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Unseen Realm Chapter 5

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Chapter 5 Image of God

Identifying the nature of the divine image has preoccupied students and pastors for a long time. Chances are you’ve heard a sermon or two on the topic. I’m willing to bet that what you’ve heard is that the image of God is similar to something in this list:
• Intelligence
• Reasoning ability
• Emotions

The story of the Bible is about God’s will for, and rule of, the realms he has created, visible and invisible, through the imagers he has created, human and nonhuman. This divine agenda is played out in both realms, in deliberate tandem

• The ability to commune with God
• Self-awareness (sentience)
• Language/communication ability
• The presence of a soul or spirit (or both)
• The conscience
• Free will
Heiser, M. S. (2015). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition, p. 40). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

The first chapter of Genesis is easily misinterpreted by one not yet acquainted with God’s original family and household, the divine council. Note carefully the emphasis in bold I’ve placed in Genesis 1:26–28:

26 And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image and according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every moving thing that moves upon the earth.” 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him, male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of heaven, and over every animal that moves upon the earth.”

Many Bible readers note the plural pronouns (us; our) with curiosity. They might suggest that the plurals refer to the Trinity, but technical research in Hebrew grammar and exegesis has shown that the Trinity is not a coherent explanation.1 The solution is much more straightforward, one that an ancient Israelite would have readily discerned. What we have is a single person (God) addressing a group—the members of his divine council.

It’s like me going into a room of friends and saying, “Hey, let’s go get some pizza!” I’m the one speaking. A group is hearing what I say. Similarly, God comes to the divine council with an exciting announcement: “Let’s create humankind!”

But if God is speaking to his divine council here, does that suggest that humankind was created by more than one elohim? Was the creation of humankind a group project? Not at all. Back to my pizza illustration: If I am the one paying for the pizza—making the plan happen after announcing it—then I retain both the inspiration and the initiative for the entire project. That’s how Genesis 1:26 works.

Genesis 1:27 tells us clearly that only God himself does the creating. In the Hebrew, all the verbs of creation in the passage are singular in form: “So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him.” The other members of the council do not participate in the creation of humankind. They watch, just as they did when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:7).

You might wonder at this point why the language changes from plural in verse 26 (“Let us make humankind in our image and according to our likeness”) to singular in verse 27 (“So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him”). Does the Bible contradict itself here? No. But understanding the switch requires understanding what the “image” language means.

Genesis teaches us several things about the image of God—what I call “divine image bearing.” All of what we learn from the text must be accounted for in any discussion of what the image means.

1. Both men and women are equally included.

2. Divine image bearing is what makes humankind distinct from the rest of earthly creation (i.e., plants and animals). The text of Genesis 1:26 does not inform us that divine image bearing makes us distinct from heavenly beings, those sons of God who were already in existence at the time of creation. The plurals in Genesis 1:26 mean that, in some way, we share something with them when it comes to bearing God’s image.

3. There is something about the image that makes humankind “like” God in some way.

4. There is nothing in the text to suggest that the image has been or can be bestowed incrementally or partially. You’re either created as God’s image bearer or you aren’t. One cannot speak of being partly or potentially bearing God’s image.

Among the list of proposed answers to what image bearing means are a number of abilities or properties: intelligence, reasoning ability, emotions, communing with God, self-awareness, language/communication ability, and free will. The problem with defining the image by any of these qualities is that, on one hand, nonhuman beings like animals possess some of these abilities, although not to the same extent as humans. If one animal anywhere, at any time, learned anything contrary to instinct, or communicated intelligently (to us or within species), or displayed an emotional response (again to us or other creatures), those items must be ruled out as image bearing. We know certain animals have these abilities because of carefully conducted research in the field of animal cognition. Artificial intelligence is on the verge of similar breakthroughs. And if intelligent extraterrestrial life is ever discovered, that would also undermine such definitions.

