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 “cultural mandate”), which is accomplished by God’s human image, is thus not only a task of great dignity, whereby we represent God’s purposes on earth; it is a holy task, a sacred calling, by which we manifest God’s presence in earthly life.
The Imago Dei and Respect for All People
The Bible suggests two primary applications of the imago Dei to the issue of human rights. First of all, the imago Dei grounds our valuation of, and respect for, all human persons.
Not only are all people (male and female) made in God’s image (Genesis 1), but Genesis 10 portrays all nations, with their linguistic and cultural diversity, as deriving from the same human family. Indeed, in Genesis 1 God creates plants, fish, birds, and land animals according to their “kinds” (Gen 1:11-12, 21, 24-25); but when it comes to the creation of humans, there are no “kinds” mentioned. This is because there is only one kind of human being – the kind made in God’s image. Since the imago Dei is prior to any ethnic, racial or national divisions, all forms of ethnocentrism, racism, or national superiority are called into question. We could phrase this as the right of all people to be treated justly.
The incursion of sin into God’s good creation does not obliterate the imago Dei. God’s creation of male and female in his “likeness” is reiterated after the Fall (Gen 5:1-2) and this image/likeness is passed on to future generations (Gen 5:3). After the flood God again affirms the creation of humans in his “image” and this affirmation grounds the sanctity of human life; the imago Dei functions as prohibitive grounds against murder (Gen 9:6).
The post-Fall persistence of the imago Dei is assumed also in James 3:9, which like Genesis 9:6 undergirds a specific ethical implication, challenging those who would bless God yet curse a person made in the divine “likeness.” This New Testament text echoes the Old Testament wisdom tradition that people somehow represent their Maker, so that oppression or kindness shown to the poor and needy is equivalent to insult or honor shown to God (Prov 14:31; 17:5). A similar idea lies behind Jesus’s claim in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46) that whatever works of love a person performs to “one of the least of these” is done to him (25:40).
Although the Bible does not explicitly address the modern notion of human rights, the imago Dei provides a theological basis for this notion. The Puritans who came to America recognized this when they grounded the right to freedom of religion in the imago Dei.
The Imago Dei God and the Ethical Use of Power
The ethical significance of the imago Dei cannot be limited, however, to the injunction to honor God by respecting his image on earth. Persons made in God’s image are not simply the recipients of ethical action; they are also called to act, imaging God’s own use of creative power. Here we perhaps go beyond the notion of human rights per se to what is today is called “development,” that is, the work of creating societies where basic human needs can be met and where people not only survive but also thrive.
In ancient Near Eastern creation myths, like Enuma Elish, the chief god creates by vanquishing primordial forces of chaos. This enshrines violence as original and normative, which was a typical view in many ancient cultures. But this is not the case in the Bible’s creation account, which forms the immediate context for the imago Dei. Instead, God peaceably develops the initially unformed earth (Gen 1:2) into a complex, well-constructed world. Not only is each stage of this creative process portrayed as good (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), but when creation is complete it is very good (1:31). The human use of power—in God’s image—is also to be non-violent and developmental.
In ancient Near Eastern religious practice sacrifices were understood as providing food for the gods and were thought to be necessary to guarantee fertility of crops and flocks on earth. But Genesis reverses this idea when it portrays God as freely blessing animals and humans with perpetual fertility (1:22, 28) and granting food to both for their sustenance (1:29-30). Most significantly, the biblical Creator does not hoard power as sovereign ruler of the cosmos, but gladly assigns humanity a share in ruling the earth as God’s representatives (1:26-28). God’s own generous exercise of power for the benefit of creatures thus provides the most important model for the human exercise of power.
Love for Enemies Grounded in the Imago Dei
Indeed, when Jesus enjoins his followers to love their enemies (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35), he grounds this in nothing less than the imago Dei. Jesus starts with the well-known biblical injunction (which “you have heard”) to “love you neighbor” (Matt 5:43). But since the “neighbor” to be loved is described in Leviticus 19:18 as one of “your people,” this isn’t radical enough.
Pressing beyond this Old Testament injunction, and contravening popular wisdom of hating one’s enemies (Matt 5:43), Jesus draws on the more radical Old Testament call to care for the gēr (translated “sojourner,” “stranger,” or “alien”; today we would include “refugee”) found in texts like Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:19; 24:17-18, 21-22. Although other ancient Near Eastern peoples were concerned for widows and orphans, Israel was distinctive in being concerned for the welfare of those outside their own nation who took refuge among them (widows, orphans, and aliens are linked in Deut 10:19; 24:17-18, 21-22).
Just as Leviticus 19:18 commanded Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself,” we find a few verses later (Lev 19:34) the command to “love the alien as yourself,” grounded in Israel’s own experience of being aliens in the land of Egypt (also Exod 22:21; 23:9; Deut 10:19; 24:18 and 22).
But the most radical grounding for this ethical injunction is that the Creator of Heaven and Earth shows no partiality in caring for people in need; indeed, God loves the gēr, providing them with food and clothing (Deut 10:17-18). So Jesus is just pushing a bit further in his exhortation to love, not just aliens, but outright enemies. And as the Old Testament does, he grounds this in the character and actions of God, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45; cf. Luke 6:35). So be merciful, says Jesus, as your Heavenly Father is merciful (Luke 6:36; cf. Matt 5:48). Those who do this will be shown to be the true children of God (Matt 5:45; Luke 6:35).
Such is the practical ethic of the imago Dei today: to“love the alien as yourself” in tangible ways that elevate human dignity and extend a liberating and just mercy to all human beings. This means that we should not take the march of human rights and global development for granted. Instead, let us lean in with faith and find common cause with all who are working to create a world where all human beings can thrive and flourish. In this way we may together fulfill our unique and divinely appointed vocation to care for and steward the temple of the earth, which we all call home.