If “image” speaks of humanity’s relationship to creation as kings or vicegerents, “likeness” highlights humanity’s relationship to God as sons. Just as Seth is later described as the “likeness” of Adam (Gen. 5:3), so ’ādām is here called the “likeness” of God, pointing to the close, covenantal relationship shared between God and human beings. Adam, in other words, is God’s son.
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness, so that they will have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26 LSB)
The concept of human identity is one that has undergone various changes throughout the centuries. In ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, it wasn’t uncommon to view human beings as mere slaves of the gods, helpful earth-dwelling creatures that could manage the menial work on behalf of the cosmic bigwigs. Aristotle later gave to the world the definition of the human being as a “rational animal.” But this, though slightly more dignifying, was equally insufficient in its own right as a full definition of the human person.
Contemporary reflections on the nature of human beings haven’t improved much. Today they fluctuate somewhere between pond scum and silly putty. Human beings are thought to be both the distant cousins of the green stuff living on the inside of your son’s fish tank, and also the kind of creatures that can alter the fundamental structure of their being with some lip gloss and high heels.
Whatever we are, we are apparently quite malleable. But malleability seems to be the only constant.
A Royal Calling: Image and Likeness
The words “image” and “likeness” in this text convey two related but distinct ideas. “Image,” as the term was widely understood in the ancient Near East, refers to humanity’s status as a living symbol of God’s rule and authority on the earth.
Like a statue representing a king’s claim to a certain territory, ’ādām (mankind) images God’s rule to the rest of creation. Hence the attention given in the following verses to the theme of dominion.