A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

The image of God, the Old Testament, and monotheism

One of the interesting aspects within Old Testament and Christian theology is the concept of the image of God in the creation narrative (Genesis 1:27-28). However, a particular oddity about this part of the narrative is that it is not a category that is used in the patriarchal narratives and after. Its influence is primarily within the pre-patriarchal narrative (Genesis 1-11). This is particularly intriguing in light of the fact that other aspects of God’s creation of humanity play a role throughout the Torah and onwards, such as the command to be fruitful and multiply, the command to fill the earth (for Israel, its primary fulfillment is in filling the land of Canaan), the concept of creation, the sabbath reast, etc. But for some reason, the image of God didn’t make the cut.

Now as I argued previously, the image of God represents a multiplicity in a unity of one. So Elohim is one entity (perhaps this gives new understanding of “YHWH is one” in Deuteronomy 6:4). Likewise humanity is to be a plurality as one (Note the second creation narrative that establish the man and woman become “one flesh” in Genesis 2:24). However, this unity was destroyed in the Babel narrative by God (Genesis 11:6). But after the narrative, there is no mention of the image of God, or similarity in language and concepts (as in the  Babel narrative).

On the one hand, one can interpret the absence as due to the lack of God’s image present in humankind after Babel. However, following the Babel narrative, Abraham is spoken of being a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). With the image of God being related to the creation of the reproductive couple of male and female (and thus becoming united/one), and blessing with being fruitful and multiplying, it is not as if the patriarchal narrative has forgotten the purpose contain withing being in the image of God. One can even say, Abraham’s being a blessing is meant to portray the restoration of the lost unity in a way. But the language of “image” is lacking, and so is the concept of many being one. In all likelihood then, that absence is not due to a lack of God’s image in the world, because one might expect an explicit trust of restoration if the Genesis narrative views the image of God as destroyed.

Rather, I think the change in language reflects an evolution in the thought of God, that fits within the history of religions approach. However, unlike some approaches that assume the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh is a late result of the evolution of religious thought, the Torah in fact exhibits the evolution of thought as the narrative progresses forward. If I am right about “the image of God” being understood as a plurality in a unity, then it may reveal an early development of Jewish monotheism, that is less polemical that later develops of Israel’s monotheistic belief (a change from what I wrote in an earlier post where I believe the creation narrative had a polemic to it).

This early monotheism would see the many gods as in fact being all parts of the same one being. One could not speak of this being simply as “El” at this point in time, because the connotation of El was not a sovereign being (unlike our usage of “God” today), but simply one being amongst many. Hence, the early narrative feels it necessary to speak of this one being in the plural (but yet frequently with singular verbs) in order to emphasize the power that would not be conveyed by the singular. With this broad understanding of Elohim that includes the many different El‘s, it would also be natural for the narrative to appropriate the many mythological narratives within its understanding of Elohim and history. Thus there are similarities between parts of Genesis 1-11 with other religious myths such as the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh religious (although, there are differences and Genesis need not have borrowed directly from those stories we do have), in which the stories have been appropriated as being the work of this united Elohim, also known as YHWH.

However, the plurality as a unity is a logical deduction (although, this does not mean it was not divinely inspired, as the door is still open that revelation was the catalyst for this) that places its emphasis on the oneness more so than the plurality (hence Elohim acts with singular verbs). The tension between many and one would have been forgotten, and the oneness would have become more emphasized with a total loss of the plural aspect. Hence, the more classical form of Jewish monotheism (although not Christian monotheism, of the one being a plurality). As such, the “image of God” language and concept could not have been assimilated into the newer form of monotheism.

So Genesis 1-11 reflects a more universal religious belief that integrates all the concepts of the different El‘s into one entityYHWH Elohim (as spoken of in Genesis 2-3). Whereas Genesis 12 onwards reflects a more developed (or even developing?) monotheism that Israel appropriates to describe their past, present, and future. The first would reflect Israel’s belief in YHWH without having developed a thorough self-identity other than its relation to YHWH, whereas in the latter Israel has identified itself as a people particularly called by God to live in a particular land (indicating a shift from the “fill and subdue the earth” to more particularly, the land of Canaan). And despite the more universal tone of Genesis 1-11, it still has a particular Jewishness to it as it talks about God’s sabbath, which would echo the third of the Ten Commandments.


