In the image and likeness of God Gen 1:26-27

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likenessGen 1:26 KJV

What does this verse mean?  What is the spirit communicating to us?  Elpis Israel says “image…hath reference to form or shape, “likeness” hath regard to mental constitution, or capacity”.[1] Is this a fair reading of the Hebrew?  If not what is and what is the message to us?

The position is sometimes put that post Gen 3, the image was marred and man is now in the image/likeness of Adam.  This is sometimes tied to Gen5v3 where “Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” Gen 5v3 NET.  Bro Thomas in Elpis Israel wrote the following:

But, though Adam was “made in the image and after the likeness” of the “Holy Ones”, the similitude has been so greatly marred, that his posterity present but a faint representation of either. The almost uncontrolled and continuous operation of “the law of sin and death”, styled by philosophers “the law of nature”, which is an indwelling and inseparable constituent of our present economy, has exceedingly deformed the image, and effaced the likeness of God, which man originally presented. It required, therefore, the appearance of a New Man, in whom the image and likeness should re-appear, as in the beginning[2]

In contrast to this, Bro John Byrt wrote an article in The Christadelphian in 1968 (editor LG Sargent) saying:

I suggest, therefore, that from the beginning the image of God reflected in Adam was a very limited image. In the day of his creation he was “of the earth, earthy”. After his transgression he forfeited the measure of communion with his Maker which he at first enjoyed; but the image was still there, still very limited, still largely latent; still waiting for the outworking of God’s plan for the fuller manifestations of His image and likeness.”[3]

We will explore the meaning of the phrase image and likeness including the application to us today.  In doing so it is sensible to acknowledge Silva’s warning on the consideration of words:

illegitimate totality transfer, a somewhat awkward phrase intended to stress the simple fact that any one instance of a word will not bear all the meanings possible for that word[4].

It is perhaps a touch of this phenomena which leads to some of the claims about Gen1:26.

1    The image – Selem

The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament says the following:

“6754. צֶלֶם ṣelem: A masculine noun meaning an image, a likeness, a statue, a model, a drawing, a shadow…”[5].  CHALOT makes the same summary point, the word relates to physical form.[6]

The physical form is obviously a fraction broader in meaning given the use in Psa39 and Psa73 where the idea appears to be more of a shadow.  However if we understand selem as a shape rather than an exact physical copy perhaps we are being true to the range of the word’s meaning.

The NICOT Commentary makes the summary comment that: “ṣelem designates the representation of something else[7] sometimes in a positive and sometimes in a negative way.

While Westermann supports the Hebrew meaning, he extends the range of meaning somewhat as mentioned below (emphasis mine):

P. Humbert summarizes his findings as follows: “In conclusion all the Old Testament passages understand צלם solely in the sense of a material image, a concrete representation, without any spiritual or moral dimension,” p. 157. But one can justly ask if the nuance contained in this conclusion is really in the text. I do not think that the text is concerned with the corporeal or spiritual aspects as such, but rather with the portrayal of something. I think it is dangerous to render צלם simply by “material image” (l’effigie extérieure). The meaning is more that of concrete representation. So too W.H. Schmidt: “… the word does not have to be restricted to ‘material form,’ but rather means a ‘representation’,” p. 133, n. 1. צלם is not the technical term for an image of god although it can have that meaning in some places…”[8]

The Cornerstones commentary picks up on the same thing, there is a little more than just a lifeless concrete/wooden outline in the meaning:

“God’s image in humans is functional: As God’s representatives on earth, humans were to rule and have dominion over it (1:26, 28). The terminology may be borrowed from the Egyptian world where kings would set up colossal statues of themselves as signs of their authority over the region (cf. von Rad 1962:1.146). But God’s image was alive—it was placed in living human beings, who would be responsible for carrying out that dominion[9]

To split between the physical shape of a person and the character/behaviour/role of a person is likely a modern construct in any case.  As Westermann notes this understanding is widespread:

the Old Testament knows nothing at all of a separation of a person’s spiritual and corporeal components; it sees the person as a whole. “It looks to the totality of the human being embracing not only its corporeal but also its spiritual capacities” (Vriezen, p. 99; A. Dillmann had come to the same conclusion by other means). G. von Rad too, despite his emphasis on the corporeal aspect, writes: “Therefore, one will do well to split the physical from the spiritual as little as possible: the whole person is created in God’s image,” p. 58. F.K. Schumann had written: “The Imago Dei does not consist in any particular detail of the person but describes the human being as a whole without limiting itself to anything taken in isolation.” We are on firm ground here. The discussion whether the image and likeness of God referred to the corporeal or the spiritual aspect of the person has brought us to the conclusion that the question has been placed incorrectly. Gen 1:26f.* is concerned neither with the corporeal nor with the spiritual qualities of people; it is concerned only with the person as a whole.”[10]


