03. Genesis 1-2 part 3

I. A. 2. continued

b) The Image of God (Genesis 1:24-27 and 2:7,19,20)

Both our stewardship over creation and marriage could have been discussed with the idea of being in the image of God, but the discussion seems to work better if we split these three ideas up and tackle them separately. Compartmentalizing the Covenant in this way is artificial, clearly, and could be done in other ways; and the various aspects of the Covenant are so closely related that any dissection of the Covenant into pieces is liable to do damage to our appreciation of the Covenant as a whole. I have only adopted this approach in order to make my discussion a little more coherent than it would be otherwise.

The creation of human beings was peculiar in several respects and this peculiarity was highlighted by the phrase “image of God”. We are the only creatures designated as being in the image of God. There have been many opinions about what exactly the image of God is. Some early Christians, under the influence of Greek philosophy, suggested that the image of God is our ability to think, our rationality. In a modern evangelical context, which stresses proper behavior and respectability, the tendency is to see the image of God as the ability to make moral or ethical choices.

These understandings arise from predispositions that come from culture or upbringing or personal bias; with no clear cut definition given in the Scripture it is natural to understand the image of God in terms of what we value the most. But suppose we were to look for hints from the Bible itself as to what it means to be in God’s image? Taking these two chapters of Genesis in isolation – and if the Scripture is a progressive revelation (which I think it clearly is) then it is natural to let the revelation progress. These two chapters are logically intended to be taken in a somewhat isolated fashion as the very first of a long sequence – taking them in isolation for the moment, what would they imply about the meaning of the image of God?

There are at least two aspects of God’s nature that are highlighted in these chapters and so it would be natural to take them as the primary ingredients in His image as well. First, and primarily, this passage reveals God as the Creator, and so it is natural to think that an important part of the analogy in God’s image is that we were made to be creators like He is. Obviously we can’t claim to be creators exactly as He is the Creator. It is not part of who we are now nor who we were originally, to create something from nothing. We work strictly within the limits of the created order; our creations are copies, more or less, of His ideas, but He has placed in our hands the job of making His ideas come to be. It is as if, when we create, that we are providing bodies for what He has created but left on the edge of nothingness for us to find. The truly excellent little book, An Artist by M. B. Goffstein, is a marvelous description of the artist and, by extension, any other type of human creator, in the truest biblical sense. It expresses just what it means to be a creator in the image of the Creator, to be a human in the image of God.

Consider for a moment the meaning of Genesis 1:1-5. When God began to create, initially the creation was formless and empty and dark, but He would not leave it that way. The formlessness was given form, the emptiness was filled, and the darkness was illuminated. But not all of the darkness was illumined; the light did not fill all the creation; some of the creation was left in darkness and separated from the light. It is as if, when He separated the light from the dark, He was protecting some realm of darkness, for darkness is naturally destroyed by light. What then can this mean? One possibility is that when He separated the light from the darkness on the First Day, the darkness represented a gift to us, a region of His creation that we were given to explore, to bring to light, to bring into full creation. Perhaps this is what it means to be creators in the image of the Creator. He left some formlessness so that we could join Him in giving it form.

On the other hand, the creativity inherent in the image of God is like God’s own creativity in this respect: we humans are most like God when we create out of the joy of the creative impulse rather than out of necessity. God’s creation of the universe was the most spectacularly unnecessary act. God did not need the universe; He felt no lack in Himself that compelled Him to create. His creation of the universe arose from His joy, His delight, which overflowed and burst forth into stars and forests and armadillos. Our impulse to create is like His creativity in this respect – it arises without regard to necessity. Since the Fall, we are driven to creativity through the fight to survive, but such necessity does not give the clearest picture of the image of the Creator. Doubtless the creativity we exhibit in our great engineering projects also exhibits the image of God, but not perfectly. In creating the universe and all it contains God was acting more like the artist, the poet, the composer, than like the engineer or the businessman.

But when we say that the creation was unnecessary to God, we do not mean that it was unimportant to Him. On the contrary, the fact that the universe is unnecessary to Him proves how important it is; God was creating the universe for Himself, for His own pleasure, not from need but from desire. The purpose of the creation was to please Himself, to bring Himself delight and pleasure, and at every step along the road to the completion it did please Him indeed. Genesis 1 bursts with God’s joy and delight in what He was making like the flavor bursts out of a perfectly ripe grape. In the same way, the impulse to create that is placed in us by virtue of being in God’s image most perfectly resembles God’s own creativity when it is driven by pleasure and joy in the process of creating.

