Make Man in Our Image


What does “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26) mean about us?  And, what does it mean that God gives man “dominion” over the living things in His Creation?  And, what on earth does this have to do with prohibiting them from worshipping idols?  Let’s find out.

Image and Likeness

The Hebrew word rendered “image” is:

    1. צֶלֶם tselem (853d); from an unused word; an image:—form(1), image(5), images(6), likenesses(3), phantom(1).

The Hebrew word rendered “likeness” is a near synonym:

    1. דְּמוּת demuth (198b); from 1819; likeness, similitude:—figure(1), figures like(1), figures resembling(1), form(4), like(4), likeness(8), pattern(1), resembling(1), something resembling(1), which resembled(1), who resembled(1).

If anything, demuth has more of a connotation of physical resemblance than does tselem.

What does it mean to be created in God’s tselem?  One thing it could mean is that our form is similar to God’s form.  The word is used this way later in Genesis in 5:

[3] When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness (demuth), after his image (tselem), and named him Seth.

This is the first instance of what we’ve all grown up acknowledging: the “like father, like son” axiom, speaking either of physical similarity or disposition/temperament or talents/skills.  You may have also heard a similar sentiment expressed as: “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree”, which typically links the character/disposition/behavior of the son with his father.

But it is unlikely that this is the meaning that our Genesis 1 author has in mind.  He’s just gotten done announcing that God created all things.  In doing so, he never once used an anthropomorphism (e.g. “the mighty arm of God” or the earth as His “footstool”.)  So, he likely has a concept of God as “other” than humans – different in kind; not physically comparable.

The “phantom” interpretation is interesting.  It comes from Psalm 39 where the ESV renders it “shadow”:

[6] Surely a man goes about as a shadow!

Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;

man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

Here the meaning seems to be that man is a faux man – a kind of imitation — just a shadow of what he is meant to be.  We might use the vernacular “empty suit” referring to one who appears to be one thing, but upon close inspection is found to be lacking in living up to the nature of the thing he appears to be.

Dominion of Man over Animals

In Genesis 2 God defers His authority as God to the man in allowing him to name the animals:

[19] Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.

The man will be allowed to name the animals and, by so doing, establish his dominion over them[i].  In antiquity, the one having the authority to name something asserted, by so doing, his authority over the thing named.


What you may be surprised to learn (as I was) is that later in Israel’s history, the term tselem is used to describe idols – things made by men from wood or metal or stone to represent gods.

Some instances:

2 Kings 11:18 (See also 2 Chr 23:17)

[18] Then all the people of the land went to the house of Baal and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces, and they killed Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest posted watchmen over the house of the LORD.

Ezekiel 7:20

[20] His beautiful ornament they used for pride, and they made their abominable images and their detestable things of it. Therefore I make it an unclean thing to them.

Ezekiel 16:17

[17] You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore.

Here’s where we need to connect the dots that Genesis 1 laid out for us. The author of Genesis 1 was saying that we, humanity, were (to be) representations of God Himself.  This was the ideal he sought.  Sadly, in Genesis 3 we get a major speed bump.


When we finally get to Exodus and the Mosaic commandments, God puts His foot down concerning false images:

Exodus 20:4-5

[4] “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,

What seems to be going on here, aside from the obvious, is that God, having made men as idols/representations/tselem of Him is not about to have His image tarnished by those same men fashioning metal and wood representations of gods that are not Him.  Not that He would allow them to make images of Him in the first place.  His People were those images.

Genesis 1-3 Narrative

What we see in the Genesis 1-3 narrative is: a) God’s ideal – in Genesis 1, 2 God creates His images to be His representatives on earth, and b) the reality of mankind in the time of the Genesis 3 author – apostasy, idol worship, etc.  Genesis 1&2 were written not as a history but as a narrative of God’s intention for humanity.  Genesis 3 is an explanation of why the author didn’t observe God’s intention as the reality of his world.

There is a very interesting exegetical detail that comparing Genesis 1-2 with Genesis 3 reveals about the ideal vs the observed reality in the time of the Genesis author.

In Gen 2:20 we read:

[20] The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

The ability to name something was a characteristic of the gods.  Naming something carried the connotation that the one naming held dominion over the thing named, akin to an ownership relation.  In this idealization, Adam acted as a demigod, as was the intention of his Creator.

Here we find him proclaiming (while avoiding the use of the verb “name”) Genesis 2:23:

[23] Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.”

The man doesn’t name the woman here.  He says “she shall be called Woman” (ishshah. This is actually a play on Hebrew words as the man is ish).  Humans of her gender are given a classification.  So here, in Gen 2, he doesn’t declare dominion over her; only that he’s going to refer to those of her type as “woman”.

However, when the wheels come off in Gen 3, the man does name his woman companion – Eve.

Genesis 3:20

[20] The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

The Genesis author explains to his readers here why it is that men in their society have dominion over women in his (perhaps 5th century BC) culture.  Adam named his wife, taking the position of dominion over her.  The author is explaining why it is that his readers are living in a patriarchy, sometimes pathological with respect to the treatment of women, but that this was not God’s intention for His humanity as revealed in Genesis 1-2.  God intended for the two genders to share the same status.


A lot of people (and Bibles) refer to Genesis 3 as “the Fall” – that is, the fall from purity to impurity based on Adam and Eve’s failure to obey God’s instruction.  After all, that is the narrative.

But, the larger purpose of the Genesis author was to explain to his audience that the life they were experiencing was not what God had prescribed for them in Genesis 1-2.  It was they who were apostate, and were, therefore, the cause of their own hardships and judgments.

[i] The Power of Naming. [NAMES: PART 1] | :: Culture Decanted ::

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