Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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.

Conclusion

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.


Footnotes

[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 represent their authority.

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

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Related Articles

Gender in Genesis 1 
Is a Gender Hierarchy Implicit in the Creation Narrative of Genesis 2:4-25?
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
Is God Male or Masculine?
All “In a Nutshell” articles here.

New Testament, apostle Paul and women, gender roles

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

28 thoughts on “In the Image of God (Gen 1:26-28) in a Nutshell

  1. A friend of mine is studying to become a spiritual director and we were discussing this the other day — what does it mean to bear the image of God, as part of a broader conversation regarding the attempt to define the difference between soul/spirit. We both had the same perspective that bearing Gods image might mean to reflect the Trinity (but that means 3 and soul/spirit is only 2)…. your thoughts give me a different angle on what it might mean to be the image bearer — to be the representative of God, like the ANE illustration makes a whole lot more sense, and better aligns with operating under grace and hiding regardless of gender. Thanks for the insights!

    1. I have no idea how to define the difference between soul and spirit, assuming there is even a difference.

      I came across Dr Richard Hess’s idea several years ago and it makes very good sense to me. He knows what he’s talking about! He’s an experienced professor of Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible. (Here’s a short bio.)

      1. You are the first person that I know of, Marg, who has said that they dont know how to define the difference between soul and spirit. Years ago when I first got saved the spirit, all the definitions I saw meant, mind, will, emotions and intellect and the soul meant the total person. I’ve been confused for years. It was body and soul and the body soul and Spirit from different teachers I listened to. Then soul and Spirit had the same definitions.

        1. Yes, it can get very confusing.

          “Soul” (psychē) and “spirit” (pneuma) sometimes refer to different things, but at other times the terms are practically synonymous, especially when referring to the inner life of people.

          Also, how English-speaking Christians use the word “soul” (psychē) does not correspond well with how New Testament writers and other ancient writers use the word.

          From what I’ve seen in ancient texts, the Greek word psychē usually refers to a living person including, or especially, their life force or “breath of life.” Less often it refers to a person’s inner life, including their thoughts and feelings. But in more modern usage “soul” (psychē) almost always refers to a person’s inner life, their mind and spirit.

          I personally think there is little benefit in trying to determine the finer points of difference between the soul and spirit of people. And I see little point in trying to divide people into the components of body, soul, and spirit. It’s all inextricably connected.

          The “dividing soul and spirit” expression in Hebrew 4:12 is to show that the word of God is supernaturally sharp. It can do the impossible. And the “whole spirit, soul and body” expression in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 is to emphasise that our salvation is thorough and involves our entire being. Salvation doesn’t just save our (disembodied) “souls” as some theologies have it.

          I don’t have all the answers, but I do not believe Hebrews 4:12 or 1 Thessalonians 5:23 are meant to give us actual information about a supposed tripartite structure for humans.

          This article has some good, clear information: https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/526-soul-and-spirit-whats-the-difference

    2. I heard a lecture on this in a seminary. It can mean “ We are Ambassadors of the King to represent God in foreign cultures”.

      1. “Ambassadors” is an excellent word, but I’m not sure about the “foreign cultures” bit. Foreign to us or foreign to God? We are always God’s ambassadors whether we are in our own community and culture or somewhere else. And I imagine all cultures are equally known and familiar to God.

  2. Hi marg, You worry me a little because all your post in some way seems to indicate that somehow you have to justified the role of woman it like you have a chip on your shoulder, lets clear this up once and for all, all humans are born equal no one is more important that someone else, it makes my blood boil when just lately you hear the saying black lives matter, all lives matter fat people thin people all are Gods children, if we were not then we would not even exist. look there will be just as many woman in Gods kingdom as men if not more, because on the whole woman are more religious than men,

    1. My blog discusses the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism. This is the topic I have chosen to write about; and what it means to be made in the image of God is part of this topic. I wrote this post because of discussions I see on social media, one recent one in particular. This subject is of concern to some people. And I see no problem with writing about it. It’s theology.

