To Be the Image of God

by Lois Tverberg

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

In examining the creation account, we see that many of its profound ideas are only clear when read within its Eastern cultural way of communicating truth through images and relationships.1 A main point of the epic is to describe the creation of mankind, and to describe man’s unique relationship to God and to his world. Understanding this idea, as well as the revolutionary concept that we are made “in the image of God” is foundational to many later teachings in the Scriptures, including those of Jesus.

The Significance of Man

Reading Genesis in Hebrew reveals many wonderful wordplays that show the relationship of man to the rest of creation. The word for ground is adamah, and of course the first human is called Adam.

The name perfectly fits the scene because God formed Adam from the adamah, and Adam’s skin is red (adom, in Hebrew), like the ground. Adam is given the task of working the adamah, and when Adam dies, he will return to the adamah. God declared that because he sinned, “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

What does the idea mean that we were made “in the image of God,” b’tzelem elohim? To an ancient person, a god’s “image” was its physical representation on earth. Idols were the images of the gods, as well as physical objects of worship like the sun and moon.

Kings were also often said to be the “images” of gods — they were the representative of a god on earth, with the belief that the gods reigned over their people through the king’s commands. This idea seems to be a part of the intent of Genesis, because right after humanity was said to be in the image of God, humanity was given the task of ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:28). We were given the job of being God’s caring presence, fulfilling his will toward the rest of creation.

From these two ideas, that Adam comes from the adamah, but is the representative of God on earth, one rabbi made a perceptive observation. He said, “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one should be written, ‘I am but dust and ashes,’ and the other, ‘All of creation was made for my sake.'”2

We should see both our frailness and short life on this earth, and our “feet of clay” — our tendency to sin — but yet we should also remind ourselves that we have a unique relationship to God and authority over all the earth. Acknowledging both truths in balance will keep us from feeling either too arrogant or too insignificant.

All Humans Bear the Image of God

The implications of man as the “image of God” comes up repeatedly in the Bible. After the flood, God made new pronouncements about the penalty for violence and said, “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:5-6). The idea here is that an assault on any human is an affront on God himself, and God will be sure to hold the perpetrator accountable.

All violence and even insults are ultimately against the God who made us. One amusing rabbinic parable points this out:

A famous rabbi was out riding and was feeling elated because he had studied much Torah. There he chanced to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, rabbi.” He, however, did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “Racca! (empty one or good for nothing) How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you are?”

The man replied, “I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel that you made.'” When the rabbi realized that he had sinned, he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, “I submit myself to you, forgive me!”3

The point of the parable is that any time we insult someone, we are not just defaming that person, but the God who made him. After all, he is the one who fashioned him according to his specifications. Even more importantly, if our creator made each human to reflect his own image, when we call another “ugly,” we are insulting God as well. We actually are sinning twice, by calling God not only a poor artist, but ugly too!

James also uses the idea of the “image of God” to point out the incongruity of worshipping God while insulting others:

With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. (Ja. 3:9-10)

Every human being should be treated as a special creation of God, because all are precious to him. This idea of the enormous value of human life also was part of the teaching of the rabbis:

Every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in his image. Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world.4

Male and Female He Created Them

Another wonderful idea about humanity can be found in a Hebraic reading of the story of the creation of Eve from Adam. The word we have traditionally translated as “rib,” tzela, is never used this way in the rest of the Bible. Rather, it always means “side” and when the phrase “one side” of something is used, it means one half, or one face of a building or object. (See Ex. 25:12, Ex. 26:26 or Ex. 37:3.)

When God takes out of Adam echat mitzelotav — literally “one of his sides” — the picture is really that somehow God split Adam in half and formed one half into Eve. Adam then calls her “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone,” not just “one of my bones.” The image is that one human was separated into man and woman so that they could have companionship with each other. The complementarity between men and women is inherent in the way they were formed by being taken apart from each other, so that one supplies what the other one lacks.

This actually solves a mystery in the text. In Genesis 1:27, God created both male and female, but in Genesis 2:24, it appears that Eve is created after Adam. How could this be so? Because both were present in the first person, and the woman appears after being separated from the man.

Supporting this, throughout the entire story, the word “adam” is a generic term meaning “human,” not specifically male. In Genesis 5:2, it says so explicitly: “He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them adam.”

