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Richard Middleton | Image of God

Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some questions about human identity through the lenses of the bible and ancient worldview.


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Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some questions about human identity through the lenses of the bible and ancient worldview.

Description

We were made in the image of God, but what does that really mean? Whom does that apply to? What does that call us to? The Bible is very central to understanding the answers to these questions, as is cultural context. In this episode, biblical worldview professor, Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some of the questions about human identity through both of those lenses.

  • Originally aired on May 07, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Middleton:

If God brings creation into being through acts of graciousness and God shares power— “let the firmament separate” and then God separates and let the lights rule over the day and night—but God is really the ruler. God is giving tasks—and let the earth bring forth vegetation. God doesn’t say, “I got to do it.” God is like a delegator. If that is the way God uses power, that’s the way God rules, that’s the model for how we are to rule. Which leads in a straight line, or maybe it’s a crooked line but it gets there, to Jesus, Dominos, our Lord, who said, you’re not going to rule as the Gentiles ruled. They lorded over theirs. You must rule the way the son of man came to rule. That’s to give his life a ransom for many. He came to be a servant and not not just to be served.

My name is Richard Middleton, and I teach biblical studies, mostly Old Testament at Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host Jim Stump. 

From a young age, growing up in Jamaica, Richard Middleton was interested in how he fit into the wider world. His professional career as a Bible scholar has continued that, looking to the very beginning, to the creation story and the role that humans take in creation. And you can’t very well understand the beginning unless you also understand the end, so that brought him to a study of Eschatology, the fruition of creation. So his interests and insights span a wide range and have led to many published books and writings on eschatology, the image of god, and creation theology. 

Our conversation here touches on a number of these topics, but the main focus is his book The Liberating Image, which is widely recognized by pastors and theologians as essential reading on what it means that we humans—male and female—were created in the image of God. This is a core doctrine of the Christian faith, but perhaps surprisingly, like the Trinity, it is not explicitly explained in Scripture. So there have been a number of competing ideas and proposals about it over the years of Christian tradition. You might think that our emphasis on the evolutionary origins of human beings would be a problem for understanding ourselves as created in God’s image. But Richard doesn’t think this is much of a concern. He’s not trying to read science back into the Scriptural text, but instead doing his best to understand the texts themselves. Unpacking all this makes for an engaging conversation.

Let’s get to it now.

Interview Part 1

Stump:

You and I first met in a small classroom that served as the exhibit hall for a conference of the American Scientific Affiliation in Hamilton, Ontario, as I recall. I was manning the BioLogos booth and you had popped across the border from where you live in upstate New York to see what was going on with the ASA. We discovered that we both had ties to the same little church denomination, my branch of which was in Northern Indiana and yours in Jamaica. And at that point, I think I sort of immediately assumed that you must have been part of a missionary family or something. Right? Because you don’t look like what most of us think when we hear Jamaican. But that was not the case. What do you know of your ancestry in Jamaica?

Middleton:

And so my mother’s side is Jewish and the Jews, you know, fled the inquisition in Spain, away to Portugal. Same time Columbus left. And many of them went to Brazil and there was a Dutch part of Brazil that was Protestant where they had freedom from the inquisition. And when the inquisition came, when Brazil became Portuguese, many of them came to the Caribbean and my mother is descended from those Sephardic Jews. My father’s grandfather, I believe, came from England. So I grew up in Jamaica and I didn’t, I didn’t leave until I was 22.

Stump:

So I think most of us when we hear Jamaica, think of reggae music and Olympic sprinters. I’ve been there a couple of times, not for vacationing, but had interacted with some of the educational community and I don’t think it’s widely appreciated enough, just how rich and intellectual culture there is in Jamaica. To what do you attribute that?

Middleton:

I think that many people from the third world have a sense that they need to overachieve to keep up with the rest of the world because they’re looked down upon. So I went to a small undergraduate theological seminary in Jamaica, Jamaican theological seminary, got a bachelor of theology and then I came to Canada and did a master’s in philosophy and I found I was not out of my depth at all. I had an amazing grounding because they felt you had to learn a lot of stuff. You had to know everything about the world around you, not just your own tradition, you had to understand the wider world.

Stump:

Did you grow up then always thinking that you wanted to be a philosopher or biblical theologian?

Middleton:

No, I was an artist in school and I was becoming interested in pursuing art as a career. My parents suggested it would not make a good living just to be a fine artist. But my church said, well, you know, you love Jesus so you should do something spiritual and go to seminary. And I went to seminary and fell in love with academics through that. But unlike everybody else in my year, I was the only one who didn’t want to go into pastoral ministry. I wanted to do an educational route and study philosophy and biblical studies. That’s what I decided to do when I was 20 to go on and do graduate work in those fields.

Stump:

So as you look back over the arc of your career, the kinds of things that you’ve been interested in, the ideas you’ve been drawn to, what do you see? What, what have been these topics that have intrigued you the most and that you’ve found to be the most fruitful for exploring?

