The Idol of God? A Second Look at the Imago Dei

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The Idol of God? A Second Look at the Imago Dei

God Created Mankind—The Imago Dei

A few years ago, God created people.


This has largely been considered by most theologians to be a rather big deal and thus has been the subject of many studies. After all, the record of our beginning, our genesis if you will, speaks volumes as to what it means to be human. Our creation answers much of who we are, where we come from, and even where we’re going.



The Bible understands this and spends a remarkable amount of time on the subject, addressing it twice in the opening chapters of Genesis. In the opening Creation poem of chapter 1, man[1] is pictured as the “crown of God’s handiwork” and the whole aim of the Creation process,[2] while in Genesis 2, the focus shifts solely to man and woman’s creation and the physical forming of them.


Books could be and indeed have been written just on the first two chapters of Genesis, so I won’t tackle all the subjects involved. Even today’s topic, the Imago Dei, has inspired a library worth of books, so attempting to tackle it in just 2,500 words is a challenge.


For those who don’t know or can’t guess Latin, Imago Dei simply means “image of God,” of course referring to humanity being created in God’s image, according to Genesis 1:26-27. What exactly this means, however, is not directly explained. Genesis does not say, “And by making man in our image, I mean that humanity looks like us” or “When I say in our image, humanity shares our ability to reason” or “My image is being sovereign in my territory” and so on. Nope, it just says, “Let us make man in our image.”


As this is both vague and apparently core to what it means to be human, this has naturally been the subject of great debate throughout history. Any discussion on “theological anthropology”[3] necessarily begins where the Bible does, which is with humanity being created in the image of God. Since just about systematic theology must of necessity include theological anthropology, the Imago Dei must be examined. As such, it gets discussed a lot. And as with any oft-discussed topic, the theories are quite varied.

The Historical Debate and Interpretations

Now, as I am not a historical theologian, I will only briefly summarize the various approaches to the Imago Dei. For a more in-depth study of the history of interpretation, please contact your local historical theologian.


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Some, although very few, hold that the “image of God” refers to our literal, physical appearance mirroring that of God.[4] Another way of looking at the “image of God” was to highlight that this is what separates us from animals, which is true. Animals are not in the “image of God.” But again, what this means varies.


For Augustine, this was being gifted with a “pristine” sense of goodness that was marred after the fall. Aquinas, on the other hand, argued that reason was the Imago Dei. Luther and Calvin both argued for the “image of God” being the soul of a person, or their inner qualities that reflect God’s character, chief among them was righteousness.


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In more modern times, Barth and Brunner focused on relationality being the Imago Dei, with Christ being the central figure. Others question whether or not the “image of God” is actually a thing or not.[5] Gulley, who seems not to have met a definition of the Imago Dei he didn’t like, also includes the Trinity, dominion, and free will, in addition to the already mentioned suggestions.[6]


In a sense, I agree with Gulley in that most suggestions have merit and may make up a part of the idea of “image of God,” except for the physical which I consider ludicrous.[7] Where I take issue with these understandings, however, is that they are asking what does “image of God” mean, instead of what did “image of God” mean.


At the risk of disparaging much greater theological minds than myself, I noticed that all of these individuals, from Augustine to Gulley, approach the topic with an already formed metaphysic that they then impute on the text. Typically, this metaphysic is Platonic or Aristotelean, although traces of Descartes, Kant, and other modern philosophers can be detected in the more recent attempts at decoding Imago Dei. The problem with this approach is that ways of thinking are imported into the text that was never really there and these theologians end up doing eisegesis, rather than exegesis.


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The central thesis of my first article is that the purpose of archaeology and Near Eastern studies is to understand what the text meant to the original audience so we can rightly understand what it means to us today.


Yet I have noticed that such a principle is rarely applied to this discussion. No one is asking the question I am asking here: when Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make man in our image,” what did a Late Bronze Age of even Iron Age Israelite think? How would they have understood being told that mankind is in the image of God?


The Image of the god


The idea of “image,” particularly that of the divine image, was central to ancient worship. As discussed in my previous article, the temple was the house, or more accurately palace, of the god. But the god’s specific presence was manifested in the idol, or image.[8]


The relationship between the statue and the god is complicated, as it is not right to say that, for the ancient mind, the idol merely represented the god nor would it be correct to say that the idol was the god. The ancients didn’t pretend (with a few exceptions) that the idol was not made by humans anymore than the temple was not made by humans. Both were made as vehicles for the god to interact with people, with the temple providing the place and the idol providing the body.


