as if all creatures constituted a host of worshipers in the cosmic temple

Key passages from The Liberating Image by J Richard Middleton:

First of all, the interpretation of the imago Dei among systematic theologians almost universally excludes the body from the image (whether explicitly or by omission), thus entrenching a dualistic reading of the human condition. …Any Old Testament scholar worth her salt will acknowledge that the semantic range of selem—the Hebrew word for image in Genesis 1—includes idol. Although its semantic range is broader than this single meaning, we need to account for selem in many contexts clearly referring to a cult image, which in the common theology of the ancient Near East is precisely a localized, visible, corporeal representation of the divine. A basic word study would thus lead to the preliminary observation that visibility and bodiliness may well be important for understanding the imago Dei and that this dimension of its meaning should not be summarily excluded from consideration. [24-25]

It is more than plausible that in Genesis 1 (like Isaiah 6) God shares with angelic courtiers the decision to commission the human agent for a significant earthly task. …Beyond suggesting that God consulted with angels to create humanity (“let us make”), Genesis 1 may include the notion that humans are created in the likeness of angels. “Image of ‘elohim” in 1:27 would thus appropriately reflect God’s decision to create humanity (“in our image, according to our likeness”) in 1:26. It is fascinating that even the Genesis 2-3 paradise/fall story seems to understand a certain similarity between humans and angels. The latter text uses the very same verb to describe the purpose of both. While adam is placed in the garden to till/work and “keep” (samar) it (2:15), the cherubim are placed east of the garden to “guard” (samar) the way to the tree of life (3:24). In this case, however, it may not be humans imaging angels, since the cherubim seem to take over the human vocation that was forfeited through sin. Thus when adam is expelled from the garden, all that is left to do is to “till” or “work” the ground (3:23). The task of keeping or guarding the garden has been passed on to others. [57-59]

Like the Egyptian god Ptah bringing creatures into being by speaking first in his heart and then with his tongue (in the Memphite Theology) or the Mesopotamian god Marduk first creating and then destroying a constellation by his mere word (in Enuma Elish), creatio per verbum clearly portrays God as supreme in power and authority. [66]

Creation, followed by temple building and then divine rest, is a central theme in Mesopotamian, and perhaps Ugaritic, mythology (both Marduk and Baal have temples built for them after their conquest of the chaos monster). …The notion of Cosmos as temple in Genesis 1 is suggested more specifically by the prominence of sevens in the creation story. …The heptadic structure of Genesis 1 thus seems to have cultic, liturgical significance and may well be associated in some way with the Jerusalem temple. …This association of the number seven with temples extends beyond the Old Testament to other ancient Near Eastern cultures. …But more important than these … associations are the significant structural and thematic parallels between the creation account in Genesis 1 and the account of the construction of the tabernacle … in Exodus. [81-84]

Beyond the association of word and breath, however, the presence of the ruah elohim in Genesis 1 might even suggest that the newly completed cosmic sanctuary would then be indwelt by this divine presence (as the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle when it was completed in Exodus 40:34). [86]

If the cosmos can be understood as indwelt by the creator, then the language of Psalm 119:91 (“all thoughts are your servants”) might well refer not only to the obedience of creatures to their cosmic ruler, but also to liturgical service in the cosmic sanctuary. This is consistent with Psalm 148, which exhorts all creatures—humans, angels, animals, even the sun, moon, mountains, and trees—to praise the creator, as if all creatures constituted a host of worshipers in the cosmic temple, over which God is exalted as king. This picture of creation as a cosmic temple also suggest the appropriateness of humanity as God’s image in the symbolic world of Genesis 1. For just as no pagan temple in the ancient Near East could be complete without the installation of the cult image of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, so creation in Genesis 1 is not complete (or “very good”) until God creates humanity on the sixth day as imago Dei, in order to represent and mediate the divine presence on earth. [87]

Bezalel’s discerning artistry in tabernacle-building images God’s own construction of the cosmos. Bezalel’s Spirit-filled craftsmanship, which imitates God’s primordial wise design and construction of the cosmos, is functionally equivalent to the imago Dei. [87]