Middleton:

From the very beginning I needed a sense of how do I fit into the wider world. So first of all, the question was if I’m not going to do pastoral ministry, how do I understand myself theologically? What am I going to do? Because I need to do something to serve God in the world. So I decided to understand what a Christian worldview was and that required studying philosophy and Bible. And so I wanted to understand the nature of creation, the world God made, and what is the human role in creation. At the same time I was interested in eschatology: where it all goes because in a sense eschatology is God bringing creation to its telos, its end, its fruition. So from the beginning, always beginning and end were the two things I wanted to study and everything in between. And sometimes the kitchen sink too.

Stump:

So when you’re talking about creation, you don’t have any formal training in science, do you?

Middleton:

No I don’t, but I’ve always been reading in science over the years.

Stump:

So let’s talk a little bit then about theological method or biblical studies method in its relationship to science, since BioLogos is this science and faith organization, how does science properly inform or influence the work of someone like you that’s interested in creation and even eschatology? Is there any scientific influence there?

Middleton:

Not initially. Initially my goal was to understand what the Bible says about creation and anything else I was studying in its original historical context. What would an original reader have meant? I was very conscious because I studied worldviews that readers always bring their assumptions and their cultural presuppositions to read texts. So I was trying to understand the history of Western culture—how we got to where we are, so that I could interact with biblical texts without reading my modern ideas into it. And people like BioLogos and others found that would be helpful to connect with science, but I had not really thought about how science connected with these matters. so I’ve done a little speculation on that along the way. Once in a while a scientific understanding of the world might say, “Hmm, that little, that interpretation I had of a text doesn’t quite work with that. You know what, there’s another way to look at that I had not thought of”, but usually that’s maybe 5% of my biblical interpretation has been affected by science. The rest has not been.

Stump:

We, BioLogos, is sometimes accused of letting science trump theology. That’s not the way that you have seen it in your own work and certainly not a method that you would commend to others.

Middleton:

No. And in fact, you know when it comes to biblical studies, method is a reflection on what you’ve actually done. You don’t really start with a method. And PhD programs, they always want you to say what your method is going to be when you start, but nobody really knows it until they’ve done the interpretation. Because good interpretation means listening to the text as genuinely other. Like you understand a person, you come to meet a person, you have assumptions about the person, then you talk and you realize, oh, I may clarify that person’s not who I thought they were, and now I understand the real person. That’s how I deal with texts. And then at the later stage, now how does that relate to what we know about science or what we think we know about science, which is always changing of course. But that’s the second step for me.

Stump:

Is there a push back that, there though in the sense that people a thousand years ago were not interpreting texts in the same way that we do today? So we’re situated in a cultural context that is of course influenced by science and what we know about the world. So is there at least a secondary or derivative influence of uh, scientific learning and knowledge that our culture has amassed that has an influence on these interpretations?

Middleton:

I think that’s true, but it’s not just a scientific knowledge, it’s everything about our culture is influencing our interpretations. And so the, the primary issue is not do you have a neutral interpretation that gets the objective truth ’cause nobody does. But are you aware as much as you can of the assumptions that you’re bringing to it so you can question them. A friend of mine who does new Testament studies and tries to look at the historical Jesus said, you know, this famous statement made in the 19th century, early 20th century that the historians of Jesus were looking down a deep well and saw the reflection of their own faces. And he said, could I be doing the same thing? And I said, if you’re asking that question, you’re probably not. It’s when you never asked the question that you’re obviously just reading your assumptions into the text, but to struggle with it and try to understand how the text might say a different word from what I’ve always heard, then I think you’re open to hearing the voice of God in the text.

Stump:

So is it even possible then for us today to try to figure out which of those assumptions are culturally embedded that may be discarded in another generation down the road. And that we’ll see that our own limitations were perhaps looming too large in the way we read scripture?

Middleton:

I’m not sure anybody could predict that though. You’d have to know more than what you actually know, right?

Stump:

You’d have to be situated outside of your…

Middleton:

… own culture, and there’s no God’s eye view that we can have. We are all embedded.

Stump:

So at BioLogos we are interested in what we call this topic of human identity. So broadly speaking, what does it mean to be human in light of evolutionary science and in light of Christian theology? And on this latter count, the doctrine of the image of God is foundational. So you wrote a book published in 2005, The Liberating Image, which is widely cited as must reading on this topic. So let’s walk through some of that if we can. We are told in Genesis 1, so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God, he created them, male and female, he created them. What do we know of the first audience of Genesis chapter one and what would they have understood by such a claim?

Middleton:

So I go a little bit against the stream of biblical scholarship and not trying to pinpoint the exact dating of Genesis 1 because within the stream of ancient near Eastern consciousness and worldview and religion over about a one and a half thousand years, Genesis 1 would have meant the same thing because there wasn’t much change in the culture of ideas of what it means to be human. And Genesis 1 is, is helping Israelites who are faithful to Yaweh to define what it means to be human in opposition to cultural concepts that were already there. So to be a human being in Mesopotamia meant that you were created to do the dirty work the gods didn’t want to do, so the gods could rest. And of course we have God resting in Genesis, but wait, when God rests in Genesis, he has given us the Royal task to represent him in the world.

