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Why “Created In God’s Image” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

April 8, 2022

Those who know me best know I’m obsessed with Genesis. Seriously, I just won a trivia contest at my job and my prize was the ability to have a custom design printed on some clothing. So I went with Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew on a scroll, and it’s honestly my new favorite sweatshirt.

More and more I’m learning that Genesis is one of the most expertly crafted pieces of literature in the history of the world. Maybe I’m biased, but the amount of themes and ideas that are packed into just a few pages are absolutely astounding. Images overlap images, and themes intertwine themselves with each other to create a cohesive narrative that opens itself up more to you the more you look at it. That being said, let’s take a brief look at one of the most unique parts of the Genesis creation story, man’s creation “in the image of God.”


So if you’re not familiar with the story (and I won’t assume everyone is), man’s creation is the final act of creation before the seventh day of rest. God has spent six days crafting and ordering the world, raising continents, positioning constellations, creating spiders (not necessarily to everyone’s liking, just saying), and finally we get to the end of Day 6, where God has just finished making the land animals. To top everything off, God says “Let us make adam (human) in our image.” The author of Genesis then breaks into a little poetic verse in 1:27-

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

So we’re left to ask, what is it about us that is the image of God? What does it mean to be the image of God? This is an important question, as it has far reaching implications to every part of our lives. Just by way of a potent example, John Dickson (among many others) in his book Bullies and Saints explicitly states that it was a revitalization of this very concept that led to the abolition of slavery in the West. It’s a powerful concept, but what does it mean?

Nephesh Chayyah

One of the more common ways to describe what separates humans from other living creatures as the image of God is the fact that we have a soul and other animals don’t. But here’s the thing, Genesis doesn’t actually say anything about that. While we may be able to discern man’s soul and potential for immortality from other passages in Scripture, the Genesis account of man’s designation as the bearer of the image of God doesn’t use the language of soul to distinguish man from the animals.

Now, for those of you more familiar with the story, I know what you might be thinking. “But doesn’t Genesis 2 say that man became a living soul, which is distinct from all the other animals?” And to that I would say, actually no it doesn’t.

This idea comes, to most of us, from having grown up with some exposure to the King James translation of the Bible. I have a whole thing about the KJV, but we won’t get into that right now. Needless to say there are plenty of relatively minor translation issues that are either inherent in the text itself or the product of being four centuries removed from the date of publication. One of those issues is in Genesis 2, where the translators did some interpretive work (granted, as all translators inevitably have to do) where it seems none was actually warranted. KJV translators translated the end of Genesis 2:7 as “man became a living soul.” The words here translated as “living soul” are the transliterated Hebrew words “nephesh chayyah,” which many other modern translations have translated as “living creature/being.”

Now, the word choice here is not actually the most important issue. In other contexts, “nephesh” is rightly translated as “soul,” and technically could be translated like that here. But call man a soul, creature, being, whatever, it’s really not that important for this point. What is though, is the fact that nephesh chayyah is not used as a distinctive category for human beings. Throughout the Creation narrative in Genesis 1, God is said to have created all of the living creatures in the land and sea, and each time “living creature” is used, some variant (depending on plurality) of nephesh chayyah is used. So man’s category as a living creature is the same category as the beasts of the field. What the KJV translators apparently did was take the presupposition of man’s eternal soul and translate in a distinction between man and beast in that regard in the creation story, when in reality, no such distinction exists in the narrative. In the mind of the author of Genesis, we are all living creatures/beings/souls. We are all nephesh chayyah. (For a deeper discussion, see BibleProject Podcast’s first episode on Genesis)

“Image” in an Ancient Near Eastern Context

So if the image isn’t our soul, what is it? It’s certainly not our material being, because according to the narrative, man is just animated dust. So what is the image?

Here, John Walton has come to the forefront of modern biblical scholarship in reintroducing the idea of Creation being described as a cosmic Temple. I’ll spare you a lot of the details (check out his Lost World series on Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 & 3, as well as this interview), but to be concise, the motif of seven stages of construction was widespread throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE), and this construction was for temples for the various deities of the area. Once the temple was finished, it was customary then to put an idol of the god in the inner sanctuary of the temple, an image of the god.

I’m sure you see where this is going now. If this is correct, and I’m persuaded that it is, then humankind is the final piece in God’s cosmic Temple, and he is there to represent God to the rest of His creation. So in designating humankind to be His image, God in essence says “You are going to be my representation on earth. To see you will be like seeing me, and your presence is to recall my presence.” But the problem with idols in a pagan context is that they’re useless, they don’t do anything. That’s where the distinction for humankind comes in.

In addition to being a vision and a presence as the image of God, man is also tasked in the same breath with ruling over the whole of creation. “And let them have dominion…over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Then in His blessing to the newly created and designated humans/image of God, He further says to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over…every living thing that moves on the earth.” Justin Jackson, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, in his free lecture series on the book of Genesis sums up the qualities that make humans the image of God as their representation of God and their rule in His place. And the two are interlinked, the rule is the representation, and the representation is the rule.


There are so many implications that we can draw from this particular theme in the first couple of chapters in Genesis, and there are a lot of points I want to hit on, but at the risk of losing any readers that have stayed with me up to this point, I’ll wrap up with just one of the key takeaways I got from this theme.

In learning that the term nephesh chayyah is used for both man and animals, it becomes clear that there doesn’t seem to be anything in man’s form or his essential being in and of himself that designates him as the image of God. What singles him out as the image of God is nothing more or less than the call of God on his being to be His representative and vice-regent on the earth. It is God’s word and God’s choice that separates us from the animals. Even further than that, God has violated the rights of the firstborn in that he has given rule and dominion to the newcomers on the planet (I mean in Genesis 1, who was here first, man or animals?).

According to Genesis, our value, meaning, and purpose is found only in the decree and call of God. Which should be cause for great solemnity as well as great rejoicing. Solemnity in the face of the fact that we have all failed to live up to this calling. Rejoicing in the fact that the image, while broken and marred, is still there, and has been culminated in the person of Jesus, who invites us to be the renewed image of God by being conformed to the image of Himself.

  1. The Mind-Blowing, Ultra-Satisfying Symmetry of Genesis - Christians Who Curse Sometimes

    June 3rd, 2022 at 7:47 PM

    […] the stories it contains. (If you’re curious, in those previous articles I blabbed about the Image of God and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.) This time, I want to show you all an […]

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