Chosen by God: Biblical Election and the Imago Dei
The fundamental distinction between humans and other animals rests on God’s choosing and blessing us for a special vocation and mission.
Before You Read
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The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation.1
For the destiny of humans and the destiny of animals is the same: As one dies, so dies the other; Both have the same breath of life. And humans have no preeminence over the animals…All go to the same place; All come from dust, And to dust all shall return. -Ecclesiastes 3:19-20
What is humankind’s place among the animals? Should we even count human beings among the animals at all? Perhaps we—as men and women—are something else entirely? Such questions are not new. Indeed, they are as old as writing itself and similar pondering about human identity occupies the most ancient of texts. While many of these primeval writings have crumbled in the winds of time and have come to us only in fragments, the Genesis account of human and animal origins remains a living document that occupies a vital place in the life of Christian practice and thought. In the first chapter of the Genesis narrative we read that humans—male and female—were created in the image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) of God. But what does this mean? There is certainly no shortage of proposed answers (over two thousand years of theological tradition bears witness to this fact). Here, however, we are not primarily interested in tradition—as valuable and insightful as it may be—but we are concerned with what the Bible itself has to say.
Taking the authority of Scripture seriously demands that we engage with Scripture in light of both its original languages and its original cultural context. If we are to avoid—as much as possible—projecting our own personal, modern and post-modern cultural presuppositions onto Scripture, then we must be willing to do some of the hard hermeneutical (or interpretive) work. In other words, if we want to allow Scripture to speak for itself, we must be hyper-aware of the cultural lenses we are wearing when we read it. Interpreting the Bible through five hundred years of Protestant tradition, fifteen hundred years of Roman Catholic tradition, or one hundred years of Seventh-Day Adventist tradition won’t do.2 Rather we must venture to take off the thick hermeneutical lenses of tradition and boldly attempt to go into the world of the sacred text itself so that we can allow the ancient inspired words to shape the lenses of our reading.
With this approach to Scripture in mind, I believe it is useful to address the matter of the image and likeness of God (or imago Dei) by first asking what the imago Dei is not. Throughout the centuries, theologians, philosophers, and others have posed a number of answers to the question of what the imago Dei is. The vast majority of these answers have focused on one or a few characteristics that humans alone have and that non-human animals lack. For example, evangelical Christian author Kay Warren explains: “Animals and people are two different classes of created beings and they will never be equal in their worth. As precious as animals are to our daily existence, they operate from instinct, not volition. Only people have a spiritual dimension. We are the ones created in the image of the Creator, the only ones with a soul.”3 In a similar manner, political commentator Ann Coulter, citing “the story of Genesis”, maintains: “It’s not merely opposable thumbs and a bipedal gait that make us distinct from the other beasts. It is consciousness of our mortality, a moral sense, language, mathematics, art, beauty, music, love, longings for immortality, a sense of symmetry, the soul’s ascent, the ability to accessorize, and our fascination with Branson, Missouri…We are in God’s image, and we’re the only ones in God’s image, which is why we eat escargot rather than worship them.”4 While these are two popular contemporary voices, similar views are espoused by numerous academics as well. In this way the imago Dei has, for many, become synonymous with one central characteristic or several key traits that make humans unique among and/or superior to animals.5
As intriguing as such perceived indicators of human uniqueness are, and regardless of the scientific status of claims for such distinguishing human traits, the idea that there are particular physical features and/or behavioral characteristics that make men—and not beasts—in the image and likeness of God is not one that is found anywhere in the pages of Holy Scripture. With regard to humans as “the image and likeness of God,” a literal and consistent reading of the Genesis narratives discloses that the imago Dei designation does not refer to unique characteristics or capacities which humans posses in a way that excludes other non-human animals.
Hebrew scholar Phyllis Bird informs us that the scriptural context of the phrase “image and likeness of God” makes it plain that “its theological significance is in the place it gives to humans within the created order, not in any physical or moral attribute of the species, in either its present or ‘original’ state.”6 In the Bible the imago Dei is not about exceptional human capacities or characteristics that automatically qualify humans as being included in the imago Dei category. There is no reason, explains Bible scholar James Barr, to believe that the author of Genesis chapter one “had in his mind any definite idea about the content or location of the image of God.”7 The terms “‘image’ and ‘likeness’…make no statements about the nature of human beings.”8 When we read of “the creation of human beings in God’s image (Gen 1:26)…the biblical narrative remains silent…about any qualities of human nature that might account for their special standing.”9
If we are to properly understand the meaning of the texts, then, says Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann, we must confidently resist “the tendency to see the image and likeness of God as a something, a quality.”10 Consequently, a literal reading of the early Genesis accounts demands that no specific anthropological content or characteristics may be directly equated with the imago Dei. If one is to take the findings of biblical exegesis seriously, then—apart from theological tradition—the image of God cannot be defined on the basis of particular physical traits or behavioral characteristics. This means that—according to a straightforward reading of Genesis and the rest of Scripture—humans are not said to be biologically or behaviorally unique in a way that is related to their being named the “image of God.”