That task was limited to Kings and to priests who therefore mediated the presence of their deities by their Royal functioning. The ordinary human beings were low caste, basically. So this is saying that we are not meant to do the dirty work of the gods, but we are created through God’s own proper work to represent God and rule, but of course, God is the ruler of the universe. Yet we’ve been delegated some agency and power to bring this world to its fruition, what God wants to accomplish. The other ancient near Eastern idea that’s crucial is every major deity had a temple dedicated to them with a large statue in there called an image. In Hebrew, it’s Selam. In Acadian, the language of Mesopotamia, it’s Sulmu. It’s a cognate term, and that image, just like a King, was to mediate the presence and power of the deity to the worshipers.

By analogy, humans are put in the world to mediate God’s presence. God wants to fill the temple of creation with his presence. Just as when the tabernacle was created, the glory of God came down and filled it. When the temple was built, the glory of God came down and filled it. But when God creates the world, his glory doesn’t come and automatically fill it. He creates human beings as his image. And then in Genesis 2:7 he breathes into the human being, and he becomes alive. That mirrors a cult ceremony in Mesopotamia where they would carve an image and then go through a ritual and they thought the spirit of the deity entered the image, and it became alive. And Genesis is saying, Kings are not the image of God. Idols are not the image of God. Humans are God’s representatives in this world. That theological vision can be applied to the scientific task.

Stump:

We’ll get to the science of that perhaps in a minute. Let’s stay on the, the sort of cultural critique that we find in Genesis 1 here. So, if I hear you humans in Genesis 1, all humans are given this image. One of the understandings of the image of God is less on this function or this office that is given that you’re describing here and more on the capacities that we have. Can you give any commentary on that? Perhaps where that idea came from and what the shortcomings of understanding the image in that sense would be?

Middleton:

So where it came from and the shortcomings may be different issues because I don’t believe in the genetic fallacy, that just because you can say where something came from that means it’s wrong. Right? But Plato originally thought that to be human is to be rational. So did Aristotle and it’s part of the Greek tradition. And some of the early church fathers interpreted the Imago Dei, that God is a divine mind and we also have minds. Therefore we reflect God in our rationality, not in our bodies. They had a very clear distinction there. And there’s versions of that that have got come through the tradition and it’s been nuanced in different ways. It could be our moral conscience, which is like God who is ethical. Augustine thought humans have a Trinitarian aspect in their consciousness, that reflects the divine Trinity. And this notion of there’s some metaphysical quality that reflects God, so either the rational faculty or something like that, has been strong in the tradition.

And only in the 20th century have we kind of broken the mold of that. And primarily through looking at the context of Genesis. Though there’ve been a few precursors of this office, of the functional office that had been there in the history of interpretation, but they’ve not been dominant primarily because the Platonic tradition is so affected Christian theology. The shortcomings are that, I believe that there is no biblical evidence to read the mind or rationality as the image of God. Of course, to function as God’s representative in the world you have to have some rational faculties, right? So there are certain qualities that you need to have to be able to be the image of God, but the image of God is a vocation or a task or mission. It is to represent God adequately. This allows for a seamless transition from the Old Testament with this notion of office, to the new Testament with this notion that to be the image of God is to conform to Christ. How we live morally is part of the mission of the image of God. So the moral image that you find highlighted in the New Testament is built on the Old Testament idea of office.

Stump:

It’s sometimes remarked that there are very few instances in scripture of explicit discussion of the image. So why do you think this is, have we made it a more important and central topic than the biblical authors themselves?

Middleton:

Yes. So like what we do with the Trinity, right? There’s no explicit Trinity in the Bible, but we think that’s important. I think it’s very important. The way I look at it is this: biblical texts in Genesis that mentioned the image—chapter one, five and nine are the references and maybe the analogue in Psalm eight, what is man that you’ve made him a little lower than divine beings and Elohim, maybe a reflection of that—these texts are probably late, but the idea behind the text was already there. The way I read it is there the consistent coherent notion of being human in the Bible that humans have agency to represent God in the world and to act as God’s emissaries in obedience to God’s covenant. And this is a underground stream that runs through scripture, but what you find in the Imago Dei texts, that’s where the stream bubbles to the surface and you see this explicit later articulation, “Oh let’s use the analogy with images in the ancient world that we are friendly with to clarify what we really have in scripture”, the theological anthropology of the Bible. And then the new Testament picks it up quite seriously and all and Judaism picks it up because it becomes an important theme for them. So that’s what I thought answered that question.

Stump:

Okay. Couple more questions on cultural critique. So are there no other mentions in extra biblical literature of all of humanity being made in the image of God?

Middleton:

There are a couple of mentions that seem to say that in Egyptian wisdom literature that are very old. They never became dominant in the worldview of Egypt. So some somebody says things like that as, as you know, that you can have individuals thinking something and it doesn’t catch on culturally. So I think that’s what happened a few places in ancient near East.

Stump:

And what about females? Male and female, he made them, is this a, a new move by the author of Genesis?

