Further Thoughts on the Imago Dei: After The Liberating Image

A blogger on the Jesus Creed website who goes by the initials RJS recently posted a series on my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. This is my guest post response, in which I describe how my thinking on the imago Dei has developed since the book was published.  It is posted at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/08/05/richard-middleton-after-the-liberating-image-rjs/

Blogger Jon Garvey responded positively to this post here and raised some interpretive questions, which I then answered here.

Richard Middleton: After The Liberating Image.

I’m honored that RJS has posted a nine-part series on my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). The exposition and analysis of my argument in these posts has been totally accurate (something I have only rarely found in book reviews). In this post I am responding to RJS’s invitation to share some of my more recent thoughts on the topic of the imago Dei.

My Purpose in The Liberating Image

In The Liberating Image I was primarily concerned to bridge the gap between Old Testament studies and systematic theology on the topic of the imago Dei. So I took pains to justify a royal-functional interpretation of the image (the mainstream view among Old Testament scholars), the view that humans are God’s royal representatives on earth, charged with manifesting his rule through the range of their cultural activities. I attempted to do this by interpreting Genesis 1:26-28 in its immediate literary context (Genesis 1:1-2:3), in the wider symbolic world of the Old Testament, and against the background of ancient Near Eastern (especially Mesopotamian) royal ideology and creation myths. And I tried to show that this interpretation made sense of Genesis 1-11 as a coherent narrative meant to shape the worldview of ancient Israel (and, by implication, the church today). To that end I addressed some of the ethical implications of the imago Dei especially concerning the legitimation of violence.

Topics Omitted from The Liberating Image

There was, of course, much more that could be said. I had originally planned to include an analysis of the critique of idolatry and monarchy in the Old Testament prophets, and I had wanted to address Jesus as imago Dei, the renewal of image in the church, and the fulfillment of the imago Dei in the eschaton. This ended up being beyond the scope of the book.

I had, however, touched on some of those topics earlier—in The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (a 1984 book co-authored with Brian Walsh) and in “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context” (a 1994 article in Christian Scholar’s Review).

My Recent Writing on the Imago Dei

Since writing The Liberating Image, I have developed my ideas further about the meaning of the imago Dei. I wrote a short piece on “Image of God” for the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (Baker Academic, 2011) and a slightly longer piece for the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). But I’ve also been working on a book entitled A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, which will be published this Fall by Baker Academic. Although the topic of this book is God’s desire to redeem this world, rather than taking us out of it to “heaven,” my latest thinking on the imago Dei is central to the book’s argument.

A New Focus to My Exposition of the Topic

In these recent writings, as in my current teaching on the subject (in courses on the biblical worldview), I have nuanced my presentation beyond what is found in The Liberating Image, and have begun to highlight what we might call the cultic-priestly (or sacramental) dimension of the royal-functional interpretation of the image. This dimension of the imago Dei was mentioned in The Liberating Image at various points (especially in chapters 2 and 3), but is now central to my exposition. I typically begin with creation as a cosmic temple and God’s intent to fill the cosmos with his presence or glory (which Jewish writers later called the Shekinah); this eschatological filling is anticipated in the wilderness tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35) and the Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3), which were both filled with God’s glory upon completion.

I have come to see that temple theology (and humanity as God’s image in the cosmic temple) is an important way of developing a biblical theology that unifies both Old and New Testaments.

The Conceptual Unity of Genesis 1 and 2

Although the Spirit (rûaḥ) of God was hovering over the unformed earth at the start of Genesis 1; as if God were getting ready to breathe his presence into the cosmic temple of creation, when creation is complete and God rests from his work (Genesis 2), there is no mention of any filling with the divine presence. Interpreted in canonical context, this Spirit-filling is delayed until the garden narrative of Genesis 2. There God, having molded the human being from the dust of the ground, breathes his breath (nišmâ) into the inanimate creature, which results in the creature’s becoming a “living being.”

The creation of the first human in Genesis 2 reflects many aspects of a Mesopotamian ritual known as the mïs pî (the washing of the mouth) or pït pî (the opening of the mouth). Known from Assyrian and Babylonian writings, this ritual typically took place in a sacred grove beside a river (see Genesis 2:10, 13-14). The purpose of the ritual was to vivify a newly carved cult statue so that it would become a living entity, imbued with the spirit and presence of the god of which it was an image. The image was thus transformed from an inert object to a living, breathing, manifestation of the deity on earth.

When read against this ancient Near Eastern background, Genesis 1 and 2 are in profound harmony with each other, despite their genuine differences. In both texts humanity is understood as the authorized cult statue in the cosmic temple, the decisive locus of divine presence on earth. This understanding of the human role means that God never intended his presence to fill the cosmic temple automatically. That is precisely the vocation of humanity, the bearer of the divine presence.

