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Selections From The Ark Number 213 - Winter 2009

‘In The Image Of A Particular God: Elohim Vs Marduk’

Ryan Patrick McLaughlin is a PhD student (systematic theology) at the Catholic Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His main area of research is contributing to a theological basis for animal welfare and he is working on projects exploring themes of animal welfare in the Church Fathers and Orthodox theology. Here he explores the ‘image of God’. by Ryan Patrick McLaughlin

Throughout Christian history, theologians have grappled with the meaning of the ‘image of God’ (Latin, imago Dei) in Genesis 1:26-27. Many thinkers have equated the image with an essential quality inherent in the human creature. More often than not, that quality is either rationality or freedom of the will, or both. This substance-based interpretation creates a category in which humans are similar to God and dissimilar to the rest of the creation. The substantive view of the imago has, in part, formed a foundation in theology where humans are exalted above the rest of the created order.

The Church Fathers can be claimed to favour the substantive interpretation of the imago. Irenaeus set groundwork in the East for this reading. In the West, the substantive view was solidified with the work of Augustine, who claimed, ‘God, then, made man in His own image. For He created for him a soul endowed with reason and intelligence so that he might excel all the creatures of the earth, air, and sea, which were not so gifted.’1 Early Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, took a more relational approach to the imago. With this approach, the focus was still the identity of the human creature. However, this identity was understood only in relation to God. Hence, when the relationship between God and humanity was disrupted, humanity lost the image of God. This relational interpretation is evident in contemporary theology with the work of Karl Barth.

Alternative interpretations

These two interpretations of the imago are not the only options, however. Recent biblical scholarship, following the direction of Gerhard Von Rad and represented by Douglas John Hall, Terrance Fretheim, W. Sibley Towner, and J. Richard Middleton, has taken a different approach to the imago. Concerning Genesis 1, these scholars note (1) the socio-historical context of the ancient Near East where images of deities represented the deity on earth; (2) the structure of the narrative that connects creation with function; and (3) the syntax of the Hebrew which further suggests a correlation between what was created and why it was created. These textual considerations indicate that the imago denotes a function for the human creature. In particular, God calls the human being to represent God’s reign in the created order. In this sense, the imago is not simply an ascription of human identity, but also a calling to a uniquely human responsibility. Furthermore, because Genesis democratizes the imago by attributing it to all humanity, every human is called to represent the presence of God to the rest of the created order.

Whatever faculties humans exhibit, whether differing in degree or essence from animals, they are not in place to privilege humanity above the created order; rather, they are provided by God so that humanity might fulfill their place within the created order. God creates human beings in the image of God so that they might represent God in the cosmos.

This functional view of the imago, though undoubtedly shadowed by the substantive interpretation, does find affirmation in Christian history. For instance, Irenaeus states that humanity ‘was free and self-controlled, being made by God for this end, that he might rule all those things that were upon the earth.’3 Subsequent Orthodox theologians have continued to incorporate the functional interpretation of the imago into their theology.4 If the textual analysis of Genesis 1 provided by biblical scholars is correct, the imago provides both an identity and a responsibility to humanity. Furthermore, the imago has full significance not only for humanity, but for the entire created order through humanity. To delineate this significance, one further consideration is necessary.

What kind of God do we image?

The functional interpretation, much like the substantive and the relational, focuses primarily on the word ‘image.’ However, if the imago constitutes a calling in which humanity is meant to represent God to the created order, one must also explore what representing God might look like. The question thus arises: What kind of god do we image? The historical context of the priestly writers and editors of Genesis 1 was contemporaneous with the Babylonian creation narrative, the Enuma Elish.

In the Elish, Marduk, the god of Babylon, engages in divine warfare before creating the cosmos. After defeating Tiamat, a rival god, Marduk creates the world from the fallen deity’s body. With the world in place, Marduk creates humanity to be slaves for the gods. The contrast between Marduk and Elohim is sharp. In Genesis 1, Elohim creates all creatures without any sign of warfare or struggle. Furthermore, Elohim creates human beings to be co-regents, not slaves. In short, Elohim’s act of creation is predicated upon love and harmony; Marduk’s act of creation is predicated upon utility and chaos.

Marduk vs Elohim

An exploration in the disparity between Marduk and Elohim in conjunction with a functional interpretation of the imago provides an opportunity to reconsider how humans ought to relate to animals. The propensity in Christianity to view the created order as a hierarchy where the ‘lower’ tiers of creation are put completely at the service of the ‘higher’ tiers is more characteristic of Marduk than it is of Elohim.

In Christianity, the God who created the cosmos is the same God who died on behalf of it. Colossians states that Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him’ (Colossians 1:15-16). As this verse suggests that Christ is at the top of the hierarchy, since all things were created for him, so Christ establishes precedence for those who are ‘higher up’. The higher are to serve, not exploit, the lower. The higher status is an opportunity to take care of others.

Given these theological points, I believe Christians must continue to engage in a re-evaluation of their concern for animals. If we view animals as lower than us and use this measurement to justify viewing them in a purely utilitarian light, we have become nothing less—and nothing more—than the imago Marduk. Living up to the image of God—not just any God, but the triune God who creates out of love, sets free, and accepts death on behalf of the creation—means following the lead of Christ in self-sacrifice. It means taking our understanding of hierarchy as establishing an identity beneficial to humanity alone and amending to an understanding of hierarchy that establishes a responsibility on behalf of the entire created order.

As a final sobering thought, imagine if God treated humanity with the same utilitarian mindset that many human beings—including Christians—treat animals. What kind of God would we serve? A God who benefits from our suffering? A God who justifies causing us torment because we are lower in a cosmic hierarchy? This God would surely not be Elohim, but Marduk. Christians are thus left with a choice. Who will we choose to represent to animals: Elohim or Marduk?


1. Augustine, City of God, XII.23, Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, ed. Whitney J. Oates, volume II (New York: Random House, 1948), 205.

2. Douglas John Hall in Imaging God: dominion as stewardship (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986); Terrance Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: a relational theology of creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005); See J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: the Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005); W. Sibley Towner, ‘Clones of God: Genesis 1:26-28 and the Image of God in the Hebrew Bible’, Interpretation 59 (October 2005), 343-49.

3. Irenaeus, Demonstration, 11. Quote from Irenaeus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching: a theological commentary and translation, Iain M. Mackenzie with the translation of the text of the Demonstration by J. Armitage Robinson (Burlington: Ashgate, 2002).

4. E.g. John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: historical trends (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 140-42.

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