Middleton:

It’s such a new move that there are some biblical scholars who said the author of Genesis did not really intend that. And, and they say, well, you’re reading the Bible to egalitarianly, using modern assumptions. But I think the Bible is intending to say that.

Stump:

How, how did they argue that? Does it not really use words for male and female? The way we understand them?

Middleton:

The way it would go would be that Genesis 1 is past that part of the priestly tradition. And the priestly tradition is hierarchical: male over female. So it couldn’t mean what you think it means. I’ve heard that argument.

Stump:

And then how about understanding the image of God as an individual attribution to each of us as individuals or as the image of God as a collective, the way the new Testament uses the body of Christ, that we are members of that?

Middleton:

I think it’s both. I’ve heard some people say, well the image of God is not just individual. It is really corporate because it’s male and female. It’s: all people are the image of God. If that’s all, then Jesus could not be the true image of God because he’s an individual. The thing is, it’s a false dichotomy to say individual or community because nobody is an island. To be an individual is to be related to others, different communities, and groups. And there is no community without individuals. Otherwise you just have this mass man notion that existentialists reacted against. So to be an individual is to be a member of a body and to be a body, a corporate group, you have to have individuals with different functions. So I think it has to be both.

Stump:

Because one of the concerns we hear sometimes about the capacities view of the image of God is: what about individuals within our species that perhaps are disabled in some way or aren’t or don’t have that level of rationality? Are they still the image of God because of a it being a corporate identity?

Middleton:

Yeah, and I’ve been critiqued that the notion of the image as missional or agency. Also the founders on the notion of those without those capacities who have mental or other deficiencies, can they be the image of God? And the way I have always thought about to be human is to not just be an agent, to act, to be a subject in the world. It’s also to be a recipient of God’s grace. We both receive from God and we act in the world. To the extent that you can receive the grace of God, and the limited extent you can act in the world, you can still be the image of God because it is both a gift and a calling. It’s not just a calling or a duty; it’s also a gift.

Stump:

You mentioned that the original audience is not entirely clear but you make an interpretive move in your work that it at least resonates with the Jewish exile and people hearing this in light of that. And let me read a couple of sentences here to remind you, since this was written over 10 years ago, and have you respond to it in this way. So you said “If Genesis 1 were written or heard in the historical context of the Babylonian exile, the Imago Dei would have come as a Clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity and to take seriously their Royal priestly vocation as God’s authorized agents and representatives in the world.” Unpack that a little bit for us. What are the Jewish people in exile hearing when they read these words and say you have been created in the image of God?

Middleton:

So once when I was doing my PhD, I was teaching an adjunct course on Imago Dei and I had the students write journals. And one of them wrote a journal from the point of view of a Babylonian priest who had met some Israelites in exile and he said, “You people, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about everybody’s image of God. We know that what the image of God means is the King. We bow before him ‘because he has a divine aura around him. Your idea is just meaningless. How can everybody, these dregs, these hoi polloi, how can they be the image of God?” That already begins to get to the cultural context where ordinary people in Babylon are actually of a lower class or caste, basically. They’re the servants of the elites. And then the exiles are, even if they are not marginally socially, because some of them are actually artisans and military people and bureaucrats, they got the middle class to come to exile, basically use them, but they’re still lower down because they’re captives. They’re from another culture.

And so if you’re living in a culture that is Pagan, idolatrous, has a different set of values from you from the mosaic covenant: you’re beginning to feel inferior. Does that resonate with Christians in the world today? Of course because we were in an exilic time. And the point is not to then take on a victim mentality, “We’re going to get back those people, what they did to us”, which is actually a Babylonian idea. Babylon conquered the world because those people need to be subdued by us. And some Israelites wanted them to subdue the Pagans. But the true way to respond is: you were created by God with great dignity and responsibility. And to quote Jeremiah 29, “Seek the Shalom of the city in which you find yourself”, which is Babylon he’s talking about because in its Shalom is your Shalom.

So as you, you represent God’s compassion and moral standards in the way you live in an exilic situation, you are representing God to the world. And that’s the Abrahamic mission to bring blessing to the world through your vocation and so the Abrahamic vocation, and even the great commission is built on the image of God, how we represent God in the world and how it attracts others to God.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum, which you heard about at the top of this show. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part 2

Stump:

Okay. I want to come back to our role as image bearers today and what that might mean in our context. But first I want to take a little detour into this 5% of your work that you say science might have some particular influence in. Maybe get you to speculate a little bit, and I want to be careful that we don’t attempt to read modern science out of the Bible. But is there any way for us to harmonize this doctrine of the Imago Dei with what we now know of the natural history of our species?

So presumably there was a time before our ancestors on the evolutionary lineage. Were legitimately called image bearers and obviously a time after. Can we say anything about the transition or when this would have occurred? When do Homo sapiens become image bearers? Or perhaps other species in the homo lineage become image bearers? Is this even a fair question to ask of you?

Middleton:

It’s a very difficult question and it’s very speculative. So what I want to do before answer it directly, is I want to explain one little place where science helped me interpret the Bible better.

