Two Medieval Jewish Thinkers on the “Image of God”

The concept of the Imago Dei ( “Image of God”) has fascinated Jewish thinkers since the time of Philo and Ben Sira. For now, we will focus only on two famous medieval thinkers: Saadia Gaon and Maimonides.

Saadia points out in his philosophic classic that בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים  (B’tse’lem ´élöhîm= “in the likeness of the Divine image”) is figurative language for God bestowing special honor unto humankind, which He did not confer unto the rest of Creation. This distinctiveness is visible in humanity’s ability to exert dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26).

Among modern scholars, biblical theologian D. Clines clarifies the meaning of Divine image by pointing to the nuanced difference between ”representative” and ”representation” which in many ways complements Saadia’s original insight on the subject:

“Man is created not in God’s image, since God has no image of His own, but as God’s image, or rather to be God’s image, that is to deputize in the created world for the transcendent God who remains outside the world order. That man is God’s image means that he is the visible corporeal representative of the invisible, bodiless God; he is representative rather than representation, since the idea of portrayal is secondary in the significance of the image. However, the term “likeness” is an assurance that man is an adequate and faithful representative of God on earth. The whole man is the image of God, without distinction of spirit and body. All mankind, without distinction, are the image of God. . . .  Mankind, which means both the human race and individual men, do not cease to be the image of God so long as they remain men; to be human and to be the image of God are not separable.[1]

Rashi makes a similar point as well in his famous commentary; the “image of God” is merely the image (or conduit) God personally creates to manifest His reality to the world–but God Himself does not possess an “image.”

Maimonides: “Image” as Reason

Like Philo and Saadia, Maimonides takes sharp issue with scholars who believe that God actually possesses a humanoid shape.[2] The image of the Divine is most present in the human being’s capacity to reason[3] and ascertain abstract spiritual truths so that human beings may in part, resemble angelic beings.[4] Moreover, the soul’s eschatological standing in the Afterlife depends upon the cultivation of the human intellect in grasping these higher truths.[5] Maimonides begins his Guide by theologically defining what exactly “image” and “likeness” mean, so that an average person—whether Jew or non-Jew—can develop an acceptable and rational conception about the true nature of God[6]

In addition, Maimonides states that without a rational and theologically correct understanding of God, even one who claims to be monotheistic is essentially not much different from the pagan who imagines the gods resembling human beings. In some ways, he is worse, for he is guilty of transforming the God of Israel into a pagan fetish. Like Aristotle, Maimonides believes that the faculty of reason enables one to become most God-like when that person develops the capacity to partially grasp the nature of God’s ultimate reality.


[1] D.J.A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968), 101.

[2] Maimonides’ great critic, R. Abraham Ibn Daud (ca. 1110-1180), rebuked him: “Why has he called such a person a heretic? וכמה גדולים וטובים ממנו  — Many people greater and better than him adhered to such a belief on the basis of numerous Scriptural passages [that indicate Divine corporeality]. Just as the Tanakh can be so easily misunderstood, how much more so can the Aggadot [Talmudic ethical and theological teachings] confuse the mind!” (R. Avraham Ibn Daud’s notes on MT Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7). A more polite re-wording of Ibn Daud can be found in R. Joseph Albo’s version: “Although the component part of belief is so, nevertheless, he who believes that His Being is corporeal—as a result of anthropomorphic phrases found in the Scriptures and in the Midrash—does not deserve to be identified as a “heretic” (Sefer HaIkarim 2:41). For a comprehensive survey on the literature dealing with this issue, see Marc Shapiro’s “The Limits of Orthodox Theology” (Oxford, G. B.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), 45-70.

[3] Like Maimonides, Rashi wrote in his Torah commentary that the excellence of the divine image is seen in the human capacity to discern and understand.

[4] Guide 1:26.

[5] MT., Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:8,12.

[6] MT., Hilchot Shemitah V’Yobel 13:13.

5 thoughts on “Two Medieval Jewish Thinkers on the “Image of God”

  1. admin says:

    You may want to read Nate Slivkin’s article on this subject in the Journal of Hakira. I read his exposition and found it unconvincing. Rashbam, his grandson, was definitely not a corporealist. If his grandfather was, he would have taken issue with him in his commentaries.

  2. jun says:

    How can a formless blob have reason like a personal being? It seems reason requires a human-like form. Christians think quoting from John “God is a spirit” settles it all. Spirits can’t have hands ,eyes, feet! Can’t they? When people think they see the spirit of their dead grandmother, do they think they see a formless blob? It is possible to have form without a physical body, and therefore Maimonides is just plain wrong. The doctrine of impassibility is also wrong. It makes the whole Bible a lie. If God doesn’t get angry with sin, then he doesn’t exist. Which is why I would say the doctrines of a formless and impassible God leads ultimately to atheism.

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