††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Christian Scholars Review 24.1 (1994) 8-25

Copyright © 1994 by Christian Scholars Review; cited with permission.




††††††††††††††††††††††††† The Liberating Image?

††††††††††††††††††††† Interpreting the Imago Dei

††††††††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††††in Context


By J. Richard Middleton


For nearly two thousand years now the Christian tradition has singled out

Genesis 1:26-27 for special attention.1 These biblical verses constitute the locus

classicus of the doctrine of imago Dei, the notion that human beings are made in

God's image. The text is important enough to reproduce here in full (including

verse 28, which is an important part of the context).


Then God said, "Let us make humanity in our image, according to our

likeness. And let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air.

Let them rule over the livestock, over all the earth, and over everything that

moves upon the earth." So God created humanity in his image. In the image

of God he created him. Male and female he created them. And God blessed

them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase, fill, the earth and subdue

it. And rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and over

every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:26-28)


Although the Christian tradition has typically treated these verses as con-

taining a central biblical affirmation with significant implications for human life,

there are only three explicit references to the imago Dei notion in the entire Old

Testament (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1; and 9:6). Furthermore these references are all

found in that section of Genesis (chapters 1-11) known as the "primeval history,"

in literary strands typically assigned to the priestly writers.2

With the exception of two deuterocanonical references (Wisdom 2:23 and

Ecclesiasticus 17:3-4), the idea that humans are made in God's image does not

surface again until the New Testament. Even here, however, only two texts speak

of creation in God's image (I Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9). The rest either exalt

Christ as the paradigm (uncreated) image of God or address the salvific renewal

of the image in the Church.


The concept of the imago Dei has been widely recognized as central to a Christian un-

derstanding of human beings, yet the paucity of biblical references has left the way open

for a wide variety of philosophical and theological interpretations of this notion. In this

essay J. Richard Middleton presents a "Royal" interpretation which is based on a "virtual

consensus among Old Testament scholars concerning the meaning of the imago Dei in

Genesis"; he then goes on to deal with contemporary theological objections to such an

interpretation. Mr. Middleton teaches Old Testament at the Institute for Christian Studies



The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††† 9


The Problem of Contextless Interpretation


This paucity of biblical references has contributed to a wide diversity of

opinion over what it means to be made in God's image. The problem is exac-

erbated by the fact that, until recently, very few interpreters have treated the

immediate context of Genesis 1:26-27 as important for determining the meaning

of those verses. It is not unusual for interpreters explicitly to affirm, contrary

to standard hermeneutical practice, that here context does not clarify meaning.3

As a result, many have turned to extra-biblical, usually philosophical, sources to

interpret the image, and have ended up reading contemporaneous conceptions

of being human back into the Genesis text.

Paul Ricoeur could be taken as a charitable commentator on this state of

affairs, when he introduces his own essay on the imago Dei with the following


When the theologians of the sacerdotal [or priestly] school elaborated the

doctrine of man that is summarized in the startling expression of the first

chapter of Genesis--"Let us make man in our image and likeness"--they

certainly did not master at once all its implicit wealth of meaning.


Ricoeur justifies his own explication of this "implicit wealth of meaning" by

adding that:

Each century has the task of elaborating its thought ever anew on the basis

of that indestructible symbol which henceforth belongs to the unchanging

treasury of the Biblical canon.4


1 An earlier version of this paper was given at the annual meeting of the Canadian Theo-

logical Society, May 1991, in Kingston, Ontario.

2 Since Julius Wellahausen's famous documentary hypothesis about the composition of the

Pentateuch, argued in Die Composition des Hexateuchs ([1st ed. 1876-78] 4th ed.; Berlin: de

Gruyter, 1963) and in his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ([1st ed. 1878] 3rd ed.; Berlin:

Reimer, 1899), it has been standard academic practice to attribute the final literary form of

the book of Genesis (plus chapters 1, 5, 17, 23 and strands of 6-9) to one or more authors or

redactors thought to be of an exilic or post-exilic priestly orientation (typically designated

"P"). In the past two decades, however, the scholarly consensus has seriously eroded.

For a convenient summary of the history and present state of Pentateuchal criticism as

it applies to Genesis, see Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary 1

(Waco; Texas: Word, 1987), pp. xxv-xlv. For an incisive, extended evaluation of the past

century of scholarship on Genesis, see Duane Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and

Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991).

3 G. C. Berkhouwer, for example, in Man: The Image of God, trans. by Dirk W. Jellema (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), states that Genesis 1 affirms a likeness between humans and God

"with no explanation given as to exactly what this likeness consists of or implies" (p. 69).

In a similar vein, Carl F. H. Henry claims that "the Bible does not define for us the precise

content of the original imago" (in God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. II God Who Speaks and

Shows: Fifteen Theses, Part One [Waco, Texas: Word, 1976], p. 125) and Charles Lee Feinberg

asks: "After all, what is the image of God? The biblical data furnish no systematic theory

of the subject, no clue as to what is implied" (in "The Image of God," Bibliotheca Sacra 129

[July Sept 1972] 515: 238).

4 Paul Ricoeur, "The Image of God and the Epic of Mart," History and Truth, trans. by Charles

A. Kelbley (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), p. 110.

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 10


A different (and less charitable) reading of the history of interpretation

is given by theologian Hendrikus Berkhof. Berkhof replaces the explication of

implicit meaning with another image. "By studying how systematic theologies

have poured meaning into Gen. 1:26," he notes, "one could write a piece of

Europe's cultural history."5

Berkhof's judgment is echoed, in somewhat more colourful language, by

Old Testament scholar Norman Snaith. In Snaith's words:


Many "orthodox" theologians through the centuries have lifted the phrase

"the image of God" (imago Dei) right out of its context, and, like Humpty-

Dumpty, they have made the word mean just what they choose it to mean.6


Although this may be something of an exaggeration, it is not much of one.

For the vast majority of interpreters right up to recent times have sought the

meaning of the image in terms of a metaphysical analogy or similarity between

the human soul and the being of God, in categories not likely to have occurred

to the author of Genesis. As blissfully unconcerned with authorial intent as any

post-structuralist critic, most medieval and modern interpreters have typically

asked not an exegetical, but a speculative, question: In what way are humans

like God and unlike animals? In answer to this question, various candidates have

been suggested for the content of the image. These range from human reason,

through conscience, immortality, and spirituality, to freedom and personhood.

