The Secular God and the Sacred Universe: The Old Testament Message for Today

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2010 »Volume 47 2010 Number 2 »The Secular God And The Sacred Universe The Old Testament Message For Today

Arasakumar Rayappan



God reveals God’s self in various ways and means depending upon the context (see Heb 1:1). This truth is manifested very clearly in the Hebrew Bible,1 where we see God’s revelation through nature (Genesis), a variety of events (Exodus) and through various human beings like Moses, judges, and the prophets. Similarly, the Word of God is ever alive and active as it becomes relevant and meaningful in every age and in every circumstance. Thus, we have the possibility of many interpretations of the texts of the Bible. Keeping these things in mind, today we need to look at the Hebrew Bible in a new way, allowing it to speak to the new developments that are taking place both in the human history and in nature.

Ours is an age characterized by revolution in many areas like transport and communication, information technology, business and banking, and health care and education. Such revolution has brought a lot of comfort to majority of human beings, though unfortunately, due to unjust social structures, the benefits of this revolution has not reached many of our brothers and sisters who still continue to languish in subhuman conditions. In this digital age of global economy, profit seems to have become God and consumerism the religion. Neither the Creator God nor the grandeur of God’s creation, not even the human being, seems to be the central point of our attention. What else can we conclude when we see so much of violence and killing of the innocent and vulnerable people that are taking place even in the name of religion and God,2 degradation of the natural environment,3 and injustice, inequality, and exploitation at various levels? The distance between God and human beings, human beings and creation, and among human beings themselves, appears to be constantly increasing. The source of all this evil is the human being who has sidelined God and is trying to usurp God’s power and authority.

How do we reread the Hebrew Bible in this age of globalization characterized by such developments? In other words, what has the Hebrew Bible to offer us who belong to the age of information technology and consumerism? This essay is a humble attempt to answer such questions. What is found in the following pages is a way of understanding and appreciating the Hebrew Bible in today’s context primarily meant for non-technical persons who are eager to plunge into the world of the Hebrew Bible and want to see its relevance for us today. In a simplified way, we shall be looking at the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of God, the world, and the human person in view of becoming conscious of the connectivity that exists among them. This will ultimately help us to reorient ourselves towards the reality that exists around us and to experience the original joy that existed in the beginning in the Garden of Eden.

The Secular God

Our image or idea of God affects our image and idea of ourselves, others, and the universe in general which in turn shapes our attitudes, behavior and relationships. The God of the Hebrew Bible is not someone who enjoys being up above in the heavens. God is the creator, protector, and redeemer of the whole creation. God creates everything in plenty, loves everything that God has created with an everlasting love, and when the creatures are in trouble, comes to their aid and shows magnanimity by being with them and providing them peace and harmony. This is not to deny the fact that there are a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible that have given rise to a narrow understanding of God—a male authoritarian war God (almighty and all powerful) who is in the heavens above, watches over everything and punishes every one who does not accept God or does not follow God’s laws and intends to save only those who are faithful to God. Nevertheless, these texts have to be understood in their original contexts that were ultimately responsible for such an understanding of God.4 An in-depth study of the Hebrew Bible, however, presents a very positive picture of God as one who delights in the beauty and order of creation, loves life in abundance, shares God’s love and life with human beings in a special way, and cares for their fullness of life in freedom.

God of order and beauty

Though the Hebrews experienced God first as a God of justice, freedom, and salvation (Exodus), the Bible presents God first as the God of creation and continues to portray God as such even in the prophets (see Is 45:18, Jer 32:17). In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible, creation and salvation are different layers of the one and the same thing called sedaqah (righteousness, order), the virtue or quality of everything and every one behaving according to God-given order or nature.

The book of Genesis presents the whole creation as the extension of the Godself. God says and it is done; the words that come from God’s mouth create everything in the universe. This creative work of God is ultimately bringing order, life, and light where there were only ‘formless void and darkness.’ Each day of bringing life and order ends with God finding what has been created as tob. This Hebrew word tob can mean pleasant, good, beautiful or delightful. In fact, the story of creation ends with God being very delighted (me’od tob, Gen 1:31) in creation. The other parts of the Hebrew Bible take up this theme of pleasantness and beauty of creation for their reflection and assert that creation is so beautiful and delightful that people take it for God instead of knowing the author of creation from the created things. According to the book of Wisdom, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (13:5; see also Wis 13:3-7; Ps 8 and 19). Unfortunately, due to ignorance, often humans fall prey to the delight of the created things and mistake them for God, which is a serious sin.

