Genesis, lesson 3

Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 3- The Image of the Creator (Genesis 1:26-2:4)

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church (Originally aired Oct. 2, 2005)


Creator God:              Our last discussion ended with a brief discussion of the creation story in Genesis 1. But that first creation story leaves us with many questions: what is the relationship of God to the natural world? Does Genesis 1 mean that God is a distant creator who brings existence out of nothing by his command? Generally this is what Christian theologians have taught. God is the transcendent monarch removed from what he has made. A few philosophers and theologians, though, have disagreed and followed the thought of Baruch Spinoza, the most brilliant glass grinder in history. Spinoza was kicked out of the synagogue for arguing that God and nature are the same thing. God is in all things that exist. This is called pantheism.

            More recently, theologians like Paul Tillich argued for the idea that God exists apart from nature but infuses all nature with his being. He called this panentheism, and it is growing in popularity. Some theologians have gone even farther in saying that God is so involved in his creation that he changes along with creation. There is a process in creation that affects the development of God. This process theology has had a major impact on the ecological movement.

When I was a brash young seminary student, a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door. They told me that God is like an engineer who made a great machine that he controls and can disassemble. The world and humans are merely machines controlled by God, according to those two nice ladies. Then they asked me my ideas about God and creation, and I decided to tell them. I learned that I am a magician. I made two women disappear just by speaking!

            What I told them is that unless Spinoza is right and nature is the same as God, the infinite God had to make room for creation to occur. Before the events described in Genesis 1, there was only God. In the beginning: God. Period. God then voluntarily limited himself to make room for creation. God made something other than God so that he could be in relationship with what he had made. So creation, like redemption, came through the self-sacrifice of God, not through the domination of God. Years later I discovered that this idea is central to a form of Jewish thought known as Lurianic Kabala, so I wasn’t alone in thinking this.

            To be honest, though, I’m still working out my theology of creation, and I think it is impossible to settle these arguments just from Genesis 1. Personally, I am moved by the opening statement of Genesis that the spirit of God hovered over the waters. Ruach in Hebrews means spirit or wind. It can also mean breath. I think that translators miss the significance of the word of God being breathed over the waters of creation. God imparts his own creative power to creation itself. So, while God may indeed be seen as the majestic creator overlooking creation, we should also acknowledge that the creator works on intimate level within creation. This idea of God’s intimacy with nature becomes more important on to the sixth day of creation when God makes human beings, which is our major theme for this morning.

Genesis 1:26-31         The first thing that careful readers notice about this passage is that God speaks in the plural. “Let us make humankind in our image.” One of the things that I love about the Bible is that it includes so many things that cause problems for theologians and preachers who try to make it fit their doctrinal systems. If there is only one God, as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach, then who is God speaking to in this verse? This has bothered rabbis, preachers, and ordinary believers for over 2000 years.

            There is no certain answer, but there have been many explanations offered. One of the most popular among the rabbis is that God was speaking to the angels who were created before the events of Genesis 1. Other interpreters have noted that the word translated as “God” in Genesis is the Hebrew word Elohim, which is a plural noun. If translators were really literal, they would translate Elohim as Gods rather than God. Others have pointed out that God could be speaking in the royal “we,” as when Queen Victoria said “we are not amused.” Unfortunately, this is the only place where God speaks this way in the Bible.

Plurality in God:         It was not long after the time of Jesus that Christian theologians saw Genesis 1:26 as evidence that God was a Trinity from the very beginning. Some developed this idea further. Comenius, for instance, believed that the original image of the Trinity was implanted in the human mind. If this is the right interpretation of Genesis, then it means that there was a message in Genesis that was not apparent until hundreds of years after it was written.

            The fact is that we know little about the inner nature of God. We are not going to go in depth into the Christian doctrine of the Trinity today, but I do want to point out that the Trinity is about God’s relationship to human beings. Our ancestors in faith encountered God as Father, Son, and Spirit. It is because of the incarnation of God in Jesus that we proclaim faith in the Triune God, but we don’t really know what God is apart from his relationship to us. Karen Armstrong argues that part of the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity is that God is fundamentally a mystery that we cannot define. For nearly two thousand years Christians have proclaimed faith in one God in three persons, which shatters all logic and forces believers to recognize that God is beyond our categories of speech and thought.

This recognition of mystery brings us back to Genesis 1. It is interesting that medieval Jewish commentators acknowledged a plurality within God. They spoke of the Shekinah, or presence of God, almost as an independent diving being, much like the Holy Spirit. It is also interesting that Shekinah is a feminine word. It is possible that “Let us make humankind in our image” indicates there is multiplicity within the creator. We always want “God” to be a single answer on a multiple choice test, but when we consult the Bible we find that God is an essay answer that leads both to greater understanding and more questions.

The Image of God:                 Yet the focus of these verses is not just on God but also on humans. The Hebrew word adam is a generic word here, which is often mistranslated as “man.” It is closely related to the Hebrew word for ground or soil. The most literal translation, I think, is one that should appeal to younger listeners interested in science fiction. Adam means an Earthling, and in Genesis 1:27 the Earthlings come in male and female form.

             “God created humankind in his own image; male and female he created them.” This is one of those verses ignored by many so-called biblical literalists, but there it is in black and white. According to this account of creation, both men and women are made in the image of God. Next week we’ll look at the other story of the creation of humans, and the ways interpreters have tried to reconcile these two stories. But for now, let’s focus on the significance of this statement that male and female are made in the image of God. Whole books have been written on this verse and the many ways it has been translated and understood.