This dominant metaphysical stream of interpretation stretches from Ireneaus

through Augustine to Aquinas in the pre-modern period, and until recently has

held sway even in the modern period.

There has been, however, a significant minority reading of the image which

has attempted to substitute for the metaphysical, substantialistic analogy a dy-

namic, relational notion. This attempt begins in the Reformation with Luther, and

Calvin, who at least try to modify or adumbrate the metaphysical interpretation

with the image as ethical conformity or obedient response to God. In more recent

years, under the influence of "existential" anthropology, the human-divine, I-

Thou relation has been suggested as the key to the image. Karl Barth and Emil

Brunner, among others, have proposed that the image of God refers to the

capacity of human beings to be addressed by and to respond to God's Word.7


5 Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith, trans. by Sierd

Woudstra (Grand Rapids: Eerdman, 1979), p. 179. Emphasis added.

6 Snaith, "The Image of God," Expository Times 86 (October 1974-September 1975): 24. To the

comments of Berkhof and Snaith could be added those of Karl Barth, who makes essentially

the same criticism in his Church Dogmatics, 3/1 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1958), pp. 192-

193. Although Barth certainly attempts to root his own interpretation of the imago Dei in

exegesis, he also ends up, willy nilly, reading contemporaneous anthropological notions

into the text.

7 For the terminology of substantalistic and relational interpretations I am indebted to Dou-

glas John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 89.

Hall has himself modified the categories of Paul Ramsey in Basic Christian Ethics (New York:

Charles Scribner s Sons, 1950). Summary accounts of the history of interpretation are found

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 11


What these two (dominant and minor) streams of interpretation have in

common is that both may be found in the writings of theologians; writings which

largely, if not entirely, ignore the massive literature in Old Testament scholarship

on the imago Dei. This theological ignorance of biblical scholarship is a shame,

on two counts.

First of all, the interpretation of the imago Dei among theologians almost

universally excludes the body from the image, thus entrenching a dualistic read-

ing of the human condition. Although few modern interpreters come to the

Genesis text with the ascetic predilections of Origen or Augustine, nevertheless

this unwarranted limitation of the image continues to perpetuate an implicit

devaluation of the concrete life of the body in relation to spirituality.

††††††††††† What is a shame about this is that any Old Testament scholar worth her

salt will tell you that the semantic range of tselem, the Hebrew word for "image"

in Genesis 1, typically includes "idol," which in the common theology of the

ancient Near East is precisely a localized, visible, corporeal representation of the

divine. A simple word study would thus lead to the preliminary observation

that visibility and bodiliness are minimally a necessary condition of being tselem

elohim or imago Dei.8

But the ignorance of biblical scholarship among theologians is shameful

for another reason. As my own survey of the field of Old Testament studies

has revealed (and this is confirmed by the recently published Lund dissertation

of Gunnlaugur A. Jonsson), there is at present a virtual consensus among Old

Testament scholars concerning the meaning of the imago Dei in Genesis.9


in Hall, chap. 3: "Two Historical Conceptions of the Imago Dei"; G. C. Berkouwer, Man: The

Image of God, chap. 2: "A Preliminary Orientation;" Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian

Anthropology, trans. by Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1939), Appendix I: "The Image

of God in the Teaching of the Bible and the Church"; and Anthony A. Hoekema, Created

in God's Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), chap. 4: "The Image of God: Historical

Survey." A more extended history of interpretation may be found in chaps. 4-13 of David

Cairns, The Image of God in Man (Revised ed.; London: Collins, 1973).

8 Although a number of different Hebrew words translate as "image" or "idol" in the

Old Testament, tselem is used for idols in Numbers 33:52; II Kings 11:18; II Chronicles

23:17; Ezekiel 7:20, 16:27; and Amos 5:26. Based on this usage Walter Kaiser Jr. in Towards

an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), p. 76, translates tselem as

"carved or hewn statue or copy." The case for demut ("likeness") is more complicated.

Although biblical scholars have often suggested that the physical, concrete connotation of

tselem is intentionally modified by the more abstract demut, this latter term is sometimes

used within Scripture for concrete, visible representations, as in I Samuel 6:5 and 11; II

Chronicles 4:3; and Daniel 3:1. Furthermore, a recent (1979) excavation at Tell Fekheriyeh

in Syria unearthed a 9th century statue with a bilingual inscription containing the cognate

equivalents of both tselem and demut in Assyrian and Aramaic as parallel terms designating

the statue. For an account of this inscription, see A. R. Millard and P. Bordreuil, "A Statue

from Syria with Assyrian and Aramaic Inscriptions," Biblical Archeologist 45 (1982): 135-141.

9 See Gunnlaugur A. Jonsson, The Image of God: Genesis 1:26-28 in a Century of Old Testament

Research, trans. by Lorraine Svendsen, rev. by Michael S. Cheney (Lund: Almqvist and

Wiksell, 1988), pp. 219-225. Before reading Jonsson, I would have said that perhaps 85% of

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 12


This virtual consensus is based, in the first place, on careful literary and

rhetorical analysis of Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a textual unit.10 Such analysis notes the

predominantly "royal" flavour of the text, and does not depend only on the close

linking of image with the mandate to rule and subdue the earth and its creatures

in verses 26 and 28 (typically royal functions). Beyond this royal mandate, the

God in whose image and likeness humans are created is depicted as sovereign

over the cosmos, ruling by royal decree ("let there be") and even addressing the

divine council or heavenly court with the words: "let us make humanity in our

image," an address which parallels God's question to the seraphim at the call

of Isaiah (in Isaiah 6:8), "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Just as

Isaiah saw Yahweh "seated on a throne, high and exalted" (6:1), so the writer of

Genesis 1 portrays God as King presiding over "heaven and earth," an ordered

and harmonious realm in which each creature manifests the will of the Creator

and is thus declared "good."

