Notes on J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

I am coming to think that the current mainstream view regarding “image of God” in Genesis 1:26-27 is mistaken. The consensus is that behind the expression is the idea that God is king, that he rules the cosmos, and that he has delegated some part of that benign and constructive rule to men and women, created in his image and after his likeness. This has been put to good use for eco-theological purposes: humans should responsibly “steward” the created order on behalf of the divine sovereign.

When I took issue with this reading of the text recently, it was suggested that I should engage with J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (2005). Middleton looks in detail both at the biblical text and at the ancient Near Eastern background to the “image of God” motif, and then draws some broader conclusions, which I haven’t got to yet. Here is one paragraph summarising his argument:

It is my judgment that the description of ancient Near Eastern kings as the image of a god, when understood as an integral component of Egyptian and/or Mesopotamian royal ideology, provides the most plausible set of parallels for interpreting the imago Dei in Genesis 1. If such texts—or the ideology behind them—influenced the biblical imago Dei, this suggests that humanity is dignified with a status and role vis-à-vis the nonhuman creation that is analogous to the status and role of kings in the ancient Near East vis-à-vis their subjects. Genesis 1, and not the Egyptian wisdom texts previously cited, thus constitutes a genuine democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. As imago Dei, then, humanity in Genesis 1 is called to be the representative and intermediary of God’s power and blessing on earth. (121)

I made some notes as I worked through the book—all a bit disorderly, but I hope sufficiently coherent. I have more to say about the early stages of Middleton’s analysis than his more systematic enquiry into the theological and ethical significance of the expression “image of God” today.

It’s a very illuminating book in many ways, but I remain unpersuaded that “in the image of God, after our likeness” ascribes a derived royal status to humanity. In fact, what emerges is a rather interesting and consistent pattern that may explain a great deal.

Genesis 1:1-2:4 has a “royal flavor”

Middleton thinks that the first creation narrative has a “predominantly royal flavor” (26), though he admits that it is at best “somewhat implicit and adumbrated” (71).

Neither God nor humanity, however, is actually said to be a king; it is not said that God reigns in any sense or that he is enthroned; the normal language of kingship is missing.

The word translated “have dominion over” (rdh) is used in the Old Testament with reference to forceful—even abusive—subjugation and control. Living creatures, therefore, are to be subdued as enemies or slaves are subdued, and rule is to be exercised over them in such a way as to maintain order and peace.

God is depicted as a workman who labours for six days, finishes his work, declares that he is satisfied with it, and then rests on the seventh day. This is all a far cry from the divine king motif.

Middleton claims that rdh is used to “describe characteristically royal activity” (51). Well, yes, but the examples he gives only serve to underline the negative connotations of the word.

When it is said that Solomon “had dominion (rodeh) over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates” (1 Kgs. 4:24), this follows the subjugation of these kings, who must bring tribute and serve Solomon (4:21); therefore, “he had peace on all sides around him.” The same thought of military conquest and suppression of opposition accounts for the use of rdh in Psalm 72:8; 110:2; Isaiah 14:5-6.

Middleton notes that rdh occurs in the context of Ezekiel’s “metaphor of shepherding, which was a standard image for a king in the ancient Near East” (51). But the word is used here because Ezekiel condemns the misrule of Israel’s shepherds, reinforcing the point that rdh connotes a repressive rule:

The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled (reditem) them. (Ezek. 34:4)

What is man…?

It is true that Psalm 8 can be read as a reworking of the creation story (57-58). The creator of the heavens, whose name is majestic “in all the earth,” has made man (ʾenosh) “a little lower than the elohim and crowned him with glory and honor”; he has given him kingly rule (tamshil) over the works of his hands.

But whereas humanity in the image of God was given the task of subduing and bringing under control living creatures made according to their kinds, the psalmist makes the subjugation the work of God, who has put all things under man’s feet so that he does not now need to bring them under control (rdh) but now exercises a kingly rule (mashal) over them.

Comparison with Psalm 110:1-2 is interesting. In this case, the king is instructed to “rule” (radah) in the midst of his enemies until God makes them his footstool. A situation of crisis and conflict is presupposed. Subjugation of the kings of the nations, on a day of God’s wrath (110:5-6), will come in the future. In Psalm 8 the subjugation is in the past (“You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet”); therefore, humanity can “rule” in security over the works of God’s hands. The table shows how the narratives overlap.