Everything in the universe is in its place because of the order created by God who expects also that the order and beauty seen in nature is preserved in the entire creation, among various people, and between humankind and nature in the form of peace, harmony, equality, freedom, and justice. Violence, hatred, inequality, injustice, exploitation, etc. are all various forms of disorder which God does not tolerate. This becomes crystal clear when God says,

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… (Ex 3:7-8).

In fact, he loves justice and righteousness more than rituals and sacrifices. Isaiah puts it poignantly:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? ... learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow (Is 1:11-17).

The Sabbath, which is the climax of creation, is a gift of immeasurable value given to the human race by the ancient Hebrew spirituality. A right understanding of the Sabbath makes us both ecologically and socially sensitive. We cannot have social justice without ecological justice. As Boff puts it: “The earth is crying out and the poor are crying, both victims of both social and environmental injustice.”5 Though the creation myth attributes Sabbath to the resting of God on the seventh day, the reasons on which it is based is more social and ecological in nature. It is the time of bringing back the original order in nature and society (beauty, justice, peace, harmony, etc.) lost in the course of time. Everyone and everything in the entire creation (humans including slaves, the animals, the land, etc.) is supposed to rest and relax and get back the lost energy, rights, property, and so on. It is because of the great importance attached to the Sabbath that there are numerous rules and regulations governing it.6 Of special relevance is Leviticus 25 with its description of both sabbatical year and its extension the Jubilee Year.

God of abundant life and freedom

Before we see God as love we need to become aware that in the beginning, the Hebrew Bible presents God as life itself. The creation story in Genesis is the description of celebration of life in its various forms, life in abundance. God being the fountain of life (see Ps 36:9 Jer 2:13; 17:13; Ez 47:1-12), the whole creation stems from God and abounds with life. It is God’s will that not only the humans but everything in the universe increases in number and abounds with life: “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth’” (Gen 1:22, 28). Even when everything was about to be destroyed by floods caused by sin, God makes sure that creation in all its richness and variety continues: “And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female” (Gen 6:19).

Throughout human history there have been various attempts to bind and domesticate God and manipulate God. However, God refuses to be bound in any way (see Is 66:1). Being omnipresent (see Ps 139:8), one can see God in any object, animate or inanimate, provided one has a desire to experience God and keep the inner eyes and heart open. This truth is emphatically proclaimed by the Asian religions in general.7 Being unbound and being full of life, God wills that everything in the universe also abounds. Thus, there is variety in everything on earth. The author of Genesis explicates it when he narrates that “so God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm (sharats, to teem, swarm, multiply, to increase abundantly), and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:21).

When it comes to humans who are created in his image and likeness, not only that God gives them the same command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ but God wills that all live the life given to them to its full— in peace, harmony, and freedom (see Gen 2:8-16; 18-20; Is 11:6-9). Having noted that the freedom with which God created humans has been stripped off, God asserts, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Ex 3:8). Here broad or spacious land stands for freedom and milk and honey are symbols of richness and plenty.

God as person, father and mother

From the very beginning the Hebrew Bible presents God as a person, one who thinks and acts, and expresses thoughts and feelings. God is a God of relationship and communication (see Deut 5:4; Amos 3:7; Heb 1:1) and as such remains ever connected with whatever God has created. Further, as cares for all creation, God takes up the role of a father or mother, appointing human beings as the custodians of creation (see Gen 2:15) and commanding to them to preserve everything (see Gen 6:19). In the Hebrew Bible, God is construed in some sense as transcending gender or at least as containing both male and female principles and not as an androgynous being. How else can we justify the statement that God created both women and men in God’s image and likeness (see Gen 1:27)?

It is not true that only with Jesus we get the idea of God as the father of all. The Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of God not only as father (see Mal 2:10; Jer 3:4, 19) but also as mother becomes more unequivocal when it comes to God’s relationship with human beings. Thus, Moses tells his people that “as an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them

aloft on its pinions” (Deut 32:11), Yahweh alone guided the people. Yet, they were unmindful of the Rock that bore them and forgot the God who gave them birth (see Deut 32:18). In the prophets, we see that Yahweh explains how Yahweh acted like a mother to his people and how Yahweh will comfort them like a mother in the time of their trouble:

I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them (Hos 11:4). As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you (Is 66:13).

