One thought that has been occupying my mind recently is something I came across while glancing through J. Richard Middleton’s The Liberating Image, an analysis of the theological doctrine that humans were made in the image of God. Middleton uses a rigorous blend of archaeology, linguistics, and historical analysis to make a potent theological case that this doctrine—one properly seen in its historical context as an inversion of other ancient Mesopotamian religions, which hold that the image of God is a cultic statue in a specific temple, over which only an elite has access and control—implies that we have a robust ecological responsibility that is of a piece with an egalitarian political vision in which no king is necessary but God.

I have only skimmed through this book, but even the little bits I alight upon are promising for seeing how ethicotheology can and must also be ecotheology (that is, theology that proceeds from a healthy ecological sensibility). By showing how the initial chapters of Genesis draw upon an unstated matrix of cultural associations we no longer know, and which we are bound to miss if we look at that chapters alone instead of in connection with other parts of the Hebrew Bible as well as other Mesopotamian cultures, Middleton shows how the ruah elohim (spirit of God) mentioned at Genesis 1:2 is implied to suffuse all of nature such that God is immanent within the world (see, for instance, Jeremiah 23:24).[1] This in turn entails that God is both immanent (there is no part of the world bereft of him) and transcendent (the world does not exhaust his nature, as the aniconic commands clearly imply)—a position known as panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism, my dear Jacobi). Panentheism is a whole world unto itself (and more), so I cannot go into it, but for now I wish to focus on its implication that God is intimately involved in the created world, while at the same time allowing his creatures the space for their own agency. Middleton elaborates that the first chapter of Genesis implies that God needs no temple made of precious stone in some particular land, because the entire world is his temple and all creatures worship there:

If the cosmos can be understood as indwelt by the creator, then the language of Psalm 119:91 (“all things are your servants”; NRSV) might well refer not only to the obedience of creatures to their cosmic ruler, but also to liturgical service in the cosmic sanctuary. This is consistent with Psalm 148, which exhorts all creatures—humans, angels, animals, even the sun, moon, mountains, and trees—to praise the creator, as if all creatures constituted a host of worshippers in the cosmic temple, over which God is exalted as king. This picture of creation as a cosmic temple also suggest the appropriateness of humanity as God’s image in the symbolic world of Genesis 1. For just as no pagan temple in the ancient Near East could be complete without the installation of the cult image of the deity to whom the temple was dedicated, so creation in Genesis 1 is not complete (or “very good”) until God creates humanity on the sixth day as the imago Dei, in order to represent and mediate the divine presence on earth.[2]

In the ancient Near East, “the king is the image of the god,” and thereby entitled to rule, both representing the god and acting like him, such that royal decrees are extensions of the divine power and authority.[3] By being a good ruler and properly performing certain rituals of the cult—centered around the statue of the god in the temple—the king ensures that the rain will fall, and the land will flourish.[4] Within this wider context, God’s injunction to the first humans to be fruitful and multiply, and to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28), should be understood as the relaying of divine rule to not just one but multiple humans as each equally imago Dei.[5] We are to cooperate with God by carrying on his work in the world: “God has…started the process of forming and filling, which humans, as God’s earthly delegates, are to continue.”[6] This openness to creaturely agency and creativity betokens a trust on the Creator’s part that the gods in preexisting religions do not display. Nature operates without a caste of elites who require sacrifice and obedience (like the needy gods they represent) to make the rains fall:

Contrary to the Atrahasis Epic 3.7, for example, where the gods are threatened by human overpopulation and thus devise various means of thinning out the human race (including infertility, stillbirth, and spontaneous abortion), the creator in Genesis 1 freely grants fertility to both human and nonhuman as a permanent gift or blessing. That both vegetation and animals are able to reproduce themselves “after their kind” (Genesis 1:11-12, 21-22, 24-25) and that humans are blessed and gifted with fertility and commissioned to multiply and fill the earth (1:28) suggests that God is not threatened by the self-perpetuating nature of creatures. On the contrary, Genesis 1 understands fertility as an intrinsic part of organic creaturely life that does not need to be achieved or guaranteed by cultic means. Since the primary cultic means of securing divine blessing and fertility in ancient Mesopotamia would have been the sacrificial system—the provision of food and drink for the gods, as part of the imposed servitude of humanity—it is significant that in Genesis 1 it is God who graciously provides food for both humans and animals (1:29-30). …Thus every element of the account of human creation on the sixth day (image and rule, fertility and food) articulates a vision of the human role in the cosmos that is diametrically opposed to that of ancient Mesopotamia. In contrast to an ideology that claims that humans are created for a relationship of dependency, to meet divine need, God in Genesis 1 creates for the benefit of the creature, without explicitly asking for a direct return of any kind. And humans, in God’s image, I suggest, are expected to imitate this primal generosity in their own shared rule of the earth.[7]

