Left: "Abrahamic Covenant" by Christoph Weigel, 1695.
Courtesy Pitts Theological Seminary, Emory University.
The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee, and that they love the sweetness of life. — Basil of Caesarea (c. 330 AD)
In the Bible there is only one designation that the human species is given and that animals are not. Genesis 1 says that humans, unlike animals, are created “as the image and likeness of God” (imago Dei). In our last post we saw that a consistent reading of Scripture reveals that the imago Dei is never defined according to one characteristic or a specific collection of qualities that set humans apart from other creatures. Nor does the Bible ever equate the image of God in humans with an immaterial soul that Homo sapiens possess and other creatures do not. If the imago Dei is not some capacity or quality that we humans intrinsically possess, then what can it be? It would seem that the imago Dei in humans must be either a function the human species fulfills or a consequence of a certain type of unique relationship that human beings have with God.
Taking a close look at Scripture in its original languages and its original cultural context, we will see that the phrase “image and likeness of God” is not owing to any skills, behaviors, or souls that Homo sapiens might possess in distinction from animals, but rather because God chooses human beings from among the animals and sets them apart for the sake and fulfillment of his divine purposes. In other words, the image and likeness of God in humans is best perceived in light of the Hebrew theological framework of historical (or biblical) election. In this way the imago Dei can be understood as a designation given through the free historical action of God in his own choosing of Homo sapiens and his calling them out from among the multiplicity of life-forms he also created “from the dust” to serve as his representatives to creation, and to uphold God’s justice and orient the creation towards fellowship with him.1
Biblical, historical election
Before we get into the details of what it means to define the imago Dei as God’s historical election of the human species, I must first emphasize that the concept of historical or biblical election which I will discuss here is to be clearly distinguished from the classic theological concept of election which was developed by the Protestant Reformers. That use of election emerged as a way to understand the eschatological destiny of individual human beings in light of a timeless act of “unconditional election.” In other words, the Reformation use of election addressed the ultimate spiritual fate of human persons as decided by the sovereign God outside of time, in and for eternity. On the other hand, biblical or historical election as described in Scripture is always conceived as “a concrete historical act on God’s part that forms the starting point and basis of the salvation history of God with his people.”2
In both cases those who are elected are not chosen because they are ‘the greatest’ or inherently more worthy than others, but rather they are elected as a result of mysterious acts of divine love and grace. But election in the biblical understanding relates primarily to a people whom God has chosen in the midst of history for a special purpose within the wider context of God’s design, even when an individual is appointed to stand as representative for the whole community. This purpose of election is furthermore defined not in terms of privilege, but rather for the sake of service. For example, the elected Israelite king is called to be “the guardian of the humble and the needy, the weak and the helpless” and the mission of the divinely elected king is to establish righteousness and justice throughout the land.3 Thus in exercising dominion the king is to “watch carefully over the rights of his subjects, and so ensure, in particular, that the weaker members of society may enjoy his protection and thus have justice done to them according to their need.”4
Within the Hebrew Scriptures the service of the chosen ones is rendered through their obedience to God’s commandment. By obeying God’s commandments, the elected live in community or fellowship with God. Likewise, the mission of the elected is to represent God to “the many” in terms of God’s sacredness, authority, and dominion. For instance, with regard to Abraham, “the many” are “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3) who will be blessed through his election; for Israel, “the many” are the gentile nations to whom Israel—as God’s elect—is to bear God’s light and justice. Chosenness in this way serves a larger purpose in that “the chosen people does not withdraw from the human family, but exercises a special office within it, an office defined by the particular character and will of their universal God.”5 The non-elect are thus to be blessed in and through their relationship with the elect.
The chosen person or people is elected in order to serve as God’s agent in relation to a more comprehensive object of God’s love. To this end the prophet Isaiah speaks of the people of Israel as elected to act as God’s servant among the nations, the means by which “he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). Israel is to serve the will of God on behalf of the human race as a whole. Having been called for the purpose of service and obedience, the elect ones are solemnly accountable to God for the completion of their mission. To myopically ignore God’s far-reaching salvific enterprise and to break God’s commandment is to violate the conditions of election and risk judgment and reverse exodus or exile where the elected one is driven out of the land of promise and into the wilderness (Amos 3:2).
