Imago dei

I’m glad that penman’s double blog has gained approbation from regular readers. We’ve been tossing such ideas around for a year or two now – in my case since I first toyed with the concept of MRCA. The take home message was the possibility of taking the spiritual creation of mankind as a historical event more or less in the time-frame of the Genesis account. Penman refines that a bit, taking Adam and Eve as chosen members of a Homo divinus race recently endowed with the imago dei. He sees that endowment as a kind of species-wide spiritual awakening.

I note that John H Walton has recently been thinking along similar lines – Genesis 1 dealing with the creation of mankind in God’s image, and Genesis 2-3 dealing with the priestly representative of the race who failed. Note that these kinds of ideas essentially defuse many of the evolutionary problems associated with a historical Adam and Eve, making them valuable for Christians wanting to resolve science and Biblical issues. They may be considered less valuable to Christian natural scientists wanting to keep human origins within their own domain!

Let’s run with penman’s idea as a hypothesis. I’d like to ask of what we’d expect the image of God to consist, and what that might lead us to predict in terms of history and archaeology. In other words, would it be possible to detect a spiritual creation of that kind scientifically or historically?

The image of God has carried various different understandings over the centuries, but many of those predate the deep timescale and evolutionary viewpoint of today. For a long time reason was at the core of the idea – taken in a broader, more scholastic sense than our current restricted enlightenment understanding. Mankind’s reason clearly separates him off quite markedly from even the highest animals, and science has not actually changed that except by speculating about the gradation from non-reason to reason in extinct species. But is “reason” what Genesis means by “image”, any more than our unique bipedalism or hairlessness, which few would take to be in imitation of God?

Penman’s hypothesis restricts us in a number of ways, and reason is one of them. If the time frame for the “H. divinus event” is no more than a few hundred or maybe a few thousand years before an Adam in early historical Mesopotamia, then reason *per se* would probably not constitute all or part of the image. The archaeology shows sophisticated art, music, and technology – even ritual – tens of thousands of years before that.

At the opposite extreme, “image” has been interpreted as equivalent to “temple image”, given the cosmic temple picture given by Genesis 1. This is a view I much favour myself. In a temple, the image is not necessarily seen as an accurate picture of the god – it could be a meteorite, as the sacred image of Diana at Ephesus was said to be (Acts 19). What mattered was that it was designated ritually as the locus for the god’s worship and communion. One of the glories of Genesis 1 is that it takes the pagan idea of a world created by and for the gods, who are to be served and fed by a human race created as slaves, and worshipped in temples containing sacred images; and transforms it to a cosmos created by Yahweh as his temple, with the world created for mankind as his temple-image and vice-regent, operating as it were in the outer court of the cosmic temple.

In this understanding, there is no strict necessity for any historically observable difference: the “image” is one of calling, not of ontology. A statue still looks the same when it has been anointed with holy oil and placed in a shrine, though its function is transformed.

For myself, I’d prefer a view somewhere between these extremes. For the “image” to mean anything, mankind must have had some awareness of it, though in penman’s scenario that would fall short of a living relationship with Yahweh, for that was intended to be established by Adam, the representative “federal head” of the race. Therefore I’d look for things inherent in, or implied by, the Genesis account – some of which might be observed as a change in universal human awareness.

From the latter point of view we have an embarrassment of riches. Human progress took off in a big way (maybe not coincidentally) at the same time, and in the same place, as the setting of the Eden story. In that region the Neolithic revolution occurred at, maybe, 10,000BC, and at the same time we begin to see evidence for true cultic ritual for the first time.

Much closer to the Eden time-frame (which fits the Mesotamian chalcolithic period, around the 4th millennium BC), there is another and bigger revolution: the first cities, the first writing, the first evidence of named gods and sacrifice, and a host of scientific and technological achievements including mathematics, astronomy, the wheel and, of course, metalwork.

Which, if any, of these changesd might be attributed to an “imago dei awakening”? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments column. To me, the principle thought expressed in Genesis 1 is that of rule. One cannot be appointed to “subdue” the earth (in my view, extending the work of God in creating order from chaos) and to “rule” it (on God’s behalf, remember – both governing and stewarding the world’s resources) without a concept of humanity as in some way above creation. We take that for granted now, because we have great technical mastery in many areas of life. It is still amazing that, given our fallen status, we still feel both the right and the duty to exercise control in a responsible way.