These and other rhetorical clues, when taken together with the wealth of

comparative studies of Israel and the ancient Near East, have led to an interpre-

tation which sees the image of God as the royal function or office of human beings

as God's representatives and agents in the world, given authorized power to share

in God's rule over the earth's resources and creatures.11

†††††††† Since the main function of divinity in both Israel and the ancient Near East is

precisely to rule (hence kings were often viewed as divine), it is no wonder Psalm

8 asserts that in putting all things under their feet and giving them dominion over

the works of God's hands, God has made humans "little less than elohim" (Psalm

8:5-6). It does not matter whether elohim is translated as "God" or "angels" (as

in the Septuagint), the meaning is virtually unchanged. In the theology of both

Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, humans (like the angelic heavenly court) have been given

royal, and thus god-like, status in the world.12


Old Testament scholars were in agreement with the interpretation proposed here. Jonnsson,

however, whose study surveys a century of Old Testament research in English, West

European and Scandinavian languages, portrays the degree of consensus as considerably

higher. The two most substantial articles in English by Old Testament scholars on the imago

Dei, both of which contain extensive references, are D. J. A. Clines, "The Image of God in

Man," Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968): 53-103 and Phyllis A. Bird, "'Male and Female He Created

Them': Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation," Harvard Theological

Review 74 (1981) 2: 129-159.

10 Examples of good literary analyses of Genesis 1 include Walter Brueggemann, Genesis

(Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 22-39 and Bernhard W. Anderson, "A Stylistic Study of the

Priestly Creation Story," in Canon and Authority: Essays in Old Testament Religion and Theol-

ogy, ed. by George W. Coats and Burke O. Long (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), pp. 148-162.

11 The near unanimity in Old Testament scholarship in proposing this "royal" interpretation

of the imago Dei does not extend to the actual reasons advanced for this interpretation.

Various scholars forward quite different lines of evidence, not all of which are of equal

value. In this paper I summarize only the main lines of such evidence as I find convincing.

12 0n the centrality of God as Ruler in the Old Testament, see Patrick D. Miller, Jr., "The

Sovereignty of God," in The Hermeneutical Quest: Essays in Honor of James Luther Mays on


The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 13


Although a "royal" reading of the image has found scattered support in

the pre-twentieth century history of interpretation, its career in the field of Old

Testament scholarship begins in 1898 and 1915 with the work, respectively, of

H. Holzinger and Johannes Hehn.13 And although there are at present a few

important dissenters within Old Testament studies, such as Claus Westermann

who holds to a modified Barthian interpretation, the last thirty years have seen

the royal interpretation of the imago Dei come virtually to monopolize the field.14

Old Testament scholars, however, tend to be notorious in their hesitancy

to make broad theological pronouncements based on their research, preferring

instead to remain submerged in the textual and linguistic minutiae of their dis-

cipline. The theological significance, therefore, of the royal interpretation of the

imago Dei has remained largely unexplored. The time is ripe, then, for extended

theological reflection on the image of God that takes seriously both the biblical

materials and contemporary biblical scholarship.


Contemporary Objections to the Royal Interpretation

But just as this opportunity presents itself, the very notion of rule, whether

human or divine, has become problematic. This is not the place to rehearse the

recent history of feminist theology, with its profound challenges to patriarchy

as an ideologically legitimated social system. Suffice it to say that no theologian

today attempting to reflect on the imago Dei as rule can avoid grappling with

the objections raised, for example, by Sallie McFague in Models of God to the

traditional picture of God as a transcendent divine Monarch exercising absolute

rule over his kingdom--a picture obviously crucial for the royal interpretation of

the image. Such a picture, claims McFague, is derived from a patriarchal model


Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. by Donald G. Miller (Allison Park, Penn.: Pickwick Publications,

1986), pp. 129-144; G. Ernest Wright, The Old Testament and Theology (New York: Harper and

Row, 1969), chap. 4: "God the Lord," pp. 97-150; and J. Stanley Chestnut, The Old Testament

Understanding of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968), chap. 4: "God and Kingship," pp.

70-81. On the relationship of divinity and rule in the ancient Near East, see Gary V. Smith,

"The Concept of God/the Gods as King in the Ancient Near East and the Bible," Trinity

Journal 3 (Spring 1982) 1: 18-38; and Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of

Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1948).

13 An early example of the royal interpretation in the Jewish tradition is found in Saadya's

10th century commentary on Genesis (cited by Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence

of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988], p.

112). An early example of the royal interpretation in the Christian tradition is found among

16th century Socinians and is explicitly stated in the Socinian Catechismus .Racoviensis of 1605

(see Berkouwer, p. 70 and Hall, pp. 71 and 217). On the pioneering work of Holzinger and

Helmn, see Jonssori s account on pp. 55-59.

14 Westermann's extensive treatment of the imago Dei text is found in part one of his three-

part commentary on the book, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. by John J. Scullion from

the 1974 German edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), pp. 142-161.

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 14


of man ruling over woman and serves to enforce and legitimate such rule by its

association of male dominance with God's transcendence.15

Neither can theologians ignore the objections raised by Catherine Keller,

to take another example, in her superb interdisciplinary study, From a Bro-

ken Web, where she attempts to deconstruct the first chapter of Genesis as a

thinly disguised--more gentlemanly--version of the Enuma Elish, the classic

Mesopotamian creation story, which--on her reading--served mythically to le-

gitimate patriarchy in the Babylonian empire. Keller goes further than McFague

in exposing not only the parallels between God-world and man-woman, but the

way in which rule involves the externalization of the other as an object and its

ultimate demonization.16

In addition to feminist objections, however, the Genesis mandate for human

dominion of the earth has often been linked to the present environmental crisis.

The literature is too large to cite exhaustively, but historians like Lynn White, Jr.

and contemporary scientists from Ian McHarg to David Suzuki have challenged

the Western model of humanity over against the non-human world, which they

trace back to its roots in Genesis.17

Beyond both feminist and ecological objections, however, Old Testament

scholar Walter Brueggemann has noted the propensity of creation theology to

serve to legitimate the status quo. In his prolific writings on the Old Testa-

ment, in which he (unlike many Old Testament scholars) powerfully bridges

the hermeneutical gap between ancient text and present situation, Brueggemann

has vividly shown how easily ideologies ground the present social order in the

order of creation, thus religiously disallowing the possibility of change.18

†††††††† In the wake of this host of warnings concerning the oppressive consequences

of creation theology in general and the monarchial model in particular, a legiti-

mate question arises as to whether a "royal" reading of the imago Dei, whatever

its exegetical basis, is tenable today.


