Identifying the Image: Can Cain Help? image

Identifying the Image: Can Cain Help?


In my last post, I argued against the common view that the image of God is lost or damaged through human sin. Despite its popularity, there is no Scriptural warrant for the view and there is biblical support for the idea that every human is created and remains in the image of God, just as Adam and Eve were. But what does this mean? What does it mean to be created in the image of God? In this post, I’ll outline my musings on this question and explain how I think Cain may be able to help us answer it.

Understanding the Understandings of the Image of God

Generally speaking, understandings of the image of God can be broken down into three broad types:1

  1. Substantive – The image is identified as one or more specific elements of a human person, e.g. rationality (early Church Fathers) or original righteousness (Luther).
  2. Relational – The image is about interpersonal relationships, e.g. in our being male or female (Barth).
  3. Functional – The image is rooted in a function that humans perform, e.g. filling, subduing and having dominion over the earth.

The second and third understandings receive some support from the text of Genesis 1 (from verses 27 and 28 respectively). But it is not made explicit that these are elements of the image of God rather than just elements of being a human. Later uses of the concept in Scripture don’t seem to draw out these motifs.

Details for the first type of understanding are often extrapolated by outlining ways that humans are different from non-humans or ways in which humans are like God. However, no substantive elements of the image are explicitly stated in Scripture.2

The Scriptural Perspective

What does Scripture actually state about the image? Not a lot. That’s the problem. But I think there are two important points we can make.

Any account must consider Genesis 5:1-3. (These verses are probably the most problematic for my perspective.) Here, not only are humans said to be created in the likeness of God, but Seth is described as being in the likeness and image of Adam. It is hard to deny that the close proximity of these two uses of image language suggest they should somehow illuminate each other. I think this rules out the idea that the image is primary relational (it certainly can’t be about humanity as male and female) or functional (unless we argue that Seth becomes Adam’s representative, but I’m not sure there is justification for doing so). The best sense seems to be that there is a general family resemblance between Seth and Adam, just as we might recognise in any biological father-son pair. This would seem to suggest that our creation in the image of God speaks of general family resemblance between us and God. Importantly, the nature of this resemblance is not specified, and we don’t have any way of ascertaining any more detail on this.

The other key texts for understanding the image are its application to ethical situations in Genesis 9 and James 3.

In Genesis 9:6, as God reaffirms the Genesis 1 mandate for humanity following the flood, the image of God is employed to explain why capital punishment would be implemented in cases of murder.

‘Whoever sheds the blood of man,

By man shall his blood be shed,

For God made man in his own image.’

The implication is clearly that human life shouldn’t be taken because every human is made in God’s image. The seriousness of the crime, indicated by the severity of the punishment, is explained by reference to the image.

In this way we can understand the image as a status given to each human by God, somewhat like a stamp of value placed over us, designed to offer protection to human life. Because we are created in God’s image, every human’s life is worthy of protection and preservation.

The same concept can be discerned in James 3. James is discussing the importance and difficulty of taming the tongue, and in this context notes that with the tongue ‘we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God’, a fact, he goes on to say, which ‘ought not to be so’ (James 3:9-10). The implication is clearly that we shouldn’t speak curses over people because they are made in the likeness of God. Again the image stands as a God-given stamp of value which is designed to offer protection.

So the evidence would seem to suggest that being created in the image of God speaks of a general, 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.

The Image and the Mark of Cain

If this understanding is anywhere near being right, then it might find an interesting parallel in the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15). Commentators have long debated the identity of the mark given by God to Cain in order to protect him from those who would seek to attack him. In popular consciousness, the most common understanding is probably some sort of mark on his forehead.

However, Old Testament scholar Walter Moberly, has argued that the mark is actually the saying given by God in Genesis 4:15: ‘If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’3 He makes a compelling case based on details of the Hebrew (e.g. the fact that the mark is given ‘for’ or ‘to’ (ל) Cain, rather than ‘upon’ (על) him) and the context (e.g. the idea of a reputation of extreme vengeance from Cain and his descendants fits the character of a man who murdered his brother out of anger). God speaks over Cain a statement that will provide protection to him.

Though there aren’t clear linguistic parallels between Genesis 4 and Genesis 9, and therefore I probably wouldn’t claim that there is a deliberate connection, if Moberly’s reading is accepted, there is a conceptual parallel between the image of God and the mark of Cain. Both the image and the mark are pronouncements from God designed to offer protection. Interestingly, both occur in contexts where murder is being discussed, the difference, however, is that in Genesis 4 it is the murderer who is being protected, while in Genesis 9 it is the potential victim. Still, the point remains that the saying of Genesis 9:6 could function very much like the saying of Genesis 4:15.


From what I can see, then, the evidence of Scripture suggests that the little we can know about the meaning of the image of God is that it denotes humans as those who have some level of resemblance to God and that it is a statement of value spoken over us and designed to offer protection. This second element can be helpfully illustrated through a conceptual parallel with a potential understanding of the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15.

It still remains, however, to show why this all actually matters. In the next post, I will outline why getting our understanding of the image of God right is vitally important, especially for current cultural conversations about gender and about personhood.


  • 1. This classification is taken from Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, and is summarised in Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.443, n.8.
  • 2. I find it striking that Grudem lists 16 elements of what it means for humans to be created in God’s image and yet for only three does he offer any biblical reference.
  • 3. R.W.L. Moberly, ‘The Mark of Cain – Revealed At Last?’, Harvard Theological Review, 100.1 11-28.

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