The Image of God and Priestly Cleansing


Dr Robert Tilley describes the greatness of humanity as the image of God, and how the Word must cleanse us to restore us to an image of the True God.


Reading the Sacred Text is a continuation of Dr Robert Tilley’s popular The Bible is Catholic lecture series.


I am of the opinion that one of the chief expressions of atheism (perhaps it is even the cause of atheism) is a loss of belief in humanity. If you think about it we are pretty amazing creatures, the things we build and the things we do, no other animal comes even close. In fact, our greatness shows up in the very way we can abuse our ability such that we could destroy the earth. I would not be surprised if one day we develop a weapon that could destroy the whole universe! In other words our greatness is seen not only in the good we can do but the evil we can do as well. What is the most glorious can become the most foul. After all, the Devil was said to have been one of the most glorious angels before he fell. But we seem to want to escape this risk by trivializing ourselves, by pretending that humanity is nothing special. It seems as if as our culture loses belief in God it no longer believes in humanity. We think ourselves just one more animal among others, we cease to see that even if we are monsters we are magnificent monsters.

The question for us is why should there be this relationship between faith in God and faith in humanity? The answer can be found at the beginning of the Bible.

One of the best known laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is the prohibition against making an image of God. But the odd thing is that at the very beginning of Torah, in Genesis chapter one, God Himself makes an image of Himself – namely us, humanity. The paradox is all the more brought out when we see how it is we are introduced in Genesis. Before we get to that, however, we need to remind ourselves of some of the things that we touched upon in the two previous episodes of this series.

Let’s begin by calling to mind how the Church read the sacred scriptures. The Scriptures are structured like a Temple. As in the Temple there is a series of grades to Scripture ordered in a hierarchical fashion. As one journeys in one ascends and draws closer to the heart of the meaning of Scripture, to its Holy of Holies. Like the High Priest in the Temple we enter into the sacred text and seek to journey through into the heart of Scripture, into the place in which the presence of the glory of God resides. This understanding of the text-as-Temple was expressed in what came to be called the Quadriga, the notion that the sacred text was made up of four levels of meaning, all of which are continuous one with the other, but all of which lead up to the highest meaning, the spiritual meaning as it were. I ought to say that the medieval rabbis had a like doctrine which they referred to under the term Pardesh, which means ‘orchard’. In the use of Pardesh there are likewise four levels of meaning, all of which are graded and continuous one with the other.

We have to understand that the Fathers and the rabbis did not impose this structure on the sacred text for we can see it intimated in the Scriptures themselves. In following episodes we will see examples of this. Here, however, I want to argue that the first chapter of Genesis provides something of the Temple-paradigm for the reading of the rest of the Torah (and one could argue for the rest of Scripture as well). By this I mean that the first chapter of Genesis serves as an introduction of sorts to discerning the way in which both the Scriptures are to be read and understood. As I say, we are to read as if we are making our way, like the High Priest made his way through the temple into the Holy of Holies, and thereby into the presence of God. But putting it like this probably makes it no clearer, so let’s look at the beginning of Genesis and see how this works out in practice. And, in doing so we will come back to our topic proper, the greatness of humanity.

When we read through the first chapter of Genesis we might notice that we progress through a series of divisions or separations, from light and darkness, the separation of the waters above from those below, the separation of water from dry land, day from night, and even those statements concerning vegetation and animals reproducing after their own kind denotes a separation between species, one that scholars argue echoes the later priestly divisions between animals clean and unclean. The overall feeling is that as creation progresses it as if we are proceeding through series of veils that are drawn back in order for higher and higher things to appear, until we the reader enter into the height of creation, into the Holy of Holies, and there we see the image of God.

Here I ought to point out that scholars have long understood that the account given later in the Torah of the building of the Tabernacle (an earlier form of the Temple, one that could be moved around) mirrors the Genesis account of creation. Other scholars have taken this further and have argued that the creation account mirrors that of the building of a temple. In fact, this is not so surprising for the simple reason that in the ANE (if not in many other cultures as well) the idea was that the cosmos, or universe, was structured along the lines of a temple. Indeed, that the temple on earth mirrored the cosmos. The temple was seen to be a microcosm of the macrocosm. That is, the temple on earth was a kind of mini-version of the whole cosmos! It seems right and proper, then, that the Bible should record the act of creation in the manner of the building of, as well as a journey through, a temple. It is also appropriate, then, that the building of the tabernacle (the early temple) should, in turn, mirror the building of creation.

So it is that as we read our way through the account in Genesis of creation we proceed like the High Priest going ever deeper into the temple until we see the image of the God. Now here’s the point I want to make. If we lived way back then, and, if we entered into a temple, we would expect to see in the heart of the temple an image of the god of the temple. But in the Torah as we noted earlier God forbade His people from making an image of Him. Only as we also noted, God Himself, here in Genesis, makes an image of Himself, which is to say us, humanity. So at least once a year there was an image of God in the Jerusalem temple, namely the High Priest who, of course, was a human and thus an image of God.

This is the amazing thing that Genesis tells us: we humans are the image of God in creation. We are the pinnacle of creation; we are the summit of creation. We are, as theologians have put it, the priest of creation being the covenantal representative of creation. We are the representative of creation before God. We mediate between God and the rest of creation. That is why we are incredible and amazing creatures! Only, when we fell, that is when Adam fell, then all else fell. It is that which tells us of our great responsibility!

Because we are fallen the way in which we understand and read creation, the way in which we read ourselves, and the way in which we understand God and read His word has become distorted. What does this distortion look like? Again, the best way in which to answer this is to look at the Scriptures themselves, and to do this we will stick with the Torah.

