Blaise Webster examines the original Hebrew for "image and likeness" and its implications for man who exercises dominion over the earth.

Show Notes

We hear early in Genesis that man is made in the image and likeness of God and given dominion over the earth. On the surface, this text might appeal to the baser side of the human ego that lusts for power and prestige. But a deeper look will acknowledge that dominion over anything, large or small, carries an important burden of responsibility.

Blaise Webster, co-host of Tell Me the Story podcast, examines the original Hebrew for "image and likeness" and its serious implications for exercising dominion over the earth.  Rather than asserting possession over what God rightly owns, man is appointed like a manager entrusted with the company keys.  

What is Doulos?

The Doulos podcast explores servant leadership in an Orthodox Christian context.

Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And with me today is, of course, co-host Fr Timothy Lowe, former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, and our guest Blaise Webster, co-host of Tell Me the Story, also on the Ephesus School Network, which takes a deep dive into the Holy Scriptures with the sole purpose of illuminating the story being told, which is the responsibility of all teachers of the Bible. So Hello, Father Tim, and welcome Blaise. We're really happy you've joined us today.

Blaise Webster 0:49
I'm happy to be here.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:50
Likewise, Hollie. Welcome, Blaise.

Hollie Benton 0:52
Blaise attends St. Mary's Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas and works full time as a music teacher. Blaise, I'm curious what's prompted your intensive biblical research and podcast production with your co-host and colleague, Rowdy Wend?

Blaise Webster 1:09
Yeah, I think the story really starts with Fr Aaron Warwick. I was a catechumen at St. Mary's. And around that time that I became a catechumen, that's when he started doing the Teach Me Thy Statutes. And I was already vaguely interested in Biblical studies, but didn't really get deep into it until I started asking him a lot of questions. I don't want to say I annoyed him, but I may have asked too many questions. And eventually he was just like, just look into Fr Paul's work, I think you'd like it. And so I did. I showed it to Rowdy. Rowdy really loved it. And we formed a really close bond and decided someday we're going to do a podcast, but we wanted to wait until we had a little bit more knowledge under our belt. Eventually, the time came about a year ago. And we did our first episode.

Hollie Benton 1:58
Yeah, fabulous. And our listeners may not know it from the sound of your voice but you and your podcast co-host are young guys. I don't even think you're 30 yet.

Blaise Webster 2:07

Hollie Benton 2:08
So thank God for this work as you serve as a doulos in his household, serving the next generation, sowing the seed of life offered only through God's instruction. So may it be blessed. Blaise, you suggested we look today at the beginning of the story in Genesis 1 for today's daily bread. I'd like to invite today's listeners to go to some of the first episodes of your podcast, Tell Me the Story, as you and Rowdy really go deep into the Hebrew texts of Genesis to illumine that rich and fuller story. I'd like to read a short passage now from Genesis 1 starting with verse 26. "Then God said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God, He created him male and female, he created them." So as you know, these verses have prompted a lot of theological treatises about man being made in the image and likeness of God. On the surface, these verses might appeal to the baser side of our human egos, lusting after power, becoming like God and exercising dominion over the earth. But on the flip side, having dominion over anything, large or small, means carrying the weight or even the burden of responsibility. So I'd like to ask you to enlighten the story a little bit with the Hebrew text, the story of man's beginnings.

