What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 2

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August 3, 2010 Tags: Image of God

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 2

Last week we saw that “image of God” in Genesis 1:26-27 means being God’s representative rulers in his creation. This is similar to two ancient practices: kings placing images of themselves in distant parts of their kingdom and the use of idols in temple worship. Both represent king or god and signal that they are present.

Let’s take this idea and see where it goes in the Old Testament.

No Idols

In ancient Mesopotamia, every nation had pantheons of gods and they all worshipped their gods through images. Israel’s first two Commandments were wholly out of sync with the ancient world. The Israelites were told: “I am the only God you will worship” (Exodus 20:3), and “don’t worship any images whatsoever” (20:4-6). The Second Commandment includes making images of Yahweh, which the Israelites broke in the golden calf incident in Exodus 32.

There are two reasons why Israel was told not to make images of Yahweh. First, unlike the other gods, Yahweh is distinct from what he has made. He cannot be captured by a carved image of animals or any other piece of creation.

Second, God already made an image of himself: humankind, a living image. By carving images to worship Yahweh, Israel would be creating an alternate “connection” with Yahweh.

Israel King in God’s Image

There is another important angle to bring into the picture. In the ancient Mesopotamian world, kings were the representative rulers of the gods; they ruled the people on behalf of the gods. Kings were considered god-like, sometimes referred to as “sons” of one god or another, and often worshipped as gods.

Look at Psalm 2. This psalm is about the coronation of Israel’s king. This king is no ordinary man: he is God’s “anointed one” (v. 2). God himself installed this king “on Zion, my holy hill” (v. 6).

The heart of the psalm is v. 7. God says to the king “You are my son; today I have become your father.” God has put Israel’s king—his son—on the throne to rule the people on his behalf. This father/son relationship between Yahweh and the king lines up with ancient Mesopotamian thinking. It also has some implications for understanding Jesus, which we will get to next week.

Unlike the other nations, Israelite kings were never worshipped. Israel even had a skeptical attitude toward kingship (e.g., 1 Samuel 8). In fact, kings were every bit as subject to God’s rule as anyone else (hence, the prophets were free to call kings to account). But they still were anointed to embody the royal image-bearing role. Israel’s history of kingship is so tragic because the kings largely failed in reflecting this image.

Humankind in God’s Image

Unique to Israel, the role of royal image-bearer was conferred not only on a line of kings but also on all people—a striking notion in the ancient world.

Psalm 8:4-6 aptly summarizes what “image of God” means.

4 What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
5 You have made him a little lower than God
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet.

A common Christian reaction when reading Psalms 8 is to say, “Surely this can’t describe ‘man’ in general. It must be talking about Jesus.” Not so fast. We’ll get to him next week. Rather, read this psalm in light of Genesis 1:26-27.

This psalm speaks of the high status of humanity. Just as in English, “man” here means “humanity.” The singular pronouns “him” and “his” simply reflect the fact that “man” is grammatically singular (we do the same in English). Likewise, it is tempting to read “son of man” in v. 4 and jump ahead to the New Testament and think it means Jesus. It doesn’t (not here, not yet). It simply means “human.”

So “man” is made “a little lower than God” (v. 5). This is striking—in fact, the NIV puts a bit of a damper on it by translating “God” as has “heavenly beings” In a footnote, though, the NIV adds “God” as a possible reading. NRSV has “God.” Jewish Publication Society (Tanakh) has “the divine.”

Actually, we shouldn’t get too hung up on that point. The Hebrew (Elohim) can mean either one, and it doesn’t matter much in the end. “Heavenly beings” fits nicely with “let us make” in Genesis 1:26—a reference to a heavenly divine court, a common idea in the ancient world. (“Us” is not a reference to the Trinity, which would have made no sense to Israelites, as John Calvin pointed out hundreds of years ago.) Humans are one step below God and his divine council.

If Elohim means “God,” that also reflects Genesis 1:26-27. Humans as the pinnacle of creation, the only beings made in God’s image. Either way, the point is that being human is a big deal.

The rest of v. 5 and v. 6 fill out what “a little lower than God” means. Humans are “crowned with glory and honor” (v. 5), a phrase typically reserved for God. They also rule over the work of God’s hands (v. 6), a clear allusion to Genesis 1:26-27. The psalmist even goes so far as to say that God has put everything under humanity’s feet.

This psalm is a great summary of what image of God means. There is nothing in all of creation that has a higher status than humanity. There is nothing in all of creation that is more god-like than humanity. The psalm is picked up by the author of Hebrews to speak of Jesus. Next week we will look at Hebrews and other NT passages to see how Jesus—and those who follow him—are the “image of God.”


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Norm - #24453

August 3rd 2010

Pete if we followed the line of reasoning that the NT interpretation of the OT was not the intention of the original author then I think we have some theological problems. Paul interprets many sections of the OT differently than would a literal reading by moderns. Just because we think he is reinventing the original message doesn’t mean that can become a categorical assumption.  The Holy Spirit inspired writers should be our standard in understanding what the OT means.  In fact there is evidence that the Barnabas epistle came from around the time of the second Temple destruction which would put his analysis/commentary about as close to the Apostles teachings as one could get. To surmise that these views and interpretations were not the views of the earliest church is probably being a little on the superior minded side. We ignore them at our loss of knowledge and possible insight.


