As 2013 begins, we have begun a journey through the book of Genesis at CBC. The first chapter says that God made humans “in his image”. Clare Hannis from CBC has written this excellent paper that explores this idea, asking the question “What is the image of God?” Read on and be informed. 


Matt Frost


The Image of God


The meaning of the image of God has been debated by scholars for centuries. Whilst fundamental to understanding the biblical story and interpreting our purpose as humans, references to it within the bible are ‘tantalising in their brevity and scarcity.’

Since the 1960s scholars have focussed on context rather than concept, agreeing the general meaning more than at any other time by emphasising the importance of the text.2 This has resulted in closer study of the use of image (tselem) and likeness (demut) in Genesis 1 v 26-28, Genesis 5 v 1-3 and Genesis 9 v 5-6 within the context of the ancient near eastern world (ANE).


Image and Likeness in the Bible

Humans are unique in the Genesis creation story in being described as the image of God, with Genesis 1 v 26 stating ‘let us make man in our image, after our likeness’. The use of likeness as well as image has been viewed as teaching different aspects of God, with image meaning man’s unchangeable essence and likeness the ethical element which may be lost. Alternatively likeness has been seen as a qualification of image, to include some uncertainty as to how exactly humanity is like God. The current consensus is that the words are synonymous, with likeness used to reinforce image.3

Immediately after stating that man is made in God’s image the priestly writer writes that humanity will be given dominion over the earth. This is reinforced in verse 28, which asserts that humans will subdue and have dominion. Psalm 8 also highlights the function of ruling, as God has ‘given him dominion over the works of your hands’. Emphasis is placed on the function humanity is to play in acting as the image of God. As Clines states: man is not created in God’s image, since God has no image of his own, but as God’s image or rather to be God’s image…to deputise in the created world for the transcendent God.

In this functional interpretation humanity are seen as God’s representative on earth.

The argument that God does not have an image of his own may derive from the fact that the bible is ‘deliberately vague’5 regarding God’s image. However it remains possible that humanity is in some way like God and that this representation both equips man to undertake the role and interact with a relational God.

The relational nature of God is highlighted by Barth within the I-Thou interpretation of the creation story.6 Genesis 2 v 18 states “the Lord God said: It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper for him”. Genesis describes humanity’s ideal environment in relational terms; being in harmony with God, other humans and nature.

Humans differ from animals in characteristics such as will, freedom of choice, self-consciousness and spirituality, allowing an ‘ability to know and love God’ which ‘must stand prominently in any attempt to ascertain precisely what the image of God is’.8 From Philo to the current day there has been emphasis on humanity’s spirituality and resulting special relationship with God. Historically interpretations have focussed predominantly on humanity’s spiritual likeness with God, with occasional arguments for a functional interpretation. More recently the interpretations have been linked; spiritual likeness enables man to rule on God’s behalf.

Scholars have debated whether the role of rule is an integral part of the image or a consequence.9 Regardless, there is dependency between representation and representative. Humanity is able to exercise dominion through use of their special relationship with God through which they can understand how they are like God and act like God. McBride Jr emphasises the contingent relationship, stating that like angels: human beings are instruments of divine providence…endowed with attributes that give them capacity to act on God’s behalf but not enfranchised to exercise hegemony as autonomous agents.

Therefore, humanity is to represent God but always to remember that they are a likeness and not God himself.

Humanity is the only part of creation made in God’s image. Genesis 5 v 3, by juxtaposing God’s creation of Adam with Adam’s lineage to Seth, implies that the image of God is transmitted through the genealogical line. Therefore the concept relates to all, not just Adam as the first.


Image and Likeness in contemporary Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures

The archaeological discovery of ANE artefacts since the nineteenth century, and in particular the finding in 1979 of the statue of Haddayish‘i at Tell Fakireyeh, has allowed comparison with the use of image and likeness within Genesis. It is useful to look to the ANE world for meaning as the Israelites did not worship images12 and the ANE world provides the context for understanding the references in Genesis.

The discovery at Tell Fakireyeh is significant as it is the first discovery where image and likeness have been used in parallel by a civilisation contemporaneous with the Old Testament.13 Garr highlights that the words are used co-referentially, supporting the assertion that the terms can be used interchangeably and contributing to the consensus that image and likeness are synonymous. However the words are used in different sections of the inscription to outline a Mesopotamian ruler’s complementary functions of devout worshipper and sovereign monarch. Likeness is used to depict the governor’s petitioning of the deity. Image, by describing how the governor will punish vandals of the statue, emphasises the governor’s ‘majestic, absolute’ power.

It is unsurprising that the image of god is used in the ANE world to refer to the king or ruler. In the ANE cultures the ruler is the physical embodiment of the god and exercises dominion over the land on behalf of the god.

As well as kings, the ANE world referred to idols as the image of a god and believed that through transformational practices such as the Mesopotamian mouth washing and mouth opening a statue became the god. Herring highlights that ancient Mesopotamians did not recognise a distinction between the material and spiritual worlds and viewed the statues as manifesting the presence of the god, not the representation of an absent god.15 This is a key point, as McBride Jr16 and Fletcher-Louis argue that humanity is the way God manifests his presence within the cosmic temple of creation, analogous to how ANE statues were believed to manifest gods within their temples. This is based on the bible’s use of tselem to describe ANE idols in passages such as Numbers 33v52 and 1 Samuel 6v5.