In the original Hebrew text, all references to the first human are neutral until God takes some of Adam’s flesh and makes a woman — ishah, in Hebrew. Only at that point is Adam called ish, a man. The Hebrew word ishah hints at her origins from within the ish, something that we can mimic in English, with the words “man” and “woman.” Interestingly, Adam is never called an ish until the ishah has been separated from him. The text seems to imply that male and female cannot define themselves fully as human without the other.5

God’s Intention for Marriage

The next verse about marriage deepens this metaphor even more. By saying, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and dabaq (be united, cleave) to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is describing how in marriage, a man and a woman together become what God intended from the very beginning, when the separation of one half from the other half is reversed.

Even the word we translate as “cleave” or “hold fast” in this verse, dabaq, has a lovely picture behind it. The word dabaq also can mean “to fall in love with” as when Shechem “was deeply attracted to,” dabaq, Dinah in Genesis 34:3.

1 Kings 11:2 also says that “Solomon dabaq his foreign wives in love,” which one version renders, “Solomon was irresistibly attracted to them” (New English Translation). Putting all of this together, Genesis 2:24 is saying that the reason women and men fall in love and marry is from their desire to return to this first oneness, both physically and spiritually, that was in God’s design from the very beginning.

This clarifies Jesus’ words about God’s intentions for marriage:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mt. 19:3-6)

Jesus is describing God’s original desire for marriage, that it would be a permanent union, giving companionship and completion to both persons. When he says about divorce that “it was not this way from the beginning,” he is looking beyond the law of Moses and seeing God’s perfect plan in Genesis. He concludes that when God himself puts together what he separated at first, no one should try to tear it apart.6

Imitating the One Whose Image We Bear

If all of us have God’s image within us, how should it impact the way we live? One rabbinic commentary on Genesis answers this question with a delightful story:

When creation was all but ended, only humanity was left to be created. God began to say, ‘Let us make man in our likeness,’ but some protests arose in heaven! First Truth came and fell before God’s throne, and in humility exclaimed, “Please, O God, do not call into being a creature who is beset with the vice of lying, who will tread truth under his feet!” Peace also agreed, and said, “Why, O Lord, shall this creature appear on earth, a creature so full of strife and contention, to disturb the peace and harmony of thy creation? He will carry the flame of quarrel and ill-will in his trail; he will bring about war and destruction in his eagerness for gain and conquest.”

While they were pleading against the creation of man, another voice was heard, the soft voice of Mercy. “King of the universe,” the voice exclaimed in all its mildness, “if you create a being in thy likeness, it will be a noble creature striving to imitate thy attributes by its actions. I see man now with God’s breath in his nostrils, seeking to perform his great mission, to do his noble work. I see him approaching the humble hut, seeking out those who are distressed and wretched to comfort them, drying the tears of the afflicted and despondent, raising up them that are bowed down in spirit, reaching his helping hand to those who are in need of help, speaking peace to the heart of the widow, and giving shelter to the fatherless. Such a creature cannot fail to be a glory to his maker.’ The Creator approved of the pleadings of Mercy, and called man into being.7

This story is saying that when humans show the kindness and compassion of our creator, then we reach our true potential as his creation by reflecting his image on earth. It points out man’s potential for good, even while acknowledging man’s potential for evil.

Of course the only person who truly lived up to this was Jesus: he completely reflected the image of God without succumbing to evil. Interestingly, Paul says that he was the “very image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Because he is the Son of God, he reflected the character and nature of God in a way unparalleled by any mere man.

Through his work on earth, God’s sacrificial love and desire to forgive was revealed like never before, when it was portrayed in human form. He is our model for life as it was meant to be lived. By becoming transformed into his image, we achieve our true potential for reflecting the glory of God.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:29)

[We] are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22-24)


1 See the article “Thinking Hebraically About God’s Creation.”

2 Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who lived in the early 19th century, as quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p.185.

3 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’an. 20a-b1, quoted by Brad Young in The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998), p. 9.

4 Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5 The date of the saying would be between 200 BC – 200 AD, which could be either before or after Jesus’ time.

5 Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary on Genesis. (Jewish Publication Society, New York, 1989), p. 23.

