Two perspectives on creation are found in the opening chapters of Genesis (1:1-2:3 and 2:4ff). These two accounts of God's creation, with focus on 1:26-27 and 2:7, together give us a picture of humankind that is a balance of extremes.
Before I continue with this thought, let me admit two guiding assumptions in my own perspective on creation:
(1) Human evolution. Surely it is unwise to commit ourselves, God, and the Bible to views in the realm of science which conflict with what fair-minded scientists are saying, whether as fact or theory. One need not be an avid evolutionist to still be open to the findings and theories of scientific research, and to not judge such findings by a particular interpretation of the Bible's story of creation. For myself, both biology and paleontology provide sufficient evidence of human evolution for the latter to be taken seriously.
(2) Human mortality. I take seriously the mortality of the human animal, and happen to find that the main thrust of the Genesis accounts of creation is in the same direction (not to mention other parts of the Hebrew Bible).
Now to begin. On the side of natural history, I note first that "man" (adam) and "ground" (adamah) are closely related words. Further, as God formed the human of dust from the ground so also God formed the animals from the ground ( Gen. 2:19); as the human has the "breath of life" so do the animals (Gen. 7:22); and as the human is described as a "living being" so are the animals (Gen. 1:21). Their common lot in life and death is clearly intended in the often repeated description of them as "flesh" (Gen. 6:3, 12, 13, 17, 19; 7:21). The same expression of human mortality is found in Psalm 78, where man's nature as "flesh" becomes the reason for God's mercy: "For God remembered that they were flesh, a passing breath that does not return." (v. 39; cf. Psalm 103:14-16)
On the one side, we find humankind created on the same day as the other terrestrial animals, they have the same life and breath, the same diet, and (when the story has run its course) the same mortality, from dust to dust (Gen. 3:19; cf. Eccl. 3:19f). The human is a natural being, formed as part of God's creation of the natural world and all living things, not uniquely created.
On the other side, we find humankind created in the image and according to the likeness of God. The human alone represents God on earth, has dominion over the rest of earthly life, and even names the animals. Therein lies the difference.
The human animal is the great surprise of God. He comes out of the natural world, like unto the animals, and is confronted by his Creator, like unto God. Indeed he is unique in certain respects:
(1) Social and familial bonds. Adam and Eve become "one flesh." Also, father to son and brother to brother relationships are the thematic material of Genesis.
(2) Language. One of humankind's first roles is as a giver of names. Our advantage in language may only be a matter of degree, but what a degree!
(3) Creativity and freedom. Perhaps this is the meaning of God's image. By the way, an interesting comparison may be made between Gen. 1:26 and 5:3; the latter has turned the phrase around so that Adam bears Seth "in his likeness, according to his image."
(4) Moral understanding, "the knowledge of good and evil." Only the human animal is aware of sin and aspires to righteousness.
(5) Self-consciousness. In a negative expression of self-consciousness, the acute sense of shame is uniquely human.
(6) Communication with God.
In reading Plaut's Torah commentary*, a footnote caught my attention: On the "image of God" Plaut notes, "The word for "image" (tzelem) is related to the Akkadian salmu, which has the double meaning of image and statue and which applied specifically to divine statues in human guise. The biblical use is, of course, different." (p. 22)
Different, perhaps, but how intriguing! Also, for the "biblical use" of tzelem in the sense of a statue or idol, see Daniel chapters 2 and 3. I also find the term used in a way unflattering to humankind in Psalm 39: "Surely each man's life span is but a breath. Surely as a shadow (b'tzelem) man walks about..." (part of vv. 6-7, MT) A shadow of God, but still a shadow.
*W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.