15 Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: For-

tress, 1987), pp. 63-69. Also relevant is McFague's Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in

Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), chap. 5: "God the Father: Model or Idol?"

16 Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston: Beacon Press,

1986), pp. 73-88.

17 Lynn White, Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science 155 (10 March,

1967): 1203-1207; Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History

Press, 1969), p. 26 et passim; David Suzuki, "Subdue the Earth," Part 2 of his television

series, A Planet for the Taking (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1985).

18For example, see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), pp. 27-28; The Prophetic Imagination

(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), pp. 39-40; Israel's Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), pp. 101-121; and "A Shape for Old Testament Theology,

I: Structure Legitimation," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (January 1985) 1: 28-46 (especially pp.

41-42). I have questioned the one-sidedness of Brueggemann's argument in "Is Creation

Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann," Harvard

Theological Review 87 (1994) 3.

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 15


It is, of course, impossible to give a comprehensive answer to this question††††

in the short compass of this paper. My purpose is less to settle the matter than to

indicate the main contours of an adequate response, and thus to open dialogue

on the subject.


A Personal Confession

Let me begin by saying that I do not take these contemporary objections

lightly. As one whose consciousness has been shaped by both biblical and post-

modern sensitivity to marginalization and oppression (even in the name of high

ideals;), I have had to re-evaluate my own use of creation and kingdom language,

as well as its function in Scripture and the church.

I am highly suspicious, for example, of the triumphalist use of such lan-

guage within the growing conservative movement in the United States (and

to some extent in Canada) known as "Theonomy" or "Christian Reconstruc-

tion." This movement, which represents the extreme right-wing of Calvinism,

not only propounds a post-millennial eschatology of progress, but claims a royal

reading of the imago Dei as part of its program for "reconstructing" America

along theocratic lines, with full implementation of Old Testament legislation and

sanctions. A commentary on Genesis by a leading reconstructionist is thus aptly-

and ominously--entitled The Dominion Covenant. With a combination like that I

believe the potential for oppression is obvious.19

†††††††† Let me, therefore, freely admit that creation theology and monarchial images

of God and humanity may be--and have been--used to legitimate systems of

oppression. The trouble is that I do not believe that either creation theology or

the metaphor of rule have exclusive rights to being oppressively used.20


19 Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Eco-

nomics, 1982). The two foundational texts of Christian Reconstructiion are Rousas John

Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1973) and Greg L. Banhsen,

Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, N.J.: Craig Press, 1977). For a brief summary of

the movement, see Rodney Clapp, The Reconstructionists (rev. ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.:

InterVarsity Press, 1990). For a sustained, sympathetic critique, see the essays in William

S. Barker and W. Robert Gofrey (eds.), Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids:

Zondeivan, 1988).

20 It is well known that Karl Barth's objection to Emil Brunner's call for a new (non-

Thomistic) "natural theology" or emphasis on creation order was in part fuelled by his

observation that German National Socialism appealed to the notion of such order to

legitimate its conservative, authoritarian ideology. Brunner himself agreed that there were

"political" consequences to a theology of creation, but pointed out (correctly, I believe)

that these were not inherently conservative, but could indeed be revolutionary (see Natural

Theology, trans. by Peter Fraenkel [London: Geoffrey Bles, 1948], p. 51). On this ambiguity

in the social practice of Calvinism (that branch of Protestantism with the most explicit

theology of creation), see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand

Rapids:: Eerdmans, 1983), chap. 1: "World Formative Christianity."

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 16


I grew up in a small pietistic church with a virtually non-existent creation

theology. The dominant theology of fall and salvation, however, encouraged

quietistic attitudes to the world and tended to legitimate the status quo by

divorcing social concerns from the life of faith. I was pushed to a more world-

transformative spirituality precisely by a theology of creation which questioned

the identity of the present order with the way things were creationally meant to

be. Creation thus functioned as a transcendent ground of criticism vis a vis the

status quo. This theology, furthermore, affirmed the goodness and integrity of the

natural order against every attempt to manipulate it for purely human ends.21

As for the metaphor of rule, it strikes me that this captures something

of the empirical realities of power, which humans undoubtedly have over our

environment, and which is not an intrinsically male trait, as Genesis 1 recognizes

("male and female he created them"). I do not believe we can avoid the question

of power, since the dialectic of oppression and liberation can be retranslated

as a dialectic of powerlessness and empowerment. The question is not whether

humans have power, but how they organize and use such power.22

Furthermore--and this may be a sensitive issue for a male to raise--I can

testify to having experienced (justly, I suppose) marginalization at the hands

of some feminists. I have even attended lectures by a prominent feminist the-

ologian whose aggressive stance and triumphalistic fervor would have put any

reconstructionist to shame.

The problem with the critique of ideology is that it cuts both ways. Any

position can itself become ideological if it is exempted from the possibility of

critique. Certainly, the imago Dei as rule can become an ideology. But it is not

necessarily ideological.


The Polemical Intent of Genesis 1

On the contrary, if read contextually, vis a vis its historical background, in

terms of its polemical intent against ancient Near Eastern notions of humanity

and kingship, Genesis 1:26-27 turns out to be not oppressive, but liberating and

empowering. At least, that is how the text would have functioned for its original


It has long been recognized that Genesis 1 likely contains a polemic against

ancient Near Eastern polytheism, replacing the bloody battle of the gods found in


21 See Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian

World View (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1984) for an attempt to articulate

a creation theology that is alternative to both dualistic, world-avertive pietism and the

modern secular ideal of world-mastery.

22 On the subject of power in the Scriptures, see J. P. M. Walsh, The Might from Their

Thrones: Power in the Biblical Tradition (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987). The connection be-

tween theology/ideology and social power arrangements is the major focus of Norman

K. Gottwald's ground-breaking and massive work, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the

Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1979).