When the people fail to understand that God has more than a mother’s heart for them and complain that God has forgotten them, God takes pains to explain that even if a mother forgets the child of her womb, God cannot forget them since their names have been engraved (haqaq, to cut out, inscribe) in the palm of God’s hand, which constantly reminds God of them (see Is 49:15-16).

The wisdom literature on its part uses the concept of the wisdom woman to describe the creative power of God. In the book of Proverb, she cries out to all the passersby (see 1:20-33) and warns them not to ignore her if they are really interested in peace and not violence (see 1:33). She is more valuable than anything in the world as it is she who is the tree of life and thus offers life (see 3:14-18). In this connection, it is also worth noting the image of the water of life (see Gen 2:11-14) mentioned in connection with the wisdom women in Sirach 24:25-29. Further, wisdom makes high claims that she existed even before the creation (see Prov 8:24-29) and God consulted her as she is the designer of creation (see 8:30; also Wis 7:12, 22). For the author of Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is God’s gift and every good thing comes from her (see 7:7-12). He also assures us that those who find wisdom “win the friendship of God” (7:14).

It is true that God cannot be conceived of in human form, but after all, all our God-talk is symbolic and there is nothing to prevent us from symbolizing God either as male or female. Therefore, though some people are still unable to open up their mind, there is nothing wrong to pray to God as “Mother.”8 After all, “father” and “mother” are down to earth images that convey the message that whatever may be the situation of the humans, God is always with them like a faithful parent ever ready to embrace them and guide them. It is unfortunate that such a portrayal God in the Hebrew Bible, especially coming from the patriarchal culture, has been conveniently ignored for centuries. As the result of ignoring God's feminine face for so long, the masculine forces have been deforming both creation and the human family for centuries. The universe is desperately in need of the feminine touch so as to stop the killings and destructions that have been unleashed even in the name of God and to restore and preserve the sanctity of creation and the dignity of human beings.

God of unlimited love, mercy, and compassion

According to Isaiah 49:15, love, mercy, and compassion are the virtues of a mother. The Hebrew Bible constantly attributes the virtues of hesed, mishpat, tsedaqah, and ‘emet to God. These are also known as the covenantal virtues of Yahweh, since they are expected of a covenant partner and Yahweh is a covenantal partner par excellence who practices them and also expects Yahweh’s people to imbibe them. Hesed can be translated as loving kindness, love, mercy or devotion. The RSV/NRS usually has steadfast love and occasionally loyalty. This is a basic concept of the prophet Hosea. Mishpat is rendered by NIV with about 80 different words. It can denote i) that which is one’s due—claim, right, duty, etc.; ii) acts of judging and ruling (see Jer 1:16; 1 Kgs 3:28); or iii) something that belongs to someone by nature which has to be restored to that person (see Deut 10:18; Jer 22:3, 15). For the prophets, it is an action undertaken to restore and preserve order in society and guarantee social justice.

On the other hand, tsedaqah (righteousness) is basically a term of relationship and denotes a behavior or state of being in accordance with certain accepted norms—natural law, revealed law, etc. “Righteousness” is one of the most common translations of the Sanskrit word dharma, which in essence means to act in accord with divine law, moral principles, and the unity of all life. God acts according to God’s nature which is love and compassion and in nature, everything happens in conformity with the cosmic law. As such, human beings are also expected to live according to the nature ordained for them by God. Finally, ‘emet is reliability (sureness, stability, firmness or faithfulness). As God’s name indicates (see Ex 3:14), Yahweh is constant; what God is now is what God was in the past and what God will be in the future. Therefore, one can rely or depend upon God.

In Exodus 34:6, God introduces the Godself to Moses and proclaims, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful (rahum, same root as in Is 49:15) and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emet)” (see also Ps 86:15). In fact, according to Jeremiah, the first love of God for God’s people itself is an everlasting love. Being a righteous person who is faithful to divine nature, God cannot but continue to love God‘s people for ever (see Jer 31:3). That is what makes God surprised when people misunderstand God and complain that God has forgotten them or God is punishing them.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboim?9 My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath (Hosea 11:8-9).

In the text dealing with the New Covenant, Yahweh even makes a solemn promise saying, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). Indeed, his love and compassion is not merely for humans but for the whole creation (see Gen 9:11).

