By J. Luis Dizon

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.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 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” (Genesis 1:26-28).[1]

This passage presents man as the most significant of God’s creations. According to it, man is set apart from the rest of creation as having been made in the image of God. This fact is central to the biblical view of humanity. For thousands of years, theologians have pondered over its meaning. The purpose of this article is to look at Genesis 1:26-28 (along with some related passages) to examine its meaning and how it has been understood by both historic and contemporary commentators. Hopefully, this will show the significance of this creation account to the biblical view of man.

The Crown of Creation

To begin with, it is important to put the creation of man in the context of the rest of the creation account. Man is created on the sixth day, which is itself is significant because more space is devoted to the sixth day than on any of the other days of creation: Over 120 words as opposed to the 20-70 words used for each of the other days.[2] Not only that, but of all the creatures listed as having been created on the sixth day, man is placed at the end of the list (verses 26-28); God literally saved the best for last. As has been pointed out, these verses “are intended to be viewed as the climax and crown of God’s creative work,”[3] and when God says “let Us,” this is meant to indicate that “something special is happening in this section.”[4] Stephen Dempster notes:

Thematically, as well as verbally, humanity is crowned the royalty of creation. Whereas other creations come about by the divine word in a predictable manner (‘Let there be … and it was so.’), there is a pregnant theological pause before the creation of humanity.[5]

Next, note that when God said “Let Us make man,” He uses the term ’ādām (אָדָ֛ם). Although this is primarily a masculine word, Peter Gentry notes that this word “[is] a generic term for mankind as both male and female, is created as the image of God”[6] This means that according to this passage, “[the] creation of mankind entails male and female,”[7] hence why the verse states that “male and female He created them” (v. 27). This means that men and women are equally made in God’s image, are equally the crown of creation and share the same dignity and benefits entailed by these facts.

The Imago Dei

In addition to this, it is necessary to look at the section where God states that man is made in His image and likeness, as this is the most important part of the passage. The terms “image” and “likeness” were considered by ancient writers from Irenaeus (circa A.D. 180) onwards to refer to distinct aspects of human nature. However, this distinction would have been foreign to the cultural setting that Genesis was written in.[8] The Hebrew text literally says God made man “in our image, as our likeness” (כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ), without any distinction made between the two terms. However, in the LXX, it is translated as “according to our image and according to our likeness” (κατ’ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν), and this translation is carried over to the Vulgate (ad imaginem et similitudinem), While the inclusion of the word “and” in these translations does not necessarily create a distinction between the two, it does lend itself to that misinterpretation. Also, both words mean substantially the same thing, which is “something that is similar but not identical to the thing it represents or is an ‘image’ of.”[9] Thus the words “image” and “likeness” are to be taken as two words referring to one concept.

So exactly which characteristics of man indicate that he is made in the image of God? This is a question that has many answers to it, and theologians have spent much time trying to pinpoint some characteristic or another which exemplify this image, be it man’s intellect, his sense of morality, his moral purity, his being created as male and female, or his dominion over the created order. However, the simplest answer is that being made in God’s image means that man resembles God, and this semblance entails all of the above qualities (plus other things, such as his sense of eternality, cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11).[10] To put it in the words of John Calvin: “[T]he image of God extends to everything in which the nature of man surpasses that of all other species of animals.”[11]

Two Related Passages

Having looked at Genesis 1:26-28, it is also important to look at other related passages that bear on the subject. First is the account of Adam’s begetting of Seth. This is found in the beginning of the Genesis 5, which reads:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth (Genesis 5:1-3, ESV).

Two observations need to be made here: First, even though man has fallen, the image of God is still present in him, albeit in a marred state. This continued presence of this image will later be important in discussing the dignity of man. Second is that there is a link being made between the creation of man by the Lord and the procreation of offspring by man. In Dempster’s words: “By juxtaposing the divine creation of Adam in the image of God and the subsequent human creation of Seth in the image of Adam, the transmission of the image of God through this genealogical line is implied.”[12]

Another important passage that should be discussed in connection with Genesis 1:26-28 is Psalm 8:5-8, where it is written:

Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field, The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas (Psalm 8:5-8).

It is widely held that this psalm is a direct commentary on Genesis 1:26-28.[13] It is interesting how verses 6-8 echo Genesis 1:28’s command for man to subdue the earth and have dominion over all creatures. Though the phrase “image of God” is not explicitly used here, the concept is clearly assumed, especially in the way that man is said to be crowned “with glory and honour” (וְהָדָ֣ר כָבֹ֖וד). The use of these words is important since these are royal terms which the biblical authors usually reserve for God. However, since man becomes His image-bearer and is given authority over the created order, the use of such terms for humanity becomes warranted and is more than appropriate given the context.

God’s Image and Human Dignity

All that being said, it is important to note what being made in the image of God entails for humanity. The primary result of this is that it gives man a certain dignity and worth that is unique among God’s creatures. As Calvin puts it, “when [God’s] image is placed in man, there is a kind of tacit antithesis, as it were, setting man apart from the crowd, and exalting him above all the other creatures.”[14] Contemporary Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer points out that man “is … wonderful as God made him in His image. Man has value because of who he was originally before the Fall.”[15] On this basis, the Bible presents a worldview where human life must be regarded with sanctity, so much so that God requires one’s life be reckoned if one sheds innocent blood. This is also seen in Genesis, particularly after the flood, when God states:

Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man (Genesis 9:5-6).

Here, the seriousness of taking human life is grounded in the fact that humanity is created in the image of God. As has been pointed out, “to murder another person … is to attack the part of creation that most resembles God, and it betrays an attempt or desire (if one were able) to attack God himself.”[16] Thus, it could be said that on this basis, murder is a form of sacrilege; an attempt to deface God’s image through the death of the image-bearer.

Thus, we see the great significance of the Bible’s teaching on the creation of man, particularly on his having been made in the image and likeness of God. This is important in informing us of what our place in the created order is, both as stewards of creation and as representations of God’s glory. This is also important because it gives value to human life, and because it determines how our conduct should be with regards to our fellow human beings.


[1] Scripture quotes are from the NASB unless stated otherwise.

[2] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 57.

[3] Peter J. Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12.1 (Spring 2008): 23.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 57.

[6] Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant,” 23.

[7] Ibid., 25.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 443.

[10] Ibid.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 107.

[12] Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 58.

[13] Ibid., 61, and Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant,” 29.

[14] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 107.

[15] Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (London: InterVarsity, 1968), 21.

[16] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 444.

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