Dianne Bergant – « Imago Dei: Image or Divine, Interpreting the Hebrew Bible »

Dianne Bergant CSA

« Imago Dei: Image or Divine, Interpreting the Hebrew Bible »

Concilium 2018-5. Ökologie und Theologie der Natur
Concilium 2018-5. Ecology and Theology
Concilium 2018-5. Ecología y teología de la naturaleza
Concilium 2018-5. Écologie et théologie de la nature
Concilium 2018-5. Ecologia e teologia della natura
Concilium 2018-5.

Linda Hogan, João Vila-Chã, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

“Clearly, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures”.[1] There is no ambiguity here, or in other statements found in the Pope’s recent encyclical letter that addresses human interconnectedness with, interdependency on, and responsibility for the treasures of the natural world.[2]  His concern is not with anthropocentrism itself, for there is no way human beings can perceive or judge but from a human point of view.  He criticizes the perspective that is “tyrannical”,[3]“distorted”,[4] ”excessive”,[5] “misguided.”[6]

1. Biblical Anthropocentrism

Radical anthropocentrism (human-centeredness) maintains that humankind is the measure according to which the value and importance of all else is to be judged.  While some feminists claim that the prevailing perspective is more androcentric (male-centered) than anthropocentric,[7] it is still the human that is accorded pride of place.  We cannot deny that a great deal of what has been called modern progress owes its existence and development to this perspective.  Still, critics, prominent among them Lynn White,[8] blame such a viewpoint, or an exaggeration of it, for much of the turmoil in contemporary society as well as for the current and pressing global environmental crises.  He believes that: “Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.”[9]   White maintains that radical anthropocentrism it difficult to extricate from its prominent position because it enjoys religious validation, alluding to the biblical narrative in which the newly created man and woman were told by God to “subdue [Earth]…and have dominion” over all Earth creatures (Gen 1.28).  According to him: “By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”[10]  

Insights from contemporary interpretive theory along with current readings of several biblical texts raise a number of questions that challenge the soundness of such understanding of the biblical tradition.  First, we have come to realize that we do not come to the biblical text with value-free objectivity, but rather with a certain presumptive worldview.  Consequently, we must ask:  Is it possible that an apparent anthropocentric worldview has been imposed onto the story by the biblical reader rather than implied by the biblical author?  It may well be that the literary structure of Genesis 1 lends itself to a Platonic hierarchical interpretation, an interpretation that has been passed down to us, but should one immediately conclude from this that such a worldview was indeed the frame of reference of the original community of believers, or that it must be subscribed to by readers today? 

Second, contemporary critical analyses have provided us with insights into new ways of reading the biblical text as well as into the function that the particular tradition might have performed within an ancient community quite different from our own.  Such analyses further serve to differentiate, when appropriate, between the primary focus of a particular passage (e.g., theocentric, ethnocentric, cosmocentric) and the underlying or more fundamental worldview of the societies that produced the text and transmitted it through the ages.

These insights lead us to ask:  Could it be that a text’s apparent anthropocentric emphasis simply marks the limitations of historical culture and really serves a theological or social end rather than some ontological one?  For example, might the obvious hostility toward natural forces, as described in some biblical texts, actually be a monotheistic polemic against nature deities that might have been thought to rival the sovereignty of YHWH?[11]  To question Israel’s presumed anthropocentrism is not to deny the obvious fact that the ancients viewed humankind as privileged among the other creatures.  At issue is not humankind’s prominent place in creation, but the meaning of the charges given to it in the biblical accounts.  Human beings were told to „subdue…and have dominion over“ (Gen 1.8), „till it…and keep it“ (Gen 2.15) the world and the living things within it.  Such a commission certainly places them in a position of privilege and control. 

This narrative depiction is in sharp contrast to several Mesopotamian myths which portray human beings as created to bear the yoke of the gods, ministering to them and relieving them of the burden of daily work.[12]  In Israel’s myths, human beings are detached from the life of the gods in the realm of the divine and directed toward their own life in the world of women and men, indeed even toward exercising authority and control there.  Despite this, does such an anthropocentric point of view mean that humankind should be regarded as the pinnacle for which everything was made, in terms of which everything is measured, and toward which everything progresses to fulfillment? 

