One Image To Make Man and Woman?

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 29, 2010, issue of October 08, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Probably no section of the Bible has more exercised the interpretative powers of its readers than the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, with which we again begin the annual cycle of Torah readings on Simchat Torah — and, arguably, no two verses in these chapters have aroused more discussion over the ages than Genesis 1:26–27. There we read: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…. And God created man in his image, in the image of God [b’tselem elohim] he created him; male and female he created them.”

One is assailed by questions. Who was God talking to when he said, “Let us make man”? Did God first create Adam as a “him” and only later create a female from this “him,” as we are told by Chapter 2 of Genesis, or is the “him” of Chapter 1 an androgynously imagined being with both male and female characteristics? And what does it mean to be created in God’s “image”?

There are linguistic points to be made in regard to each of these issues. One might observe, for instance, that although elohim, the Hebrew word for “God,” has a plural ending, this does not explain the use in Genesis 1:26 of the plural verb “let us make” (na’aseh), since elohim in the Bible almost always takes a singular verb; or that the noun adam, “man” or “person,” is masculine in gender, so the “him” of Genesis 1:27 can be understood, if one wishes, as a mere grammatical form rather than as a statement concerning Adam’s sex. And one also might remark that the Hebrew word traditionally translated as “image,” tselem, has a close cognate in Akkadian s.almu (the dot under the “s” indicates a retroflex articulation, with the tongue curled back against the palate), which helps to throw light on the word’s use in Genesis.

Long extinct, Akkadian, a cousin of Hebrew, was the Semitic language spoken in Babylonia from about 3,000 BCE to the beginning of the Christian era. Its cuneiform writing, generally inscribed in wet clay that hardened and was unearthed in vast quantities in 19th- and 20th-century archeological digs, has transmitted to us thousands of ancient texts, such as the Code of Hammurabi and the great poem of Gilgamesh. And in many of these texts we find the word s.almu, in the sense of a statue, an idol or a representation of a god. (To this day, the word can denote a statue in certain Assyrian dialects still spoken in northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and southwestern Turkey.) It is probably related to the Akkadian verb salamu, “to grow dark,” the connection being that shadows are dark images thrown on the ground or on a wall.

In itself, none of this should surprise anyone who knows biblical Hebrew. Tselem in the Bible is frequently a pejorative word for an idol, and in at least one place, Psalms 39:7, it apparently means “a shadow,” the common Hebrew word for which is tsel. (In medieval Hebrew and Yiddish, tselem also came to mean, first, a Christian icon of Jesus on the cross, and eventually, a cross itself , but that is another story, as is that of the verb l’tsalem taking on the meaning of “to photograph” in modern Hebrew, and matslema, of “a camera.”)

What is more interesting, rather, are two things. The first is that in Akkadian texts, Babylonian kings or rulers are sometimes referred to as the s.almu of this or that god; one such inscription that has come down to us, for example, written by a royal scribe, reads abusu sa sarri beliya s.alam bel su, “the father of the king my master was the s.almu of [the god] Bel.” The second is that the s.almu was conceived as being not just a representation of the god, but the god’s potential abode. In a common Babylonian temple ceremony known as “the opening of the mouth,” the god was thought to infuse his or her spirit into the s.almu by breathing into it, just as God breathes life into Adam in the biblical story of Creation.

Is the biblical tselem elohim, then, simply a Hebraic transposition of the Babylonian s.almu? Not really. One difference is that whereas in Babylon, only a king could be a god’s s.almu, in the Bible, every human being is created in God’s image: There is, as it were, a democratization or universalization of man’s divine nature. Another difference is that the Babylonian god of whom the king was a s.almu was conceived of as having physical attributes, while the God of the Bible may not have been.

May not have been, you ask? Does that also mean He may have been? Actually, yes. Although it seems hard to imagine today, there is considerable evidence that as late as the Middle Ages, there were Jews who thought of God as having a body of which the human form was a physical image. Surely Maimonides, who lived in the 12th century, would not have spent so much time attacking this idea in his “Guide for the Perplexed” if it did not exist. Ultimately, not even Akkadian s.almu can solve the mystery of what exactly “in the image of God” means in the Bible.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.