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††† ††††††††††††††††††††††† 17


the Enuma Elish with the serene, unchallenged rule of Yahweh. Catherine Keller

is much too suspicious on this point. She dismisses out of hand the possibility

that Genesis 1 might constitute a critique of Babylonian mythology, claiming

instead that the heroic dismembering of Tiamat, the primordial female, by the

young male upstart, Marduk, is simply repressed and submerged in Genesis.23

Yet many biblical scholars have noted a number of fundamental contrasts

between the two creation accounts. To give two examples: Not only is creation in

Genesis both harmonious and "very good" (1:31), as opposed to being the tragic

result of Marduk's rending apart of the dead body of Tiamat (a rending which

represents violence and evil as constitutive of the very fabric of the cosmos),

but the Genesis text seems to be critical of Babylonian astrology. For example,

sun and moon, astral deities in ancient Babylon, are subtly demythologized by

never being named, but instead merely described in terms of their function as the

"greater" and the "lesser" lights to regulate the seasons (1:16). And the creation of

the stars, likewise divinities which were thought to influence human action, are

mentioned parenthetically, almost as an afterthought ("he also made the stars").

The Genesis creation story thus serves to propose an alternative vision of both

God and the cosmos.24


23 In this, Keller is closer to Herman Gunkel's pioneering study, Schopfung and Chaos in

Urzeit and Endzeit (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1895), where he argues that

Genesis 1 is essentially a "faded" recension of the Babylonian myth (see pp. 3-29, 114-

120). Ever since Gunkel's work, some connection between Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish

has been undeniable. Few scholars today, however, accept Gunkel's conclusion of simple

dependence of the biblical account on the Babylonian myth. For typical recent assessments,

see Gerhard F. Hasel, "The Significance of the Cosmology in Genesis I in Relation to

Ancient Near Eastern Parallels," Andrews University Seminary Studies 10 (1972) 1: 1-20 and

"The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology," Evangelical Quarterly 46 (1974): 81-102;

Arvid S. Kapelrud, "The Mythological Features in Genesis Chapter I and the Author's

Intentions," Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974):178-186; Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis:

The Story of Creation (2nd ed.: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951; "Phoenix Books,"

1963), chap. 3; and Conrad Heyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science

(Atlanta: John Knox, 1984), chaps. 2 and 3. But not only is Keller too suspicious, at one

point she is simply mistaken. She follows older scholarship in claiming the derivation of

Hebrew tehom ("deep") from Akkadian tiamat. The majority of scholars today, however,

have been convinced by Heidel's argument in The Babylonian Genesis (p. 100) that both

words probably go back to a common semitic root.

24 The underlying issue here is that Genesis 1 and the Enuma Elish embody widely divergent

worldviews. This is recognized even outside the arena of biblical scholarship, among

scholars of comparative religion. Whereas Mircea Eliade, in The Myth of the Eternal Return:

Or, Cosmos and History, trans. by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press,

1954), distinguishes the two worldviews as the "cyclical" and the "historicistic," Merold

Westphal, in God, Guilt and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion (Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 1984), contrasts them as "mimetic" versus "covenantal" (see

chaps. 10 and 11). Paul Ricoeur's insightful analysis of the Babylonian worldview also

makes clear its fundamental divergence from the Hebraic. See The Symbolism of Evil, trans.

by Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), Part II, chap. 1: "The Drama of Creation

and the 'Ritual' Vision of the World."

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 18


What has riot been as widely recognized, however, is that Genesis 1 may

also be read as polemical against ancient Near Eastern notions of being human

and, by extension, against the use of such notions to legitimate an oppressive

social order.25

††††††††† Although the following account agrees in broad outline with the conclusions

of numerous Old Testament scholars, no single scholar has read the evidence in

precisely the configuration that I have, nor has all the evidence been gathered

solely from scholars working on the imago Dei. What follows, therefore, is my

own "contextual" reading of the counter-ideological, and thus liberating, function

of Genesis 1.

This contextual reading begins with the recognition that ancient Near East-

ern society, whether Mesopotamian (that is, Sumerian, Babylonian or Assyrian),

West Semitic (that is, Canaanite), or Egyptian, was hierarchically ordered and

ideologically dimorphic. The hierarchy ranged from the gods at the top (and there

is even an intra-divine hierarchy of classes of gods, with one god as supreme--as

Marduk was in Babylon) to peasants and slaves at the bottom. Above this lowest

class came more privileged groups like artisans, merchants, the civil bureaucracy

and the miliary, and above them were the priesthood and the royal cou.rt.26

Standing between the human realm, on the one hand, and the gods, on the

other, was the king, universally viewed in the ancient Near East as the mediator

of both social harmony and cosmic fertility from the gods. To contrast the two

cultures we know most about, whereas in Egypt the Pharaoh is viewed as the

eternally begotten son of the gods, in Mesopotamia the king was but an adopted

son. Both, however, are referred to as the image of this or that particular god,

whether Re, Amon, Marduk, 'Shamash or Enlil.27

Although there are many more extant references to Egyptian Pharaohs than

to Mesopotamian kings as imago Dei, the Egyptian references tend to be from


25 A number of scholars do, in fact, recognize a polemic in the Genesis text against Meso-

potamian "anthropology." This is, however, usually taken to mean a critique of the Meso-

potamian idea or view of humanity, without any exploration of its implications for Israelite

critique of the concrete, existing Babylonian social order. See, for example, Hasel, "The

Significance of the Cosmology in Genesis 1," pp. 15-17; Hasel, "The Polemical Nature

of the Genesis Cosmology," pp. 89-90; and Bird, "'Male and Female He Created Them,"'

pp. 143-144.

26 On the sociology of the ancient Near East, see I. M. Diakonoff (ed.), Ancient Mesopotamia:

Socio-Economic History (Moscow: "Nauka" Publishing House, 1969), especially chaps. 1, 5

and 9; George Steindorff and Keith C. Steele, When Egypt Ruled the East (2nd ed.; Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1963); H. E. Kassis, "Gath and the Structure of the 'Philistine'

Society," Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 259-271; A. F. Rainey, The Social

Stratification of Ugarit (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1962); and Norman

K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh, especially Parts 8 and 9.

27 For these references see Bird, "'Male and Female He Created Them,"' pp. 140-143; Clines,

"The Image of God in Man," pp. 83-85; and Edward Mason Curtis, Man as the Image of

God in Genesis in the Light of Ancient Near Eastern Parallels (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,

University of Pennsylvania, 1984), pp. 80-96.