  Gen. 1:26-28 Ps. 8 Ps. 110
Conflict Humanity is implicitly vulnerable to attack by living creatures   Israel’s king is threatened by his enemies
  ⬇︎   ⬇︎
Conquest They must subdue the living creatures and gain dominion (rdh) over them God has given man dominion over living creatures, put them under his feet He will gain dominion (rdh) over them when God puts them under his feet
    ⬇︎ ⬇︎
Rule   Therefore, man now rules (mashal) securely as king over the living creatures Then, implicitly, he will rule over the nations in security

Non-violent subjugation?

The word for “subdue” in Genesis 1:28 is kavash, and Middleton recognises that in many contexts it “seems to have a harsh or violent meaning” (51). But he maintains that “in texts having to do with subduing land/earth (which are probably the most relevant to Genesis 1), there is no implication of a violent or adversarial relationship to the land/earth per se” (52).

The reasoning behind this seems implausible to me.

In Numbers 32:22, 29 kavash is used for the subjugation of the “land” of Canaan. In parallel texts (Deut. 3:20; 31:3; Josh. 1:15), Middleton argues, we have the verb yarash instead of kavash, meaning simply “take possession of” without the connotations of violence. Therefore, “while kābaš can indeed be used in reference to violent acts of subjugation and conquest, the word itself does not have an intrinsically violent meaning, but rather expresses the general idea of bringing something or someone under control by the exercise of power.”

But please note that 1) logically, the argument could work in the opposite direction: the violence of the kavash texts colours the yarash parallels; 2) violence is not far away in the yarash texts (Deut. 3:21-22; 31:3; Josh. 1:14); 3) BDB gives as a first sense of yarash “take possession of, esp. by force”; 4) violence is prominent in the kavash passages; and 5) the two verbs simply define two stages in the process of occupation: first, the inhabitants of the land are subdued (kavash); then Israel takes possession of or inherits (yarash) the land.

The immediate context of “in our image, after our likeness”

Middleton places weight on what comes after the expression “in our image, after our likeness” because he thinks that “have dominion over” gives it a royal spin; but, as far as I can tell, he takes no notice of what precedes the creation of humanity in the image of God.

As made or created “in our image, after our likeness” humanity appears to be pointedly differentiated from other living creatures, which are made or created “according to their kind(s)” (the phrase occurs six times in Gen. 1:20-25) and which are expected to be fruitful and multiply and fill their respective domains. The close repetition of the prepositional phrase with the pronominal suffix is striking: le min-ah… be tzalm-nu ki demut-nu.

Kingship is not relevant for the other two instances of “image” in the opening chapters of Genesis, which seem to denote, on the one hand, familial, on the other, ethical, likeness:

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. (Gen. 5:3)

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. (Gen. 9:6)

Being the image or being in the image

No consideration is given in the book, as far as I can tell, to the grammatical distinction between being the image of a god and having been made in the image of God. In the Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts, the king is not in the image of a god, he is the image of a god.

In the myths, moreover, the king is not made as the image but born. The god Amon-Re speaks to Amenhotep III:

“You are my beloved son, who came forth from my members, my image, whom I have put on earth. I have given to you to rule the earth in peace.” (109)

Middleton says that Pharaoh was thought to be a “physical, local incarnation of deity” (110), which is very different to being made.

The prepositional construction in Genesis 1:26-27 suggests a reluctance to identify humanity directly with the divine image after the manner of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts.

According to Wenham, the preposition be with “image” effectively means “according to, after the pattern of.” He notes the similarity with the making of the lampstand and utensils “according to their pattern (be tavnitam),” which was being shown to Moses on the mountain (Exod. 25:40; cf. 25:9). The image or pattern is not the thing made; it is some other thing, belonging to God (“our image,” shown on the mountain).

Seth is not the “image” of Adam, rather he is “in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3). The p0int, presumably, is that the ontological distinction between the animals and humans is perpetuated from generation to generation.

So humans have been made “in the image of God” rather than “according to their kind.” They are God-like rather than animal-like—or perhaps, even, they are in the image and likeness of the elohim, the angelic members of the heavenly council. Therefore, they are expected to subdue and have dominion over all living creatures; and eventually they will arrive at the situation described in Psalm 8, with humanity enthroned and ruling as king over the created order.

The function of divinity

Middleton asserts that “the main function of divinity in both Israel and the ancient Near East is precisely to rule” (27). I disagree. There are two main functions of divinity: to create and to rule—a distinction which goes a long way towards explaining both the difference between kingdom and new creation in the New Testament and Paul’s statement about “one God” and “one Lord” in 1 Corinthians 8:6, on which see my new book In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul.