In the Hebrew or biblical understanding, election is always in relation to the lineage or genealogy of a people. It is not temporally bounded by the specific individual or even generation that is elected, but encompasses the entire line to which they are related, stretching both forward in time to include descendents, and backwards in time to the promises given to the ancestral founders of the lineage. Election in the biblical sense “is understood as an act of sanctification, a term that is interpreted to mean ‘set apart.’”6 Finally, the act of sanctifying election is related to the giving of the commandments, the promise of progeny, the bestowal of the divine blessing, and the bequest of land.
Election in Genesis
Each of these structural elements describing historical election are also present in the early chapters of Genesis as they describe the first humans who are created as the image and likeness of God. In the Genesis passages depicting the first human beings, we find the divine blessing, the multiplication of progeny, the giving of commandments and the promise of the land (Gen 1:28 and Gen 2:15-16).
As a fundamentally genealogical category, the Hebrew idea of election makes sense of Genesis 5:1-3 where Adam passes his “image and likeness” to his son Seth. The term likeness as found in Genesis 1 and 5 is uniformly associated with human genealogy. ‘Likeness’ first appears when God proposes the creation of the human race and next appears when this creative act is recapitulated (5:1), in a summary that also serves to bridge the creation of the human species and the creation of Adam’s individual lineage. Then, ‘likeness’ appears for a third time on the occasion of Seth’s birth.7 Since divine election for service always implies a covenant that is to be kept by the elected, viewing the imago Dei as God’s election of Adam and Eve also illuminates passages such as Hosea 6:7, which specifically refer to God’s covenant with Adam.
Structurally the election narratives of Abraham and Israel link their calling and vocation to that of Adam. In his election, “Abraham is to restore what Adam has done” and thus reaffirm the true meaning and purpose of humanity.8 As Abraham and Sarah are elected by God to be a nation (ethnicity or race) of priests and a light to the other nations (ethnicities or races) so Adam and Eve, as the primal human pair, are chosen and called to be a species of priests to the other hominids and to non-human animals. In this way we may understand Adam and Eve as the covenantal prototypes of both Abraham and Sarah, and Israel.9
According to the Genesis narrative the nations in relation to Israel parallel the animals whom Adam is called to both serve and rule.10 As Abraham and Israel are each commissioned to grow into a numerous people, so Adam and Eve are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. The commission to Adam “to take possession of the earth is related to Israel and its land.”11 Similarly, as Israel holds a place of honor among the races, so humans occupy a place of honor among the animals.12 However, as “the election of Israel neither signaled YHWH’s renouncement of the other nations nor involved their rejection in any way,” so the election of humans in no way indicates God’s rejection or lack of concern for non-human animals.13 Elected to be both king and priest, the human being bears God’s image, sacredness, and authority to the non-human creation. Acting as vice-regents or kings on God’s behalf, human beings are the brethren of the animals that are under their dominion. As the elected high priests of creation Homo sapiens are called to intercede before God for the sake of the cosmos with the ultimate aim that all creatures should live in God’s presence.
1. For a more lengthy discussion of the imago Dei as election see Joshua M. Moritz, “Evolution, the End of Human Uniqueness, and the Election of the Imago Dei,” Theology and Science 9:3 (Aug 2011).
2. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 442.
3. Aubrey R. Johnson, Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1955), 10.
4. Johnson, Sacral Kingship, 7; see Ps 72:12-14
5. Jon D. Levenson, “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism” in Ethnicity and the Bible, ed. Mark G. Brett (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 155.
6. Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, trans. Leo G. Perdue (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 45; Joel S. Kaminsky, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Concept of Biblical Election (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 97 ff.
7. W. Randall Garr, In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity, and Monotheism (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 126.
8. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 266.
9. See Chapter 9 in Joshua M. Moritz, Chosen From Among the Animals: The End of Human Uniqueness and the Election of the Image of God, PhD dissertation (Berkeley: GTU, 2011).
10. Wright, 267.
11. Preuss, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1, 115: Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 263.
12. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 261.
13. Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology, vol 2, trans. Leo G. Perdue (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 285.