God Squad, on being made in God's image

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God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday. ...

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I don't understand the biblical statement that "God created man in God's image." That makes no sense to me at all. It can't mean physically, because God seems to be a spirit, and not a defined physical being. I don't believe it could possibly mean spiritually, because while mankind is capable of wonderful acts of kindness and self sacrifice, mankind is also capable of horrific acts of violence and cruelty. What does that biblical phrase mean? -- P., via email

In Genesis 1:25-27 we read: "And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (KJV)

God's creative act has several levels. On the lowest level, but still holy because of God's creation, are the nonhuman, non-animal things of the world like light (first day), rocks and water (second day), plants (third day), and the sun, moon and stars (fourth day). All these things are created and called "good," whatever that might mean.

On the next-highest level of God's creation are animals that are created and called good. They have a higher standing in creation because, in addition to being created by God and called good by God, they are blessed by God. The content of their blessing is to procreate and fill the earth with animal life (fifth day).

Now, we come to the sixth day of creation, when people are created. People are created (like rocks) and blessed (like animals), but people also are "made in the image of God." This is the highest level of creation. For some reason, the creation of people is not called "good," even though at the very end of creation God saw all that God had created and called all of it (presumably including people) "very good."

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All of this textual examination leads us to the understanding that whatever being made in the image of God means, nothing else in creation is like us. Nothing created and blessed by God is also made in the image of God. We are the pinnacle of God's creation, although a wise rabbinic commentary punctures our false pride by teaching that God made us last in creation to remind us that even cockroaches were made before us.

My belief is that being made in the image of God means we can do things that are closer to what God can do than any of God's other creations. The first thing we can do like God is use our free will to choose good over evil. Birds don't choose to migrate; they are driven by their animal urges to migrate. We human beings can choose when we'll move to Florida. Having freewill is the main element of Imago Dei (Latin for being made in the image). Freewill is not only essential for moral choice and moral accountability; freewill is essential for love. We choose to love each other and we choose to love God.

God made us in God's image so we could learn to love God freely.

We remain partly rooted in the animal world, with animal urges constantly welling up within us, but we're also rooted in the world of the spirit. We have immaterial souls that are like God and do not die when our animal bodies die. Being made in the image of God means we have both an earthly destiny and a spiritual destiny that death cannot extinguish. Hell is our personal choice to extinguish our spiritual essence by living a life of moral evil.

What Imago Dei means to me is also that each of us is holy in exactly the same way before God.

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An old rabbinic story tells of how one day, when a rabbi was walking through town and was being followed by his students, he stopped suddenly and pointed across the street at a man walking there and asked his students, "Who is that walking across the street?" They looked and said, "That is nobody, rabbi. That is just Moshele, the man who draws water from the well." He scolded them, saying, "You are not my students until you can say about any person you see, 'That is the image of God walking across the street.' " Being made in the image of God was God's way to help us look across the street.

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