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In the image of God

A journey into the Genesis creation account: part 8

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This article is the eighth part of a series on the Genesis creation account. Here are parts one, two, three, four, five, six and seven.

The biblical creation account is home to some of the most revolutionary concepts ever to emerge in human history. These “Big Ideas,” as I like to call them, represent the formal codification of the most basic building blocks of every life-giving belief the world has ever encountered.

The notion of the image of God must certainly rank as one the most remarkable of these Big Ideas.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, 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.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen. 1:26-27).1

The image of God has variously been associated with the soul, free will, human conscience, the ability to reason, to love, to create, to act morally, etc. While the notion of the image of God surely implies some or all of these elements, this is not where the primary emphasis lies.

In this context, the “image of God” primarily denotes a kingly function. In Egyptian and Assyrian texts, the divine image is often attributed to the king in his role as divine representative.

In Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8:5–8, the image of God explicitly alludes to the mandate to rule creation, a definite royal function. The Torah evokes this concept to highlight humanity’s status as God’s vice-regent.

And 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” (Gen. 1:28).

The image of God does not primarily allude to a certain set of attributes individual men and women may or may not have.

Why is it important to point this out? Because the exceptional status and protection that the “image” confers on all human beings (Gen 9:6) is not contingent on whether any particular individual displays those characteristics that we intuitively associate with the image of God.

Individual men and women are attributed intrinsic value and dignity simply by virtue of being human. Nothing else.

Case in point. I had a brother who was born on August 20, 1960 and died on January 14, 1976 at the age of 15. Norman was his name. He was a thalidomide baby.

Thalidomide was briefly prescribed to pregnant women between from 1957 to 1961 to alleviate morning sickness. It soon became evident that the medication had catastrophic teratogenic effects resulting in severe birth defects in infants exposed to the medication during the early stages of pregnancy.

My brother was hydrocephalic. His condition was so serious that he had to be institutionalized in a facility located about 100 kilometres west of Quebec City. Doctors expected him to live for a few months, a couple of years at most.

And yet Norman lived for 15 years, which was extraordinary considering the multiple health challenges he faced.

Norman was severely handicapped. A disproportionately large head impossibly perched on a tiny body. His legs and arms were of no use to him. He could not sit or stand, let alone walk. He was unable to talk. There was no evidence he could reason.

To my father, Norman was something to be forgotten, hidden, never to be mentioned. To my mother, the worst thing ever to happen to her. She loved the little boy and would have gladly taken care of him, but because of the constant medical attention he required, she had to give him up.

So why did the little boy live so far beyond his life expectancy? I have a theory.

The one memory I have of Norman is the joy he exuded. Norman’s eyes radiated with happiness. It became clear to me that this was because he was loved to pieces.

The hospital was staffed with Roman Catholic nuns. A group of humble women who devoted their lives to loving those who had no hope of being loved. They loved him and took care of him. He lived. He thrived. On January 14, 1976, he reached his full potential and he passed on.

Why did those kind nuns love him so? I have a theory about that too.

Catholic nuns were no trained theologians. But we do know this: they were taught that every single child, woman, and man had infinite value and dignity by virtue of being made in the image of God.

To them, Norman was no freak of nature. There was something mysterious and wonderful hidden in the soul of this little child. Every time these nuns looked at him, they saw a glimpse of the glory of God.

This is not something everyone can see. It is well concealed. Only a certain kind of people have this ability to detect it. It requires the faith of a little child to perceive it.

Norman would have been a prime target for the Nazi T-4 program that eliminated approximately 200,000 mentally and physically handicapped people between 1940 and 1945. My little brother would have been snuffed out without a second thought.

As we our society continues to wrestle with what it means to be human, we do well to remember that there is only one rationale that is sufficient to resist and overcome the forces of dehumanization and nihilism that emerge with every generation.  

It is the proclamation of an authoritative statement that affirms the unique value and intrinsic worth of every individual person. 

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;

male and female He created them (Gen. 1:27).

 


This reflection is adapted from my book God Never Meant for Us to Die: The Emergence of Evil in the Light of the Genesis Creation Account (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2020), 52-58.

1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible (1977). 

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