Sign up ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Genesis 1:26-27 (ESV)

26Then 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." 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

I've always understood this verse to refer to our spirit and its qualities. However, a friend and I each had conversations this weekend with individuals claiming, among other things, that this verse refers to our physical appearance as well - that our sexual nature actually gives physical expression to some attribute of God.

Is there any scriptural basis for such a reading from this passage? In other words, to what does "image" here refer?

share|improve this question

11 Answers 11

Umberto Cassuto, in his commentary to Genesis deals with this question:

'In our image, after our likeness' The Jewish exegets have endeavored to soften the corporeality implicit in the statement by means of forced interpretations....On the other hand, many modern commentators take the view that in fact we have here an unquestionably corporeal concept....The correct interpretation is to be sought elsewhere.

Cassuto starts by stating that the meaning of the word tzelem and these verses, have changed over the centuries:

There is no doubt that the original signification of this expression in the Canaanite tongue was, judging by Babylonian usage, corporeal, in accordance with the anthropomorphic conception of the godhead among the peoples of the ancient East. Nevertheless, when we use it in modern Hebrew, and say, for instance, 'all that has been created in the Divine image', we certainly do not associate any material idea with it, but give it a purely spiritual connotation, to wit, that man, although he resembles the creatures in his physical structure, approaches God in his thought and in his conscience. It is clear, therefore, that the meaning of the phrase changed in the course of time; it was corporeal to begin with but subsequently it became spiritual.

Cassuto then goes on to make two compelling arguments:

  • Just because some ancient near east cultures would have understood tzelem to be physical doesn't mean that all ancient near east cultures would have understood tzelem to imply physicality:

Generally speaking, it is an error of perspective to regard all ancient texts as forming a single group. Although they are far removed from us, they may also be distant from one another in time or in degree of maturity.

  • In Genesis 1 God is portrayed as immutable and lofty, omnipotent and fundamentally removed from the physicality of his creations, therefore tzelem must have been understood metaphorically as referring to man's spiritual potential:

when we consider the lofty conception of God that is reflected in our section, we are compelled to conclude that the change [in how to understand tzelem] referred to antedated its composition, and that the expression used here in a sense similar to (if not actually identical with) that which it has in Hebrew today.

share|improve this answer

This is a difficult question because of the temptation towards Eisegesis as our desire to be of value can intersect with this text.

It is useful to include verse 28 when looking at the verses you quote:

26Then 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.”

27So God created man in his own image,
        in the image of God he created him;
        male and female he created them.

28And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” ESV

There are a number of things that should be immediately noted about the text:

  • the ESV and NIV among others do a good job of highlighting the poetic parallelism in verse 27. "in the image of God" is here parallel with "male and female", and "him" with "them".
  • there is a fairly clear chiastic structure drawing particular attention to verse 27
  • there is also a parallel between 26a and 28a, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" and "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it"
  • the language of authority is ever-present: this is unique to man
  • the command to "be fruitful and multiply" is also present but this is not uniquely given to man: cf verse 22

I've always understood this verse to refer to our spirit and its qualities. However, a friend and I each had conversations this weekend with individuals claiming, among other things, that this verse refers to our physical appearance as well - that our sexual nature actually gives physical expression to some attribute of God.

Is there any scriptural basis for such a reading from this passage? In other words, to what does "image" here refer?

From Gen 1 alone, there is no obvious scriptural basis for reading that "image" includes "our spirit and its qualities". There is more support that our sexual nature in some way reflects the image of God, because of the strong focus on "male and female he created them". This needn't be founded on any anthropomorphism about God: rather it speaks of a simultaneous plurality and unity both within God and within mankind created "male and female". The unity1 is evident in that the commands of God to rule, multiply, subdue and so on are all directed at both male and female, and in the parallel between "him" and "them" in v27.

The other main distinctive of the creation of man already mentioned, is the repeated use of authority language. God's own authority in Genesis 1 is presented as peerless and beyond doubt, so it is doubly significant that he confers authority on man. It is God who has just created the "fish of the sea" "the birds of the heavens" and "every living thing that moves on the earth": when God delegates authority over these created beings to man, he makes man2 to a degree like Himself, strictly in the sense of authority3.


