This is the first post in an ongoing forum on the topic “What Practical Relevance Does the ‘Imago Dei’ Have for the Advance of Human Rights, Peace, and Global Development in the 21st century?” We are honored to have Dr. J. Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary and author of The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 to open this series in an academic voice that we hope deepens your understanding of what this ancient Hebrew concept meant in its own historical and cultural context and how it can inspire us today to work to unleash the liberating essence of our faith traditions in the service of a more kind, just, and interdependent world.
The idea that human beings are made in the image of God (Latin imago Dei) grounds Christian ethics. And it is one of the most important sources of our thinking about human rights, and how to care for and work toward a better world where all people can thrive.
The Imago Dei as the Human Vocation
The idea first occurs in the Bible in Genesis 1, a beautiful poetic, cosmological treatise where God is shown creating a magnificent world with humanity, both male and female, made in God’s own “image” and “likeness” (parallel terms) vested with a place of honor and responsibility in creation to rule over the animals and care for the earth. The imago Dei crystallizes the Bible’s consistent vocational or missional view of humanity—that humans are called to lovingly represent God’s presence and purposes on earth.
We see humans representing God’s image though vocation again in Genesis 2, where God plants a garden in Eden and places the first humans there with the task of tilling and keeping the garden (2:15). Agriculture is portrayed as the first communal, cultural project of humanity. Since it is the Creator who first planted the garden, we could say that God initiated the first cultural project, thus setting a pattern for humans—created in the divine image—to follow. Whereas Genesis 2 focuses on agriculture, Psalm 8 highlights animal husbandry as a basic human vocation and describes humans as crowned with honor and granted rule over the works of God’s hands, including various realms of animal life (Ps 8:5-8). The domestication of animals is here regarded as a task of such dignity and privilege that through it humans manifest their position of being “little lower than God” (Ps 8:5), an expression that begins to move in the direction of God’s image/likeness.
Genesis 1:26-28 combines these two vocations: Humans are created to “subdue” the earth (similar to tending the garden in Genesis 2) and to rule over the animal kingdom (as in Psalm 8). And they are to accomplish these tasks as God’s representatives or delegates on earth, entrusted with a share in his rule, which is the upshot of being made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). In ancient ears, the imagery of bearing God’s image/likeness connoted a royal stature, which Genesis 1 claims is vested in all human beings, not just the ruling elites of the day.
The human task of exercising communal power in the world, initially applied to agriculture and the domestication of animals, results in the transformation of the earthly environment into a complex socio-cultural world. Thus Genesis 4 reports the building of the first city (4:17) and mentions the invention of certain cultural practices, such as nomadic livestock herding, musical instruments, and metal tools (4:20-22). All later human cultural developments thus flow from the imago Dei.
There are certainly implications here for environmental stewardship, but we cannot stop with environmental stewardship, narrowly conceived, since the Bible intends something much broader by its association of the imago Dei with the exercise of cultural, developmental power. In the biblical worldview, all cultural activities and social institutions arise from interaction with the earth. Taking the imago Dei seriously requires us to attend to the social structures we develop, including governments, economic systems, technological innovations, forms of communication, and the urban and suburban landscapes in which we live and work.
The Ancient Near Eastern Background to the Imago Dei
This view of the importance of cultural development and its link to the imago Dei was not unique to Israel. In the ancient Near East, the king was thought to be the living image of the gods on earth, representing the gods’ will and purpose through his administration of society and culture. The difference for Israel is that in Genesis 1 the entire human race is appointed to this privileged role. This democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology implies that all people are equally in the image of God—male and female are explicitly noted (Gen 1:27). Further, no person is granted rule over another at creation. This radical equality does not mean that humans cannot organize society with functional hierarchies of leadership. Rather, such hierarchies are not innate; no human being is intrinsically superior to another. Thus, the imago Dei calls into question the inequities of patriarchy and all forms of apartheid-like social structures that arise in history which all too often have been sanctioned with appeals to the Bible.
The other source of the idea of humans as God’s image is the picture of the cosmos (heaven and earth) as a temple, a concept that Israel shared with the ancient Near East. In this cosmological picture, God’s throne is in heaven above (a cosmic Holy of Holies) but God’s desire is to infuse all of creation with the divine presence. It is thus the human task as the “image of God” in the temple of creation, to make God’s presence and power manifest on earth (as was the function of the “image”/“icon” in pagan temples). The communal development and transformation of earthly life (the Read More