This post is part 1 of a three-part series in which Dr. Joshua Moritz explores what it means (and does not mean) to be created in the “image and likeness of God."
The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation.1
For the destiny of humans and the destiny of animals is the same: As one dies, so dies the other; Both have the same breath of life. And humans have no preeminence over the animals…All go to the same place; All come from dust, And to dust all shall return. -Ecclesiastes 3:19-20
What is humankind’s place among the animals? Should we even count human beings among the animals at all? Perhaps we—as men and women—are something else entirely? Such questions are not new. Indeed, they are as old as writing itself and similar pondering about human identity occupies the most ancient of texts. While many of these primeval writings have crumbled in the winds of time and have come to us only in fragments, the Genesis account of human and animal origins remains a living document that occupies a vital place in the life of Christian practice and thought. In the first chapter of the Genesis narrative we read that humans—male and female—were created in the image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) of God. But what does this mean? There is certainly no shortage of proposed answers (over two thousand years of theological tradition bears witness to this fact). Here, however, we are not primarily interested in tradition—as valuable and insightful as it may be—but we are concerned with what the Bible itself has to say.
Taking the authority of Scripture seriously demands that we engage with Scripture in light of both its original languages and its original cultural context. If we are to avoid—as much as possible—projecting our own personal, modern and post-modern cultural presuppositions onto Scripture, then we must be willing to do some of the hard hermeneutical (or interpretive) work. In other words, if we want to allow Scripture to speak for itself, we must be hyper-aware of the cultural lenses we are wearing when we read it. Interpreting the Bible through five hundred years of Protestant tradition, fifteen hundred years of Roman Catholic tradition, or one hundred years of Seventh-Day Adventist tradition won’t do.2 Rather we must venture to take off the thick hermeneutical lenses of tradition and boldly attempt to go into the world of the sacred text itself so that we can allow the ancient inspired words to shape the lenses of our reading.
With this approach to Scripture in mind, I believe it is useful to address the matter of the image and likeness of God (or imago Dei) by first asking what the imago Dei is not. Throughout the centuries, theologians, philosophers, and others have posed a number of answers to the question of what the imago Dei is. The vast majority of these answers have focused on one or a few characteristics that humans alone have and that non-human animals lack. For example, evangelical Christian author Kay Warren explains: “Animals and people are two different classes of created beings and they will never be equal in their worth. As precious as animals are to our daily existence, they operate from instinct, not volition. Only people have a spiritual dimension. We are the ones created in the image of the Creator, the only ones with a soul.”3 In a similar manner, political commentator Ann Coulter, citing “the story of Genesis”, maintains: “It’s not merely opposable thumbs and a bipedal gait that make us distinct from the other beasts. It is consciousness of our mortality, a moral sense, language, mathematics, art, beauty, music, love, longings for immortality, a sense of symmetry, the soul’s ascent, the ability to accessorize, and our fascination with Branson, Missouri…We are in God’s image, and we’re the only ones in God’s image, which is why we eat escargot rather than worship them.”4 While these are two popular contemporary voices, similar views are espoused by numerous academics as well. In this way the imago Dei has, for many, become synonymous with one central characteristic or several key traits that make humans unique among and/or superior to animals.5
As intriguing as such perceived indicators of human uniqueness are, and regardless of the scientific status of claims for such distinguishing human traits, the idea that there are particular physical features and/or behavioral characteristics that make men—and not beasts—in the image and likeness of God is not one that is found anywhere in the pages of Holy Scripture. With regard to humans as “the image and likeness of God,” a literal and consistent reading of the Genesis narratives discloses that the imago Dei designation does not refer to unique characteristics or capacities which humans posses in a way that excludes other non-human animals.
Hebrew scholar Phyllis Bird informs us that the scriptural context of the phrase “image and likeness of God” makes it plain that “its theological significance is in the place it gives to humans within the created order, not in any physical or moral attribute of the species, in either its present or ‘original’ state.”6 In the Bible the imago Dei is not about exceptional human capacities or characteristics that automatically qualify humans as being included in the imago Dei category. There is no reason, explains Bible scholar James Barr, to believe that the author of Genesis chapter one “had in his mind any definite idea about the content or location of the image of God.”7 The terms “‘image’ and ‘likeness’…make no statements about the nature of human beings.”8 When we read of “the creation of human beings in God’s image (Gen 1:26)…the biblical narrative remains silent…about any qualities of human nature that might account for their special standing.”9
If we are to properly understand the meaning of the texts, then, says Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann, we must confidently resist “the tendency to see the image and likeness of God as a something, a quality.”10 Consequently, a literal reading of the early Genesis accounts demands that no specific anthropological content or characteristics may be directly equated with the imago Dei. If one is to take the findings of biblical exegesis seriously, then—apart from theological tradition—the image of God cannot be defined on the basis of particular physical traits or behavioral characteristics. This means that—according to a straightforward reading of Genesis and the rest of Scripture—humans are not said to be biologically or behaviorally unique in a way that is related to their being named the “image of God.”
In addition to the broad consensus among biblical scholars that the image of God in humans, when understood within its original Hebrew linguistic and Ancient Near Eastern context, has nothing whatsoever to do with an appeal to the human possession of particular characteristics which non-human animals lack, research in biblical exegesis has similarly revealed that there is no essential or substantial super-natural divide between humans and other animals. Scripture, when read in the original languages, clearly describes both “man and beast” as possessing “the breath of life” and refers to both equally as “souls.” In this way Scripture makes no ontological or metaphysical distinctions between humans and non-human animals. Instead, the scriptural “emphasis lies on the commonality that exists between the humans and the rest of the animal creation.”11
While the use of the Hebrew word nephesh, often translated as “soul”, to describe humans has been taken by some as an indication that humans are substantially set apart from the animals, the nephesh is not an exclusive possession of humans. Indeed, the Hebrew text describes both humans (Gen 2:7) and animals (Gen 1:21, 24) equally as nephesh hayyah or “living souls.”12 Thus, Bible Scholar Gordon Wenham explains that in Genesis 2:7, which describes the human being as a nephesh, “it is not man’s possession of the ‘breath of life’ or his status as a ‘living creature’ that differentiates him from the animals—animals are described in exactly the same terms.”13 In Genesis, “human beings…are only one subset of God’s ‘living beings,’ into whom God has breathed the breath of life” and established as “living souls.”14
According to the biblical understanding, then, “what is distinctive about human beings is not that they have a ‘soul’ which animals do not possess, nor that they have a ‘spirit’ which other creatures do not possess.”15 It is clear, then, that “the possession of nepheš is not a unique characteristic of the human person.” Indeed, “unless one is ready to grant that animals have ‘souls’ in the same way that humans are alleged to have, then we might better conclude that the Genesis account is referring to the divine gift of life: ‘the human being became a living person.’”16 Consequently, “claims for a ‘special creation’ of humanity in comparison with animals and the material world conflict with the strong assertion in Genesis 2 that, physically (organically), Adam does not differ from the ‘beasts of the field.’”17 The theological language of anthropology in Genesis 1 and 2 “underscores Adam’s linkage with the animal creation, not his difference from it.”18
Whatever else the imago Dei might be, then, a clear and consistent reading of Scripture does not permit us to equate it with either a non-material soul which animals lack or some unique physical characteristic or behavior which animals lack. These conclusions regarding what the image and likeness of God in humans IS NOT lead us directly to our discussion of what the imago Dei IS.