Israel certainly had its myths of origin, but of the origin of what?  Of the gods?  The universe?  The nation?  The monarchy?  The sanctuary?  The law?  Are Israel’s myths of origin true cosmogonies, or might they be etiological tales explaining the origin of realities such as those listed above?  This study will attempt to show that the Genesis 1 creation narrative, with its anthropocentric focus, is, in fact, a tradition that legitimizes the monarchy and not one that validates human superiority which carries with it the right to destroy the natural riches of the created world.

2. Creation and Monarchy in the Ancient World

Various major Egyptian cultic centers fostered the worship of different gods and developed their own cosmogonic traditions.  These were influenced by significant experiences of nature and by historical events that shaped the existence of the devotees who worshipped at the respective shrines.  The pottery-making people of Elephantine venerated Khnum, the divine potter who fashioned humankind from clay.  The quasi-philosophical Memphites maintained that their god Ptah created through the power of the word which he first had conceived in his mind.  At Heliopolis, traits of the gods Ra and Amon were conflated into one characterization, and humankind was thought to have issued from the tears of that new god.  In A Hymn to Amon-Ra, the Theban god is portrayed on almost every tablet as the creator and sustainer of animal and plant as well as human life.  This representation is later appropriated by Aton, the god worshipped at Amarna. 

These major myths of origin addressed the human need to  secure the stability of the world and of society.  The domain of the gods and the societal reality were regarded as so interrelated that human kingship usually played some role in the cosmic drama.  For the Egyptians, whose experience of life was established by the regularity of the Nile, kingship was an essential part of the structure of creation.  The activity of the creator found its natural sequel in the absolute rule of the pharaoh.  Conversely, the pharaoh’s absolute rule was perceived as an exemplification of the activity of the creator.  In fact, the creator Ra, who merged with Horus, often headed the lists of Egyptian kings as the first ruler of the land, and each successive pharaoh was regarded as the divine Horus reincarnated.

The extant literature of Mesopotamia provides us with a very different picture.  In addition to the regular seasonal cycles, Mesopotamia had to withstand the disruptive elements in nature.  An example of this is the flooding that often occurred at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  This fact is reflected in its cosmogonic traditions.  Water was perceived as turbulent and threatening rather than predictable and beneficial.  Thus it became a symbol for chaos.  The principal creation myths depicted a violent struggle between competing divine powers resulting in a beneficent god’s victory over chaos and the ensuing establishment of order in the universe.  In these traditions, the triumphant god was portrayed as a warrior and designated king, not as creator.  Only after the cosmic victory does creation take place.  Divine activity is brought to completion with the construction of a heavenly sanctuary from which the victorious god rules.[13]  Thus the myth consisted of three major movements:  the cosmic battle, specific acts of creation, and the building of the sanctuary.

The Mesopotamians did not seem to regard divine kingship as a natural concomitant of an ordered pantheon.  Instead, it was seen as a way of dealing with confusion and anxiety among the gods.  Correlatively, natural and socio-political crises forced them to subordinate themselves to a human king.  Although they did believe that kingship descended from heaven, they did not perceive monarchy as a divine reality.  Unlike the Egyptians who regarded their pharaoh as a god, Mesopotamians viewed their king as a mortal endowed with a singular responsibility.  Since it was the gods who bestowed this charge of governing, they could remove it from the reigning sovereign at any time and bestow it upon another.  Clearly the Israelite notion of monarchy resembled the Mesopotamian more than the Egyptian view.

3. Creation and Monarchy in Israel

The first chapters of Genesis contain two separate and very distinct accounts of creation.  Actually, only the Priestly account (Gen 1-2.4a) should be called a cosmogony.  The Yahwistic version (Gen 2.4b-25) lacks a description of the creation of the universe and begins with the appearance of various forms of life on an already established earth.  While there may have been some borrowing from the Egyptian creation accounts, these two Hebrew creation traditions seem to have been more influenced by the Mesopotamian myths.  Similarities and borrowing notwithstanding, Israel’s cosmogonic traditions are significantly different from those of other ancient Near Eastern societies, for, among other features, they lack theogonic myths, stories of the origin of deities.

The Priestly tradition is considered an Israelite reinterpretation of the Babylonian epic Enuma elish.  While it retains the basic theme of order over chaos, it shows that Israel’s God accomplished this ordering with little or no effort.  The underlying focus of this narrative is the undisputed and unshared creative power of God, clearly a theocentric conviction.  Despite this fundamental theocentric perspective, the stature of humankind as portrayed within this tradition suggests a kind of anthropocentric character. The man and the woman are made in the image[14]and after the likeness of God.  They alone are given a commission to govern with the responsibility to „subdue“ and „have dominion“ (v. 28).  This is precisely the passage used to justify radical anthropocentrism. 

