When you meet someone for the first time, you form some opinion of them. You can’t help it. How they look, what they say, when they laugh, it all shapes your inner picture of them.
The same is true in stories. The first time an author introduces a new character, pay attention. They’ll often give you little clues about that character’s personality and how they fit into the story. And sometimes, they just skip the clues and come right out and tell you something important.
“Let us create man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). There it is. The very first thing the Bible tells us about the human person. That’s our first impression.
But what does it mean? What is an “image”? How can an invisible God have an image anyway? And why don’t the other creatures get to be images? I think iguanas are pretty cool. And I certainly don’t want to tell them that they’re not good enough to be one of God’s image bearers in the world. The last thing I want is an irritated iguana in my house.
Let's start with the basics. What is an "image"? We use that term in a variety of ways. If I walk into the bathroom, I'll see my image, my reflection, in the mirror. And, if I don't pay enough attention to what I look like in the mirror, I may develop some problems with my public image—what other people think about me. If that happens, someone might describe me using another image: "He's a dog."
At the core of all these, though, lies the idea that these images represent me. Clearly my reflection in the mirror does so—it offers a picture of what I look like. My public image functions very much the same way. It’s not actually me, but it is a significant representation of me. It’s the picture or concept of me that people have in mind when they think about me.
That's my image. Even a figure of speech is an image in this sense. We use metaphors to draw a picture, to re-present that reality in a different way. Obviously, I'm not really a dog. But someone might use the image of a dog to represent me. (Please don’t, I’m very sensitive.)
Suppose that I take a picture of you. And, by some miracle, it’s actually a good one. It looks just like you. Everyone says so. I print it out on some photo paper, frame it, and hang it on my wall. That's a nice thing to do.
Now suppose I take a knife and jam it into the picture right between your eyes. Yanking the knife out, I do it again. And again. Now what do you think? Are you upset? Why? It's just a picture, right? Just a piece of paper and some ink. Ah, but it's not, is it? That picture represents you, and you know it. By assaulting the picture, I’m attacking you. That’s because it’s far more than just a pretty piece of paper. It’s an image.
IMAGES AND IDOLATRY
In the Bible, that's the kind of relationship that exists between a god and its idol. Everyone understood back then that the idol wasn't the same as a god. An idol is a thing of wood, stone, and gold. A god is something else entirely. But, at the same time, an idol wasn't just a pretty statue, something that would look nice in the living room next to grandma’s urn. An idol was an image, a representation of a deity, in which that god was present in a very real way.
If I walked into your house and knocked your idol off its shelf, smashing it into little pieces, I haven't simply messed up the décor. I’ve committed a sacrilege. That was your god! Actually, it was an idol of your god. But the connection is so close that it might as well have been your god. Your deity was present in that idol, and I have probably offended him, and you, very deeply.