Ethics,  Old Testament

What Does the Image of God Mean?

Image of God photo

Both men and women are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), and are created with physical and spiritual components of their humanity. This is why human life is sacred and protected (Gen 9:5-6). This is in contrast to the rest of creation. Only humanity has the privilege and honor of being created in the image of God. Hence humanity’s value is infinitely more than animals or plants. But what does it actually mean to be made in the image of God?

We can list at least five different views on what it might mean to be made in the image of God.

  1. The image of God describes natural qualities within man which liken him to God.
  2. The image of God is mental or spiritual qualities shared with the Creator.
  3. The image of God refers to physical resemblance with God.
  4. The image of God refers to the capacity to relate to God.
  5. The image of God refers to being God’s representative on earth.

I think its helpful to divide these views into two overall categories: (1) the ontological view and (2) the functional view. The ontological view teaches that being made in the image of God means we are like God in some sense (how that is specifically defined can differ). The functional view teaches that the image of God relates to how humanity functions (whether in relationships or as God’s representative).

Although the image of God concept is found in a variety of biblical passages (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-2; 9:6; 1 Cor 11:7; James 3:9), it is good biblical practice to look at the beginning for the meaning of the image of God.

Genesis 1:26-28 provides the proper foundation for understanding the image of God.

26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Key phrases here are “in our image” (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ) and “according our likeness” (כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ). It is generally true that the word for “image” tends to communicate a concrete depiction (such as an idol) and the word for “likeness” usually refers to an abstract reality. However, Genesis 5:3 uses the same words (reversed in order) to refer to Adam’s offspring. Additionally, each word occurs separately in Gen 1:27 and Gen 5:1 to refer to the whole concept of image. Therefore, in this context it appears a sharp distinction between the two ideas cannot be maintained, and it is best to see both words as a broad reference to the image of God concept.

Although the words themselves don’t really narrow anything down, there is an interesting parallel in the ancient Near East. In the ancient Near East it was common to associate the terms image and likeness with the idea of representation. Because kings were often regarded as being in the image and likeness of the god, kings were regarded as being representative rulers of the god they represented.

An example of this is found in an Egyptian inscription which describes Ramses II (1290–1224 BC) saying, “Thou has assigned to me thy kingdom, thou hast fashioned me in thy likeness and thy form, which thou hast assigned to me and has created” (Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, 3:181). This inscription illustrates that the concepts of image and likeness were linked to representative rule by the king on behalf of a god.

The knowledge of this background helps us understand the context of Genesis 1:26 which emphasizes man’s dominion and rule which is linked with the image of God concept.

Further, Hebrew grammar also sheds helpful light on the issue. In Genesis 1:26 we have a cohortative “let us make” (נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה) followed by a jussive “let them have dominion” (וְיִרְדּוּ). In Hebrew, when a cohortative is followed by a jussive it is best to translate it as a purpose clause. This means that the purpose of making man in God’s image is so that he might have dominion on God’s behalf.

The idea that the image of God relates to mankind’s representative rule seems to be confirmed by David’s commentary on Genesis 1 in Psalm 8:4-8.

4 What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
5 Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
6 You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.

What does it mean to be in the image of God? In light of the above information, the primary emphasis of the image of God concept is that we represent the Creator as his viceregents (his “under-kings”) here on earth. We rule the earth on behalf of God and represent Him to the world. This is a tremendous honor, but also carries an tremendous responsibility.

photo credit: Satchell via photopin cc

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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