The human task of exercising power over the earth is nevertheless modeled on God’s creative activity, which, in Genesis 1, is clearly developmental and formative, involving the process of transformation the tohu wabohu into an ordered, harmonious cosmos. By implication, then, the human calling as imago Dei is itself developmental and transformative and may be helpfully understood as equivalent to the labor or work of forming culture or developing civilization. Besides the definitive human task represented in 2:15 by the agricultural metaphor (to “till” and “keep” the garden), which is a paradigmatic form of organizing and transforming the environment into a habitable world for humans, we may note the pervasive interest throughout the primeval history in human cultural achievements and technological innovations such as city-building; and nomadic livestock-herding, music, and metallurgy. The human task thus reflects in significant ways the divine artisan portrayed in Genesis 1 as artfully constructing a world. [89]

The imago Dei also includes a priestly or cultic dimension. In the cosmic sanctuary of God’s world, humans have pride of place and supreme responsibility …as priests of creation, actively mediating divine blessing to the nonhuman world and—in a postfall situation—interceding on behalf of a groaning creation until that day when heaven and earth are redemptively transformed to fulfill God’s purposes for justice and shalom. The human vocation as imago Dei in God’s world this corresponds in important respects to Israel’s vocation as a “royal priesthood” among the nations (Exodus 19:6). [89-90]

Given the widely agreed upon Mesopotamian background of the primeval history, I will assume … that the author of Genesis 1 (whenever he lived) was acquainted (in either oral or written form) with the Mesopotamian notion of the king as 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. [145]

In John Walton’s summary, “the cuneiform literature everywhere agrees that people were created to do the work the gods were tired of doing and to provide for the gods’ needs.” [166]

The Mesopotamian deity remained aloof—yet its partaking of the ceremonial repast gave religious sanction, political status, and economic stability to the entire temple organism, which circulated products from fields and pastures across the sacrificial table to those who were either, so to speak, shareholders of the institution or received rations from it. At any rate, the image is the heart and hub of the entire system. His attendance worshipers lived from the god’s table, but they did not sit down with him. [169, extended quotation from A. Leo Oppenheim]

The mythology of Enuma Elish proclaimed in no uncertain terms the servitude (even bondage) of humanity, “created out of evil substance,” as cheap slave labor to do the “dirty work” of the lower gods. [176]

For human sociopolitical life to achieve its best and highest form, society must replicate the divine pattern that the gods enacted in primordial time. Sociopolitical order is thus thought of as a microcosm of the larger world of the gods and their founding of the cosmos, with some central urban site typically conceived as the navel of the world or the bond of heaven and earth. [177]

Human beings as imago Dei are thus not only priests of the Most High, they are (if we may dare to say it) God’s living cult statues on earth. Indeed, humans are the only legitimate or authorized earthly representations of God. …The claim that humanity is created as imago Dei suggests a rationale for the prohibition of images beyond anything we find explicitly stated elsewhere in the Old Testament. [207]

God in Genesis 1 creates for the benefit of the creature, without explicitly asking for a return of any kind. And humans, in God’s image, I suggest, are expected to imitate this primal generosity in their own shared rule of the earth. [211]

It is thus of immense significance that the primeval history recounts the founding of the first city not by God but by a human being. …In the ancient myths … “the gods provide humanity with all the essentials of human civilization. By contrast, in the Bible, early humans develop their own culture. The human being, a creature created by God, is the initiator and creator of its own culture. …Perhaps most significant for purposes of comparison with Mesopotamia, the [Bible’s] primeval history portrays a world without the institution of monarchy. While this would be literally unthinkable in Mesopotamian civilizations (or indeed any of the high cultures of the ancient Near East), on this point Israel’s historical narrative is clear. …It is the king’s primary duty to study the Torah and not exalt himself above other Israelites by inordinately increasing his power or wealth. [217-219]

Thus it would seem, at first glance, that the tower of Babel text describes (and critiques) a particular cultic structure. Yet there is nothing even remotely cultic about the narrative portrayal of this tower in Genesis 11. …Cities may be said to have fortified walls reaching “up to the heavens.” …Prophetic oracles against Babylon, especially in Jeremiah 51 and Isaiah 14:3-23, do not single out cultic practices, but rather imperial hubris, military fortifications, and oppressive power, portraying this in terms of Babylon’s aspiration to reach up to the heavens (see especially Jeremiah 51:53; Isaiah 14:12-20). [223]

