A Question about the Image of God

Pax Christi everyone,

I saw a comment today that claimed that “God created man in His image, in the divine image He created him; male and female he created them,” meant that only male humans are in the image of God. I’m already skeptical, considering that many use “mankind” to refer to both sexes, but is there something in the Hebrew that I’m missing that gives credence to this claim?

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I don’t think so, but that’s my opinion as someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew but has looked into this a bit.

The problem is that “man” has long outlived its usefulness as a translation of adam. It’s accurate in the older sense meaning “mankind” or “humanity,” but it would be easier if it was just translated that way (and in many translations, it is).

The Hebrew word adam is grammatically masculine and singular, but its meaning is typically plural (all humanity, a group of people, or anyone who fits a description) and does not convey gender. We have singulars that refer to many in English as well, such as “seed.” We’d say “The carrot seed was old,” not “were old.” And in Hebrew, every noun has to be masculine or feminine even if it doesn’t mark natural gender.

There is no female pair to the Hebrew word adam. The word ish (which does mean a man) also has the word ishah (which means a woman). But the most frequently word paired with adam is behemah, meaning beasts. This is as one would expect since adam refers to humankind as a species, not males or one man.

Of course adam can become a name that is applied to a man (or a city), but that doesn’t change what the general word means. It is the general word and not a name that is used in Genesis 1.

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Dang. We lose again.

A good translation would say God created humanity in his image, male and female he created them. Like Marshall said, the word translated “man” in some versions doesn’t mean all males, it means all humans. Yet another reason why removing outdated gender-exclusive English from Bible translations is important.

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In short (TLDR; executive summary; etc.):

  • “adam”, like the English word “man”, has different meanings in different contexts
  • the two creation narratives in Genesis are decidedly different, each lending different interpretations to the word

The two narratives (approx. 1:1 to 2:4a; then 2:4b onwards) are different in several respects; indeed, markedly so as one digs deeper. (To enumerate that here would be a distraction.) So where the word “adam” appears in them, we should be cautious about forcing a single interpretation across them. Rather like the English word “man”, the word’s interpretation is context-dependent.

Let “adam” have different shades of interpretation in the two different narratives. Imagine, as is quite likely, two different authors writing two different stories with two different context-uses of “adam”, and a later editor joining them together. This is in line with the other differences between the narratives.

(Aside: The first account had been in short and simple sentences. By contrast, this second account opens with one long, complex sentence from 2:4b to the end of 2:7: a massive contrast. This lends further support to two separate narratives being later edited together.)

The first narrative is on a grand-sweep cosmic scale. In it, “adam” seems clearly to have a usage like the English “mankind” (or “humanity”). This openness fits well with the other openness in the first account, such as “let us make [adam]” rather than, say, “let me make [adam]” (v.26), reflecting the openness of the word “Elohim” (God) with its “not-simply-singular” shade of meaning.

The second narrative (2:4b onwards) is more precise. From its very opening, the actions are no longer by “God” but by the much more specific “the LORD God”, who is now pictured as an almost human-like gardener. And the verbs that will be used of his actions are more down-to-earth and craftsman-oriented than the more abstract “create” verbs, etc,. of the first narrative. (And the second narrative is heavily about naming, which is mostly absent from the first narrative; even the “two great lights” had been un-named… this non-naming probably itself had specific, polemic intent.)

So in this second account, “adam” will increasingly lean more towards its male interpretation, as will become clear in the ensuing fashioning of the complementary “eve”.

Additionally, but usually lost in English, is a word-play on the name, brought out in 2:7. Robert Alter’s translation helps restore this wordplay: “then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil”. At this point, right at the start of this second narrative (or one might even view it as the editorial between them), “adam” is still quite generic, but the interpretation shifts as Eve is fashioned.

Wordplay is a significant feature across many parts of the Hebrew texts of the Tanakh: as just one example, think of all those occurrences of “called X, which means Y”. The significance of the name, rather than of a gender, is often the intent.

Summary: the word “adam” needs to be read with sensitivity to context… and the contexts of the two creation narratives are different.

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Yes, though we need to listen to the editor(s) as well. They have something to say by the way they join the stories together.

It’s a major theme in the first three days. God names Day, Night, Heavens, Earth, and Seas. But none of the creatures are named; instead, humanity is their ruler, calibrated by the measure of God. Genesis 2 doesn’t use this rule language, but it implies something similar through naming. God lets the human name the creatures.

After humanity disobeys, we see how fractured things have become when the man names the woman “Eve.” Rather than recognizing her as of the same flesh as he did before, he now sets himself above her as if she is just another of those creatures that aren’t his match. In terms of Genesis 1, he treats her as another kind to be ruled rather than part of God’s image-bearing humankind.

Both accounts have a distinct style, but the edited form that puts them together is also brilliant. They say more together than either story said on its own.

Yes, the adam of this account is already different by being a single creature rather than a collective term for humanity as in Genesis 1. As Alter translates, it’s “the human.” After the human is split in two, one side formed into a woman and the other into a man, adam continues to refer to the male side. This meaning is communicated using the words ish and ishah (Genesis 2:23), since the word adam itself doesn’t specify gender or sex.

Then we get to the next section break and the editors throw a monkey wrench into the idea of keeping our adams neatly separated:

This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘[Adam]’ when they were created. When Adam had lived for one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. (Genesis 5:1–3)

This new section is about the descendants of a named figure, Adam. Then we’re told how God created humanity (the generic adam of Genesis 1), how he made them male and female (which evokes the human split in two in Genesis 2) and gave them all the name Adam. And then Adam had a son (the individual language of Genesis 2) in his image (the language of Genesis 1).

The name Adam is used to mash together the adams we’ve already read about into a single named figure. It doesn’t work to claim that Adam names one thing in verse 2 and a different thing in verse 3: it’s the same name. Imagine someone saying, “Let me tell you about Deborah. Deborah started out as Rebecca’s nurse. And when Deborah was old, she became a judge of Israel.” As much as it may offend us that this story fuses two different Deborahs together, that is what it does. And that’s what Genesis 5 does to the adams of Genesis.

According to the final form of Genesis, Adam is both humankind as a whole and a particular human who was split into man and woman and produced a son. I don’t think we can separate what God’s Spirit has joined. If we can’t help but think only of a man when we hear that name, maybe we should dispense with the transliteration and consistently translate it as Humanity:

This is the list of the descendants of Humanity. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humanity’ when they were created. When Humanity had lived for one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

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  • Suppose, for a moment, that some translate “אָדָם” as “man” and some translate it as “humanity” (i.e. male and female). Those who say “Adam” is gender-specific and hold a high view of Sola Scriptura will claim that “gender-bias” is Biblical. Those who say that “Adam” is not gender-specific might reject the gender-bias and still argue for a high view of Sola Scriptura.
  • The question arises, IMO: Is the issue of Biblical gender-bias vs. Biblical gender-neutral about a belief that is essential to salvation or not? Personally, I say: “Not”. But I could see “fellowship” floundering where the belief is or becomes “a mark of a true, devout Christian”.
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