A Matter of Life and Breath

This is a day I wish I had my Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament handy.

Central to a lot of conservative arguments about human beings, particularly the purpose of human existence, is the creation account from Genesis 1, especially Genesis 1:26-31, and very specifically verses 26 and 27, in which human beings are created in the image — צלם — of God.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27 ESV)

Image of God talk — according to the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (which is the best I can do while on the road), it comes from the Hebrew verb צלם tslm which means “to cut off” or amputate, implying that to be made in the image of God is to possess a portion of God, to be “something cut out” — focuses on purposes. As well it should, as the Genesis passage in question speaks something to human purposes: be fruitful and fill the earth and subdue it. All that has been created in the previous few days in Genesis 1 has been given the human beings — אדם adam — as a trust.

But Genesis 1, as beautiful as it is, isn’t the creation account that speaks to me. Largely because I’m never entirely sure what “image of God” means.

Nor is anyone else.

I’m a Genesis 2 man. I like that creation account, and I especially love how the creation of the man is related:

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7 ESV)

This is a tactile, physical, even carnal creation account. We still bear a bit of God, but here, it is the breath נשׁםת nashmat (from the verb נשׁם, which means to pant, with the implication of “deep and strong breathing of a woman in travail” according to BDB) that has given life to otherwise dead matter.

(This is not the ruh רוה of God, the very wind and breath that is God’s spirit hovering over the waters at the very beginning of Genesis.)

I even prefer the telos of humanity in Genesis 2 to that in Genesis 1. While procreation and dominion are central to the Genesis 1 story, in Genesis 2, God takes the man and puts him in the garden “to work it and keep it,” though it’s not clear if that’s the human purpose or merely an afterthought on God’s part. Man comes first, and then the garden is made for him. The woman is created later, as a companion for the man, and the man and the woman become “one flesh,” though it’s not explained quite what that means. (And I don’t assume.)

In both accounts, whether we bear the image of God or have been brought to life by the very breath of God, we carry a bit — a desperate bit, even — of the creator. It may sound noble to be made in the image of God, but that implication of the word צלם that we are cut off bit suggests violence (like the high priest’s servant who lost his ear in an altercation with one of Jesus’ disciples in Luke) or something unwanted, or even diseased (such as the golden images of the tumors God demands Israel makes in 1 Samuel 6).

And by the same token, it may sound noble and wonderful to be filled with the breath of God, but there’s that implication of panting, of exhaustion, of having trouble catching one’s breath. As if the man is unable to completely breathe. Alive, yes, but not quite complete. It’s a troubled, restless, painful, labored living.

Which makes this account in John’s Gospel all the more amazing:

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23 ESV)

And when he said this, he breathed on them (καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς…). The word here for breathing is ἐμφυσάω, emphysao, and it means to blow or to puff up. Something was flat, dead, and now it is full, alive. Complete.

Jesus is giving a new and different kind of life to these gathered disciples. Ours is no longer a struggle for breath, for life, and difficult and painful struggle to merely live. We can now breathe fully. We are now fully and completely alive.

One thought on “A Matter of Life and Breath

  1. You mean to tell me that being made in the image of God is just saying we’re chips off the Old Block? And that being given the Spirit is a Greek cognate with emphysema? I have to think about this….

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