2    The likeness – demut

The second word applied to the creation of humanity is the likeness.  Does this word give us the idea of mental capacity as sometimes claimed?  The Complete Word Study Dictionary says”

  1. דְּמוּת demûṯ: A feminine noun meaning likeness. This word is often used to create a simile by comparing two unlike things, such as the wickedness of people and the venom of a snake (Ps. 58:4[5]); the sound of God’s gathering warriors and of many people (Isa. 13:4); or the angelic messenger and a human being (Dan. 10:16). Additionally, this word is used in describing humans being created in the image or likeness of God (Gen. 1:26; 5:1); the likeness of Seth to Adam (Gen. 5:3); the figures of oxen in the temple (2 Chr. 4:3); the pattern of the altar (2 Kgs. 16:10). But most often, Ezekiel uses it as he describes his visions by comparing what he saw to something similar on earth (Ezek. 1:5, 16; 10:1).[11]

There is nothing in Gen1v26 to particularly shed light on the intended meaning, beyond something being approximately like an original.  The point of similarity it not clear from the record as it stands.  Ie there is nothing in the word itself which supports it referring to capacity as proposed by Bro Thomas.

3    The difference between the two words

The difference between the words is slight.  The word demut seems as much to be underlining the comparison rather than introducing some new feature or point of sameness between humanity and God.  In Gen 5v3, when Seth is introduced as being in the demut and selem of Adam.  Ie the order of the words is reversed.

Westermann says Irenaeus introduced the idea that the two words were different and the idea has stuck in some areas – particularly the Catholic and the Orthodox churches.[12]  He maintains:

“Even though צלם and דמות have each its own proper meaning, nevertheless the fact that they are interchangeable (both nouns are used, now the one and now the other) shows clearly that we have here one expression which further determines the creation of humans. There is widespread agreement about this today [Note that “today” refers to the original 1974 publication]”[13]

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament cautions against finding too much distinction between the two words.  Instead it suggests demuth acts to modify the otherwise overly tight/limited meaning of selem, which provides insight into why the two words may be present (emphasis in quotation mine):

“This interlacing and substitution suggest that very little distinction can be made between the two words…This dovetailing opposes too strong a differentiation between demuth and tselem (cf. further also 5:1 and 9:6 [P], and again Ezk. 23:14f.). It also opposes an overemphasis on the use of the words with prepositions in contrast to their use alone. Instead, the juxtaposition of the two words in Gen. 1:26 suggests that the writer is making a statement about the dignity of man, which he intensifies by combining similar concepts.  Thus kidhmuthenu, “after our likeness,” in Gen. 1:26, no matter how it may be elucidated by the otherwise predominant and characteristic use of demuth, can only correct a too direct understanding of tselem, which has a strongly concrete and plastic reference. This in turn paves the way in P (cf. Ezk.!) for the recognition that in respect of an analogy no identity of God and man can or should be asserted, but only a similarity (“something similar to us”). At the same time, what the author of Gen. 1:26 has concretely in view cannot be determined simply by investigating these related ideas. It emerges only from the broader context (v. 28) and is explained as a cooperative sharing in dominion[14]

4    More clues, the context of the phrase

In its note on the phrase the NET states:

“The two prepositions translated “in” and “according to” have overlapping fields of meaning and in this context seem to be virtually equivalent. In 5:3 they are reversed with the two words. The word צֶלֶם (tselem, “image”) is used frequently of statues, models, and images—replicas (see D. J. A. Clines, “The Etymology of Hebrew selem,” JNSL 3 [1974]: 19–25). The word דְּמוּת (démut, “likeness”) is an abstract noun; its verbal root means “to be like; to resemble.” In the Book of Genesis the two terms describe human beings who in some way reflect the form and the function of the creator. The form is more likely stressing the spiritual rather than the physical. The “image of God” would be the God-given mental and spiritual capacities that enable people to relate to God and to serve him by ruling over the created order as his earthly vice-regents.

sn In our image, after our likeness. Similar language is used in the instructions for building the tabernacle. Moses was told to make it “according to the pattern” he was shown on the mount (Exod 25:9, 10). Was he shown a form, a replica, of the spiritual sanctuary in the heavenly places? In any case, what was produced on earth functioned as the heavenly sanctuary does, but with limitations.”[15]

The Lexham Bible Dictionary heads to a similar conclusion again based on the surrounds of the two words (emphasis mine):

A more coherent understanding can be found by appeal to Hebrew syntax with respect to the prepositional phrase בְּצֶלֶם (betselem). The preposition (ב, b) should be understood as what Hebrew grammarians variously refer to as:

  • The “beth of essence (beth essentiae) or equivalence” (Joüon and Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 2:487).
  • The “beth of identity” (Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 198).
  • The “beth of predication” (Gordon, “ ‘In’ of Predication or Equivalence,” 612–13).

