Exegesis of Genesis 1:26-28

I have been wanting to do this for some time. I continue to hear people misuse Genesis 1:28 in the contraception debate, and even the debate over whether or not it is right for people to forgo having children. Even someone like Voddie Baucham, who does really good work in the area of homeschooling, has, again taken liberties of using this text to prove his point. Because this text just continues to be quoted out of context, I do believe it is important to provide a detailed exegetical analysis of this text. I have also found that there have been some discoveries from the Ancient Near East that have enabled us to better understand the meaning of this text. I will bring those in as they become relevant. As many of you know, I have been greatly indebted to my professor, Dr. Richard Averbeck, for many of the exegetical points I have made, and will make in this post. It has been, and will continue to be a fascinating study as I study the creation ordinances that are so important to understanding God’s creation.

The Importance of Genesis 1:26-27

As with all passages, we need to understand the context in which the commands of Genesis 1:28 are given. I believe that a neglect of careful consideration of the preceeding verses, as well as a consideration of the discourse framework of these commands leads people to misuse this text. These will be considered before we go into Genesis 1:28.

Genesis 1:26

~yhiêl{a/ rm,aYOæw: a.
Wnte_Wmd>Ki WnmeÞl.c;B. ~d”²a’ hf,î[]n:) b.
‘hm’heB.b;W ~yIm;ªV’h; @A[åb.W ~Y”÷h; tg:“d>bi •WDr>yIw> c.
`#r,a'(h’-l[; fmeîroh’¥ fm,r<Þh'-lk'b.W #r,a'êh'-lk'b.W

a. Then God said,
b. Let us make mankind in our image, according to our likeness,
c. and let them rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, and all the earth, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

Space does not permit us to go into why it is that God uses the plural hf,[]n: here, although it is an interesting study.

However, there are two words here that are important to us. These words are ~l,c, and tWmD>. The only time these words are used together is in the context of man being created in the image of God, and man bearing a child in his own image. Hence, other usages of these words together are rather useless. However, we can examine how they are used separately, and how they are used outside the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew term ~l,c, is often used in the context of a statue. For example, in 2 Kings 11:18, the people of the land tear down the ~l,c, of Baal in the house of Baal. Also, in Numbers 33:52, ~l,c, is used with hk’Sem [meaning “molten, cast”]. However, it is interesting that it is also used in the context of an icon in Ezekiel 23:14, referring to pictures the Chaldaeans carved on the wall.

The Hebrew term tWmD> is used in Ezekiel 1:5, 22 to express likeness in the context of a description of a vision of the throneroom of God. It is also used of earthly things such as cattle [2 Chronicles 4:3]. It is generally used to describe something that is similar in shape and size to something else [see HALOT].

However, what is interesting is that, while we do not have these two words used together in the Hebrew Bible in contexts other than this, we have found these two words used together on a statue from Tel Fakhariya. In fact, this is the oldest Aramaic inscription we have ever found. The text and translation reads:

y[sydh ~lc…12.
hasrk tdrw ~ral !rza yzw !ks yzw !zwg $lm 13.
!Xna law !hla la hmp trma ![mlw hwyx $ramlw 14.
ddh ~dq rtwh ~dq yz la db[ taz atwmd bjyt 15.

12…The image [~lc] of HadadYas’i 13. the king of Gozen, Sukkan, and Azran for exultation, and the placing down of his throne, 14. to lengthen his life, so that the words of his mouth might be pleasing to gods and mankind. 15. He made this likeness [twmd] which for earlier times he had prepared before Hadad.

This is in the context of a statue of a king. It is important precisely for this reason. Also, Claus Westermann notes that, in Egypt, the king was called the “image of Re” Hence, within the Ancient Near East, the idea of the image and likeness of a deity seems to be intimately connected to rulership.

Hence, I would say that this is probably the best way to understand these two terms used together. The reason is because we have the Hebrew term hdr [to rule] is used in this context. Because of the context of rulership, it seems like that is the best way to understand this text.

Now, with this in mind, it is important to understand the connection between clause a and clause c. I have gone over this before. Notice that the Hebrew term WDr>yIw> is plural. The subject, however, is clearly the noun ~d’a’ which is singular. With regards to the Hebrew term ~d’a’ , when used with the plural, is usually a collective noun [See HALOT and BDB]. As a collective noun, it very clearly means “mankind.” One might ask, however, why it is that there are also singular suffixes used to refer to ~d’a’ in verse 27. The answer is that collective nouns can use both the singular as well as the plural. We will have more to say about this when we get to verse 27.

