesis 5:2; and finally in Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” That this designation– in his own image– has a positive spin is clear, and it appears that humanity’s value is attached to it, but the context lacks the sort of details that would remove the ambiguity from the meaning of the terms. The Hebrew word for image (şelem) is used several other times in the Bible and usually refers to a physical representation of something, in particular pagan images of deities. In Psalm 39:7, however, it refers to the insubstantiveness of human life and in Psalm 73:20 it refers to a dream lacking any real substance. It seems the meaning is sufficiently broad to include both concrete and abstract aspects of the word. The word for likeness (děmût) is also fairly abstract and seems to be virtually synonymous for şelem. Despite the ambiguity, it plainly means that somehow humanity bears God’s image– the Imago Dei.
While this topic is one of the most highly debated in Christian theological history, the most dominant view of the Imago Dei has been seeing the image as consisting of characteristics and capacities within human nature that are analogous to God; most commonly seen as the psychological and spiritual qualities (freedom, reason, morality, etc.) that differentiate humans from other animals. However there has always been a stream of thought that the physical form of humanity is somehow representative of God.
In Israelite thought, mankind’s representative nature was always seen of humans as body/soul, and possibly the external appearance bore even more weight than the spiritual resemblance. This understanding brings with it the idea that the whole person is representative of God, even in our physical aspects. Through biblical word studies and studies in Ancient Near Eastern writings, a solid case can be made for the idea that man is not just created in the image of God, but is the image of God. The readers/hearers of Genesis would have understood the image/likeness language as claiming humankind to be the image of God in their physical form.
What do we make of this? We know God does not have a form (Deut. 4:15), and if he did it would raise many difficulties (not the least of which is that both men and women are created in God’s image). And still the language of the Old Testament implies that we are physically made in the image of God. If, however, we think of ourselves as being the image of God, that is, God’s physical representation of Godself on the earth, then we can begin to understand that what we do with and in our bodies is of great importance. If we are to represent God as his image-bearers, then it must include representing him not only in our psychological and spiritual qualities, but also in our bodies.
Next time: What would it look like if God had a human body?