This intertextual association of various elements of the Babel story with oppressive military/imperial power coheres well with the suggestion of David Smith that the story does not portray an idyllic world unified with a single primal language, but reflects the Neo-Assyrian imperial practice of imposing the single language of the conqueror on subjugated people. …Thus we find that an extant Assyrian royal inscription declares that Ashurbanipal II “made the totality of all peoples speak one speech” and that “his sovereign approach made the unruly and ruthless kings speak one speech from the rising of the sun to its setting.” Likewise a cylinder inscription of Sargon II boasts: “Populations of the four world quarters with strange tongues and incompatible speech…whom I had taken as booty at the command of Ashur my lord and by the might of my scepter, I caused to accept a single voice,” which Stephanie Dalley interprets as part of the Neo-Assyrian policy of indoctrinating foreigners into their supposedly superior language and culture. [223-224]

God is not threatened by this Promethean act of human assertion. Rather, a careful reading of Genesis 11 in the context of the primeval history suggests that Babel represents imperial civilization par excellence and that this imposed, artificial unity is a danger to the human race. [225]

A canonical interpretation of the [the tower of Babel text] suggests that it ultimately protests the hidden, systemic violence beneath Babylonian/Mesopotamian civilization by stripping away its putative divine legitimization. Babel is thus disclosed as nothing more than a human construction, and a violent one at that. …The civilization that claimed to represent the epitome of order is unmasked as simply another form of chaos. [227]

This invitational character of God’s creative fiats is indicated by their not being imperatives at all, but Hebrew jussives (which have no exact counterpart in English). As Eugene Roop explains, the force of the Hebrew jussive can range “from very strong (almost a command) to very soft (almost a wish)” and “always possesses a voluntary element.” [265]

…The word tôb has in this context at least a twofold connotation, esthetic and ethical. The cosmos is good in two senses: it is both pleasing to God, as a beautiful, well-constructed world, and it is evaluated positively since it enacts God’s will (and is not recalcitrant or rebellious). [266]

Indeed, we need to confront the overwhelming violence that pervades the Bible—from the widespread patriarchal social structure and assumptions that underlie the biblical text (which certainly constitutes a form of systemic violence against women) through the holy wars of Israel against the Canaanites (at God’s command), to the plethora of violent incidents attributed to God’s people in the historical books or to God directly (including eschatological violence). [268]

The opening biblical creation account (which does not contain cosmogonic conflict) now serves as the overture to the entire BIble, dramatically relativizing the other cosmogonies. …Genesis 1 constitutes a normative framework by which we may judge all the violence that pervades the rest of the BIble (including, but not limited to, texts of cosmogonic conflict). [269]

Corresponding to days 1-3, we have days 4-6, on which God fills precisely the static spaces just created with mobile creatures that appropriately inhabit them. …Yet two anomalies are found in this pattern. …We have the interesting phenomenon of two sets of borderline creatures (vegetation and heavenly bodies) that blur the boundaries between the panels as commonly understood. [278-280]

[Genesis 1 depicts] the process of creation as God sharing power with creatures, inviting them to participate (as they are able) in the creative process itself. …Both governing (or ruling) and separating [as tasks assigned to the sun and moon] are paradigmatically divine acts not only in the ancient Near East (especially in the Sumerian and Akkadian creation accounts), but also in Genesis 1, where God’s sovereign creative activity on days 1-3 consists precisely in three acts of separation. …Likewise, the “expanse” or “firmament” that God created (on day 2) is granted the godlike function of separating the waters above from the waters below (1:6), in imitation of God own separation of light from darkness on day 1. …This implies that sun, moon, and firmament, like humans in God’s image, participate in (or imitate) God’s own creative actions. [287-288]

The earth is invited to produce first vegetation (1:11) and later land animals (1:24), [while] the waters are invited to teem with water creatures (1:20). They are invited, in other words, to exercise their God-given fertility and thus to imitate God’s own creative actions in filling the world with living things. Actually, God takes quite a risk in calling for the earth to produce vegetation [on day 3] since up to that point in the story God has not yet engaged in the act of filling (it is not until days 4-6 that God fills with mobile being the regions or spaces demarcated on days 1-3). Indeed, on the next day, it is God who imitates the earth’s prior creative action by filling the sky with heavenly bodies, which in the literary structure of Genesis 1 is a derivative actions. God is, rhetorically speaking, preempted by the earth and does not seem to be threatened by this. Attention to these rhetorical features points us to a God who does not hoard divine creative power, with some desperate need to control, but rather to a God who is generous with power, sharing it with creatures, that they might make their own contribution to the harmony and beauty of the world. [288-289]

