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What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 2

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August 3, 2010 Tags: Image of God
What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 2

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

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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conrad - #24420

August 3rd 2010

I am interested in correlating science and religion so that believers are not considered to be dummies by the educated population ,..... AND SO THAT CHRISTIANS DO NOT HAVE TO FEEL LIKE DUMMIES FOR BELIEVING.

i want to undo the damage done back in 1924 when Clarence Darrow ask William Jennings Bryan a series of questions on the Bible which Bryan seemingly could not answer.
At that time the public got the impression that when put under cross examination Christians could not defend their faith…... and that they were just bullies who wanted to tell everyone else what to do.

We mow have new science to support the Bible and we are in a position to correct the public’s misunderstanding.

I don’t think a discussion of this material leads to any of that, so I will have no more comments today.

Pretending to know the mind of God and telling others what God means is an inherently erroneous approach to spreading the gospel in my view.

Norm - #24421

August 3rd 2010


Please do not take this rebuttal of some of your positions personally but I sincerely disagree with your premise that humanity at large has the Image of God.

I do not see anywhere in the Old or New T where humanity at large is described as God’s representative rulers except those who come to God becoming officially His image bearers.  This is the foundation of NT Christianity that only the faithful are children of God and it originated from the OT. The idea that Gen 1:26-27 is about all humanity is an assumption that is being made without fully establishing it. I don’t believe it can be establish with scripture so one is left having to assume that position. It may seem orthodox but it’s not orthodox from a Hebrew perspective IMO. 

Daniel 7:27 helps clarify the issue by basically restating the dominion rule that was spoken of in Gen 1 and 9.

Dan 7:27 ESV And the kingdom and THE DOMINION AND THE GREATNESS OF THE KINGDOMS under the whole heaven SHALL BE GIVEN TO THE PEOPLE OF THE SAINTS OF THE MOST HIGH; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and ALL DOMINIONS SHALL SERVE AND OBEY THEM.’


Norm - #24422

August 3rd 2010

This dominion rule is exclusively the dominion of the people of the Saints and not the unfaithful. This idea is outlined by Middleton in his essay as exactly what occurred at the time of Christ. Middleton is correct also to point out the nature of the dominion rule was demonstrated to us by Christ and is not what some in the Reformed branch are teaching.

Regarding your quote from Psalm 8:4-6 I think it is paramount to illustrate the two different words that are used for “man” in that first verse.  The first word translated man (enosh) is the generic mankind and the second man (adam) is the same one that we find often applicable to covenant man (Gen 1:26-27).  In fact that first sentence probably should be understood as developing a dichotomy between the two “men” in relation to God if it is read carefully. Verse 5 appears to require a determination of which man is under consideration and the following verses confirm that it is the second man (adam) that is under consideration as the dominion ruler over both the clean and unclean animals.


Norm - #24423

August 3rd 2010

The son of man (adam) is the faithful covenant body and can be equated to Christ eventually because we comprise His body of which He is the Head.

Finally the Image of the gods reminds me of Jesus illustration with the coin that had the Image of Caesar on it. Christ tells them to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. As God’s chosen representatives we need to know whom our allegiance is to and what belongs to those of the world. Not all render to God what is God’s and they are hardly “the Image of God”.

Rob - #24425

August 3rd 2010

Norm, I see the point you are making to Dr. Enns, however I think that you may overstate your case.  Historic Christianity has always seen that man’s status as the bearer of the divine image applies to all human beings regardless of covenant or redemptive status.  We all are image bearers, which is the principle distinctive between humans and non-human animals.  It is this status as bearers of the divine image which justifies the prohibition of murder in Genesis 9.

For this reason I am inclined to disagree with your view - certainly I understand your point and it has merit, but conflates the ideas of the image of God with the idea of covenant keepers or perhaps the elect - which would also be fraught with theological peril, in my view.

I think that Dr. Enns is spot on with his suggestion that the divine image connotes the authority and dominion of man as God’s vice-regent over the earth and the dignity, glory and honor that inheres in such a status.  But if I were to write about the divine image, I would go a bit further and recall the consequences of this as shown in the Genesis 9 passage regarding the shedding of human blood, which surely applies to all humans, not just to the elect or to covenant keepers.

nedbrek - #24426

August 3rd 2010

Norm, I think there is a difference between being in the image of God, and being faithful to that image.

