Divine Statues: What the Bible Says to 2020 America about Human Dignity

by Lance Higginbotham September 3, 2020

If it has accomplished anything, 2020 has laid bare the way Americans often view their neighbors. When COVID-19 stormed onto the scene in March, many resisted social distancing and mask wearing, adjustments necessary for limiting the spread of a disease that could be deadly for vulnerable members of our communities. Knowledge of the virus’ origins in China ushered in an escalation in anti-Asian prejudice and racism, leading to avoidance of Asian owned businesses as well as public harassment of Asian men and women. And more recently–as if the challenges of the virus were not significant enough on their own–we’ve learned of the slayings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, continuing the profiling, abuse and shedding of blood that has become all too familiar to African-Americans. What a sad time for our country, where we claim that we value “life” along with “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Yet, the time is again ripe for Christians to draw attention to the Scriptures and the Gospel, and the unparalleled value they place on human life in all its forms. From its very beginning, the Bible underscores the preciousness of all human life. However one interprets Genesis 1, it is clear that this passage, above all, underscores the goodness and orderliness of creation.  And it is also clear that humanity is God’s magnum opus–the crowning jewel of all he has made by the power of his word. On the surface this is easy to see by comparing the number of words employed to describe Day Six with the word count used to describe the preceding days. Yet, what the sheer number of words may imply about the significance of this day, Gen 1:26-28 makes explicit–people are made in God’s “image and likeness,” and are given the special blessing of ruling over the rest of creation. 

The concept of “the image of God” can be difficult to grasp, and its precise meaning has even been a topic of debate among theologians. What does this really mean? The word “image” (ṣelem) is used elsewhere in the OT to refer to an idol (2 Kgs 11:18; Ezek 16:17) or a statue (see Dan 3:1, 12). The 9th century, B.C. Tel Fekheriye inscription provides additional context for understanding the nouns “image” (elem) and “likeness” (demût) used in Genesis 1.[1] An Assyrian governor, Hadad-yith’i, etched this inscription onto a statue of himself that he set up in his kingdom. He warns that anyone who would leave his statue in disrepair would fall under the judgment of his god Adad. Significantly, Hadad-yith’i uses the same nouns–ṣelem and demût–to describe his statue that he wants future generations to revere and preserve. Just as Hadad-yith’i set up an image of himself representing his rule in his land, so Yahweh has set up images of himself representing his steadfast rule throughout his world (see Ps 8:3-8). And, just as the Assyrian ruler warns against leaving his image in disrepair, the Divine King warns against destroying his own images (see esp. Gen 9:6, but also Exod 20:13). After all, to harm the image is to treat the One the image represents with contempt. 

All this provides a prophetic platform for Christians in the 2020 version of the United States.  We must advocate for human life and dignity at every turn; not doing so means we are unfaithful in preaching the whole counsel of God’s word. Consider Leviticus 19, and its admonition to love others, including the elderly, widowed and poor, thereby laying some of the theological foundation for the NT Letter of James. Consider Deuteronomy 4:6-8, which indicates that God’s laws are an example of justice to other peoples in the world.  Consider the book of Judges, especially chapters 19-21, which describe the rape and butchering of a concubine, followed by an account of war, mass-murder and kidnapping, so as to depict the hideous outcome of Israel’s spiritual decline after taking possession of Canaan. And finally, consider the oracles of the prophets, especially Amos, who, in spite of the security and political advances achieved under the reign of Jeroboam II, decried the rampant social evils in that very kingdom (see esp. Amos 4).  All this is why Jesus sums up the message of the Old Testament–the Bible of his day–as a call to “love God with all your heart, soul and mind , and to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt 22:40; Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19:18).” What a radically different vision of humanity than the one that currently prevails.

Many American evangelicals have been uneasy speaking against social evils and calling for justice for the vulnerable and for minority groups. Or at least, we have been guilty of picking which social evils we want to combat, while at times overlooking those that do not directly affect us, but affect others. The Bible does not give us that option. Justice and peace are among the high points of the coming reign of the Messiah according to Isaiah 11. Evidently, injustice is such a concern to God that he desires to see it eradicated. Do we genuinely share this desire? 

Of course, we dare not make social advocacy the sole content of our message. Humanity has still an even deeper need–we are alienated from God and in need of reconciliation through Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5:20; Col 1:22). Yet, God has called us to serve as a kingdom of priests that proclaims his virtuous character within a broken world with messy problems (1 Peter 2:9; Exod 19:5-6). It is against this messiness that the beauty of the Bible’s teaching about people stands out. Whether it is speaking in defense of the unborn, or against bigotry or violence toward other races, we must champion human life in all its forms, as we call our world to repentance and reconciliation with our Creator. And, we must do this, above all, because we wish to honor the King whose image we all bear.   

[1]See Richard E. Averbeck, “A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2,” in Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation, ed. J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 25.