While many people have taken a heteronormative interpretation of these passages, such that sexuality is strictly for the purpose of procreation, Middleton’s analysis suggests that the real significance here is not procreation simpliciter but creativity as a cooperative endeavor between creature and Creator. God is the King whose generosity is disinterested and whose creativity makes room for the creativity of others, who he in turn sets free to be free among one another in a life lived for the sake of liveliness (the play in the garden of Eden), in contrast to all the pretenders who call themselves kings and take kingship to be an institution started (and therefore legitimated) by gods, who want their subjects to be unlike them and powerless.[8] The God of Genesis is deliberately characterized as the anti-tyrant par excellence. The imago Dei is not exclusively possessed by some humans and not others, and thus the power we have been given is not for making anybody a slave.

While non-humans do not have the imago Dei, they have their own agency and worship their Creator in their own way, so they are not vacuous and empty objects with which human beings can do anything they please. In fact, one could easily argue for a consonance here with Hans Jonas’ own elaboration of the imago Dei in his attempt to ground an ethics of ecological responsibility. Jonas argues that humans occupy the unique position of being vastly more powerful than any other species, and are therefore the ones most responsible for them; just by being able to affect something, I ipso facto become responsible for how I affect it. “In its full dimensions, however—in all it applies to—responsibility is a function of our power and proportional to it. For the magnitude of our power determines the extent to which we can affect reality and in fact do so in our actions. Thus, as power increases so does responsibility.”[9] If this still sounds speciesist, we might see its force by asking which species is to blame for the escalating ecological devastation we witness. After all, we don’t blame giraffes for climate change, and we could stand to hold ourselves more responsible for what we’re doing.

Using Jonas’ framework, we can return to Middleton’s reading of Genesis and find within it the rudiments of an ecotheology that fits with the egalitarian ethicotheology his hermeneutic crystallizes. Middleton never elaborates how to be a good “steward” of creation, but the fundamental precondition would have to be an understanding of power as something to be shared rather than hoarded, just as the Creator of Genesis sees creativity as cooperative. Here it feels best to close with words from the last page of Middleton’s book: “…it is time to begin a pattern of reading differently, respecting the alterity of the text, listening to its word to us, attending to its disclosure of God and the human calling. Perhaps, then, our practice of reading (which we might call a hermeneutic of love) would be in harmony with the new ethic of interhuman relationships and ecological practice that we are aiming for and that is rooted in the imago Dei, an ethic characterized fundamentally by power with rather than power over.”[10]


[1] J. Richard Middleton. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 2005. Pages 86-87.

[2] Middleton 87

[3] Middleton 121

[4] Middleton 120

[5] Many people take a lot to rest on how one translates the Hebrew verb kabas, rendered here as “subdue.” The hope is that if there is a less domineering way of reading the original Hebrew text, then the tradition of indifference or hostility toward nature will have no genuine theological basis. Middleton makes an argument on pages 50-55 that the verb should not be read as necessarily entailing a violent subduing, but something more along the lines of domestication or gardening—or “stewardship,” as is commonly preferred nowadays.

[6] Middleton 89

[7] Middleton 210-211

[8] Middleton 217: “According to the worldview of the Sumero-Akkadian myths, the gods act in history and change the course of human affairs. So do kings, as representatives of the gods on earth. However, the vast majority of the human race was understood to live relatively predetermined lives of mimetic repetition, beholden to their divine and human overlords, reduced to puppets in a social order in which they had no significant agency or freedom. It is thus of immense significance that the primeval history recounts the founding of the first city not by God but by a human being (Genesis 4:17) and lists three brothers (Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain) as the inventors of metallurgy, music, and nomadic livestock herding (4:20-22).”

[9] Hans Jonas. “Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future,” in Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, ed. Lawrence Vogel. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 1996. Pages 102-103.

[10] Middleton 297