Gen 1:26-27, “Image”

This post is a commentary on the meaning of “image” as used in the OT. It is directly relevant to how we understand the OT statement that men and women are made in the “image” of God in Gen 1:26-27. This commentary is taken from an exchange between two trained students of OT scholarship, an LDS poster named “Elds” and a non-LDS poster named “En Hakkore.” These are their words, not mine.  Elds begins:

As famous Jewish Orthodox scholar, Marc Zvi Brettler explains:

“The word tzelem (image) elsewhere always refers to a physical representation. For example, the Book of Ezekiel uses tzelem when it refers to ‘men sculptured upon the walls, figures of Chaldeans drawn in vermilion’ (23:14) or when it accuses Israel of fornicating with ‘phallic images (16:17). The word often refers to idols (e.g., Num. 33:52; Ezek. 7:20; Amos 5:26; 2 Chron. 23:17). It always signifies a concrete entity rather than an abstract one. This is not surprising since the Bible (in contrast to most medieval philosophical traditions, both Jewish and Christian) often depicts God in corporeal terms, as in Exodus 24:10: ‘and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet…’” Marc Brettler, How to Read the Bible, 43-44.

Not only do scholars today know that the word tselem or “image” referred to the creation of man in God’s physical image, the very language itself was formulaic in the ancient Near East to refer to the work of creation between a male and female goddess:

“In the myth of creating man and king, Belet-ili’s invitation to Ea (obv. 1. 8′) nibnīma ṣalam ṭiṭṭi ‘let us create an image of clay’ strikingly echoes God’s invitation (to whom? Gen 1:26) na‘aśeh ’ādām beṣalmēnû ‘Let us create a man in our image . . .’ This is an interesting combination of several ideas which appear separately in the biblical creation accounts, namely, the consultation with other gods as well as the use of ṣalam -both resembling Gen 1:26-27, and the creation of man from clay as in Gen 2:7. Subsequent verses mention calling the new creature “man” (obv. 28′ cf. Gen 5:2), and pinching off clay to form the man (obv. 14′), an idea found in Job 33:6 in identical language.” See Victor Hurowitz, “Book Review of R. J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible” in Jewish Quarterly Review 87 (1997): 414.

En Hakkore (an online acquaintance of mine, nice guy), critiqued Elds’ comments later in the thread:

Brettler here is simply mistaken. After noting many of the concrete uses of צלם in the Hebrew Bible, W. Randall Garr cites Psalms 39:71; 73:20 and Daniel 3:192 as evidence of ‘nonconcrete’ or ‘abstract’ uses of the word, thus concluding:The interpretations of צלם are therefore varied. It may refer to a three-dimensional object in the round (‘image’, ‘idol/statue’, ‘model’), something two-dimensional yet physical (‘sketch’, ‘drawing’), or a nonphysical, nondimensional, and metaphorical nonentity (‘impermanence’, ‘mortality’). Regardless of formal decree, צלם signifies a representation, copy, or facsimile.3

1 Hebrew chapter/verse enumeration.
2 This passage contains the Aramaic cognate of the word.
3 W. Randall Garr, In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity, and Monotheism, Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 15 (Leiden: The Netherlands, Koninklijke Brill, 2003), 134.

To which Elds later replies:

The word tzelem appears 34 times in the Hebrew Bible, all of which, (except possibly the three you quote) clearly denote physicality. Hence, the three out of 34 verses to which your refer, which I accept that someone could, if they wanted to really stretch the evidence, possibly see a non-physical connotation, should be reevaluated.

Having studied the issue in Psalm 73 I strongly disagree. This passage clearly uses tselem as a physical term. Likewise, Daniel 3:19 describes a change to Nebuchadnezzr’s physical appearance via his intense fury.

Hence, the only reference out of 34 which could carry a non-concrete meaning, is Psalm 39:7, a passage that is highly complex and difficult to ascertain.

That’s pretty strong evidence in support of Brettler’s statement.

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2 comments on “Gen 1:26-27, “Image”

  1. Allen says:

    Tzelem in Ps 39:7 probably means darkness. Otherwise, tzelem is a physical image.

  2. 1 thess 5:23 “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    One man consists of three separate parts, Body Soul and spirit

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