            This is one of the most important ideas ever conceived. Humans are made in the image of God, but we first have to ponder the meaning of “image” here. What is an image? Basically, an image is a likeness. In Latin and English, it is related to the word “imagination,” which means to form a mental picture. I like the idea that humans are an expression of the imagination of God. But image is more than that. The word image also refers to what you see in the mirror. It is a reflection of you, though sometimes distorted. Paul uses this language when he speaks of seeing in a glass darkly. Image also refers to the picture of the king that was stamped on coins. The image was a physical representation of the king’s presence.

            It is possible that all these ideas are behind this simple statement in Genesis. According to Genesis 1:27, the sons and daughters of the earth have something of the divine in their nature. We are somehow different from all other living things because we mirror God in the world, or we represent God. This image probably does not refer to our physical appearance. Certainly the Greeks viewed the gods as bearing the image of the human body, but that doesn’t fit the rest of the Bible which teaches that the creator God is invisible. It is much more likely that it is the human mind and soul that bears the imprint of God.

            What is this imprint? Genesis gives a clue. Up to this verse 27, what do we know of God? God creates, God speaks, God names, God orders, God plans for the future, God encourages life, and God blesses the world. It makes sense to me that this tells us about the image of God that humans bear. Humans think, create, speak, name, order, love, and plan for the future. We do these things and we should do these things because this is our essential nature. Moreover, humans are called to be like God and encourage life and bless the world God has made.

Humanity:       And here we come to an idea that may be surprising. Many theologians have rejected this idea, but I believe that Genesis teaches us that we are most like God when we are most truly human, and we are most human when we act toward creation as God acts. We are to use our reason and our remarkable powers to care for what God has given. We are to limit our own appetites and desires in order to make room for creation to take place around us. We are to exercise a benevolent dominion over other living things, just as God does.

We can go further in pondering the meaning of the image of God. It is very important that the Bible does not teach that some people are made in the image of God, but not others. It does not say that God created the Jews in his image or the English or the Americans or the whites or the blacks or the Asians or men only or only the healthy. Humankind itself bears the image of God even though this becomes obscured through diseases of the mind and body, including the diseases of a society that dehumanizes the poor, ignorant, and neglected. We are the ones who tarnish God’s image. I am always bemused by the fact that many “Bible-believing Christians” reject the plain teaching of Scripture that all humans are equal in God’s eyes. Souls and minds do not come in racial colors.

            This idea of the image of God was the central issue behind the early opposition to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It is interesting that it was religious liberals and social progressives who generally opposed Darwin in the 19th century. Among them was Samuel Wilberforce, the son of William Wilberforce—the man who was mostly responsible for freeing slaves throughout the British Empire. Samuel recognized that Darwinism could be used to justify racism, slavery, military aggression, and the worst forms of cut-throat capitalism. Wilberforce was wrong about the science of biology, but he was prophetic in his warning of the evils that can result when humans no longer view themselves and each other as the image of God. Ideas of racial progress and “survival of the fittest” played important roles in some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. The misuse of Darwin’s theory demonstrates that it is not just theology that can be distorted for destructive purposes. Science can also be an ally in the service of hatred, greed, and oppression.

            In mentioning Wilberforce and Darwin, we need to remember that Genesis is about theological truths and our responsibilities before God. It is not about modern science, but it is about how we live our lives. It is a part of our faith commitment and ethical orientation to the world that we affirm that all humans are made in the image of God.

            Seventeenth century Calvinists were uncomfortable with this claim that all humans bear the image of God. They emphasized the fallen state of humankind as a way to highlight the need for salvation. For Calvinists, the fall erased or completely defaced the image of God that humans being. They talked about “utter depravity” as a way to convince people of the need for a redeemer.

Many evangelicals still talk this way, but I think this is a rejection of the plain teaching of Genesis. This is not a description of an ideal human state before sin; it is a statement about human nature. We are made in the image of God and still bear that image. I was pleased to find that the old Moravian Church did not accept the Calvinist idea of utter depravity. The image of God was a major part of Comenius’ theology.

Ethics: Moravians, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, based our ethics on a profoundly simple understanding of creation. Treat all people as those who bear God’s image. Look for God in every person you encounter. Think how differently we would raise our children, speak to our spouses, treat our employees, and live in society if we let every single person remind us of God, our creator and judge.

In times of war governments work very hard to dehumanize and even demonize the people on the other side in order to make it easier for soldiers to kill them. What if everyone who believes in the Creator refused to demonize the opposition? What if Jews, Christians, and Muslims with one voice said to every person in the world: “You are the image of God, and your life is sacred to me.”

Sabbath:         There is one further aspect of Genesis 1 that we can only note briefly this morning. Contrary to popular belief, the symbolic seven days of creation did not end with the creation of humans. It ended with the creation of the Sabbath. A day of rest was structured into the very nature of creation, according to Genesis. In the New Testament, Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. This is very wise.

The key thing about the Sabbath is not that it is the seventh day of the week but that God recognizes that humans need to rest regularly. We need to let go and let God run the world on occasion. The Sabbath is the day of the week that reminds us that the world turns without us and that we need re-creation. Those of us infected with the “Protestant Work Ethic” do not take seriously the divine mandate that you need to kick back and do nothing for awhile. And we need to let others rest too. In other words, the Bible rejects the notion that we should be doing something twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

We’ve come to the end of the first account of creation, and you’d surprised at what I left out of the lesson for today. There is much more to contemplate, but I hope that you see that this great song of creation holds important theological affirmations and important questions. But we don’t need all the answers before we start treating every human as a bearer of the image God or before we learn to take time to do nothing.

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