Refelctions on Genesis 1 and the Image of God within
God created humans in the divine image and likeness.
Depending on your viewpoint, this idea is the greatest force for human dignity and equality or the source of patriarchy, domination, and environmental destruction. Maybe both sides have worthwhile points. On the positive side, being created in God’s image is the seed of human rights to protect human dignity and flourishing. As the Declaration of Independence reads,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
We have debated the meaning of these words for 247 years since we know that the word “men” did not include everyone. These rights were not for women, or black, brown, and indigenous men, only white male property owners. I heard an excellent segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered” this July 4 with two historians. Jill Lepore, a noted Harvard historian who couldn’t be admitted as a woman in 1776, said,
(At Harvard) Before the Revolution, you entered a classroom or commons to have your meal in the order of your father’s social rank and wealth. Those men all lived in a highly-ranked culture. And the Declaration of Equality is throwing that away or challenging that in a revolutionary manner.
Host Steve Inskeep asked Annette Gordon Read, an authority on Jefferson, “When did people not included in the promise of equality begin using the Declaration of Independence to argue for equality?”
“Right away,” she answered. “Right away. People filed freedom suits based on that….They immediately saw those words as important.”
By 1791, people were quoting Jefferson’s words back to him. Benjamin Banneker, the Black naturalist, and writer, sent a letter asking why, after clearly seeing the injustice of slavery, Jefferson continued “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.” https://www.npr.org/2023/07/04/1185922767/examining-a-line-from-the-declaration-of-independence-all-men-are-created-equal
It should not surprise us that the church has nearly the same argument about the language of Genesis 1 as the nation has about our founding documents. The authors of our founding documents saw new possibilities but were trapped in their unequal culture. The Constitution had to be amended numerous times to make the notion of equality clear to include everyone, and still we fight about it. This is why we modify our gender language when talking about God, why I pray, “Our Father, Our Mother.” If we always use male language, then God is male in our minds and men are more important. Either we believe that everyone is created in God’s image and and we demonstrate this in action, or we think some people are made in God’s image, and some are not.
The historical context of Genesis 1 is fascinating. The text was written in the sixth century BCE from exile in Babylon. Genesis 1 introduces us to the biblical storyline. God creates a purposeful world, and it is all good. Humans have a vital role in making this reality possible. The rest of the Bible is a commentary on how to keep the world good.
The author of Genesis is not naïve about evil and injustice. Perhaps he saw the siege of Jerusalem firsthand. Who knows what violence and death the writer had seen? In the face of adversity, the writer poetically says, this world is good. In contrast, here is a line from the Babylonian creation myth from the Enuma Elish, written centuries before.
Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.
I will establish a savage; man shall be his name.
Verily, savage man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they might be at ease!
Lawrence Boadt, “Reading the Old Testament,” page 116
Genesis borrows the structure of the days of creation from the Enuma Elish but gives it a different theology. Instead of being created as savages to serve the gods, we are made in the image of God and given agency and purpose for the goodness of the creation. Humanity is blessed from the beginning to go and be fruitful and multiply. The poetry of Genesis is a direct critique of the Babylonian conquerors. Even in exile, the author believes in a God who made all creation for goodness. Taking this text and arguing that one nation, race, or gender should rule over another is a complete distortion of the author’s point. We are one, all of us carrying the divine spark.
What exactly is this image of God within us? Let’s explore several options about the qualities of the divine that may reside in the human soul. Many philosophers see reason and rationality as the image of God within. “I think therefore I am,” Descartes reasoned. Augustine followed the thinking of Aristotle:
“Man’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul, which raises him above the beasts of the field.” – Augustine of Hippo, “City of God.”
Human reason sounds like a good answer when we listen to a brilliant mind like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or a Jeopardy champion. But when we hear crazy conspiracy theories, like QAnon and intentional disinformation, to divide us, we wonder if we have lost all capacity to reason. Is it reasonable to believe in UFOs? Maybe, but why do highly advanced aliens, who can build spaceships that can transverse the light years of the galaxies, then come to Earth and crash? Even humans can land on the moon (unless you think that happened in a studio in Hollywood.) Reason is only as good as the information we have. Leonardo Da Vinci was brilliant, yet believed the ocean tides came from the breathing of a great sea monster, so he set out to calculate how large the creature would be to create the waves.
Other great thinkers believe our moral and ethical capacity is the image of God. God looked upon creation and said, “It is good.” Creation bends towards justice.
“To be made in God’s image is to be oriented toward the realization of the righteousness and justice that characterizes God’s rule.” – Stanley J. Grenz, “Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living.”
Many scriptures contain laws and statutes, like the Ten Commandments, to shape our moral capacity. Love your neighbor. Welcome, the stranger. Help those who are poor. Speak the truth. The image of God in us is like the internal compass of conscience to guide us toward the good. I like this answer better than reason, yet morals and ethics can be abused. We often repress what we don’t like to hear to hold onto our sense of virtue. We believe in what makes us feel good. When we rewrite history to say that enslaved people gained useful skills to be used later in life, like a vocational training program, we are engaging in self-deception about the ongoing implication of racism in our nation. The image of God within may be a moral compass, but we don’t always like where it points us.
I’m surprised more philosophers don’t consider creativity to be the image of God. After all, this is the story of creation, and God is bringing new things into being. We often feel most alive when we write a poem or story, paint, build a new kitchen cabinet, or procreate. Our creativity can also go astray as we use our capacity to make a nuclear warhead, bio-weapons, or the Hostess Twinkie.
The flaw in all these answers leads many theologians to describe the image of God is a relational capacity to love. It is not our intellect, morality, creativity, or will that make us like God, but cultivating loving relationships. God created us as communal beings, and we are our most authentic selves when we see our interconnectedness with the whole of life, God, other humans, and nature. Numerous scriptures make this point. Paul said,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
A primary tenant of the New Testament is that Christ is the image of the living God, and all that he taught comes back to love. “This is my commandment that you love one another.” The Great Commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” To love well, we need reason, ethics, and creativity; but love makes all these qualities work.
My final thought is that the image of God within us is not a static quality but a living energy that changes over time. The image of God is a divine spark that can light a great fire or struggle to ignite if we are not receptive. Quaker spiritual practice emphasizes sitting in silence to find the inner light. We are all flame keepers of part of the living God within us.
Or we could see this divine image as a seed that grows into a living plant that will thrive if we continually cultivate it. The image shrinks and flounders without sunlight but flourishes with regular spiritual practice.
In the beginning, God created us and saw us as good. Because this inner seed is divine, it is never destroyed and can revive years later when the conditions are favorable. It is tenacious with life and will flourish if you give it your attention.