Write a short letter that explains what the Old Testament tells us about the image of God.

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Question:

Write a short letter that explains what the Old Testament tells us about the image of God.

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Answer:The explicit theme of the image of God appears in three texts in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:26–27; 5:1–2; and 9:6. I am excluding from the discussion such important texts as Psalm 17:15 and Ecclesiastes 7:20 because, although these texts bear upon the essence of man as such, they are not part of the Old Testament’s own teaching about the image of God. Given this limitation, intrinsic to the Old Testament itself, we readily see that among the ancient writers there is not a great interest in describing man in terms of the image of God. This cautions us, perhaps, that we should measure our emphasis accordingly.The first text, Genesis 1:26–27, records the final creative act of the sixth day of creation:Then 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 birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.1The fifth chapter of Genesis contains the genealogy from Adam to Noah. It begins:This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. (Genesis 5:1–2)Our third text falls within the context of God’s blessing upon Noah immediately after the flood. God says to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”In these texts, the English word image translates the Hebrew word tselem; and the English likeness translates the Hebrew demuth (except in Genesis 5:1, where likeness translates tselem). Our first task, then, is to find out the meanings of these words from their usage in the whole Old Testament.In the remainder of the Old Testament, tselem is used, but for the two exceptions, to refer to the physical likeness of a person or thing, and almost uniformly these images are abominable.2 The two exceptions of this usage, however, broaden the possibilities of the meaning of this important word. We should, therefore, consider these texts more closely. In Psalm 39:5–6 we read:Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,     and my lifetime is as nothing before you.Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!     Surely a man goes about as a tselem!The ESV renders tselem shadow, which points to its meaning as a resemblance or reflection of something greater. It certainly is not a material idol or the like. Thus we have some evidence that tselem is not bound to denote a physical image. Similarly, in Psalm 73:20 Asaph, speaking of the rich heathen, says,Like a dream when one awakes,     O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as tsalmam.Here the ESV renders tsalmam phantoms. Thus we are not dealing with a concrete, tangible image, but again, a more abstract likeness. With von Rad, I conclude from the above evidence that tselem “means predominantly an actual plastic work, a duplicate, sometimes an idol . . . only on occasion does it mean a duplicate in the diminished sense of a semblance when compared with the original.”3The second important word, demuth, apart from the Genesis texts, has a greater flexibility than tselem. It is used in a concrete sense almost synonymously with tselem,4 and in the abstract sense of resemblance.5 Although the abstract quality is there, demuth is used uniformly in connection with a tangible or visual reproduction of something else. So again, as with tselem, the usage of demuth urges us very strongly in the direction of a physical likeness.

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