Q: I don’t understand the biblical statement that “God created man in God’s image.” That makes no sense to me at all! It cannot mean physically, because God seems to be a spirit and not a defined physical being. I do not 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? Thank you.
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A: I wrote a children’s book of modern Bible stories (Hebrew: midrashim) titled, “Does God Have A Big Toe?” That particular midrash poked gentle fun at the concept of tzelem Elohim (in God’s image). A child asks, “Daddy, I have a big toe and you and mommy have big toes and God made us so does that mean that God has a big toe, too?” Of course not. Being made in the image of God is not the same thing as being made in the shape of God, which is impossible because God is invisible — and something invisible cannot have a shape. God has no shape and the part of us that is made in the image of God also has no shape. So, as you rightly asked, what can this powerful but misleading belief mean?
One meaning of tzelem Elohim is that just as God is loving and just, forgiving and compassionate, so too should we be loving and just, forgiving and compassionate. We are made to emulate God’s values, not God’s shape. These values come from God, not from the natural world. They call us to a higher level of existence as we try to emulate our creator.
Another meaning of tzelem Elohim is that just as God is holy, so too should we strive to be holy. This is an explicit biblical command: “Thou shalt be holy because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26). Striving for holiness is not exactly like striving for morality. Being holy is not the same thing as being good though it surely includes the attempt to live a moral life filled with moral goodness. Being holy is something more and it is essential to the spiritual life to understand what being holy means in our own personal lives.
The word for holy in Hebrew is kadosh and its root meaning is, “something set apart.” The offerings in the Temple for the biblical priests were holy. The objects in the Temple like the menorah were holy. The pinnacle of biblical holy objects was the ark in the room at the center of the Temple in Jerusalem where the stone tablets bearing the words of the Ten Commandments were stored. This room was called, “The Holy of Holies.” This biblical concept of the holiness of things was transformed by the rabbis who reinvented Judaism after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first century. They put less emphasis on the holiness of things and more on the holiness of time. The Sabbath and the festival days were moments of holy time. They were moments set apart from ordinary time. Islam still preserves a rich legacy of holy things like the Kaaba stone in Mecca. Hinduism is also filled with holy places. Most religions of first peoples have a rich component of holy places. Christianity and Judaism still venerate Jerusalem as the residual center of holiness from the biblical period, but have moved into a far greater appreciation of holy times.
Christianity has a unique take on holiness because of its belief in the divinity of Jesus. Man cannot become God, according to Christianity. We are made in the image of God and nothing more. However, in the person and life of Jesus, God could — and in fact did — become man. This made Jesus the only human who did not have to strive for holiness because he already embodied holiness.
In all these many and varied holy places and holy times from the world’s religions, we encounter in the belief in holiness a concept almost totally alien to our modern world. For us, everything is secular. No place is holy and no time is holy. We separate nothing from the predatory domain of the ordinary. I truly wish that I could articulate the concept of holiness for all of us who are sunk in the modern world where nothing is set apart. We are the heirs to an ancient world and ancient faiths that were and are filled with holiness. Outside of religion, however, the empty world awaits our best efforts to fill it with holiness once again.
The Hebrew word tzel means shadow, so one possible meaning of tzelem Elohim is that we are God’s shadows in a world that needs the brightness of the holy to find redemption.