in the image of god


“What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”
[Assignment for "It's all in the Book", Religious Studies course, Victoria University of Wellington]



Whose image of God?  Who is telling the story? How is the story told? What is the purpose of the story, and what conclusions, if any, are being drawn? Personal interpretation and conclusion.

The events related in Genesis chapters 1—3 are referred to in this discussion as “a story”, in the sense of a chronicling of events—rather than the narrower implication of a legend or narrative.

To answer the question, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”, one first needs to identify whose image of God is being referred to.  This brief paper seeks to identify whose story it is; the way in which the story is told is then analysed, in an attempt to find its purpose or any conclusions being drawn; and personal observations are offered.

Who is telling the story? 
The narrator of Genesis is not identified, but modern biblical scholarship concludes that Genesis forms part of a collection of stories drawn from oral as well as written traditions of the Jewish people.  While orthodox Jews—and many Christians—accept that the Torah contains an explication of their nation’s relationship with their God, the early books of the Bible are also seen as folk tales or a collection of ways of explaining ‘how we came to be’, ‘how the world began’ and ‘why things are like they are’, comparable with, for example, Mäori creation stories of Papa and Rangi.  This simplistic summary does not answer the question of who is telling the story, but for the purpose of this discussion it is contended that Genesis chapters 1-3 are the work of a writer or writers and editors unknown, whose purpose is to tell their community’s “story of being”, and at the same perhaps to tell “God’s story”.

How is the story told? 
Two factors appear significant: the plurality or multi-facetedness of both God and humanity, and different versions of creation—first via speech and then by action. Use of a poetic device within the prose account lends emphasis or summary.

Genesis 1:26 —Following an account of the creation by God of the heavens and the earth (verses 1-25), the New International Version (NIV) has God saying: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule…” [my italics], implying that both God and man are plural rather than singular.  Verse 27 is in the form of poetry, the cadence and repetition implying an imaginative summary of the events related to this point, concluding with the most significant: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

The story resumes with God blessing “man” (“them”), providing food and suggesting that the man and woman “be fruitful and increase in number”, and concludes in verse 1 of chapter 2 with a summary: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.”

From chapter 2 verse 2 the story is retold: ”This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created”, with a more active description of the genesis of human beings in v7: ”the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”  The story continues with the creation of a garden (containing two significant trees: of life, and of good and evil); God puts man in the garden, creates livestock, looks for a helper for the man and finding none, forms a woman from the man’s rib.

2:23 is another poetic summary, with the man saying, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man”—echoing the conclusion in 1:27, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  This poetic device is used to summarize, and perhaps to emphasise, God’s cursing of the serpent, and telling the woman and man the results of their eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In 3:22, God appears to have become plural again, saying, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”  Thereupon the humans are banished from the garden.

The version in Genesis chapter 1 has God speaking the universe into existence: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  In chapter 2, God formed man from dust and planted a garden, and formed birds and beasts out of the ground.

What is the purpose of the story, and what conclusions, if any, are being drawn?

The relationship between God and creation appears more important than the dramatic recital—great narrative that it is—of how the universe came into existence, and the section on the humans eating from the tree of knowledge and becoming “like God” emphasises both this relationship, and the separation of humanity from God and the rest of creation.

Differing understandings of God’s relationship to humanity can be found in the different religious traditions, with a Western (Judeo-Christian) emphasis on the transcendence of God, i.e. that God surpasses or is beyond the limits of ordinary human experience or ability to describe, while Eastern (e.g. Buddhist) religions emphasise the immanence of God i.e. that God permanently pervades the universe, and by extension, all that is in it including human persons.

These two views about “the God relationship” can also be seen in attitudes to “sin” and “the fall”, with the Eastern tradition describing sin as a lack of recognition that God/the Source is part of humanness and the Western tradition interpreting sin as separation from an external God.

The story of creation and “the fall” can be read in several ways:

·         God and ‘man’ are both plural and singular; God has many facets and humanity reflects God’s many aspects[1];

·         Humanity is formed of dust and clay, made from particles of the universe and held together with God’s spit, and  the creative power of speech (or intention) brings energy and matter (including humans) into existence;

·         God is intrinsic in humanity and immanent in the universe; yet humans ascribe super-natural (transcendent) aspects to God and separate themselves from the totality of the universe.


Personal interpretation:

This discussion began by proposing that to answer the question, “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?”, one first needs to identify whose image of God is being referred to. 

Put simply, if you are made in the god’s image, the god must be like you.  Post-christian biblical scholars (such as DonCupitt), as well as psychoanalytic interpretations of story-telling (e.g. CarlJung and interpreters of his work) conclude that God has been made in the image of humans.  That in order to explain their own complexities and inter-relationships with others and the universe, humans have had to invent God—and naturally one’s own experience and culture shapes one’s image of God.



To be made in the image of God is the flip-side of and response to the question, “What does it mean to make God in our image?”

Whatever our image of God, is who we are—or, the aspects of ourselves which we regard as most creative, empowering, holistic, at one with all creation are the characteristics which we ascribe to God, and (in Maslow’s [2] terms) aspire to actualise.

As God described himself to Moses, “I am that I am” or “I am becoming who I am becoming”, so humans—in fulfillment of our greatest human need—aspire to become all that we are capable of becoming: the characterisation and image of God.

[1] This is not a rationale for the Christian doctrine trinity in contrast with the Jewish belief that God is One.

[2] Abraham Maslow , Hierarchy of needs theory: self-actualisation is the drive to become what one is capable of becoming.