Genesis One – Us, Images, and Subduing

“God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule … over all the earth … and subdue it.’

Firstly, to whom is God referring when he uses the plural “us” and “our” in relation to “image” and “likeness”? The answer is to be found in the literary and religious culture shared by the Israelites and their surrounding peoples. For all Canaanites, initially including the Israelites, the name of the chief god was El or Elyon, (both of which are used of God in the Hebrew Bible). El presided over a ‘council of gods’ or lesser divine beings, hence “us” and “our”. 

From a Canaanite perspective, two telltale verses are Deuteronomy 32: 8 & 9. In these, “Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance .. Yahweh’s portion is .. Jacob” (another name for Israel). The chief Canaanite god, in other words, shared out his ’empire’ among his underlings, and the people called Israel were given to Yahweh. From the Israelite perspective, their God had his own divine assembly, as in Psalm 82, “God presides in the heavenly council; in the assembly of the gods he gives his decision”. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that every Israelite thought there was only one god, forgetting that the 1st commandment was not, “you shall have no other gods”, but “you shall have no other gods before me”. Yahweh was to be the ‘top dog’, or should I say ‘top god’?

Secondly, what do the words “image” and “likeness” mean? The word “likeness(Hebrew דְּמוּת demut), has an abstract quality. It can refer to mental, moral and spiritual characteristics or capacities. The word “image” on the other hand, (Hebrew צֶלֶםselem), is a more physical term, most frequently used of statues, models or images. Israelite religion was a ‘broad church’. If the élite thought of God, (as in Genesis 1), as a voice from ‘somewhere beyond’, issuing lofty commands, others pictured a more ‘down to earth’ God, (as in Genesis 2 & 3), strolling in his garden, chatting to Adam and Eve, playing hide and seek, and making clothes for them.

If God can make human beings in his own image, we humans can, and have, made God in ours. Our ‘images’ and ‘likenesses’ of God can no more convey the experience of ‘the real thing’, than food images can on a restaurant website. Instead of dogmatic assertions about what God ‘is’, tentative suggestions about what God ‘might be’, would be more to the point, and reduce the dissemination of hypothetical dubieties which, in the wrong minds, can give rise to more harm than good, such as suicide killings.

Thirdly, what about this matter of “ruling over” and “subduing” the earth? The word for “ruling over(Hebrew רָדָה radah) means ‘to tread down as in a wine press; to have dominion, to rule, to dominate’. This could be taken to mean that humans are the masters, and that everything else, including the planet itself, is to be mastered. The word for “subjugating(Hebrew כָּבַשׁ kabash) means ‘to subject, to make subservient‘ and, in the book of Esther 7:8, ‘to violate, to rape’. Strong stuff !

Sadly, humanity too often chooses to use and abuse other creatures, inflicting needless cruelty and inexcusable suffering. I’m reminded of God’s unhelpful words to Noah in Genesis 9:2, “All the animals, birds, and fish will live in fear of you; they are all placed under your power”. God help them! We selfishly loot Earth of its finite resources; carelessly propagate pesticides, fertilisers and hormones; pollute our rivers with sewage and our atmosphere with hazardous gasses. We are utterly dependent on this our one and only home, and yet, to quote Dylan Thomas, we may “ learn, too late, we grieved it on its way”. How tragic if humanity, the ‘crown’ of creation, were to return our world to a ‘Genesis-cidal’ chaos.

4 responses to “Genesis One – Us, Images, and Subduing”

  1. You very carefully don’t balance your account of “domination” by admitting jewish Law took care to look after animals and land by resting animals every seventh day and land every seven years. There are of course various sources for the Scriptures so varying accounts will come through giving those who wish the emphasise the negative as you do here plenty of scope. It is noticeable in the Blake he appealed to Heaven. Why on earth should he do that given your account?

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    • May I respectfully suggest, Alan, that I perhaps write more “carefully” than you read? I’ve said nothing whatsoever in this blog section about “Jewish Law” or religion. I’ve commented on two verbs, and noted how ‘strong’ they are. Were I writing an essay rather than a blog post, I might have noted that Biblical Hebrew, unlike English, has only around 8000 words, so choice is limited! This is one reason why translation is problematical – one word can have a very wide variety of possible meanings. I also commented on the reported words of God to Noah in Genesis 9:2, which I regard as “unhelpful”, in the context of how some people today regard and treat animals, and that (not the Jewish Law or religion) is the point of my post.

      These verbs, and God’s words, can be correlated with such current attitudes and behaviours but, as we both know, correlation is not the same as causation! I’ve nowhere said that directly because of these words certain things have happened, but only that they’re “unhelpful”, which I take to be self-evident. As a constant reader of the Hebrew Bible, I’m well aware of the positive, as well as the negative, aspects of the Jewish Law, but that was not the point or focus of the piece. Your account of ‘my account’ is therefor one that I don’t own, and so I’ve no problem with Blake appealing to Heaven.

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  2. Well yes you can certainly treat the Bible as if the concern is purely textual and it has nothing to do with religion and Jewish law and their influences. You rightly say the language is limited and it can be seen from your account meanings can be varied and flexible; moreover dictionaries are created long after the language has become well developed.so it is difficult to make hard and fast judgements simply from the words on the page.. So Genesis 9:2 -if your concern had been with the meaning the Bible projects-does deserve to be balanced with the actual concern of the story that creation should be conserved. It is also the case that the majority of wild animals and birds have an instinctive desire to distrust, avoid and fear humans. The verses in this sense is in this sense may be seen as realistic and while “into your hand they are delivered” may sound dangerous the conservationist case is that we and only we as humans do have a responsibility to take “into our hands ” the future welfare of the beasts. .

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    • I say again, Alan, that I wasn’t writing, in this short piece, about Jewish Law and Religion, and was making no adverse comments concerning them, and therefore see no need to have included any ‘balancing’ comments. They’d have been ‘balancing’ nothing in my view, other than anticipated assumptions about what I’d written which formed no part of my intent as I did so.

      Let’s celebrate our agreement that humans have a responsibility, as you say, for “the future welfare of the beasts”, although I would replace the word “beasts” with the phrase “fellow living beings”. My next blog post will continue this focus, and I’ll inflict on you, in advance, a sentence therefrom – “I think the philosophy of buddhism has something to offer, in reminding us, in despite of any hubristic ‘superiority’, that we have neither permanence nor self-sufficiency but are, of necessity, contingent parts of the one great web of totally interrelated life and being, every member of which has been, is, and will continue to be, entirely dependent on every other.”

      To write that has nothing to do with any supposed “superiority” of buddhism, or any “holier than thou” attitude on my part. I’ve long outgrown such nonsense. It’s simply a sharing of an insight which I find meaningful, positive and helpful – others must, of course, make up their own minds.

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