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All Humans Are Created in the Image of God - Genesis 1, 9

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 1 and 9

Rather than focus on abortion, this lesson takes the broader issue of “the image of God” (which even unborn children possess) and how all people possess it. You class should come away with a renewed commitment that every person is precious to God and that Jesus died for every person.

So God created man in his own image (Gen 1:27)

This blog started as a printed resource for teachers. I am slowly adding earlier resources for future reference.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

[Sanctity of Human Life Sunday: Get Your Bearings. January 22 is the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, giving all women right to abortion-on-demand in the US. Consequently, this Sunday’s annual lesson has often focused on the sanctity of human life in the womb. This week, however, the lesson is pulling further back to the concepts of “the image of God” and murder; in other words, the importance of protecting all human life. I’m in favor of that—it gives this lesson a little variety—but I strongly encourage you to make it clear to your group that when you talk about “the image of God” and other amazing things about being human, we are human beings from conception. That’s why we defend the rights of the unborn.]

What’s So Great about Humans?

Peter Singer (a professor at Princeton) has long held notoriety as the man who teaches that all animals have equal rights. And humans are just animals. Let’s be honest—if you believe in evolution, the only reason you believe humans have more rights is “survival of the fittest”. Only in Christianity, with our doctrine of the image of God, do we have a defined belief that humans are not just animals. So, as part of your icebreaker, ask your group what’s so great about humans? What makes us not like animals? If your group needs help with this, throw out these bones: People are fascinated with dogs because they have such loyalty, the ability to be well-trained, and they demonstrate empathy. People are fascinated with chimpanzees because they can use rudimentary tools, and they have a well-defined social structure. People are fascinated with dolphins because they can communicate with sophistication and are very curious. People are fascinated with elephants because they appreciate death and are sacrificial toward their young. People are fascinated with penguins because they mate for life and have a clear path for raising their chicks. That’s really cool, right? Well, humans have the ability to observe, interpret, and appreciate those behaviors. Why? Because we have so much more innately within us. “Live Science” did a survey of human qualities (from an evolutionary perspective) and came up with unique traits of humans: larynx (for articulation), upright posture (freeing our hands for tools), ability to make clothing (instant adaptation), brains, hand structure, ability to blush, and females live long after childbearing age. That’s all really interesting, but when I think of that question, I go straight to creativity, imagination, logic and reason, complex buildings, ethics and morality, interpreted memory, complex relationships, complex communication, and complex emotions such as doubt, regret, anticipation, jealousy, relationships based on love, and yearning. Most important of all, though, is our unique ability to relate to God. It’s not a small thing that every human being has some sort of religion (and no animal does). God created us uniquely so that we could have a relationship with Him. Jesus came as a human, not as anything else.

Please don’t focus on the negative parts of humans. That’s for another day.


This Week's Big Idea: The Image of God

We’ve talked about this before, and we will talk about this again. God created us in His image. That makes humans utterly unique in the universe (the Bible doesn’t say that angels were made in God’s image). In the verse before our passage, God said, “Let us make man in our image [semel], according to our likeness [demut].” (Gen 1:26) “Image” often means “representation” and “likeness” often means “visual similarity”. A lot of ink has wrongly been spilled trying to distinguish those two words, but when it comes to humans and God, they are essentially interchangeable and complementary. In Gen 1:27, “image” is used without “likeness”; in 5:1, “likeness” is used without “image”; and in 5:3, both are used in reverse order from 1:26. The idea seems to be that humans are wholly and fully the “image of God” in a way no animal is.

Here are the things theologians have traditionally identified as the “image of God”: spirit, soul, rationality, will, mind, personality. That’s a pretty good list! But the truth is that the Bible does not identify a specific element of “image” that we’re supposed to focus on. Rather, we’re much better off realizing that the entire human being is the image of God.

In the immediate context of Genesis 1, God commissions Adam to “subdue” the earth, “fill” it, and “rule over” the earth. God specifically notes that both “male and female” are equally made in His image. Timothy Keller wrote an excellent book (Every Good Endeavor) explaining how our work/job/career intersects with this original commission, and I highly recommend it. One of his subtle points is that the “image of God” must be directly related to His commission to Adam. In other words, what God told Adam to do, that no other animal could do, is based on the fact that Adam alone was made in God’s image. “Fill” “rule” and “subdue” thus relate to:

  • Conservation (land and resource management)

  • Cultivation (advancement and technology)

  • Culture (expression and identity)

  • Society (laws, communication, economics)

  • Development (planning and implementation)

(That’s my oversimplified summary and interpretation of his book. When God says “fill the earth”, He doesn’t just mean “with more people” but also with our imprint. We leave our mark all over the earth—that’s where “culture” and “cultivation” come into play.) Take an in-depth look at those concepts. They demand everything that makes us us, including “will” and “mind” and “personality”. In other words, the ability to do and create those things is rooted in the image of God. But those things take all of us—creativity, ingenuity, logic, perseverance, compromise, and more. Everything that God took to create the universe and plan for our salvation, He gave us a likeness of that (however limited).

