Most of us have heard the words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But we know they are not true: all Men are not created equal. Some are born smarter, some are born not as smart at all. Some are born more athletic, some are born crippled. Some are born with the ability to make money, and some are not. Some are born artists, and some are born with no talent at all. I could go on, by why bother? I have just proven the Founders wrong, haven’t I? The answer is, NO! I have not — because I have addressed something totally different from what the Founders were actually thinking.
So, what were the Founders thinking when they adopted those words? Well, here’s a hint:*
Genesis 1:26 New American Standard Bible
26 Then God said, “Let Us make mankind 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 livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.”
Now, some might object, saying that Scripture has nothing to do with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. However, those people would be very, very wrong. Scripture has everything to do with the ideals expressed in the Declaration. Scripture is where our Founders found those ideals, and I will prove it.
On the surface, Gen 1:26 does not appear to be connected to the notion of all Men being created equal. If being made in the image of The Creator means having something to do with Intelligence, the ability to reason, emotions, self-awareness, the ability to communicate, the possession of a soul or spirit, a conscience or free will, then Scripture leaves us in the same place we just found ourselves in considering the claim that all Men are created equal. If this is the best Scripture can do, then Scripture would seem to have been proven to be wrong from the very first chapter. Luckily, this is not the best Scripture can do, and for the same reason that we failed to demonstrate the Founders’ claim about being created equal was wrong: we are looking at Scripture in the wrong context.
In truth, being made in the image of The Creator has nothing to do with any of the things I just listed. This is because the image of the Creator is not described as being something a person possesses by a matter of degrees. Scripture defines being created in the image of the Creator as an all-or-nothing characteristic: you are either created fully in His image or you do not. Let’s go back to the characteristics I previously listed: intelligence, the ability to reason, emotions, self-awareness, the ability to communicate, the possession of a soul or spirit, a conscience and free will. Animals have all exhibited these characteristics to some degree or another. This means that the image of the Creator can have anything to do with these traits or animals would also be made in His image.
Now, let’s look at the case of the unborn. If we are going to accept that we are all created equal, and that we possess the right to life from the moment of our creation, then the unborn must possess this right, as well. This means that whatever definition we devise for being human, or created in the image of The Creator, it must include the unborn. But the characteristics we’ve been discussing clearly do not apply to the unborn child. If we insist that these characteristics are what make man separate from all other living beings, or that they are connected to the image of The Creator, then the best we can say is that the unborn child possess the potential for these traits. But the potential to possess something is not the same as possessing it. Now, this might make the abortion crowd happy, but it does not get them around the clear language of the Declaration — or of Scripture! We are created in the image of The Creator, and it is this image that grants us equal rights, including the right to life. What’s more, this equality and our rights exist from the moment of creation, otherwise known as conception. And, once again, we find ourselves back at our original impasse: not understanding the proper context of the Declaration’s assertion of equal creation.
So, what — exactly — does it mean to be created in the image of the Creator, and how does it make us all equal from the moment of creation?
Well, let’s start by considering what must be included in our understanding of this image:
1 — It must include both men and women equally.
2 — It must be something that makes humanity distinct from all other living creatures.
3 — It must make humans like the Creator in some way.
4 — It must be an all-or-nothing trait.
There is a solution to our dilemma, and it lies in the proper understanding of Hebrew grammar. But we have to do something before we can hope to see and understand this solution. We have to be willing to move from our recalcitrance and take a look at this issue with new eyes, and from a different perspective. If and when we can do this, we might see that we have been ignoring a key possibility in our understanding of the Scriptures. Here, read the first part of Gen 1:26 again, and do so very carefully:
26 Then God said, “Let Us make mankind in Our image,…”
Does this mean to make Man in the physical appearance of The Creator? Are we sure? Remember, YHWH is pure spirit, so He has no body. So, what does a body-less being look like? Oh, but our problems do not end there. Did we notice the word, “in,” in this section of Gen 1:26? What difference can a simple, two-letter preposition make, you might ask? I would answer that — in this case — it makes all the difference in the world. Let me show you:
Consider the following uses of the word, “in:”
1 — I put the dish in the sink. Here, ‘in‘ is an indication of location: it tells us where I put the dish.
2 — I broke the mirror in pieces. Here, ‘in‘ is an indication of the results: it tells us what happened because of my actions.
3 — I work in education. Here, ‘in‘ indicates occupation: it tells us what I do, or in what field I work.