What does “image” in Genesis 1:26-27 mean?

'image' here means:

  1. reflecting the plurality and the unity of purpose of God
  2. sharing the authority of God under Him and over His created works

1 This unity theme is picked up on by Paul in Ephesians 5, and expanded to include unity between God and man.

2 Genesis 5 strongly indicates that 'man' includes not just Adam but also his descendants

3 It is interesting to compare some New Testament references to Genesis 1 and note that authority references are very prominent, eg Collosians 1: "thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities" & Hebrews 1: "upholds the universe by the word of his power"

share|improve this answer

From a Christian perspective, this passage is typically not seen as God and humanity sharing biological traits. One example, taken more or less at random, is this statement from Answers in Genesis:

Man in the image of God; what does this mean in practical terms? It cannot refer to bodily, biological form since God is a Spirit and man is earthly.

So what can the phrase mean? Here is Jesus on the topic in Mark 12:13-17 (HCSB):

Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Him to trap Him by what He said. When they came, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know You are truthful and defer to no one, for You don't show partiality but teach truthfully the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay, or should we not pay?"

But knowing their hypocrisy, He said to them, "Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at." So they brought one. "Whose image and inscription is this?" He asked them.

"Caesar's," they said.

Then Jesus told them, "Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him.

Jesus' answer works on two levels:

  1. Tax is due to Caesar because he established the monetary system.
  2. Since people are in the image of God (via Genesis 1), they belong to Him.

Note that coins don't have all the qualities of Caesar. They don't have bodies, but only faces. They don't have authority to command armies, make laws, raise taxes, enforce justice, etc., but they represent a portion of that authority. They are not themselves worshiped, but ought to be respected. Jesus managed to escape their trap with considerable skill in applying the Torah.

However, orthodox Christianity also believes that God became man and through Jesus redeemed and perfected the image of God. Colossians 1:15-20 (HCSB):

He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn over all creation;
because by Him everything was created,
in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—
all things have been created through Him and for Him.
He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.
He is also the head of the body, the church;
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that He might come to have first place in everything.
For God was pleased [to have] all His fullness dwell in Him,
and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself
by making peace through the blood of His cross—
whether things on earth or things in heaven.

In as sense, God does have all the attributes of humanity in the person of Jesus who has become the first man of the new creation as Adam was the first man of the original creation. So it's possible under a Christological hermeneutics to read Genesis 1:26 as a prophesy that was not fulfilled before Jesus. We also believe that there will be a resurrection when we all will get renewed bodies and live on a renewed earth. (See also Revelation 21.)

share|improve this answer
Is the Greek word used in Mark 12 the same Greek word used to translate Gen. 1:26 in the LXX and NT references? –  Jas 3.1 Aug 11 at 4:21

There seems to be a common notion that this cannot be a physical likeness because God is spirit. However, I would like to present a different perspective and suggest that this image represents God's spiritual yet visible form.


An image is something that looks like something else. The image can be imaginary (seen in the mind) or physical (seen physically).

In this case, given the fact that in this verse God is forming this image out of clay, it is obviously a physical image he is creating. But, the origin does not need to be physical, just visible.


Let me begin my supporting this with some examples of other things that have no physical mass but may b represented by images:

-Sound does not have mass, and would not be considered physical, yet we can generate an image of its waves.

-Light does not have mass and would not be considered physical, but a simple google search generates multiple images of the light spectrum.

-Visions and Dreams and memories have no mass and would not be considered physical, and yet we can represent them with images.

A ghost/spirit has form and can be seen but is not physical

Some Scriptural accounts of people seeing God/Spirit in a form:
1) The LORD appeared to Abraham in the planes of Mamre.
--Abraham saw three men, one of whom he addressed as LORD.
2) Jacob saw God face to face and lived.
3) Moses is covered under the cleft of the rock and allowed to see his back.
4) the spirit alighted upon Jesus in the form of a dove (MT 3:16).

CONCLUSION: God, who is Spirit may not be physical in nature, yet He can appear in form. And He has an image in which mankind is made. We were made to *look like Him physically.*

Here is some supporting linguistic information available concerning the Hebrew word translated image accessed in the on-line, Blue-letter Bible H6754

Literally this word means "a shadow" from an unused root meaning to shade. Strong's Number H6754 matches the Hebrew צֶלֶם (tselem ),

This word occurs 17 times in 15 verses in the Hebrew concordance of the KJV These uses more strongly support suggest that the word is used to mean a picture of what something looks like rather than metaphorically to represent some invisible nature/character/quality of that which it represents.

Gen 1:26

And God said, Let us make man in our image, H6754 after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Gen 1:27

So God created man in his own image, H6754 in the image H6754 of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Gen 5:3

And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; H6754 and called his name Seth:

Gen 9:6

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image H6754 of God made he man.

Num 33:52

Then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their pictures, and destroy all their molten images, H6754 and quite pluck down all their high places:

1Sa 6:5

Wherefore ye shall make images H6754 of your emerods, and images H6754 of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land.

1Sa 6:11

And they laid the ark of the LORD upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images H6754 of their emerods.

2Ki 11:18

And all the people of the land went into the house of Baal, and brake it down; his altars and his images H6754 brake they in pieces thoroughly, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest appointed officers over the house of the LORD.

2Ch 23:17

Then all the people went to the house of Baal, and brake it down, and brake his altars and his images H6754 in pieces, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars.

Psa 39:6

Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: H6754 surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

Psa 73:20

As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image. H6754

Eze 7:20

As for the beauty of his ornament, he set it in majesty: but they made the images H6754 of their abominations and of their detestable things therein: therefore have I set it far from them.

Eze 16:17

Thou hast also taken thy fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given thee, and madest to thyself images H6754 of men, and didst commit whoredom with them,

Eze 23:14

And that she increased her whoredoms: for when she saw men pourtrayed upon the wall, the images H6754 of the Chaldeans pourtrayed with vermilion,

Amo 5:26

But ye have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Chiun your images, H6754 the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves.

share|improve this answer

The word for image is צלם which only appears outside of Genesis in the Tanakh in Daniel. There it's Aramaic, but it's always translated as "image."

I don't see a problem with saying our physical appearance is representative of God. Many theological approaches to God say He has no physical qualities whatsoever but the verse seems to plainly say otherwise. Alternatively "the image of God" as it were can just mean the image God wants, meaning, "exactly as he saw fit to create us." This can then be taken to many different realms such as the human spirit, psyche, etc.

Some interesting approaches:

  • Maimonides—the ability to think and imagine
  • Nachmonidies—the ability to create
  • Eliyahu Dessler—the ability to give without receiving
  • many other philosophical approaches.

In any event, I believe your question is posed incorrectly and actually the burden of proof falls on one who wants to provide an explanation other than God's physical image. Is there any scriptural evidence that it doesn't mean God's physical attributes?

share|improve this answer
Blue Letter Bible lists 17 usages. From those, it appears to be used frequently in context to "idols". However, Psalm 39:6 and 73:20 both appear to use it in a non-physical sense. I don't even see a usage in Daniel listed there. –  GalacticCowboy Nov 14 '11 at 17:19
To @GalacticCowboy, you're right, it's in Psalms, though it's 39:7... I missed those two b/c at a quick glance I thought they were different words. It's in Daniel 3:1. And yes, it's used in the context of idols. But obviously it doesn't have to be used only in the context of idols, as seen by the Genesis examples. –  Mark Nov 15 '11 at 7:22
Interesting. two words, apparently spelled the same, but with different Strong's numbers. (Not that those are inspired, so...) 6754 was what I linked above; 6755 is apparently only used in Daniel. Wonder why these ended up separated by Strong? Because of Hebrew/Aramaic, maybe? –  GalacticCowboy Nov 15 '11 at 11:31
@GalacticCowboy who said, "Because of Hebrew/Aramaic, maybe?" Precisely. If you look at the top of 6755, you'll note that it says "Aramaic" to the right of the word. Although they're spelled the same, Strong's notes that one is the Hebrew form and the other the Aramaic. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Nov 14 '12 at 4:11

The Day 6 riddle

Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

We can't understand 'image' until we understand why God did not say he made man in his 'likeness' until here:

Ge 5:1 ¶ This [is] the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;

So man was not made in the likeness of God until Chapter 5. The intervening chapters tell us how God made man in his likeness, and when we understand that, we will understand the image.

