In a brilliant Books and Culture article, one of my Wabash professors finds some sparkling thoughts on the imago Dei (and enlightens some rather dim ones).
In the ancient Near East, it was common for kings to set up statues of themselves as a symbol of their rule. These statues—or images—were a reminder that the physical absence of the king did not prevent his exercise of power. Middleton argues that the author of Genesis both draws from and subverts this practice by democratizing the idea of a king’s image. Genesis portrays all humans as “God’s living cult statues on earth.”
He argues that Genesis is “intentionally subversive literature” because it allows ordinary people to be “significant participants in the historical process.” The imago Dei thus grounds Israel’s egalitarian social organization prior to the monarchy. Middleton even goes so far as to suggest that the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers can be found, in latent form, in the imago Dei. If this seems like a stretch, his discussion of idolatry is theologically illuminating. The most fundamental problem with idolatry, he suggests, is not that it imbues something physical with divine power, but that it diminishes the honor of the idol worshipers, who should not be so quick to give up their own status as representatives of the divine.
Middleton’s analysis thus comes full circle to his own multicultural biography. God’s response to the Tower of Babel is especially significant, he argues, because it demonstrates how God intended for political power to be diffuse rather than consolidated by imperial ambition. The scattering of Babel’s population should be interpreted as redemptive, not punitive. For Middleton, Genesis shows us how we are liberated from all forms of oppressive authority because God has chosen to share his authority with us.
This seems like a big burden to me. Why would we want to exercise some of God’s power? Middleton suggests that God takes a big risk in inviting us to share his power, and of course, if God did that, Middleton would be right. Most ancient theologians locate human liberation in our submission to divine rule, which is utterly trustworthy and serenely imperturbable, but Middleton reverses this relationship. We can trust God because he trusts us.
The imago Dei assures us that there is an essential correlation between humanity and God that guarantees our basic intuitions into God’s nature. We can properly imagine that God is like us because we are like God. In a world saturated with images, we are the only images that count, and we count only because we were made according to the specifications of someone else.