The Image of God: Israel vs. Babylon

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So I finally got around to reading J. Richard Middleton’s Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1, and I’m moderately ashamed it took me so long. You see, I’d been seeing citations to this text in other books for years. I should have picked it up ages ago.

I expected, based on said citations, to find fundamental support for the notion that the Image of God—I only feign Latin proficiency to look smart—is effectively a statement about humanity’s commission to govern the earth. That’s not what I found.

It’s true that “image of God” is a statement about human authority on the earth, a commission to act as God’s representative governors. In fact, it seems nearly every Old Testament scholar out there believes as much.

But Middleton offers so much more than that, since his primary goal is to set Genesis 1-11 in contrast to ancient Babylonian myths about creation and their implications for Babylonian culture and societal structure. (His conjecture is that Genesis at least took its final form in response to Israel’s exilic experience in Babylon—a real possibility.)

So here’s a nugget to nibble on: in ancient Babylon, just one person was made in the image of the dominant god. That person was their king. The king bore the image of Marduk, thereby giving the king the authority to rule the people and to have the people serve him.

Were normal blokes made in their god’s image? No way. The hoi poloi—I actually do know some Greek—were made so they could grow food and offer sacrifices, thereby feeding the gods—something the gods either could not do or did not want to do themselves. That puts the masses in a crummy spot.

Now compare that notion with Genesis 1:26-28. The first mention of the forming of humanity, and the Creator has an idea: “Let’s make all human beings to be like kings, to act as my representatives in protecting and cultivating the earth.”

It’s a lofty bit of theology embedded in a tiny piece of Scripture and set squarely against a dominant rival culture. In fact, Israel’s concept of humanity is a drastic reversal of what may have been the most dominant worldview in the ancient world for centuries. We are all kings on this earth.

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