The Image of God and a New Proposal for Resolving Old Testament Violence


The violence problem

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the problem of violence in the Old Testament. If you’re unfamiliar with this topic, here’s a basic summary of the problem:

  1. Jesus reveals God as completely nonviolent.
  2. The Old Testament frequently shows God engaging in and commanding violence.

If you disagree with the first point, the second won’t pose as much of a problem for you. But for the sake of this post, I’m taking the first point as granted, and I have no intention of debating it here.

Many other proposals for resolving this problem have already been made, and I don’t intend to discuss them at the moment. But suffice it to say that I currently find the proposals of folks like Derek Flood, Brad Jersak, Brian Zahnd, and Pete Enns to be most convincing, and I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Greg Boyd’s book on the subject.

My own proposal should not in any way negate the ones I’ve listed above. If it carries any weight, I think it should complement them nicely by providing yet another angle from which to look at the issue. Furthermore, I’m not posting my proposal in an attempt to convince others. Rather, I’m hoping to get feedback from those who have been thinking through these same issues.

If you agree with my first point listed above, I’d like to hear what you think of this solution to the second point. Does it have any merit? Is it entirely flawed? How can it be improved? Has anyone else made this proposal that I’m unaware of?

(And if you disagree with the first point, this post is not intended for you. Sorry.)

The image of God

So how does the image of God relate to the problem of violence? We first need to understand what the image of God signifies. There are many ideas about the image of God, and some of them seem more likely than others, but most of them are simply speculations. That’s because the Bible in itself nowhere offers a definition for the image of God.

However, studies in the context of the ancient Near East are changing this. We’re learning that the creation accounts in Genesis were not written in a void. They were actually written as responses to the creation accounts given by surrounding nations. Genesis takes these other creation stories and subverts them, pointing to the God of Israel as sole Creator.

The image of God is one such concept that was taken directly from ancient Near Eastern mythology. According to the surrounding nations, the reigning king bore the image of god. This meant that he, and he alone, ruled as his god’s representative on earth. When he spoke, he spoke on his god’s authority as if his god had spoken himself.

But Genesis subverts this. Genesis shows that all humans, male and female alike, are made in God’s image. Humanity as a whole bears the image of God, and humans were intended to rule as God’s representatives on earth. Once we understand this, we can easily see the connection right there in Genesis:

And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image and according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every moving thing that moves upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him, male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of heaven, and over every animal that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26–28, LEB)

See how the image of God is directly tied to the concept of ruling? As God’s image bearers, we were created to rule the earth as his representatives and with his authority.

Before humankind fell into sin, we were perfect image bearers. But when we fell, God did not take away our image-bearing status. We became imperfect image bearers, but we still bear God’s image, rule as his representatives, and speak with the authority he gave us.

Who gave the command?

With this understanding of the image of God in place, we are now ready to look at the problem of Old Testament violence—particularly the violence that God apparently commanded.

Because humans bear the image of God, we speak with the authority of God. And so, when men commit atrocities in the name of God, there is a sense in which their claims are accurate. Did God personally give the command to commit violence? Well, no. But God did give the authority to speak on his behalf. Humankind has abused this authority and spoken things on God’s behalf that he would have never spoken himself. But the problem of authority as coming from God still remains.

Perhaps a different biblical example may help explain this conundrum.

In the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus gave his signet ring to Haman. This ring gave Haman the right to act on the authority of the king. The decree Haman issued “was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and was sealed with the king’s ring” (Esther 3:12, LEB), which means that it was as good as if the king has decreed it himself. The king later came to regret this decision, but because Haman had acted on his authority, the king’s hands were tied, and he could not reverse the decree. But once the decree had been completed, the king took the signet ring back from Haman and gave it to Mordecai instead.

The image of God is in many ways like God’s signet ring. It was intended to give us the authority to speak in God’s name and act with his authority. However, unlike a ring—which can be taken away as easily as it is given—the image of God describes our created state. God cannot simply remove this authority from us without undoing our created nature. Despite our flaws, we still bear the image of God and speak with his authority. And if this is true for all of humanity, how much more must it be the case for the people who were called by Yahweh’s name (Deuteronomy 28:10).

So, for example, when Moses told the Israelites that God commanded them to utterly destroy the surrounding nations—unless they accepted terms of peace, in which case they were to be taken as forced labor and sex slaves—did God really give such commands (Deuteronomy 20:10–21:14)?

In the strictest sense, no, the God who is love would never issue such a command. Given what we now know about God as revealed in Jesus, such a suggestion is blasphemous, and we must denounce it as absolute antichrist. God did not give these commands. Period.

However, it is also true that these commands were given according to the authority Yahweh bestowed on humanity and especially on Israel. So in a sense, they did come from God. Humans, though fallen, still bear God’s image—we are his tainted signet ring of authority. Thus the travesties we commit in his name do, in a very real sense, proceed from him, even though he would never issue such commands himself.

I can’t imagine how much this must grieve him.

But then there’s the good news. The gospel changes all of this! Jesus, as God incarnate, is the perfect image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). He succeeded where Adam failed, bearing God’s image without corruption. He shows us what God is truly like, and he speaks with the authority that is both his by nature and his as image bearer.

When the perfect image of God in Jesus contradicts the broken image of God in Moses or anyone else, there’s no question as to which image we accept. And best of all, our own broken image is now being conformed back into his perfect image (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10).