Philo understands the two cherubim on the ark of the covenant to represent

the two most ancient and supreme powers of the divine God, namely, his creative and his kingly power; and his creative power is called God; according to which he arranged, and created, and adorned this universe, and his kingly power is called Lord, by which he rules over the beings whom he has created, and governs them with justice and firmness. (Moses 2:99)

God is creator with regard to the world and all living things, including people. He is creator with regard to the existence of Israel as a people, as a new creation in microcosm. The story of Israel begins with an act of new creation, not with an act of divine kingship.

God is king, on the other hand, with regard to the political life of nations:

O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule (moshel) over all the kingdoms of the nations. In your hand are power and might, so that none is able to withstand you. (2 Chron. 20:6)

For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules (moshel) over the nations. (Ps. 22:28)

Middleton says that when God “judges” the existence of created things to be “good,” he performs a “juridical function” typical of kingship in the ancient Near East (70). Surely not. We can only speak of a juridical function if there has been injustice, if a decree has been disobeyed, if a dispute needs to be settled, or such like. There is no hint of that in Genesis 1.

It’s fair enough to say that “as long as the text ascribes to God typical royal actions or characteristics,” we may discern the presence of the kingship metaphor even if words such as “king” and “rule” are missing. But there are no royal actions or characteristics evident in the creation story.

The divine plural and royal court

Does the divine plural in Genesis 1:26-28 suggest a royal court, so that to be “in the image” of God or of the members of the divine council means to reproduce the divine royal function? Middleton writes:

This intertextual reading of the plurals in Genesis 1:26 thus suggests the presence of an (adumbrated) royal metaphor in the background of the text, in which God is pictured as ruling the cosmos from his heavenly throne room, attended by angelic courtiers and emissaries. The presence of this background metaphor, along with the explicit syntax of 1:26–28, in the context of the functional, purpose-oriented rhetoric of Genesis 1, leads to the exegetical conclusion that the imago Dei refers to humanity’s office and role as God’s earthly delegates, whose terrestrial task is analogous to that of the heavenly court. (59-60)

There is no suggestion, however, that in the creation account God is thought of as actively ruling the cosmos as a divine king in a council of heavenly courtiers. To the contrary, he is depicted explicitly as a workman who labours for six days, finishes his work, declares that he is satisfied with it, and then rests on the seventh day. This is all a far cry from the divine king motif.

In Psalm 82 we have an explicit description of a session in the divine council when Elohim takes his place in the midst of the elohim and accuses them of judging unjustly and showing partiality to the wickedness. That is a properly royal intervention. The psalm ends: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8).

Middleton says that “Like a powerful king whose word is law, God brings new creatures into being simply by decreeing their existence” (66). But no king brings anything into existence by decree. No king creates. The only place where a king is also a creator is Isaiah 43:15: “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King” (Is. 43:15). YHWH created Israel at the beginning and now he acts as king to deliver them from their enemies. The sequence is important.

Psalm 93

From Psalm 93:1-2 Middleton infers that “it is due precisely to God’s exercise of royal power that there is a stable, dependable cosmic structure” (81):

The LORD reigns; he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting. (Ps. 93:1–2)

I think this gets the logic of the Psalm back to front. The stable cosmos precedes the exercise of royal power. It is because God first acted as all-powerful creator to establish the cosmos that his royal actions on behalf of his people, especially in times of political crisis, are dependable.

The sequence is important.

From creation to kingdom (and back again)

A consistent pattern has emerged: God creates → conflict arises → opposition is suppressed → stable rule is established.

The pattern is evident on three levels:

  1. God creates all living things, including humanity → the animal “kingdom’ is subdued and humanity gains dominion over it → humanity rules over living things in security;
  2. God as Father brings Israel into existence as a new creation in microcosm → the enemies which oppose its possession of the land are subdued → Israel is established as a kingdom in the midst of other nations, though the security remains fragile;
  3. Israel’s king is threatened by his enemies → God will put them under his feet, and he will gain dominion over them → the king will rule in peace and security.

The New Testament perspective is that there will always be enemies, kingdom will remain insecure, until the last enemy death is defeated. At that point, the king at God’s right hand will give back the authority to rule bestowed on him by God (1 cor. 15:24-28), and creation will finally be made new.