Scott Sarania - #24463

August 3rd 2010

I look at it like this: Humanity’s original, intended purpose and state of being is that we are all God’s image bearers. However, that image is corrupted by sin, though it is not removed. Salvation does not add a new state of being to us, it merely brings us back to our original state. So all of humanity bears God’s image, but it is not in its intended state unless Christ has restored it within the individual.


cranium - #24467

August 4th 2010

I am interested in correlating science and religion so that believers are not considered to be dummies by the educated population - never gonna happen, fundamentally impossible

AND SO THAT CHRISTIANS DO NOT HAVE TO FEEL LIKE DUMMIES FOR BELIEVING. - the fact that you are a believer belies that statement


Norm - #24507

August 4th 2010

I thought it might be good to frame a little of Middleton’s thesis points that we find in his essay that I previously linked to. One of the problems he identifies is the idea that so many have an inclination of venturing into the metaphysical explanations of “Image of God”. He states this is performed often without understanding that these ideas would not likely have even occurred to the author of Genesis.

“In Snaith’s words:

Many “orthodox” theologians through the centuries have lifted the phrase
“the image of God” (imago Dei) right out of its context, and, like Humpty-
Dumpty, they have made the word mean just what they choose it to mean.6

Although this may be something of an exaggeration, it is not much of one.
For the vast majority of interpreters right up to recent times have sought the
meaning of the image in terms of a metaphysical analogy or similarity between
the human soul and the being of God, in categories not likely to have occurred
to the author of Genesis.

continued


Norm - #24509

August 4th 2010

As blissfully unconcerned with authorial intent as any
post-structuralist critic, most medieval and modern interpreters have typically
asked not an exegetical, but a speculative, question: In what way are humans
like God and unlike animals? In answer to this question, various candidates have
been suggested for the content of the image. These range from human reason,
through conscience, immortality, and spirituality, to freedom and personhood.
This dominant metaphysical stream of interpretation stretches from Ireneaus
through Augustine to Aquinas in the pre-modern period, and until recently has
held sway even in the modern period.”

end of excerpt.

Next I want to quote what I believe is the heart of Middletons premise.


Norm - #24512

August 4th 2010

Middleton summarizes that the church is the reflection of the “imagao Dei”
And although he throws in humanity with a cursory glance occaisonaly the true focus of his investigation is that it is the church which ultimately reflects the “Image of God”.

“Since Christ is the head of the church, this community of faith inherits his
revelatory, representative task. The “body of Christ” is no mere metaphor; it is
the calling of the church to continue the incarnation and mission of Christ by
manifesting God’s redemptive purposes and coming kingdom. Just as Christ is
sent by and discloses God, so the church as the new humanity, renewed in the
imago Dei (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9-11; II Corinthians 3:17-18), is sent by
Christ and called upon to imitate his paradigm of self-giving, thus witnessing to
God’s rule in the concrete shape of their communal life. Perhaps the crucial text
is Paul’s argument in Philippians 2:5-11.”

continued


Norm - #24513

August 4th 2010

“Citing what is in all likelihood an early
hymn, the apostle argues that if Jesus, as the unique imago Dei, used his divine
power and sovereignty not for his own interests, but to serve others, even unto
death, then the Christian community, following in its Lord’s footsteps, should
have among itself the same “mind” of compassionate self-giving.39 In the New
Testament, imago Dei as rule becomes imitatio Christi.


What ties together this whole trajectory from Genesis 1 to the New Testa-
ment is the consistent biblical insight that humanity from the beginning-and
now the church as the redeemed humanity—is both gifted by God with a royal
status and dignity and called by God actively to represent his kingdom in the
entire range of human life, that is, in the very way we rule and subdue the earth.
If Genesis 1 focuses on the gift of imago Dei (although not to the exclusion of
the call), in contrast to dehumanizing ancient Near Eastern alternatives, the New
Testament makes both gift and call crystal clear.”

continued


Norm - #24514

August 4th 2010

“In gratitude for God’s gracious mercy in gifting us with salvation, the community of faith is called upon by Paul in Romans 12:1-2 to stop mirroring passively the culture in which it lives (“conformed to the world”) and instead to mirror God in and to the culture. But a mirror, although a traditional symbol for the imago Dei, is too flat to capture the full-orbed character of the human calling to be God’s royal representatives in creation.40 A more adequate symbol might be the prism. Humanity createdin God’s image—and the church as the renewed imago Dei—is called and em-powered to be God’s multi-sided prism in the world, reflecting and refracting the Creator’s brilliant light into a rainbow of cultural activity and socio-political patterns that scintillates with the glory of God’s presence and manifests his reign of justice.”

See link for full essay at this comment Norm - #24429


Rob Kashow - #24563

August 5th 2010

“Second, God already made an image of himself: humankind, a living image. By carving images to worship Yahweh, Israel would be creating an alternate “connection” with Yahweh.”

The Second Temple Literature and Apostolic Fathers have some interesting thoughts on this, arguing against this understanding of the ‘image of God’ because mankind in a sense then would be a ‘graven image.’ If I’m reading you correctly, though, you’re suggesting more of a ‘intermediary,’ so our access to the ANE puts the modern reader at an advantage? 

I suppose it’s still there without the ANE background: angel of the Lord, ‘signet ring’ (Hag 2), etc. You know, Pete, you’re probably right.


Pete Enns - #24565

August 5th 2010

Rob, What I am saying is that humankind by definition is not “graven.” Graven means an image other than humanity.


Dunemeister - #24702

August 6th 2010

The main contribution this essay makes to the debate is to remind us that “image” is a functional category, not a metaphysical one. We are the image of God not because we “are” something but because we “do” something. We have a vocation which is summed up in the word “image”.


Karl A - #24730

August 6th 2010

Thanks for the succinct summation, Dunemeister, that was helpful.


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