When Adam sinned, the image of God in him was marred somehow, but not removed. Seth and others were still considered “sons of God”. This is important because no branch of humanity is described as not having the image of God. Every child of Adam (and that means all of us) is made in God’s image. No matter how sinful a person is, that person is still made in God’s image (and Jesus died for that person). No matter how young or old, rich or poor, male or female—all people are equally made in God’s image.

I think that there is one last but critical component to being made in God’s image: our immortal spirit. Without getting into the weeds of where our spirit comes from or if it is distinct from our soul, what matters is that humans have eternity in our being. (Other animals don’t. Dogs don’t go to heaven.) That’s how Jesus could truly and fully be human—human souls are eternal. We will live forever, either in God’s presence or apart from it.

Refer to 2 Cor 4:4 (Jesus is the image of God); Col 1:15 (Jesus is the image of the invisible God); Heb 1:3 (Jesus is the exact representation of God); Col 3:10 (Christians are being renewed in the image of our Creator); 1 Cor 15:49 (Christians will bear the image of Jesus); 1 John 3:2 (Christians will be like Jesus when He returns) when this topic comes up.


Where We Are in Genesis

This is sanctity of Human Life Sunday, and that’s why we’re taking a break from the story of Jacob. So, why do we talk about this every year? Because our culture doesn’t get it. And if Christians stop fighting for every human life, no one else will. The CDC releases numbers about abortion several years behind (they just released 2015); in 2015, there were 638,000 legal abortions. That’s slightly down from 652,000 in 2014 (and it’s way down from the peak when 1.4 million babies were killed in 1990). However, CA MD and NH do not report their numbers (!), so private institutions estimate that the total number of abortions was closer to 913,000 in 2015. That’s why we keep talking about it.

Additionally, “hate crimes” are on the rise in our country. Sadly, we tend to argue about what “hate crime” even means, and 90% of police jurisdictions don’t even report such crimes. But I think we can all think of multiple dramatic instances of violence recently carried out against a targeted segment of our population (murder in a synagogue, in a black church, in a Baptist church, in a gay bar, in a Muslim refugee area, etc.). Let me just call it “crimes of prejudice”—acts of violence focused on the color of a person’s skin, a person’s religion, age, gender, socioeconomic class, country of origin, etc.

Both of those things, abortions and crimes of prejudice, reject the idea of the image of God in all people. They are based on the idea that a certain person is not really a person. (I.e., a fetus isn’t really a baby; it’s just a lump of flesh. A woman isn’t as valuable as a man. A person from a certain country is not to be trusted. A deviant sexual orientation is to be dealt with violently.) A Christian should defend the sanctity of every human life (even if that person is living in a way that displeases God). How can we share the gospel with someone who believes that we don’t care if they live or die? How can we face God if we only care about some of the people for whom Christ died? That’s why we keep talking about the sanctity of human life.


Part 1: In His Image (Genesis 1:27)

So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” God also said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing plant on the surface of the entire earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed. This will be food for you.”

I’ll give a few more verses for context. You’ll see a lot of parallels between God’s commission to Adam as to Noah in chapter 9. Just note that the Bible clearly separates the creation of humans from that of other animals. We are all made out of the stuff of the earth, but God personally shaped Adam and “breathed life” into him, just as He personally crafted Eve and breathed life into her. We are very special to God. That’s a lesson we all need to be reminded of.

This part of the lesson would be to give an overview of “the image of God” without getting bogged down in it. Remember that I think it is a wholistic term relating to our mind, will, spirit, and personality. Also, have a brief discussion about the commission that God gave to Adam. How are we doing with that? We’re not doing a great job of taking care of the earth, and if we have to have a day set aside to remind us that human life is sacred, then we’re not doing a great job of taking care of one another. Maybe we can’t change the world, but as Christians, we can take responsibility for our small part of it.


