The Tselem of God

In a previous post I discussed the basic concept of human dignity as image-bearers of God. I’d like to tease that out a bit further, however, with a look at the Hebrew language used in this phrase. Typically we translate the Hebrew word צלם (tselem) into English as “image” or something similar and that is even the language I used in the previous post, but that could allow us to look past something helpful if we aren’t careful.

Literally this word, tselem, is closer to “statue.” In fact, the same word is translated “idol” and spoken of negatively when speaking of the physical images of other gods (Num 33:52; 1 Sam 6:5,11). While “idols” in other nearby religions were not seen as the gods themselves, they were used as a way to represent a god in worship, helping his or her worshippers focus on the god that they were worshipping. The Israelites, by contrast, were forbidden from making these “idols” like their neighbours, something that was unheard of at this time (at least as far as we know).

There is another similar fact we can learn from looking at other Ancient Near Eastern culture. When kings conquered a new area, they would set up a tselem (statue) in the area. The newly-conquered people had to remember that they were not part of a different kingdom, a fact which would carry a certain set of implications with it.

This leads many scholars to conclude something radical for Ancient Near Eastern religion: we (humanity) are designed to be the representatives of God to the world. Others should see the nature of God in us in such a way that it prompts them to want to learn more about this god, to worship this god, and to participate in this god’s kingdom. This theory is supported by similar language used in the New Testament, such as when Paul claims that all Christians are ambassadors to Christ as part of their new creation:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

(2 Cor 5:16-21 NRSV)

This can sometimes mistakenly be boiled down to proclamation. There is no doubt that there is an essential place for speaking about your faith in God. The Bible never stops at this point and it is important that we don’t stop there either. Our faith is not simply one of speaking, of accepting the right intellectual concepts, or even of hope in the afterlife.

Our faith is one where we show God to the world, which necessitates acting in a way consistent with God’s character. If God is love, we must also seek to act in love. If God’s forgiveness knows no limits, ours must not either. Of course we will sometimes stumble and fall – we are broken image bearers, not perfect ones – but we must strive to stumble forward in our mission to represent Christ and his love to the world. We are the tselem of God.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Hrm…. someone’s been reading “The Drama of Scripture” and “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society”. 😉

    Honestly, this translation of “image” is one that has really shaped my life lately… rather than needing to go out and make some sort of verbal argument for God’s kingdom, I see it as being the Ebenezer of God’s Kingdom… “Here is God’s Kingdom. Where I and my community stand, this is where you can find the nature and character of God. We represent God here on earth.”… again, not in words so much as in standing out in such an immensely dynamic way that folks can have no doubt that God’s reign is present.

    • Just “Drama of Scripture” a few months ago. Never read Gospel in a Pluralist Society. I remember first noticing it in my Hebrew textbook where the dictionary translated it as “statue” and I kept rechecking the word wondering why it wasn’t the translation I was used to for that verse. Then around the same time a friend pointed out the same thing to me and my mind was blown that I had never heard that before.