Furthermore, being in God’s image means that the creative impulse in us brings God joy as well; He delights in our creativity and the results of our creativity add to His joy in His own creation. Part of what it meant when God pronounced each realm of the creation to be good was that each creature had its own integrity built into it in its creation, and that by pursuing its own inclinations and nature it would please God. The same was true of humanity in our original created form: when we pursued our creative impulses, pursuing our own pleasure in creativity, we would also automatically be pleasing God simply by being who He created. There was no conflict in all of the universe between the desires of the creature and the desires of the Creator.

Unfortunately we can no longer say that. Quite commonly the desires of the human creature run counter to the desires of the Creator, and this is as true in the creative area as in any other. Our own pleasure and joy in our creations are no longer a certain indicator of God’s pleasure and joy in them. In addition it is now possible for us to put our creative impulses at the service of other, even alien, masters. In particular, when creativity is made to serve the pursuit of money its tendency is inevitably to degenerate into ugliness, like a sacrifice offered on a pagan altar. Our own culture provides virtually unlimited examples of the process of degeneration and uglification at work in creativity when it is turned to other ends than God’s pleasure.

But the impulse and ability to create is not the only aspect of God’s nature that is being revealed in these two chapters; God is also the Covenant Maker. God is not content to create; He is impelled to love, to interact with the things He makes. No sooner did He speak the creative word that brought light into existence, no sooner did the light respond by emerging from nothingness into existence, than God was playing with it, separating it, multiplying it, refracting it and making it His very own. The Deists didn’t just miss the ball when they imagined the Divine Watchmaker winding it all up and then letting it go; they weren’t even playing the right game. God creates and relates. There is nothing that exists that can escape His advances; and nothing that did manage to escape Him could continue to exist at all.

The image of God as a covenant maker is related to Adam’s first official job assignment, the naming of the animals. God had already been engaged in the naming of the various things as He created them; the giving of names is a fundamental part of the divine nature. Adam, and all of us human beings since then, have shared this compulsion to name things. There are some who have imagined that the power to confer a name is an expression of authority over the thing being named. The argument goes that parents name their children as an expression of their parental authority; likewise people named the creatures because people had been placed in charge of creation; and likewise Adam named Eve because men hold a position of authority over women (the point the interpreter in question was trying to prove). This line of thinking misses the real point. It focuses attention on an incidental and irrelevant issue – an issue that was not present in Eden – the issue of power, and it misses the real question: what is truly being accomplished when a name is conferred?

Even among the ancient pagans it was not the conferring of the name that established power; it was the knowing of the name that did it. In the ancient world, a person’s name had a magical significance. Even among the gods, letting their true names become known made them vulnerable to magic spells cast by other gods. Among the Egyptians, for example, Isis was considered an especially powerful magician. There is a myth that describes how she tricked Re into revealing his secret name to her; it was the only thing left that she did not know in heaven or earth. She made a serpent which bit Re as he took his evening walk. The venom had no remedy apart from Isis’ magic, and she pointed out that she could not use it to heal Re unless she knew Re’s true name. He tried to give her one of his other names but only got worse; in desperation, he finally divulged his secret name. Isis knowing his secret name meant he was vulnerable to magic for either for good or ill. She could heal him, but she could also exert magical power over him in any way she chose.

The biblical understanding of names was very different from that of the surrounding cultures. First of all, in the biblical view the person’s name had nothing to do with magic; it had nothing to do with power or authority. It had to do with relationship, with intimacy. When God gave His “secret” name to Moses, it did not give Moses magical power over God, but a new level of intimacy with Him.

The act of giving a name to something is the foundational step in establishing a connection and then a relationship with the thing. We name what we recognize and seek to know better. The impulse to name arises out of the desire for a relationship, and the name provides a context in which the relationship can grow. God is not only the Creator, He is the Covenant Maker, the Relationship Maker. It was not His purpose merely to create, but to know and interact with whatever He created and that is why He gave names to the things He made. Indeed, the ultimate expression of God’s anger toward someone is that He “will blot out his name from under heaven” (Deuteronomy 29:20; see also Exodus 17:14, 32:33; II Kings 14:27; Psalm 9:5, 69:28, 109:13; Proverbs 10:7; Luke 10:20; Revelations 3:5 and 13:8 for example). The blotting out of the name is not a surrendering of authority; it is an abandoning of a relationship.

Similarly, to be in God’s image means to be creatures that continue His work of relating to everything He had made. We name things because we carry the Covenant with us; and by naming things we are the agents of God to bring them more deeply and more actively into Covenant with Him. When we name our children we are not asserting our authority over them; we are extending the Covenant relationship between God and ourselves to a new generation. Nicknames are common among the closest of friends because the nickname expresses the special character of the relationship, it deepens the sense of covenant between the parties involved. It is important to understand that when we think of the account of Genesis 1 and 2 as a covenant relationship between God and His creation, we ought to be thinking of a web of relationships. We are caught up in the middle of that Covenant. The covenant relationship is a transitive relationship: if I am in covenant with God and He is in covenant with you, then I am in covenant with you. When God gave Adam the job of naming the animals He was inviting him to explore the range and variety of the relationships that were his through Him.

