Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Image and Likeness

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What a marvelous trio of readings today, and how impossible to do justice to all three in a few paragraphs: Genesis 1:24-2:3; Isaiah 2:3-11; Proverbs 2:1-22.

The Proverbs reading contains basic truth for believers in God: Receive wisdom by following God’s commandments. Nothing profound or radical, but who doesn’t want what verse 10 promises: “For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul”? However, most of us will want to pass over Verses 16-19 with their misogynistic moralizing. “Loose” women need “loose” men to do their thing, but the book of Proverbs doesn’t talk about loose men! Eve and women in general became the scapegoats to explain male lack of self-control.

The Isaiah reading confronts us with the arrogance of human societies, especially the arrogance of the strong – and this, of course, is a theme that runs throughout the scriptures. But verse 11 asserts in uncompromising terms: The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the pride of men shall be humbled.” And verse 4 proclaims a promise that still resonates in the hearts and minds of all who seek peace:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Note the final words: “neither shall they learn war any more.” The war and gun industries teach war to adults and children through video games, violent films, and aggressive campaigns against any regulation of guns. The NRA makes sure that children can “learn war” from the earliest possible ages! All these stand under the judgment of God in verse 4. It will be a long time before swords are beaten into plowshares, but eventually the haughty will be brought low. If there is one promise in the Bible that I want to hold on to, it’s that one. Everyone and everything that destroys God’s good creation will be brought down… eventually. And indeed, God’s creation is “very good.” That’s how the six days of creation come to completion, with that simple phrase (Genesis 1:31).

On the sixth day of creation all land animals were created, the last of which were the human. At least in this respect, Genesis agrees with the theory of evolution, which is our own basis for understanding human origins, rather than the mythological language of Genesis. There was something different about the creation of human beings, no doubt about that. There was an element of self-expression that we see in God that is missing from the other acts of creation. God speaks, as if to his own conscience: “Let us make man…” instead of pronouncing, “Let there be man,” as he did in all his other acts of creation. The creation of human beings was a more personal act of God, an expression of his own character. This is expressed by the two words “image” and “likeness” in verse 26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

The Fathers of the Orthodox Church interpreted these two words, image and likeness, according to their own philosophical understanding; today’s scholars prefer to look at the Hebrew meanings and contexts. Here is one contemporary scholar:

Let us for a moment pay attention to the terms צֶלֶם and דְּמוּת, which we translate as “image” and “likeness.” The first refers to a statue, alludes to a sign that makes present all that is absent. Said of human beings in relation to [God], it indicates that each one of the possible humans will evoke the deity, bringing it to life, suggesting the presence of something that is absent. The human being, thus, is the evocation of the absent presence of the deity in the world. This general term specifies another, “likeness, similarity,” which gives more depth to the first and constitutes a semantic whole in Hebrew. The creation through image and similarity is part of genealogy. (Mercedes Navarro Puerto, in the essay Divine Image and Likeness: Women and Men in Genesis 1-3 as an Open System in the Context of Genesis 1-11, pages 208-9, in the volume Torah)

Her reference to “genealogy” certainly arouses memories of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, especially Luke, where the genealogy of Jesus Christ is carried all the way back to Adam (Luke 23-38). Our similarity to God is built into our genes – so to speak!

A fellow blogger in Scotland, Mike Mair, with whom I occasionally exchange emails, was similarly inspired by the discoveries of scholarship and archeology to write: “Historical scholarship has helped by noting that the god-kings of the ancient middle east used to set up images of themselves throughout their domains as a constant reminder to their subjects and to strangers of their rule. In some cases a digest of the king’s law was inscribed on the monument. In a similar way the author shows God creating humankind as his monument in his world, to exercise his rule and responsibility in it.” You can read the rest of his excellent commentary here.

There is so much more to say, but I’ll hold off further reflections until tomorrow, when we read the other creation account in Genesis 2. I’d like to close my thoughts today by quoting a beautiful hymn from tonight’s Vespers. This hymn accurately exemplifies the true spirit of Lent. It also echoes Isaiah’s admonitions for justice, peace and charity. And it illustrates what it is to have dominion on earth – as representatives of God, made in God’s image and likeness – more than any big theological treatise can do:

While fasting with the body, brothers and sisters, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them. Let us receive great mercy from Christ our God.

 

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