Isn’t sin exactly about reflecting poorly on the image of God?

In this case, everyone fails to be faithful to the image of God - some are being called to grow closer to this image, with a promise of being remade in this image.

Norm - #24429

August 3rd 2010

It is hardly the case that from the beginning of Christianity that the Image of God has been equated with humanity at large. This is a Greek concept that crept in early to the church because we didn’t understand the limitations of the Genesis discussion as primarily Hebrew in scope.

I fully appreciate that many are going to have trouble with this idea in our PC world because it is perceived as a metaphysical and natural aspect endowed to humans when it is in reality derived from the ANE world of covenant Kingship and His Image bearers. It has become an emotional discussion when it should remain in the arena of exegesis of scripture.

I think it would be good for all of us to review Middleton’s essay on this subject found at the following link.



Norm - #24430

August 3rd 2010

The main distinctive between those who bear the Image of God and those who don’t is reception of Eternal Life through Christ.  Now if we want to universalize the Image to all humanity then it means that all have eternal life.  We have been lifted from the mortal to immortality as Paul says in 1 Cor 15:53-54.

Always keep in Mind what Christ told Pilate.  If my Kingdom was of this world ….

Nedbrek… it is God’s desire that every man come into the full Image of God. That is the Gospel story of the OT leading to Christ. Through Christ the “sin” of the Law has been set aside for the higher Spiritual life. No more thorns and thistles through our inept acts of works.

nedbrek - #24431

August 3rd 2010

But Norm, if unbelievers are not in the image of God, is their sin still a defamation of God’s image?

Norm - #24434

August 3rd 2010


Unbelievers are outside the City, the Covenant, the New Jerusalem. You can’t defame God’s Image if you are not one of His Image Bearers.

Rev 22:14-15 ESV Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that THEY MAY ENTER THE CITY by the gates.  (15)  OUTSIDE ARE THE dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

In the ANE world if you were not an Athenian then you have no official standing in that City. Nor if you do not bear the Mark of Caesar are you an Image bearer of Caesar.

Take some time and read the essay from Middleton that I gave in a previous post as it will help in this conversation.

Pete Enns - #24435

August 3rd 2010

Norm, I don’t mind you (or anyone) disagreeing. I just want the argument laid out, not assumed, for the benefit of all readers here.

Re: Gen 1:27, I assume you understand zakar and nqebah, then, to refer only to Israelite males and females? That would take some convincing. Re: Ps 8, you are over reading the Hebrew parallelism. The use of “different words” in the parallel does not indicate such a major shift in subject matter. I think you are allowing your larger system of thought to determine you reading.

As for Middleton, have you read his The Liberating Image? I quoted him in my last post. He considers all human beings made in the image of God, and Psalm 8 as corroborating that (pp. 27-28). I will look at the essay you linked. Maybe he changed his mind.

Pete Enns - #24437

August 3rd 2010

Norm (and others)

I just read the Middleton piece. Here is what he says: “These and other rhetorical clues, when taken together with the wealth of comparative studies of Israel and the ancient Near East, have led to an interpretation which sees ** the image of God as the royal function or office of human beings
as God’s representatives** and agents in the world, given authorized power to share
in God’s rule over the earth’s resources and creatures.” His only caution against this view is that it has been used to oppress other humans. He seems to imply that a reluctance to admit to the universal royal imagery is driven by contemporary (as you say “PC”) concerns.

So, I read Middleton in exactly the opposite way as you do. I am open to hearing if I have misread him (and will try to respond when I can).

Norm - #24438

August 3rd 2010


I would not be surprised if Middleton comes down eventually siding with you. I’ve ordered his book and will see how he frames it but most scholars to be PC will have to come around on that point in some fashion as it’s the assumed orthodox view.  However it’s easy to assume ones position as you are indicating that I am. You could be correct or since I believe you assume too much I could be correct also. I believe my position is consistent with the Hebrew thought while yours and the vast majority of Christians believe it is a metaphysical understanding of all humanity. Middleton appears to not embrace that idea.

Pete again you ask me to jump through hoops to lay out my position while in these last two articles of yours I’ve given enough points that should be first dealt with instead of saying you need more. I’ve presented some scriptures such as Dan 7:27 that really should be dealt with. I’ve presented some NT scriptures last week but will wait for your NT article before expanding upon them.