There are a number of overarching themes that serve to unite the disparate contents and documents that make up the first five books of the Bible. The most obvious is the theme of journey. The Torah unfolds as the journey from the old Eden to the hoped for New Eden, the promised-land. Only, of course, the Israelites do not get there and the Torah ends with Moses dying on a mountain that overlooks the New Eden. At the end of the Torah we are poised on the threshold. I want to return to this theme in a later episode for it is one that could be said to inform the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, it also informs the Church’s teaching to the effect that she is a pilgrim Church.

Another theme, one that is not so often commented upon, is that which has to do with our being the image of God, and in order to understand what follows we need to reflect on what an image is. This is going to sound really obvious but here goes anyway. An image is what it is by reason that it points to and even reveals something other to it, something that it is not. We can say, then, that an image has its identity proper by reason that it defers to that which is other to it. As soon as an image pretends to be what it is meant to be an image of then it falls away from its identity proper, it thereby becomes corrupt. To put it in biblical terms, if we think we are God then we no longer are what we really are, namely an image of God. We become something false, something fake, in other words something not quite real. We fall away from our proper identity. You could say, if you wanted to be more philosophical, that we fall away from our very being. We fall into sin thereby corrupting not only ourselves but all else in creation. Simply put, we forget who we really are. We are no longer content with being the priest of creation we want to be the God of creation.

This forgetting of who we really are is expressed in the way we read and understand ourselves, the way we read and understand the rest of creation, and, of course, the way we read and understand God, especially His word. As we no longer understand ourselves as being an image of God we consequently fall into a kind of idolatry. But what does this fall look like? How does it express itself?

The Bible notes that the first thing that happens on our being expelled from Eden is murder – Cain kills Abel and it’s been violence ever since. We have turned ourselves into bloodthirsty monsters who, given half a chance, will do anything to get what it is we want even if we want our own death as well as the death of others. Of course we try to conceal our less noble desires, but the word of God works to reveal our hidden intentions. We try to present our intentions as noble and pure, pious and reasonable, but really these serve to mask a deep seated hatred not only at God but at His image, that is a hatred of ourselves that expresses itself as violence. Among other things it is this that the word of God reveals.

For example, the Torah spares no punches in revealing the character of Israel: they whinge and they revolt against Moses, indeed they revolt against God and seek to go back to the gods of Egypt, they apostasise and they lie. In other words the Israelites are like the rest of humanity, and that even though God lives amongst them! We might say of the Torah that it progressively reveals the fallen state of humanity largely through those closes to God namely the people of Israel.

The picture the Bible paints of humanity in its duplicity and its increasing violence and injustice goes hand in glove with another related theme: that of the revelation of God. After all, if humanity is the image of God then we might expect the revelation of God to become less clear than it might otherwise have been. Thus, when we read through the Torah we might note a rather strange phenomenon: God becomes increasingly strange even violent, and finally so terrifying that there is a general sense of relief when He is hidden away in the heart of the early Temple, which is to say the tabernacle.

To be brief, think of how at the beginning, in the garden, God is depicted as walking around just like a human being does. Even soon after the fall this still seems to be the case when Cain, having just killed his brother, runs into God. But things begin to change, such that when Abraham has a vision of God, God appears as a burning torch and pot and we read that Abraham was terrified. Later, with Moses, God appears as a burning bush, later still He is present as a pillar of fire and smoke, and later still on Mt Sinai He comes down in fire accompanied by thunder and lightning, an earthquake and unearthly trumpet blasts! The Israelites are absolutely terrified! Finally, to the relief I imagine of the Israelites, He is hidden away in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle.

There appears to be a correlation of some kind between the way the image of God becomes corrupted and the way God appears to us. It is almost as if He answers to us in the way we are. As if He begins to image us in order to have us confront what it is we have become. But of course God does so in order to have us repent and to seek life and not death. He does so in order to speak a word to us that will get through our corruption and self-hatred. To have us remember that we are an image of God we need to be pierced by the word of God. The word of God must reveal to us our sinfulness, our duplicities, and our lies. Something we touched upon in an earlier episode concerning the role of the word of God in Hebrews chapter 4.

We might put it differently: in Ephesians 5:26 St Paul writes that the word of God washes the bride of Christ the Church in order to make her ready for her wedding day. In other words, in revealing our corruptions and lies the word of God washes us in order to prepare as to enter into the presence of God. This, of course, corresponds to the kind of sacred ablutions or washings that a priest had to undergo if he was to journey deeper into the Temple. Now in the Quadriga, the four levels of meaning to the Scriptures, the second level was the tropological or moral level. This means that if we are to journey deeper into the meaning of the Scriptures then we must understand that it is not merely a matter of scholarly reading but also of a moral reading and cleansing of ourselves.

Think of it this way: If we approach the Scriptures with the hidden intention of getting at others, or of justifying our injustices, or of greed, or of convincing ourselves that our sins are really holy practices, or of helping us to feel ourselves superior to our neighbour, then we simply will not be able to read through to the deeper meanings of the Bible. We will not be able to ascend to the Holy of Holies.

Ultimately we will not read the Scriptures as a means of grace that can restore the image of the true God who is just, merciful and loving, but instead we will read them as a means of violence against ourselves and others, as a means to an image of a false god, one who is unjust, unmerciful, and bloodthirsty.

About Author

Dr Robert Tilley is a lecturer in biblical studies and ancient languages at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and in Christian literature at the Aquinas Academy.

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