An Awkward Question About the Image
Question and answer sessions are really helpful, not just (hopefully) for the questioners but also for the answerer. I regularly find that allowing people to ask questions after I’ve been teaching helps me to sharpen my thinking or highlights things that I haven’t thought about but which I need to. One question I was asked last year has been on my mind ever since, and I think I’ve finally made some progress on it.
For a few years now, I have been thinking a lot about the image of God. I fear that the image is one of the most widely misunderstood and abused scriptural concepts. Christians, and especially Christian writers, seem to feel the liberty to link our creation in the image of God with all manner of things without providing any biblical justification for their assertions or paying attention to what Scripture does say about the image. It feels like it’s become an empty theory into which we can put whatever meaning supports the point we are seeking to make.
I’ve written before about what I think Scripture tells us about the image – it is a ‘family-like resemblance between humans and God, the detail of which is unspecified, but which is given by God as a marker of value designed to offer protection to human life.’ It is not lost or damaged because of sin, and this is really important because of how the image relates to some key real-life issues.
When teaching about the image, I have often stated that it marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection. Then one day, after teaching that, I was asked about Genesis 9:6, a text I had used to make my case. The questioner rightly pointed out that Genesis 9 doesn’t just affirm the value of human life made in the image of God, it also says that humans who end another human life should have their own life ended. It would seem, they pointed out, that some lives made in the image of God are not worthy of preservation and protection.
This question had an undeniable logic to it, and I couldn’t easily fit it into my understanding of the image.1 I did, however, start to try and nuance what I would teach. I avoided the blanket statement that the image marks all human lives as worthy of preservation and protection and tried to speak instead of the supreme value of every human life. I also noted that though the taking of a human life through capital punishment did seem to undermine the right to life of the guilty party, Genesis 9 doesn’t link this to any diminishing of the image in that person. I can’t see any evidence that the introduction of the death sentence in Genesis 9 indicates that the image is lost or damaged through sin.
Beyond that, capital punishment in Genesis 9 remained a bit of a thorn in my side, complicating what I have felt is important biblical teaching about the right to life. Until, finally, I noticed something significant.
Genesis 9 isn’t completely clear whether the murderer’s life will be ended by another human (an executioner) or by God himself.2 But it is clear that whoever acts as the direct cause of the murderer’s death, the life is taken at the requirement of God. This point is made three times in Genesis 9:5 (‘I will require’).
And then it struck me that before God we don’t have a right to life. There are many places in Scripture where we see God putting people to death. We often struggle with these stories, thinking, ‘How can God just kill someone like that?’ But of course, in reality, we get that question the wrong way around. The question is not ‘How can God kill someone?’, but ‘How has God not killed us all? How has God not killed me?’ Before the utterly holy God, none of us deserve to live. Every breath we breathe is an outworking of the grace of God to us. As sinners before a holy God we don’t have a right to life, but from this holy God we do receive the gift of life.
So, does the sentence of death for murderers in Genesis 9 undermine the truth that the image of God marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection? Does it undermine our right to life? When looked at from a human perspective, I don’t think so. Because we are all created in the image of God, every human life, from birth to natural death, is worthy of preservation and protection. It is only God who can choose to withdraw his gift of life.
And this has big implications for the life and death issues we might encounter today. None of the key ethical debates in our society involve situations where God has passed sentence and demanded the life of an individual. Indeed, heartbreakingly, the reality is usually the opposite. In our society, the humans who are often deemed not to have the right to life are those whom God has most called us to advocate for and care for: the voiceless and vulnerable.
So, I don’t think Genesis 9 does undermine the truth that the image of God marks every human life as worthy of preservation and protection. And I do still think that the image of God and the outworkings of that reality indicated in Scripture are some of the most important truths for us to affirm and apply in our day. In the context of a society that continues to end many human lives that have only just begun, and where many want us to start deliberately ending human lives deemed less worthwhile, the inherent value, dignity and right to life bestowed on every living human by our creation in the image of God is vitally important.
- 1. As it happens, I think there are reasons for assuming that the sentence of capital punishment does not still apply today, but this doesn’t undermine the basic logic of the question.
- 2. In Genesis 9:6b, ‘by man’ (the preposition ב be with the noun אדם ādām) could be translated ‘by man’ (as most modern versions) or ‘(in exchange) for that man’ (a reading supported by the LXX: ἀντὶ τοῦ αἵματος ‘in return for this blood’ (NETS)). The latter would remove human involvement, but the former is the more natural reading of the preposition.