The preposition “in” should be understood as meaning “as” or “in the capacity of.” Humanity was created “as” the image of God.  The concept can be conveyed if we think of “image” as a verb: Humans are created as God’s imagers—they function in the capacity of God’s representatives. The image of God is not a quality within human beings; it is what humans are. Clines summarizes: “What makes man the image of God is not that corporeal man stands as an analogy of a corporeal God; for the image does not primarily mean similarity, but the representation of the one who is imaged in a place where he is not.… According to Gen 1:26ff, man is set on earth in order to be the representative there of the absent God who is nevertheless present by His image (Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” 87)”[16]

This is consistent with the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament’s suggestion that demuth is present to correct an overly limited reading of the primary word in the expression – selem.


5    Subsequent OT uses of image (selem) and likeness (demut)

There are a limited number of instances of the words being applied to humans after Gen 1.

“Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness (demut), after his image (selem), and named him Seth” Gen 5v3 NET

The preceding verses say “When God created man, he made him in the likeness (demut ) of God.  Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.”  Gen 5v1-2 NET.  What should we make of the comment in v3 that Adam fathering Seth in his “own” image/ demut?  The word “own” is not in the Hebrew.  The text says Adam was made in God’s image and Adam continued this having a son in his (God based) image.  Nothing has been said in the record which tells us the demut had been diminished.  Whatever we might consider lost (and innocence and communion are certainly two) ironically Bro Byrt observed in The Christadelphian that:

“Strangely enough, the effect of the transgression, as far as Scripture tells us, was to make the man and woman more like God…The serpent claimed, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”. That this much of his reasoning was correct is indicated by the statements, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (3:7); and “Then the Lord God said ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil’” (3:22).[17]

The passage does not say Adam was made in God’s image/demut and Seth was somehow lesser made in another image.  While English translations might introduce the idea of Adam’s own image as if this were a new thing, the text doesn’t do this.  Scripture calls Adam the son of God, Seth (the replacement for righteous Abel) is just a furtherance of God’s purpose.  After all the instruction in Gen 1v28 to humanity was to multiply.

“Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed; for in God’s image (selem) God has made humankind”  Gen 9v6 NET

Clearly this is pointing us back to Gen1:26.  However we have only one of the two expressions here.  Is the murder of man therefore prohibited based on a physical similarity to God only (if we took the narrowest reading of selem)?  This seems unlikely.  Something more than mere shape must be in view – or else (to take an extreme) murdering the overweight or undernourished would be less offensive…

The observation was made from Gen 1:16 that selem is in fact the critical word, demut is a modifier to guide our reading in line with the surrounding syntax.

Gen 9:6 shows humanity remains in the image/selem of God.


[1] Thomas, D. J. (1990). Elpis Israel: an exposition of the Kingdom of God (electronic ed., p. 39). Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian.

[2] Thomas, D. J. (1990). Elpis Israel: an exposition of the Kingdom of God (electronic ed., pp. 39–40). Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian.

[3] Byrt, John “The Image of God” The Christadelphian, Vol. 105, Page 20 (1968).

[4] Silva, M. (1994). Biblical Words and Their Meaning: An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 25). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (pp. 952–953). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[6] Holladay, W. L., & Köhler, L. (2000). A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (p. 306). Leiden: Brill.

[7] Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (p. 135). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[8] Westermann, C. (1994). A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (p. 146). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

[9] Ross, A., & Oswalt, J. N. (2008). Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus (Vol. 1, p. 40). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[10] Westermann, C. (1994). A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (p. 150). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

[11] Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 241). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

[12] Westermann, C. (1994). A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (p. 148). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

[13] Westermann, C. (1994). A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (pp. 145–146). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

[14] Preuss, H. D. (1978). דָּמָה. G. J. Botterweck & H. Ringgren (Eds.), J. T. Willis & G. W. Bromiley (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 3, p. 259). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[15] Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.

[16] Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Image of God. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[17] Byrt, John “The Image of God” The Christadelphian, Vol 105, Page 20 (1968).

2 thoughts on “In the image and likeness of God Gen 1:26-27

  1. Pingback: Gen 2:5 A partnership of God and man | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

  2. Pingback: Grasping wisdom, grasping equality | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

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