Genesis 1:24-31 | Mark 9:2-9
So we come at last to the final day of the process of creation – day six, the creation of humanity.
Except, of course, it’s not just the creation of humanity. We share this day with the creation of all sorts of other things – in fact, with the creation of all the animals that live on dry land; the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that creeps upon the earth.
We don’t even get a day to ourselves, but at the same time the description of the creation of humanity makes it clear that the author sees us as the pinnacle, the crowning glory of creation. Which seems to me to neatly capture the dual nature of humankind; we are another animal living on the earth, created in the same phase of the story as all the other animals – for you are dust, and to dust you will return – but at the same time, created uniquely in the image, the likeness of God.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”
Which is a pretty loaded phrase, rich with all sorts of hints and questions. For a start, did you notice how God’s voice changes? The opening days of the story are spoken in the passive “let there be light, let there be a dome”. And then it moves to the third person “let the waters bring forth”, “let the earth bring forth”. But when it comes to humanity, God speaks in the first person: “Let us make”. The imagery is almost like that of a master craftsman, who has been prepared to give commands to the apprentices; but now takes on the finishing touches of the work herself.
‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness
Which is, let’s face it, a fairly problematic phrase. In the image of God, according to the likeness of God.
Now there is plenty of scriptural evidence that the people of Israel did not believe that God had, or took, a physical form, so despite the fact that there are places where that idea seems to have leaked into the scriptures from other ancient belief systems (in genesis 2, for instance, where God is described as ‘walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening’), it’s probably safe to say that the intent of the phrase ‘in God’s image’ was not to describe a physical likeness.
But what does it describe? It seems a fairly basic question – for the concept that we are made in God’s image is pretty foundational to our understanding of who we are in relationship to creation and in relationship to God.
But of course, as is the nature of poetry, the author doesn’t stop to give us a formal definition of the language used. Leaving space for some speculation, some imagination, some wondering.
Sometimes it is taken to refer to the idea that humanity is uniquely gifted with a soul; but the idea of an eternal soul is really quite alien to the ancient Hebrew worldview – it really only comes into Hebrew thought with the Hellenization of the world around the time of Alexander the Great. The idea eternal life, or of resurrection, to the extent that it existed in Jewish thought, was based on the faithfulness and memory of God, not on some property of humanity.
Or it is suggested that “made in the image of God” refers to the value of each unique human; that we should treat others justly and generously and mercifully, for they too are made in the image of God – which is of course true, but noticeably not an argument used by the Bible anywhere that I can think of. When the scriptures appeal to the people to treat the powerless well they generally either appeal to memory (“welcome the foreigner amongst you, for remember that you too were foreigners in Egypt”) or to empathy (“treat others as you would have them treat you”) or to God’s justice (“for as you judge others, so you will be judged”). The argument “for they are made in God’s image” is conspicuous by its absence.
Others speak of “the image of God” as referring to some unique property of humanity – consciousness, perhaps, or creativity, or the ability to form a relationship with God. But attractive as those ideas might be, there isn’t anything in the passage to suggest that they are, at least directly, what the author had in mind.
It seems to me that the best guess at the meaning of “made in the image of God” lies in the very next verses that follow. Recall that up to this point, God has been the only actor in the story; everything that has happened, has happened because God has said it should. All the power, all the authority, all the control, has been entirely in the hands of God.
But then “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have power over the fish, the birds, the cattle, the wild creatures, the creeping things”.
The defining characteristic of God in the Genesis story is God’s creative power; and then God says “let us make humanity in our image and let them have power”.
I’ve spoken before about the humility of God portrayed in this account – the creation of that which is not God, the gifting of the ability to reproduce to creation, and now we have one more astonishing act of divine humility: the gifting of divine power to humanity – or perhaps, the sharing of divine power with humanity.
For though many – most – creatures manipulate their environments, to change the nature of creation that is around them, humanity uniquely shares with God the ability to purposefully and intentionally recreate the world around us.
It is this likeness of God that allowed nomadic people to become a settled, agrarian society; not dependent upon where food naturally grew, we had the power to choose to sow and water and reap.
It is this likeness of God that allowed us to take the wood of the trees and put it to use to build shelters, and later to burn it to fire bricks and build cities.
It is this likeness of God that has allowed us to breed and crossbreed – or even genetically engineer – animals and plants for our needs.
And, as Peter Parker would say (knowingly or otherwise, quoting Voltaire) – with great power comes great responsibility.
For the creation story speaks to this power of God gifted to us – the power to change, contradict, or undo what God has set in place. A power that we have for both good and ill; for creating wonders, and for incredible destruction.
It’s sometimes said that it is arrogant of us to believe that we could make any lasting change to God’s creation. But the creation account encourages us to admit our power, gifted by God, over creation, and with it to aknowledge our opportunities for great good and our responsibility – our share of culpability – for the great harm that is being done to world. For, through overconsumption and habitat destruction we (as humanity) are already responsible one of the greatest mass extinctions the earth has ever known, and, through climate change, are on the verge of wrecking greater destruction still. But it need not be so.
And when God saw everything that God had created, God said that it was very good. And in so many ways, gifted with God’s creative power, we have worked to make it even better, ever more beautiful. The creation story encourages us to celebrate those achievements, and to believe that we do have the power, even now, to act to prevent the worst of the damage that we have set in motion. We even know what it is we need to do; though there may be quite legitimate differences of opinion about how we should set about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; the one option that is both scientifically and theologically untenable is that it is ok to do nothing.
I’ve chosen to finish this series on the sixth day, though there is, of course, a seventh day in the creation story. For it seems to me that the sixth day, the day of life, the day of humanity, is where we are in the story. The seventh day; God’s rest, remains ahead of us, waiting for us, calling us on. One day, perhaps, we will all enjoy it, along with all that God has created. But until then, we live in the sixth day, gifted with God’s power, and there is work to do.