Tselem: Being IMAGE bearers

IMAGE: tselem. Masculine Noun. (Strong’s 6754).

Root: צֶלֶם

Sounds like: tzelem.

There has been significant controversy regarding the phrase “made in God’s image”. I’m uncertain whether this blog posting will simplify the debate or bring a whole new spin to it, but perhaps focusing in on the Hebrew word for image, tselem, will, at the very least, help clear the muddy waters. Here’s where the debate begins in the Bible:

Genesis 1:26-28

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image [b-tsal’menu], according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

God created man in His own image [b-tsal’mow], in the image of God [b-tselem Elohim] He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Many, who have considered this, have come to the conclusion that we look like God, but that is not really what the word image is trying to convey. The fact that this image is in both male and female form, gives us the hint that it’s not just looks we’re talking about here. However, the phrase,according to Our likenessis a better point for this argument. The Hebrew word for “likeness” (d’moot), means similar to, or resembling, or in the pattern of. But image is something different.

The Hebrew word for shadow (tsel) comes out of the word tselem, and we certainly don’t look like shadows, but our shadow behaves exactly like we do. If we jump, so does our shadow; if we wave, our shadow must wave as well. It is an exact replica, a mirrored image of who and what we are. We don’t look like it, but we behave like it.

Photo by Rudy & Peter Skitterians from pixabay.com

In Genesis 5 we read that man (adam) was created in the likeness of God. When the first man, (unimaginatively named Adam (it’s like naming your cat, “Cat”)), had a child the baby was in his own likeness (similar to Adam), according to Adam’s image:

Genesis 5:1-3

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man [adam], He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male [zakar] and female [u-nekevah], and He blessed them and named them “adam” [human/mankind] in the day when they were created.

When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image [k-tsal’mow], and named him Seth.

Image is a reflection of the whole soul… it’s what is in your heart and your thoughts. We have the gift, if we choose to accept it, to be image-bearers of God, and that means living and behaving like God intended us to.

In Genesis 1 we read that we were intended to be subduers of the earth and rulers over everything that moved. God had hoped for us to be benevolent caretakers of the planet, in His image, just like He would have done. But we monumentally screwed up… oh, what a mess we made!

Rather than accepting the very generous gift of being God’s image bearers on earth, we decided that we wanted to be gods ourselves. We broke away from God’s image. We devised our own plans and made our own definition of good and evil. Instead of gently guiding the planet so it could flourish as God intended it to, we opted to steal from the planet. We took advantage of its resources to bolster our own wealth. We turned on each other and destroyed other potential image bearers to further our own gain.

Not surprisingly, by the time Noah is on the Biblical scene an amendment has to be made to address the issue of murder:

Genesis 9:1-7

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.”

     “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed,

      For in the image of God [ki b-tselem Elohim] He made man.

     As for you, be fruitful and multiply; Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

In some manner or another, directly or indirectly, we have all shed blood. The Messiah came and died to redeem humanity and restore the image of God to each soul who chose to follow YHWH. This was meant to be a living faith, and although death was part of it, it was never to be taken lightly.

The word tselem highlighted a significant distinction between the living faith of the Hebrew people, and the religions of the cultures that surrounded them.

YHWH announced humans to be His living image. No other religion, at the time, gave humanity such high honour. Pagan religions made stagnant images out of things of the earth, such as stone or wood. Rocks and forests were God’s creation, not gods themselves:    

Numbers 33:50-53

Then YHWH spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images [tsalmeh] and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.’”

By the time of the Babylonian threat, the Hebrew people had completely forgotten that they were image bearers of their Creator. Instead they turned to the pagan way of making tactile, home-made, image-bearing gods to worship, just as the Canaanites had. This was despicable to YHWH. The Hebrew people had promised to never worship idols, but over and over they broke that promise:

Ezekiel 7:20-22a

“They transformed the beauty of His ornaments into pride, and images [weh-tsalmeh] they made of their abominations and their detestable things with it; therefore I will make it an abhorrent thing to them. I will give it into the hands of the foreigners as plunder and to the wicked of the earth as spoil, and they will profane it. I will also turn My face from them…”

Worshipping other home-made gods was bad enough, BUT worshiping other gods while still claiming to worship God was abhorrent to YHWH, and He spoke vehemently against it:

Amos 5:21-27

YHWH: I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not take delight in your solemn assemblies.