It was God’s purpose, from the beginning, to bring the cosmic temple to its intended destiny by human agency, in cooperation with God. So humans (as image of God) were to fill the earth with descendants (Genesis 1:28) who would represent God’s rule in their cultural pursuits and flourish in accordance with God’s wisdom. The human race was created to extend the presence of God from heaven (the cosmic holy of holies) to earth (the holy place) until the earth is filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (combining Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14); or, to use Pauline language, when God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

The Imago Dei after Sin

Humans, however, have filled the earth not simply with their descendants but also with violence (Genesis 6:11 is an ironic comment on Genesis 1:28). And whereas in the beginning God looked at all he had made and saw that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), God later sees that the “evil” of humanity has become “great” on the earth (Genesis 6:5). These ironic statements follow from God’s earlier assessment that humans, created to be God’s image, had indeed become “like one of us” (Genesis 3:22)—though not in the appropriate sense.

From this point on, Scripture tells a story of God’s purposes for the restoration of flourishing in earthly life in tension with the human propensity to misuse the vocation of imago Dei (which clearly continues after sin; see Genesis 5:1 and 9:6).

Since violence has impeded the human calling to be God’s image on earth, the Bible narrates God’s intervention in history to set things right, initially through the election of Abraham and his descendants as a “royal priesthood” (Exodus 19:6) to mediate blessing to all families and nations (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). Israel’s vocation vis-à-vis the nations is analogous to the human calling as imago Dei vis-à-vis the earth. And the redemption of Israel constitutes the beginning of God’s renewal of the image, a process meant to spread to the entire human race.

The Imago Dei and Idolatry

One aspect of human sin is idolatry (the construction and worship of false images of the divine). It is significant that Israel, as representative of humanity, is portrayed in Ezekiel as God’s true image in the world, in contrast to idols. Much of the language in Ezekiel 16 describing Israel’s turn to idols (see verses 15-19) is first used by God to portray his relationship to Israel; he washes them, clothes them, and adorns them with gold and silver (Ezekiel 16:8-14). Israel (like humanity, generally) is God’s own cult statue in the world.

The imago Dei theme recurs in Isaiah 40-55; where the presence of God’s Spirit (rûaḥ) on the servant of the LORD enables him to accomplish justice for the nations (Isaiah 42:1-4). This is in contrast to the images of the nations, which are “empty wind” (rûaḥ vatohû), according to Isaiah 41:29. But God gives “breath” (nišmâ) and “spirit” (rûaḥ) to humanity (Isaiah 42:5). This contrast between idols and humans in Isaiah echoes the statement in other prophetic texts that the images of the nations are false precisely because they have no rûaḥ in them (Jeremiah 10:14; 51:17; Habakkuk 2:19). Unlike humans, idols are not living images and have no power to act in the world (Psalm 115:4-8).

Incarnation and Imago Dei

A cultic-priestly understanding of the imago Dei not only clarifies the human vocation, both in its created dignity and in its tragic corruption, it also provides a basis for understanding the New Testament claim that Jesus is God-with-us (Matthew 1:22-23), the Word made flesh (John 1:14), the paradigmatic imago Dei (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3; 2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Humans as God’s image had failed in their priestly vocation to be the bond between heaven and earth. This vocation was faithfully fulfilled by Jesus, the second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22, 25), the one who completely manifested God’s character and presence in his life (John 14:9). Through the obedience of Jesus, even to death on a cross, humanity’s tragic failure has been reversed (Romans 5:17-19); and those who share in Christ’s death will also share in his resurrection and rule (2 Timothy 2:11-12a).

The Church as Imago Dei and Temple

A cultic-priestly interpretation of the imago Dei also grounds the Pauline notion that the risen Jesus has become the head of an international community of Jew and Gentile, indwelt by God’s Spirit. The church is thus the “new humanity” (a better translation than the “new self” found in most modern translations), renewed in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9-10) and called to live up to the stature of Christ, whose perfect imaging becomes the model for the life of the redeemed (Philippians 2:5; Ephesians 4:13-16, 24; 5:1-2; Colossians 3:13). Indeed, the church will one day be conformed to the full likeness of Christ (1 John 3:2), which will include the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:49).

The Imago Dei in the Eschaton

Whereas the church is presently God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:21) indwelt by the Holy Spirit as a foretaste of the promised future, the day will come when the curse is removed from the earth (a reversal of Genesis 3:17). Then God’s dwelling will no longer be confined to heaven. Instead, God’s throne will permanently be established on a renewed earth (Revelation 21:3; 22:3), and those ransomed by Christ from all tribes and nations will reign as priests forever (Revelation 5:9-10; 22:5). This climactic fulfillment of the imago Dei is portrayed by the New Jerusalem, which (paradoxically) is both redeemed people and holy city (that is, the renewal of humanity in all their concrete, cultural—even urban—reality). Furthermore, the city is described as a cube (Revelation 21:16), which is the distinctive shape of the holy of holies in the Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 6:20; Ezekiel 41:4). Thus the city-as-people is the center of God’s presence in a renewed cosmos.

While there is much more that could be said on this topic, the cultic-priestly understanding of the imago Dei provides an interpretive lens that unifies the entire canonical story from creation to eschaton; and it can shape our understanding of the church’s mission as we live between the times.

If you want to respond to this post you can post comments here or you can add your comments to those already posted at the Jesus Creed website: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/08/05/richard-middleton-after-the-liberating-image-rjs/

For Jon Garvey’s response to this post click here; for my answer to his questions, click here.