In the Image of God: what it means to be human

Can we revisit the topic what it means to be human? My post “What does it mean to be human” from February 22, 2008 explored the question from the perspective of the traditional answer, how we are different from animals. Historically that is how we have defined ourselves. But almost daily there is a new piece of research that blurs the line between humans and animals. For example, just Monday there was a BBC Science article that suggests that putty nosed monkeys can combine sounds to make different meanings. Previously researchers believed that only humans could do this. If you search via your public library’s research data base or Google Scholar there is an astounding amount of research about animal communication, self awareness, culture, and on and on.

I suggested previously, defining ourselves by our differences from other animals may not be the most helpful way to think about who we are.  We don’t appear to be as special as we like to think we are. So, what do we do when we read in Scripture (Genesis 1:26-28) that humans are created in the image of God, when we have an understanding of what that means, and when science appears to challenge that understanding? What shall we do?

As I said before, it is always helpful to consider, as best we can, what a word or phrase we find in the Bible meant in it’s original context. Its not an exact science and its not the only thing we should do, but it is often helpful. So today, I would like to spend a little more time with the concept of image in the ancient world.

Images in ancient Egypt were not an attempt to physically depict a god but were a method of showing particular qualities of a god. Those qualities and presence of the god were expressed via the image. The image somehow contained some of the the presence and activity of a god and was not simply a representation of a god. Image of god language was used about the Pharaoh because Egyptians understood the Pharaoh was to act on earth in a similar manner as the image of a god functioned in a temple. Both the Pharaoh and the image, each somehow contained or expressed the presence and activity of a god. At the same time, having an physical image gave humans a certain power with respect to the god.

“Image of god” was a phrase used in the ancient world to describe royalty, not regular people. It was language that legitimated authority and set royalty apart.  The idea that kings ruled because that was the will of God and that the king’s actions reflected God’s will was a persistent one, existing into the 16th century.

But recall also that in the Bible, Israel is told not to make any images and not to have any kings. Also remember that in Biblical Jewish thought humans were not souls trapped in bodies, as the ancient Greeks and not a few modern Christians believe. People were understood to be whole, entire beings, body and soul.

So what should we make of all this? I think we should consider that the Genesis text is claiming a couple of things. First it removes distinctions between people. It is neither kings nor royalty that are created in God’s image, it is everyone. Each person as valuable and as important as a king. Each person important because they are created in God’s image. In a world that tries to define us by economic status, race, nationality, education, possessions, our shoes, our car, our house, who our friends are, where we vacation and so on and so on; God’s reply is no. No. No. No. Listen carefully, what you have, what you own, what your abilities are, what your opportunities are, what other people think about you, none of that gives you value. You have value because you are created by and loved by God. Each one of us equally loved and valued.

Secondly, in the same sentence in Genesis when we are created in God’s image, we are also given “dominion” over other living things. We are all of value and we are all given responsibility. Dominion is royal language again. Kings have dominion but here in Genesis, all of us are given dominion. We all bear responsibility for the rest of creation. How do we exercise our responsibility, how do we “rule”? Unfortunately too often our way of ruling has been patterned on the worst of human kings. What the ruler wanted, the ruler got, regardless of the cost to others. Because the ruler is the most powerful and divinely sanctioned, the ruler must get what he wants and what he wants must be the right thing.

But what if we used the rule of God as our model? What does that look like? It is not coercive, it does not force its way on others. It is creative, sustaining, life giving, life nurturing. The rule of God is shown in the life of Jesus who washes feet, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and invites the excluded into fellowship.

For those of us in the United States, who have the luxury of Internet access and the time and ability to read (and write) blogs, I think we have some serious thinking to do. To believe that because we all are created in the image of God and we all have equal value means I am not allowed to demonize those who may be my enemy. It means I can’t ignore the plight of the poor. It means I must treat everyone I meet with respect, every single person.

And because I share, with you, responsibility for all creation, I need to think seriously about how I live, what I eat, what I drive. How I treat animals, both pets and wild matters. How I use resources matters. What I do to the earth matters. I can’t shift the responsibility to someone else, the oil producers, car manufacturers, other nations, or political leaders. They have responsibility also, but I can not ignore mine. Perhaps it is time to read these verses in Genesis as our call to responsibility, to each other and to the rest of creation.

What do you think?

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