Though you offer me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fatted beasts.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; for I will not hear the melody of your harps.

But let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Have you offered unto me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, O house of Israel?

But you have borne the tabernacle of your Moloch and Kiyyun your star god, your images [tsal’mekem], which you made for yourselves.

Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, says YHWH, whose name is The God of hosts.

With all this failure YHWH knew that the only way we could be saved from the predicament we put ourselves in, was to send a perfect human to redeem us. A human that would be the perfect reflection of God… and that reflection of God’s image would be sacrificed, as an atonement, so that humans could be free from the burden of sin… so that we could, once again, be the proper image-bearers of God.

Jesus, as this Messiah, was the living sacrifice for our sin of image-breaking. We broke ourselves off from our purpose of being YHWH’s image bearers. Jesus restored our right to bear the image of God. If we were to follow Yeshua (Jesus) and the example he had set, we could once again be YHWH’s reflection on earth. We were made to be stewards of this planet, respecting all living things, and issuing good practises to protect and promote the God-given goodness of this earth. Jesus’ death allowed us to reboot our purpose.

Colossians 1:15-20

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.

Yeshua made it very clear that our role as image bearers had nothing to do with the possessive things of this world, but rather everything to do with the spiritual well-being of creation:

Mark 12:13-17

Later, they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to catch Jesus in His words. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that You are honest and are swayed by no one. Indeed, You are impartial and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or not?”

But Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to inspect.” So they brought it, and He asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they answered.

Then Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

And they marvelled at Him.

It wasn’t just Caesar’s likeness, it was Caesar’s image… his behaviour, which included the desire for wealth and power. We were not meant to spend our lives seeking wealth and material possessions. That always comes at the expense of others. Money is just an image bearing idol.

As image bearers of YHWH, we are meant to reflect the glory of God. Yeshua’s death on the cross restored our ability to be a reflection of God. We broke our image-bearing opportunity, but with Jesus’ sacrifice we can, once again, be transformed into His image.

Paul recalled the story of Moses, whose face glowed from seeing God [Exodus 34]. Protecting the people from alarm, Moses covered his face with a veil. Paul noted that Yeshua had set us free, and that alarming the people was perfectly fine. We must remove the veil that covers our hearts, turn to Yeshua, be free, and, perhaps alarmingly, shine God’s glory upon others:

2 Corinthians 3:12-18

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at the end of what was fading away.

But their minds were closed. For to this day the same veil remains at the reading of the old covenant. It has not been lifted, because only in Christ can it be removed. And even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

When we accept the Messiah as the One who brings salvation to us, we begin the process of transforming back into His image, once again. We become the unveiled reflection of God. We are His image in Spirit and in truth. Paul wrote that,Just as we have borne the image of the earthly, we will also bear the image of the heavenly[1 Corinthians 15:49].

We are guardians of the planet, caretakers of this beautiful earth, and we need to take that role seriously. But our main purpose, as God’s image bearers, is to be sharers of the gospel, the good news that we are redeemed through the Messiah. Our bodies will decay from an earthly death, but our Spirit is our true image, and that carries on forever! Being made in God’s image means guiding humanity through this generous world and onwards, into the Promised Land… where we will bear the image of the heavenly, shining like the noonday sun!

Next week: Servant

18 thoughts on “Tselem: Being IMAGE bearers”

  1. Great post, Sarah, Appreciated the connection between Caesar’s image and behaving in Caesar’s likeness. Also thought God intended us to be sub-doers not just subduers. Thanks for your good work.


  2. Hi Sarah,
    This is one subject that has always been on my mind when I read the Bible. It has been one of the most confusing issues for me. Once again, you have clarified much for me. It puts a new light on to how we need to see how we should be reflecting God in ourselves, for if we truly are a reflection of God’s image, likeness, etc…we must act on all the things that he is asked of us, so that we can be more like Him and Yeshua.
    I hope I’ve got this right, but you’re writings and clarifications our gift to me. Thank you


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