If God is full of love and compassion, how do we understand the texts that portray God as one who is cursing or punishing? It seems appropriate, at this juncture, to try to construe the biblical understanding of divine ‘punishment’ and ‘vengeance,’ since these terms, for us today, carry with them rather negative connotations. There is no doubt that the Hebrews, just as their neighbors in general, attributed the hazards that they faced and the peace and prosperity they enjoyed to the wrath and mercy of God respectively (see Ex 15; Num 11:1.33; Amos 3:6).10 While discussing about laments, Ferris says that “even when the cause for lament appears to have been a natural disaster or an act of a human enemy, there seems to be a sense that the real cause is still to be assigned to divine decision....”.11

Since the God of the Bible is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, nothing can happen without his knowledge. Hence, the deuteronomist view of history clearly identifies the evil consequences of breach of the covenant with the anger of God (see 2 Kgs 17:13-23). In a similar vein, the prophets, too, interpret the historical events that caused pain and suffering as punishment coming from God.12 The underlying factor, nonetheless, is the anthropomorphic view of God, which, while making God accessible to humankind, avoids the error of presenting God as a careless and soulless abstract idea. God is a person and as a person, God reacts to the events of the world. The result of all this is the wide range of metaphors (father, king, judge, avenger, etc.) prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. All the same, the biblical books also make it clear that since judgment is intrinsic to sin, it is the sinners themselves who bring it upon their very selves. Thus, Proverb 26:27 reads: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling” (see also Ps 37:15). This aspect of sin is explicitly brought out by Jeremiah from the very beginning of the book itself (see 2:17, 19; 3:2-3). The role of God is seen as bringing the fruit of one’s action into effect (see Ps 37:6; Jer 6:19; Hos 12:12) and, in doing so, watch over and see that one gets what one deserves according to the principle of justice (see Prov 24:12; Jer 30:14-15). Another important aspect in the concept of judgment-punishment is the understanding of the world order established by God. When this order is disturbed by the socio-ethical disorder, God is said to bring it back through judgment.13

God of cosmic salvation

The God of the Hebrew Bible is the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, the father and mother of all and God is full of love and compassion. Therefore, it goes without saying that it is God’s will that everyone and everything in the world should be saved. The Psalmist articulates it perfectly well when he says: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Ps 22:27). And again: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory [yeshuw’ah, salvation, deliverance]” (Ps 98:3). This idea of universal salvation is taken up in the prophets rather in detail. When, for example, Jeremiah is appointed a prophet, he is told by God that he is appointed prophet to the kingdoms and nations (see Jer 1:10) and in Isaiah, Yahweh tells the servant, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6; see 42:1).

However, there was a time when the Israelites became so narrow-minded that they thought that Yahweh is God only to them alone and only they will/should be saved. In the book of Jonah, which was written at a time mainly to counter such a belief, Yahweh argues with the people saying: “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jon 4:11). Similarly through Amos, God asks, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). The argument of Yahweh in the book of Jonah is interesting for us who are facing ecological problems as Yahweh shows interest to save the animals, too.14 We have already noted such concerns of God expressed in the book of Genesis, especially in the flood story.

The Sacred Universe

It is not an exaggeration to say that ours is the most destructive phase of human history so far, because never before has nature been desecrated, exploited, damaged, and degraded as it is today.15 Yet, even in this age of globalization, many Asian traditions continue to be eco-sensitive although there is fear that such sensitivity is being lost ever since industrialization took place. Traditional systems considered everything that is an integral part of nature to be sacred and they were conscious of the need to live amicably with the natural surroundings. According to the Hindu scripture Chandogya Upanishad, “the universe emerges from God, and will return to God.”16 In the past people did use firewood and hunt birds and animals for food, but they knew the limit. Nevertheless, today because of the industrial revolution leading to over-production, we seem to neglect and even exploit nature without realizing that we are cutting the sacred branch on which we are sitting.

