Community > Jewish Life > Beresheet: Man in the Image of God

Beresheet: Man in the Image of God

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

God Said: Let us make man in our image and likeness (1, 26). Man was created on the sixth day and was different from all that preceded him. Only his creation is recorded in two stages. First God made known His intention to create him and afterwards the account of his actual creation is recorded.

Man qualified for a special preamble. This separate and distinctive treatment was, Ramban points out, a measure of his pre-eminence and his difference in kind from the rest of the animal world whose creation was announced in the immediately preceding passage.

In Rechasim Lebik’a another and more arresting reason is advanced from the special preamble: “let us make” accorded to man. It paralleled the announcement heralding the creation of woman. There God had said before hand: “it is not good for man to be alone…” These explanatory announcements were not made in the case of other creatures. Their creation was announced without any such preliminary fanfares. Why? “They illustrated God’s fairness to all His creatures in not intimidating them by suddenly springing on them a ruler and governor, without warning. On the contrary, he said to them, ‘come let us make man’ like a king about to levy tax on his people, announcing: ‘come let us levy a tax on the country in your interest’.”

Others have found the source of man’s distinction in having been created last, Radak states: that “it was a sign of man’s honor and elevated status that he was created last to make known that all mortal creatures were created for his sake and he was made the lord of all them.”

Dubnow in the Biur elaborates on the same theme: “Man was the crown of creation, a little lower than the angels, possessor of an immortal soul, capable of an intelligent acknowledgment of His creator and ruling the world by dint of his wisdom. Let us make man, the creator announced. In other words, after I have created all the foregoing for the sake of man, to supply his needs and enjoyment, let the master enter his palace.”

Man’s status as the aim of creation and his uniqueness are underlined by the sublime phraseology describing his creation:

So God created man in his own image;
In the image of God created He him;
male and female created He them.

The style of the verse is poetic and elevated, the fact of man’s creation being referred to three times. The chasm separating man from the rest of creation is stressed twice in the statement that he was created in the image of God. Both the duties, responsibilities and glory of man derive from this. In this book Dat Umadda (Religion and Science), Prof. Gutmann dwells on the term: “The image of God” (p. 265):

Zelem (image) refers to the personal relationship that can only be found between “persons”. The personality of man is placed vis-à-vis the personality of God. For there is a religious approach (not Jewish) that sees the religious ideal in the effacement of man’s personality. “Man’s personality is regarded (according to this approach as a barrier between him and things… but this is not the case with an ethical religion. Only as long as man is a person can he preserve his relationship with God. Man is a world of his own and he is not required to merge himself in nature.

In other words, every individual is equally significant before God, since every man was created in His image.

Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he had destroyed a whole world and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world. (Mishna Sanhedrin 37a)

The uniqueness of the individual, a world to himself, unrepeatable is vividly portrayed in the continuation of the same Mishna:

The greatness of the Holy One blessed be He is thus demonstrated. For whereas when man prints many coins from one die, each one is a replica of the other, the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He stamped every man with the die of Adam yet no one exactly resembles his fellow.


Man as soon as he was created received a special divine blessing. However he was not the first creature to be blessed by God, but had been preceded by the fishes. The content of both blessings is similar but a very significant difference can be detected. Compare the blessing accorded the fishes:

And God blessed them, saying,
be fruitful and multiply
with the blessing received by man–
Then God blessed them and God said unto them,
be fruitful and multiply.

The fish do not qualify for a special address to them by God. They are merely granted the power to be fruitful and multiply. This is their blessing. Man however, besides being given the power to be fruitful and multiply, is especially told by God to be fruitful and multiply and is conscious of his power to do so. What is merely an impersonal fact with regard to the rest of the animal creation is a conscious fact with regard to man. A similar idea is to be found in the statement in Pirkei Avot (3, 14).

Beloved is man since he was created in God’s image; But it was by a special love that it was made known him that he was created in God’s image.

Man who was created in God’s image is charged with a special task over and above those applying to the rest of creation. (1, 28)

And God blessed them, and God said unto 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 heaven;
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth;

The phrase “subdue it’ is rather puzzling at first glance, bearing as it does a bellicose significance which is at variance with the peaceful ideals that our sages considered to be the goal of mankind. Indeed the very origin of man in one single pair was, according to them, activated by the Divine wish to prevent war between mankind. This point is made in the Tosefta cited in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b:

Man was created alone in the world to prevent inter-family feud. Now if in spite of the fact that he was created alone, strife has developed between them, all the more so if two would have been created!

The Mishna we have already referred to in Sanhedrin goes further and derives from the creation of the first man and woman the principle of brotherhood of man and the condemnation of any special theory.

For this reason man was created alone, for the sake of peace between mankind, so that one man should not say to his fellow: My father was greater than yours!

The blessing therefore to “subdue it” cannot refer to man being bidden to make war on his neighbor. Ramban enlightens us on this point. Man he says, was thereby given dominion over the earth to do as his will with the rest of the animal creation, to build, uproot, plant, mine metal from the earth and the like. The phrase, therefore, refers rather to man’s conquest of the desert and his constructive and civilizing endeavors to build and inhabit the world, harness the forces of nature for his own good and exploit the mineral wealth around him. In the words of Isaiah: “the world was not created to be waste, but to be inhabited” (14, 19). It was man’s privilege accorded to him by his Creator to have dominion over the creation and to rule over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moved.

The order of creation also sets man up as a pinnacle of it all, as he comes after the fishes on the fifth day and animals on the sixth. Let us cite once again from the words of Gutmann on this theme:

Man is not subservient to the world. The forces of nature are not supernatural ones that are superior to him. But he stands on the side of God against nature.


Man is in our sidra addressed in the second person by God who directs His gaze from above to the earth below. The psalmist in Psalm 8, as he surveys the heavens and their hosts and senses at one and the same time both his insignificance in the whole universe and his honored position as a ruler on earth, directs his gaze from below to the Above, addressing God in the second person:


“When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou has ordained; What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”


For Thou hast made him a little lower than angels, and hast crowned him glory and honor.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.