Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness (Genesis 1:26)
Through the six days of creation God has been speaking to a witness. The witness is proto-man: a genetically modern human who had not yet acquired the ability to apprehend meaning in the world. Light, said the creator to the witness on day one; light, echoed the witness. God revealed a truth about reality, and the witness understood that truth. The witness understood without being told that God saw goodness in the light. Without explicit instruction from the creator, the witness began counting the days of linear time. How, asks elohim, can the witness understand our words and our thoughts, see what we see, perhaps even create as we create? It’s because the witness is just like us. But the witness is only a natural being, like the other beasts brought forth by the earth. Now the witness transcends his raw biology; this proto-man is become godlike – how can it be? It’s because we are making him that way, say elohim. In our image and likeness.
Reality doesn’t exist solely in the creator’s mind or in the raw world; reality comes forth through the creator’s imaginative engagement with whatever is out there to be engaged. If the witness is able to see God’s created reality, then the witness, like God, must be able to engage the outside world with a creative mind. But where did the witness acquire such a mind? Presumably his raw ability was there all along, but it took exposure to someone who could demonstrate the higher-order manifestations of awareness on which reality depends – someone like elohim – for the witness to realize his potential. God showed the witness what he perceived, taught him the words, demonstrated the closely-related activities of discovery and creation and revelation. By allowing the witness to be with him in the midst of creation, God fanned the creative spark that already smoldered within the witness.
None of this is startling, given our own transition from proto-human to fully human. Even though we all know the word “light” and understand what it means, we weren’t born with this knowledge. There was a time, back when we were very young, when we didn’t know what it meant. We’re born with raw capacity but no understanding. If we’d never been exposed to others who could understand, we never would have gotten the hang of it on our own. We need to emulate our parents and teachers, the mature carriers of culture, the creative wielders of ideas and language, if our latent abilities are to make themselves manifest. Only then, after we begin to take on the image and likeness of the creators with whom we live, does the world begin to make sense.
Paleontologists tell us that the human species has remained virtually unchanged genetically for a hundred thousand years or more. The oldest Paleolithic drawings date from thirty thousand years ago, and the earliest known written languages are only around five thousand years old. When did human speech advance beyond guttural grunts? When did people begin to pay attention to the sun not merely as an instinctual trigger – to wake up, to warm themselves, to hunt and gather – but as a thing in and of itself? All the other species survive and thrive without a cognitive or verbal understanding of the world they inhabit. We’re different from them all.
The God of Genesis 1 doesn’t talk much about himself: he’s too engaged in what he’s doing for that. The narrator likewise is too immersed in the work at hand to elaborate much on the nature of God. Already we see a similarity between God and the witness: an active, task-oriented presence in the world. Godlike engagement isn’t limited to the physical manipulation of concrete things; it includes observing, thinking, speaking, listening. Most of all it involves the discovery, creation, and revelation of meaning. God makes sense of the universe and reveals it to the witness; the witness makes sense of what God is doing and explains it to his listeners and readers.
Real and lasting change can happen in the reality that God created. Sexual reproduction and linear time virtually ensure that the earth and sky and sea will become filled with an ever-changing menagerie of creatures. God blessed the creatures in their genetic profligacy. Man, equipped with even more volatile and dramatic mechanisms of change, his innate potential as a creator now activated, was sure to transform God’s creation in ways that perhaps even God couldn’t have anticipated. On the sixth day God beheld man in all his genetic and cognitive and cultural powers – powers which make man virtually indistinguishable from God himself – and God blessed man. The regret comes later.