The Shadow of Death and the Image of God
by Rosh Pinah
The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the shadow of death (Heb צלמות Tzalmavet) Upon them a light has shined.Isaiah 9:2 Written in the 8th century BCE (quoted in Matthew 4:16)
The expression “the shadow of death” appears many time in the Bible, the most well-known being Psalm 23 where the King David says about the Good Shepherd of Israel
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Heb צלמות/tzalmavet) I will fear no evil for You are with me”
What does this expression mean? Job describes it as “the place from which I shall not return…as dark as darkness itself….without any order” Job 10:21, 22. And Jeremiah compares it to darkness which makes itself felt in a wild and uninhabited desert – Jeremiah 2:6.
It is into this death shadow that the prophet Isaiah 9:2 claims the light of God will shine.
The Light of God appeared on the first day of creation in the chaos and disorder of the universe Genesis 1:1. This light cannot represent physical light because it was created without the sun, moon and stars. It represents a spiritual presence in the chaotic world- the possibility of material and spiritual redemption.
In Hebrew the death shadow and the God image are the same root word.
When the light of God begins to shine into the deepest darkness, it makes us become shadows that represent the image of a God who has no image. The invisible light allows the invisible God to be seen because of the shadow/image/צלם of him in which we are created.
Sometimes we find ourselves walking in the darkness, in a valley, a wilderness or a frozen forest. It is in these times that God’s light on us will create shadows of himself in the physical world, just as the prophet Isaiah foresees the day when the great light of redemption would shine on those in the shadow of death in the Galilee in Israel through a miraculous child to be born in the house of David.