Imago Dei

One of the more interesting ways we can understand better the meaning of a biblical text is to look at when it was written, why it was written and to whom it was written. Getting the context of a book or passage reveals so much more about its character and meaning than just a straight reading. Imagine reading or seeing “The Crucible” without understanding that it was written as an allegory to McCarthyism. It’s still an interesting, engaging story about the Salem Witch Trials, but it loses its edge entirely without understanding its historical context.

I want to look at Genesis for this post. I was reading a Genesis commentary by the amazing Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, you know, like normal people do for fun. I was reading about Genesis 1:26, the verse where God declares, “Let us make man in our own image” and then does. There is SO much heavy theological meaning in this passage, even through a simple reading of it, but the context shows what a radical and dangerous statement this really is.

The early writings of the Old Testament survived centuries not through writing, btu through oral tradition, spoken word passed down. (This doesn’t challenge its validity persay; you can find various studies and historical data that shows how significant details and strict memorization were in oral tradition to the early Mesopotamian cultures). Most scholars agree that much of the Pentateuch, and the most probably these creation stories, were finally written down and circulated during the time of the Exile.

During the darkest time in early Jewish history, as the people of God were subject to the rule and authority of a foreign, pagan nation, the circulation of the Genesis stories and how God rescued them in the Exodus reminded the people who they were, and whose they were, and gave them hope in the midst of that dark time.

The reason that the imago dei was so dangerous and radical was because of the very nature of “graven images”. It was obviously part of their Law that they make no idols or false images of God. A lot of times we think that the Israelites were always making images of other gods, and a lot of times that was the case, but even the idea of making their God, Yahweh, into a statue or a graven image was offensive and degrading. This was one of the paganistic tendencies of the Babylonians, whose rule they were now under in Exile. The Babylonians were notoroious for making statues, images and idols to try and “contain” God or gods, to limit deity to something they can see and control. To try and capture the image of God, the imago dei, was blasphemy.

And the daring, risky, radical declaration of this Genesis passage, in the midst of this context, is that there is one thing that can reflect the image of God on earth, one thing that had the stamp of the imago dei: man and woman. Humanity.

Man (as a gender-inclusive term, as it is in the text) is the only “image” of God on the earth. This image is not perfect, of course. Christian theology of all spectrums affirms some degree of loss of this image with sin, but the image is still there.

Creativity. Love. Compassion. Forgiveness. Salvation. Redemption. All of these characteristics that mark the imago dei are alive and dying to burst forth in humanity. That anything could be an image of God on earth would have been a bold, dangerous statement for any good Jew to read and affirm, especially during the Exile, and yet it is there. Just like a lot of the biblical text would have done originally, it would have caused the readers to say, “Really? REEEAAALLLLYYY???” (Shout out to Dr. Michelson on that one.)

Obviously there are a lot of implications for this, and I will be blogging very soon about one of them, and probably more later. But I wonder what sort of confidence, love, and comfort we would find if we contemplated the radical nature of this verse, that we bear the image of God, however distorted, and have the calling to reflect it in the world. I’m convinced, as I heard from another professor, that the whole point of all this, the idea of holiness, is the recovery of the imago dei, the perfect reflection of that character, on earth as it is in heaven. What does this mean for the world?

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