Part 2: To Be Protected (Genesis 9:1-7)

God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear and terror of you will be in every living creature on the earth, every bird of the sky, every creature that crawls on the ground, and all the fish of the sea. They are placed under your authority. Every creature that lives and moves will be food for you; as I gave the green plants, I have given you everything. However, you must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it. And I will require a penalty for your lifeblood; I will require it from any animal and from any human; if someone murders a fellow human, I will require that person’s life. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image. But you, be fruitful and multiply; spread out over the earth and multiply on it.”

Now your discussion will get a little thicker. What is the circumstantial difference between the first commission to Adam and this one to Noah? Sin. When God and Adam “worked together” in the garden, sin had not been introduced to the world. Genesis 1 goes on to establish that all of the animals were plant-eaters. Nobody ate meat, including the beasts like lions and dogs that would become carnivores. That’s hard to believe, I know, but it helps me understand how there will be animals in heaven. Heaven would not be heavenly if Fido were attacking Fluffy! But in heaven, just like in the beginning, all animals will be herbivores. So, after Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, sin was introduced into the world. One consequence of sin is in the animal kingdom—animals began to kill and eat one another. Even the animals that people worked with (like ox and donkey and cow) would now be afraid of us, and it would be a struggle to cooperate (even a tame donkey can give a nasty kick if provoked). Animals that we would eat for food (like deer and duck and turkey) would hide from us. And clearly some animals (like bear and wolf and lion) would be very dangerous to people. All of this is a consequence of sin—it was not that way in the beginning.

But the thing our lesson focuses on is the prohibition of eating meat with blood. I put a “focus” on that below; the two big takeaways are the connection with the pagan belief that people can absorb “lifeforce” through drinking blood, and the more important foreshadowing of the sacrificial system and Jesus Christ Himself. Both of those points together highlight the sacredness of life (represented by blood)—life is to be taken seriously and treated with respect. The word “murder” isn’t in the Hebrew (though it is implied). God simply says that He will exact punishment “for the life of the individual”. God cannot more clearly say that human life is precious and cannot be taken lightly (but see below for what “murder” means). Even animals who kill a human must be put to death for it! (There are two reasons for that: as an illustration of the preciousness of human life, and also as protection to ensure that said animal does not kill again.)

A great question must be asked: who sheds the blood in retribution? Does this mean that there is a “God squad” out there looking for murderers so they can kill them? I think it’s more likely that this is referring to the pattern of life (Jesus said “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”); violence always begets more violence. Later in history, governments would be formed and employ capital punishment as a deterrent for such crimes, and it’s possible that God is foreshadowing that.


Aside: Meat with Its Lifeblood

When we covered the book of Acts, we spent a week on the Jerusalem Council and their pronouncement that the new Gentile Christians should abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols, from blood, from animals that have been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). You might remember from that lesson that I explained the reason against strangling (which sounds weird, right?) is that strangling an animal kept all of its blood inside, and eating blood (in many pagan settings) was considered the means of absorbing that creature’s life force (or some such nonsense). Because there is absolutely no nutritional reason to drink blood, the only reason you do it is as part of some cultic pagan animal ritual. Christians don’t need to be part of that in any way. (By the way, you’ll find some odd websites that tout the iron content of blood. They downplay the presence of killer bacteria—I’m convinced that God also gave this requirement to protect primitive humanity from food-borne poisons that would have been all the more dangerous (1) not knowing how hot/long to cook food, and (2) having dangerous blood still in the meat just making it all the more poisonous. If you’re iron-deficient, take a supplement; don’t drink blood.)

Well, you might not be surprised that the pagan belief in blood containing the lifeforce of an animal is very ancient. The question is chicken-or-the-egg: did God tell Noah not to drink blood because it was already a common practice, or did people start drinking blood because God told Noah not to do it?

Lev 17:11 tells us that life is in the blood; that’s a biological truth, and it’s also the basis for the Jewish sacrificial system. Creatures cannot survive without blood; blood carries nutrients, hormones, to all of the cells in the body so that they can continue to function. Blood is necessary for life—but blood does not contain “lifeforce” (whatever that’s supposed to be).

I think it’s quite possible that God gave this command to keep His people from dabbling in what would become common pagan practices. But there’s one more likelihood: God was foreshadowing Jesus and the entire sacrificial system. Through the shedding of His blood, Jesus paid the price for our sins. Blood is to be given the highest respect by Christians for that reason. The shedding of blood should always remind us of Jesus. I think that God is absolutely able to accomplish both a practical and a spiritual purpose with the same commandment.