In summary the “image of God” means that at the very core of our being we are creator/relators and the two roles are inextricably woven together. We create because we exist in a web of covenant relationships, and our creativity reveals, expresses, and extends the relationships we are responsible for. We are the bearers of the Covenant to the rest of the universe; and I think that the bearing of that Covenant was the primary meaning of our headship over the creation as well. Our job was to be the stewards of that original covenant, to foster it and extend it and elaborate it, to oversee the intricacies of how everything connects and relates to everything else, to nurture and educate the ability to love and share what one thing has with all other things.

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5 Comments on “03. Genesis 1-2 part 3”

  1. Simone Says:

    Carroll, I find this to be the most rewarding post I’ve read, yet! You address a number of topics and ideas that offer fruitful discussion. I find so many of your points keen and beautifully expressed.

    I, too, do not think that artists (people) create, as creation, to me, necessitates the production of an origin. As you suggest, in the truest and divine sense of the term, people do not “create” anything. They work within a preexisting structure. Artists create post-creation, if you will, and use resources that enable them to forge the act of making.

    Your idea that god intentionally positioned mankind to be creative, and formed the universe in such a way to lend mankind to creative output, is a wonderful idea. Furthermore, the general idea that sub-creation, if you will, is part of god’s plan, is equally insightful. The reading you present of Genesis 1:1-5 is astute in suggesting that the act of creating is compelled by the very presence of absence, or default manifestation of darkness. Your suggestion that god strategically left people with the opportunity to create is powerful.

    I also enjoy your argument that people express their similitude, if you will, to god, not simply by the act of creating, but by having joy in the act of creating. I think this is an important point. Though god, according to your post, did not create the universe out of need, I think artists, conversely, must create out of need, without which the art is vanity. (But I know you’re not addressing artistic content and form, as much as the aesthetics of creativity, itself).

    Your section on naming is outstanding, and your argument that the inclination to name involves a divine impetus is one I agree with. Your notion that the intent of naming lies in the desire to know something better is also a strong one.

    Carroll, it was a pleasure to read this post. This is one write-up, especially, to treasure. Keep up the great work.

    • Carroll Boswell Says:

      Thank you, Simone. I really appreciate your thoughtful and careful reading and your comments. It is a great encouragement to me.

    • Carroll Boswell Says:

      I have been thinking about the idea of joy vs. need. Perhaps the distinction lies in our being finite and created. With God there is no need in any sense and yet there is joy, but with us joy and need are always entwined. We do not have an identity in ourselves, only in relation to the world, and no joy simply in ourselves, so for us joy is always something that comes to us from the outside, a gift. And therefore joy is always connected to a need. We need beauty, much like we need food, because it is beauty of whatever kind that gives joy. For us to create is not like God’s creating because of that element of need as well as that element of being a “subcreation”. When I write, I experience it as a need and now I am thinking that the goal of that need is the joy of creating something beautiful. Am I on the same track as you?

  2. godanalytics Says:

    Wow. This also addresses another thing I noticed and probably attributed to Adam holding power over Eve, because he was allowed to name her. But indeed, it seems much more beautiful an “interpretation” to see “naming” as a level of intimacy.

    Sometimes I wonder whether I write because I “need” to or because I “enjoy” it. Not sure if you’ve heard of Ann Voskamp, but she is “deep” and also a “puritan” of sorts, or at least that is how she strikes me when I hear her speak. But she said that what she writes is of God, that God gives her what to write. Sometimes I feel that way, but I definitely cannot say with conviction that whatever I write is from God. She also said that she “needs” to write, that she envies the people who can process the world just by living it. That she MUST write it down to experience it fully. I understand that. But then she went on to say that she never had “comments” enabled on her blog and that she was never interested in “numbers”……that for her, she wrote for herself, not for a response from others. I can sort of relate to the fact that when I write, it has some personal healing element for me. But I long for “connection with others” and that is why I write, because it would be rare for me to be able to express the complexity or (long windedness) of my thoughts in a casual conversation with someone and in today’s society it is hard to have time and much less context for getting into those types of “deep” conversations.


  3. I also feel that God gives me what I need to say. But I also know that I am as capable of self-delusion – maybe more capable – as anyone in the world. So I just pray that God would make my words bear fruit somehow, and that He would keep people from noticing things that are off the wall.
    I also need to write. I find that I do not know what I believe or what I am thinking until I try to put it all into words. Typical man – out of touch with my own feelings. When I write it is as if God is revealing to me what is in my heart and mind, whether it was there all along or He put it there for me to find I don’t know.


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