“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.