Stump:

Good.

Middleton:

I’ve always wondered about the picture of Adam and Eve in Genesis two and three, and how does it fit with science? I wasn’t so worried about Genesis 1, but I was wondering about Genesis two and three. Here we have two individuals; the primordial couple, yet I do know that the name Adam means human, the name Hava, Eve means life.

So they’re kind of archetypal. And their son’s name is Hevel, Abel. Hevel is the word for futility in Ecclesiastes because he’s killed. So these names are functions of the narrative. And Noah gives comfort, Noah is comfort to his people because he builds a vineyard afterwards and stuff, and that gives comfort. You know, some bible scholars don’t really want to say that, but that’s what it’s, that’s what it’s trying to say. So there’s an archetypal sense there. But I also wondered about the way the story is told that they were living in paradise, and then the fall came. Was there a time when human beings, Homo sapiens, or some other form of Hominim were living in paradise with no sin, just everything is la di da? But science would suggest that that’s not the case. And then I was reading in Genesis and I saw that what happens once God creates human beings at the end of chapter two is the first thing that happens is temptation and sin.

There was no narrative of them living paradisically, and it was science that made me aware of that. But that’s actually the biblical insight I should have been aware of because I wasn’t paying attention to it. I had let cultural concepts of paradise influence my reading of scripture. So in that case, and a few other little details like that, attending to the science made me read the Bible the better. 

On the question of how does it relate to when did Homosapiens become genuinely the image of God? I don’t know. You know, is it Homosapiens who first became the image of God or was it some other form of Hominin? And you know, we know that at anatomically modern homosapiens where we’ve said that we’ve been around for 200,000 years now we say 300,000 years. That’s changed in the past year because science. But they seem to start doing a certain… They leave behind cultural traces that show significant differences maybe about a hundred thousand years ago or even less.

Could there have been a transition in consciousness when God entered into a relationship with Homo sapiens? All Homo sapiens or a group of them or two of them? I don’t know, you know. How do you speculate that? And that consciousness of God is the mission to represent God in the world, comes with an ethical calling, and did the fall happen soon after as they broke that relationship and were disobedient to the ethical call? This is the kind of speculation you have to say, “Something like that may have happened, but I’m not going to say it did happen or when it did happen. I really don’t know.”

Stump:

It seems to me there’s a certain way in which your view of the image of God as a calling, as an office that we are called to, is easier in this regard than if we were to take the capacities view of the image of God, where we’ve got a developing line that those capacities are gradually increasing. Maybe a few times when they jump up more significantly. But can’t we… Can’t we make it perfectly consistent with what we see in natural history to say there may have been a moment in time when God recognizes that these creatures had evolved far enough to have the kind of capacities that were required and say, as of now, I am revealing myself more fully to you, entering into relationship with you, more specifically. Calling you to a higher task than even your immediate predecessors might’ve had.

Middleton:

That’s my hypothesis, but it is very speculative. It’s very speculative, and so I don’t teach speculative stuff as biblical theology. I mention it as a possibility, but it’s not what I teach as biblical theology.

Stump:

And of course we’re concerned to see that a good Orthodox biblical theology is not in some sort of contradiction with what science seems to be teaching us. And it sounds as though you don’t think there’s any worry there.

Middleton:

I don’t think there’s any intrinsic contradiction. I think every once in awhile you find something that is a contradiction, but it’s not fundamental. Just for example, the portrayal of the first humans in Genesis assumes a sedentary agricultural society, which is relatively recent.

Stump:

10,000 years ago maybe?

Middleton:

It doesn’t go back to like 80,000 a hundred thousand years ago because they’re using their own cultural lens. Nobody in that time had any notion of what was before an agricultural society. So the primary task of human beings is to tend and keep the garden. This is an agricultural task. And then in Genesis 1, and they also have dominion over animals. You know, animal domestication. This is relatively recent in human history, but that’s the way it’s portrayed. I don’t want to try and harmonize that with science.

Stump:

Right.

Middleton:

That’s just a cultural way they thought of it. But we can say Imago Dei may go back before that.

Stump:

Do you recognize a difference between Homo sapiens and humans?

Middleton:

I am sure that no writer of scripture can see any other hominim beside Homo sapiens.

Stump:

Right.

Middleton:

What we do with this is another question. I don’t know. So if it’s Homo sapiens who became the image of God through a God relationship at a particular time of revelation, then it’s Homo sapiens. But did that happen before Homo sapiens to some other group? I don’t know. I can’t tell. It’s analogous to the question of if we found sentient life elsewhere in the universe, would they have a relation to God, too? And men like C.S. Lewis wouldn’t want to deny that, but we don’t know anything about it. So it’s pure speculation right now.

Stump:

Right. Okay. Let’s come back to the present and perhaps a little less speculating. So we are image bearers. What does that mean for us today? We are to be rulers, but what sort of rulers? At the beginning of the last section of your book, you say, “What is urgently needed at this point is an investigation into the content or substance of the sort of power that humans are expected to exercise in the divine image.” And the immediate difficulty is that the sort of divine activity on display so far is one that’s been described as primordial violence or this combat myth. What is that idea, and how does your view resist the implication that it gives legitimacy to human violence?

