Beginning (4): Genesis 1

Image and Shadow

We all know that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.” But what does this mean? These words have produced endless commentaries over the centuries. Clearly, we are not created in the physical image of God, because Judaism steadfastly maintains that God has no physical appearance.  And yet, after the Flood, when God made an unconditional covenant with Noah and his descendants, the sacredness of human life, established here for the first time, was clearly based on this statement: to shed another man’s blood  would be a crime not only against man, but also against God – “for in His image did God make man”.[1]  So, what does it mean,  that man is created in the image of God? Does the Hebrew text help us here?

The Hebrew word for “image”,צֶלֶם  (tzelem), is a beautiful example of how Hebrew, being a root language, functions.  This wordצֶלֶם   is related, and may even be derived from another Hebrew wordצֵל  (tzel), which means “shadow”. A shadow is an imperfect image resembling the real thing which casts it. Tzel (shadow) is a biblical word, and the expression “in the shadow of God” occurs several times in the Scriptures. For instance, in the famous Psalm 91 we read: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (בצל שדי). Also, in Exodus 31 we read about Bezalel whom God filled with His Spirit, giving him wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The name “Bezalel” בצלאל) ) means “in the shadow of God.”

This tzel /tzelem dynamic helps us better understand what it means to be created “in the image of God”. A shadow is not an exact replica, it is an imperfect copy of the perfect real image. Even though man’s nature is different from God’s, man is capable of resembling God’s actions: His love, His mercy, His justice. Moreover, man becomes truly human as he endeavors to resemble God.

A New Reading of the Old Story

Whom did God create in Genesis 1? Everyone knows the story of Genesis 2: first, God fashions Adam from dust and places him in the Garden of Eden, and only at the end of this chapter is Eve created from one of Adam’s ribs. This is the traditional understanding: Creation of the Man occurs first, whereas creation of the woman occurs some time later, after the animals are created. However, some Jewish commentators read this story in a very different way. Let us look closely at the Scriptures – and let me remind you, we are still in the first chapter!

Genesis 1:26 first refers to adam in the singular, but then says that “they shall rule”. Who are “they?” We find an answer in verse 27 where the nature of this creation is clarified: “male and female He created them[2]. The truth is that “let us make man[3] of English translation is a very unfortunate rendering of the Hebrew word “adam”: this word simply means “human” and doesn’t necessarily denote a male only. We see it very clearly in Genesis 5: He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them adam.[4]”  

So, was it one being or two?  A number of rabbinic passages maintain that the first human was actually comprised of both genders. Thus, Midrash Bereshit Rabba says: “man and woman were originally undivided, i.e. adam was at first created … hermaphrodite”. In Midrash Leviticus Rabbah we read: “At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be He created Man, He created him as an Androgynous”. According to this concept, God creates a human who is both male and female.

In the next chapter, we will see God looking at this two-gendered creature and for the first time in all His creative work saying: lo tov – “not good”[5].  This was clearly not the ideal way of creating a male/female couple, so God divided them into two separate people. That’s why, when a man and woman marry, they become “one”: they return to God’s original design before the man and the woman were separated – but we will definitely talk more about this when we get to Genesis 2.

Where do you meet Adam?

I suppose, at this point you are already convinced that we miss many important details when our understanding of Scripture is based upon translation and not upon the original Hebrew text. Mistranslations surrounding the word “adam” abound in these first chapters—while it is precisely in these chapters that the true understanding of God’s message and God’s design is so crucial! For example, when is the first time we meet Adam in the Bible?

I wrote about that recently in my post on the Bereshit Torah Portion; however, the difference between the English and Hebrew texts is so striking here that I think I should repeat it. When we read our English Bible, there is no Adam in Genesis 1 – we first encounter Adam in Genesis 2. (Most translations introduce him in Genesis 2:20, although some do speak about Adam in verse 19). However, you will remember that in Hebrew we saw Adam in Genesis 1:26, in the very verse we just discussed. Why?

The explanation, as always, comes from the Hebrew language. While in English, Adam is always a personal name, in Hebrew, as we just learned, it also means “human” and can be used both in collective sense and in an individual sense. In Genesis 1, “adam” is used in the collective sense: not only the individual Adam, but all humans are created on the sixth day. In Genesis 2 and 3, the generic and personal usages are mixed. This interplay between the individual “Adam” and collective “humankind”, and  the ambiguity throughout the narrative, certainly adds a new dimension and brings additional depth to the crucial events of Genesis 3 – something that is completely missed in translations (again, we will talk about it more when we get there).

We are almost done with Chapter 1, but before we move to Chapter 2, I would like to give you a home assignment. We would all know that the sixth day of Creation differs from all the other days; however, only when read in Hebrew, can we really understand how special this day is. In Hebrew, there is an obvious difference between Genesis 1:31 and all the other days. Most translations don’t render this difference, although some do. So – this assignment is for those who know some Hebrew: can you try to find the difference between the sixth day and all the previous days in Genesis 1? You have a week – I will start my next post with the answer!