In addition to the broad consensus among biblical scholars that the image of God in humans, when understood within its original Hebrew linguistic and Ancient Near Eastern context, has nothing whatsoever to do with an appeal to the human possession of particular characteristics which non-human animals lack, research in biblical exegesis has similarly revealed that there is no essential or substantial super-natural divide between humans and other animals. Scripture, when read in the original languages, clearly describes both “man and beast” as possessing “the breath of life” and refers to both equally as “souls.” In this way Scripture makes no ontological or metaphysical distinctions between humans and non-human animals. Instead, the scriptural “emphasis lies on the commonality that exists between the humans and the rest of the animal creation.”11
While the use of the Hebrew word nephesh, often translated as “soul”, to describe humans has been taken by some as an indication that humans are substantially set apart from the animals, the nephesh is not an exclusive possession of humans. Indeed, the Hebrew text describes both humans (Gen 2:7) and animals (Gen 1:21, 24) equally as nephesh hayyah or “living souls.”12 Thus, Bible Scholar Gordon Wenham explains that in Genesis 2:7, which describes the human being as a nephesh, “it is not man’s possession of the ‘breath of life’ or his status as a ‘living creature’ that differentiates him from the animals—animals are described in exactly the same terms.”13 In Genesis, “human beings…are only one subset of God’s ‘living beings,’ into whom God has breathed the breath of life” and established as “living souls.”14
According to the biblical understanding, then, “what is distinctive about human beings is not that they have a ‘soul’ which animals do not possess, nor that they have a ‘spirit’ which other creatures do not possess.”15 It is clear, then, that “the possession of nepheš is not a unique characteristic of the human person.” Indeed, “unless one is ready to grant that animals have ‘souls’ in the same way that humans are alleged to have, then we might better conclude that the Genesis account is referring to the divine gift of life: ‘the human being became a living person.’”16 Consequently, “claims for a ‘special creation’ of humanity in comparison with animals and the material world conflict with the strong assertion in Genesis 2 that, physically (organically), Adam does not differ from the ‘beasts of the field.’”17 The theological language of anthropology in Genesis 1 and 2 “underscores Adam’s linkage with the animal creation, not his difference from it.”18
Whatever else the imago Dei might be, then, a clear and consistent reading of Scripture does not permit us to equate it with either a non-material soul which animals lack or some unique physical characteristic or behavior which animals lack. These conclusions regarding what the image and likeness of God in humans IS NOT lead us directly to our discussion of what the imago Dei IS.
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). So far, 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 descendants, 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 ofcommandments 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.
The only parsons and scientists who argue are those who understand neither the God of Genesis nor the science of the universe. The parsons make God too small to make use of science, the scientists make science so big they think it can function without God’s having given it life. Both are wrong, for they do not grasp how big God truly is. The true debate is not over evolution, but over the simple question: How big is God? Is he big enough to use any means he chooses? —George MacDonald, 18881
As we have seen, there is no biblical basis for asserting a definition of the imago Dei that relies on a concept of human biological exclusivity owing to certain special human capacities or characteristics. Rather, we saw that the phrase “image and likeness of God” finds its scriptural meaning in the fact that Homo sapiens are chosen by God in a concrete historical act to be a species taken from among the animals and set apart as God’s own possession for God’s special purposes. In the same way that God formed (yatsar) Israel to be a people or nation unto himself (Isa 43:21), so God formed (yatsar) the first human beings (Gen 2:7) to be the partner of God in his formation and administration of creation. There was no ontological or biological necessity for God to historically choose humans as his image. Such elective choosing was purely an act of divine grace.2
How, then, does understanding the imago Dei as election relate to the scientific question of human origins and the age-old controversy surrounding biological evolution? For many contemporary Christians the most offensive and theologically problematic aspect of Charles Darwin’s understanding of human origins is his contention that human beings are not biologically special or empirically distinct from animals. As is well known, Darwin argued that even in the areas of mental behavior and mind, “the difference…between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” In this way “Darwin’s dangerous idea” has been perceived as an affront to the natural dignity and majesty of mankind; the uniqueness of the human species is thought to be threatened if we are reduced to the status of “brute beasts.”
Though a powerful force in our current culture, this reaction to Darwin’s theory has more to do with secular French Enlightenment notions of the “dignity of man” and Italian Renaissance ideas of “man as the measure of all things” than with anything that is taught in the Christian Bible (as we saw in the first post). Nevertheless, endeavors to define human nature in stark contrast to the natures of non-human animals continue unabated. In reaction to the perceived perils to human uniqueness posed by the idea of continuity with animals, many have blatantly denied the reality of human kinship with animals—assaulting evolution and asserting the superiority and exemplarity of human beings in the name of theological tradition. Others have endeavored to establish the reality of human uniqueness through an unswerving faith in an anthropocentrism of the gaps—presupposing human exceptionality where empirical evidence is wanting, contested, or—at the very least—ambiguous. For many Christians today, this type of theological endeavor to establish human material uniqueness seems the obvious way forward, and this path is taken for granted even in the face of its being completely unsupportable from Scripture.