As with the temple, in order for the god to inhabit the idol, the statue had to be “purged” of human contamination which in Mesopotamia involved the complex “mouth washing ritual.” Once consecrated and installed in the Holy of Holies, the deity would inhabit the idol, manifesting his or her presence in that idol.[9]


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Think of it like Avatar, the blue people version as opposed to the awesome animated series. In order to move around Pandora without the cumbersome robot suits, people would transmit their consciousness into prefabricated bodies of Na’vi—the indigenous inhabitants.


Similar for the gods and their idols—their essence and presence would manifest in the image, allowing them to interact with the human realm, such as presiding over court cases.[10] The downside to this is that once the god occupied the form, they were stuck there as far as the mortal realm was concerned. This meant that one city could “godnap” another city or nation’s god, leaving them vulnerable and exposed, such as what Sennacherib did to the Babylonians. Later, his son Esarhaddon would graciously restore the stolen deities to the proper homes.[11]


Kings would utilize this same idea for themselves. The monarchs of expansive kingdoms like Assyria or Egypt would erect an image of themselves in newly conquered territory, conduct the appropriate rituals, and leave that image as their “surrogate” to be treated with as much respect as the king himself. In a very practical, real sense, the king’s presence was made manifest in his image.[12]


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The “image of God” invested in a person was also not a foreign concept to the ancient world either. Obviously, most of us know that Egyptian pharaohs took being in the “image of God” to the extreme, Pharaoh being the literal incarnation of Horus on earth. However, in the more conservative Mesopotamia, the idea of individuals being in the image of God was also quite common.


Typically, as in Egypt, this was reserved for kings with a priest being the lone exception. For example, a subordinate wrote to Esarhaddon, saying that he was the “perfect likeness of the god.”[13] As such, the king embodied the presence and essence of the deity. He possessed his qualities and as such, was given the god’s authority.[14] It is from this idea that the “divine right of kings” concept comes. While not the god him or herself, the king was the embodiment of the god on earth.


A quick look at ancient iconography confirms this. Instead of a cookie question, I have a google assignment for you. Do a google image search for the following people: Sargon the Great, Sargon II, Esarhaddon, and Assurbanipal. Notice something odd? They all look the exact same! Same clothes, same massive forearms, same haircut, same silly hats. While you’re at it, google the good Assur/Ashur and you’ll notice that he looks exactly like the kings.


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This isn’t a coincidence nor is it a lack of artistic ability. The sculptors of ancient Assyria were remarkably gifted and detailed. Instead, they were trying to communicate a message about the king. He was the embodiment of Assur, the god,[15] and so in his images, he was portrayed like the god, whether he actually did or not.


Therefore, the bearer of the image of God manifested the presence of the deity in them. Now, this does not mean that the bearer is the god, but they manifest the presence of the god in them. As such, the image bearer first was the access point with the god. One accessed the god through the idol. Similarly, one could interact with the king through his image and how one treated the king was the same as how one treated the god.


A second conclusion from this understanding is that the image bearer was granted the authority and responsibility of the god. Part of the reason for the Assyrian and Egyptian conquests was the divine duty to extend order, or creation, beyond their center. In other words, carry on the work of the god which was not just their divine right but also their divine responsibility. Finally, the image-bearers were endowed with some of the attributes of the god, such as strength, wisdom, and/or power.


In the Image of God


This is what the ancient Israelite would have understood when Genesis says that man was created in the image of God. But even with that meaning, that simple statement turned so much of that ideology on its head. For one, ancient gods needed a physical image to interact with people. But YHWH is saying, “No, you are that image.”


What this means is that we did not need any sort of intermediary to interact with God; we were the intermediary. Sin has, of course, dropped a wall between us and God, necessitating the temple and of course the ultimate incarnation in Jesus (more on that in a moment). But even with sin, we still are the access point between creation and God. This is why the 2nd Commandment was put in place; it isn’t so much about respect for God’s majesty but rather a denigration of man.


Anything that we make to substitute for a direct relationship with God, whether it is an icon or a building or a person is putting a wall between us and God that is not supposed to be there.