April 16, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Genesis 1-11, the image of God, and the plural Elohim

First off, I will be only intermittently posting on this blog till school gets out. Fewer viewers in the end, but the main purpose of this blog is to articulate my ideas more so than obtain an audience.

Over the past few weeks I have been doing study outside of my seminary work on the Old Testament, while reading authors such as Von Rad and Brueggemann. However, of particular interest to me is Genesis 1-11, due to the article in the JBL’s Winter 2008 article Shattering the Image of God by John T. Strong. While I do not agree totally with the article, of particular interest for me was seeing the Tower of Babel narrative as being understood in light of the image of God.

The image of God definitely plays a role within the Genesis narrative, especially early on. But the question as to what it means has received varied answers, many times reflected the views of the day more so than the intent of the text. As to my opinion, the way Genesis 1-11 is built, I think it in part reflects the many being united as one. In the Tower of Babel narrative, the language of the people follows the format of God’s declaration of creating humanity in his image in Genesis 1:16, the cohortive plural. God recognizes these people operating as one, and thus serves to divide them through the confusion of their language. As Strong notes, this is “in effect, smashing the [image of God] to pieces” (p. 628).

Multiplicity in the people is implied as being in the image of God. They were called to fill and subdue the earth, they were called to reproduce as a necessary consequence of filling and subduing the land, and humanity was made as male and female, as a the means for reproduction. Without there being many persons, they could not “rule” over the creation God had made.

And yet, there is a sense of unity implied by the image of God also. In making adam (used in this context not as the person Adam nor an individual, as 1:27 makes evident), the singular noun (compare with the singular nouns of the groups of animals, although they are frequently translated as plural) does not allow for the interpretation that each individual is itself in the image of God. That may be the case, but that would not conform the text at hand. Rather, this species was to be in God’s image. So a sense of unity in working together is probably conveyed by the text. Hence, this needed unity in God’s image perhaps explains why the image of God is evoked as support for capital punishment against murderers, who essentially would break up said unity.

So, I would contend the image of God conveying a multiplicity being one. Which I think coheres with the nature of the creator called Elohim, the plural for El (“god”). I am aware that some grammars refer to the plural here as the plural of majesty, but I think there is something more going on here. The narrative seems to have a polemical nature to it. For instance, Genesis 4:1 can be see as attributing Eve’s fertility to Yahweh, as if this was a counterclaim to a fertility god or goddess. Also, the inclusion of the serpent (nahash) has echoes of the Canaanite god Yam, who was also named Nahar and portrayed as a serpent (although, of the sea to be exact). Also, Elohim was used by the Cannaanites to refer to their pantheon of gods, but yet the Genesis narrative identifies Elohim with one named YHWH. Hence, the second creation narrative starting in 2:3 joins Elohim with YHWH.

My contention is that the creator is identified with the plural Elohim, to attribute all the powers of the gods within the Canaanite religion within one entity, such as the power of providing fertility and also over all the different animals, over the sea, and over the land. If that is the case, the narrative portrays the multiplicity as one. Therefore, Elohim can have verbs attributed to him that are both singular and plural. Thus, to be made in the image of God would mean to be a multiplicity working together as one. Therefore, in Genesis 3:22 the individual Adam (“the man”) is referred to being like “one of us.” The individual corresponds to a singular within YHWH Elohim.

Now if this sounds like a defense of the reading of classical Trinitarianism within the Genesis narrative, it isn’t. If Genesis 1 and on serves as a polemic against the multiple gods in attributing the many powers within one, it does not speak for a Trinitarian unity (of course, not against it either). Trintitarianism sees the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three sharing the same one substance (ousia), with the multiplicity being in the three persons (hupostases). On the other hand, the Genesis narrative has the multiple powers within one. To fit the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit directly into Elohim of Genesis 1, one would have to say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three different, distinct powers united as one. Not only does that reject classic Trinitarianism, but it is grossly anachronistic.

March 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment