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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?

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9 Answers 9

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"

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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?

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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'.

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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.

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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)

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None of the answers have brought this up, so here's what I believe it means.

And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: 30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Mark 12:29-31

7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for G̲o̲d̲ i̲s̲ l̲o̲v̲e̲. 9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10 Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. 12 No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

John 4:7-12 (underlining is mine)

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Downvoter, a comment? –  Juhani May 8 at 14:20
I am not the downvoter. Nevertheless, I believe that your answer does not answer to the question. Namely I do not see how it is that it is related to the question. –  Paul Vargas May 8 at 15:13
@PaulVargas The idea is that, since God is love, that he made man into his image means that men are intended to love God and love one another. But I see that I'll have to make my answer more elaborate (when I have time). –  Juhani May 8 at 15:47

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