Find post 1 in this series on Genesis 1-3 here.
Image. It’s something we as a society are heavily invested in. A while back, I heard an interview on the radio with a man who runs a cosmetics company and was visiting Perth – I found it fascinating that this is someone we deem worthy of airtime because of all he apparently does to “help women feel good about themselves.” (I doubt the radio station would interview the head of a dairy company who visited Perth simply because of all this person does to ensure that you can get your morning coffee.) We’ve moved beyond just magazines telling you what shade of lipstick, height of hemlines and colour of blouses is in this season – now we apparently need celebrity image advisors to help us “improve” our lives by glamming up and getting sexy. And in the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of celebrities who are famous for nothing more than being rich, obnoxious and putting their lives on television – how they look and whether they can make a mess of their lives in public in a sufficiently entertaining way seem to be the only job criteria. Image is in, substance and character are out, or so it appears.
What a superficial kind of image we are invested in! And yet many believers have so little grasp of what the concept “made in the image of God” – the kind of image that truly should matter to us as Christians – really means. Ask around next time you’re at church, Bible study or hanging out with some of your Christian friends. Say, “Hey, you know that bit in Genesis 1, where God creates people and says they’re ‘made in the image of God’ – what do you think that’s about? What does He mean, ‘made in the image of God’?” You’re probably going to get some interesting answers – perhaps some will amount to, “Gee, dunno, really”; other responses might be a bit fluffy; and possibly you’ll get some more considered and substantial answers. Our knowledge of the phrase is almost universal in Christian circles, but our understanding of what it actually means is, on the whole, fairly vague.
One thing we know for sure is that it is not saying that we look like God. The Bible is clear that God is spirit. If it’s not a physical resemblance, then what does it mean?
I did a Google search to look at what others are saying about the meaning of this important phrase. Some suggestions which came up stated that it refers to:
- That part of us which is spiritual and eternal,
- The creative nature of humans, reflecting our Creator God,
- The moral capacity of humans,
- The intelligence of humans,
- Our capacity for communication
- Our relational nature
The basic points made in each of these instances are true in essence of both God and people. Some are problematic in terms of providing “proof” that we are made in God’s image – for example, scientists researching animal behaviour are continually discovering the extent of the intelligence of various species, demonstrating the complex ways in which they communicate, and revealing the deep nature of animal relationships and their emotional attachments to each other. Clearly, these aspects of life are far from unique to Homo sapiens. I believe that if we are to properly understand the concept of being made in the image of God, we are looking for something which makes human beings totally unique among God’s creation.
How do we make sense of this then? Could the answer be found through a closer examination of the text of Genesis 1? Let’s take a look:
26Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
27So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’
29Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it- I give every green plant for food.’ And it was so.
31God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.
In verse 26, you will see that the creation of human beings in God’s image and likeness is directly connected to the statement, “so that they may rule…” The connection between these two statements is not immediately apparent. However, Old Testament scholars believe that archaeological and linguistic evidence from the Ancient Near East gives us some very useful clues which illuminate this text.
In those days of limited resources and ineffective communications, it was difficult for a king to maintain effective control over territory beyond his immediate vicinity. People’s commitment to an absentee landlord was fickle at best, and sending too many troops to a distant location could weaken defences in the king’s stronghold. So kings needed to remind their subjects of their authority in each town. How they did this was by erecting statues of themselves, which stood as a reminder to everyone that, “This town is subject to the authority of King What’s-His-Face.” The words we translate as “image” or “likeness” have been found engraved on these statues.
How does this relate to the “image of God”? Well, in a sense, we are “living statues” – permanent reminders of God’s authority in our world; a world that was created good by the great King who reigns over all. Our mission from the great King to care for His world and all in it – including each other – is something we should see engraved in the face of each person we meet. We should care for our environment not just because it is beautiful and sustains us, but because it is our legacy from God, and it is His. We should care for the animals lovingly created in all their diversity by God, because they are His. We should care for each other because we see in each a reminder of God to whom we owe everything. Likewise, we should care for ourselves in a way that reflects that we are children of the King – persons with inherent dignity and worth – and at the same time, we stand humbled in the knowledge that we are not God. And in that knowledge comes a deep responsibility to the whole of creation, and a great love for God our Creator and Sustainer.
Importantly, God gives this special authority not simply to the man. Not only does this text make it clear that both man and woman are equally created in God’s image, but it is clear that this blessing and commission are given equally – “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ There is no lesser image of God – man and woman stand equal before God.
Old Testament scholar Manfred T. Brauch links the fact that we are made in God’s image to the Second Commandment (“you shall not make any graven images”), which uses the same Hebrew word. We do not need reminders of the Great King’s authority in our world in the form of lifeless statues – every person we meet, every carrier of this image of God, reminds us that our God reigns and that we have a special calling and role in His world.
For more information, see Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” in Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothius, eds., Discovering Biblical Equality, IVP, 2004, and Manfred T. Brauch, “Imaging God: Embodying the Justice of God in Gender Relationships” (audio recording), from the 2011 Christians for Biblical Equality conference.
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