What Does “Image of God” Mean? Part 2

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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.”


About the Author

Pete Enns

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.

More posts by Pete Enns