Does God have two eyeballs, and a penis? It’s always entertaining to listen to a Christian authoritatively explain what the Bible means by “God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.” (Gen. 1:27) Does God look like us? Are we some type of mini-gods? Does God have a barber? Most often, the answer will be that we have spirits, because God is a spirit, which is meaningless in the context, and for which I still blame Plato. How would that apply to the above statement, where the Hebrew word translated as “image” is “tselem” which means phantom, illusion or resemblance? It is the same word used in describing Adam’s son Seth where he “begot a son in his own likeness, after his image (tselem)”. (Gen. 5:3)
I am continuing the series of posts about how God has changed in the Old Testament, by quoting Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible”*, without further ado.
Chapter 14 – The World that the Bible Produced
-In the Image of God
In the story of creation in Genesis 1, God creates humans, male and female in his image. The meaning of “in the image of God” is uncertain. Does it mean a physical image—that God has a face and body like ours? or a spiritual image? or an intellectual image? Whatever it means, though, we can say, at minimum, that the Bible pictures humans as participating in the divine in some way that an animal does not. There is something of God in humans, and this something is crucial to the events in Eden following the creation.
The humans are prohibited from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. The snake leads them to eat it anyway. What does the snake say that brings humans to do this? He tells the woman that if they eat from the tree, “you will be like God…” (Gen. 3:5) Now in the Bible’s terms, this argument would not have worked on a beast or a bird or a fish, because they do not participate in the divine. Only humans are created in God’s image, and so only humans would aspire to the divine. The creation in the image of God in Genesis 1 is thus crucial to understanding what the humans do in Eden in Genesis 3.
But Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 are by two different people. The Eden story is from J, which never suggests that humans are created in God’s image. The creation account is from P, which never includes powerful plants or talking snakes. And the redactor included both stories whole, so we cannot tell whether he was even aware of this exquisite coalescence of the two or not.
The combination of J and P here produced something that was more than the sum of the pieces. The story was now richer, with new interpretive possibilities. It set the humans’ acts in Eden in a whole new light. God creates them in the divine image, and then he forbids them the fruit whose attraction is precisely to endow one with divine power. He shares some divine quality with humans alone, and then he treats them as subordinates. He tells them to rule the other creatures, and then he communicates with them almost exclusively by commands. The scene is set so firmly for the humans to disobey that it probably has never come as a surprise to any reader when the humans are persuaded by the news that “When you eat from the tree you will be like God,” and they eat the fruit.
As Mark Twain put it, “If the Lord didn’t want them to be rebellious, why did he create them in his image?”
That is only one way of looking at the text. There are a hundred other possible interpretations, some more reverent and some cynical. And that is just the point. The mixing of the sources into one text enriched the interpretive possibilities of the Bible for all time.
-Cosmic and Personal [That was the little-fork course, now for the entrée]
The combination of the sources did more than just affect individual Bible stories. It had an impact on the biblical conception of God.
J, E, and D pictured God in very personal ways: moving around on the earth, taking visible forms, engaging in discussion and even debate with humans. P’s conception was more of a cosmic, transcendent deity.
P’s creation story begins with the creation of the cosmic structure: light and darkness, day and night, seas and dry land, the “firmament” and heavenly bodies. J’s creation story is literally more down-to-earth. It begins with making vegetation possible, followed by the creation of humans, plants, and animals—without a single reference to light and darkness, the heavenly bodies, or even the seas.
In their own terms, P is the story of “heaven and earth,” J is the story of “earth and heaven.”
P’s flood story is a cosmic crisis: the windows of the heavens and the fountains of the deep are broken up. The water that is above the firmament is spilling down. The water that is below the earth’s surface is bursting up. The habitable part of the universe is a bubble of air surrounded by water, and the threatening waters are bursting in from above and below. J’s flood story, meanwhile, is simply forty days and forty nights of rain.
In P’s creation and flood stories, God remains above and beyond, commanding and controlling humans and nature. In J’s story, Yahweh personally walks in the Garden of Eden, makes the humans’ first clothes, closes the ark, and smells Noah’s sacrifice.
In E’s story of Moses’ striking the rock at Meribah, God is standing on the rock. In P’s version of the story, he is not.
In J’s story of Mount Sinai, Yahweh personally descends on the mountain in fire. (Exod. 19:18) In P he does not. (Exod. 24:16-17)
In J and in E, Moses actually sees God. (Exodus 33-34) In P he does not.
In J, Abraham pleads with God over the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, (Gen. 18:23-33) and Moses pleads with God over the fate of the people in the spy story. (Num. 14:13-20) In E, as well, Moses pleads over the people’s fate in the golden calf story, and later he pleads passionately and eloquently with a God he has come to know “the way a man talks to a fellow man.” (Exod. 32:7-14; 33:11) He can even say to God himself, “Why have you injured me?” and “If you treat me this way, then kill me.” (Num. 11:11, 15) In D, Moses pleads with God to let him live to arrive in the promised land, but God refuses. (Deut. 3:23-26) P never has humans speaking to God with such intimacy.
In P, God is more transcendent, more distant. He gives commandments and his will is done. (Gen. 1:3, 9; Exod. 7:6; 39:32)
In D, meanwhile, Moses tells the people:
This commandment that I command you today is not too awesome for you, and it is not distant.
It is not in the heavens, [that people would] say, “Who will go up to the heavens for us and take it for us and make it known to us so we will do it?”
And it is not across the sea, [that people would] say, “Who will cross the sea for us and take it for us and make it known to us so we will do it?”
But the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so do it.
Not to overstate the case, God is sometimes pictured as personal in P, and he is sometimes pictures as transcendent in J, E, and D. But the difference overall is still blatant and profound. When the redactor combined all the sources, he mixed two different pictures of God.
By doing that, he formed a new balance between the personal and the transcendent qualities of the deity. It was a picture of God as both universal and intensely personal. Yahweh was the creator of the cosmos, but also “the God of your father.” The fusion was artistically dramatic and theologically profound, but it was also filled with a new tension. It was now picturing human beings coming into close personal dialogue with the all-powerful master of the universe.
It was a balance that none of the individual authors had intended. But that balance, intended or not, came to be at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Like Jacob at Peni-El, both religions have lived and struggled ever since with a cosmic yet personal deity. That applies to the most sophisticated theologian and to the simplest believer. Ultimate things are at stake, but every human being is told, “The master of the universe is concerned with you.” An extraordinary idea. But, again, it was not planned by any of the authors. It was probably not even the redactor’s design. It was so embedded in the texts that the redactor could not have helped but produce the new mixture as long as he was at all true to his sources.
-Justice and Mercy
*Again, my purpose here is not to steal or plagiarize Friedman’s book. It is an attempt to persuade anyone that might be interested, to pick up a copy for themselves. It is a fantastic and educational resource, IMO.