Image of the King

What does setting up an image have to do with rule?

It’s sometimes argued that ancient kings would set up images of themselves in the lands they ruled as a reminder to all the people of who the king was–especially if he was not physically present.

I’m not sure that this is historically accurate; however, it is suggestive in a couple of helpful ways as we come to the creation of humanity in God’s image in Genesis 1.

First, even if the kings of the Ancient Near East did not so place their images around their empires, we know that later kings did. I am reminded of statues of Augustus, or inscriptions such as the one found at Priene that celebrates Augustus’ birthday as the beginining of the good news that has come to the world through him. Part propaganda, part not-so-subtle reminder, the images of the “god” Augustus remind the people to whom they owe their life and loyalty.

Second, as I heard this idea discussed in a sermon last night, my mind’s eye couldn’t help flashing to scenes such as these:

Saddam Husseiin's Birthday Statue
War Propaganda Poster
The Decorated Hero

The images of the ruler remind the people, in not so subtle ways, who is in charge, who is their protector, whom they serve.

All of this made me think, third, that such “presence of the ruler through an image” captures well the idea of humans as made in God’s image, and thereby given rule over the earth.

We are supposed to be the visible reminders to the world that it is God who is sovereign over all. We are to be acting as faithful agents of the rule of a loving God who has provided for all creatures in all of creation.

What do we see when we see a fellow human being? An agent of God, sent out into the world to make God’s reign known.

11 thoughts on “Image of the King”

  1. I think it is important to note that God’s image bearers are not meant to use it as an aggressive grab for power, but, as you noted, a reminder of powerful love. We bear the image of a creative, loving, and joyous God. To be his image bearers, we must cultivate those within ourselves.

    Cool thought

  2. Huh? Not sure that it’s historically accurate?! Where are you getting this observation from?

    It is pretty much a consensus among OT scholars that the image of both kings and gods in the ANE were erected (by way of statue or monument or wall-relief) throughout different ancient kingdoms for political purposes: precisely to serve as a hegemonic power in place of the king/god’s physical presence. These images were imbued with the illusion of power, even though seemingly inert, as a form of crowd control (much like Roman coinage) — indeed, this overall cultural phenomenon of the ANE priestly-kingship dynamic leads into the contextual problem of biblical idolatry par excellent (when an inert image replaces the function of humans, representing a deity).

    So, if you, a NT scholar, think this above observation to be lacking in some ways, then you are up against an OT consensus which says otherwise (Enns; Middleton; Walton; Clifford; Frethiem).

    See part 1 of the four-part series by OT scholar Peter Enns over at BioLogos.

      1. Enns on Middleton:

        Statues of kings and of gods help us understand what it means for humans to be made in God’s image: humans are placed in God’s kingdom as his representatives.

        Statues of kings and of gods help us understand what it means for humans to be made in God’s image: humans are placed in God’s kingdom as his representatives.

        J. Richard Middleton (Roberts Wesleyan College) puts it well in The Liberating Image. He offers that the image of God describes “the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world.” Image of God means that humans have been given “power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”

        – J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 27.

        Enns on Walton:

        There is nothing here about a soul [regarding the meaning of imago Dei], the ability to reason, being conscious of God or any other psychological or spiritual trait. As John Walton points out, as important as these qualities are for making us human, they do not define what image of God means in Genesis. Rather, those qualities are tools that serve humans in their image-bearing role.

        The phrase “image of God” is not about what makes us human. It is about humanity’s unique role in being God’s kingly representatives in creation. Once we understand what image of God means in Genesis, we will be in a better position to see how this idea is worked out elsewhere in the Bible

        – John Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 131.

        1. So, the biblical imago Dei implies a democratized functionality, where all of humankind participates in the divine, not just the king. But this singular point needs to be heard in concert with its overall context in order to understand the rhetorical oomph of its intertextual echo (with, say, the Enuma Elish and its narrowing of the image to the king alone), as Richard Hays would say. The image is, as Enns points out, a riff off usual, contextual ANE understandings; but this particular riff renders a substantively different conclusion of the divine/human relation, as it comes with an implicit yet pointed critique of the prevailing hierarchical formations of king/commoner and its relation to the divine.

          1. Yeah, I know all that. But it wasn’t my question. I asked for inscriptional and statuary evidence or even ancient written indications that images of the king are used for that purpose in the ANE.

            Do you know of any actual ancient evidence or do you just know what scholars have said? if you don’t know any ancient evidence (as it seems you don’t) then you should qualify your opinion in the same way that I qualified mine–and refrain from belittling my reserve.

            1. If you “know all that” then why, in the face of this consensus (which rests outside your field), even make the off-hand assumption “I am not sure this is historically accurate?” Correct me if I am wrong, but I am not sure you are in the position to qualify such a criticism. If the OT scholars claim there is ample evidence which renders it accurate, then you ought to readily concede your own expertise, or at least warrant your skepticism with an argument rather than a throw-away comment like “I am not sure this is accurate.” That’s not saying much.

              1. If you don’t know that it is historically accurate, why berate someone else for exercising caution?

                I have read Middleton’s book, which I appreciate very much and found myself agreeing with.

                But I have heard tell that this particular line of argument, namely, that images are set up to represent the king in the places the king rules, was first suggested by an OT scholar who has conceded that there is no material evidence for it.

                I do not know enough either of the historical evidence or of the history of OT scholarship to say either that the scholarly consensus is right or that it is based on insufficient data.

                Since it is not outside the realm of possibility that someone might read my blog and say, “Kirk says…” in the same way that you’re reading Enns and saying, “Enns says this is true,” I am [sometimes] aware that I should qualify my statements rather than speaking authoritatively about things I do not know. I don’t concede the “scholarly consensus” in OT, NT, Theology or pretty much anything. It’s my job not to put my name on the line under bum information, so if I know there’s a question I’ll try to be forthright about that.

                1. I could be remiss, but I saw what I thought to be a statement implied in the very skepticism itself. The questioning of the historical accuracy just seemed out of left field. But now that you’ve clarified your reasoning, I suppose I can begin to see where you are coming from.

                  Sorry for the tone.

                  I often find myself inclined or bent toward the polemical, often because of my own personal shortfalls.

  3. Daniel,

    I appreciate this line of thought, not least because it does justice to the intellect of the ancients. Personally, I’ve been suspicious of the “statues rule in place of the actual ruler” reasoning because it makes ancient cultures out to be fairly intellectually primitive. The ancients, I wouldn’t think, didn’t need modern science to tell them that a statue is actually inert.

    But the psychological factor, to which you point, would have been evident to the most sophisticated of any era. Erecting your image all over your own dominion as a reminder of your power to kill is a pretty powerful psychological tool.

    1. Or maybe the West has assumed a “disenchanted” state of things, whereby the rational self is presumably unfazed by myths or anything else that can’t be empirically backed up by evidence — the “buffered self,” as Charles Taylor would say.

      Christians believe that Jesus is the rightful, pending Lord of the earth and heavens — no matter his physical absence! — by your logic, this too ought to be seen as an intellectually primitive stance.

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