Image and dominion

A beautiful forest scene with a river flowing between trees

What informs your identity? Like most people, it’s a few things for me. I’m a husband and father, a Christ follower, a son, a brother, a digital marketer and website developer, a hobbyist woodworker, and a resident of Tennessee, among other characteristics that contribute to my identity. But which takes precedent? Certainly some parts of my identity are less important than others. What’s at the core of my identity? We can look to the Bible for answers.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27, NIV

The Hebrew word in 1:27 translated as mankind refers to both men and women. We are all created in his image—this is our foundational identity, that we are made in the image of God! But what does that even mean?

In the ancient world, bearing the image of God would connote the idea of a vice-regency. This is a person who represents and speaks on behalf of a king or ruler. So to be created in the image of God means that our primary identity is in glorifying God in everything we do. King David explains this concept in Psalm 8.

David’s interpretation of the creation mandate in Psalm 8

For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.

1 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,

8 the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8, NIV

James M. Hamilton Jr., a professor of biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reads Psalm 8 as both a personal mandate for image bearers and a Christological shadow. In Volume I of his commentary on the Psalms1, Hamilton translates verse 4 differently:

4 What is man [Enosh] that you remember him, the son of Adam that you visit him?

In the Hebrew, both Adam and Enosh mean man. Noting the psalmist’s geneological reference to the first three generations of humanity (Adam > Seth > Enosh), Hamilton traces David’s intent back to the garden of Eden and the curse of the serpent.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

Genesis 3:16, NIV

Though Psalm 8 is quite short, it reveals a lot about David’s understanding of God’s promise in Genesis 3: the seed of the woman will crush the head of evil. And recognizing that he himself sits in that lineage, he can’t keep his praises from bursting forth.

Psalm 8 is a poem of adoration for Yahweh’s faithfulness. David wrote this psalm with a keen awareness of his own lineage from Adam, as well as his God-given dominion. Hamilton writes, David understands the purpose of his dominion to be the extension of Yahweh’s glory, and he understands that dominion to be in conflict with the way the enemy and the avenger seeks to establish his own dominion through the kings of the nations who set themselves against Yahweh and his anointed (2:1–3). The words of Psalm 8:6–9 are an obvious reference to Genesis 1:28, when God gives Adam and Eve dominion over all creation for the purpose of glorifying God. This is David’s interpretation of image bearing and dominion in the first chapters of Genesis.

Man’s identity in the book of Job

The book of Job is a phenomenal thesis on identity. Set in the midst of the worst days of Job’s life, his own friends blame him for his suffering, which was allowed by God to prove Job’s faithfulness. Toward the end of the book (chapters 38–39), God addresses Job directly from a whirlwind, mostly with rhetorical questions responding to Job’s questions of God’s justice.

4 Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

Job 38:4–7, NIV

John H. Walton, a leading Old Testament scholar, points out that this section of the book of Job—and the creation account in Genesis—is not scientific in nature. That’s not why it was written or how its original readers would have interpreted it.

In [Job 38–41], Yahweh is not seeking to prove his existence. He is making the point that it is foolhardy to call him to task for his putative failure to conform to a system of human devising that has access to so little data.

John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Job

Not only does God’s poetic language in Job 38–39 put Job “in his place”—it also serves to remind Job, and us, that God provides food for the raven (38:41, NIV) and knows when the mountain goats give birth. (39:1, NIV) Surely the God who watches and cares for his creatures so well cares deeply for us.

Living in light of image and dominion

Taken together, Genesis 1–3, Job 38–39, and Psalm 8 remind us that, as image bearers of the Almighty, we have the capacity to do for others what God does for his whole creation—bring Light into their lives, restore order from chaos, water the deserts of their souls, cherish the least of these,2 and care for all within our purview. Simply put, we represent our Father in heaven as his imagers on earth.

God breathed his breath of life into us, not just to make us alive—the animals became alive without this breath of life—but to stir us to live, to do, to act, as his representatives on the earth.

He has given each of us dominion over something, and that authority is best practiced when we look to our God and King, our Good Shepherd. Authority is not for dominating those around us—it’s for caring well for them. God provides for the birds, the wildflowers, and the sheep of his fold. What God does for the cosmos, he equips us to do for our communities. This is our identity: we are made in the image of our good God for the purpose of caring for creation, most especially our fellow people.

So what now? Go and do the same. (The words of Jesus found in Luke 10:37, CSB)

  1. Hamilton, J. M., Jr. (2021). Psalms Volume I: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary. Faithlife Corporation. 

  2. See Matthew 25:31–46.