Man’s Royal Status as God’s Image and God’s Son
I believe the most important biblical concept for understanding the nature of man is found in the phrase, “image of God.” That phrase summarizes what it means to be human. It provides us with the true identity of man. But what does it mean to be created as God’s image? Throughout the history of the Christian church, theologians have offered various suggestions as to what constitutes “the image of God.” While all of these suggestions highlight important facets of man’s identity and uniqueness, I believe the primary idea conveyed through the metaphor “image of God” is that of visible replica and vicegerent. In this post, I’d like us to consider man’s royal status as God’s image and God’s son.
The Basic Meaning of “Image” in Scripture
The term “image” in the Bible translates the Hebrew word צלם (tselem) in the OT and the Greek word εικων (ikon) in the NT. In the OT, צלם, is used of idols (Num 33:52), sculptured statuettes (1 Sam. 6:5, 11), a large statue of a man (Dan 3:1-3, 10, 12, 14-15, 18), and two-dimensional painted or carved image upon a wall (Ezek 23:14). In the NT, eikwn is used for the engraving of a human face upon a coin (Matt 22:20), idols (Rom 1:23), or a visible representation of the beast [i.e., anti-Christ] (Rev 13:14, 15; 14:9, 19; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). To summarize the biblical data, the term “image” refers to a two or three-dimensional visible replica of an original that is predominantly concrete and physical in nature, rather than abstract and immaterial.
In light of the biblical usage of these terms, we can define an “image” as a visible replica that represents and bears a resemblance to some original (archetype).
The Ancient Near Eastern Background of “Image” as Applied to Humans
As a symbol of their authority, ancient Near Eastern kings would sometimes erect a personal statue in the geographical spheres of their jurisdiction (Dan. 3:1ff.).1 Even the king himself was viewed as the image and vice-regent of the territorial deity. The following examples range from the sixteenth through the thirteenth century B.C. Pharaoh Ahmose I (1550-1525 B.C.), for instance, is depicted as “a prince like Re, the child of Oeb, his heir, the image of Re, whom he created, the avenger (or the representative), for whom he has set himself on earth.”2 The Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut (1479-1457 B.C.) is styled, “The superb image of Amon; the image of Amon on earth; the image of Amon-Re to eternity, his living monument on earth.”3 Several texts refer to Amenhotep II (1427-1400 B.C.) as an “image” of the gods.4 Later, Amon-Re is represented as saying to Amenophis III (1390-1352 B.C.): “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.”5 The earliest known parallel in Mesopotamia is found in the Tukuklti-Ninurta Epic, which depicts the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta (1244-1208 b.c.) as “the eternal image of Enlil.”6
Reading the Genesis account of man as God’s “image” and God’s “son” (1:26-27; 5:1-3) in light of ancient Near East kingship ideology, with which Moses and his original readers were well-familiar, suggests that man not only resembles God constitutively and relationally but also functionally, in the capacity of a vice-regent with dominion over the creation.7 Hans Wolff agrees and writes,
Man is set in the midst of creation as God’s statue. He is evidence that God is the Lord of creation; but as God’s steward he also exerts his rule, fulfilling his task not in arbitrary despotism but as a responsible agent. His rule and his duty to rule are not autonomous; they are copies.8
Moses Points to the Primal Origins of “Image” as Applied to Humanity
Does this mean that Moses simply borrowed ideas from his pagan neighbors and incorporated them into his doctrine of humanity? By no means! Rather, many pagan institutions, ideologies, and myths derive in part from truth imprinted on the conscience of every man and/or from revelation imparted in primeval history. This in-created truth and primal revelation is distorted over time and incorporated into false worldviews. Accordingly, God’s revelation of man’s royal status as his “image-son” in Genesis serves a polemic that “sets the record straight,” ascribing royal status not merely to kings and emperors but to every human being. This is precisely how Gregory Beale understands the parallels between the temple in ancient Near Eastern religion and the temple in biblical theology:
We should not think that Israel’s temple was like those of here pagan neighbors because she merely copied the religious traditions around her. Rather, the likeness of the Israelite temple to pagan temples should be viewed, at least, from two perspectives. First, the similarity is intended at times to be a protest statement that, while the pagan nations think that they have cornered the market on divine revelation from their gods who dwell in temples, their gods are, in fact, false and their temples purely idolatrous institutions–the den of demons (Deut 32:17; Ps 106:37; 1 Cor 10:19-20). From another perspective, it is appropriate to ask whether anything in ancient pagan religion and its institutions resembled the truth about the true God and his designs for humanity. Certainly, pagan nations had not received any special revelation to draw them into saving relation to the true God, Nevertheless, just as the image of God is not erased but distorted in unbelieving humanity, it is plausible to suggest that some of the affinities in ancient pagan beliefs and religious institutions to that of Israel’s may be due to the fact that they are garbled, shadowy representations about the being of the biblical God and of his design for his dwelling place.9
Man as God’s Visible Replica and Viceregent in Scripture
But does the Scriptural data support this understanding of man’s identity and function? I believe it does. Consider, first, the syntax or sentence structure of Genesis 1:26. Some English versions may give the impression that God’s creating man as His image and God’s assigning man the task of ruling are two separate, unrelated things: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image … and let them have dominion … over all the earth” (ESV; see also KJV, NAS, NIV, NLT, CSB). But the Hebrew construction suggests a consequential relationship.10 The verse could be better translated, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule …” (NET, emphasis added). Thus, ruling is a function of God’s image, which is further underscored in verse 28.11 One should also consider the teaching of Psalm 8:3-8:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 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 (emphasis added).
Obviously, David sees an intimate connection between man’s identity and his God-given function as ruler over creation. Therefore, in light of the biblical data, we should not exclude the function of ruling from a definition of God’s image.12 Indeed, man’s functional role as God’s vice-regent is likely the primary facet of man’s identity highlighted in the Genesis creation account.
In this important respect the Biblical view of creation and mankind differs from the other cosmogonies of the ancient Near East. According to the creation accounts of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the creation of man is an afterthought. Humans are normally viewed as the slaves or “the cattle” of the gods.13 The Scriptures, however, present all mankind as God’s royal son and co-regent over creation. No wonder the Psalmist is moved to grateful praise: “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:9).
Fulfilling Our Role as God’s Royal Image-Son
How does man accomplish this function of dominion? What does it entail? It does not just mean that man is the boss over animals. According to Genesis 1:28 it involves “filling” the earth by means of procreation, and it entails “subduing” the earth by means of vocation. The word translated “subdue” signifies to bring under one’s control and into one’s service. This is what Adam did by tending the Garden of Eden. This is what Abel did by shepherding sheep. This would include mining, metallurgy, medicine, art, music, literature, science, and other technological advancements. By these pursuits men bring the resources of creation under their control and into their service. This has sometimes been called man’s “cultural mandate.”
According to Genesis 2:5-25, God assigns mankind two distinct roles for carrying out this mandate. Although the man and the woman possess equal worth and dignity as the image of God, yet God created them distinct in order to function in distinct roles—the man is to function in the role of a leader, and the woman is to function in the role of a helper. There are several features of the Genesis creation account that support this distinction of roles between the man and the woman.
First, God created the man and the woman in a different manner and for a different though complementary purpose. God took the man from the ground in order to cultivate the ground (vv. 5-17). On the other hand, God took the woman from the man in order to help the man (vv. 20-23). The woman is to be man’s “helper comparable [‘corresponding’] to him” (v. 20).
Second, the man and woman were not created simultaneously. God created the man first and gave him instructions concerning the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then God created the woman and brought her to the man. This historical order of man’s creation preceding the woman’s creation forms the basis of Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:11-13: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” Thus, according to Paul, the man’s role in relation to the woman is to be a leader-teacher, and the woman’s role in relation to man is to be a fol lower-learner.