When creation is complete and we would expect a final formula, “There was evening and there was morning, the seventh day,” there is none, which leaves the attentive reader hanging and suggests that the seventh day is open-ended or unfinished. In the literary structure of the book of Genesis, the seventh day has no conclusion since God continues to rest from creating, having entrusted care of the earth to human beings. [291]

In Brueggemann’s summary, the picture of God in Genesis 1 and of humanity as imago Dei foregrounds “the creative use of power which invites, evokes, and permits. There is nothing here of coercive or tyrannical power, either for God or for humankind.” …The imago Dei [grounds] an ethic characterized fundamentally by power with rather than power over. [297]

Summary thoughts after reading The Liberating Image by J Richard Middleton:

God created the world as a temple with humans representing Him within this sanctuary as living and breathing images (legitimate idols) of Himself. Our presence makes the temple of this world into a place where the Creator is known, recognized, worshiped, and enjoyed everywhere and in every detail. Humans are made to act like their Creator, representing Him as His stewards, servant-kings, and priests. We were commissioned to fill up this temple-creation, doing God’s work of protecting everything, crafting beautiful new things, inviting new life to flourish, and recognizing God’s good design within everything. We do this, first, by simply giving names to each new thing, because to name a thing is to recognize it, uniquely, as a gift from God. God’s great goal and desire for this creation is for humans to produce and develop cultures and communities spreading throughout the world that He made and filling it with His image-bearing children. Every detail of creation, living and inanimate, is made to communicate God’s goodness and blessing, and humans are made to recognize, receive, and proclaim God’s goodness as we find it in every corner of our temple-world.

Genesis 1 and 2 teach these things in beautiful, careful language. They also intentionally and specifically oppose a set of creation myths from the surrounding cultures (where Israel was enslaved in Egypt and exiled in Babylon):

  • Humanity is not made to carry out tasks that the gods do not wish to do or to provide for the needs of the gods. Instead, humanity is made to enjoy God’s blessing and to imitate God’s own free work (of calling forth and crafting good and beautiful things that share God’s own life-giving qualities).
  • Humanity is not made from some inferior substance (such as the blood of an evil sub-deity who was vanquished by the higher gods). Instead, humanity is crafted from clay and the Creator’s own breath to carry the Creator’s own image and likeness.
  • The divine image and vocation does not belong only to the priests and kings of great civilizations. All humanity (male and female from every tribe, nation, and tongue) are God’s image within the created worldequally, collectively, and individually.
  • Human culture and civilizationin all its growth, power, noise, and diversityis never a threat to God. Unlike the pagan gods who must control and often limit aspects of human life and culture in order to ensure that humanity serves their divine purposes, God’s intention for human culture is always that it would flourish freely, spreading and diversifying of its own accord throughout the Creator’s world.
  • God does not create the world through violence, by defeating and dismembering the monsters of chaos and deep darkness to create a temple for Himself. God invites with a voice of authority but also a voice that always leaves space for a voluntary and participatory response. God hovers (like a brooding mother bird) and invites with his voice and crafts with his hands rather than attacking, cutting, or tearing like a warrior.
  • After the fall and rebellion of humanity, God does show Himself to be a warrior against the violence that humanity unleashes upon itself (and upon the creation that humanity was designed to protect and prosper). Violence and coercion immediately begins to plague and characterize every aspect of human life, culture, and civilization. As victims and perpetrators of violence, humans become agents of chaos and darkness instead of life and light. The most sophisticated city-empires are only a complex cover for extreme internal and structural violence against free, flourishing, and diverse human communities. In the tower of Babel text, an empire arises that forces many nations to speak one language and to serve the power of one kingly and priestly class (who alone represent the will of the gods), and God fights against this empire for the sake of preserving and promoting free and flourishing human culture throughout the world. This theme (of God fighting for free and flourishing human culture against empires of violence, coercion, and chaos) is central to the entire biblical story: the Great Flood, the tower of Babel, Abram called out of Ur, Joseph sold into Egypt, Moses fleeing Pharaoh, Samuel/David versus Saul/Philistines, Daniel versus Nebuchadnezzar/Darius, Christ versus Herod/Caesar/Satan, and the church versus the Whore of Babylon. Scripture is full of calls for God’s people to defend the powerless against the powerful (within a fallen world that is so given to violence). This is essential to the biblical idea of justice: defending the most powerless in a violent world because every human is God’s image (created to make God present within His good creation).