Image: Jan Brueghel the Younger / Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org
The language of ‘image’ in the early chapters of Genesis is neither technical nor abstract. It is an ordinary word picture intended to signify a central meaning about humankind, viz. that humans are to image or mirror God in some respects. The term does not appear as a place marker for an otherwise long list of human traits and qualities. It does not provide us with a sophisticated philosophical anthropology. What it does do, is affirm that the meaning and significance of human life lies in its relationship to God, plain and simple.
It is important to note that no other part of the created order is designated with this term. The history of theological discussion of the ‘image of God’ has often concentrated on the contrast between the animal kingdom and human persons as the key to understanding the content of the phrase. So, for example, some theologians surmised that because humans have a moral sense and animals do not, this must mean that the ‘image of God’ was a reference to the moral sense. While it is important to notice these sorts of differences, they are not in view as Genesis uses the term. The relevant comparison/contrast is with God rather than with animals.
Another way to put this point is to say that Genesis is concerned with human identity far more than human nature. Questions of identity have to do with meaning and significance. What is the meaning of human life? Wherein do our security and insecurities lie? What are appropriate goals towards which human striving is aimed? The questions of human nature have to do with a description of human faculties and capacities. What is the relationship of the human body to the human person? What is the most adequate metaphysical description of personhood? How does human biology relate to human psychology?
Throughout the Bible there are questions of the meaning and significance of human life, and the key claim throughout is that to be ‘near’ God is to have life, and to be ‘distant’ from God is to have death. The early chapters of Genesis set up this claim by making it clear from the beginning that humans have been created to honour/worship God by reflecting/imaging him.
Humans are like God, but they are not God. It is an exhilarating and exalting description, intended to signify the privilege of imaging God. In this regard humans are to reflect God in ways the Scriptures will spell out across the course of the canon. However, it is also a humbling description, reminding humankind that it is not divine, but merely an image of the Creator.
We might note that the act of creating humankind in Genesis 1 shares the same stanza with the creating of the other land animals. Both the land animals and humans are created on the 6th day (in the 6th stanza of this great creation hymn) and share the same space—on the land. They are ‘hosts’ which inhabit the place God made for them—the land— which is created in the parallel stanza of day 3.
Key differences between the land animals and humans should not be lost from view as well. The Genesis liturgy of creation more nearly connected the divine act of creating the land animals with the preceding stanza (day 5) and the creation of the birds and fish: each in turn created ‘according to their own kind’, and reproducing ‘according to their own kind’. When the time came to describe the act of creating humankind, this repeated phrase is omitted altogether, the author thus ensuring the reader understood the uniqueness of this act. The poetic parallelism in v27, when the author put the proverbial flesh on the bones of the divine creation of humankind, is the clearest indicator that this act of creation was itself unparalleled in the rest of the liturgy of creation.
God so constitutes human beings with the purpose of reflecting and representing him in the created order, that it is essential to their identity that this reflection ‘fills the whole earth’ (Genesis 1:28). The categories of their understanding of their Creator grow naturally from the reflective nature of their identity and the reflective nature of the rest of the created order (Romans 1). Humans are to reflect God in a distinctive manner by honouring and worshipping him as the one and only true and living God.
The ‘image’ language in Genesis 1-9 occurs in the context of a longer covenantal argument about Israel’s relationship to YHWH as Creator. In this context, the central concern was the meaning of Israel’s representative existence and their security from the threats surrounding them, as well as those within their own midst. These are the matters of human identity, not in an abstract sense, but in the concrete relationship to YHWH. What does it mean to find security and significance in YHWH? What are the dangers to that security and significance?
These questions provide the clue that the language of imago Dei underwrites a positive construal of meaning and significance and a warning of the dangers and threats to that security and significance. In the Bible the closest conceptual counterpart to the imago Dei are the graven images. Idolatry provides the wider context for the imago Dei precisely as that which most centrally threatens the security and significance of the covenantal relationship between Creator and creature, between the Redeemer and the redeemed, between Christ and his people. It is the idol maker who is the theological opposite of the image bearer, even if they are most often one and the same person. It is true exegetically and theologically that bearing the image of God and crafting graven images are two sides of the same conceptual coin. The Creator has made human creatures whose identity enables them to seamlessly move from worshipping the living God to bowing down and worshipping other gods.
Human identity is illuminated in the covenantal relationship of being and bearing the image of God, and it is corrupted in the exchange for the graven images. The one made in the image of God ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling humans and birds and animals’ (Romans 1:23). This ‘exchange’ highlights the remarkable similarity and absolute difference of imaging God and imaging the idols. The root metaphor for Israel’s relationship to God and to the idols is that of marital relationships. As husband and wife are forbidden to have sexual relations with any other partner, so Israel is forbidden from worshipping any but their true Bridegroom.
Listening to the Scriptures will aid us in refraining from constructing elaborate theological or philosophical anthropologies out of the imago Dei. It will also likewise remind us how dangerous is the subversion and perversion wreaked upon us by our own graven images/idols. The task before us is much more limited than theologians have traditionally supposed, but the result is much more important.
Richard Lints is Senior Professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, USA.
K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (InterVarsity Press, 2008)
Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit, Idolatry trans. Naomi Goldblum (Harvard University Press, 1992)
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (Dutton, 2009)
Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Subversion (InterVarsity/UK, 2015)
Catherine McDowell, The Image of God in the Garden of Eden (Eisenbrauns, 2015)
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