Middleton:

Almost every ancient culture has some notion of a myth of a deity conquering demonic forces to bring order to the world. The Mesopotamians particularly connected that with the act of creation. It’s not fair that all other cultures created it, linked it creation, but their creation myth, primarily Enuma Elish, so-called Babylonian creation story has gotten Marduk subduing the ocean monster Tiamat and bringing order into the world and cutting her body in half. And her carcass, part of it makes the heaven, parts make the earth. Her breasts are the mountains and her eyes flow tears for the river Euphrates and Tigris, and so on. So the world is constructed out of demonic content and there’s a primordial subduing of chaos to bring order to the world. And Genesis totally vanquishes that without an explicit contradiction. It just presents a God who calls the world into being with no conflict.

And the way God calls the world into being is not even by issuing commands. But by in Hebrew, what is called the jussive, which is like an exhortation. “Let there be.” It’s like saying, “Let’s go get a hamburger.” I don’t say, “Get a hamburger,” that’s a command. I’m saying, “Let’s go get a hamburger,” it’s an encouragement. And you know, the, the let there be, let the earth bring forth vegetation. Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. Let us make humans in our image. Addressing the divine court of the angels, which is a standard Jewish interpretation. And this divine encouragement suggests that God is all powerful. God just has to kind of make a suggestion, if you will. And the creation comes into being, he doesn’t have to fight any recalcitrant entity.

In fact, the deep, tehom, is cognate to the word Tiamat, the monster of creation. And the deep is just water. The earth begins. The creation story begins where the earth is covered in water and it’s dark. And that’s tova va vohu, that’s a state where nothing will function yet. So God begins to bring light, and separate light and dark. Separates the waters above from the waters below by an air bubble. So this breathing space. Separates the waters below, so there’s land, so land animals can create. He creates an ordered world without any conflict.

And not only are the waters just water, but at one point what some of the creatures in the deep are called the great sea monsters. And it uses the same word, which sometimes the King James translates as dragons. And it’s a word that refers to what the ancient Near East thought of as water creatures, well not creatures, demonic water monsters that the gods had to conquer. And these are just, as Herman Gunkle said, a big sort of fish. It’s just part of God’s created order. And Leviathan is an example of that later in Psalm 104 where God forms Leviathan to play with. And of course one of the medieval Jewish commentaries says that for a quarter of the day, God plays with Leviathan for three hours every day. Because this is not an enemy of God, this is a creature of God. So there’s a reframing: creation is good, it is ordered, it is not perfect. God gives humans the role to bring it to perfection, to subdue and rule and transform the world.

Stump:

Okay so that’s the next verse right after the image verses where be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over it. And I think that passage has been used sometimes to justify exploitation.

Middleton:

In the modern world it has been used that way yeah.

Stump:

Okay. And on the other hand, it’s sometimes been used as highlighting our role as stewards and in the environmental movement even. Are both of those modern readings, or what, what’s really going on in this verse?

Middleton:

Well, if God brings creation into being through acts of graciousness and God shares power, let the firmament separate and then God separates and let the lights rule over the day and night. But God is really the… Let humans rule. But God is really the ruler. God is giving tasks… and let the earth bring forth vegetation. God doesn’t say, “I got to do it.” God is like a delegator. If that is the way God uses power, that’s the way God rules, that’s the model for how we are to rule. Which leads in a straight line, or maybe it’ s a crooked line but it gets there, to Jesus. Dominos our Lord who said, you’re not going to rule as the Gentiles ruled. They lorded over there’s, you must rule the way the son of man came to rule. That’s to give his life a ransom for many.

He came to be a servant and not not just to be served. So the model for rule in the Bible is to work for the benefit of those you have authority over. And that’s the model for any form of rule, whether it’s a president of the United States, the head of a corporation if a faculty member with my class. Power is always given that you might empower others to bring them to where they should be, that you rule over the household for the benefit of the household. And that’s the model of rule throughout the whole Bible. And I think it’s grounded in Genesis 1 in the kind of creative power that God exercises.

Stump:

It seems that the use of power in our culture today would benefit enormously from this understanding.

Middleton:

I think so. That’s really the motivation why I got into this topic of Imago Dei because I found it brought both great dignity to my own life, but also gave me some limits of: this is how you use power. It’s not just to be used any way you want. There are guidelines in the image of God.

Stump:

Another part of your argument is that there’s a literary relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and these are not simply two distinct creation accounts that were plopped down next to each other by some ancient editor because they didn’t know what else to do with them. Neither is Genesis 2 simply an expansion of day six of Genesis 1 the way some of our young earth creationists would have us believe. So what is the relationship between these texts? How does it help us understand our role as image bearers?

