Body Image…According to Genesis

The creation of Adam

Society places a great deal of emphasis on body image. Advertising tells us that we must look a certain way. If we want to be appealing to a partner/spouse/lover, we have to be in great shape, have a perfect smile, beautiful hair, no wrinkles….

From the very beginning of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the idea of body image is quite different. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis gives the biblical account of the creation of the world over the course of six days, including the creation of human beings on that final day.

The text is quite difficult in the original Hebrew…and it’s not much better in the English. Here are the verses from Genesis 1.

26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ 
27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. 

First off, to whom is God speaking? What is the difference between image and likeness? In verse 26, it seems as if only one being is created but in 27 it is not so clear; the object goes from singular to plural. The classical commentators wrote many good interpretations to try to explain it all, but it still remains enigmatic that the very verses that describe our creation are so muddled.

One thing that is notable is that nowhere do the verses specify that this body was a physical specimen that had to look a certain way. All we know is that human beings were created in the Divine Image (whatever that means). What we can interpret from this is that our bodies (whatever shape they are in) are holy vessels given/created by God. As such, we can imply a responsibility to care for that gift; it is, according to many religious traditions, the container in which our souls are kept.

What does this have to do with fitness? Certainly, if we receive a valuable and unique gift from a beloved “friend,” it would behoove us to care for it. This gift–our bodies–is not just a trinket to put on a shelf either. Our bodies have a purpose; they allow us to do what it is that we are supposed to do in this world. Jewish mysticism–in particular, Kabbalah–tells us that the soul can only be perfected when it is inside a body. Our experiences in this world have an influence on the nature of our souls and we can use those experiences to rise to higher levels of holiness (kindness, understanding, love, too). Caring for our bodies is essential, for if it is broken or broken down, we cannot accomplish what it is that God has put us here to do.

By the way, there are those who are born with disabilities–mild to severe. Even so, those individuals have an obligation to keep their bodies in the best condition possible–or if they are unable to do so themselves, it is up to us to assist. Everyone has a role to play in God’s creation…and only by being healthy and strong (in its many forms and to the best of our abilities) can we do that well.

It’s not the body image we are told to project on TV, in magazines and in movies that is ultimately our concern. Our focus should be on maintaining and strengthening our bodies so that we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God [Micah].

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