ANE mythology is similar to Genesis in that the divine inspiration of the image is clear. Enuma Elish describes man being created from the blood of gods mixed with clay and rulers were seen as partially or wholly divine in Mesopotamian and Egyptian beliefs respectively. In the mouth opening ritual life is breathed into the statue as God breathed life into Adam. The giving of life through breath is also a motif in Egyptian literature.18 However, Middleton highlights that the creation of man was typically the result of a war amongst gods and so was negative in contrast to the positive account in Genesis.

A key difference in the creation stories is that the presence of the god was manifested within a particular man or image. Access to presence was restricted and regulated by the priestly and cultural etiquette.

The use of images by the ANE world supports the argument that humanity is both representative and representation of God, as image was used to describe a likeness of the god and the manifestation of the god’s presence in the exercise of dominion.


Impact on ancient Israelites

Whilst the function of being God’s image was the same within the Hebrew and ANE cultures, Genesis includes a radical departure by democratising the concept and dignifying all humans with the status and role previously reserved for kings. In Genesis it is clear that all humanity are created in the image of God, rather than a king who is divinely chosen. As Herring states, ‘whether wood, stone or human’ the image channels the presence of the god, however ‘humanity is given the place primarily occupied by the statues of gods in the ANE and secondarily by kings and other temple officials.’

Each Israelite was to understand themselves as made in the image of God, designed to have a direct relationship with God rather than through an intermediary and to exercise stewardship and dominion over the earth as God’s representative. They were not to use idols, underlined within the second of the Ten Commandments, as they themselves were designed as God’s idol. They were also to respect other humans in accordance with their status as the image of God. Gen 9 v 6 states that: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed, For God made man in his own image”.

The vengeance here echoes the idea of retribution for damage to idols within the ANE cultures and derives from the same concept that the image of God must be respected as would the god themselves.

The Israelites understanding of their role as the image of God would have underpinned their interpretation of their circumstances, both past and present. The promises within Genesis 1 are re-iterated for Israel through God’s promise to Abraham. Whilst Genesis refers to humanity and the whole of creation the focus narrows temporally and spatially, from the whole of humanity to the chosen people of Israel, and from the whole earth to the promised land of Canaan.

Understanding man as the image of God also explains the covenantal nature of Israel’s relationship with God; as Middleton states the covenants bear a resemblance to the Assyrian Suzerainty-Vassal treaties, emphasising the ‘pervasive political metaphor of God as king throughout the Old Testament’. The covenants are God’s contracts with his representatives on earth.

In the post Eden world the way humanity’s role is played out has changed. The Israelites are to represent God and manifest His presence to humans who do not know God in a ‘fundamentally missiological’ calling. In contrast to harmony humanity now battles sin and the Israelites can be seen as being subdued by the earth rather than subduing it. Sin would also have had an impact on how well they were able to maintain the balance between acting on God’s behalf and being dependent on Him.

The Lutherans stated that after exile from Eden humanity lost the image of God and now bears the likeness of the fallen Adam. It is difficult to conclude the extent to which humanity has lost their likeness to God but sin is clearly a differentiating factor between God’s character and humanity’s. In this context, both for the ancient Israelites and today, it is imperative that humanity seeks to discern the will of God through the spiritual relationship which is part of being made in the image of God. In this we follow examples such as Joseph and Belazel, who used ‘artful discernment’ to emulate God.


Impact on worldview in contrast to neighbours

The Israelites were following Yahweh and undertaking their missiological calling as a minor nation in a hostile world: By ANE standards biblical Israel was an upstart nation, a latecomer and even then, a minor player in an arena of politics and culture dominated by Egypt, Assyria and Babylon.

Middleton asserts that Israelites would have been tempted to buy into the cultural ideals of stronger civilisations. This would mean acceptance that God had blessed an unjust social order and “negate the distinctive covenantal shape of Israel’s communal life before Yahweh”.

Middleton and Fletcher-Louis argue that the author of Genesis is being intentionally subversive in applying the image of God to all humans. For the Israelites, it was to be a liberating concept, enabling them to uphold their faith by providing a “clarion call to the people of God to stand tall again with dignity”.

The concept does this by providing a different understanding of identity within a different socio-political structure. Genesis portrays a world without a king, “literally unthinkable in Mesopotamian civilisation”31 and where access to god wasn’t controlled by priests. The ANE ideology facilitated the stability of the system and perpetuated injustice; the Israelite ideology challenged Israelites to take ownership of stewarding the earth on God’s behalf.



The Genesis account of the image of God fundamentally differs from the major worldview of the time. Whilst Genesis echoes the royal nature of being God’s image, it democratises the concept. Israelites believed that they were each made in the image of God, rather than the image being restricted to the ruler or material idols.

Israelites were called to have a relationship with God and to exercise dominion over the earth on God’s behalf. Exercising effective dominion is made difficult, now and then, as the inception of sin has led to the loss of harmony for man to rule over and impacted humanity’s likeness with God. However, as God’s image, humanity has a spiritual link to God enabling us to discern and act in his name. 

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