Blaise Webster 3:47
Right. So really, when we look in the Hebrew, we have to look at the words that get translated to image and likeness. So the word that gets translated to image in the original Hebrew is tselem, which is from a root, tsel, which connotes a shadow. So literally, tselem is a shadowy reflection and not a perfect likeness. The other word used in this passage is demuth which comes from damah, meaning to have a likeness, specifically, in the sense of blood relation. Damah is the feminine form of dam the word for blood. Obviously, this is metaphoric language, as God is not literally blood related to mankind, there is a clear sonship, of being bestowed to a dam, and thus it is again regal in nature. So the image of God is something in the ancient world that the king would possess, the king would literally image the deity and so this is the language that's being employed here. This is important biblically, because in the Semitic languages, the king is a melek, which also refers to an owner and he exercises complete control over the subjects that he owns. In Scripture, there's only one owner and that's the scriptural God. He is the King of kings. That's why God punishes David for having Uriah the Hittite killed so he could take Bathsheba as his own wife. From the cultural context of the ancient Near East. This was totally acceptable. But for scripture, David had no right to take what wasn't his because the only king the Bible acknowledges is the scriptural God. So this use of tselem is precisely to show that humans are given a functional role as being rulers of creation, but they don't have full control. They are vassals, to use a historical term. And this relation to vassaldom is important once the Bible gets into the nature of the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. This is what it means by humans being made in the image of God. It's a kingly rule, but one that usurps human power structure, and gives us a directive to shepherd creation, and not to abuse it. To echo Matthew 16. we are given the keys of the kingdom, not to do whatever we want with it, like we own the place, but to do what has been commanded of us in this role. We like to philosophize this in an attempt to give ourselves importance, but it simply isn't there. And speaking of philosophy, there's an apparently lucid example from the Greek of the Septuagint, which opts for translating tselem to eikon. Of course, for us Orthodox Christians, this word is very familiar to us as being where we get the word icon from. Eikon in Greek literally refers to a resemblance to something not a perfect image, that would be an idol, which is from the word eidos, which refers to seeing something. In this case, it would be seeing it as it really is, and not just a reflection of it. In other words, this is the basis for the distinction between idols and icons. In the ancient world, the belief was an idol, literally possessed the essence of the god it depicted. Icons are merely representative. And thus, we have this interesting occurrence in the Septuagint relating to humans as quote, unquote, "icons of God."

Hollie Benton 7:20
So just a resemblance and a function. A functionary duty.

Blaise Webster 7:24
Yeah, that's the idea. So this precision with the original languages is critical in understanding what this moment in Genesis really means. And I think to further illustrate this point, we have to look a bit farther in the story. The Bible always explains itself better than any commentary can, you just have to view it in its totality, which is one of the most valuable lessons Father Paul Tarrazi has taught throughout his career. But before we go too far into it, it's necessary to mention the importance of ownership in the context of reality in Scripture. Again, melek, the word for king comes from the same root that refers to owning something in Scripture. It's clear from countless examples in the text that God is the sole Melek in the story, even though there are many human characters who attempt to possess what has been given to them by God. The story that I would like to point out as an example of how this works, is in the story of Cain and Abel. So when we consider the functional meaning of both of these characters, we notice the paradigm being employed here. Biblical mashal typically makes use of opposites in order to communicate the teaching in the clearest and most memorable way. Remember in chapter one, how it made use of language like light and dark, dry land and watery sea, day and night, male and female, etc. Cain and Abel are no different. The name Cain is a play on the word qanah which is used by Eve when she gives birth to him. She says that she has gotten or qanah a man from the Lord. So it's clear that qanah refers to possession of some sort. Qayin is spelled exactly the same way as Cain in Hebrew. So literally, it means the spear. So Cain represents the concept of possession that leads to the violence of the spear and evolves increasingly, towards more powerful and destructive expressions, which leads to the human kingdom. This is also relatively clear early on in that Cain is also a farmer and someone who owns his plot of land to serve his own purposes. And that's why God doesn't have respect for his particular offering because he's offering something that he made with his own work. Abel, on the other hand, is the Bedouin shepherd who relies solely on God to the point where he is willing to give up the firstborn of his sheep completely out of trust. Abel means vapor. So he represents the practical reality that humans are finite, weak, and come and go like passing breath. He, unlike his brother, Cain, understands that God's gifts aren't inheritance and not possession. This is why God has respect for Abel's offering, but no respect for Cain's. This section is laying out for us, teaching us through this mashal, how God's grace works, and how we as believers should approach it. Again, to put this into perspective, the entire saga of Israel's inheritance of Canaan is all a mashal to set us up for the concept of salvation in the New Testament. Biblically, of course, we're saved first by the grace of God because it is He who bestows His grace of inheritance for us. And then we must respond to that grace by walking in faith, and trusting in God's promises. If we fail to respond to that grace and in turn failed to treat others with the grace God gave us, then we will lose our inheritance in the kingdom. That is biblical salvation. So the whole point here is to be receptive to biblical salvation. And to truly be an image bearer is to realize that you own nothing, everything is God's, but you're still expected to treat what God has given you, as if you own it. The dynamic is identical to the relationship between a boss and a manager. When the boss hands the manager a pair of keys to lock and unlock the doors, the boss is not giving the manager ownership of the building, he or she is simply giving the manager a task, the manager functions as the arms and legs for the boss, and must do what the boss expects of them, lest they be replaced by someone else. This is exactly what happens to the Canaanites when the Israelites take them over. They are replaced due to their failure to show mercy to those under them. And when Israel refuses to show mercy, they too are taken over and replaced. So when we think about the image of God, being made in the image of God, that's the responsibility that we have. We are managers in this company, so to speak. And if we don't do our job, then the keys get taken away. But when the manager hands you the keys, that doesn't mean that you know, the building is yours.