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A second way this statement turned the image of God ideology on its head was that the image of God was reserved for kings. But now God comes along and says that all humanity bears the image of God. In democratizing the image, God is democratizing both the authority and responsibility of being his image bearer. The first command God gives to humanity, after “be fruitful and multiply,” is to exercise dominion over the earth. In other words, we are to carry on God’s work of creation, being his ambassadors and emissaries everywhere we are.


Of course, our ability and understanding of how to do this have been greatly tarnished by sin, although we are no less dignified and have no less responsibility. This is where Christ comes into the picture. Now Jesus wasn’t just the “image of God,” he was God made flesh.


In doing so, he perfectly gave us the picture of what the Imago Dei actually looks like, reintegrating that image in us going forward. This is why Paul, in particular, describes the church as the “body of Christ.” As with the image of God, we as believers are the manifestation of Jesus presence here and now.


Ambassadors for God


What does this mean? First, it means we are the contact point between the rest of the world and Jesus. He speaks to the world through us. Now, of course, we have direct access to Jesus in our prayers, but we also access Jesus through each other. As discussed in the article on temples, Jesus manifests himself in the community of believers. To be clear, we do not create Jesus or his presence; rather Jesus imputes and manifests his presence and being in us, both individually and as a community.


Secondly, we carry the mission of Christ with us. This mission is twofold: one part is, of course, is sharing the message of Christ in the Gospel and the other part is continuing the Imago Dei inaugurated at Creation. We are to participate here, now in restoring the Shalom lost at sin.


Of course, we won’t be able to finish this on our own; Christ’s coming is when that mission is completed. But as that is Christ’s mission, as his image bearers, it is ours here and now, in whatever small way we can bring order, peace, and shalom to this world.


You bear the image of God in you. That does not bring with it a great amount of dignity, a dignity that ought to be shown to all image bearers, i.e. everyone, but a great deal of responsibility. As a believer, we bear the presence of Christ with us wherever we go.


Think about that; wherever you are, Christ is. This ought to be an encouragement but it also forces us to rethink everything we do. We cannot be casual with our time and our actions; all of them carry with us the presence of Christ. Do we treat ourselves as befitting the image bearer of Christ? Is what we do in line with the mission of Jesus? Are we living as the body of Christ here and now?


May this bless you and encourage you. Jesus is with you always because he needs no intermediary to be with us. May this inspire you to live the mission of Christ in every moment of every day.


Further Reading:


  • Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).
  • Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd-Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013).
  • Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Creation, Christ, and Salvation (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2012).
  • Erle Leichty, The Royal Inscriptions of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680-669 Bc), Rinap, vol. 4 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011).
  • Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1. 2 vols. Nac, vol. 1A (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995).
  • Simo Parpola, Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. 2 vols (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007).
  • Anthony Tomasino, “‘Every Man a King’? Image of God as Sovereignty,edu, 2014; accessed April 16, 2019.
  • John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Kindle ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).
  • Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15. vol. 1. 2 vols. Wbc, edited by Bruce A. Metzger, David Allan Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 1 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1998).


Click here to read the rest of Jonathan’s series on Biblical Archaeology and Theology



[1] By “man,” I obviously mean “humanity.”

[2] Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1, 2 vols., Nac, vol. 1A (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), p. 160.

[3] The theological study of humanity.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd-Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 460. See also Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Creation, Christ, and Salvation (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2012), p. 90. Gulley, it should be noted, holds pretty much every view of the Imago Dei being part of the correct picture.

[5] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), ch. 15.

[6] Gulley, 84-93.

[7] This is another discussion. Send me an email and I’ll hash it out there.

[8] The Hebrew word for “image” (ṣelem) in Genesis 1:26, 27 can also be translated “idol.” See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, vol. 1, 2 vols., Wbc, ed. Bruce A. Metzger, David Allan Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 1 (Dallas: Word, 1998), 29.

[9] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), ch 5.

[10] Walton, ch. 5.

[11] Erle Leichty, The Royal Inscriptions of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680-669 Bc), Rinap, vol. 4 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 14.

[12] Anthony Tomasino, “‘Every Man a King’? Image of God as Sovereignty,”, 2014, accessed April 16, 2019, 2019.

[13] Simo Parpola, Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, 2 vols. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2007), 113.

[14] Walton, ch 9.

[15] It should be noted that pretty much all of the Assyrian gods looked the same.

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.