In the Image of God – Hebrew Etymology of the Word ‘Tzelem’

The Biblical phrase ‘let us make man’ is only the FIRST part of a complete sentence, which is:

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)

Many Bible commentators and interpreters have discussed the meaning of the unique Hebrew word ‘Tzelem’ {צלם} which was translated to English as ‘image.’ The English translation was clearly influenced by the old Latin translation which used the word ‘imaginem’ to describe the original Hebrew word ‘Tzelem.’ And it appears that the 16th century German translation by Martin Luther was influenced by the Latin one because it used the German word ‘Bild’ which literally means ‘image’ and in Modern German is also the word for ‘picture’ or ‘photo’ – and that is not a coincidence at all.

In the Hebrew Bible, the word ‘Tzelem’ has two similar meanings. One is referring to an ‘idol’ as can be seen in the following example from the Second Book of Kings:

“Then all the people of the land went to the house of Baal and tore it down; his altars and his IMAGES they broke in pieces, and they killed Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest posted watchmen over the house of the LORD.” (2 Kings 11:18)

The second meaning is a more metaphoric way to describe the tangible item and that is how we received the other meaning of ‘image’ which can be found in our case, in the Book of Genesis.

Interestingly, this connection between those two meanings can be found in other ancient Near East languages, such as in the Akkadian word ‘salmu’ which resembles the original Hebrew word ‘Tzelem.’

At the end of the 19th century, when Hebrew was revived, there was a need to find a proper Hebrew word for the new technology that took over the word back then – photography. A Zionist Hebrew scholar by the name David Yellin {דוד ילין} suggested using the old Biblical Hebrew root ‘TZ-L-M’ {צ-ל-מ} which is the Hebrew root of the word ‘Tzelem’ to describe a photograph.

Following his suggestion and during the beginning of the 20th century, Hayim Nahman Bialik {חיים נחמן ביאליק} (who later became Israel’s national poet) proposed the use of this root (TZ-L-M’) in the Hebrew grammatical pattern for devices and appliances and that is how we got the Modern Hebrew word for ‘camera’ – ‘Matzlemah’ {מצלמה} – which means by the Hebrew logic ‘a device that produces images.’