Grandeur of creation

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” asserts the psalmist (Ps 24:1). This theocentric view of creation prevalent in the Hebrew Bible upholds the truth that the universe is sacred. The sacredness of creation comes ultimately from the sacredness of its creator-owner who is God. Both the Pentateuch and the Psalms make it crystal clear that everything in the universe belongs to God and the humans are just caretakers (see Ex 9:29; Lev 25:23; Ps 24:1; 95:4). For instance, in Leviticus 25:23, God explicitly states that the land is God’s and we are but aliens and tenants.17 Not only that, the prophets also agree with such statements, but they go a step further and argue that since God fills the heaven and earth (see Jer 23:24), the whole creation becomes God’s temple.18 Therefore, one cannot really build a temple for God in a meaningful way. “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord” (Is 66:1-2).

Thus, a serious study of the Hebrew Bible teaches us that the earth is not just a stage upon which we play our game of life, but it has value in itself even without us. The theocentric view of creation not only denies any human person to become the owner of any created thing, but upholds the sacredness of the whole creation as against the gnostic belief that God is totally different from the world of nature, which includes the humans, and is evil, as it is ruled by erratic powers. Further, since everything is sacred, the idea that heaven, as a place, is above and is far away from the earth is ruled out. All this calls the human beings, who are a part of creation, to adopt a sense of reverence towards mother nature, take delight in creation as God does (see Gen 1:31) and accept the invitation of the psalmist (see 95:1-5) to celebrate not only human life but the whole creation. Later we shall see that “to have dominion over the creation” has to be understood rightly in connection with “being in the image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26). It means that as the representatives of God, we have dominion as God has, by cocreating.

Awe-inspiring universe

“How majestic is your name in all the earth!” So begins the creation hymn Psalm 8, which is a reflection on the beauty of creation. The Hebrews had a great sense of wonder which is evident in several texts of the Hebrew Bible. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” is the beginning of a meditation on creation (Ps 19:1). The sense of wonder and appreciation of the beauty of creation kept the people close to nature. As the book of Job puts it, it is God who is inviting humanity to observe God’s creation with a sense of wonder: “Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you; it eats grass like an ox. Its strength is in its loins, and its power in the muscles of its belly” (Job 40:15-16).19 The author of Sirach asserts that God put the fear of God into human hearts to show them the majesty of God’s works, to proclaim the grandeur of God’s works (see Sir 17:8-9).

According to Wisdom 13, a real sense of wonder and appreciation of created things should lead us to the Creator God. In Psalm 8:3, we find a perfect example for the same: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established. …” Here the three second person personal pronouns seem to indicate that the psalmist, who seems to have become one with what he is observing and is expressing his sense of wonder at the beauty of creation, strongly believes that the whole creation belongs to God; there is an unbreakable relationship between God and creation; and it is God who has made it beautiful. Similarly calling our attention to the beauty of creation and the intimacy that exists between the creator and created things, prophet Isaiah says: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (40:26).

To appreciate something or to wonder at something also means to be inspired by it or to learn something from it. For the Hebrew Bible, nature is a great guru in the true sense of the word. Proverbs 6:6-11 asks humankind to observe nature and learn from it. It can teach us many things and even lead us to God:

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? (Job 12:7-9; see also Wis 13:5; Ps 19:1; Job 38-41).

Since ancient times, human beings have been drawing spiritual inspiration from nature. According to Buddhist philosopher and photographer Daisaku Ikeda, the response to nature’s beauty is not merely aesthetic but reflects also the ability to discern a deeper meaning and interconnectedness in things. Not only many spiritual masters, but even some scientists are of the opinion that by pondering over the beauty of natural elements, one can get a lot of spiritual and psychological satisfaction. In this age of eco-consciousness and interconnectivity, there has emerged a new positive concept of ‘biomimicry’ which is the science and art of emulating nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems. Again, modern photographers and scientists have made breathtaking photographs and films of the universe which can help us to appreciate the wonder of God’s creation. If humanity learns to appreciate nature, destructive tendencies like egoism, jealousy, and hatred will be overcome and mutual love and trust will be established paving the way for the “new heavens and a new earth” (Is 65:17).

The Divine Steward

Isaiah’s vision of new creation (see 65:17-25) or ecological vision (see 11:1-9) can be realized only if the humans become aware of what they are in relation to the magnanimous God who in God’s generosity has created everything so beautifully and cares for all, and the nature which is so sacred and invokes a sense of wonder in us. For a long time, humanity has been suffering from some identity crisis. Inferiority or superiority complex, which is the result of such identity crisis, has taken a heavy toll on it. Not being conscious of who we are and what we are here for has caused great damage in our relationship with God and the natural environment. Not being content with what we are, we have been trying to become gods (see Gen 3:5; 11:4) and have been exploiting and degrading the sacred works of God causing irreversible damage to our environment, ultimately to our own hurt. Thus, it becomes imperative to know both our greatness and our meekness in relationship with God and nature.

