There is a story of angels who grew bothered when they learned that God had planned to make human beings in God’s own image. “How can something so precious and powerful be entrusted to this creature?” So they conspired to hide the image of God where no one would ever think to look for it.
“How about we put it at the bottom of the sea where no one ever goes?” suggested one angel.
“No, at the top of the highest mountain that no one will ever scale would be far better,” another said.
One by one the suggestions rolled in, only to be rejected by the larger company of angels. Then the shrewdest of all the angels offered the best idea of the day: “Let us hide the divine image in the heart of every man and woman. That is the last place in the world they will look for it.”
So the angels hid the precious divine image within the heart of human beings, where it has resided ever since.
Few verses in Scripture create more confusion and inspire more awe than these two from Genesis 1: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (26-27).
We shouldn’t miss the detail that we humans do not have all of the sixth day of creation to ourselves. God has us sharing the limelight with cows that burp methane and with creeping things that gave birth to the whole pest control industry. Yet there is something special about this human creature. As preaching instructor Fred Craddock put it: “God said … I am proud of the squirrel, I love the elephant, the horse is good, the mule is nice, and I do like these llamas, but the one that is exactly like me is this one. I have breathed in this one my own life.”
If pressed, Craddock might have reconsidered his phrase “exactly like me.” Human beings are not replicas or strict imitations of God. “Likeness” or “resemblance” hit closer to the mark. The Hebrew word translated “image” is tselem, from a root meaning shade or shadow.
Think of a young boy outside on a sunny day trying to outrun his shadow on the sidewalk. First he stomps on it curiously, baffled at how anything could look and move so much like him. Then he attempts to run away from it, figuring his speed will surely allow for separation. But in the end he discovers that he cannot shake his shadow. As with every other shadow, it remains inseparably tied to its source.
I sometimes think about people who spend their lives running from God, stretching out their independence like an expanded rubber band, only to eventually learn that they cannot escape the one from whose image they originate.
Any of us can easily get confused. How tempting to make God into our image. Such a mistake happens every time we project onto God the way we wish God were. Give me the opportunity to make faith a self-centered enterprise and I can turn God into anything from a lumpy union organizer to a muscular banker. Did you know that God drives a Prius?
Since the Genesis account makes no mention of God’s bodily appearance, we ought to focus our ideas of resemblance on God’s activities and powers. God speaks, names, blesses and beholds. God makes and sets free. God expresses care and pronounces goodness.
Squirrels, elephants and llamas cannot plan, create or contemplate. Horses and mules cannot marvel, feel awe or articulate a future. But human beings can.
There is something else we can do. We can love. Because God is love, it stands to reason that where love is found wanting in the human heart, it’s going to be a struggle to locate the image of God hidden there — right where the angels put it.