Posted by: mattcolvin | January 20, 2015

Genesis 1:27 and Interpretive Maximalism

My friend Pr. Uri Brito has a fine article at about James B. Jordan’s controversial hermeneutic. He cites this paragraph from Jordan’s Judges commentary as a justification for Jordan’s approach:

We have to explain this [i.e., the business about types and prophecies] in order to distance ourselves from the interpretive minimalism’ that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years. We do not need some specific New Testament verse to `prove’ that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not to be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God. Such a `maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers.

I have seen this argument also in Jordan’s Through New Eyes:

Just as everything in creation is a general symbol of God, so also man is the special symbol, for man and man alone is created as the very image of God (Genesis 1:26). Each individual human being, and the race as a whole (Genesis 1:27), symbolizes God in a special way. What is this special way? Theologians have debated the issue, and no one will ever fully understand it (since to do so we should have to understand fully the nature of the God whose symbol we are). All the same, this much can be said: Man is the only symbol that is also a symbol-maker. The first part of Genesis 1 is the context in which it is then said that man is the image of God. God has been presented as one who determines, creates, evaluates, names, takes counsel among Himself, etc. These things are what man uniquely images. (Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 31)

Thus, Genesis 1:27 is used to underwrite “symbolism all the way down”.

I do not follow Jordan’s hermeneutic, but I don’t want to spend time criticizing it here. Casting his net wide has allowed him to catch many fish that other exegetes do not catch. So there is fruit from his method, and we would do well to glean from him. But my concern is with the way he takes Genesis 1:27 to justify his approach to the creation as “symbol all the way down” and to Scripture as virtually a Mandelbrot set of recursive and bottomless symbolism.

Whatever debates theologians have had about what it means that Man was created as “the image of God”, the precise meaning of the phrase can indeed be ascertained. And the procedure for explaining it is not Jordan’s hermeneutic, but the more plodding and difficult work of historical and linguistic research. Jewish exegete Jon D. Levenson explains in Creation and the Persistence of Evil:

The link between the creation of humanity “in the image of God” in Genesis 1 and their status as royalty can be clearly seen in ancient Near Eastern inscriptions in which it is the king who is described as the “image” of the deity. Hans Wildberger assembled a rich and convincing collection of such passages from both Egypt and Mesopotamia, of which a sample will suffice for purposes of illustration here. In the Rosetta Stone, to begin with a late example, the Hellenistic Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes is called eikōn zōsa tou Dios, “the living image of Zeus.” About twelve hundred years earlier, Amunhotpe III was described as the god Amun’s “beloved son,” his “living image.” Another Pharaoh, perhaps his successor Thutmosis IV, is called “the image of Re, son of Amun, who tramples down foreigners.

Wildberger noted the similarity of this epithet to the use of rādâ in Genesis l and Psalm 110, but he might have drawn attention as well to the statement in Psalm 8:7 that God has laid “the world at his feet,” made not of the individual, but of humanity in their regal role within the created order. Of Wildberger’s Mesopotamian examples, the most striking is an Assyrian letter from the seventh century B.C.E. in which the priest and court astrologer Adad-šum-uur terms the king “the image [tsalam]” of the god Bel, using the Akkadian cognate of the Hebrew tselem, the term for “image” in Genesis 1:26–27. On the basis of these examples, and apparently without knowledge of Saadya’s precedent, Wildberger makes a persuasive case for seeing the creation of humanity “in the image of God” as a statement of the sovereignty of the human race over the rest of creation. The entire race collectively stands vis-à-vis God in the same relationship of chosenness and protection that characterizes the god-king relationship in the more ancient civilizations of the Near East. “The image of God” is his chosen viceroy.

To my mind, these parallel usages in Egyptian and ANE sources establish the meaning of the phrase in Genesis 1 fairly precisely and conclusively. If we did not have them, we simply would not know what it means for man to be “the image of God”. Without the work of historical research, and of ancient languages, we are at sea.

Despite all this, Jordan has actually arrived at the right conclusion: “God has been presented as one who determines, creates, evaluates, names, takes counsel among Himself, etc. These things are what man uniquely images.” But he has got there without the extra-Biblical evidence that would have given the answer certainty and confirmation. And this is the problem that I don’t think I will ever surmount: my own training as a scholar of Greek and Latin literature has accustomed me to certain standards of argumentation and evidence; without the needed historical and philological work, an interpretation simply fails to persuade. All too often, that is what separates Biblical Horizons from what Alastair Roberts has called “a more public form of scholarship”.


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