 

[1] Gen. 9:6

[2] Gen. 1:27

[3] Gen. 1:26, adam here is usually translated as Man.

[4] Gen. 5:2, adam here is usually translated as Mankind.

[5] Gen. 2:18

 

 If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses  (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  . Also, Also,  my last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”, with the Hebrew insights into the Torah and  Jewish Background insights   into NT,  is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (13 comments)

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  1. Ugo

    Thanks Dr. Julia for the insightful post.

    If all humans were created on the 6th day, could that also mean that other individuals beyond the “singular adam” were created the same time? Would that explain how Adam’s sons were able to find wives who may not have been their immediate biological sisters in the later chapters of Genesis?

  2. Michael Toliver

    Hello Professor,
    I am sorry to be writing so late on this but my time was taken up. Your insight on the Hebrew is outstanding, especially the part on the shadow. Certainly, the English does not give us that understanding but I found it to be enlightening! Thank you for taking the time to post some of your knowledge and understanding of the Hebrew language in relation to the Bible.

  3. Dorothy Healy

    Julia, you say that the English translation is a very unfortunate rendering of the Hebrew word “adam”. That may seem to be so but, as a mature age woman, I am completely comfortable with the term ‘man’ being a generic word, and have no difficulty accepting this as a norm of the English language – it is the politically correct generation that choose to be “offended” and insist we change our language.

    1. Julia Blum

      I understand Dorothy, in the modern Hebrew adam is not neutral either, it definitely has “male sound” also (like “man” in English). However, in Genesis 5:2 we read: “He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them adam in the day they were created” – and we cannot ignore that.

  4. Mario Torres

    Baruch HaShem

  5. Nick

    I love this careful look at Genesis. Foundational understanding of ourselves and G-d determine so much concerning the very purpose and intent of existence. Isn’t that what “religion” is supposed to be about??
    Thanks Julia,
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Nick, I totally agree. I really think that if we understand better these first chapters, we will gain deeper understanding of the very essence and purpose of our life.

  6. Stephen

    I sincerely disagree with the rabbi’s on the possibility of creating “man” as a hermaphrodite. That would mean that God goofed!! You admit it with pointing out that in Gen 2:18 that it is recorded for the first time that the words “saying: lo tov – “not good”. But we know that that phrase is really “it is NOT GOOD (lo tov) that man (ha’adam) be alone”. Thus introducing isha.

    God is formless, God is timeless. God is what He is (Exodus 3:14)

    1. Angeline

      Formless indeed. I believe Julia was making that point when she said translating tselem as “image” is a little out, which means we cannot resemble God’s form. Did God goof, no it is the human who failed to cope alone and as usual God came to the rescue.

    2. Dorothy Healy

      Nick, We cannot deny that, in Chapter 2, Isha was taken from the side of Ish – therefore they must have been one to begin with. This, of course, does NOT mean that God ever wanted hermaphrodites to be the norm. But this is necessary to make the profound point that the two BECOME ONE when joined in marriage.

      Paul says marriage is a deep mystery, because ultimately, it points to Christ and the Church – reflecting His perfect love and unity with His Bride. No wonder Satan has attacked sexuality, marriage, gender etc. It is in wrestling with these problematic scriptures that we come to appreciate the immensity of God’s love.

    3. Julia Blum

      I don’t think God “goofed”, Stephen. I think, in the second chapter we see the process in a slow motion – and this is just a certain phase of this process.

      1. Chris J.

        Hi Julia Blum, I am curious if you have read the research of Mauro Biglino and the literal translations from ancient text to English and what your thoughts are? I have read that King James had over 48 books of the original Christian bible altered or removed for purposes of retaining power and control over people, I have read that the idea of reincarnation was in the original Christian bible but was purposely removed because Rulers in power wanted us to believe we only had 1 shot at going to heaven or hell and that we had better do as we are told… I’ve read that creationism is not mentioned in the ancient text but through literal translations DNA manipulation is. I read that the word abomination or nothing remotely like it even exists in the original ancient text. I read that words like God or El or Satan are really more like titles or rank, and so much more that it baffles the mind… very interesting. What are your thoughts?

        1. Julia Blum

          Hi Chris, no, I am not familiar with the works of Mauro Biglino, but I’ve been wondering what exactly you mean when you write about “original Christian Bible”. I don’t think the idea of reincarnation was explicitly expressed in any of the ancient biblical texts, but I can tell you that many religious Jews do interpret several places in the Hebrew Scriptures along those lines and therefore they do believe in reincarnation. Finally, I can confirm that the word Elohim is a generic name and can refer to different spiritual entities. It can refer to heathen gods (idols) in plural, or to God of Israel in singular. Indeed, there are many things you can learn from Hebrew; sign up for our Discovering Hebrew Bible course and you will see for yourself.