(You can zoom in by enlarging your browser Cntrl-+ for Firefox)

Image and Likeness

So Christ is the express image of God, and we will be made like him through the cross. The man and his bride are the image and the likeness of God.

The drawing leaves much of the story out, focusing only on the elements related to 'image and likeness'.

share|improve this answer
But isn't 5:1 a reference back to 1:26? "In the day that God created man..." –  GalacticCowboy Nov 15 '11 at 2:13
Yes. The whole story to chapter 5 is one day. It is the story of Day 6. –  Bob Jones Nov 15 '11 at 2:15
The same story will be told again through Noah, then through the Fathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob with Jospeh thrown in), again with Israel in the desert, again with Israel in the Promised Land and again with the life of Christ. It will also be told many times within these major blocks like fractals. –  Bob Jones Nov 15 '11 at 2:24
We need to know what a day is: And the evening (reconciling Holiness to Grace) and Morning (reconciling Grace to Holiness) were the Xth day. Each major division of the Bible as outlined is a picture of the cross on the largest scale, and is a 'day'. Since the pashat never loses it's meaning, this has nothing to do with 6 literal days. This is the sensus plenior. –  Bob Jones Nov 15 '11 at 2:30
Ok, maybe I misunderstood then. Because it sounded from your first statement as if He didn't, and from your second that he did but at a different time. –  GalacticCowboy Nov 15 '11 at 2:41

From the first chapter in Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed:

...The term ẓelem, on the other hand, signifies the specific form, viz., that which constitutes the essence of a thing, whereby the thing is what it is; the reality of a thing in so far as it is that particular being. In man the "form" is that constituent which gives him human perception: and on account of this intellectual perception the term ẓelem is employed in the sentences "In the ẓelem of God he created him" (Gen. i. 27)...

Demut is derived from the verb damah, "he is like." This term likewise denotes agreement with regard to some abstract relation: comp. "I am like a pelican of the wilderness" (Ps. cii. 7); the author does not compare himself to the pelican in point of wings and feathers, but in point of sadness... on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.

share|improve this answer

We need to understand what God's purpose was in creating man in His own image and likeness. Father's purpose was to have a family in the earth, that He would call "son". Note, it is son without a capital "S". This "son" would be gender free as God does not discriminate between male and female (Gal.3:28). We will also recall that it was Adam who called Eve, woman, not God (Gen.2:23). This son, although he had a body (flesh), would be able to engage two dimensions - that of the earth and of the heavenly (spirit), without having to leave his body.
As flesh cannot stand before God and live, communication was through Spirit (God) speaking to spirit (man)( Rom.8:16) and Deep calling to deep. This son would be an "exact" representation of the Father in the earth. Jesus the Son, said, "if you have seen Me, then you've seen the Father. I and the Father are One". "Because as He (Jesus) is, even so are we in this world" ( 1 Jn.4:17c). When the first Adam (son), became disconnected from Father (orphaned) , because of disobedience in his soul dimension, the management of the earth, not its ownership, changed hands. The earth soon became corrupt as all flesh had corrupted God's way** (order) upon the earth(Gen.6:11,12). Man had marred the image of his Father, but did not lose it.

** This "way of God" went out of alignment - so many generations later, we find John the Baptist with a voice crying in the wilderness, "make straight the way of the Lord" (Matt.3:3)

share|improve this answer

Short Answer: To be made "in God's image, according to His likeness" was just the author's (now outdated) way of saying that God made man to be His son -- that is, to look like Him in character and in deed.

Exhibit A: Genesis 5

The most straightforward way of showing this is to read the opening verses of Genesis 5.

In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. . . . When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he begot in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

Many translations insert "a son" after the word "begot" to make sense of it in English, but in Hebrew it simply says "he begot in his likeness, according to his image", and that was enough to say "he begot a son". If there were any confusion as to what sort of relationship the author of Genesis 1:26 meant to describe there, it was cleared up here as the same sort of relationship being highlighted here between Adam and his "begotten": the relationship of sonship.