In the ancient world, people fashioned images of their gods.  These images were not considered the deities themselves, but were simply representations of the power and authority of the gods.[15]  This power and authority was actually jurisdictional.  Thus, when in Egypt, one was under the jurisdiction of Egyptian gods; when in Mesopotamia, under Mesopotamian gods; etc.  This explains the religious trauma experienced by people when they were exiled from their land, which was really the land of their god.  Their religious identity was challenged by such an upheaval.  It also underscores Israel’s bold claim that its God YHWH had supreme power even in Egypt, and was this able to free the enslaved people.  Aspects of this practice of setting up images were not unlike the way we revere national flags, which are symbols of the jurisdiction of the power and authority of the nation.  While it is true that in the ancient world, the images as symbols of power and authority often came to be viewed as idols that actually possessed some form of divine power, this does not seem always to have been the original intent.  Thus, to say that the man and the woman in Genesis were made in the ‘image of God’ is to say that they were meant to represent where and how God exercised power and authority, a responsibility exercised by the monarchy.  Psalm 8 contains many of the same themes found in Genesis 1:  the preeminence of humans over animals (vv. 7-9); and references to royalty.  The psalmist explicitly states that human royalty is less than divine (v. 6). 

The monarchs were creatures, inhabitants of the land who had to „be fertile and multiply“ in order to survive. That they were to rule over the rest of creation cannot be denied.  At issue is the scope and character of their rule.  Over what does the royal couple rule and why?  Does this biblical text suggest that they dominate the rest of creation because they are superior creatures, the pinnacle for which everything was made, in terms of which everything is measured, and toward which everything progresses to fulfillment?  Or is this a description of a socio-political arrangement which gives them royal jurisdiction over and royal responsibility for the territory of the realm as well as its people?  These questions cannot be answered adequately without looking first at the story that follows the account of creation.

4. Image? or Divine?

Though royal rulers were not themselves divine, there was always the great temptation, as was the case with material images of gods, that they and/or their subjects would begin to think of them as somehow divine.  In fact, the story of sin as found in Genesis 3 indicates that ancient Israel faced that very temptation.  There we read that the first woman and man were not satisfied being ‘image of God,’ following God’s directives and representing where and how God is sovereign.  They were seduced by the words of the serpent: “God knows well that the moment you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad” (v.5).  Being a mere ‘image of God’ was not enough for them when they might have the opportunity of being like a god.   The serpent suggested something very attractive, and the couple chose to follow that attraction.  This sin was certainly one of disobedience.  However, the underlying reason for the disobedience was hubris, excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods.  

A passage from the book of the prophet Ezekiel condemns the same kind of hubris.  The prophet tells a similar story in his own condemnation of the prince of the ancient and prosperous Phoenician city Tyre.  That prince’s successes in trading led him to think too highly of himself.  This excessive pride resulted in violence and exploitation:

Because your heart is proud, 

   and you have said, „I am a god!

I sit in the seat of the gods

   in the heart of the seas,“

yet you are but a mortal, and no god,

      though you compare your mind

      with the mind of a god.   Ezek 28.2

His hubris led to his downfall:

Will you still say, „I am a god,“

   In the presence of those who kill you,

Though you are but a mortal, and no god,

   in the hands of those who wound you?  Ezek 28.9

Both the Genesis and the Ezekiel passages reflect human propensity toward hubris and unwarranted monopoly over elements of the natural world. 

It is clear that the creation narrative in Genesis 1 casts the first man and woman in the guise of king and queen.  The royal man and woman were commissioned to subdue or bring order into chaotic situations, and to exercise dominion over all that existed in their realm, which included all aspects of natural creation.  However, they were to act as God would act; they were to guarantee the flourishing of creation, not cause its exploitation and demise.  The monarchy did indeed have a special relationship with God;[16] it did indeed act as agent of God in a certain way. However, this relationship did not bestow divinity on the monarchy.  As images of God, Israelite royalty were ambassadors of the sovereignty of God.  In fact, Israel’s king was referred to as the ’son of the god‘, ruling in the land and over the land in the place of the god.[17]  Since an image represented the locale and extent of the sovereignty of the deity and not the image itself, this kind of royal authority was provisional and contingent on the good will of the god.  Finally, they were to do all things  remembering that “the earth is the Lord’s and all it holds” (Ps 24.1) and that all creation was valuable because the creator saw that it was all “very good” (Gen 1.31).