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 19


pre-Israelite times, clustered around the 16th century B.C. The Mesopotamian

references, though fewer, range from the 13th century Middle-Assyrian empire

to the 7th century Neo-Assyrian and 6th century Neo-Babylonian empires.28

There has been disagreement for many years now in Old Testament studies

over whether Egyptian or Mesopotamian (or, for that matter, Canaanite) parallels

are more significant for the Old Testament. That is also true in the case of the

imago Dei.29 One factor that might help decide the issue is the question of when

the book of Genesis (or at least its prologue, 1:1-2:3) is to be dated.

Although a great deal of what the older literature referred to as the "assured

results" of Old Testament scholarship is presently in creative ferment (some

would say outright chaos), under pressure from the postmodern decline of Carte-

sian certainty and the old hegemonic paradigms, a 6th century, exilic dating for

the canonical form of Genesis (whatever its pre-history might have been) is still

the most plausible alternative at hand. One crucial indication for a 6th century

date is the relative paucity of Old Testament references to humans as the image

of God and the strange limitation of such references to the book of Genesis. It

is unlikely that so fecund an image, if it were early, would receive no intra-

scriptural commentary whatsoever, given the proclivity of the biblical writers to

engage in such commentary and the later attraction of both Jewish and Christian

commentators to this notion. It is, furthermore, difficult to imagine that the

dramatic question of Isaiah 40:18 (spoken in the midst of Babylonian exile), "To

whom, then, will you liken God?/What image will you compare him to?" could

have been written by a prophet who was aware of the imago Dei texts in Genesis.

††††††† Of course, if Genesis is exilic, the imago Dei is more likely to have a Babylo-

nian than an Egyptian background. And this is further supported, I believe, by

the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish. Although this story, to judge from

some of the divine epithets it contains, may have had a Sumerian (and therefore

pre-Babylonian) origin, Marduk only came to ascension in the old Babylonian

empire at the time of Hammurabi (18th century). However, the major text of

the Enuma Elish that we possess was found in the ruins of Asshurbanipal's

library at Nineveh, from the 7th century B.C., thus bringing it quite close to

the Babylonian exile.30


28 There are about half-a-dozen Mesopotamian references to particular kings as the image

of particular gods (as well as one reference to a priest as the image of Marduk). These (ad-

mittedly few) references are embedded in the ubiquitous Konigsideologie or royal ideology

of the ancient Near East. This ideology is part of a wider theology which holds that the

divine presence is locally mediated to the masses, whether by idols (also called "images"),

kings or priests (indeed, in Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, the king was also the high priest).

For the theology of images, see Curtis, pp. 97-142; and Clines, pp. 81-82.

29 The dominant (though not unanimous) opinion seems to favour an Egyptian origin for

the notion. For an account of this debate, see Jonsson, pp. 142-143, 154, 207-209. For

an intriguing suggestion of how Egyptian notions of imago Dei could have influenced

Mesopotamian notions, and hence Genesis 1, see Curtis, pp. 167-170.

30 It is also known that the Enuma Elish was immensely popular in 6th century Babylon

and that it was ritually re-enacted during the annual Akitu (new year) festival at that time.

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 20


Earlier I noted that ancient Near Eastern society was both hierarchical

and dimorphic, and while I touched on the hierarchy I did not address its

ideologically dimorphic or two-tiered character.

If the king, the priesthood and the royal court could be regarded as the

highest elites of Babylon, charged with--in varying degrees--representing and

mediating the rule of the gods in human life, at the bottom of the social pyramid

were the peasants and slaves (those who built the Egyptian pyramids and the

splendour that was Babylon). Whether those in the center of the hierarchy (such

as the bureaucracy, the merchants and the military) would align themselves

with the privileged or underprivileged groups depended on how they read their

own mythology.

Just as the king, and by extension, the entire Babylonian elite classes, re-

ceived ideological legitimation by the imago Dei notion (hence this has come

to be known as the ancient Near Eastern royal ideology), so the lowest classes

received mythic legitimation for their status by the Enuma Elish.31

In that account, after Tiamat had been slaughtered and the cosmos con-

structed out of her body, the defeated (and now demoted) rebel gods who had

sided with Tiamat began to complain that they had too much hard work to do,

too much menial labour. So a divine decision was made. Kingu, who was both

consort of Tiamat and instigator of the revolt that led to her death, was executed

and from the blood of this chief rebellious deity, human beings were fashioned

by Ea, Marduk's father, says the Enuma Elish, as cheap slave labor, to do the

dirty work of the lower gods.32


The most recent translation of the Enuma Elish is found in Stephanie Dalley, Myths from

Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press,

1989), pp. 228-277. The best exposition and commentary is given by Thorkild Jacobsen

in The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven: Yale Uni-

versity Press, 1976), chap. 6. For older translations of the Enuma Elish, accompanied by

an introduction, see Heidel, pp. 1-60 and James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern

Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd ed.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969),

pp. 60-72, 501-503.†††††††

31 Although this is all well known, I am not aware of anyone beside myself who has

explicitly connected both the Konigsideologie and the Enuma Elish in their function of

mythically legitimating the social order as the explanatory background to the imago Dei

in Genesis. That is, I propose we go beyond a literary, to a socio-political, reading of the

Genesis text. I have developed this reading further in "Genesis I as Ideology Critique: A

Socio-Political Reading of Creation in God's Image," a paper given at the June 1993 meeting

of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, in Ottawa.

32 The creation of human beings is recounted in Enuma Elish, Tablet VI, lines 1-37. The notion

that humans are created to relieve the gods of their labor is a distinctly Mesopotamian,

not Egyptian, notion. It is found also in the Atrahasis epic, Tablet I, lines 240-24.2. For a

translation, see W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-hasis (Oxford: The Clarendon Press,

1969). Other ancient (and fragmentary) Mesopotamian myths that agree with Atrahasis and

the Enuma Elish on the purpose of human creation may be found in Heidel, pp. 68-71,

Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps That Once. ..: Sumerian Poetry in Translation (New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 151-166, and Samuel Noel Kramer, Sumerian Mythology:

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 21


The social hierarchy of Babylon is therefore vigorously legitimated. If the

purpose of the mass of humanity is to serve the gods, and the king represents

those gods as their son and image, then the gods are served precisely by serving

the king, who wills the present social order.

