Made in the Image of God

When God created human beings, he made them “in his image” (Genesis 1:26a). What does this mean, and how is it related to (i) the commission to exercise dominion over the rest of creation and (ii) humanity’s creation as “male and female” (v27)? In this piece, we will explore the relationship between these themes.

Image as Dominion

In its immediate context, Genesis 1 unfolds the concept of “image” in terms of exercising dominion over the rest of creation. Both times the “image of God” theme is mentioned (v26a, v27), it is immediately followed by a commission to exercise dominion over the rest of creation (v26b, v28). Just as God exercises dominion over the world he created, so too does he call humanity as his second-in-charge, as a ruler under him.

Notice how it’s not individual human persons being discussed, but the human race as a corporate entity. Clearly not all human beings exercise dominion in the same way, but there is a chain of hierarchy, with judges and kings exercising dominion in the most direct, immediate sense. This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak of individual human persons as being made in the image of God (eg. James 3:9), but we should view “the image of God” as primarily referring to the human race as a whole, as opposed to individuals.

This brings into question a modern understanding of human nature. In modern thinking, human beings are conceived first as individuals and then secondly as families and societies. The biblical vision is completely different from this. It begins by conceiving of the human race as a corporate entity (“Let us make humanity in our image”) and only secondarily relates individuals to this corporate understanding of humanity (“male and female he created them”).[1]

Male and Female

How, then, does this commission to exercise dominion as “the image of God” relate to humanity’s creation as “male and female” (v27)? One implication is that men and women do not exercise dominion in the same way. Men primarily exercise dominion in a more direct way, through strength and the development of technology for farming and construction (eg. Genesis 2:5). Women, on the other hand, exercise dominion in a more indirect way, through bearing children who will “fill the earth and subdue it” (v28).

These are broad generalisations and it shouldn’t need to be pointed out that men also raise children and women also engage in technological development. But in terms of emphasis, men and women are oriented differently. Men’s bodies produce significantly more testosterone than women’s, which tends to produce greater physical strength and a greater sense of outward drive towards the world. Women’s bodies, by contrast, are able to bear children and nurture them through breastfeeding, which tends to produce a more internal, domestic focus.

These differences should be affirmed and celebrated as part of God’s creation design. Within the wider context of Genesis 1, “male and female” is one example of a number of creational pairs which are highlighted. You have day and night (v3-5), the waters above and the waters below (v6-7), land and sea (v9-10), plants and trees (v11-12), the sun and the moon (v14-18), sea creatures and birds (v20-22).[2] This suggests that the creation of humanity as male and female is a deeply significant aspect of the way that God made the world.

The Dominion Mandate

So, then, the image of God is about dominion. It concerns the human race as a corporate entity, with male and female emphasising different aspects of the dominion mandate. But how does this relate to the rest of the bible?

The answer is that this dominion mandate is re-iterated in the later covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:1-2) and once again in the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 22:15-18). It forms an integral part of God’s plan for the human race. Throughout the bible, there is the promise of dominion over the world and this promise is ultimately fulfilled in the new covenant, in which the nations of the earth are to be discipled and baptised in the name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:18-20). All of this is made possible through Christ, who is the “image of God” in the highest sense, having total dominion over all things in heaven and on earth (Colossians 1:15-20).

[1] This also challenges how we think about modern notions of “equality”. Since the theme of “the image of God” is primarily corporate rather than individual, any notion of “equality” which implies that individuals are more important than families and societies must be false. However, if “equality” simply serves to set limits on the behaviour of individuals towards one another (respect one another’s life, property etc) then it can be a useful principle (see for instance Genesis 9:6).

[2] One interesting parallel between “male and female” and the sun and moon is Joseph’s dream later on in Genesis, in which he sees a vision of “the sun, the moon and eleven stars” bowing down to him (Genesis 37:9-11). The sun and moon represent his father and mother respectively (Jacob and Rachel) and the eleven stars represent his brothers, with himself as a twelfth star.

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