There is also a reason to understand this as a collective noun. The nature of the rulership is important. You see, the reason why the sky, sea, and earth are mentioned is because it is creating what is called a merismus. A merismus is simply a literary technique where one speaks of the whole by enumerating the parts. Another example of this is the phrase “heavens and the earth” which is a way in which the Hebrews referred to the entire universe.

The importance of this is the fact that there is also a merismus where the universe is described in a tripartite fashion where the words “heavens” and “earth” are paired along with the Hebrew term ~y’> meaning “sea” [see David Toshio Tsumura’s article on ~yIm;v’> in NIDOTTE] However, what is interesting is that it is not really a straight merismus, as these terms are put in construct with various creatures. This is extremely important, because what I think the text is then saying is that mankind as a “species” is to rule over all of the creatures of creation.

This becomes important when we go to look at the meaning of verses 27-28. We are not talking about individuals at all in this text. We are referring, instead, to mankind as a whole.

This becomes important as we continue now to verse 27. This is the context in which verses 27-28 are found:

Genesis 1:27

Amêl.c;B. ‘~d”a’h’¥-ta, ~yhiÛl{a/ ar”’b.YIw: a.
At=ao ar”äB’ ~yhiÞl{a/ ~l,c,îB b.
`~t'(ao ar”îB’ hb’Þqen>W rk”ïz” c.

a. So God created mankind in his image.

b. In the image of God he created him.

c. Male and Female he created them.

Verse 27 is very clearly poetic in character. Also, the relationship between the first two clauses is very clearly chiastic with paradigmatic parallelism. The chiasm is as follows:

a. man… b. image… b. image… a. man

The central aspect of this chiastic structure, then, is the image of God. Hence, the text is therefore emphasizing the fact that God created mankind in his own image. Hence, while the parallelism is paradigmatic, it is very clearly emphasizing one particular aspect of the each clause, namely, the image of God

However, there is this interesting third clause tacked onto the end, “male and female he created them.” The Hebrew terms rk’z> and hb’qen. are terms that refer very specifically to the most basic sexual differences between male and female. I agree with those who have argued that clause c seems to be a bridge between 27a-b and 28a. However, notice again we have the direct object marker+ plural suffix marker ~t’ao . This is important, again, because it is referring back to the ~d”a’ in clause a, again telling us that ~d”a’ is being used as a collective noun.

This dispells the idea that Debbie Maken was promoting that an individual must be married in order to fully reflect the image of God. In fact, I remember reading the comments section of Andreas Kostenberger’s blog wherein someone with the screenname of “Righteous Anger” posted these comments:

Philippa – You said “are you saying, in all seriousness, that an individual, or a single person, does not reflect God’s glory as much???? Is a single man less masculine than a married one? Is a single woman less feminine because she is … well, single?”
Well, let me give you the Scripture to back up what I am saying: (Genesis 1:26 -27 NIV) ‘Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, overall the eath, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’
God created man and woman to TOGETHER reflect his own image. So, yes, I believe that a man on his own, and a woman on her own, cannot fully reflect the glory of God. They need to “become one” in order to do that. This may sound very controversial to our ears today, but this isn’t some new theory. It is the strangeness of it in our ears today that only make it seem that way.

Now, of course, the usage of the plural verb in verse 26 and the plural suffix here in verse 27 totally destroys this idea. Why? Because we are not talking about the individual aspect of the image of God here. We are referring to how all of humanity together shares the image of God. Hence, to read into this text, expecially in light of the plural suffix, anything having to do with individuals at this point is totally unwarranted.

Hence, I would say that the words rk’z> and hb’qen. are giving us subcategories into which God created mankind. This kind of parallelism is very common in Hebrew poetry where you will break down a larger group into its parts. A paraphrase of verse 27 might be: The entirity of mankind which God has created in his image, were also created in two different ways, and can be divided into two different categories: male and female.

This is also the reason why I believe that there is a switch between the singular suffix in 27b, and the plural pronoun in 27c. The reason is because, while you can use a singular suffix to refer to a collective, you have two nouns in 27c which refer back to the collective noun. Hence, it would seem to make more sense in having the suffix in clause c be plural rather than singular in order to avoid the awkwardness of having a singular suffix refer to two nouns with a conjunction.