Bonus Aside: Vegetarian vs. Meatitarian

In His covenant with Noah, God allowed Noah to introduce meat into his diet. First, try to imagine how uncomfortable that first meat meal would have been for the guy who had never eaten meat and had just been through [yuck] to save all of those animals in the ark. It’s not like he had a chef to make it all pretty. It would have been a hunk of charred meat. Yum.

Second, if you have a group who can handle this kind of discussion without getting too persnickety, ask them the limitations of a vegetarian diet. (We’re not talking about processed foods like soy or plant-based “meat alternatives”, but stuff that people in Noah’s day would have eaten.) They would certainly have had a higher nutritional content in their fruits and vegetables (no centuries of over-farming). But they also would not have had vitamin supplements. Vegan diets are said to be low in B-vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D; also, proteins are only found in certain plants.

In today’s world, people can be vegetarian and have access to alternative sources of all the nutrients they need (perhaps with an overreliance on processed foods). In Noah’s world, adding meat to the diet would have been a whole new experience of nutrition. A healthy balance of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and “organic” meats is excellent for the human body (wouldn’t everything be “organic” in that day, whatever that means?). So, I think we can wholeheartedly say that God was looking out for Noah’s good when He allowed meat-eating.


Part 3: In Attitude (Matthew 5:21-22)

“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.”

Jesus elaborates on God’s point in the Sermon on the Mount. “Murder” (see below) must result in punishment. But for God’s people, even possessing anger toward someone else is tantamount to murder. Both are denying the presence of the image of God in a person. Could we get away with being angry with God? Well, God created that person you’re angry with, and Jesus died for him/her. Jesus explains that there are laws designed to punish behaviors that demean a person (for example, “hate crimes” today, which are not limited to physical violence). But the far more important punishment is the one from God that He reserves for those who hate His good creation. This is not to say that a Christian can lose his salvation if he hates someone, but that hating someone is dangerous evidence that you’re not a Christian.

What do we do with all of this? Don’t get bogged down in the ethics of capital punishment. God gave human governments the right to employ it. Governments are going to do what they think they must to keep their country safe. Rather, focus on our lives individually. In what ways do our actions show that we do not respect someone else? How can we show other people that we believe their life is sacred and infinitely valuable?

Have your group identify people who maybe don’t get treated with a lot of respect (because they’re different, or maybe ill, or poor, whatever). What can they do this week to show love and care for that person? Secondly, have them identify a person they don’t show respect to. What do they need to do to get past that? (Maybe this can be related to the forgiveness lesson from last week.) Finally, pray for one another to be obedient.


Aside: Image of God and Evolution

This is the primary reason why I believe Darwinian evolution is a really big deal. Darwinists try to argue that humans evolved out of various populations around the world. That would mean that not all humans are equally “human” (not different “breeds”, but actually different species; see below). That would also mean that there’s an arbitrary point at which a scientist would declare that a creature ceased being another creature and became human. That is not the picture I see in Genesis. ALL people are uniquely created in the image of God (and we later find out that God the Son would become human to provide salvation for them), and ALL people are equal before Him in sin and access to salvation. The Genesis account of a special creation of humanity explains that. Darwinian evolution cannot explain that. Anyone who agrees with Darwinian evolution must conclude that humans are no different than animals.


Closing Thoughts: Killing vs. Murder

I was going to devote this back page to the genetic similarities between humans and other animals. Evolutionists use that to defend our “common ancestor” in the sludge. But if we’re all made out of the same “stuff of the earth”, wouldn’t it make sense that we’re made out of similar materials?

Anyway, it became apparent reading through the lesson that a bigger question will probably be the difference between “murder” and “killing”. If all life is precious to God, then how can we justify killing anyone in war, or in self-defense?

It’s a great question. It’s also why Mennonites are conscientious objectors to military service.

Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being. And you say, “Doesn’t God make those laws?” Yes, He does, but He has also allowed human governments to make their own laws. Some governments, including our own, have deemed some killings lawful (“justifiable homicide”)—including in war, to repel violence, to protect one’s life (the overarching doctrine is “to prevent greater harm to innocents”). Is it possible to incapacitate someone without killing them? Of course. But how many people know how to do that? Rather, Christians should acknowledge that governments justify certain types of killing.

Of course, the more important question is that God thinks. We more broadly define murder as the unjustifiable killing of another person. I think our passage this week gives us two helps: killing that is planned/deliberate or that is driven by anger is not justifiable (capital punishment and war can be planned, but for the purpose of minimizing killing). It ties back to the image of God—are we respecting that?


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