“Image of God” as eco-theological premise?

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I argued in the previous post that the injunction to subdue the earth and rule over all living creatures in Genesis 1:26-28 cannot be construed in helpful modern terms as environmental stewardship or creation care. The language consistently evokes contexts of enslavement, violent suppression of opposition, and judgment; it foreshadows a state of conflict between weak and vulnerable humanity and dangerous and powerful nature. Humanity was to be fruitful, multiply, fill and subdue the earth, and have dominion over living creatures in the same way that the Israelites would subdue the land of Canaan (Num. 32:29; Josh. 18:1), overcome their enemies, be fruitful, multiply, and fill the land.

The same is true for Psalm 8:6, though the language is different:

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. (Ps. 8:6–8)

It is worth noting that the psalm begins with a celebration of YHWH as one who has “established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2). That rather sets the tone for the rest of the poem. It is an expression of wonder that humanity has risen above and gained mastery of all that God has created.

It is not possible, therefore, to draw a straight line from Genesis 1 through to the construction of a modern eco-theology, desirable as that may be.

In the image of God

There is another dimension to the eco-theological use of Genesis 1:26-28, however. It is often suggested that, having been created in the “image” of God, humanity is God’s representative or proxy on earth. The basis for this is either the idea evidenced in Egyptian and Assyrian texts that the king is the image of a god, or the belief that physical images and statues of gods and kings served as stand-ins for the absent deity or ruler.

Brueggemann says, “It is now generally agreed that the image of God reflected in human persons is after the manner of a king who establishes statues of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present.”1 It is known, for example, that Assyrian kings such as Ashurnasirpal and Shalmaneser III set up their statues in conquered territories.

So the king is the image of the god, and the statue is the image of the king. The subduing and having dominion over, it is maintained, are royal tasks (cf. 1 Kgs. 5:4), exercised as an extension of divine sovereignty. Only, Genesis has democratised ancient royal ideology: it is not the individual autocrat but the whole of humanity, male and female, which embodies the kingly presence and activity of the creator God.

Are we to suppose, then, that the apparently aggressive rule over the earth and its creatures is qualified or redefined by the creation of the ʾadam in the image of God? I’m doubtful.

It’s all a bit incoherent

In the first place, there is no suggestion in Genesis 1 that humanity takes over a task that would otherwise have been performed by the creator God. God creates the earth and all living creatures and declares everything to be good, but the ʾadam must subdue and have dominion over what God has made. When God is the subject of subduing and having dominion over elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is with a view to judging rebellious Israel or suppressing opposition (Ps. 72:9-11; Joel 3:13; Mic. 7:19; Zech. 9:15), which are “kingdom” not creation activities. More on that in a moment. There are examples elsewhere of God bringing the forces of nature under control (e.g., Ps. 107:29), but this does not seem to be what is in view here.

It is also not clear—at least, not to me—that the image was thought to represent or embody or extend in any sense the active rule of the absent monarch.

  • The Assyrian king Esarhaddon, for example, is recorded as saying, “I had a statue of me as king made out of silver, gold and shining copper… (and) placed (it) before the gods to constantly request well-being for me.”2
  • Sargon captured the city of Kishesim, carried off its ruler to Assyria, installed his own governor, set up statues of his gods, and set up his own “royal image” in their midst.3
  • This seems to have been a common practice as an expression of piety and dependence. Sennacherib “fashioned six great steles with the images of the great gods, my lords, upon them, and with them his own “royal image, with face averted (in prayer).”4
  • It was part of the Hellenistic-Jewish critique of idolatry that when “people could not honor [princes] in their presence because they lived far off, they imagined their appearance from afar and made a visible image of the king whom they honored, that through diligence they might flatter the absent one as though present” (Wis. 14:17). It appears that what is at issue is not the extension of the king’s rule but his reputation among remote peoples. The operative word is “flatter.”

The examples cited by Clines offer no real real support for the argument.5 The king conquers or travels and sets up his image, but nothing is said to the effect that the image represented his rule over the new lands.

We perhaps get a better sense of the purpose of the royal image from this passage, in which Ashurnasirpal describes the conclusion to his savage conquest of the cities of the land of Kirhi:

All the men who had fled from before my arms came down and embraced my feet. Tribute and tax… I imposed on them. Bûbu, son of Bubâ, the governor of the city of Nishtun, I flayed in the city of Arbela and I spread his skin upon the city wall. At that time I fashioned an image of my own likeness, the glory of my power I inscribed thereon, and in the mountain of Eki, in the city of Assur-nâsir-pal, at the (river) source, I set it up.6

In this case, an inscription on the image proclaims the power and glory of the tyrant. But this still seems to have more to do with the fear and reverence in which the king was to be held by his new citizens than with his active governance or administration.

Is it likely then that the reference to the “image” of God in Genesis 1:26-27 would have entailed the subsequent thought of subjugation and rule? The image is a very passive object, whatever its exact purpose was. Indeed, it is the newly installed governor who exercises rule on behalf of the king.

It is also not said in Genesis 1:26-28 that God fashioned humanity to be an image of his likeness (as Ashurnasirpal puts it) in the world that he had made. The ʾadam is not the image set up in territory recently acquired (by subduing?) to be a sign of the sovereignty of the conquering divine king. Rather, he is in the image of God. The image is some attribute or possession of the creator to which humanity conforms, not the created “icon.” Brueggemann glosses over the distinction when he slips from an image reflected in human persons to a statue set up as a sign of sovereignty.