When we read this creation account in this way, we discover that human beings are not autonomous sovereigns of the natural world who were granted a license to exploit the earth or tyrannize other creatures, as a literal reading has sometimes claimed.  Instead they were issued a mandate which included serious responsibility for the world of which they were a part, and an accountability to the creator for the governance of that world.  This way of reading the creation narrative challenges any kind of tyrannical, distorted, or misguided anthropocentrism.  Ignorance of or unwillingness to acknowledge the limitations of human governance over the natural world may be at the heart of much of the arrogance many people exhibit today in their attitudes toward the rest of creation.  Many still want “to be like God“, boasting unconditional authority and unlimited control over other people and over the rest of nature.  Temptation to hubris is ever present.

5. Conclusion

As critical of the Judeo-Christian tradition as Lynn White’s article might appear to be, it does offer a very positive corrective.  Believing that “the roots of our trouble are so largely religious”, he argues that “the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”[18] Furthermore, toward the end of the article he declares:

What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man[sic]-

nature relationship. More science and more technology are not

going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new

religion or rethink our old one.[19]

To this end he offers Francis of Assisi with his radical view of the community of Earth as a model of ecosensitivity, interrelatedness, and interdependence. This article is offered as another example of rethinking our religious tradition.

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato ‘Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015, #68.

[2] #69, 115-119.

[3] #68.

[4] #69.

[5] #116.

[6] #118, 122.

[7] Elisabeth Schȕssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, New York: Crossroads, 1998, pp. 43-64.

[8] Lynn White, “The Religious Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967), 1203-7.

[9] Ibid., 1205.

[10] Ibid.,1205.

[11] This is clearly the case in the book of Hosea where the prophet condemns the Israelites for turning to Canaanite fertility practices – “She [Israel] did not know that it was I [YHWH] who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil” (Hos 2.10).

[12] S.G.F. Bandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1963, p.115.

[13] Traces of this perception remain in some of the biblical psalms: “Who is like the Lord our God, enthroned on high, looking down on heaven and earth?” (Ps 113.5-6).

[14] Philosophers and theologians have discussed the doctrine of imago dei (image of God) as articulated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  See Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary.  (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984), 147-161.  In 20094, the International Theological Commission published a document entitled Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God in which was traced the interpretation of this metaphor beginning with its appearance both Old and New Testament, through patristic and medieval theology down to the present time. 

[15] The Canaanite god Baal was characterized as a young bull, virile and fearsome.

[16] Through the prophet Nathan, God tells David that his heir will have a special relationship with God, not unlike the father-son relationship thought to exist in royal/divine monarchies of the day: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (2 Sam 7.14.

[17] Aage Bentzen, King and Messiah , London: Lutterworth, 1955, p. 43.  This is behind the divine proclamation in Psalm 2: “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (v.7). 

[18] White, 1207

[19] White, 1206.


The biblical metaphor imago dei (image of God) has been understood in different ways down through the centuries.  In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis maintains that the anthropocentrism that flows from many those understandings that grant autonomous and unlimited control over the rest of the natural world, are “tyrannical, distorted, excessive, or misguided.”  In line with this position, this article seeks to show that imago dei, as found in the first Genesis creation account, should be understood within ancient Israel’s tradition of monarchy.  This tradition maintains that monarchic rule includes deputed and circumscribed responsibility for the world along with accountability to God for that responsibility.  The human couple are ‘image’ of God, not divine in their own right.


Dianne Bergant, CSA, is Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP Distinguished Professor Emerita of Biblical Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.  She is past President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America (200-2001), and has been an active member of the Chicago Catholic/Jewish Scholars Dialogue for more than thirty years. Besides lecturing widely both national and internationally, she was Rev. Robert J. Randall Distinguished Professor of Christian Culture, Providence College, Providence, RI (2009-10).  She is currently working in the areas of biblical interpretation and biblical theology, particularly issues of ecotheology and feminism.


Catholic Theological Union, 5401 South Cornell Avenue, Chicago, IL 60615