This brings me back to my pro-life assertion. The pro-life position is based on the proposition that human life (and so, personhood) begins at conception (the point when the female egg is fertilized by the male sperm). The simple-celled zygote inside the woman’s womb, which pro-lifers believe to be a human person, is not self-aware; it has no intelligence, rational thought processes, or emotions; it cannot speak or communicate; it cannot commune with God or pray; and it cannot exercise its will or respond to the conscience. If you want to argue that those things are there potentially, then that means that you have only a potential person. That’s actually the pro-choice position. Potential personhood is not actual personhood. This thought process would mean that abortion is not killing until personhood is achieved, which nearly all pro-choicers would certainly consider to be after birth.

Even the soul idea fails the uniqueness and actuality tests. This notion derives from the traditional rendering of Genesis 2:7 in the King James Version (“and the man became a living soul”). The Hebrew word translated “soul” is nephesh. According to the Bible, animals also possess the nephesh. For example, in Genesis 1:20, when we read that God made swarms of “living creatures,” the Hebrew text underlying “creatures” is nephesh. Genesis 1:30 tells us the “living nephesh” is in animals.

The term nephesh in these passages means conscious life or animate life (as opposed to something like plant life). Humans share a basic consciousness with certain animals, though the nature of that consciousness varies widely.

We also cannot appeal to a spirit being the meaning of image bearing. The word nephesh we just considered is used interchangeably with the Hebrew word for spirit (ruach)

The point is that the Old Testament does not distinguish between soul and spirit.2

The point is that the Old Testament does not distinguish between soul and spirit.

Hebrew grammar is the key. The turning point is the meaning of the preposition in with respect to the phrase “in the image of God.” In English we use the preposition in to denote many different ideas. That is, in doesn’t always mean the same thing when we use that word. For example, if I say, “put the dishes in the sink,” I am using the preposition to denote location. If I say, “I broke the mirror in pieces,” I am using in to denote the result of some action. If I say, “I work in education,” I am using the preposition to denote that I work as a teacher or principal, or in some other educational capacity.

This last example directs us to what the Hebrew preposition translated in means in Genesis 1:26. Humankind was created as God’s image. If we think of imaging as a verb or function, that translation makes sense. We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.

This is why Genesis 1:26–27 is followed by what theologians call the “dominion mandate” in verse 28. The verse informs us that God intends us to be him on this planet. We are to create more imagers (“be fruitful and multiply … fill”) in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers (“subdue … rule over”).

GOD’S TWO FAMILY-HOUSEHOLD-COUNCILS

Understanding that we are God’s imagers on earth helps to parse the plurals in Genesis 1:26 and the change to singular language in the next verse. God alone created humankind to function as his administrators on earth. But he has also created the other elohim of the unseen realm. They are also like him. They carry out his will in that realm, acting as his representatives. They are his heavenly council in the unseen world. We are God’s council and administration in this realm. Consequently, the plurals inform us that both God’s families—the human and the nonhuman—share imaging status, though the realms are different. As in heaven, so on Earth.

Understanding that we are God’s imagers on earth helps to parse the plurals in Genesis 1:26 and the change to singular language in the next verse. God alone created humankind to function as his administrators on earth. But he has also created the other elohim of the unseen realm. They are also like him. They carry out his will in that realm, acting as his representatives. They are his heavenly council in the unseen world. We are God’s council and administration in this realm. Consequently, the plurals inform us that both God’s families—the human and the nonhuman—share imaging status, though the realms are different. As in heaven, so on Earth.

This biblical theology sets the table for understanding other passages and concepts in both testaments. The logic of idolatry we talked about earlier takes on new irony. Humans after the fall will resort to making objects of wood and stone that they must ceremonially animate to draw the deity into the artifact. But from the beginning, God created his own imagers—humankind, male and female. His desire was to live among them, and for them to rule and reign with him.

After the fall that plan was not altered. Eventually, God would decide to tabernacle within humans, through his Spirit. Language describing believers as sons or children of God (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1–3), or as “adopted” into God’s family (Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) is neither accidental nor pragmatic. It reflects the original vision of Genesis. And once we are glorified, the two council-families will be one—in a new Eden. We’ll discover more about all those themes as we proceed.

This is what Eden was about … as in heaven, so on Earth. The original intent becomes even clearer once we understand the ancient conception of Eden.

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