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Image of God

Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose in this world?

All of us have at some point pondered these kinds of existential questions. Different answers are offered by different world views and individual perceptions. The Bible however answers these questions by telling a story which begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. A key to understanding the answer it provides, is the purpose God gives for making humankind in Genesis 1:26.

There God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth” (Ge. 1:26 NET). This statement is followed by a short poem in Genesis 1:27, which narrates the creation of humankind (both male and female) in the image of God.

This creation of humankind in the image of God is then followed in verse 28 by God blessing the newly created humans and saying to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground” (Ge. 1:28 NET).

So, Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that humans were created to be like God, to be his image in the world and to rule over and subdue the earth and all the creatures of the land, air and sea. But what exactly does it mean for humans to be made in the image of God?

The structure of Genesis 1:26-28 contains important clues for answering this question. In the centre of the passage is verse 27, the actual creation of humankind in the image of God. Bookending or framing verse 27, are verses 26 and 28 which parallel each other in speaking of humankind ruling over the earth and all land animals, fish and birds.

This structure (the frame is called an inclusio) conveys that we are to understand what it means for God to create humans in his own image, from the perspective of the frame placed around this creation. In other words, the frame of humankind being created to rule over the earth and all land animals, birds and fish, by surrounding the actual creation of humans in the image of God, is intended to inform what it means for humans to be the image of God. Or put more simply, being in the image of God has to do with ruling over the earth and its creatures.

This is perhaps most clearly seen in v. 26 where humankind being made in the image of God is expressly equated with ruling over the earth and its creatures, when God proposes to make humankind in his image “so they may rule” over the earth and its creatures.

So, how is ruling over the earth and its creatures being like God and being his image? In Genesis 1:1-25 God is portrayed as a divine ruler or king who creates the cosmos (order) by commanding things into being by his word (Ps. 33:6 & 9). This is what kings do. They have the authority to speak things into being. Their words carry that level of authority, that what they say gets done and becomes reality. If Pharaoh says, “Let us build a pyramid”, it will emerge out of the sands of Egypt because of the power of his authoritative word.

The ancients would have understood this nuance that God’s creation by word in Genesis 1:1-25 portrays him as ruling by this creative activity (see Lk. 7:1-10 for a NT instance of understanding rulership and authority as denoted by speech and commanding things to be done by one’s words). So, when immediately after this creative activity God says let us make humankind in our image, so that they may rule over the earth and its creatures, it would have been clear that humans were to image God by ruling over the earth, as God had just been ruling over all creation by his creative activity.

This understanding is reinforced by the meaning and use of the Hebrew word translated “image” in our English translations. That word (ṣě·lěm) refers to a two or three dimensional painted or sculptured representation of something. It was used to refer to statues or carvings erected by ancient Near Eastern kings to represent their power and rulership over far-reaching areas of their empires, and to represent their power and dominion where they were not physically present (see for e.g. the gold statue erected by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:1, which is referred to as a ṣě·lěm).

This statue imagery was also extended by ancient Near Eastern kings to refer to themselves as the image of god and as their god’s representative on earth. They purported to be living statues of their god on earth representing his rulership.

By referring to humankind as the image of God, Genesis 1 suggests that all humans (as opposed to any one king) are living statues of God on earth, intended to represent his rule over the earth and all its creatures by themselves ruling over and subduing the earth and ruling over its creatures. Humans are to be God’s vice-regents in ruling over the earth.

The Hebrew word ṣě·lěm used in Genesis 1:26-27 is also used (including at different places in the Hebrew Bible) to refer to cult statues or idols placed in temples to represent or mediate the presence of the deity. The image of God therefore also connotes that human beings have been placed in the cosmic temple of creation to mediate the presence of God.

So, image of God conveys a tremendous responsibility that God has given to humankind. But it is important to understand that humans were to exercise the authority given to them by being like God (this is implicit in them being made in his image and after his likeness). They were to represent his character in the world and to rule like him.

The example of God’s rulership we are given in Genesis 1:1-27 is that God is a benevolent ruler. God acts for the good of creation and what he creates is good. (See Ps. 104 for a poetic reflection on God’s goodness in caring for his creation).

Sadly, since man’s fall into sin in Genesis 3, our stewardship of God’s good creation has not been in his image and likeness. We have violently exploited each other and the creation resulting in harm and destruction, and in much bad where there should have been only good.

Notwithstanding this fall into sin, Genesis 5:1 and 9:6, and 1 Corinthians 11:7 and James 3:9 reaffirm that humans are still made in the image of God and after his likeness. However, whilst humans never stopped being the image of God, in our sinfulness we failed to play the role intended for us by this calling. To remedy this God sent us Jesus, who is the true image of God (2 Co. 4:4 and Col. 1:15) who lives out this calling to be like God. In Jesus we can be restored to living as true images of God as God intended at the beginning by becoming like Jesus (Ro. 8:29, 2 Co. 3:18 and Col 3:10).

Significantly, the Biblical story ends with humans reigning with God for ever and ever (Rev. 22:5). It tells us that in the end, God will achieve with humans what he intended in the beginning.

So how does the Biblical story answer the existential questions we began with? Who am I? I am the image of God. Why am I here? To benevolently rule over and subdue the earth and all its creatures in the way that God would to produce good. What is my purpose in this world? To represent God and mediate his presence to all creation by reflecting his character and his goodness in my stewardship of creation and in this world.

This understanding has far-reaching implications for how we live in this world with each other and in our families. For our work and how we treat the creation. There is a lot to reflect on here. I hope this blog has stimulated your thinking.

For a sermon on the Image of God which explores these ideas in greater detail click on the following link: Image of God Sermon - YouTube.





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