God’s Shadows

Marc Chagall. Moses and the Burning Bush

Can God have an ‘image’ or a ‘shadow’? According to the Torah, the answer to this question is doubly positive. The idea that God can have an ‘image’ is recorded in Genesis. The text associates ‘image’ (‘tselem‘) and ‘likeness’ (‘demut‘) with Genesis 1:26: בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ , b-tsalmenou ki-demutenou (‘in our image and likeness’), and repeats the word ‘image’ in Genesis 1:27 in two other ways: בְּצַלְמוֹ b-tsalmou (‘in his image’) and בְּצֶם אֱלֹהִים b-tselem elohim (‘in the image of Elohim’).

As for the fact that God may also have a ‘shadow’, this is alluded to in a verse from Exodusi, which quotes the name Betsalel, which literally means ‘in the shadow of God’1. The word צֵל tsel means ‘shadow’. This word has the same root as the word צֶלֶם tselem, which we have just seen means ‘image’. Moreover, tselem also has as its primary meaning: ‘shadow, darkness’, as in this verse: ‘Yes, man walks in darkness’, or ‘he passes like a shadow’ii.

One could therefore, theoretically, question the usual translation of Gen 1:26, and translate it as follows: « Let us make man in our shadow », or « in our darkness ». What is important here is, above all, to see that in Hebrew ‘image’, ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ have the same root (צֵל ).

This lexical fact seems highly significant, and when these words are used in relation to God, it is obvious that they cry out: « Interpret us! ».

Philo, the Jewish and Hellenophone philosopher from Alexandria, proposes this interpretation: « The shadow of God is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His image, which is here called shadow, so the image becomes the model of other things, as is showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The image was reproduced after God and man after the image, who thus took the role of model.”iii 

Philo, through the use of the Greek word logos, through the role of mediator and model that the Logos plays between God and man, seems to prefigure in some way the Christian thesis of the existence of the divine Logos, as introduced by John: « In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”iv

Man is therefore only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow can evoke a dream, according to Philo. He quotes the verse: « God will make himself known to him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).

In the original Hebrew of this verse, we read not ‘shadow’ (tsal), but ‘dream’ (halom). Philo, in his commentary, therefore changed the word ‘dream’ for ‘shadow’. But what is important for us is that Philo establishes that the words ‘vision’, ‘dream’ and ‘shadow’ have similar connotations.

The text, a little further on, reveals a clear opposition between these words (‘vision’, ‘dream’) and the words ‘face-to-face’, ‘appearance’, ‘without riddles’, and ‘image’.

« Listen carefully to my words. If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest myself to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But no: Moses is my servant; he is the most devoted of all my household. I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition and without riddles; it is the very image of God that he contemplates. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses? » v

God manifests Himself to a simple prophet in ambiguous and fragile ways, through a vision (ba-mar’ah בַבַּמַּרְאָה ) or a dream (bahalom בַּחֲלוֹם ).

But to Moses, God appears ‘face to face’ (pêh el-pêh), ‘in a clear appearance and without riddles’ (v-mar’êh v-lo b-hidot וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת ). In short, Moses contemplates ‘the image of God himself’ (temounah תְּמוּנָה).

Note here the curious repetition of the word mar’ah מַּרְאָה, ‘vision’, with a complete change in its meaning from negative to positive… God says in verse 6: « If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest Myself to him in a vision (ba-mar’ah בַּמַּרְאָה ) ». And it is the same word (מַרְאֶה), with another vocalization, which he uses in verse 8: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition (ou-mar’êh וּמַרְאֶה ) ». The online version of Sefarim translates the same word as ‘vision’ in verse 6 and ‘clear appearance’ in verse 8. The ‘vision’ is reserved for the simple prophets, and the ‘clear appearance’ for Moses.

How can this be explained?

Verse 6 says: ba-mar’ah, ‘in a vision’. Verse 8 says: ou-mar’eh, ‘and a vision’. In the first case God manifests himself ‘in‘ a vision. In the second case, God speaks with Moses, not ‘through’ a vision, but making Himself as « a vision ».

Moses has the great privilege of seeing God face to face, he sees the image of God. This image is not simply an image, or a ‘shadow’, because it ‘speaks’, and it is the very Logos of God, according to Philo.

Rashi is somewhat consistent with Philo’s point of view, it seems to me. He comments on this delicate passage as follows: « A vision and not in riddles. ‘Vision’ here means ‘clarity of speech’. I explain my words clearly to him and I don’t hide them in riddles like the ones Ye’hezqèl talks about: ‘Propose a riddle…’. (Ye’hezqèl 17, 2). I might have thought that the ‘vision’ is that of the shekhina. So it is written: ‘You cannot see my face’ (Shemoth 33:20) (Sifri). And he will contemplate the image of Hashem. It is the vision from behind, as it is written: ‘You will see me from behind’ (Shimot 33:23) (Sifri). »

If God only manifests Himself ‘in a vision’, it is because He does not ‘speak’. The important thing is not the vision, the image or the shadow of God, but His word, His Logos, the fact that God « speaks ». Read: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶ-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה pêh al-pêh adaber bo, ou-mar’êh: ‘I speak to him face to face, – a vision’.

It is necessary to understand: ‘I speak to him and I make him see clearly my word (my Logos, my Dabar)’…

Philo, a Hellenophone, probably gives the word Logos some Platonic connotations, which are not a priori present in the Hebrew word Dabar (דָּבָר). But Philo makes the strong gesture of identifying the Logos, the Image (of God) and Dabar.

Philo is also a contemporary of Jesus, whom his disciple John will call a few years later Logos and « Image » of God.

Between the Dabar of Moses and the Logos as Philo, John and Rashi understand it, how can we not see continuities and differences?

The Spirit (or the Word) is more or less incarnated. As in the ‘image’ and the ‘clear appearance’ of the Logos. Or as in being the Logos itself.


1In Hebrew,  tsal means « shadow » and Tsalel : « shadow of God »

iEx. 31,2

iiPs 39,7

iiiLegum Allegoriae, 96

ivJn 1,1

vNum. 12,6-8