Third, the man not only names the animals, demonstrating his authority over them, but he also names the woman, demonstrating his authority over her.14 And he gives her two names, each reflecting her distinctive role. He names her “woman” because she was taken from “man”15 in order to serve him (v. 23).16 Then, after the fall, he names her “Eve” (hwh), which means “giver of life,”17 because she would be the mother of all living (3:20). This certainly seems to underscore her role as a mother and probably also highlights her role as the channel through whom a Deliverer from the curse would arise.18
So on the one hand, men and women are of equal value and worth since they are both created as the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:2). On the other hand, men and woman as the image of God have distinct roles through which they each resemble a complementary role of God himself. Man is to resemble God primarily in the capacity of a head. Woman is to resemble God primarily in the capacity of a helper. The Hebrew term translated “helper” (‘tsr) in Genesis 2:18, 20, refers to someone who assists another in a particular need. Interestingly, the term is used most often of God in the OT (e.g.s., Pss. 10:14; 30:10; 54:4). Thus, the role of a “helper” is not a demeaning or inferior kind of role. It is a God-magnifying role! But just how does woman as a subordinate to man resemble God and bring Him glory? I believe Philippians 2:5-8 provides an answer:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
It’s true that this passage calls all Christians, men and women, to mutual deference (2:1-5). Nevertheless, it is the woman’s special role and privilege to highlight the disposition of Christ in this particular facet of the Godhead. If this is true, then feminism is not the mark of social improvement, but rather another indication of human depravity. And so-called “evangelical” feminism has no place in the Christian church (1 Cor. 11:1-16; 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-15).
Man’s Creation Mandate: Cultural and Cultic
I think it would be wrong, however, if we only viewed the creation mandate as a cultural mandate. The mandate that God gave to mankind was also religious or cultic in nature. Mankind was to serve as God’s royal priesthood, advancing the divine kingdom beyond the boundaries of Eden and transforming the entire earth into a cosmic sanctuary for his holy Suzerain-Creator. In fact, it can be argued that the Great Commission that God gave to Christ (Isa. 42:1-4), the Second Adam, and which Christ fulfills with His church (Matt. 28:18-20), the Second Eve, is an extension of that original mandate that God bestowed upon the First Adam and First Eve.19 And when that imperial commission is fulfilled, we, as God’s royal images and sons, shall rule and reign with Christ forever (1 Cor 4:8; 6:3; Rev 5:10; 20:6: 22:5).20
- David Clines, “The Image of God in Man, Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968): 83; Edward Mason Curtis, “Man as the Image of God in Genesis in Light of Ancient Near Eastern Parallels” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1984), 117-20; J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 104-08; Hans Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 160. [↩]
- Emphasis added; cited by Clines, 85. [↩]
- Emphasis added; cited by Curtis, 226. [↩]
- Ibid., 227. [↩]
- Emphasis added; cited by Clines, 85. [↩]
- Emphasis added; cited by Middleton, 112. For more examples, see Clines, 83-85; Middleton, 108-22; Curtis, 143-245. [↩]
- See Clines, 95-99; Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 1:146-47; Wolff, 160-61. [↩]
- Wolff, 160-61. Walter Brueggemann remarks in a similar vein, “It is now generally agreed that the image of God reflected human persons is after the manner of a king who establishes statutes of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present.” Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James Luther Mays (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 32. [↩]
- The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 175. [↩]
- Here the waw plus the jussive is translated best as a purpose clause. See Job 21:19; GKC § 165. [↩]
- Even the 18th century commentator John Gill, who had no knowledge of ANE kingship ideology, saw a clear connection between man’s identity as God’s “image” and his royal status and function: “[God's image] consisted … in his dominion, power, and authority over the creatures, in which he was as God’s viceregent, and resembled him.” An Exposition of the Old Testament (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1852), 8-9. [↩]