      I do not need justification, but here are many women who do need biblical justification to step out of restrictive roles that they have been taught are biblical.

      You have your approach and I have mine, but please be aware that I will continue to write articles that provide biblical justification for women as equal partners in marriage and as equal participants in the church. Thankfully, this equality is already my experience.

    2. I wanted to add black lives matter isn’t saying all lives don’t. That is a social movement in a protest against police brutality and other kinds of racial injustice mostly due to the long list of what many black people perceive unjust killings of unarmed black men and women as well as racial profiling and excessive force. Don’t want to start a debate just pointing that out that BLM isn’t doesn’t contradict that every life is equally important in fact it just the opposite since they believe that all lives can’t matter unless black lives matter too well. God Bless

      1. I completely agree, CT. <3 Surely the BLM movement exists because all lives matter, but some people do not, and did not, value the lives of people of colour as highly as the lives of people with pale skin.

  3. Hello Marg, perhaps you could comment on the Hebrew of “dominate”, “subjugate” vis a vis animals that is in Gen 1:26, 28. Are there nuances in the translation? Thank you!

    1. Hi Keith, Hebrew is not my forte, but I did look up the verb radah (“have dominion, rule, dominate”) because I wanted to see what possible meanings and nuances it might have. It seems to be quite a strong word. Here’s a link to an online resource: https://biblehub.com/hebrew/7287.htm
      (It’s unrelated to the Hebrew word used in Genesis 3:16 for man ruling woman.)

  4. Excellent article. Readers of the Bible presume so many things when they read that are not really there – written or implied. Then we build theology on those presumptions. You have countered some key such presumptions in this post. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Beverly. It seems it’s especially easy to add ideas and explanations to the creation narratives because they raise many questions.

  5. Marg this article is a great start to what can be a great work. Chapter 2 of Genesis absolutely describes the responsibilities humanity exercises (naming, calling, giving identity to animals) in order to carry out the broader purpose you have pointed out in the first chapter (rule, subdue).

    We know that the word ‘helper’ is an under translated word. In the Hebrew language of the Bible, the reader finds that a provider, protecter, one who surrounds, and one who aides (as in medically like a healer) is drawn out of humanity. Humanity/adam names her “woman”. And thus woman is formed and considered from that point on as an individual but one with the man.

    They still share the same purpose and equal responsibilities; but the “wo-man” has the added characteristics of providing for and protecting.

    Unfortunately modern and western societies reduce the word “helper” to be subservient which perpetuates the continued subjugation of women seen in the texts of the Bible and on throughout history. And sadly, humanity got everything God invited us to do wrong from the beginning.

    I hoped your article would continue your line of inquiry rather than tie a neat bow around chapter one, then call it a day; when in fact the gender traits of woman- what makes her distinct and therefore attached to her gender- are providing for, protecting, surrounding, and healing humanity.

    Only through thoughtful scholarship and deep examination of who God is, and how we partner with Him and image him, will we as humanity begin to care for each other and the world we have been entrusted to rule.

    1. Hi Terese, this article really is a very brief look at Genesis 1:26-26 and what it means to be God’s image-bearers. I’ve written several articles on ezer kenegdo (“a help/er compatible/equal for/to him”) in Genesis 2, and looked at it in both the Hebrew and Greek here: https://margmowczko.com/tag/a-suitable-helper/

  6. Yes, this discussion is one that never ends. I have always understood the “image of God” to mean a reflection of God’s nature – doing good, the source of good, operating from love and faithfulness, etc. And yes, we would be God’s regents or ambassadors to take care of the earth’s inhabitants, to “work and take care of” the Garden. Adam was given an ezer kenegdo (of mutual strength) as a suitable helper. The discussion gets loud when the original intent in Genesis 1&2 is compared the instruction in Genesis 3:16-18, after the fall. Does Genesis 3 subtract from the original intent in how their roles and relationship are defined?

