In this essay Daniel Gullotta takes a look back seeking to understand the Hebrew understanding of the human person and the origins of this idea that we human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. How did we come to this understanding? This commentary was originally submitted as an essay in his theology studies at ACU.
The Hebrew understanding of the Human Person —
Our bodies tell a story. Like our lives, our bodies grow with us and form a part of identity, helping define who we are as individuals and as communities. In the ancient world, the Hebrew people believed that they were YHWH's special people. That YHWH has made a covenant with them and through this covenant that they have been made separate from the rest of the world. While they were a special people, they had unique ideas and beliefs about the universe and how it all worked. In what way did they see themselves? How did they understand the functions and differences in their bodies? What was the purpose of sexuality and procreation? According to their beliefs, how did they define the flesh, the soul, and ultimately, the human person? This essay will examine and study these questions and issues and attempt to reconstruction the ancient Hebrew understanding of anthropology.
Genesis 1:27 contains a phrase of particular interest to understanding Hebrew anthropology, in which the Priestly [P] author states that human beings are created "in the image of God". This language only appears in this verse (while it is implied elsewhere, e.g., Psalm 8). According to the [P] formula, God creates the world for humans in six days and rests on the seventh, the creation of human beings being his climatic creative act. God's intent is expressed by "let us make humankind", echoing the language of ancient Near Eastern literature in which the gods decide the origins and fate of humankind. While [P] does paint a picture of a divine assembly, in contrast to other pagan religions, it is YHWH and YHWH alone who makes the decision (Gen 11:3,7; Deut 32:8-9; 1 Kgs 22:19-22; Isa 6; 40:1-11; Job 1-2). While the other creatures (fishes, birds, animals) find their origin from the waters and land of the earth, it is in "in our image (or according to our likeness)" that humans find theirs. In this sense, the human is a statue of a deity, not by static being but by action, who YHWH gives dominion over all things previously created (v 26).
The fact that [P] makes the point of all humankind being made in the "image of God" is definitely noteworthy in comparison to other ancient Near East beliefs. In the ancient world, the king was often called the image of the deity and was vested with the god's authority. According to Mesopotamian cosmogonies, humans are merely slaves to the gods however there is no such language found within Genesis. Human begins are not made up of the flesh of the gods or a god, nor does it say that we have no purpose but to be the god's slaves, and nor does it simply focus on the "image of God" being in one or several heroic and mighty individuals. Every single human in this world, from the governing king to the lowly peasant (and worse) is made in the "image of God".
What is even more striking about [P]'s creation story is that both male and female are created to govern creation together (Gen 1: 26-28) and that both of them are created in God's image and likeness. This means that females image the divine as much as the male and this is reinforced as both of them are addressed together by God in v. 28. This however, does not me that the Hebrew people understood their roles in life as identical (far from it), however, it does inform that their likeness to God pertains not only what they have in common but also what remains distinctive about them. God talks to them directly as "male" and "female", not indicating the distinction for animals, thus signifying that both procreation and sexuality are involved. The same also applies to the second creation story found in Genesis 2, where the forming of Eve as a "helper" to Adam makes it possible for the two to have children — which Adam could not do on this own. God makes it clear that human beings, men and women, need each other.
John Golingay, in light of all this says that the "First Testament has no concept of the single life". Everyone is apart of a family, even if they are single or widowed, they might stay with brothers or sisters or parents, or in the case of a woman become someone's second wife, or even become a member of her children's family. The point is that every one has a place and that everyone belongs, one way or another. The ancient Hebrews understood humanity as interdependent, people; men and women are involved in the life of the family, the faith, and the nation. It is simply not good for someone to be alone.
The relationship between inner and outer…
Yet, focusing on the individual human person we can see a relationship between the inner and the outer person, heart or soul and body or flesh. Both are given to humanity as gifts of God, both are intrinsic to the person, both are used in one's relationship with YHWH, and both are a part of the wider understanding of being made "in the image of God". While there are similarities with Platonic understandings of the body and soul, in so far that they are distinctive and different from one another, yet ancient Hebrew beliefs portray a profounder and much more complex understanding of the two. As Joel Green and Stuart Palmer point out, the 'dualisms' of Platonic, Christian, and Western thought do not work with the understandings the Hebrew scriptures present. Human beings do not simply comprise of soul and body – they are richer and more complex.
The most common pairing of what we call inner and outer aspects in the scriptures is the heart and the flesh (ex. Ps 73:26; Prov 15:30; Eccles 11:10; Ezek 44:7, 9 etc.) Keeping this in mind, "the heart", like the common of the soul, suggests an inner and invisible aspect to the human person. Yet, the heart is a physical organ, not an immaterial 'spirit' of some sort; rather, it denotes awareness and feeling having a physical base. While YHWH has no physical appearance or body, YHWH uses the analogy of the body in texts about relating, feeling, deciding, and forming moral attitudes — for humans, these thoughts and feelings intrinsically involve a body. In the eyes of YHWH, the human beings and its body is not corrupt or fallible thing, but actually something of great beauty. The Song of Songs goes to great lengths to detail the physical splendor of both the male and the female, even flesh and bones can cry out for YHWH (Ps 51:8, 63:1, 84:2). The ancient Hebrew's understood the human person as one whole. In short, God creates both the heart and the body, and commands people to use both. As Jon Berquist summaries, "Israel's chief conception of the body is its wholeness."
While the heart and the body is part of the identity of the human person, emotions are the essence. It is no wonder then, that YHWH being an emotional god, human beings are emotional creatures. As YHWH is in relationships with Israel and individuals, and individuals in relationships with Israel and YHWH, such relationships involve love, anger, pain, envy, and fear. However, the person as a relationship with itself, as the inner and outer person interact with one another. Physical pain affects the inner person, sinful deeds affect the heart, and righteous acts strengthen their souls. In this sense, it is the deeds that make the person. Even if these acts go unseen or unnoticed (whether they are good or evil), the reality remains the same. YHWH sees and YHWH knows who the 'real' person is.
In conclusion, we can see how different the Hebrew understanding of the human person is compared to other ancient beliefs about anthropology. Rather then being simple creatures made to be slaves of the gods, the Hebrew Scriptures detail a rich and complex tradition of how they understood themselves in relation to each other, their deeds, to YHWH, and to their inner and outer selves. Rather then the dualism of Platonic thought, they took a more holistic approach to the human person, seeing it as an important mixture of heart and flesh. Yet, we can see that they had difficultly in defining how it all worked and why the human person was so complex. Most striking of all is the belief that every human being was made in God's image. In this understanding there is a universal sense of equality to humanity in the eyes of YHWH, that the divine can be found in anyone and anywhere, and that one finds God in the faces of other people.
Daniel Gullotta 30/05/2009
What are your thoughts on this commentary?