The first two theological questions that got me excited were the problem of evil and theological anthropology or what does it mean to be human in God’s cosmos. The question of what it means to be human led me to discover what was meant by the biblical phrase image of God. After all, canonically, this phrase and subsequent description of humankind’s role in God’s good creation are the first words that we read about human beings. So, for those of us who have read or attempt to read the Scriptures from Genesis through 2 Kings, this description of humankind shapes how we read all subsequent references to human beings. Yet, what did this phrase mean in its ancient context and what did the author of Genesis 1 mean by it when he used it to describe humankind, male and female.
Hellenized Misinterpretation of the Phrase
From the Church Fathers, on through the Reformation and into this millenium, this phrase is frequently if not ubiquitously “spiritualized” or “disembodied.” That is, it has been frequently stated that because God does not have a body or because God is not physical, the image of God in humankind cannot be our physical bodies or cannot mean what “image” normally means i.e. something seen. So, it is just as frequently identified with one of our invisible faculties or traits such as our ability to reason or our having a soul (which often a amounts to the same thing because animals too possess souls but ours is a ‘rational soul’.) Now, I want to be clear that unlike many biblical scholars I do not see the influence of Greek thought in the development of Christian theology as inherently harmful or indicative of a departure from the more pure doctrines found in Hebrew thought. Rather, I seek to take Greek influences and Greek presuppositions of the Church Fathers and subsequent theologians into account on a case by case basis. So, I ask questions like: Does the influence or appeal to Greek thought here clarify or confound this doctrine?
In the case of understanding the phrase “image of God”, I think the Greek tendency to denigrate the body and the material creation masks the rich and profound meaning of this phrase and its implications for how Christians live and approach other human beings, including non-Christians.
In this and subsequent posts, I will seek to clarify the biblical meaning of the phrase “image of God”, I will argue that it does indeed include our material and visible natures, and, in doing so, I hope that I will bring to light some of the powerful implications of this description of humankind and its resonance with other biblical themes.
So, let’s begin by looking at this phrase in its ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) context.
The Creator’s Living Icons
Just as theologians past and present are quick to dismiss any material association between the designation image of God and its significant meaning, they are equally likely to dismiss what seems like a very natural reading of the phrase in a world replete with idols and images of gods.
Though pesel is the most common Hebrew word for idol, the tselem, the word used in Genesis 1, is also used to for idol or shadow or image (i.e. something seen but derivative). It is always something visible.
In the ANE, an image of a god was a material representation of the god enlivened and indwelled by the spirit of the god. In ancient rituals, the manufactured image was “awakened” and brought to life. Oil might be poured over it to symbolize the spirit of the god descending upon and indwelling it. From the moment of the ceremony on, the image was the god.
Due to the availability of comparable literature, many biblical scholars now read Genesis 1 in light of ANE Temple construction. (See for instance John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis 1 Available @ Amazon) As the last thing the priests place in their pagan temples is the idol, so the last creature the Creator places in his Temple (which is the whole cosmos) is the image of God, humankind. This interpretation resonates with the vision of the New Jerusalem which John gives us in Revelation. In chapter 21, the presence of God represented by a cube the size of the known world descends upon and fills the earth. It is a cube because that is the shape of the holy of holies, the inner sanctum of the Israelite Temple.
So, one implication of this interpretation is that human beings male and female are God’s representatives just as the pagan’s idols represented their gods. Yet, in stark contrast, the God of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob, the God who brought Israel out of Egypt, actually gave life to his representatives. This theme occurs frequently in the prophets. It is succinctly expressed in Psalm 115.
2 Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
8 Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
Notice that while the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus healed many diseases. The infirmities that they specifically mention the mute, the lame, the blind and demon possession. These infirmities were all associated with idolatry. “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust them.” (See G.K. Beale’s We Become What We Worship Available @ Amazon) In healing these infirmities, Jesus is restoring humankind in their role as God’s image.
For me, the implications are clear. If all human beings are made to be God’s image, then their role is to represent God on earth. Moreover, then I ought to treat other human beings with the same respect that I would treat God were I to encounter God. Is this behind Jesus’s summary of the law in “Love God and love your neighbour.”?