In our striving to create a pervasive and active sense of radical welcome of trans and gender-diverse folks—as well as to LGBTQ persons, more broadly—a central theme in our framework is this thing we call the imago dei: the image of God.
In Hebrew, the originating concept of the image of God is phrased as Tselem Elohim: צֶ֫לֶם אֱלֹהִים. Elohim is the term used to refer to God.
The word, tselem, like all Hebrew words, carries layers of meaning. From a root signifying, to shade, the word is meaningfully understood as a shadow, resemblance, representative image, a phantom, image, or implication of something; in this case, of God. There is much here to look into more deeply, if we dare to do so.
What we can read here—and, indeed, many have read—is that our likeness to God is like that of a shadow to the thing on which a light is cast to form it: to make an image. In other words, at a certain angle, from a certain perspective, we are creatures who are a shadowy resemblance of God, something that suggests—perhaps, hints at—the essence of God. This, in the same way a shadow points to the light which casts it.
The shadow is not the light. More, the shadow cannot exist without the light. We could also say, more pointedly, that the light needs the shadow in order to be seen—to be distinguished and discerned. If all is light, we see only light. And, we go blind.
Explicit in all of this is a central revelation: this image of God is not a physical thing. Moreover, the phrasing “tselem Elohim” throughout the verses referring to humans, does not contain indicators of the definite article, “the.” Therefore, the text does not say, “The image of God” at all. Rather, the verbiage is “in God’s image”—an image God had, a representative image God possessed; an envisioned thing. We earth-beings are a creation God imagined, envisioned, and made, much like an artist images, then creates, a drawing or painting. It is the artist’s image, but is decidedly not the artist. Nonetheless, it carries, always, something of the artist in it. More, the image, itself, is always and ever, IN the artist.
At a deeper level, we can surmise that there is no definite article, “the,” for God or for the image because there is not, and cannot be, a single image for God. God cannot be reduced to a single image, concept, or manifestation. By extension, then, the same is true for any image God has of us. We are images of God’s imagining, intended to bear some resemblance of God in the world—some essence that, itself, points back to our Creator.
So, we ask ourselves: what is the essence of this image of God we were created to bear forth in the world?
If we are shadowy resemblances of God, if we are the shade God casts on the world, then what is our purpose? I think we can glean that our purpose is that of the shadow: to point to, or direct attention to, the light that is our source. More, to perhaps, make brighter the core of light within us. We are images that make clear there is a light that causes us to be, that makes us visible and distinguishes us, one from another. Thus, the essence of God that we point to—that we carry forth into the world—is spiritual in nature, intangible, and most assuredly, relational.
What if we were able to really embrace this concept, shining forth from sacred scripture? How might we greet and interact with one another if we took to heart that we were God’s envisioned images, creations ever pointing back to the Light that formed us? Not just some of us, but all of us?
How might we be transformed if we were to accept that even a shadow bears a point of light within it—that, at its center, even a shadow bears the light that birthed it? How might we treat ourselves and each other if we realized we, too, were resemblances bearing something of the Light of our Creator? It is, to me, a rather terrifying truth to consider…but, also equally exhilarating and inviting, potentially calling to our deepest longing.
How might we respond to the bearded person who enters our doors wearing a stunning dress and combat boots…or the apparently pregnant person, equally bearded, wearing a suit and tie?
Would we embrace, in the passing of the peace, the person who seems to be talking to their-self and appears a bit disheveled by our standards? Would we be able to see the image pointing us to the awe-inspiring Source, lift our heads seeking the Light? Would we allow ourselves, for even a moment, to gaze into the fullness of that Light, squinting in joyous desire to see even more deeply?
Or, forgetting we are already in the light and the light is in us, would we turn away, fearing we will go blind?
Liam invites you to share your stories, wisdom, and experience with him directly: Please email him at liam