Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser, Professor of Hebrew Bible
Genesis 1:27-28 states that humans are created in God’s “image” (צלם, tselem), but what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Some have suggested that God’s image is reflected in humanity’s God-given intelligence and discernment. In his Guide for the Perplexed, the medieval rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides said that it was because “the divine intellect conjoined with man… that he is ‘in the image of God and his likeness,’ not that God, may he be exalted, has a body or possesses a shape” (1.1). While Maimonides defined “image” as abstract intellect, the ancient Israelites defined an “image” as the physical representation of the divine on earth.
The biblical writers used tselem to describe the statues or “idols” of their polytheistic neighbors. God tells the Israelites that when they enter Canaan they must “drive out all the inhabitants… and destroy all their molten images (tselem)” (Num 33:52). The other nations put these images into their temples so that worshipers could bow down to an earthly representation of the deity. In an Egyptian text called the Memphite Theology, the superior god, Ptah, builds idols for the other gods so they have “bodies” to inhabit in their temples: “[Ptah] established [the gods’] shrines, he made their bodies according to their wishes. Thus, the gods entered into their bodies of every wood, every stone, every clay” (AEL 1.59-60).
Likewise, when the God of Israel creates humans in the divine “image,” God places physical representatives into the Temple of the world. This explains the prohibition against making graven images (cf. Exod 20:4-5; Deut 5:8-9): humans themselves are already the images of God. As God’s image-bearers, we humans are not divine ourselves, but we are made according to the physical image—the structure, likeness, and shape—of God’s own body.