- Clines remarks, “No definition of the image is complete which does not refer to this function of rulership” (97). [↩]
- As noted above, the concept of the image of a deity constituted part of the ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. Two early Egyptian texts, however, serve as exceptions to the general rule and apply the concept of “image” to all humanity. An except from the Instruction for Merikare (circa 2100 B.C.) reads, “Well directed are men, the cattle of the god. He made heaven and earth according to their desire, and he repelled the water-monster. He made the breath of life (for) their nostrils. They who have issued from his body are his images [snnw]. He arises in heaven according to their desire. He made for them plants, animals, fowl, and fish to feed them.” (lines 131-33). A later text, Instruction of Ani, which dates to the middle of the 2nd millennium b.c., reads, “Men are in the image of the god <in> their custom of hearing a man in regard to his reply. It is not the wise alone who is in his image [snnw], while the multitude are every kind of cattle.” Cited in Middleton, 99-100. For the most part, however, the texts of the ancient Near East reserve the concept of image of deity for figures of royalty. For a helpful assessment of the parallels and contrasts, see John Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 19-44. [↩]
- In the same way, parents demonstrate their authority over their children when the parents name their children. [↩]
- The English terms reflect the Hebrew word play between ‘isshah and ‘ish. [↩]
- Matthew Henry appropriately notes, “That the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” A Commentary on the Whole Bible (Reprint, Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, n.d.), 1:20. [↩]
- The Hebrew name Eve (hwh) occurs only here and in 4:1. The LXX translates the name here as “Life” (zoe), but in 4:1 transliterates it (Euan), which the apostle Paul follows (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13). In light of the reason given for Adam’s assigning her this name and in light of the apparently etymological relationship to hyh it seems likely that the name derives from the Hebrew noun for “life.” The fact that the Hebrew hwh has a median waw rather than a median yod may suggest that it derives from a more primitive form of the word. In support of this possibility, it may be noted that the Ugaritic verb “to live” contains the medial consonant yod in the Qal form but the medial consonant waw in the Piel. This fact suggests a factitive meaning for Eve, such as “giver of life,” or the intensive idea of “propagator of life.” [↩]
- Despite the curse, the woman will bear children. Moreover, she will mother an offspring who will realign himself with the interests of Yahweh’s kingdom and eventually over come the works of the Serpent (Gen. 3:15). It is likely that Adam discerned these redemptive implications in Yahweh’s punishment of the woman and responded by assigning her a new name (3:20). Waltke refers to Adam’s naming his wife “Eve” as “the beginning of hope” (95). [↩]
- This is the basic thesis of Gregory Beale: “[Adam and Eve] were to reflect God’s kingship by being his vice-regents on earth…. It is plausible to suggest that they were to extend the geographical boundaries of the garden until Eden covered the whole earth…. They were to extend the smaller livable area of the garden by transforming the outer chaotic region into a habitable territory…. God’s ultimate goal in creation was to magnify his glory throughout the earth by means of his faithful image-bearers inhabiting the world in obedience to the divine mandate” (81-82). Beale traces out the many biblical links between the Garden of Eden, the OT Tabernacle/Temple, the NT Church, and the New Heavens and New Earth. He argues persuasively that the Great Commission should be viewed as extension of the creation mandate of Gen. 1 and 2. What the first Adam failed to do, the Last Adam will successfully accomplish, and the holy Garden will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. See The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, NSBT, ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), John Fesko follows Beale’s reading of redemptive history and suggests the NT church’s identity as the “Second Eve.” Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of Eschatology (Ross-Shire, U.K.: Mentor, 2007), 145-82. [↩]
- Some of this material has been excerpted and adapted from my article “Man: God’s Visible Replica & Vice-Regent,” Reformed Baptist Theological Review (2009). [↩]