Middleton:

So the book of Genesis is structured by what’s called the tul dot sayings. Tul dot means the generations in King James version. These are the generations of Tara. Tara is Abram’s father. The story that follows the story of Abraham, that’s what was generated out of Tara. And on and on it goes, these generations of Jacobs, Joseph’s story and so forth. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth lead to the garden story. This is what came of creation when God made it. So at the beginning of human history is narrated in Genesis two and three. So I look at Genesis 1 as God’s call. God says, let there be, let there be, let us make, let’s make, but he gives functions to particular creatures. But the only creature that acts in Genesis 1 is the earth, which brings forth vegetation. Even human beings don’t do anything. They just get their marching orders.

And then here are the generations of the heavens and the earth and when they were created, and let’s see what happens. And then you have the narrative of humans coming into being, a reframing of the creation slightly and then their sin. That’s what came of it. They misuse their power and then the whole story of the Bible is meant to be an unfolding of what came of the heavens and the earth when God created it. So even though Genesis 2 and 3 might have been an independent story in Israel, at one point, the writer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, made it a subsidiary story of how creation began to develop once God set it up, which is what Genesis 1 is about.

Stump:

And there’s something significant right that on day seven we don’t have, there was evening, there was morning. So what does that imply as we get into the rest of scripture?

Middleton:

I think at the end of every day of creation we have in those evening and morning, day one, two, three, four, five, six and then there is no ending to the seventh day. Augustine mentions it in his commentaries, but he doesn’t really know what to do with it. I read it that the seventh day is the day in which God rests, which doesn’t mean that God is tired and worn out from creation. It means God has now taken up his rule on his throne, but he has now delegated rule to human beings to be his image. So God rests from bringing about any new creations that he sets up the world. Now it’s our task to unfold the potentials of creation and so it’s the seventh day is the day of human delegated power or the day of human history, if you will. And I read it that it’s possible to say that all of human history occurs in day seven. This is the day when God has set up the world and we now have our task to unfold God’s purposes.

Stump:

Does day seven ever end then? Is there an end of human history? Is that the inauguration of the new order of things?

Middleton:

Of course, I am very aware that different biblical texts are written by different authors with different conceptualities, and there are different times in history, and I’m not saying that every later author understood that about day seven, but the seventh day notion becomes an eschatological day in book of Hebrews. And it’s also used that way in various places in the Bible. And you gotta read Tom Wright’s Gifford lectures which have just been published because they’re on this theme and he shows the unfolding of the seventh day. The seventh day actually is pointing towards God’s purposes. God’s purposes for creation, especially in later scripture. So we enter into the Sabbath as eschaton when we rest, not from work, but we rest from sin. And so the seventh day has new layers of meaning in later texts. And I don’t want to conflate them all to say they’re saying the exact same thing, but I’m very interested in biblical coherence. I’m thinking about how we may put together different texts from different times that say slightly different things, but what is the conceptuality that unites them? That’s what I’m interested in.

Stump:

So your conclusion in the book is Genesis 1 artfully shatters both ancient and contemporary rhetorical expectations and instead depicts God is a generous creator. Sharing power with a variety of creatures, especially humanity, inviting them and trusting them at some risk to participate in the creative and historical process. Why do you call this a liberating image, then? Where does that title come from?

Middleton:

It comes from the fact that reflecting on the biblical notion of image of God greatly liberated me from concepts that kept me down and made me think I was insignificant in the world and helped me to stand tall. So I think that anyone who’s honest will admit that their biblical interpretation is connected to their experience. This is my Wesleyan side. I’m coming out and saying that, right? The introduction to the book talks about that. But I think it’s broader than, it’s not just subjectivism, it’s not just my own experience. I found that this is the experience of many other people. This vision both lets you stand tall with great dignity, but also calls you to a task that is much greater than you can imagine. And participating in a mission and a great task is what gives meaning to life. And this task is not my individual task it’s the task of the church through history. And God wants to manifest the way Ephesians puts it to powers the heavenly powers that are fallen. He wants to show the wisdom of God through the church. The church has been created for good works. We’re to live that out and that’s a witness in the world and that I think is empowering. That’s, that’s liberating for me and for many other people too.

Stump:

So you went on from here to write a book about eschatology then. What are the next projects you have going? Where does this go from here?

Middleton:

As I said, I’m, I’m interested in the beginnings and ends and everything in between. So one of the things in between I’m interested in is the problem of suffering. How do we address the fact that God’s beautiful creative purposes and his purposes for the end, for bringing things to fruition are not always evident in the in between times where we do suffer. We experience great evil in this world. How are we supposed to live in the, in between time? And I’ve been greatly helped by the lament Psalms, which allow us to bring our suffering to God and even to challenge God in abrasive ways. Imagine a Psalm that would say, my God, why have you abandoned me? Well, does God ever abandon people? See, that’s a Wesleyan psalm it takes human experience seriously. If I experience God’s absence I’m not going to say well I guess God gave up on me and walk away. I’m going to go to God and say, where the heck have you been? You know what’s going on? And Jesus, of course, prays that psalm on the cross.