Besides, isn’t it more likely that humanity was thought of as being, in this context, in the image of a god rather than of a king, as such? The creation stories do not at any point attribute to God a kingly role. The “royal image” belongs to a political context; it goes with the conquest of nations, the defeat of enemies, the extension of dominion geographically, and the necessary consolidation of power. In the Genesis pre-history we do not get to that sort of scenario until Nimrod and the statement that the “beginning of his kingdom was Babel…” (Gen. 10:8-10). We cannot suppose that God needed to consolidate power over the earth through humanity as his viceroys.

I have often made the point that (new) creation and kingdom are two distinct themes in the Bible and should not be confused.

According to their kinds but in our image

While it is certainly very difficult to determine the precise nuance of the expression “in our image, as our likeness” (be tzalmnu ki demutnu), in the flow of the story it emerges in contrast to the creation of living creatures “according to their kinds (le minah).” The word min perhaps carries the idea of differentiation or division (see BDB): animals are created according to the patterns which distinguish one species from another.

There seems to me quite a marked contrast between the making of the beasts of the earth “according to their kinds” and the making of the ʾadam “in our image, as our likeness.”

Humanity is not just another species, differentiated from the various kinds of animal, but is unique among living things insofar as the ʾadam, as male and female, was made in the image and as the likeness of God. The ontological distinction then, presumably, constitutes the ground for the hierarchy entailed in the instruction to subdue the earth and exercise forceful control over living creatures. There is also a moral dimension. Animals are not accountable for their violent actions, but “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6).

This has not been very well thought through, I admit, and I’m a bit out of my depth, but I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that there are further grounds here for questioning the modern assumption, motivated quite understandably by our ecological anxieties, that humanity was originally entrusted with the exercise of a God-like care or stewardship of the planet.

Rather, it seems to me that humanity “in the image of God” was made different from and superior to the living creatures, endowed with God-like intelligence and the capacity to subdue the natural order as people spread across the face of the earth. Subduing a dangerous natural order, of course, is not the same as raping a vulnerable natural order—the boot is now on the other foot. But I still feel uncomfortable with the careless, if well-intentioned, revision of the biblical record. Unhelpful, I know, but there it is.

  • 1W. Brueggemann, Genesis (1982), 32.
  • 2See Clines, D. J. A., “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19.1 (1968), 83 n. 140.
  • 3D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, vol. 2 (1927), 5 §10.
  • 4D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, vol. 2 (1927), 152-53 §342.
  • 5D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, vol. 1 (1926), 146 §445, 201 §558.
  • 6D. D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, vol. 1 (1926), 143 §441, 201 §558.
Samuel Conner | Tue, 11/08/2022 - 13:41 | Permalink

Riffing on Michael Heiser’s popularization of ancient Hebrew angelology/demonology (which sees the elohim as a class of deities [YHWH being the pre-eminent] within Hebrew henotheism), perhaps we shouldn’t try to draw too much significance from the Gen 1:26 text. Being the work of a committee, it was poorly done.

YHWH subsequently steps in to straighten things out, and this disagreement between YHWH and the lesser elohim then gets worked out “under the sun” in the conflict between Israel and the other nations.

This thought is offered only half in jest.

Hi Andrew.

Subduing a dangerous natural order, of course, is not the same as raping a vulnerable natural order—the boot is now on the other foot.

And a comment of yours from the related previous post…

It might make sense to posit a tension between an international perspective and covenantal one in which the garden story prefigures Israel’s experience of living in the land and being expelled from it. I don’t know if that would be a sustainable view.

Thinking more along those covenantal lines I’m wondering, out loud, whether skipping to the end of the book (Rev 11:18) where we read “…and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth” – i.e., the land; whether this might reflect some echos of Jubilee and thus their neglect of the same, in whatever way that might be perceived… where the boot is now squarely on God’s foot and summarily applied in the consequences of the coming kingdom?


I take the seventh trumpet to be transitional, between judgment against Israel and judgment against the nations subject to Rome (see The Coming of the Son of Man, 210). So I would read Revelation 11:18 less in terms of Israel’s neglect of the land than, say, Jeremiah 28:25 LXX (=Jer. 51:25 ET), which has the same language of destruction:

Behold, I am against you, the destroyed (diephtharmenon) mountain which destroys (diaphtheiron) the whole earth (gēn), and I will stretch out my hand against you and roll you down from the rocks and render you as a burned-out mountain.

The thought is of warfare and the destruction of everything that sustains a people’s existence—think of Russia’s devastation of the land of Ukraine. But the condemnation of Rome as Babylon the great in chapter 18 certainly has in view a corruption of human society that is not merely military:

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. (Rev. 18:11–13)

Richard Blakesley | Sat, 11/19/2022 - 18:07 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

I am thinking about the themes you raise. I am just wondering why your explorations on Image have not interacted with a newer work (2005) by J Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image  which Brueggemann comments “stands against ancient and contemporary modes of violence”. 

I think the arguments would have more substance if they interacted with this more up to date work. 

I understand you will be busy so maybe not yime to interact with all the literature.