What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Does it mean that we look like God in some way—that God may accurately be perceived as a being with two arms, two legs, a face, hair, and so on? Or does it mean something else, something more profound?
I think we get a clue to what it means when we look closely at this passage in Genesis and note that the phrase “image of God”—imago Dei in Latin—occurs in the context of creation. We are created in God’s image, as the writer says (twice, so we don’t miss the point): “So God created humankind in his image, / in the image of God he created them; / male and female he created them” (v 27). This would seem to indicate that a large part of what it means to possess the image of God is to be creative. Just as God is the creator, making worlds out of nothing, so are we junior partners in creation, exercising the same impulse toward creativity as God did at the beginning.
A side note: Both male and female are created in the image of God. That means that women and men have equal dignity and worth as a result of creation. There is no indication whatsoever in these verses that the domination and subjugation of women by men was part of God’s original design. That only occurs later, as a result of the fall, when Adam and Eve both sin by disobeying God. At the beginning, male and female are together created in the image and likeness of God and together reflect the glory of God. It is an unfortunate fact of the sociology of language that male terminology has customarily been used to signify the whole of the human species—“man” and “mankind” are still, in many circles, accepted as supposedly inclusive terms. But using such language sends women, as well as transgender persons and others who don’t fit into binary gender identities, the subtle yet terribly effective message that they don’t count. They are invisible and expendable. History is the domain of cisgender men and if women or others play any role at all, they do so under the name of men. That’s why it’s important to use inclusive language—to acknowledge women’s rightful place in the grand scheme of things—equal in dignity, rights and potential with men—which is exactly what God intended from the very beginning. Then again, as Timothy Leary once observed (or Marilyn Monroe, depending on whom you ask), “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.”
Back to the issue at hand…. God has created us to be creative people. We take the raw materials of creation and form and mold them into something new—something that didn’t exist before. We see this quite obviously when it comes to painting or sculpture or writing or musical composition, but it takes many other forms as well. When we use our imaginations, we create possibilities where before there were none. When we enter into loving relationships with other people, we create something entirely new. When we teach or enter into debate with another person, we are exercising our creativity. In fact, every conversation, every new experience, just about everything we do in the course of a day entails creativity. We create new possibilities with every expression of our freedom, and we express our freedom with each breath we take. We have been created in the image of God, and are therefore creative persons. Our creativity is, of course, ultimately and utterly dependent upon God—it is only because we have been created in the image of God that we ourselves can create—but it is not a matter of divine puppetry; we exercise our creativity in freedom and, at the same time, in partnership with God.
For an example of this, let us turn to Exodus 31 and consider Bezalel and Oholiab, the two men who were in charge of constructing the tabernacle—the tent that was to serve as God’s dwelling place in the midst of the Israelites. Exodus 31:1-11 reads:
The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you.
These verses declare that God has called Bezalel and Oholiab by name and has filled them with the spirit of God and given them skill to do all the work of building the tabernacle and its furnishings. A couple of questions come to mind: Why did God choose these two? Was it a random pick—a roll of the dice and their numbers just happened to come up? I don’t think so. I think Bezalel and Oholiab were skilled artisans already, and God recognized that and decided to give them the project of their lives. Of course, their skills ultimately came from God in the first place, but it depended on them to develop those skills through discipline and practice so that God could use them. Do you think these two were the only two artisans in the whole camp of Israel? Or had they distinguished themselves in some way so that they became the logical choices for the job of creating the tabernacle?
The big question, I suppose, and the one that gets us to the crux of the matter, is this: How much of B & O’s work was their own and how much was God’s? This question seems to come up quite often when Christians talk about using their gifts. How much credit should I take for myself and how much should I give to God? Should I shrug off compliments and give all the credit to God, assuming that God could have done just as well with Joe Schmo off the street as with me? How much is God and how much is me?