So, what is the word, ‘in,’ telling us in Gen 1:26? Well, before we try to make any final decisions, let us look at two more parts of that line of Scripture:
“Let Us make mankind in Our image, according to Our likeness…”
If we take the Hebrew words behind our English translation, we will find that this passage could just as easily — and correctly — be translated this way:
“Let us make mankind in our image, according to our image…”
“Let us make mankind in our likeness, according to our likeness…”
If you doubt me, look it up in an interlinear Bible and see for yourself. The words are interchangeable in meaning, but they also give us a clue to the better understanding. But first, before I explain this, look at one last section of Gen 1:26:
and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.”
Now, how is being made to look like The Creator connected to having authority over His creation? If we are honest, there is no logical connection to be made between being made to look like YHWH and then being placed in authority over His creation. But again, there is a solution here, and it lies in understanding Hebrew parallelism.
In a nutshell, Hebrew parallelism refers to the Hebrew habit of saying something, then saying it again in a slightly different way, only with more information in the second or repeated line. This is why, ““Let us make mankind in our image, according to our image…,” tells us we are not dealing with the way YHWH looks in the first ‘image.’ If that was the true point, then Hebrew parallelism would lead us to expect the second ‘image’ would actually tell us something more about our appearnce, but it doesn’t. If appearance is all that is in view here, then Gen 1:26 just says YHWH made us to look like Him, we were made to look like Him, we have authority. However, if we let Hebrew parallelism guide our understanding, and we consider the other possible indications of the word, “in,” we could easily translate Gen 1:26 to mean something closer to this:
“Let us make mankind as our servant, and let us make him to look like us, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.”
Look what we just did: we changed “look like, look like, rule over,” to “our servant, look like, authority over.” All we have done is change the meaning of “in.” In the first clause, “in” denotes occupation. In the second clause, “in” denotes appearance. This is what I mean by Hebrew parallelism: two clauses in repetition that are closely related, but each give different, connected information. Furthermore, this understanding resolves the missing connection between the image and the authority to rule over. BY reading Gen 1:26 in a way that is consistent with Hebrew parallelism, we can connect being made in the image of YHWH (working in the field of) with having the authority to do His bidding (rule over the other created beings). In essence, YHWH declares that He will make mankind in His image (to work in His field or place as His servants), then He gives them the command to do so (the command not only directs action, but it also grants the authority necessary to execute that action).
OK, so, I’m being as clear as mud, right? If so, try to think of it this way:
In Gen 1:26, YHWH declares that He will make mankind in His image, where YHWH’s image is related to His authority over all creation. Then YHWH says He will make mankind to look like — or more likely — have characteristics similar to Himself. Finally, YHWH gives mankind and order: rule over my creation. This order carries the authority necessary to execute it. And everything is suddenly resolved. Now we can see how the image of The Creator makes all Men equal: because all Men are created as servants of The Creator, and all Men are commanded to do the same job. This is an all-inclusive, not potential characteristic that is connected to our humanity and nothing else. What;s more, it is granted by, is under the direction of and remains the property of The Creator. Therefore, no man ever has the authority to change or usurp this characteristic.
In its proper context, Gen 1:26 simply states that:
YHWH created mankind to be His servant, and to have similar characteristics to Himself so that mankind can rule over His creation.
Now, let’s jump back to the Founders. They knew and understood this understanding, and it is reflected in their wording in the Declaration of Independence. Being created in the image of The Creator, all men are created equal, and they are created with certain rights that are inherent in their humanity. Chief among these rights is the right to life, for if we do not have claim to our life, then we cannot have that which is necessary to perform the mission The Creator has assigned to each of us. Likewise, we have a right to Liberty, so that we may be free to perform that mission. And we have the right to pursue happiness, which — in proper context — means to pursue the moral and virtuous life, so that we can remain faithful to The Creator in the execution of our assigned task.
I submit that this is both the proper understanding of Gen 1:26, as well as the true nature of the ideal expressed by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, I submit that this understanding neither breaks nor undermines the Scriptures while — at the same time — resolving any attempt to undermine the plain meaning of the wording found in the Declaration by arguing that the Founders asserted an untruth. In the sense that I have argued, we are created equally, and that equality is not found in anything other than the fact that we were all created by YHWH, we are created as equal servants of YHWH, and we were granted equal authority to govern over YHWH’s creation in this realm.
* I have absolutely no desire to claim the credit for another person’s ideas. Therefore, I would like to make it clearly understood that the bulk of what follows is a modestly re-framed re-statement of an argument presented by Dr. Michael S. Heiser, in his book, “The Unseen Realm.” You will find his version of this argument on pp. 40-43. Where the proper understanding of ‘the image of YHWH’ is concerned, I have attempted to remain as loyal to Dr. Heiser’s argument as possible, as I happen to agree with it. However, where I tie in the Founders and the Declaration: well, that part is original to me.