Image and likeness of God

In the very beginning itself the Hebrew Bible solemnly declares that God created humankind in God’s image and likeness (see Gen 1:26-27; 9:6). This gives us a great sense of identity, worth, and dignity. This is a profound truth of great importance, which, if taken seriously, can change our attitude towards God, towards one another, and towards the whole creation. Now let us try to explore the meaning of the phrase “image and likeness of God.”

First of all, being in the image (tselem) and likeness (demūth) of someone means to be one’s son or daughter. In Genesis 5:3, both tselem and demūth are used for a physical son. Psalm 82:6 takes a big step ahead and states, “You are gods [elohim, gods, angels, divine beings, rulers], children of the Most High, all of you” (cf. Ps 8:5). What else can give us more self-worth, better identity and a sense of security than God accepting us to be sons and daughters? It shows the intimacy that should exist between God and humankind on the one hand and among the humans themselves on the other. It is this intimacy that makes God communicate with humanity constantly (see Deut 5:4; Amos 3:7; Heb 1:1). Further, this intimate relationship is a covenantal relationship of commitment and faithfulness to one another (see Ex 6:7; Jer 7:23). “Have we not all one father?” asks prophet Malachi. “Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors?” (2:10). Being sons and daughters of one family, all humans are equal and have to care for one another. Further, it also means that being God’s children, humans are expected to imbibe the covenantal virtues of Yahweh which are loving kindness, faithfulness, justice, and righteousness.

To be in God’s image and likeness means also that every human life is divine and sacred. In this sense, the human body is the temple of God; it carries the breath of God (see Gen 2:7). That makes the author of the book of Wisdom to declare that God has made humankind for immortality, “in the image of his own eternity” (Wis 2:23). This only means that no one has the right to take the life of any human being at any stage (see Gen 9:6). Be it the unborn child in the womb or an aged bedridden person, every one should be treated with respect and dignity.

According to the book of Sirach, to be born in the image of God means to possess strength like God’s strength and to have dominion over nature, to have discretion and a thinking mind, to be filled with knowledge and understanding, and to know good and evil (see Sir 17:3-7). As we shall see below, “to have dominion’ has to be understood in a positive sense, that is, to have dominion over the world as God has.20 We, as representatives of God on earth and as cocreators, have to find out how God, who has ultimate dominion over everything, deals with creation and with humanity and how we can emulate God.

If God loves and cares for humanity and for the entire creation, as God’s image and likeness, it is our duty to cultivate and take care of creation (see Gen 2:15); we need to further the creative work of God by bringing order (ecological and social justice) where there is disorder (imbalance) and continue to beautify the creation. Humans are not passive vessels in the hands of God. God has endowed us with tremendous potential and wills that with God, we cocreate a new world order. “By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The non-existent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired,” says Nikos Kazantzakis.21 To create a new world, we need to be pro-life and work for the emancipation of the entire creation using the “thinking mind” and “discretion” that God has given us (see Sir 17:3-7). That means one cannot exploit anyone or anything in the world. Each and every creature needs to be treated with respect and human beings should be able to live in peace and grow in freedom.

Above all, as the same book of Sirach tells us (see 17:8-10), when we see the majesty of God’s works, reverential fear, wonder, and gratitude should fill our hearts and we should proclaim the grandeur of God’s works and praise God’s holy name along with the whole creation (see Neh 9:6). This is the reason why in spite of we being in the image of God, prophet Micah reminds us that we not only love and do justice like God, but “walk humbly” (6:8).

All people are grass

The reason for Micah’s instruction to be humble is another truth articulated by the Hebrew Bible: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince” (Ps 82:6-7). And again: “All flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust” (Job 34:15). This truth also is in fact communicated by God in the very beginning of creation itself. When humankind became a slave of its ego and declared independence from God forgetting its interconnectedness with the Creator and God’s creation, God reminded it of its origin (see Gen 2:7), stating: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Coming from the ground or dust means that we are very much part of nature, and being physical beings, we are part of the beings that perish (see Job 34:15). Like the whole creation, we totally depend on God for our being (see Neh 9:6; Is 40:7; Job 1:21).