    1. Hi Imani, As representatives of God, we are to reflect all aspects of God’s nature where humanly possible. And if Genesis 3 does subtract from God’s original intent, Jesus restores it.

      1. Thank you Marg. My last statement was not meant to be a declaration but to raise a questions where we often get stuck. I try to understand scripture in its fullness and its historical context. This means do we understand the fullness of God’s purpose and will – probably not. Prayerfully we are learning all the time. Do we understand the context, speaking to specific circumstances and our daily choices then and now? Again prayerfully, we are learning all the time. God cannot repudiate Himself and therefore, Genesis 3:16-18 cannot refute Genesis 1:26 or Genesis 2:18. Also, God is a God of order. In our patriarchal thinking, order is used to denote importance and relative power. God uses order to ensure faith, hope and love. God uses order to help us see temptation and not give into it. So, what did Eve desire in the garden? To know what she did not know and feared she was missing. She didn’t see the completeness of the life she already had – to walk with God and have a life partner with whom to tend God’s garden. In Genesis God directs her to desire her husband – not just for physical intimacy but for spiritual intimacy. They are one. They should move in concert together. And Adam must take responsibility for his (servant) leadership and accountability for his actions. As Adam is pronounced as the head of the relationship / the household, his must lead as Christ does. They are to submit to each other in reverence to Christ, Ephesians 5:21. Their relationship is a covenant relationship with God at the center. All of this gets messy because we have thousands of years worldly interpretations and traditions connived for selfish reasons, to grab control and to put down others. I trust that God not only knew what His was creating but knew the temptations and how we would fail. Isaiah 46:10. When creating us and our purpose, God created the answer / solution for our salvation. John 1:1-5. We will fall short but if we seek the original purpose we will be okay.

        1. I’ve been clear about the parameters of this short blog post. This article is about God’s statement in Genesis 1, especially what it means for men and women being his image-bearers. These statements reveal God’s original intention for humanity. That doesn’t mean that things don’t change.

          Genesis 1 and 2 tell us about humanity before the fall. Genesis 3:15-19 is about humanity after the fall. A lot changed as a result of the fall! Some things changed again after the flood. And things changed a lot for humanity after Jesus’ death and resurrection and after Pentecost!

          I have other articles that discuss Genesis 2 and 3 and the other scriptures, and I have articles that discuss what it means for men and women to be part of the New Covenant and New Creation.

  7. There have been various theories about what the “image of God” means:
    sometimes trying to answer the question: “what feature do all
    humans have in common with each other and with God?”. Suggestions
    include consciousness, rationality, free will and so on.

    But even for a human being, it is possible to created several
    different images of a person (eg a painter could paint several
    different portraits of one person). For God, who is infinite,
    there could be a vast number of different images of God, each reflecting
    a different aspect of God’s amazing, wonderful character and beauty.

    When he created each one of us, God had a design in mind:
    a unique image of himself that he wanted to create.
    Each design is different, but amazing: pure and holy and beautiful.
    Then he created us: and the image in his mind began to appear
    in reality. But we all sinned and fall short of the image,
    so that the image become messed up, damaged and obscured.
    But Jesus came to take away our sin and set us free.
    God will restore the image back to perfection: we will become
    the person that God intended us to be, that we were made for!
    He is omnipotent, so he can do this, he wants to do this and,
    (as long as we are willing), he will do this.

    N.T.Wright says: “sin is a failure rather than simply the breaking of rules,
    it’s it’s it’s the failure to be genuinely human.
    The Greek word “hamartia”, sin, means missing the mark:
    shooting an arrow at a target and missing. What is the target?
    The target is genuine humaneness. What is genuine humaneness?
    It’s reflecting God’s image.”

    The target is not some impossible arbitrary standard of holy living
    that God has imposed on us (and then gets angry at us for falling
    short of), it is the person that God designed each of us to be:
    a genuine human image of God. It is what we were made for and is
    therefore immensely attractive and beautiful.

