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The Image of God in Judaism

The amazing claim in Genesis 1:26-27 that man and woman are created in the image of God is absolutely foundational to the Christian. To understand “image of God” is to understand the meaning of life. However, according to Jacob Neusner’s Judaism When Christianity Began, rabbinic Judaism takes a slightly different approach.

In my Christian tradition, the theology of “image of God” helps us understand what it means to be truly human. It defines humanity. What is different about Neusner’s approach, and the approach of the rabbinic sources he quotes, is that a theology of “image of God” helps us understand God. It defines Deity. Notice Neusner’s first words on this topic: “the Torah’s single most important teaching about God is that humanity is like God.” Notice that “image” is a “teaching about God” not a “teaching about humanity.”

Neusner explains that “God and the human being are mirror images of one another. Here we find the simple claim that the angels could not discern any physical difference whatever between man – Adam – and God.” He then proceeds to quote Genesis Rabbah VIII:X (a rabbinic source) which describes this interaction in which an angel can’t tell the difference between God and man. Why? Because God and man mirror each other so closely.

Neusner believes that this explains the many different descriptions of God in the Scriptures. For example, God is sometimes angry and sometimes joyful because people are sometimes angry and sometimes joyful: “That God may show diverse faces to various people is now established. The reason for God’s variety is made explicit. People differ, and God, in the image of whom all mortals are made, must therefore sustain diverse images – all of them formed in the model of human beings.” But regardless of these varying pictures of God, “however we know God, in whatever form or aspect, it is always one and the same God.”

This leads to another important point: we learn about God by learning about humanity. It is true, Neusner claims, that God is primarily made known in Torah. However, we also learn about God by learning about people, because people image God.

I’m still trying to learn how this fits with Christian theology. Christians must affirm that each and every human being is created in the image of God. Neusner’s theology also fits with Paul’s natural theology in Romans 1: nature (including people) testify to the greatness of God. Neusner’s theology even resembles John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion which begins with the claim that without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.

But my primary concern is sin. Yes we image God, but because of sin, the image is distorted. So when we look at distorted images we may get a distorted picture of God. So a theology of “image” may work for understanding the ideal human, but it doesn’t seem to work as well for understanding God.

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  1. February 20, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    The crucial missing element is Truth.
    Only God and elect men are able to know Truth. Not even angels know Truth.
    All other explanations are of little value. Truth is not something available to any sincere or studious person.
    Truth is Christ, and knowing Christ & Truth is a gift of God and is the definiiton of Eternal Life.

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