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Course on the Pentateuch – Exegesis of Genesis 1:26-31 – (The Sixth Day of Creation)

Minolta DSCAnd 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. 

This is the second work accomplished by God on the sixth day. The first, i.e. the creation of terrestrial animals, has been described in the preceding verses. It is appropriate to make some general comments. The first comment is that man is created on the sixth day. According to the jewish numerical symbology, the number 6 represents the incompleteness, since it immediately precedes the number 7. This is the number that represents totality and perfection. Thus the creation of man is the culmination of creation. However the creation is waiting for the seventh day, i.e. the day of the rest of God. It is perhaps another sign of the priestly author of this chapter, for which the celebration of the shabbat was the culmination of all human activities.

The centrality of the creation of man within the story is given by the position of verses 26-28 within the context formed by the verses 24-31. There are four speeches of God. The first one is the command with which God creates the animals, followed by the positive judgment (vv.24-25); the second speech is the decision to create man and the task entrusted to him, followed by the creation of mankind. In the third speech God blesses man, giving him again a task (vv.26-28). The fourth speech concerns the providential love of God for man and animals, followed by the very positive statement and the conclusion of the sixth day. So the creation of man is placed at the center of these verses, immediately surrounded by two speeches of God.

Let us make man. The subject of the sentence is the plural noun Elohim which is usually followed by a singular verb. For this reason the noun is always translated with God. Here we have a plural verb – na’aseh (first person plural imperfect of the verb ‘asah – “to make”) – even though the verb that follows the subject is singular: wayyomer (third person singular of the verb amar– to say). Therefore the translation And the gods said, Let us make … is impossible. However it is undeniable that there is a problem. It seems that here God speaks with a kind of heavenly court, attested elsewhere in the Bible (cf. 1 Kings 22:19; Gb 1-2; Isaiah 6:8). But the priestly author’s absolute monotheism of this chapter forces us to exclude this hypothesis. Other scholars believe that the plural na’aseh is a plural of deliberation, a kind of solemn desire to do something important, just as the creation of man. In my view, none of these solutions is satisfactory. It may be that elohim is the superlative of the eloah (i.e. the singular name from which elohim derives). Eloah comes from the root ‘alah (with aleph) which means someone that inspires fear. Therefore the superlative Elohim could mean the one who inspires the most absolute fear (click here for a more in-depth study).

In our image, after our likeness, (in hebr. betsalmenu [tselem] and kidemutenu [demut]). In the history of exegesis, scholars have discussed at length this passage. It is almost sure that the first term indicates a concrete similarity because tselem is generally used to indicate statues (cfr. 1 Sam 6:5; 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chr 23:17) or idols (Ezek 7:20; Nm 33:52). Demut instead indicates a little more abstract similarity. The term derives from the root damah that can be translated as to be like. However it’s preferable to take together these two nouns. They are used to describe the subject able to have a relationship with God.

The human task is to rule over other created beings. The verb have dominion translates the Hebrew radah which literally means to trample. Unfortunately from this meaning derives all interpretations that read in this verse the permission granted to man to exploit the animals and the natural resources. However, both radah that the following kabash (at the verse 28 – usually translated with to subdue) indicate the domain of the king (radah = Nm 24:19; 1 Kings 5:4; Sal 72:8; 110:2; Is 14:6; 18:1; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18; kabash = Nm 32:22.29; Gs 18:1; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Cr 22:18; 2 Cr 28:10; Ne 5:5; Est 7:8; Jer 34:11.16; Mich 7:19; Zech 9:15). In the cultural setting of the Ancient Near East, the king coincided with his people and his land. This was the concept of corporate personality.

Then we have three mentions of the verb bara’ (to create) to signal to the reader that this is the summit of creation. We must also pay attention to the pronouns attached to the three verbs … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he themIt is almost a synthesis in which are all the constituent elements of human nature. The important thing is the sexual duplicity that characterizes the human being. This verse eliminates any gender discrimination. The last mention of bara’ (male and female created he them) indicates that each person is incomplete without the female counterpart. At the end there are the first words of God to man, i.e. the command to be fruitful and to multiply on the face of the earth.

It seems that the early man’s diet was totally vegetarian. Probably this is a literary clichet of the so called golden age literary genre. That was an age in which man and God lived in total harmony. At the end the judgment of God was very good. This statement seems to extend not only to man, but to the whole work of creation that also includes humans. 

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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