6 David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson, Peabody, MA, 1998) p. 71-76. One saying went so far as to say that “A man without a wife is half a man” stressing the importance of marriage. Jesus, however, says that not all are called to it, and some put it aside out of dedication to God’s work (Matt. 19:11). See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005) for more.

7 Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 8, which dates from the 5-6th centuries AD.

Photos: Laura Dewilde on Unsplash, Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], on Unsplash

In His Image

Roman coin

by Lois Tverberg

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
– Genesis 1:26-27

What is the significance of saying we are made in God’s image? It’s clear that it means that we share something in common with God that nothing else in creation does. Human life is uniquely precious to God. According to Genesis 9:6, because God made man in his image, murder is a crime that always calls for the death penalty, because murder is an affront to God himself. This was a new and revolutionary idea in its time. Other cultures had death penalties for stealing and other property crimes, but biblical law considered life too precious to require it as a penalty for a material loss.

In rabbinic literature, the contrast was often made of man, made in the image of God, compared to idols and statues made in the image of earthly kings. One rabbi said that “A king mints a thousand coins with his image on them, and every one is exactly the same. But the Lord makes multitudes of human beings that all bear his image, and they are all different!” It shows the infinite glory of God that he can represent himself in so many ways.

Roman coinOne scholar1 believes that Jesus was also using the contrast between the images of kings on coins and humans which are in God’s image.

When people who wanted to trap him were questioning him in the temple as to whether people should pay tax or not, he asked for a coin and then asked whose image was on it. The questioners replied, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then concluded, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s!”

The implication is that because Caesar made the coins and stamped his image on them, they belonged to him, but that because God made humans and stamped his image on us, we belong to him! So Jesus was brilliantly evading their trap about paying taxes and issuing an “altar call” at the same time – reminding us that God is our maker, and has stamped his own image on us, and for that very reason, we should give what he has made, ourselves, back to him.

1 See Your Money or Your Life, by Randall Buth, at

Photocred: Ssolbergj

Eve’s Error

by Lois Tverberg

Now the serpent … said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, `You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’? The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, `You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’ The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. – Genesis 3:1-5

An interesting lesson that we can learn from Eve is the way that she got in trouble and opened a door for Satan to “win” in her conversation with him.

Eve was probably trying to be faithful to God in her conversation with Satan, but when she told the serpent God’s regulations regarding the tree, she overstated what God had said by saying that they must not even touch it or they will die. She was exaggerating for God’s sake, by making his rule more strict than it really was.

Satan probably smirked when he heard her say something untrue, because he knew it was an opportunity for him to gain an advantage. When he said, “You surely will not die,” he had spoken the truth about touching the tree. At that point, his temptations gained credibility in her mind because he corrected her own misstatement.

The thing we can learn from this is the great damage we can do when we over-speak for God and misrepresent his word to other people. This happens in several ways: Well-meaning people make God’s rules more strict than they really are, and put burdens on other’s shoulders to keep impossible, legalistic rules. By insisting on extra requirements that are not central to salvation, well-meaning people often put up barriers to sincere seekers to follow Christ.

Or, sometimes a person claims a certain scientific discovery proves the Bible, and when it is disproved, people doubt the truth of the whole thing. Or, when a person says that one specific doctrine is absolutely necessary for salvation, people are forced to choose sides in battles that divide the church. We can almost see the serpent smirking at all the unnecessary anguish and lost faith that has come from the misrepresentation of God’s word.

We must be ever mindful that our own zeal does not cause us to go beyond God, as we put words in God’s mouth. We need to always speak to let God’s truth be known.

Wind and Water

by Lois Tverberg

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. – Genesis 1:2

There is a really fascinating theme that runs through all of the Bible – the picture of God beginning a new creation. Genesis begins the story of creation with the Spirit of God “hovering over” the deep (Tehom), and one of God’s first acts of creation is the separation of water from water. This picture is a theme that recurs over and over in the scriptures, every time God starts something new.

There is a little of a poetic motif there, because the word for “the deep” is Tehom, which was symbolic of chaos. It is a picture of God conquering evil and chaos to bring order and a beautiful new thing into existence. The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach, which also means wind or breath, so when God parts the waters by a great wind it is a picture of God in the act of creating.

wind and waterWhere do we see this? First we see it in Genesis 1:1 of course, but only a few chapters later, after the flood destroyed all of life on earth, we read in Genesis 8:1-3 that God caused a wind (ruach) to pass over the earth, and restrained the waters of the deep (Tehom), and the flood waters receded, giving the world a new, clean beginning.

