Images of God Against the Empire

The creation of human beings according to Genesis:
Genesis 1.26-27
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
A great deal has been written about the theological significance of humans being created "in the image of God." Recently, in reading Wes Howard-Brook's Come Out, My People! I was struck by a particular perspective on this subject.

Specifically, the claim that all human beings are images of God was a radical anti-imperial claim.  Consider images during the time of the biblical writings. Whose images were made and why? In the Old Testament images were made of "gods" like Pharaoh or the Babylonian kings. In the New Testament images were made of "sons of god" like the Caesars. Common people did not have their images made. They did not see their images on coins or in public statuary. Being "the image of god" was something only rulers, kings, Caesars, and emperors could claim.

And into this milieu Genesis speaks a subversive word. All human beings--men and women--are images of God. More, these same images "rule," just like the Caesars and Pharaohs!

Here was a universalizing and democratization of the image of God. And one can only imagine the affront this caused ruling elites--the blasphemy!--and the effect it must have had on the self-perceptions of the downtrodden listening to the stirring and subversive message of Genesis 1.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “Images of God Against the Empire”

  1. "His law is love, and His gospel is peace."  Tell me *that* story again.  That's my favorite one.  :-)

    Yesterday, my adult SS group was discussing the Christian creeds and their development.  I know just enough of that history to be dangerous...or at least to remove all doubt of my ignorance!  It was interesting to me that the question of Jesus' divinity and pecking order with God the Father was a major issue of debate at the First Council of Nicaea.  So would it be good for Emperor Constantine if Jesus *were* equal with God the Father, or were *not*?  Even though Constantine was a professing Christian, how did he reconcile his self-image as emperor AND follower of Christ?  In other words, where did Constantine see himself in the pecking order?

    The term "rule" is a tricky one...having been misunderstood and abused for centuries.  Powers and principalities?

    May the Spirit rule in our hearts and in our lives.  ~Peace~

  2. Not only did the "common man" not have his image made, he couldn't afford a mirror, either - and the ones that did exist were sometimes just polished metal.  Ancient people were far less familiar with their own appearance than we are today (where we have multiple mirrors in every room and stare at ourselves in the morning).

  3. I can't remember which church father commented on the "coin" incident in the Gospel, but that was the upshot: Caesar's image is on money, God's image is on man. Render to Caesar his stuff, give to God what is in His image. Powerful stuff indeed. 

  4. Emperors weren't 'sons of God'. Augustus briefly called himself 'divus filii' as a young man, but this is 'son of a god' not 'son of God'. Specifically, the son of his adoptive father, the divine Julius Caesar. Seneca, one of Nero's advisers, wrote a satirical pamphlet (as we'd call it), attacking the practice of deifying dead emperors. In time, they became more remote, and closer to the gods. In the 280's, we have rare coins of Aurelian, struck in the east, where divine kingship was taken seriously, hailing him as 'Deo et Domino', 'God and Lord'. Constantine I and his successors took the title of Dominus Noster, 'Our Lord', which is getting pretty close to a claim to divinity, but it wasn't explicit. Eusebius took god-language, and applied it to Constantine - again, close but not explicit - and this continued.

    On a more modern note, it might be worth looking at the way religious language is applied to the nation state.

  5. Every valley raised up and every mountain laid low. An affront to anyone with power in this world. Good stuff.

  6. Sorry, but your timeline is wrong and makes your argument of subversion irrelevant. The story of creation as presented in Genesis had been available to the Hebrews through their priests since at least the time of King David and surly had been verbally communicated  before then. As far as the Greek/Roman times, the reading of the Old Testament and it's belief's were still confined primarily to the Hebrews and the few Greeks that had converted, still a minority of people at that time. It is my understanding that historical documents record that the ruling class didn't even think the Hebrews and especially the sect know as The Way was anything more than a minor irritation. It has also recently been brought to my attention that the Hebrew religion was the only religion other than the official religion that was tolerated and sometimes even sanctioned by the ruling class during the time that the Apostle Paul was preaching.. As we can tell by the statuary and of course the Greek mythology humans had been thought to have an Image like the Gods even then. It is an interesting perspective but one without much merit.  

Leave a Reply