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Hebrew Thoughts

Tselem - צלם (Strong's #6754)

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"And he said, God, let us make man in our image like our likeness and let them rule over fish of the sea and over birds of the heavens and over the cattle and over all the earth and over all the creepers creeping upon the earth" (Genesis 1:26 is one compound word in Hebrew בּצלמנו betsal'mênû, made up of בּ be, the prefix 'in', צלם tselem 'image' (Strong's #6754), and the נו '-' suffix indicating 'our'.

But is this "image of God" in man physical or ethical? Is 'image' a positive portrayal or a negative nuance given its use for describing for idols? The usage of the word elsewhere in Scripture can assist us.

צלם tselem 'image' occurs 17 times in Scripture and is said by most Hebraists to mean an image as that which is a replica or shadow of the original. Hence it was also used of idols being but vain shadowy tokens of the gods they represented, but nonetheless they were attempts at token images of the gods they represented.

However, most of its first five occurrences all relate to man being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27 [x2]; 9:6) which by the hermeneutic law of first mention gives the word a far more positive sense than just a mere image or idol.

The fourth usage is in Genesis 5:3 and uses the same language of Genesis 1:26 in which man is depicted as being made in the image and likeness of God to describe Adam's begetting of Seth, "a son in his own likeness, after his image".

In Psalm 39:6 man is said to "walk about like a shadow". It is perhaps significant that the word does appear to embody the idea of shadow or reflection possibly in a reduced sense, in other words, man is not made like a god, but made as a shadow of The one true God.

Numbers 33:52 is the sixth use of צלם tselem and the first where it means an idol, it is paired there with the word for 'picture, image, idol', משכּית mas'kîyth (Strong's #4906), elsewhere it is paired with words for 'altar' and 'high place' in the contexts of wrongful worship.

In 1 Samuel 6:5,11 the word is used for golden idols and images made in the shape of the rats and haemorrhoids that afflicted the Philistines!

"So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps he will lighten his hand on you and your gods and your land." (1 Samuel 6:5, NRSV)

The Septuagint (Old Testament) Greek translation of Genesis 1:26 uses εικων eikôn (Strong's #1504) 'icon' to translate צלם 'image', the same word used in Colossians to describe as an image of the invisible God:

"Who [Christ] is the image (εικων eikôn) of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15)

So, since we are not to think of Christ as an idol or imperfect representation of the invisible God why should we think of man's creation in the image of God as only an imperfect shadow? The phrase "image of God" is an elevated description of man, not to be taken lightly. In 1 Corinthians 11:7 we read that man "ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God". Here image is considered glorious.

Unlike Christ in the New Testament and man in Eden, God considers man in the time of Isaiah to be 'unlike' his image. Something of man that he had in Eden has been lost, maybe his innocence, but more likely the innate ethical and moral character of God, and perhaps some of his power.


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Lectionary Calendar
Friday, June 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. Their "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at

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