In the context of the 6th century Babylonian exile, then, the people of Judah

who were uprooted from their land and transplanted into an alien culture, would

have been faced with this same oppressive social system and its ideological

legitimation. The mythology of the Enuma Elish, it seems likely, would have

conspired with the Babylonian social order and the royal ideology to keep Jewish

exiles subservient to both the king and the gods of Babylon.

If this is taken together with Israel's uniquely monotheistic faith and its

foundation in the book of Exodus along radical egalitarian lines, the situation the

exiles faced constituted a massive challenge to their religious and social identity.

In this historical context Genesis 1 came as a clarion call to the people of God

to take seriously again their royal-priestly vocation in God's world, a vocation

outlined in that early election text, Exodus 19:3-6, which describes Israel as a

"kingdom of priests" and a "holy nation," a text quoted in the New Testament

(in both I Peter and the book of Revelation) and applied to the church.33

It is not, therefore, that Genesis 1 introduces any radically new idea about

human beings. Rather, facing the supreme challenge of the exilic loss of Israelite

identity--which meant the loss of Israel as Israel--the author of Genesis 1, in

essential continuity with the ethical, religious and social ideals of earlier Scrip-

ture (including the pervasive prophetic critique of absolute kingship in Israel),

daringly seized on the bold symbol of the imago Dei to crystalize Israel's unique

insight about being human, in the process (as numerous scholars have noted)

"democratizing" the ancient Near Eastern royal ideology, by applying it to all

human beings, male and female.34

††††††††† Thus, far from constituting an oppressive text, Genesis 1 (arid the imago Dei

as rule) was intended to subvert an oppressive social system and to empower


A Study of the Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. (Rev. ed.; New

York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), pp. 68-73.

33 For analyses of the radically egalitarian nature of early Israel, see Gottwald, part 9; and

Paul D. Hanson, The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (San Francisco:

Harper and Row, 1986), chap. 3. Hanson explicitly deals with the Exodus 19 election text

in the context of describing the Yahwistic vision of Israel as a community alternative to

the hierarchy of Egypt (pp. 40-41).

34 One of the first scholars to claim this democratization is Helmer Ringgren, "Ar den

bibliska skapelseberattelsen en kulttext?" Svensk Exegetisk Arsbok 13 (1948): 13. This is not

to say that this democratizing, egalitarian vision was applied universally to men and

women in either Israel's dominant theology or social practice. The evidence is against

this. Nevertheless it may be argued that this vision contains the seed of the destruction of

patriarchy and implies the radical equality of humans in the teaching of Jesus as well as

the Pauline statement in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free,

male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 22


despairing exiles to stand tall again with dignity as God's representatives in

the world.


The Wider Biblical Context

That this "socio-political" reading of Genesis 1:26-27 is on track is indi-

cated by the pervasive understanding of both idolatry and monarchy in the Old

Testament. Although space limitations preclude a thorough investigation here,

it would be important to explore the connection between the imago Dei text in

Genesis 1 and idolatry: both the ubiquitous prohibition against "images" from

the beginning of Israel's history (which is absolutely unique in the ancient Near

East) and the later, increasingly strident, opposition to idolatry voiced by the

prophets. Against this background, the Genesis text gains in depth. It suggests

a critique of idolatry as a system of localized, mediating images which function

to control access to the divine, a system usually supervised by the royal and

priestly elites.35 The Genesis text instead proclaims that human beings have direct

access to God's presence simply by being human. We have here liberation from

the hegemony of the "clergy" and the root of the later Christian notion of the

priesthood of every believer.

With regard to monarchy, it is noteworthy how contingent the institution

was in Israel. Not only was it a later, post-covenantal addition to Israel's social

practice, but post-exilic Israel was able to survive without it. This contingent sta-

tus of kingship in Israel is absolutely unique in the ancient Near East, where the

monarchy is typically traced back to creation itself and the king is thought to be

crucial to the cosmic and social ordering of reality. The Old Testament, however,

not only subjects the institution of kingship to strict limitations (Deuteronomy

17:14-20), it testifies to both an early anti-monarchial strain in Israel's tribal

confederacy (illustrated by Gideon's refusal of kingship in Judges 8:22-23 and

by Samuel's opposition to the people's request for a king in I Samuel 8:4-22) as

well as to later (9th to 7th century) prophetic critique of the monarchy in the

name of allegiance to Yahweh.

What is particularly worth exploring about the Old Testament's critique

of both idolatry and kingship is how they are seen as usurpation of Yahweh's

rule, which inevitably leads to injustice and oppression, and how this impacts

the imago Dei texts in Genesis. Could it be that some notion of "democracy"


35 Suggestive studies on images in Israel and the ancient Near East include Walter Harrelson,

The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), pp. 61-72, Robert P.

Carroll, "The Aniconic God and the Cult of Images," Studia Theologica 31 (1977): 51-64, Wal-

ter Brueggemann, "Old Testament Theology as a Particular Conversation: Ajudication of

Israel's Socioethical Alternatives," chap. 7 in his Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure,

Theme, and Text, ed. by Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), and J. J. Stamm with

M. E. Andrew, The Ten Commandments in Recent Research (Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson,

Inc., 1967), pp. 76-88.

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††† 23


and the sharing of power is an essential implication of biblical monotheism, an

implication consonant with our human status as creatures?36

If we move from the Old Testament to the New, the imago Dei as rule is

further corroborated, but also nuanced. Although we can no more discuss the

matter fully than we could the Old Testament issues of monarchy and idolatry,

it is important to note the connection between the Christian confession of Jesus

as Messiah (Mark 8:29; Matthew 26:62-64; Acts 2:36) and the New Testament

portrayal of Jesus as image of God par excellence (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3;

II Corinthians 4:4-6).37

Although by the first century Messiah or Christ (literally, "anointed") was

understood as essentially a royal designation, Jesus persistently refused the pop-

ular acclamation of those who tried to make him king. His own discernment

of what constituted true kingship was atypical of the times. It is exhibited in

his counsel to the disciples that they were to exercise power not as the Gentiles

do, lording it over one another, but in serving each other, "for even the Son of

Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom

for many" (Mark 10:42-45; cf. Luke 22:25-27). Thus, the life and characteristic

teaching of Jesus, and especially his paradoxical enthronement on a cross, point to

a canonical trajectory from rule to compassionate service.38 That is, Jesus

explicitly exemplifies what is at least implicit in Genesis 1 and often explicit in the



36 For a beginning of this exploration-though without any connection to the imago Dei--

see Gottwald, pp. 903-913; and George V. Pixley, God's Kingdom: A Guide for Biblical Study,

trans. by Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1981), chap. 2: "Yahweh's Kingdom,

the Political Project of the Israelite Tribes." Hansonís monumental study, The People Called,

is suffused with concern for this question.