Now, we need to stop and recognize the context of the passage. We are in the context of the creation of mankind, we have just got done finding out that God has created mankind in his image, and has created them into two subcategories, male and female. With this in mind, we need to go on to verse 28:

Genesis 1:28

~yhiªl{a/ ~h,øl’ rm,aYO“w: è~yhil{a/ é~t’ao %r,b’w: a.
WrïP. b.
Wb±r>W c.
#r,a’Þh’-ta, Waïl.miW d.
h’vu_b.kiw> e.
tf,m,îroh’¥ hY”ßx;-lk’b.W ~yIm;êV’h; @A[åb.W ‘~Y”h; tg:Üd>Bi Wdúr>W

a. Then God blessed them, and said to them,
b. Be fruitful,
c. multiply,
d. fill the earth,
e. subdue it,
f. and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that creeps upon the earth.

Now, the first important thing to notice is the relationship between 27c and 28a. Again, I have pointed this out before, but it bears repeating. Notice the similarity between these two sections:

1:27c: `~t'(ao ar”îB’ hb’Þqen>W rk”ïz
1:28a: ~yhiªl{a/ ~h,øl’ rm,aYO“w: è~yhil{a/ é~t’ao %reb’äy.w:

Notice how the ~t’ao is again repeated in 28a, with only one word, %reb’äy.w: intervening. Obviously, given the repetition with only one word intervening, we can only conclude that the is likewise referring back to the ~d’a in 27a. We also have the 3mp suffix continued in the second half of 28a with the ~h,l’ . This is important.

The reason is because the phrase ~yhiªl{a/ ~h,øl’ rm,aYO“w: is the framework to the direct discourse in which the commands “Be fruitful and multiply” are given. I believe this can be used to prove, without question, that the commands “Be fruitful and multiply” of 28b-c are given to mankind, and not to individuals.

The reason has to do with the way the lamed is functioning here with the verb rm,aYO“w: . The lamed is here functioning as a datival lamed [Waltke/O’Connor 11.2.10d ##24-27] telling us to whom God is speaking. If you have read my posts on discourse analysis, then you know how I am going to go about proving that “mankind” is commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply

The reason has to do with the nature of the imperative in Hebrew. All imperatives in English have subjects. However, we cannot express these subjects. For example, the sentence, “Shut the door” has an implied “you” as the subject “[You] Shut the door!]. It is also interesting that the “you” here could be plural as well. That is, you could use this same sentence to tell a whole group of people to shut the door.

However, in Hebrew, all imperatives have number, and the subject is always expressed in the verb. Here, all five imperatives are very clearly 2mp. Now, notice that the suffixes referring to mankind were 3mp. The only difference is in the person, and this can be explained in terms of discourse analysis.

You see, within direct discourse, the dative of the framework is always referred to by the use of the second person. That is, a dative in the discourse framework is cross-referenced by a second person subject in the direct discourse. This is a rule I discussed in an earlier post where I went through and showed how even discourse can affect the meaning of words. However, given this relationship, it absolutely slams the door on any interpretation that would try to take these imperatives as commanding individual couples to have children, and forbidding deliberate childlessness. It is instead commanding mankind as a species to be about the task of having children. In other words, the only way this text would be relevant is if there were some international law forbidding human beings from having children. As long as that is not the case, this text is irrelevant to the discussion.

Also, [and I have pointed this out before too] one would have to say, if you are going to take “Be fruitful and multiply” to mean that individual couples cannot be deliberately childless, then you are caught believing that they must also have twenty billion children so that they “fill the earth.” In other words, a couple that only has twenty children is sinning, because, in this text, God is commanding them to have twenty billion, so that they fill the earth. Now, obviously, such is absurd. However, if you are going to take “Be fruitful and multiply” as a command to individuals, then, by what rational reason do you not take the very next word, and very next phrase “fill the earth” in the same way?

Also, notice that, in 28f we have the exact same language that we had in 26c, which we have already demonstrated is referring to mankind. Hence, it creates a nice link between verses 26 and 28. Of course, that link would be broken if this is a command to individuals, and verse 26 were talking to mankind.

Also, some have argued that this command reoccurs throughout the Pentatuch. However, what is interesting is that all of these commands are in covenantal contexts, and there is no command after the book of Exodus begins! The reason is because, I believe, this is a covenantal command. In other words, the command is given to the covenant community, not to individuals [unless, as was the case with the patriarchs, there only was one person in the covenant community]. Hence, I would say that the covenantal context further argues against the individualistic interpretation of this passage.