It may be helpful at this point to remember that our guiding theme for this season is Incarnation. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, while being one unified person. We don’t know exactly how this worked; it is one of the wonderful mysteries of our faith. What we can learn from the Incarnation, though, is that God has chosen to become partners with humanity, and God has demonstrated this through the most intimate partnership the world has ever known. It works the same way with us, though of course on a smaller scale. We act and God acts through us; we create and God creates through us. It is a partnership. God does not overwhelm us; rather, God allows us the freedom to be who we are and express ourselves in all of our glorious individuality and particularity. So who gets the credit? We both do. Who built the tabernacle? Bezalel and Oholiab built the tabernacle. Who built the tabernacle? God built the tabernacle.
Another implication of our having been created in the image of God is that every person has inherit dignity and worth. We each bear the imago Dei; therefore we each are entitled to respect and deserve to be judged, in the words of Dr. King, by the content of our character, not by any incidental quality, such as the color of our skin, the country where we were born, or the size of our stock portfolio. Our true equality is not granted or guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but by virtue of our having been made in the image and likeness of God.
This seems like a commonplace observation, but recent events indicate that many people have not yet taken it to heart. In North Korea, a dictatorial leader starves his population to feed his war machine, because to him power is more important than people. In Saudi Arabia, women’s roles are severely proscribed, because Saudi men believe that women’s actions can bring shame on a family if not carefully controlled. In places like Pakistan, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka, those who follow a minority religion are vulnerable to both informal and official persecution. Across Europe we have seen a rise in nativist sentiment and a rejection of immigrants and refugees. And here in the US, just last week our President used a vile term to describe poor countries in Africa and declared his preference for immigrants from places like Norway, where the people are more—ahem—European in complexion.
Tomorrow our nation will honor Martin Luther King, and as we do so, let us remember the foundation upon which he and his colleagues built their movement. From Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus because she did not recognize the white man who wanted it as her superior, to the sanitation workers in Memphis who carried placards with the simple yet eloquent assertion, I Am a Man, the leaders and activists of the civil rights movement held that they too bore the imago Dei, the image of God.
For King, our sharing the imago Dei revealed the interrelated nature of reality. He said, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” He believed that leaving oppression unchallenged would be a disservice not only to the oppressed but also to the oppressors. When victims assert their humanity through protest, they offer their oppressors a chance to regain their own humanity.
Recognizing the imago Dei also leads to a concern for human rights. King said, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” To see the image of God in another is to acknowledge their inherent worth, and the next step after acknowledging that worth is to take action to honor it. In doing so, one finds purpose. King said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
None of this comes naturally, however. Left to our own devices most of us will seek to fulfill our own needs and neglect or ignore the needs of others a very high percentage of the time. We need to be transformed, and King was quite clear about the means and effects of that transformation. He said, “By opening our lives to God in Christ, we become new creatures. This experience, which Jesus spoke of as the new birth, is essential if we are to be transformed nonconformists…. Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”
Jesus was a transformed nonconformist, and he kept his eyes open to the imago Dei in the people he encountered, such as the disabled woman in Luke 13. When he saw her, he had compassion on her and chose to heal her, even though his opponents objected to his performing work on the sabbath. He called them out for their hypocrisy, saying, “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (vv. 15–16).
Jesus’s opponents could not see past the letter of the law to acknowledge the woman’s worth and dignity as a “daughter of Abraham” who bore the image of God. But Jesus recognized a higher law, and he would have heartily agreed with Martin Luther King, who said, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” and, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells [her] is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment [or persecution, or ostracism, or scourging, or crucifixion] in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
We have each of us been created in the image of God, and we therefore each of us possess dignity and worth that no one can rescind or contradict. We also possess the freedom and opportunity to act in partnership with God to create something brand new each day of our lives. God believes in us enough to stand back and let us be who we are. Let us believe in ourselves enough to explore that freedom. Perhaps we will find that, like Martin Luther King, like Bezalel and Oholiab, God has called us by name and filled us with the Spirit of God so that we, too, may cooperate with God in creating something unique and beautiful for the benefit of the world and to the everlasting glory of our Creator.