37 For a fuller treatment of the New Testament teaching on the imago Dei, see Hall, Imaging

God, pp. 76-87, and Walsh and Middleton, The Transforming Vision, pp. 83-86.

38 The enthronement of the Messiah on a cross is an ironic theme in Mark's Gospel. It

is signalled by Mark's description of the crucifixion of Jesus: "The written notice of the

charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two robbers with him,

one on his right and one on his left." (15:26-27) Indeed, this ironic portrayal is alluded

to in the verses preceding the Marcan text cited above, where Jesus corrects his disciples'

understanding of rule. This correction is occasioned by the demand of James and John

for privilege in the Messianic kingdom: "Let one of us sit at your right and the other

at your left in your glory." (Mark 10:37) The irony is clear to the reader (if not the

disciples) when Jesus tells them that they don't know what they are asking (10:38) and

that those places have already been assigned (10:40), alluding to the crucifixion scene.

But the enthronement of the Messiah on a cross is also a Johannine theme. Raymond E.

Brown (among others) has discussed the ambiguity of Jesus' sayings about being "lifted

up" (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32-34) in connection with the theme of his glorification. Drawing

perhaps on the lifting up of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13 (the same word, hypsoun,

is used in both John and in the Septuagint of that text), John portrays the death of

Jesus on the cross as an exaltation, the inextricable beginning of his Messianic glorifi-

cation, which finds its climax in the resurrection and ascension. See Brown, The Gospel

of John (i-xii): Introduction, Translation and Notes (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966),

PP- 146, 475-478.

Christian Scholar's Review†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 24


Testament, namely that the right use of power is not oppressive control of others,

but their liberation or empowerment.

So much for rule, but how is this connected to the imago Dei? The answer

lies in the church's fundamental discernment of nothing less than the character

and purposes of God precisely in this paradoxical self-giving of the Messiah. As

the one who is the paradigm imago Dei, Christ's death on a cross, perceived by

the world as foolishness and weakness, reveals instead, to those who have faith,

the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Corinthians 1:18-25). The death of

Jesus discloses and models nothing less than the rule of God.

Since Christ is the head of the church, this community of faith inherits his

revelatory, representative task. The "body of Christ" is no mere metaphor; it is

the calling of the church to continue the incarnation and mission of Christ by

manifesting God's redemptive purposes and coming kingdom. Just as Christ is

sent by and discloses God, so the church as the new humanity, renewed in the

imago Dei (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9-11; II Corinthians 3:17-18), is sent by

Christ and called upon to imitate his paradigm of self-giving, thus witnessing to

God's rule in the concrete shape of their communal life. Perhaps the crucial text

is Paul's argument in Philippians 2:5-11. Citing what is in all likelihood an early

hymn, the apostle argues that if Jesus, as the unique imago Dei, used his divine

power and sovereignty not for his own interests, but to serve others, even unto

death, then the Christian community, following in its Lord's footsteps, should

have among itself the same "mind" of compassionate self-giving.39 In the New

Testament, imago Dei as rule becomes imitatio Christi.

What ties together this whole trajectory from Genesis 1 to the New Testa-

ment is the consistent biblical insight that humanity from the beginning-and

now the church as the redeemed humanity--is both gifted by God with a royal

status and dignity and called by God actively to represent his kingdom in the

entire range of human life, that is, in the very way we rule and subdue the earth.

If Genesis 1 focuses on the gift of imago Dei (although not to the exclusion of

the call), in contrast to dehumanizing ancient Near Eastern alternatives, the New

Testament makes both gift and call crystal clear. In gratitude for God's gracious

mercy in gifting us with salvation, the community of faith is called upon by

Paul in Romans 12:1-2 to stop mirroring passively the culture in which it lives

("conformed to the world") and instead to mirror God in and to the culture. But

a mirror, although a traditional symbol for the imago Dei, is too flat to capture

the full-orbed character of the human calling to be God's royal representatives

in creation.40 A more adequate symbol might be the prism. Humanity created


39 For a careful reading of the Philippians text that not only interacts thoroughly with the

history of interpretation, but which integrates insightfully the unique deity of Jesus as Lord

and the call to imitate him, see N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law

in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), chap. 4.

40 The idea of the imago Dei as a mirror of God's glory derives ultimately from II Corinthians

3:18 via John Calvin's influential reflections. See his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.

I, Book 1, Chap. 15, no. 4 (also Hall's analysis, p. 104).

The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† 25


in God's image--and the church as the renewed imago Dei--is called and em-

powered to be God's multi-sided prism in the world, reflecting and refracting

the Creator's brilliant light into a rainbow of cultural activity and socio-political

patterns that scintillates with the glory of God's presence and manifests his reign

of justice.

There is much more that could be said, both connecting the imago Dei

to the full range of Scripture and, especially, drawing out its implications for

contemporary human life.41 Even as far as this paper's explicit task goes, I do not

expect the foregoing brief analysis to be entirely satisfactory, either in defending

the scholarly opinion that imago Dei means rule or in answering contemporary

theological objections to this interpretation. Nevertheless, if this paper stimulates

theologians and others to take seriously the work of biblical scholars on the imago

Dei and to engage in biblically informed reflection on this subject, I will be more

than satisfied.


41 The imago Dei as rule is discussed in Walsh and Middleton, The Transforming Vision, chap.

3, and the book as a whole constitutes a concerted attempt to work out its implications for

contemporary life. See also Middleton and Walsh, "Dancing in the Dragons Jaws: Imaging

God at the End of the Twentieth Century," The Crucible 2 (Spring 1992) 3: 11-18.





Todd Steen, Managing Editor
Christian Scholar's Review
Hope College, P.O. Box 9000
Holland, MI 49422-9000

††††† http://www.hope.edu /resources/csr/†††


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:thildebrandt@gordon.edu