    When God looks at us, what he sees is the image that he originally
    designed and that he is going to restore: and he delights in us
    and rejoices over us. Jesus said to his disciples “I have said
    these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy
    may be complete” (Jn 15:11) and in his prayer to the Father he says:
    “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world
    so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (Jn 17:13).
    Jesus has joy over us and wants us to share in his joy.

    Heb 12:2 says of Jesus “who for the sake of the joy that was
    set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame,
    and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
    What was this joy that was set before Jesus, for the sake of which
    he was able to endure the cross and despise its shame? We are!

    Julian of Norwich writes: “The love which made him suffer
    exceeds his suffering as far as heaven is above the earth.
    For the suffering was a noble, glorious act of love, worked out in time,
    but Love was without beginning, is, and shall be without ending.”
    (Chapter 22)

    “And with this sweet enjoying, He showed me something of the holy Godhead,
    urging my poor soul to understand, and meditate on the endless
    Love that was without beginning, is now, and always shall be.
    And with this our good Lord said blissfully: ‘See how I loved you’,
    as if He had said: ‘My darling, behold and see your Lord, your God,
    your Creator, your endless joy. See what delight and happiness
    your salvation gives me. And rejoice with me because of my love.”
    (Chapter 24).

    1. I’ve heard many ideas that attempt to explain what it means to be made in the image of God. But I believe the author of Genesis 1 explains what it means: “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.”

      In other words, to be God’s image-bearers means to be God’s regents and have dominion, or stewardship, of the world that God created: the animals and their habitats.

  8. Is there anything to be dissected in the phrase “male and female created he them”?
    The “and” is usually interpreted as a logical “or.”
    Interpreted as a “logical and” it could have the implication that each individual would have a spectrum of maleness and femaleness.

    1. I see what you’re saying, but I think it simply means that humanity, as a whole, was created male and female. Humanity as a whole isn’t male or female, it’s both.

      Genesis 1:27 in Hebrew contains an extremely common vav conjunction that often means “and.” It typically doesn’t mean “or” (cf. ’ōw). Perhaps significantly, Galatians 3:28 echoes the “and” conjunction in Genesis 1:27:

      There is neither Jew nor Greek,
      οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην,

      there is neither slave nor free,
      οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος,

      there is neither male and female …
      οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ …

      1. Sorry if I am being dense, but what do you see as significant about the different conjunctions used in Gal 3:28?

        1. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, Genesis 1:27 contains the phrase ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ (“male and female”). Paul uses these three words exactly instead of using οὐδέ (“nor”) as he did in the two previous phrases in Galatians 3:28 CSB. (Paul often quotes from the Septuagint in his letters.)

          Many people, myself included, believe Paul breaks the pattern set up in the previous two “οὐδέ” phrases to quote Genesis 1:27 and “καὶ” in the third. Unfortunately, some English translations (HSCB, KJV, NASB, NET, etc) ignore Paul’s different word in the third phrase and they have the word “nor” or “or.” This is not correct.

          I have more about this in footnote 4 here: https://margmowczko.com/galatians-3_28-identity/

      2. Thanks for engaging with me. I don’t know enough to discern a meaning beyond the lack of distinctions among believers. The created male and female passage is often used as a so-called “clobber verse” against gay and trans folks and I just wondered if there was an alternative interpretation.

        1. The author of Genesis had procreation in mind (Gen. 1:28; cf. the fish and birds in Gen. 1:22). And I’m pretty sure he had the binary, but broad, categories of male and female in mind too. It is a great shame, however, that the statements in Genesis 1, which are brief and general, have been used against gay, trans, and intersex people. Not everyone is capable of procreation and not everyone fits neatly into binary categories of male and female.

          In Matthew’s Gospel, after quoting from Genesis 1 and 2, Jesus makes a statement about people whose sexuality perhaps doesn’t fit with Genesis 1, and there is not the slightest sense of censure. In fact, Jesus mentions acceptance.

          “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs who were made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept it should accept it” (Matthew 19:12 CSB).

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