Every human in history has asked the question, “Why am I here?” The answers given to this question vary depending on religion, worldview, and one’s general understanding of their place in society. The Hebrews expected this question, and so they set out to answer it in the opening pages of their Scriptures by reflecting on humanity’s identity as the image of God.
What is the Image of God?
Genesis tells us that all men and women are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and are therefore tasked with the same mission and purpose. This is a powerful statement since most ancient cultures thought that only kings were made in the image of God,1 and even modern people still treat women as helpers (Gen. 2:18) in the sense that they might take care of men, rather than serve alongside them as equals as the Bible portrays them.2 But Genesis is clear: all human beings, regardless of gender, race, and socio-economics, bear the image just by being human (Gen. 5:3).
This phrase, the image of God, is lost on many modern Christians who suspect this means God has a humanoid shape, a higher form of reasoning, or an understanding of morality. But in the ancient world, a selem (the Hebrew word for image) was often a representation of a divine being, hence why this word is sometimes translated idol.
This comparison is actually quite helpful in understanding our place in the world, for most have an idea of what an idol is: a physical representation of a spiritual being. Just as an idol of inanimate stone is to the false god, so the image of animate humanity is to Yahweh. Just as ancient people tried to move divine essences3 into their false selems by doing rituals to “open their mouth,”4 so God breathed his breath into his true selem (Gen. 2:7).5 And just as ancient people put selems inside the temples of their deities, so were humans put inside Yahweh’s temple of Eden.6
This being said, humans are like God because of their ability to image Yahweh to the rest of creation. In this sense, the image is best understood as “a verb or function.”7 While humans are not gods as the false selems were considered to be, humans are living representations of Yahweh, “refracting the pure light of God into a rainbow of cultural activities.”8
The Image of God and its Place in the World
Many ancient creation stories are steeped in chaoskampf (a “battle against chaos”9), which is often a fight between a god and a sea monster that ends with the monster’s corpse being used to create the earth. While the Genesis account shows God overcoming the chaos of water, it is water “demythologized and even depersonalized.”10 But other Bible passages mention God conquering sea monsters and creating the world in the same breath (Pss. 89:10-12, 74:13-17; Job 26:7-13).
This may sound odd to us, but the biblical conception of the cosmos is much stranger and mythological than our modern scientific understanding. In the ancient view, the earth was a flat island of sorts that was held above the ocean on great pillars. Inside the earth was Sheol, and below that was more ocean. God separated part of the ocean into the sky11 (Gen. 1:6) and stopped it from caving in on us12 via a crystal (Ezek. 1:22) snow-globe-like ceiling. The stars13 were found somewhere along this ceiling and above its crystal sea (Rev. 4:6) was God’s throne and divine council (Ps. 82).14
This view of the cosmos is certainly odd, but it helps us narrow in on humanity’s place in it. They were made from the ground (Gen. 2:7) and then tasked by their Godly landlord15 to take care of it. Therefore, as humans are “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), they will eventually leave God’s heavenly space of Eden to cultivate the untamed areas of the earth to become Eden-like,16 which is the ultimate vision of Revelation (Rev. 22:1-5).
As humans spread out to do this, they will naturally create their own cultures and expressions of humanity. Those seeking to live in their identity as the image of God don’t need to condemn all forms of culture, but should rather cultivate the best parts of culture.17 After all, Revelation’s renewed Eden is not a homogenous race and culture, but consists of various kings (Rev. 21:24), tribes, nations, and languages (Rev. 7:9). As Christians image the true image of God, which is Jesus (Col. 1:15), they will figure out what parts of culture should stick around and what parts should go. This is why the early Jewish Christians could invite the Gentiles into their faith without forcing them to follow all of their own cultural laws and customs (Acts 15:22-29). For if the Gentiles made Jesus the king of their culture, he would help them modify it correctly.
An earth that looks entirely like Eden is the long game of the imagers of God. Many proposals as to what Eden should look like have been made, but Christians must keep their eyes on Jesus to cultivate it correctly. This is why we are here. The cultivation of creation is one of the main ways in which we worship God.18
1 Richard J. Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 44-45, Kindle Edition.
2 People use Genesis 2:18 to subjugate women to men, but the word ezer (the Hebrew word for “helper”) is also used to describe God’s relationship with humanity (Exod. 18:4), and he certainly isn’t subjected to us (for more information see, Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), Location 2186-2199, Kindle Edition.). The female image was crafted from the male’s sela (better translated as “side,” not “rib”), (Tim Mackie and Jon Collins. “Our Collective Identity,” produced by Dan Gummel, The Bible Project, November 30, 2020, podcast, 1:00, https://bibleproject.com/podcast/our-collective-identity/) as though the man had been split equally in half. He can reunite with his side through marriage (Gen. 2:24). Both genders are on the same exact level as the other.
3 John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 195, Kindle Edition.
4 Edward M. Curtis, “Idol, Idolatry,” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 377.
5 Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 48-49.
6 For more on Eden being a temple, see John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One, Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), Kindle Edition.
7 Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, 1st ed. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2015), 42-43, Logos Bible Software.
8 Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 49.
9 The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), s.v. “Chaos.”
10 Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1988), 122.
11 While God did this by his words, chaoskampf was used in the Mesopotamian creation account in which, “The body of the dead Tiāmat was split like a fish to be dried into two halves, one of which became the sky.” (B. Alster “Tiamat,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999) 867.)
12 Unless God should open the “windows” in that ceiling as he did in the times of Noah in Genesis 7:11.
13 Stars were often thought by the ancients to be divine beings. See Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000) 2.
14 For an in-depth description of the cosmos as I’ve envisioned it here, see, Robin A. Parry, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), Kindle Edition.
15 A Scriptural analogy made well by C.S. Lewis in his allegorical work, The Pilgrim’s Regress.
16 Heiser, The Unseen Realm,50-51.
17 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), 97-98.
18 Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, 40.