We next see this in the parting of the Red Sea, as the wind (ruach) blows to separate the waters so that the Israelites can pass through. This marks the beginning of God’s new nation of Israel, who now would have their own sovereignty and identity as the people of God. Later, as they pass through the river Jordan, once again God was parting the waters, and in a sense, re-creating them as his people and cleansing them of their sin in the desert. After their entrance into the land they took on the covenant again, just like they did at Sinai, and made a clean beginning as God’s people.

There is one more place significant scene in the Bible when we see this imagery of God at the waters – at the baptism of Jesus. Here the heavens are parted (reminiscent of the waters being parted) and we see the Spirit of God “hovering” over, in the form of a dove, just as it hovered over the first waters of creation. Here is God’s new creation, God on earth in the form of the Son of Man.

Photocred: Jacques Joseph Tissot

reading the bible

If you’d like to learn more about how Hebraic imagery is woven throughout the Scriptures, see pp. 210-212 in ch.11, “Reading in the Third Dimension” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus.

The Bible Begins with Good News

Garden of Eden

by Lois Tverberg

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. – Genesis 1:31-2:1

The creation story in Genesis teaches some revolutionary truths which are so basic that we can hardly think in any other terms. But, until Judaism and Christianity brought them to the world, they were not a part of mankind’s thinking. Not only are they important, they are wonderful news once you think about it!

The biblical account was utterly unique in comparison to all other ancient stories about creation, and the differences were a powerful challenge to the world-view of its time. Most creation myths Egyptian Creation Mythfeatured wars between human-like gods and goddesses. Through sex and violence, various parts of the creation were formed. According to these myths, the gods were limited in power and not at all interested in morality – just how to gain power over the other gods. They did not care about humanity, but instead created humans as slaves to serve their own desires. Humans were to appease these gods through magical incantations and religious ceremonies, but there was no moral standard – the goal of life was to survive by being quick-witted and devious. People saw the world as unpredictable and cruel, and didn’t see that their lives were meaningful in any way. Humans had no hope of anything beyond survival in a callous, immoral world.

Garden of EdenIn contrast, the first few chapters of Genesis flip our thinking upside-down and offer tremendous hope. One eternal God created everything and is apart from creation. Because God is unique and all powerful, he can set a universal standard of ethics that applies to all humanity. He is the foundation of all good, created a good world, and is concerned about humanity. Man is uniquely precious to him – he was made from dust, but he alone received the breath of life from God himself. God made us in his image, and because of that, God is our “kinsman-redeemer” who is our protector and savior. What good news compared to the immoral, unconcerned pagan gods!

We hardly appreciate these truths that are important fundamentals even before we get to the story of Christ. But the Bible begins with good news, and it only gets better from there.

Photocred: British Museum

In Wonder of the God of Creation


by Bruce Okkema

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. – Genesis 1:26-28

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. – Genesis 2:4-7


Numerous volumes have been written attempting to explain the creation account in the book of Genesis. There have been all kinds of discussions about its purpose, its meaning, and the “science” of it. But certainly most of us would agree, whatever our theology, that many questions remain with room for debate.

Lay aside any debate for a while, and ponder the magnificence of the story and the beauty of the pictures in front of us. We have in the first two chapters of the Bible an account of history that could not have been generated by human memory, because it comes from a time before mankind existed. Either the Lord revealed these things directly to Moses, or He told someone who had gone before and it was passed down from generation to generation.

In any case, Moses relates two adjacent versions of creation which are different in order, content, and emphasis. Chapter 1 emphasizes the transcendent God who is supreme over the universe, while chapter 2 focuses on his very special creation and his relationship to the one created in his own image. It is in this connection (Gen 2:4) that we have the first use of God’s Holy Name, used nineteen times in chapters 2 and 3, but not once in chapter 1, — and seldom throughout the rest of the Torah.

Can you comprehend a God big enough to create something in his image with the ability to choose not to follow instructions? Can you feel the hurt in the Lord’s heart when we choose not honor him? Can you imagine the joy in his heart when we do so choose?

The Lord has given us full dominion over all his creation, will you choose to serve him?

Photocred: Art-Jam