So I have a book on the prayer of lament, but it’s exegetically grounded in two texts. It’s grounded in Job, who is the lamentor par excellence, who passionately challenges God, and I believe in the speeches from the whirlwind, God affirms Job’s lament though he questions Job’s theology. So the first speech questions Job’s theology and says, you didn’t understand how I really run the universe. And then Job says nothing, and God says, you have to answer. And Job says I’ll answer by saying nothing. And God says, okay, I got to do it, try something else. Let me do another speech. And the second speech says, you see this creature called Leviathan? He breathes fire. Nobody can tame him.

He’s a great creature. And he reminds me of Steve Irwin, the crocodile Hunter. Beautiful creature, beautiful creature, and he’s behemoth. I made him along with you. Two monsters that have big mouths and I love them. Get the hint Job? I’m not questioning the fact that you lamented to me. I’m just correcting your theology and Job is comforted about dust and ashes. That’s the best translation of that. So I’m doing this book on Job and the Aqedat, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 with the question, if the lament Psalms show vigorous prayer with God, the book of Job shows God God vindicates Job’s lament. If the prophetic literature grounded in Moses’s example assumes that profits must stand in the breach and tell God you can’t judge them yet. Stand back, hold back. And God says, okay, I won’t judge them yet to the point where he has to tell Jeremiah three times, stop praying for these people because I need to judge them. 

Because if you’ve sat in the breach, I can’t do it because I take your intercession seriously. Why does Abraham when he says, take your son your only son whom you love, right, and offer him up. Abraham goes to do it without saying, that’s not the kind of God you are. You wouldn’t ask me to offer my son and I think God would’ve said you passed the test because God is trying to teach Abraham that he is not like the gods of the nations that require child sacrifice who you must simply submit to as a slave of the gods. You must stand with dignity boldly approaching the throne of grace to use New Testament language because that’s the way prayer in the Old Testament is. But Abraham stands out like a sore thumb and I think he didn’t understand that. So I’m writing a book on lament prayer where the two nodo exegetical points are the academia in Genesis 22 and the book of Job. With lament and prophetic intercession as a background to develop a theology of prayer for us in times of suffering to boldly approach the throne of grace.

Stump:

You mentioned earlier that we today live in a time of exile as well. Is there a connection there with these prophets and this work you’re doing and our contemporary circumstances today.

Middleton:

I’m sure there are. I don’t think I’ve thought about the exile metaphor in relation to this book right now, but now I’m going to be thinking about it. And it may find its way into it. I have two more chapters I have to write.

Stump:

What are you hopeful about when you look at your work today, the work of the Academy within Christian circles and its relationship to contemporary culture?

Middleton:

That’s a huge question. You want to specify a little more?

Stump:

I’m curious just as we conclude our conversation here today of what signs there are that you see that this work that you’ve been engaged in for a good productive while here is useful and important and fruitful. And if there are signs that we as a people are becoming better and better at what we’ve been called to be as image bearers.

Middleton:

Over the years, in classes I teach, I often get the question: so is the world getting better or worse? And the answer is yes. Of course there are signs that many Christians are thinking more deeply about scripture and its relation to life. And are more biblical in their grounding and want to seek to represent God’s love in really authentic ways, but I also see the opposite happening. I see both. Things get better and things get worse. And so I don’t know if I’m optimistic about the church. What I know is that I must live in hope, and hope is grounded in God’s promises and in God’s call towards an alternative future. It doesn’t matter if the world around me seems to be worse or better. I still have a calling to live a certain way and I’ll take- I’ll take a little hope from the signs of those I see impacted by good biblical teaching and who are living that out. Even if elsewhere, I see the opposite. So that’s the kind of way I approach this thing. I’m not trying to see is it half empty or half full. However you look at the world around you, the calling hasn’t really changed.

Stump:

Any advice to people who may be listening that are considering work in biblical studies or theology?

Middleton:

Yeah, so the advice I give is: you are first of all, a priest of Jesus Christ. A member the body of Christ with a ministry towards other people. Secondarily, you’re a scholar. So your faith is primary and faith seeking understanding is the way we go about it. Too many people go into PhD programs and get airs that they’re now scholars and start talking abstract language that they have the truth. No, you are a servant of the church and the world and your scholarship should be secondary to the grounding of your own commitment to Jesus Christ. Your allegiance to Christ grounds all scholarship, or else it’s just noisy gongs and cymbals. That’s, that’s the way I would challenge people.

Stump:

Good. Well, thank you for your work and thank you for talking to me today.

Middleton:

It’s my pleasure Jim. Thank you.

Credits

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Featured guest

J. Richard Middleton

J. Richard Middleton

Richard Middleton (PhD Free University of Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY) and adjunct professor of Old Testament at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (Kingston, Jamaica). He is past president of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (2019–2021) and past president of the Canadian-American Theological Association (2011–2014). He holds a BTh from Jamaica Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Guelph (Canada). Middleton is the author of Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021); A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014); and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). He coauthored (with Brian Walsh) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984) and Truth is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), and has co-edited (with Garnett Roper) A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue (Pickwick, 2013). He has published articles on creation theology in the Old Testament, the problem of suffering, and the dynamics of human and divine power in biblical narratives. His books have been published in Korean, French, Indonesian, Spanish, and Portuguese.