However the idea that the church has got it right for 2000 years does not hold up because the church misunderstood the 6000 years and age of the world because they read it literaly instead of from the Jewish perspective.

Norm - #24440

August 3rd 2010


I’m not saying that Middleton embraces my approach fully but the context of that essay supports my view better than the orthodox conclusion that has to be given lip service. I have a problem when scholars hedge their bets by putting a short disclaimer after they basically debunked that thesis even though I understand why its needed.

Even if Middleton refutes me there is enough correlation with what I am presenting to cause for pause. Besides I have no problem recomending articles or books that have significant good info in them and end up disagreeing with my premisis. Middletons works appear to be a good resource no matter which side one comes down on.

nedbrek - #24441

August 3rd 2010

Norm, is the Middleton essay online?  I see only the Amazon reference, and a search of my library for “Richard Middleton” only turns up “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” (doo doo doo do doo).

“You can’t defame God’s Image if you are not one of His Image Bearers.”  How, then, can unbelievers sin?

Norm - #24444

August 3rd 2010

By the way the idea of being created in the Image of God finds its first commentary in the first century by the Barnabas Epistle. If one reads it carefully I believe it’s pretty clear that these first Christians thought Genesis 1:26 was directed toward them through Christ. Augustine picks up this idea as well in his writings.

Since, therefore, having renewed us by the remission of our sins, HE HATH MADE US AFTER ANOTHER PATTERN, [it is His purpose] that we should possess the soul of children, inasmuch as HE HAS CREATED US anew by His Spirit. For THE SCRIPTURE SAYS CONCERNING US, while He speaks to the Son, “LET US MAKE MAN AFTER OUR IMAGE, and after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the beasts of the earth, and the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea.” And the Lord said, on beholding the fair creature man, “Increase, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” THESE THINGS [WERE SPOKEN] TO THE SON. Again, I will show thee how, IN RESPECT TO US, He has accomplished a second fashioning in these last days.

Nedbrek see the link on #24429 above

Norm - #24447

August 3rd 2010

nedbrek said ... “You can’t defame God’s Image if you are not one of His Image Bearers.”  How, then, can unbelievers sin?

You don’t sin in the same manner as the covenant people by breaking a law or commandment.  When one is outside God’s people they are spiritualy dead becasue they reside in natural sin. You have to come into the Kingdom of Christ to remove youreself from that sinful state of Darkness. The difference for the faithful Jew was that the imputed sin of the covenant people was held against them as “works of the flesh”. We call it trying to work our way to Heaven though our own merit. IT was a “sin” of the covenant and it was removed through Christ and replaced with Grace. Dan 9:24 says that “sin” would be no more but that only held true in Covenant because the Law was put away: that was a sin of the covenant.  We all know that sin still exist outside of the faithful or at least we should understand that concept.

Hope that helps

Pete Enns - #24448

August 3rd 2010


The Epistle of Barnabas is midrash—classic midrash (which is not a criticism). Later use of a passage (the “second reading) does not determine what that passage meant to its original audience (“first reading”).

nedbrek - #24451

August 3rd 2010

Norm, I think I am understanding (a little).  What is “natural sin”? (Also, I found the link, thanks!)

Norm - #24452

August 3rd 2010


One man’s midrash is another understanding of second temple messianic Judaism from the mindset of the ANE culture. Why was this Barnabas midrash accepted for a couple of centuries until the Greek mindset became set in place?

Just because the orthodox pharisaical Jews and the Greek minded Christians rejected Barnabas does not mean its purpose as a first century commentary by the early Christians can be so easily dismissed. What it reveals is how the early Christians thought about such matters and to discount this valuable insight because it somehow doesn’t meet our expectations seems short sighted.

Pete if anyone should be looking at Barnabas it should be you because of your work of trying to reconstruct the mindset of second Temple Judaism that ushered in the Messiah. 

We know that the Jews that rejected Christ and suffered from the hands of the Romans with the destruction of the Temple had no use for this kind of messianic theology anymore. Enoch and Jubilees which appear to be highly influential toward the Messiah were kicked out of the Jewish council even though they permeated the culture of the first century.

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