God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Q: I was perusing a display of books at a church conference when a gentleman made a comment about a book on display. He said, “I have friends who actually believe in evolution.” He further stated, “No way am I from a monkey. It says in the Bible we were made in the image of God and God is not a monkey!” Of course, I believe he was interpreting literally the phrase that states we were made in the image of God. I immediately thought of your weekly column and wondered, firstly, what is the Hebrew translation of this passage?

M from Nova Scotia, Canada, via email

A: One can believe we are made in God’s image and still believe that there were monkeys in our past. Evolution could be the way God protects us and enables us to worship God and care for one another. Whatever it means to be made in the image of God, it does not mean that God has a big toe. Let’s open our Bibles . . .

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:27). The Hebrew phrase for “image of God” is tzelem elohim. Tzelem is most likely from the root meaning “shadow” and so we are like the shadows God casts on the world. I like that idea, but whatever its textual origin, the idea of tzelem elohim is clear enough: There is something uniquely sacred about human life.

There is a spiritual hierarchy in the biblical account of creation. On the lowest level, God created without comment (day and night; the firmament). Then God created and declared that the creation was “good” (the light; the dry land and the oceans, lakes and rivers; all the plants, grasses, and trees; the sun and the moon). Then God created, declared it to be good, and blessed it. God blessed animal life with the power of procreation, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Finally, God created, declared, blessed, and made in the image. That’s us.

So from this close reading of the creation account we learn that we are spiritually unique, but the content of that uniqueness is not at all clear. On the most basic level, we are intended to rule over the Earth the way God rules over us. We are like God to the living things on our planet. This means our dominion is sacred. We have the power to rule, but we must, like God, also have the compassion and wisdom to rule wisely. Buy a Prius and eat more veggies.

The hard part of deciphering tzelem elohim/the image of God comes when we ask what it means for mortal, material, limited beings to be made in the image of an omnipotent, immaterial, just and benevolent God? We are so utterly different from God, what could it possibly mean to be made in God’s image?

On first glance, Christianity would seem to have the solution to this question in its belief that God became man in the person of Jesus and thus created a kind of visual example of being made in the image of God. However, Jesus is God according to Christian belief and we are just made in the image of God, so this does not solve our problem.

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Another possibility, suggested by the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is that we are like God in knowing the difference between good and evil. Our moral conscience is what makes us like God. No other creature in nature has the ability to respond to a moral command because it is right and resist an instinct because it is wrong.

The most likely meaning of being made in the image of God is that human life is sacred like God is sacred. All life is sacred to a degree because all life was created and blessed by God, but human life is created, blessed and made in the image and that sets us apart. It means that killing and eating a human is much worse than killing and eating a chicken. I respect those who argue that all life is equally sacred, but that is not my belief, not my faith, and not my moral intuition. .

Our dignity, our rights, our sanctity come not from the state but from God, and this makes the belief that we are created in the image of God the most revolutionary belief in the Bible. The sanctity of life is the greatest belief the Abrahamic faiths bequeathed to Western civilization. It created and saved and saves us from every tyranny, and every assault on the image of God.