But the mesolithic hunter-gatherer would, I assume, see himself as part of nature, rather than in any sense above it. Can we see, in history, a transition from that to a sense of being rulers of the world?

I suggest we can, from the late neolithic onwards. In my own country the megaliths, arguably, reflect both the first deliberate imposition of human will on the landscape and the apparent transition from ancestor veneration to the worship of actual gods. In Mesopotamia itself the naming of, and sacrice to, gods appears at around the same time. The early mythic literature there speaks of the imposition of order on the earth and, at the level of human city-state activity, to “the descent of the kingship from heaven.” The early Egyptian literature too carries the idea of man’s duty, and the king’s especially, to preserve the order of creation.

Could it be (sorry for the rather Erich von Daniken phraseology) that the cultural explosion in the late neoloithic arose from a God-given awareness of a new role in the world?

One more suggestion before I hand over to you. Ecclesiastes speaks of God’s “putting eternity in the hearts of men”, and that seems to me a significant thing, quite possibly part of the imago dei. “Eternity” has no place in an earthbound, mortal, life. If there was some concept that the ancestors lived on (they were often buried under neolithic houses, or maybe even kept, mummified, on the sideboard), that is a far cry from the idea of living forever that appears, without much explanation, in Genesis 2. The hunger for eternity, then, both as the desire to survive death and the desire to find God, I suggest may have arisen at the “Homo divinus” event.

Your thoughts?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Imago dei

  1. Cal says:

    I think this is very fascinating and smacks of truth!

    I agree that there must be a middle road between ontological and “calling” but both seem to have a role. When God breathed on us, something that is never mentioned for any other creature, to me that denotes a whole shift of being. I think we see this in, exactly as you say, a placing of “eternity in our hearts”. Humanity is the only “priestly” race that has compulsion to worship. Be it ancestors, gods, nature, sprites and fairies, “super men” (or hero worship), abstractions and even ourselves. This is the one marked difference between man and any other animal.

    The calling may be effective in the explosion of culture. There was a massive shift to controlling the land and building cities. This brings the rise of religion too as the communal expression of the above ontological principle of being aware.

    However with the entering of sin into the world, the ‘mystery of iniquity’ that has made mankind totally depraved in all facets both of those are corrupted.

    Another thought: Dust is always a motif for death, to nothingness, in the Scriptures. Do you think this should shape our consideration of God breathing into the dust to make mankind? What does this mean since everything else was made from the “ground” and not the “dust of the ground”?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    John Walton doesn’t place too much significance on the “ground”/”dust” distinction. It parallels man’s origins in other ANE stories, where he’s made from clay, clotted blood etc. So I’d venture to suggest that it’s the shared orgin with animals, rather than a distinction, that’s in mind – though the specific mention of vital breath seems to imply a particular divine input.

    As I hinted in the piece, it’s interesting how, even since the fall, the divine image in terms of rule and spirituality is still there, but hopelessly corrupted. Roll on the parousia.

  3. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    I’m sure I can synthesize this into “my” scenario! The thoughts on evidentiary difference made by the Imago Dei are extremely stimulating & will bear much reflection.

    One extra thought: presumably there is SOME ontological significance in the bestowal of the Image, at least in terms of the eternity dimension that you mention. Only creatures functioning as God’s images have an eternal destiny. The souls of pre-Image hominids (or hominins or whatever they’re called these days) would have perished at death. Any thoughts?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    I tend to agree – but is it necessarily so? Does there need to be an eternal soul in some concrete (spiritaully concrete, that is!) sense, or could not God render man immortal by his word and presence?

  5. James Penman penman says:

    Hi Jon

    I’m not sure about the metaphysics of it. If I just limit my sadly unphilosophical brain to biblical data, it would seem that human souls do indeed survive death. There is an intermediate state in between death & resurrection. I’d argue this from (e.g.) the destiny of the penitent thief (“Today you will be with Me in paradise”), the destiny of Lazarus & the Rich Man (not really a parable, I think), the Dominical saying about not fearing those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, & several other passages.

    There’s a book “Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology & the Monism-Dualism Debate” by John W. Cooper that expounds this in an eloquent way. (It seems there are now “Christian Materialists” around who vigorously assert the materiality of mind. So there you go…)

    Anyway, whatever the Image is, I’d like to be able to say that it at least entails an eternal destiny, a capacity for soul-survival beyond physical death.

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