And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart and you shall teach [the lessons of the Scriptures] diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

To Be Created in God's Image...?

In Genesis 1:27 the first part of the text reads

Aml.c;B.  ~d"a'h'-ta, ~yhil{a/ ar"b.YIw:

    b'tzal'mo            et ha-ahdahm              ehlohiym       Va'iyv'ra[1]

with His shadow       mankind                        God            And filled

And God filled mankind with His shadow;…

The classical translation, And God created mankind in His image…, doesn't quite capture the deeper meaning behind this text. In this post, I take a deeper look at the Biblical Hebrew in order to capture, in part at least, the nature of God in man.

In this text there are two words whose translation from the Biblical Hebrew is, I think, problematic – 'created' and 'image'. More specifically, the Hebrew word translated as 'created' is imprecise and the Hebrew phrase translated as "the image of God" lends itself to a much too literal interpretation – an interpretation that suggests that mankind "looks like" God.  I will argue that an understanding of this text more faithful to the Hebraic culture of that time, might be better phrased along the lines of:

And God imbued into mankind the ability to make moral distinctions.

Let's look more carefully at the translations of  'create' and 'image':

Create vs Filled The verb bara (Strong's 01254 - ar'B') used in this text can actually have two meanings: The most common meaning, and the one used by translators most often is 'He created'.  However, another meaning, and the one I would argue constitutes a better translation here, is 'He filled'  or 'He made fat.' Here's why. Note that when used in the Qal form (as in this text), bara always refers to God's creative activity. For example, here is what Harris et al[2] say about the use of bara in the Qal form:

The limitation of this word to divine activity indicates that the area of meaning delineated by the root falls outside the sphere of human ability. Since the word never occurs with the object of the material, and since the primary emphasis of the word is on the newness of the created object, the word lends itself well to the concept of creation ex nihilo, although that concept is not necessarily inherent within the meaning of the word. (my emphasis)

In the text, note that God 'created' mankind from the earth, clearly not ex nihilo (nor by separation[3]), nor substantively different than the earth. However, if we use bara in its other sense, to make fat or figuratively to fill up or fill out (see 1 Sam 2:29) the first part of the sentence would read

And God filled-up mankind…

In other words, physical resemblence is not the message.  Rather, we are imbued or filled with an intangible substance given to us by God. This thesis is supported by a broader understanding of the Hebrew word for 'image'.

Shadow vs Image – The noun tzelem (Strong's 06754 -  ~l,c) is widely understood and translated as 'image'. However, in this text, this usage may be too simplistic. Tzelem can also mean the kind of image cast by a shadow[4] In other words, God created mankind not as a mirror reflection of God, but rather as a shadow of God -– something that can be seen but not touched.  Outwardly we look as one might expect a biological organism would look subjected to forces of natural selection. Spiritually, however, we are different. In addition to our physical reality, we are ordered to a higher authority than the satisfaction of biological impulse. This authority is made manifest in the substance imbued in mankind during God's creative work. Call this substance conscience, shekinah, the holy spirit... Whatever one chooses, it is the source of human dignity and what makes us unique among all of God's creations.

Mankind is special, therefore, not because we "look like God", but because we have been imbued with some part of God's intangible substance.  I can not speak for Jewish theology, but Lutheran theology holds that the tzelem referred to in this text refers to that part of God capable[5] of moral distinctions and to act in ways that may not be to a specie's reproductive advantage.

[1] Hebrew sources: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, 1997 and the JPS Hebrew-English TaNaKH (Student Edition, 2000)

[2] Harris, et al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament

[3] As He later did with male and female genders!

[4] For example, in the book "Qabbalah: The Philosophical Writings of Solomon Ben Yehudah (p 397)", tzelem is translated as 'shadow image', or the image of God formed by his 'shadow'.

[5] To be capable means that with knowledge or training one can become able. In other words, one might be capable of reading Biblical Hebrew, but to become able would require education and practice.

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