So, then, we can conclude some things from our exegesis:

1. The image and likeness of God is referring to mankind’s rulership over all creatures.
2. When God created mankind, he created two categories of men: some as males and some as females.
3. There is a connection between the direct object markers in 27c and 28a that tell us that the plural suffixes in 28a likewise refer to mankind.
4. By using the normal rules of indexical reference in discourse, we can easily see it is mankind as a whole that is being commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
5. The interpretation that sees “Be fruitful and multiply” as commands given to individuals is impossible given the context of the rest of the commands in the passage itself, as well as the language of rulership from verse 26.
6. The covenantal nature of this command throughout the Pentatuch probably refers to the fact that this is a command that is given to the covenant community after the breaking of the Adamic covenant.


7 Responses to “Exegesis of Genesis 1:26-28”

  1. Anakin Niceguy Says:

    PC, this look likes an interesting study but I have a suggestion:

    Transliterate your Hebrew. This what comes up on my browser: ~yhiªl{a/ ~h,øl’ rm,aYO“w: è~yhil{a/ é~t’ao. I guess your using a Hebrew font. Not everyone has Hebrew font installed, and non-specialist may not be able to follow it as easily. I should have told you about this a while back when you started posting some essays on textual analysis.


  2. otrmin Says:


    Ya, that has been a problem. I tried remedying it a little. The fonts that I use are actually produced by Bibleworks, and they allow free use of them so long as they are given the credit. They are also freely downloadable from their website, and so I linked to a place where you can download them on the “important links” section on the right side of the blog.

    What I have been trying to do is to learn to use something called “unicode.” It is a way that all browsers will be able to view the Hebrew font by using specific universal codes. I have yet to figure out how this is done, but, it will look very nice when it is done.

    The other problem is that transliteration of Semitic languages is a dicy issue as well. In fact, I have an entirely different font for use in transliterating Hebrew.

    Anyway, yes, you are right, it is a problem. Learning unicode is the best solution, but trying to find some way in which I can learn it is not easy.

    God Bless,

  3. Peter Says:

    Very interesting article. A reminder of why proper exegesis of scripture is so important.

    By the way, what book would you recommend to someone like myself who is thinking of learning Biblical Hebrew?

  4. otrmin Says:

    Hey Peter,

    There are a couple of good grammars. I learned under Allen P. Ross’ “Introducing Biblical Hebrew.” There are some other good grammars though. Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt have a pretty substantial grammar and workbook called “The Basics of Biblical Hebrew.” Page Kelly wrote an excellent grammar called “Biblical Hebrew, An Introductory Grammar,” but that grammar is really, really detailed, and contains a whole lot of information. Also, Mark Futato has written a grammar that people have told me is really good called “Beginning Biblical Hebrew,” although I have never looked at it.

    Work really hard through all of the exercises, learn all the vocabulary, and keep up with it. Once you get to the weak verbs, it will really start to get hard. However, keep going, and you will start seeing fruits.

    Once you complete the grammar, you will be able to get a Hebrew Bible to read. Read as much as you can. If you don’t know a word, look it up in a Hebrew lexicon. The goal is to get a lot of practice in reading the text. Also, keep working on vocabulary. Get down to all words used 10 times or more, as that will be a very good reading vocabulary.

    While you are doing this reading, it would be also good to get Bruce Waltke and Michael O’Connor’s book “An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax,” and read it. However, I would recommend also getting a couple of books to read alongside Waltke-O’Connor, as Waltke-O’Connor is somewhat weak beyond the sentence level, and in discussing Hebrew poetry. The first is called, “Discourse Analysis of Biblical Literature, What it is, and What it Offers.” This is a book with a series of articles that are almost necessary to understanding Hebrew exegesis. Also, I would recommend getting the book by Adele Berlin called “The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism,” and Wilfred Watson’s book, “Classical Hebrew Poetry, A Guide to his Techniques.” This will give you a good idea of how exegetical studies are done.

    I hope this helps!

    God Bless,

  5. Peter Says:

    Thank you, Adam!

  6. russellandduenes Says:

    I have trouble following how a passage can refer to “mankind in general” and not include an application to specific individuals who make up mankind. Clearly it would be wrong for all of mankind to infer that since Genesis 1:26-28 refers to “mankind in general” that no Christians ought to have children anymore.

  7. otrmin Says:


    Think of it as you would think of elders in the church. Do we command everyone to be elders in the church? No, of course not. Does that mean that a church may cease having elders? Of course not.

    I always like to put it this way. This text, and other passages like it in the book of Genesis are teaching that, just as every church community must have elders and deacons, every church community must have people who are about the task of having and raising covenant children. It is a ministry of the church, just as the deaconate.

    The assumption seems to be an all or nothing assumption. Yet, we don’t use this assumption when it comes to elders. Why then should we use it when it comes to the ministry of raising covenant children?

    God Bless,

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