Updated: May 18, 2022
While the Imago Dei is not a prominent biblical theme, it shows up right at the beginning of scripture in Genesis 1-2 and so, understandably, becomes vital in Christian history to how we understand God and ourselves. Stanley J. Grenz explains how there have been two primary ways of understanding the Imago Dei in the west, structural and relational, with the former taking the increasingly prominent view in western Christian history (The Social God and the Relational Self, p. 142). The structural view also tends to identify certain attributes or capabilities, particularly “reason” or “will” as what make humans in the image of God.
Although it makes sense that the church fathers would primarily focus on the qualities of “reason” and “will” given the influence of Greek philosophy in their day, this conception of what it means for humans to be in the image of God is not what we have in view in Genesis 1:26-27. In the ancient Near East, “an image was believed to contain the essence of that which it represented” (Walton, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, p. 8). Generally, it was either the king or an idol who was supposed to have the image of God. However, in Genesis 1:26-27 we have people in general, both male and female, bearing the image of God, which would have been radically egalitarian in that day.
In the first creation account, we have a man as the pinnacle of God’s work (Gen. 1:27). Each of these aspects of our biblical origin story shows a communal, bodily, and even environmental understanding of the relationship between humans and the Creator. We start with humans reflecting the divine image, an image depicted in the plural that reflects not just the relationships that take place within God’s Triune self, but the relationships between God and other spiritual beings.
In Genesis 1:26 we see God creating in community, probably in the author’s mind including what might be called the divine council, heavenly host, or even other Elohim (cf. Ps 82:1, LEB). While the author might not have had the Trinity in mind when saying “us,” including the Trinity in our exegesis of the passage would not conflict with the meaning of the text even though it might be anachronistic. The point that God identifies himself in the community is made either way by the “us” passages in Genesis. The author of Genesis saw fit to represent God’s identity in the plural in various places (Genesis 1:26, 3:24, 11:7, 18:20-21 cf. 19:13), which seems to indicate that God’s identity is to be portrayed as not alone but in relationship to others. Possibly the poetic parallelism of “them” in vs. 27 is also meant to reflect “us” of 1:26 in referring to the divine community. In this way, the human plurality would also mean a reflection of both divine plurality and unity. In other words, God’s identity is social and relational, and no individual by him or herself represents the image of God.
While the first creation story has already established humanity as the pinnacle of creation, in the second creation account man is made first after “the heavens and the earth.” Not even the plants have come up before man is created. The first task man is given is to work and take care of the earth (2:15). The adam (earthling) is formed from the adamah (ground), showing his intimate connection with the land and environment. The isha (woman) is formed from the ish (man) to show her intimate and harmonious connection to the man (Note: ish and isha are in other places in the Old Testament is translated as husband and wife).
Everything is depicted as being in a harmonious relationship, with emphasis on humans and animals, humans and the earth, and male and female. However, in Genesis 3, the result of their disobedience is to disrupt these harmonious relationships. It would be a misreading to see the results of the fall and the “curses” as the way things were meant to be or even should be today. Instead, the curses are distortions of what God intended for humankind.
God helps man learn through interaction with his environment, giving him tasks to do like caring for the earth, and the fieldwork of naming the animals. What is conspicuously missing from the account of Adam and Eve is that God directly teaches man anything. On the contrary, in allowing Adam to name the animals, God—knowing that Adam needed a female counterpart—allowed Adam to learn through experiment. As the first human, he would know very little at this point, being like an infant. He may not even have known that he is actually different than the rest of the animals, or that he is not simply an animal himself.
God could have easily told Adam that he was different or needed a female counterpart. However, God let Adam learn through a “failed” experiment so he would know in his gut that he would need a partner different than what any other animal would be able to offer. So God is not operating not from a “bobble-head” premise, in which people primarily learn through head-knowledge, but from James K.A. Smith’s premise that “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 40). God treats Adam not primarily as a cognitive creature, but as an embodied learner, a “liturgical animal”, so to speak, who learns through a process of experimental habit and practice over time to be “a certain kind of person” (Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 24-25). This is how God gains ground in His relationship with Adam and helps Adam learn.
The way God interacts with Adam and helps him learn is through bodily experiments. In the same way, ministers should not shy away from uncharted territory where people try different things until they find out what works for them or their ministry in life. Such tests and experiments should be encouraged even if they may lead to “failure.” Allowing such “failure” means entrusting people and helping them along in the process, even if the process does not necessarily “succeed” in the way we might measure success. God allowed Adam to know what the way forward was because God allowed Adam, who bears the image of God, to walk through the process in an embodied way. This would have built trust between Adam and God because God was not simply dictating to Adam what he should or should not do but allowed him to go through his own process of embodied discovery.
Jonathan Lichtenwalter has written and edited for the website evidenceforchristianity.org, articles for renew.org and his website jonwalt.com, He has studied under John Oakes, Ph.D. (creator of the website evidenceforchristianity.org), and is currently getting a Master’s in Missional leadership from Rochester University. He is passionate about missional theology, apologetics, and biblical studies. He loves to use his writing and studies to build up the faith of others, to help disciples grow deeper in their understanding of scripture, and to share the truth of the gospel with others.