3.3.5 ‘In the image of God’: (a) dominion in the good creation

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Unit 3 Contents



In the text of Genesis itself, there is a close connection between ‘image of God’ and the giving of dominion:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion…” (Gen 1.26, NRSV).

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion…” (Gen. 1.26, NAB).

Humankind, male and female, is created by God to be in his image – that is, representative of God, in exercising on God’s behalf a role that is in the first place God’s own, namely mastery or dominion or rule over other living creatures.

Biblical scholars have discovered that, when this text is compared with other uses of the idea of ‘image of God’ in the ancient world, it is very striking that it says that all humans, male and female, are made in God’s image.  This is significant because, in uses of the idea outside ancient Israel, the phrase was typically applied to the ruler only – he was in the image of God, not everybody.  Moreover, the ruler often erected images of himself throughout his territory to signify his power over his people.  (Dictatorial rulers still use images in this way, such as in the former Soviet Union and in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.)  Genesis 1 subverts this use of ‘image of God’.  We can say that it ‘democratizes’ it – it applies it to everyone, all human beings, including both male and female.1

But it is more relevant to this unit on ecological responsibility to recognize another point.  You recently read the whole of Genesis 1.  This chapter repeats several times that God saw what he had created and called it ‘good’ – and that the whole was ‘very good’.   Therefore the granting of dominion to humans can’t possibly mean a licence to ruin it!  On the contrary, implicit in the idea of acting on God’s behalf is exercising stewardship of it, that is, taking care of it because it is valuable.

Indeed in the short statement by Pope John Paul you just read (on 3.3.3), entitled ‘God Made Man the Steward of Creation’, he quotes an earlier encyclical in which he said that human dominion or ‘lordship’ is not “absolute, but ministerial:  it is a real reflection of the unique and infinite lordship of God. Hence man must exercise it with wisdom and love, sharing in the boundless wisdom and love of God” (#3, quoting Evangelium Vitae, #52).

These words suggest an interpretation of ‘lordship’ in the light of Jesus Christ himself, whose teaching points to a re-reading of the exercise of authority as a ministry for those over whom it is exercised (see Mark 10:35-45). So, again, we can’t interpret ‘dominion’ as giving liberty to dominate and exploit regardless of the effects.

A little earlier in that statement, Pope John Paul uses an especially striking phrase: “The human creature receives a mission to govern creation in order to make all its potential shine” (#2).  Here he is interpreting ‘dominion’ especially as this applies to the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in v. 28.  Human procreation and the work that goes with it lead to the growth of many and various human societies with their distinctive cultures, all enabling the potential within creation to “shine”.  We shall return to this vision of the potential which human activity is to unlock in Unit 4.

More recently, Pope Benedict XVI said,

But the true meaning of God’s original command [to have dominion], as the Book of Genesis clearly shows, was not a simple conferral of authority, but rather a summons to responsibility. (Message for the 2010 World Day of Peace, #6)

To summarize, to be in the image of God is to be given dominion and therefore to exercise a Christ-like authority within the very good creation.  Notice an important point: this way of interpreting the phrase is about a role humans have, and so is about the whole person.  It is not about only one part or attribute of humans (such as the mind).



End of 3.3.5

Go to 3.3.6 ‘In the image of God’: (b) humans as ‘persons in relation’


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  1. Cf. “The Old Testament understanding of man as created in the imago Dei in part reflects the ancient Near Eastern idea that the king is the image of God on earth. The biblical understanding, however, is distinctive in extending the notion of the image of God to include all [people].” This quotation is from a major statement by Catholic theologians on this subject: International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, 2004, #8, accessible at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html.  Chapter 3 of this, on ‘Stewards of Visible Creation’, explores this aspect of the meaning of ‘in the image of God’.  A full discussion of this aspect is J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos Press, 2005).