The Liberating Image—The Practical Significance of Being Made in God’s Image

Back in November 2019, when I was attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego, I met up with Jim Stump, vice-president of BioLogos. I’ve known Jim for about five years and he asked if he could interview me for the Language of God podcast series that BioLogos sponsors.

The focus of the interview was a topic dear to my heart—what it means to be made in the image of God (imago Dei).

The podcast page introduces the interview this way:

“We were made in the image of God, but what does that really mean? Whom does that apply to? What does that call us to? The Bible is very central to understanding the answers to these questions, as is cultural context. In this episode, biblical worldview professor, Richard Middleton joins Jim Stump in an attempt to answer some of the questions about human identity through both of those lenses.”

This is some of what Jim Stump said on Facebook about the interview.

“Here we talk about the Bible and science (like what each has to say about Adam and Eve), but mostly focus on his specialty: the image of God. I’m biased and prone to believe what I want to be the case, but I think this is a really interesting conversation.”

You can listen to the full interview here on the BioLogos podcast website.

Although Jim does eventually ask me to speculate on how the imago Dei might relate to the development of Homo sapiens, the interview focuses on what the Bible says about the image in its ancient Near Eastern context and its relevance for living in God’s world. I essentially summarize the main thrust of my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005).

Prior to the book, I had written a programmatic article on the subject, with almost the same title: “The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context,” published in Christian Scholar’s Review 24 (1994): 8–25.

Jim Stump is from the Missionary Church, the same denomination that I was a member of as a teen and young adult in Jamaica. I did my undergraduate degree in theology at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1960 by the Missionary Church Association of Jamaica. It turns out that Jim had spoken at a 2007 commencement ceremony at my seminary.

Although the image of God is the focus of the BioLogos interview, I also talk a bit about what Jamaica is like (in response to Jim’s questions).

If you are interested in further reflections on the applicability of the imago Dei to matters of ethics and justice, you can read the blog post I was invited to write for the Imago Dei Fund. It is called “The Ethical Challenge of the Image of God in the 21st Century – Human Rights and Beyond.

And if you want to explore a bit more about how the imago Dei (and the Fall) might (I emphasize that word) relate to what we know of the origins of Homo sapiens, I discuss these topics in a presentation I gave for the Canadian and Christian Scientific Affiliation, called “Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil in Biblical and Evolutionary Perspectives.”

Insightful Jewish Interpretation of the Pentateuch: SBL Panel Discussion of Shai Held, The Heart of Torah

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Held’s latest publication is The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). This is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

I (along with approximately 7,000 others) subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I have also organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego this coming November. The panel will consist of both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars, who will share their responses to the book and its project. 

The panel discussion is scheduled to take place 9:00 AM to 11:45 AM on November 24, 2019. This the lineup of presenters.

Presiding:

  • J. Richard Middleton, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Participants:

  • Ellen Davis, Duke Divinity School
  • David Frankel, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Dennis Olson, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Marvin Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology

Response:

  • Shai Held, The Hadar Institute

This panel discussion is jointly sponsored by the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures program unit and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics

The Ethical Challenge of the Imago Dei—Human Rights and Beyond

I was recently invited to write a blog post on humanity as imago Dei (“image of God”) for the Imago Dei Fund.

My post is now published online, with the title: “The Ethical Challenge of the Image of God in the 21st Century – Human Rights and Beyond.”

After sketching the meaning of the imago Dei and some of its ethical implications, the post concludes by exploring the compassion of God for the foreigner/refugee, which those made in God’s image are called to imitate.

Interestingly, my colleague in New Testament, Esau McCaulley, has recently written a blog post on a similar theme, entitled “The Slave, the Foreigner, and the Compassion of Israel.”

The Imago Dei Fund

Their website of the Imago Dei Fund describes them as “a grant-making organization working with our grantee partners to co-create a more just and more free world in which all human beings can thrive and flourish together.”

One of the issues the Imago Dei Fund addresses is human rights (as part of their commitment to “justice and mercy“). This was the topic I was invited to write about, based on the biblical teaching of humans as imago Dei.

Besides human rights, the Imago Dei Fund addresses matters of ecological justice (“care of creation“) and holistic shalom for persons (“care of souls“).

I invite you to check out the blog page of the Imago Dei Fund, where my post is located (along with other posts on related topics). It has the unusual name of The Inukshuk Blog.

If you want to know what an Inukshuk is, here is an explanation, with a picture.