Yet, the Hebrew Bible gives us various instances of people forgetting these facts and committing sin. That is, they become rebellious (see Is 1:2-4) and get estranged from God, from one another and from God’s creation. The Genesis story of the fall is a clear example of such triple alienation. Later on, many such instances will be cited by the prophets. Hosea, for instance, finds reason for the break up in relationship in the social and ecological spheres in the lack of know-ledge of God (see 4:1-3) and for Jeremiah to have knowledge of God means to do justice and to take the side of the poor and the needy (see 22:15-16).

Because of our fleeting nature, as long as we are in this world (see Ps 90:10), often we are compared with the grass or the flowers. For Isaiah, “all people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (40:6-7). The psalmist, however, while underlining the sovereignty of God, brings both the concepts of dust and grass together by saying: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field” (Ps 103:14-15).

It is this momentary nature of humans that makes the psalmist who meditates upon the splendor of creation exclaim saying: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (8:3-5). Though human beings are dust and grass, though they seem to be nothing in comparison with the grandeur of the whole universe, God takes care of them in a special way and even crowns them with glory and honor by making them God’s emissaries on earth. This is because ultimately they are God’s children and as such they are divine. To quote Sirach: “The Lord created human beings out of earth, and makes them return to it again. He gave them a fixed number of days, but granted them authority over everything on the earth” (17:1-2).

Till it and keep it. Yes, God has given humankind dominion (see Gen 1:26; Ps 8:6-8) over everything so that creation can be taken care of. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till [‘abad, to cultivate, serve by labor] it and keep [shamar, to keep, watch, preserve] it” (Gen 2:15). The two verbs employed in this sentence contain profound meaning for our ecologically imbalanced world. Humankind is to take care of creation as God takes care of it (see Ps 65:9-10). Being in the image and likeness of God, humans are expected to become stewards of creation.22 This becomes evident especially in the Pentateuch texts dealing with the flood, the Sabbath, and Jubilee Year (see Lev 25) that we have already seen and the texts that speak of war regulations.

Humans are supposed to see that no cruelty is exercised against the animals and that all animals and birds get their food.23 “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut 25:4). After harvest there should be grain left in the field, “for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food” (Lev 25:7). Even if one sees animals fallen on the road, one cannot ignore them, but rather go to their help (see Deut 22:4). Further, regarding conservation, Deuteronomy has a very significant injunction:

If you come on a bird's nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long (Deut 22:4, 6-7).

In our days, when so many of the species of birds and animals are vanishing, this injunction has a lot to say to us. Even at the time of war, people are instructed not to destroy trees.

If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? (Deut 20:19; see also Ez 34:18-19).

Similarly, in Numbers 35:33-34 humankind is asked to keep the land clean and pure without pollution. Though the pollution described here is connected with homicide, it is interesting to see here the connection between human sin and environmental degradation. Moreover, there is nothing that prevents us from extending it to all kind of pollution of the environment as we witness today.


When we read the Hebrew Scriptures, the first part of the Bible, in the context of the present world scenario, it becomes evident that they can make significant contribution to the wellbeing of the universe in general and of humanity in particular. “Souls don’t have races or sexes or religions. They are beyond artificial divisions,” says Brian Weiss.24 “Beliefs separate. Loving thoughts unite” is the contention of Paul Ferrini.25 Once we become conscious of the indwelling of the gracious God in the universe as the Hebrew Bible teaches us, we will get in touch with the essential goodness (the divine) of ourselves and that of the sacred universe. We will become proud of being the stewards of the creation of God, our father and mother and we will do away with intolerance of differences that exist in the world and in humanity and begin to celebrate the diversity originally intended by God.




1. In this essay, the name Hebrew Bible is regularly used in place of Old Testament.

2. It is needless to give examples of indiscriminate bombings and killings that are widespread today laying heavy burden on the national exchequer depriving millions of their basic needs like food, shelter, and education.

3. It suffices here just to mention the problems of global warming, deforestation, air and water pollution which primarily affect the poor.

4. Mahatma Gandhi says that for a hungry man God is in bread. See duties_and_rights_of_citizens. At a time when the Hebrews had no identity of their own as they were without their own house, land, nation, temple, and god like the other nations, and they had to fight and win wars to satisfy such basic needs, it is understandable that they construed Yahweh as a warrior who is all powerful and who punishes the enemies in order to do justice to Yahweh’s own people.

