humans, animals and imago dei, pt. 2


Building on part one of her provocative post from yesterday, Nancy Janisch writes:

If modern science tells us that animals possess many of the traits we thought make us uniquely human, how can the pre-scientific ancient world help us resolve our dilemma?  How can going back help us move forward? 

When we look back we discover that our ideas about the image of God are not exactly the same as those of ancient people.  In Egypt, images did not depict what a god looked like.  An image was not created to describe a god, but represented certain qualities or attributes of it.  The statue was one of the main places where the god was present and manifested itself.

In Egypt and Mesopotamia, kings were believed to be the image of a god.  For example, Pharaoh was understood to be the earthly manifestation of the god, functioning on earth just as the image of the god functioned in the temple.  Certainly the ideas of 'dominion' and 'subduing' found in Genesis were part of the function of kings.  The king was the designated representative of the gods, ruling on their behalf. Bearing the 'image of god' was not about form and appearance, it was about function and position in creation.

The Biblical accounts in Genesis (1:26-28; 5:1-3; 9:6) appear to set humans apart from the rest of creation.  Because the Hebrew Bible views people as integrated, whole beings, body and soul, the text probably means that the entire human person is created in the image of God, and not a particular 'part' of a person.

Genesis tells us all humans, not just the king, bear God’s image.  Therefore, all humans occupy an important place in creation.  All men and women have dignity and worth.  Genesis denies human hierarchies, and this seems to have been an uniquely Israelite idea.  Recall that early Israel had no kings.  Israel also, uniquely, lacked images.  The divine image was not to be found in a statue, or in a king.  In God’s eyes, all humanity is royal.  All bear His image.  This was a revolutionary idea.  So the text isn’t about the distinctions between humans and animals, but about the lack of distinctions - between people.

But what about our relationship with animals?  Can the text help us at all?  Yes, but we need to be aware that our tendency is to think about the imago dei as something we inherently possess, rather than something which is the result of God’s will and intention.  This human-centered understanding of creation ought to replaced with a God-centered understanding of creation.  The image-of-God texts in Genesis are a theological statement about who humans are: part of creation, but also beings with a particular relationship to their Creator.  The image-of-God language in Genesis tells us that humans are one venue for God making Himself known to the rest of creation.

I believe this means we are called to a relationship with animals that finds its orientation in the ways God relates to us.  We know who God is by what He does.  And that is the clue to thinking about how we ought to be the image-bearers of God.

We often think about God as king or ruler.  God has dominion, royal responsibility for creation.  But dominion is also given to us, and our dominion should not be like the dominion of human kings.  As history tells us, the dominion of human kings is about power, about the taking of resources and the exploitation of others.  The dominion of God, on the other hand, is not about power and might, but about relationship and care.  God is the ruler who heals, feeds, rescues, saves and restores.  God is the king who rules sacrificially with care and compassion.  And so should our dominion be.

Christians also believe God is triune.  A lifetime of reflection on the Trinity would not exhaust the subject, but let’s consider this for now: The relationships between the persons of the Trinity are inextricably part of what it means to be God.  God is relationship, and if we are indeed created in the image of God, then we too are created for relationship: with God, with each other and with the rest of creation.

There is much more that can, and should, be said about all this.  I invite you to enter into the conversation which a growing number of Christians are having about what it means to be human, and what that means for our relationships with animals.

(Many thanks to Nancy for her own valuable contribution to that conversation, and to this week of discussion at Deep Church specifically.  Again, you can read more of her reflections on creation, science and faith at Conversation in Faith.  Image courtesy Farm Sanctuary.)