The third chapter of J. Richard Middleton’s book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 looks at the ancient Near Eastern context for parallels to the image of God. Chapter 2 placed the term in the context of the symbolic world of Genesis 1 and, of course, this included the ancient Near Eastern context. But there are details of comparison that go beyond the question of the symbolic world. In particular Middleton addresses the relative importance of Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences and the democratization of the image of God. The author (or editor) of Genesis 1 took a royal image that applied only to kings and applied it to all humanity … a truly revolutionary (inspired) idea.
In what follows I will necessarily skim over details and present only a mountain top summary (the chapter is 50 pages after all) selecting what I see as the key points.
There are four specific parallels or possible parallels for the image of God that need to be considered, quoting p. 94:
(1) A reference in the Gilgamesh Epic that describes Enkidu as an image (or double) of Gilgamesh the king.
(2) Two references in Egyptian wisdom literature to the creation of humans as the images of a god.
(3) The widespread practice of Egyptian and Mesopotamian kings setting up statues of themselves in lands where they are physically absent.
(4) Egyptian and Mesopotamian references to kings (and sometimes priests) as the image of various deities.
Gilgamesh. The reference in the Gilgamesh Epic has been considered by some to shed light on the relational nature of the image of God. Middleton points out that there are a number of linguistic difficulties with the translation of this passage. These are sufficiently serious that one translator simply leaves the word zikru translated by others as image untranslated.
Wisdom Literature. The two references in Egyptian wisdom literature are interesting. The first, from Instruction for Merikare, is dated to the twenty-second century BCE although the extant versions are later than this.
Well directed are men, the cattle of the god. He made heaven and earth according to their desire, he repelled the water-monster. He made the breath of life (for) their nostrils. They who have issued from his body are his images [snnw]. He arises in heaven according to their desire. He made for them plants, animals, fowl, and fish to feed them. (lines 131-33) (p. 99 from a translation by John A. Wilson).
The other reference from Instruction of Ani is about 500 years later and the translation is contested. This passage may or may not refer to men as the image of a god. The reference found in Instructions for Merikare is more significant. As is clear from the translation above, this passage has a number of parallels with Genesis. The god made heaven and earth, made breath of life, made plants, animals, fowls and fish. Middleton does not think it likely however that there is a direct historical connection between this text (or the Instruction of Ani) and the text of Genesis 1. These are atypical texts and the ideas are not found in later Egyptian thought.
Statues. The third parallel to consider is the practice of ancient Near Eastern kings to set up images of themselves in distant parts of their dominion. The purpose of these statues is not entirely clear however. It is likely that they served as reminders of the kings authority and “presence,” but they can also be votive – offered, given, dedicated to a god in fulfillment of a vow. On the topic Middleton concludes:
Yet, despite the lack of clarity about the precise significance of all cases of this ancient Near Eastern royal practice, the general sense certainly has to do with the statue representing, in some way, the absent king. Since this representative notion is intrinsic to the ancient Near Eastern understanding of images, it seems quite plausible to regard the practice of kings setting up images of themselves as a legitimate parallel to the creation of humans in the image of God in Genesis. (p. 107)
Divine Kings. The fourth parallel, a multitude of texts where Egyptian and Mesopotamian kings are referred to as the image of a god, is a significant consideration. The sheer number of texts make it clear that this was a significant idea in ancient Near eastern thought, especially in Egypt.
The pharaoh was thought, in a fairly strong sense, to be a physical, local incarnation of deity, analogous to that of a cult statue or image of a god, which is also such an incarnation. (p. 110)
[T]he king as the image of the god was thought to mediate the god’s presence and power on earth. (p. 111)
There are fewer examples from Mesopotamia, but these as well support a functional view of the ruler as the image of a god. The rulers represent the gods and act like the gods in specific ways.
Middleton sees this last parallel as the most plausible for interpreting the imago Dei in Genesis 1.
If such texts – or the ideology behind them – influenced the biblical imago Dei, this suggests that humanity is dignified with a status and role vis-à-vis the nonhuman creation that is analogous to the status and tole of kings in the ancient Near East vis-à-vis their subjects. Genesis 1, and not the Egyptian wisdom texts previously cited, thus constituted a genuine democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. As imago Dei, then, humanity in Genesis 1 is called to be the representative and intermediary of God’s power and blessing on earth. (p. 121)
Egyptian or Mesopotamian? Middleton makes the argument that the case for Mesopotamian influence is stronger than the case for Egyptian influence. The parallels between Genesis 1-11 and Mesopotamian texts such as Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, Atrahasis, Enki and Ninmah have been appreciated since the texts were translated and studied. A Mesopotamian background is also suggested by the names in Genesis and the fact that human history is depicted as beginning in Mesopotamia with the Tigris and Euphrates flowing out of Eden.
It is harder to trace the origin of the image of God reference further than this. Middleton works through various possibilities suggested by the structure of the Pentateuch and the sources that make it up – but there are simply too many unknowns and uncertainties for any firm conclusion about the dating of the reference to image of God.
I myself am agnostic about the existence of a putative P document of which Genesis 1 is supposedly a part. It is not that I dispute the existence of sources or an editorial framework in Genesis through Numbers or that I refuse to recognize distinctive priestly theological emphases throughout these books. Rather, I simply do not believe we have access to the relevant knowledge to reconstruct or date the sources of the Pentateuch with any degree of certitude. (p. 141)
The material assigned to P may be preexilic (seventh century BCE or earlier), exilic, or postexilic. Genesis 1 may or may not be written by the same hand (or editor) as Leviticus. Even if Genesis 1 is preexilic, the reference to the image of God may be a later exilic addition by an editor. Middleton concludes: “The evidence for dating is fundamentally ambiguous.” (p. 145)
Middleton concludes his discussion of the ancient Near Eastern background for the image of God emphasizing the democratization of the image of God.
It would be unwise, therefore, for us to limit ourselves to an exilic context for the purpose of interpreting the imago Dei. Rather, given the widely agreed upon Mesopotamian background for the primeval history, I will assume for purposes of argument what is no more than a plausible scenario, namely that the author of Gensis 1 (whenever he lived) was acquainted (in either oral or written form) with the Mesopotamian notion of king as the image of a god (as a particular crystallization of royal ideology) and that he intentionally challenged this notion with the claim that all humanity was made in God’s image. (p. 145)
Middleton doesn’t bring this up, but it is important to note that talk of sources and ambiguity in sources, the significance of a Mesopotamian context, and an intentional challenge by the author (0r editor) of Genesis 1 does not imply a low view of Scripture. If we believe that Scripture is preserved for us by and from God, then inspiration can work through authors, compilers, editors, and through the relatively slow process of canonization. The creation of humans in the image of God is an important concept, however the text we have came into being. The suggestion that the image of God applied to all humanity subverts the notion that only kings (or occasionally priests) are images of gods is a significant idea.
Humanity as a whole – male and female – was placed on earth to be the representative and intermediary of God’s power and blessing on earth.
Does this view of the Image of God challenge your understanding?
What application might it have?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.