image of God, Genesis 1, equal in being unequal in role

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”
God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26-28 NET

Image and Gender?

I frequently hear discussions about what it means for humans, male and female, to be created in the image of God. Often these discussions are about gender, masculinity and femininity, because some people believe these statements in Genesis 1:26-27 have implications for the gender of God.

I don’t believe that male and female humans being made in the image of God says much about gender, either God’s or ours. Instead, I believe God’s image is about humans ruling as his regents and representatives. I believe this for two reasons.

Dominion over all the Animals

I believe this, firstly, because of what God says about the position and function of humanity in verse 26. Immediately after saying “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness,” God says, “so they may rule over the fish of the sea,” etc. This idea of people ruling over the animals, all kinds of animals, is then repeated in verse 28.

According to the Bible, only humans are made in the image of God; this makes us superior to all other animals and it makes us responsible for them. Genesis 1 doesn’t tell us how we should rule the animals, but I imagine it means that we should use our position and power to care for them and their habitats, and not cruelly or needlessly exploit them.[1]

God’s Representatives and Regents

My second reason for believing that being God’s image-bearers means being his regents is because of how images were sometimes used in the Ancient Near East (ANE). In the ANE (the setting of most of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible), kings of vast empires sometimes erected images of themselves in areas where they were not physically present. These images represented “their power and rulership over far-reaching areas of their empires.”[2]

As God’s image-bearers, we are representatives of God and his dominion on earth, even though he is not physically present.

Equal in Being and Equal in Role

Genesis 1:26-28 tell us that there was sexual differentiation between humans at creation; there was male and female. However, there is no mention of any difference in their status or purpose. According to Genesis 1, men and women are equal in being and equal in purpose or role: both sexes are God’s image-bearers, both sexes are commanded to procreate, and both sexes are to have dominion over the animals.[3]

There is no indication that either men or women have a greater or lesser responsibility in obeying the commands in Genesis 1:28. And note that, while men and women are commanded to rule animals, nowhere in this chapter, or the next, does it say that some humans were to rule other humans. According to Genesis 1, men and women share authority.


Genesis 1:26-28 does not tell us about gender except to show us that, at the beginning, male and female humans had the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose. Humans were made to be God’s representatives on earth and are to rule as his regents.


[1] Note God’s words to the first humans about food: “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (Gen. 1:29 NIV). There’s no mention of eating animals. This changes, however, after the flood (Gen. 9:3-4).

[2] Richard Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (eds) (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 79-95, 81. On the same page, Hess further notes that the emphasis in Genesis 1:26-28 is “on rulership of creation through stewardship.”
Other cultures, ancient and modern, also have images of their monarchs and rulers—on statues, portraits, coins, stamps, etc—that represents their authority.

[3] How individuals and communities fulfil their calling and the commands in Genesis 1 can vary greatly.

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