Hollie Benton 12:00
That's right. And even to be mindful in the way we speak of our children or of our spouses. We say we have a spouse or we have children, some are very careful to say instead, the Lord has blessed me with these children. Rather than these are my children, they belong to me. I love the functional responsibility. And the image of the keys is really a great image for that as well.

Blaise Webster 12:22
Yeah, that was the mistake of Eve when she said that she had gotten a man from the Lord. And then after that episode, when Seth comes along, she changes what she says. She says God has appointed for me a son. So it's a different dynamic. It's very clearly making the point that no human being, especially not the king, really has any power. It's all God. You can see that with how God uses Israel's enemies, like they're puppets, like the pharaoh of Egypt, you know, he deliberately hardens Pharaoh's heart in Exodus to show that Pharaoh isn't the real threat here. You know, Pharaoh is just a puppet.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 13:07
The human being as steward, therefore, entrusted for a period of time, with a task and a goal and a purpose. And how we so easily succumb to the idea of ownership, it's mine, therefore not yours. Therefore, we create a whole structure of society and life based upon that. And therefore, people starve, people lust after other things that people have and go to war. I mean, it just, the whole cycle just destroys everything around it. This teaching of image and likeness, human as steward, human as appointed, human as also a passing breath. Abel and Cain again, it all fits together, and this brilliant beginning of the scriptural texts. So thank you, Blaise.

Blaise Webster 13:51
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think that was one of the things that really caught my ears with Father Paul and how he talks about how even just the first four chapters just lay everything out. And it's true. You know, I think especially the story of Cain and Abel, that dichotomy between Cain and Abel as characters couldn't be any more in your face, about the point it's trying to make.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 14:16
And who survives and continues the legacy of the human disaster.

Blaise Webster 14:20
Right? Yeah, but what's interesting though, is that it eventually ends anyways, because it's his line that gets wiped out by the flood. It's Seth's line, that's the line that God appointed for Eve, that ends up continuing anyways. So you know, all that work that Cain did to build a city and everything, that in itself is hevel. It didn't go anywhere. It eventually had its own end.

Hollie Benton 14:45
So easy for us to dismiss it now in the 21st century thinking well, we all have to make a living, we all have to have a house and roof over our heads and protection for my family and schools for my children. And it's so easy to dismiss it all away, like how could we live just as Bedouin shepherds in a tent? The story even today critiques us because we do hear of stories, those who are burdened by the onslaught of war and find hope, even in living in simple tents in their communities, just trying to make it to the next day and thanking God for the breath that they have each day.

Blaise Webster 15:24
Absolutely. I think the Bible is a lot trickier now than it ever has been because of the way that we live. That's the name of the game. It's never easy to hear. It was never supposed to be easy to hear,

Fr. Timothy Lowe 15:36
Yeah, the burden is going to be on the young people now, as all of this becomes clearer and clearer in the mega self destruction of nature and people and empires. When they look to the future, what is there to see? This article I read on the Chinese youth who are at such a deep despair, that they've coined the term, "let it rot." They're disengaging. This way of life and appeal to them, there's no way to survive it just to be totally and utterly enslaved, hence the issue of Egypt and slavery, as opposed to liberation and desert life and being taught by God and fed by Him. And obviously, it's an idealism. We can't replicate it, we can't create it. It is nonetheless a dilemma of human existence.

Hollie Benton 16:21
That's right. Blaise, thank you so much. I really appreciate this conversation and God bless the work on your podcast, Tell Me the Story, and your continued biblical research.

Blaise Webster 16:33
Thanks for having me Hollie.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:34
Nice to see you, Blaise.

Blaise Webster 16:36
Nice to see you too, Fr. Timothy.

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