Notes on Genesis (i)

‘Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness”…So God made man; in the image of God he made him; male and female he made them.’ (Gen 1:26f)

This is a very dense passage. Among other things that could be said, I’d like to note three matters.

The narrative in Genesis places the creation of humans on the sixth of the seven days of God’s creative activity. Every other act of creation is introduced by a formula according to which God says ‘Let there be…’, but here that which is created is spoken of as being made by someone who speaks in the plural (Let us make.) Perhaps the speaker is envisaged as using a plural of majesty, as kings and popes do when formally speaking; perhaps angels are being addressed. But Christian exegesis sees the plural as reflecting consultation between members of the Trinity, and this as having been appropriate because of the dignity of what was created on that day: ‘It is humanity, the greatest and most marvellous of living beings, and the creation most worthy of honour before God.’ (John Chrysostom) A Trinitarian interpretation may seem implausible: surely the person who wrote this section of Genesis cannot have intended this? Perhaps not, but literary theorists tell us that when a text is written it becomes the property of its readers, not its author, and one way of looking at the Church is to see it as the interpretative community formed around Scripture.

Image and likeness (eikon and homoiosis) are words which would have a great future in Greek patristic thought. The Fathers distinguish between them: ‘The expression “according to the image” indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression “according to the likeness” indicates assimilation to God through virtue.’ (John of Damscus) One is something given, the other must be worked for: ‘We possess the one [image] by creation; we acquire the other [likeness] by free will.’ (Gregory of Nyssa) ‘In days of old you created me out of nothing and honoured me with your divine image…Bring me back to your likeness, by restoring the ancient beauty.’ (Eulogetaria)

The transition from ‘man’ and ‘him’ to ‘male and female’ is not startling in the Greek, which uses the gender inclusive word ‘anthropos’ for ‘man’. Indeed, far from one gender being superior, each will find fulfilment in the other. The apparently older account of the creation preserved in Genesis 2 introduces the creation of the woman by the words by referring to the man being alone:  ‘It is not good…’ (Gen 2: 18). This is in rhetorical contrast to the expression ‘it is good’ that occurs six times in the first chapter of Genesis. And if we see the opening sections of the Fourth Gospel as having been laid out in a series of days corresponding to the days at the beginning of Genesis (the matter is discussed in the Orthodox Study Bible; note that this  Gospel begins with the same phrase that Genesis opens with, ‘In the beginning’), in an extraordinary parallel to the days of creation, the sixth day is that on which Christ is present at a wedding feast!