5. Leonardo Boff, “Ecology and Poverty: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor,” Concilium, no. 5 (1995), xi. On the inter-connectivity between eco-justice and social justice, see also Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter, “Caritas in Veritate,” 48-51.

6. See, for example, Ex 20:8-11; 31:14-16; Lev 25 (sabbath and its extension, the Jubilee Year); Deut 5:13-15; Neh 13:15-23; Jer 17:22; Amos 8:5.

7. “Meditate and realize this world is filled with the presence of God,” says the Indian scripture Shvetashvara Upanishad. According to the spiritual guru Sri Ramakrishna, there are three classes of devotees. The lowest one says, “God is up there,” and he points to heaven. The mediocre devotee says that God dwells in the heart as the “Inner Controller.” But the highest devotee says: “God alone has become everything. All things that we perceive are so many forms of God.”

8. Approaching God as father and mother is something unique to the cultures of Asia and that honors the fullness of God as the source of human life. For instance, Hinduism employs the Sanskrit word shakti (the power of beauty, intuition, tenderness) to refer to the female principle of God that is present in creation.

9. Admah and Zeboim are the towns that were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah (see Gen 19:24; Deut 29:23 ).

10. P. van Imschoot deals with the divine emotions. P. van Imschoot, Théologie de L’Ancien Testament I (Paris, 1954), 87-90. Israel shared the “common theology” of the Ancient Near East according to which God is just and rewards and punishes each one according to the divine standard of retribution. See M. Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 144-145.

11. P. W. Ferris, Jr., “The Genre of Communal Lament in the Bible and in the Ancient Near East,” Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 127 (Atlanta, 1992): 55.

12. Despite their unparalleled radical way of declaring the radical consequences of the misconduct of the people, the prophets did share the knowledge and thought pattern of their time.

13. The Ancient Near Eastern mind did not perceive the world as a static creation. “The creation is repeatedly being threatened by chaotic forces, and so God, as its creator, must repeatedly fight in new cosmogonic battles,” says R. A. Simkins. See Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 109.

14. According to Islam, “God cares not just for every nation, but also for every variety of living being. He provides for animals and insects, birds and fish, just as he provides for you.” See R. van de Weyer, 366 Readings from World Religions (Delhi, India: Jaico Publishing House, 2007), 389.

15. See P. Collins, God’s Earth: Religion as If Matter Really Mattered (North Blackburn: Dove Books, 1995), 1.

16. Van de Weyer, 366 Readings from World Religions, 23.

17. Islam, which proclaims that Allah is the creator (2,21) and savior (2,37), also claims that the whole universe belongs to Allah (2,115). “The central feature of Native American religion lies in the attitude to nature. All living beings—all animals and birds, insects and fish, all trees and plants—are regarded as sacred; indeed, the natural order as a whole is equated with the divine order… The sense of the sacred extends to the earth itself. Since humanity is one species amongst many, it cannot own any land; all land belongs to God, to be shared by all the living beings that inhabit it.” Van de Weyer, 366 Readings from World Religions, 157.

18. According to Sufism, “all living beings, all material things, all events are divine. God is deep in the earth, and he is high in the sky. He is in the water of every lake …” Van de Weyer, 366 Readings from World Religions, 423. This is true of many of the Asian traditions. Chapter 10 of the Hindu Scripture Bhagavad-Gita deals extensively with this issue.

19. The invitation of God to Job, by extension, should be treated as the invitation to the whole human race. In chapters 38-41 of Job, God issues many such invitations.

20. Commenting on Gen 1:28 at his meeting with the clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone on Aug. 6, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said that the task of ‘subduing’ creation was “never intended as an order to enslave it but rather as the task of being guardians of creation and developing its gifts; of actively collaborating in God's work ourselves, in the evolution that he ordered in the world so that the gifts of Creation might be appreciated rather than trampled upon and destroyed.” Available at 200808 06_ clero-bressanone_en.html; accessed 1 April 2010.

21. Quoted from .

22. The Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita instructs the devotees to work for the welfare of the whole world (loka-samgraham)

23. Many Asian religious traditions are known for their love for birds and animals and even the plants. Particularly, we can point to Buddhism and Jainism.

24. Quoted from .

25. Quoted from–separate-loving-thoughts-unite%E2%80%9D-paul-ferrini-quote/

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