Yet taking seriously what the Bible has to say about the imago Dei-as-election instantly relaxes this perceived tension between theological anthropology and the natural sciences. As we saw in our previous posts, the Bible never teaches that the imago Dei is founded upon the natural dignity or majesty of man. Indeed, the Scriptural situation is quite the reverse—any dignity or majesty that we might have as human beings is solely a gift of God’s grace and not our biological entitlement; God’s regard for humanity is a source of wonderment for the Psalmist (Ps.8:4). Darwin’s view of human origins thus has the ironic effect of bringing us back to the core of the Scriptural meaning of mankind, and to the fact that we, as human beings, were chosen from among the animals as Abraham and his family was chosen from among the nations. Apart from God’s choosing and blessing there was no fundamental difference between Abraham’s lineage and the other families of the Earth; likewise, there was no fundamental distinction between humans and other animals apart from God’s choosing and blessing. In both cases, it is God’s choosing that makes the difference—a primarily theological and relational difference, at that, though not without real, material, historical consequences, as well.
Much recent scientific research supports this deeply biblical view of humanity’s place in created reality and has shown that many capacities classically upheld to be distinctive of humans alone (such as self-consciousness, rationality, empathy, and even culture) have also been found among non-human animals.3 Several decades of scientific investigation and thousands of comparative studies between human and animal behaviors and minds have effectively blurred the qualitative dividing line between “man and beast,” at least in terms of the biological underpinnings for many of our higher functions. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to name a single distinctive characteristic of humankind that does not also suggest our continuity with other animals.
For those who trust their Bible and read it carefully and consistently, empirical findings that assert our commonality with other “lower” creatures should come as no great shock or surprise. But perhaps even more instructive than considering the complexity of human biological “uniqueness” in light of the present state of biological life on earth is consideration of the early history of the human species before 50,000 years ago, when recent research suggestsHomo sapiens was one of at least several advanced hominoid species on earth,4 and that culture was not unique to them alone.5
Though today it may be difficult for us to imagine sharing the Earth with other culture-bearing hominoids, the fact is that “our species’ current monopoly of hominid life on Earth is an unusual state of affairs”6 and was not always the case: hominids currently classified as distinct species who lived contemporaneously with anatomically modern human beings (Homo sapiens) include Hominid “X” or Homo denisova, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo floresiensis (though the latter seems to have been geographically isolated from other Homo species). Furthermore, there is now genetic evidence that our species interbred with at least one of our cousin species—as recent revelation of the Neanderthal origin of some of our modern DNA implies.7
Again, this is not to assert that the unprecedented achievements of humanity since it emerged from that complex period of deep history were either trivial or somehow “biologically inevitable,” We have only to look around us to see the obvious and de facto uniqueness of our place among God’s creatures and transformative role on earth (for both good and ill). It is also not to argue against the idea that God intended and prepared our species for image bearing long before the time of our historical election. Instead, the point here is to emphasize that it is the ongoing special relationship God established with humankind that put the basic capacities or potential we share with other creatures to use in natural and, eventually, in salvation history.
In some way, the personal interaction of the sovereign God with both the emerging human species (and, in parallel, the people of Israel) may have magnified, focused and directed the effect of those shared traits in order to create a creature and nation set apart. In both cases it was God’s elective employment or use of our capacities for his plans—and not the physical traits themselves—that allow us to image God. However investigations of the material distinctiveness of the human species develop, our theologically-significant uniqueness rests in God’s action and not in our physical bodies or cultural capacities alone. Critically in an age when we seem intent on asserting our sovereignty over even our own biology, this means that even those ‘non-normative’ persons who lack certain physical and/or behavioral capacities (such as small children or the mentally disabled who may not possess rationality or language) are still fully in the image of God.
In closing, then, the evidence from paleoanthropology reveals that Homo sapiens at the time of their initial emergence as a species were confronted with a scenario akin to Abraham as he separated from his ancient Chaldean ancestors. As one people chosen by God from among many, Abraham and his lineage were called out for the purpose of blessing the nations, though they continued to interact and even intermingle with those outside the chosen line. Upon Abraham’s calling and divine election, God brought him out from among his ancestral people and home of Ur of the Chaldees to travel with his family to an unknown land which God would show him (Gen 12:1-20). Abraham and his family thus became the founders of a new population in a new land that was chosen by God. God’s chosen people, Israel, was likewise called out from among the nations and was taken by God from Egypt to a new land of his choosing. In the same manner, the first human beings were taken by God and put in the land that God had chosen for them—the garden located “in the East” in a place called Eden (Gen 2:8).
From the line of Abraham the nation of Israel was created or formed (yatsar) through the sovereign choosing or election of God (Isa 43:21) in order to be “a light unto the nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:6). Israel’s election was simultaneously the event of Israel’s creation. The early chapters of Genesis, when considered within their exegetical and ancient Near Eastern cultural context, describe a similar state of affairs for human beings as a whole. God’s choosing or election of Adam and Eve—the primeval ancestors and corporate representatives of the entire human race—from among the hominids is the very event through which humans are created or formed (yatsar) “as the image of God”. The election of humankind is the creation of humankind as the imago Dei. This election and creation of human beings as the divine image simultaneously entails a vocation, mission, and calling for humans to exist for the sake of and for the redemption of God’s created cosmos.
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