Image and Function

I’ve been writing lately about the image of God and some of the dominant theological interpretations and approaches to understanding what it means to be human. In doing so, I’ve explored the substantive/structuralist view and the relational view, and am ready to dedicate some time to the royal-functional view of the image of God. While not as popular and flashy as the relational view is among theologians and faith communities, this view is prominent among biblical scholars. Here is the short and sweet version of this model: human persons reflect the divine (God’s image) in as much as they serve as God’s representatives, or viceroys, on earth. Scholars who favor this view tend to do so based on the depiction of God as creator in the opening scenes of the Hebrew Bible. This God speaks creation into being from outside it, necessarily exercising power and authority over it. For humans to be created in the image of this God would mean that power and authority is transferred to them to extend over the creation on God’s behalf. Humans essentially become middle management, overseeing the earth and non-human life, but reporting to and answering to God.

This model is heavily reliant upon the divine injunction to “have dominion” delivered in Genesis 1:28, and other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature and culture for further clues to its meaning. Biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton presents one of the fundamental arguments of this position:

“We are on firmer ground with the wealth of comparative studies of Israel and the ancient Near East that cite” Mesopotamian and Egyptian documents “in which kings (and sometimes priests) were designated the image and likeness of a particular god . . . a designation that served to describe their function (analogous to that of a cult image) of representing the deity in question and of mediating divine blessing to the earthly realm”[1]. So based on what is known of ANE culture and its influences and similarities found in the Hebrew Bible, many understand the image of God to parallel a religious symbol of colonization; the transcendent/far-off deity is represented by an image/statue that functions as a reminder of the deity and its divine rule over that territory.

The syntax of the Hebrew in 1:26, Middleton says, “points to ‘rule’ as the purpose, not simply the consequence or result of the imago Dei.”[2] That humanity extends dominion and rule over non-human life and the earth is the reason for creation in the divine image, instead of simply a role adopted by humanity because of their association with God. God designed humans specifically to exercise divine rule over creation. For Middleton, “the human vocation as imago Dei in God’s world thus corresponds in important respects to Israel’s vocation as a ‘royal priesthood’ among the nations (Exodus 19:6) . . . confirmed by the ancient Near Eastern background of the image”[3].

While this interpretations represents solid biblical scholarship and is likely the closest to what is meant by the notion of humans being created in the image of God, there are objections raised by several scholars. Let’s say this model, however, is in fact the best interpretation of Genesis 1:26-28 and the imago Dei, how important or meaningful is it given the relative silence on the matter throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible? Claus Westermann is one who objects to this reading based on his contention that the royal-functional view, drawing from ANE culture, does not make sense in the context of Genesis 1. “Representation in this context is concerned with an individual in relation to a community. But this is not possible in the case of ‘man.’ ‘Man’ is not an individual, but a species . . . This could only make sense if ‘man’ (i.e. humankind) were to represent God before the rest of creation.”[4] That is, if God and creation were in sharp contrast and isolation from one another. Terence Fretheim elaborates on Westermann: “If the royal language has been democratized,” he writes, “then the royal links that may be present have been subverted and nonhierarchical perspectives prevail.”[5] That is, if the image of God is within all persons, it does not quite correspond to the ANE tradition of a king or priest singularly representing the deity; the power has been transferred to all.

Fretheim takes his objection a step further, though, and states that the text is “monarchical” at the very least, possibly even “antimonarchical,” and that the employment of such monarchical language by scholars has “contributed to an emphasis, perhaps subtly so, on divine power and control in the interpretation of Genesis 1, which in turn could negatively shape what it means to be in the image of God.”[6] This is a crucial objection to the text, and one that will continue to be absent from the radar of biblical scholars or theologians not attuned to feminist and post-colonial criticism.

For sake of space, I will wait until the next post to explore this critique in more depth, as well as try to construct a new model for interpreting the imago Dei.

Are you familiar with this interpretation of the image of God? How has it shaped the trajectory of your faith? What do you think about the objections raised to the functional model? What are your own critiques of this way of interpretation?


1. J Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005), 26-27.

2. Ibid., 53.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 153.

5. Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 47.

6. Ibid., 55.


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