Being human is a complicated business. It’s why we will stand before God one day and give an account of our lives, why God doesn’t force us to make all the right choices, and one of the reasons our prayers aren’t always answered exactly the way we want.
It’s also what separates us from our canine and feline and bovine buddies, what makes us responsible to care for the natural world, and what gives us authority to do our part in pushing back evil.
Considering how important the topic is, you’d think we’d have a good handle on what it means. But I’m not convinced we do.
As Christians we believe the essence of being human has to do with the fact that we’re created in God’s image. Of course that’s right. That’s not the problem. Where we get lost is the way we describe this imago dei likeness to our creator. We think it’s just basic human nature, all those qualities that distinguish us from rocks and trees and platypuses, like our intellect and morality and spirituality. Or that it’s our role as stewards of the earth, our human responsibility and occupation. Or maybe we’ve heard that our godlikeness resides in our relational nature, in human community.
These ideas aren’t all wrong; I’m not implying that. I just don’t think any one of them, on its own, gets to the heart of what it means to be human. We need to grasp the full import of Genesis 1:26:
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.” (NIV11)
The grammar of this sentence implies that when we speak of what it means to be created in God’s image, we should not separate what we do from who we are. The context of Genesis 1 does the same. Just as the lights are not lights if they do not illuminate the darkness, and the expanse is not the expanse unless it separates the waters, so also humans are not human unless we acknowledge not only that we have the capacity to rule and subdue the earth, but also that by our very nature this is what we do.
This is the main problem I have with the common conceptions of the imago dei: they tend to focus on either substance or function, but not both. And if I’m reading the Bible correctly, we have to include both. Which, I might add, is why most ancient cultures were very elitist in their application of the moniker “image of god.”
These societies connected being created in the image of a god with having a right and capacity to rule that is godlike. Existing as some-or-other god’s image on earth was a kingly, ruling designation, locating the image-person somewhere between deity and the rest of creation. That’s why the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Canaanites claimed that only their pharaohs, kings and priests were the image of their god.
The masses couldn’t possibly be, since peons, slaves and the rest of the riff-raff weren’t in any way, shape or form created to rule. No, they existed to serve the one or two or few who were the “image.” Everyone knew that. Heaven forbid that the average Omar would think he had the right to make real decisions that would impact not only his own life but also, potentially, the flow of history. Heavens no.
These societies understood that possessing the divine image was not just about intellectual or moral or spiritual capacity; it went hand-in-hand with a ruling function. That’s why they were perfectly clear on just who was and was not an image of their god: upper crust, yes; lowlife, no. And certainly not, by any means, ever-ever-ever in any literature from the ancient Near East other than the Hebrew Scriptures, were women identified as an image of deity. There were female goddesses and priestesses, sure, but human women as the image of a god? No.
And that’s another place the Bible does its own thing.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)
Against its cultural setting, the Bible stresses that all human beings are created in God’s image. It is not just males or the rich or the powerful or the exceptionally gifted who reflect godlikeness; each and every one of us does. Which means that each and every one of us has the God-given authority, capacity and responsibility to rule and subdue our slice of the pie for God’s glory.
The imago dei in us goes a long way in explaining why God doesn’t undo our inhuman choices, all those words and actions that reveal anything and everything but God’s nature. Yes, when he created us in his image and likeness, to reflect his regal nature in some small way, God also made the decision to let our decisions stand. If we choose to hate or abuse or steal or kill, God doesn’t come along behind us wiping the slate clean, undoing the damage. Sometimes I wish he would, but he doesn’t. God treats us as though we were adults.
That’s a sobering fact.
This ruling capacity and function is also one of the reasons we don’t always get our way in prayer. God doesn’t undo someone else’s essential humanity in order to get them to do what we want. If God doesn’t force us to do what he wants, why do we think he would manhandle someone else to answer our prayers? God has a way of ensuring that his ultimate goals are achieved, of course, but he has a manner of doing so that does not negate our image-of-God likeness to himself.
Being created in God’s image describes our essential human sameness and is foundational to understanding everything else the Bible says about human beings, whether they are male or female, slave or free, compatriot or foreigner.
Let’s not be too quick to assume we know what it means.
 Both the Beth essentiae and the Hebrew jussive following a cohortative and unconverted waw indicate this meaning. See Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 88 and 53.
 For a full exposition of the role of the imago dei in the ancient Near East see J. Richard Middleton, Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.