Exhibit B: Luke 3

Later interpreters understood the language of Genesis in this way. For example, at the end of Luke 3 we read about Jesus' genealogy like so:

When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli, [and so on down the line], the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

First-century interpreters understood there to be a parallel between Seth's relationship to Adam and Adam's original relationship to God -- because that's what Genesis 5:1-3 reveals. What was the nature of that relationship? It was one of sonship.

Exhibit C: Sonship in Genesis 1

The consistent picture of sonship throughout Scripture is one of, well, likeness. A true "son" was one who looked like his "father" in character and in deed. It was not even necessary to be a biological offspring (e.g. Prov. 29:21). Here are but a few examples: Abraham was a man of faith, and so all those who have faith like Abraham are called “sons” of Abraham (Gal. 3:6-7) – even if they are not his biological offspring (Gal. 3:29; Matt. 3:9). Those who are murderers just as Satan is a murderer are “sons” of Satan (John 8:39-44). Those who love just as God loves are “sons” of God (Matt. 5:44-45). Those who do not love like God are not His sons (John 8:42). There are countless more examples.

So, we have defined biblical "sonship". How does that relate to Genesis 1? Well, this sort of "sonship" is precisely what we find the author trying to convey in the Genesis 1 account of God's creation of man:

  • Like Him in deed: Notice that right on the heels of "let Us create man in Our image" -- in the same breath -- God continues with "let him rule". The idea here is that being God's son (image / likeness) meant ruling, because God rules, and man was meant to be His son (looking like Him in character and deed).

  • Like Him in character: Notice also that the fact God made man "in His image" is one of the only details about man's creation that the author of Genesis felt necessary to include in his Genesis 1 narration. Clearly the author was trying to set the reader up to understand what was lost (or at least damaged) at the Fall of Genesis 3 -- and clearly what was lost was the relationship and thus moral purity that man originally had prior to sin. In other words, the idea here was that being God's son (image / likeness) meant being morally pure, because God is pure, and man was meant to be His son (looking like Him in character and deed).


The author of Genesis 1 meant to convey that man was created to be God's son in the truest sense -- he was intended to look like God in character and in deed. Thus, he was meant to be pure like God and to rule like God in loving relationship.

share|improve this answer

I agree with GalacticCowboy. It is also physical appearance. God is a Spirit, so how is man, God image? An "Image" is a representation of the external form of a person or thing, and that representation, Man/Adam is the image He (God) came in, (flesh), which is a physical appearance. Supportive scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:45-7:

And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam [was made] a quickening spirit. 46 Howbeit that [was] not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. 47 The first man [is] of the earth, earthy: the second man [is] the Lord from heaven.

Here the Lord from heaven is called a MAN. The apostle Saul, called Paul, said that man was the figure of him, (God) to come, or manifest in, (see Romans 5:14b). Hence the "we" and "our" in Genesis 1:26.

In conclusion, the image in Genesis 1:26 is the figure, the likeness, the shape, the fashion that God decided to manifest himself to his creation in.

share|improve this answer

It is a misreading of Genesis 1:26-27 to understand it to say that Eve was fashioned in the image of God or that the image of God is in the combination of male and female. Certainly Paul did not think that was the correct reading (1 Cor 11). Correctly read it says that men were made in the image and likeness of God. Women were an afterthought and were made in the image of men.

What the plain meaning of the words convey is that YHVH sculpted a statue of himself out of clay and then breathed his own life giving breath so that Adam could be called "the son of God" and the image and likeness of YHVH. Later, because Adam didn't enjoy doing menial chores like food preparation and he couldn't reproduce God saw the light and made Eve in Adam's image and likeness but with some really nifty differences.

These obvious scriptural teachings are unpopular for at least two major reasons:

  • it shows that YHVH is, like Jove etc., a manlike deity who lives in the sky with a bunch of other manlike angels

  • it is sexist

These objections, driven by philosophy, must not influence exegesis.

  • God is clearly a manlike deity who lives in the sky:

Dan_7:9 I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

  • God is clearly sexist:

1Co_11:7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

Adam was made in the image of God such that if one saw Adam and YHVH walking together in the garden in the cool of the day it would be difficult to tell them apart. That's what "image and likeness" means.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.