Published: 25 January 2021

The Idol In God’s Temple

Let us make humankind in our image

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:26–27 NET)

Adam and Eve were made in God’s image. What does this mean? Some have concluded that our physical appearance is modeled after God’s appearance. Others object pointing out that God is a Spirit and therefore does not have flesh and blood like we do (Luke 24:39). So, it is reasoned that to be made in God’s image must refer to the intangible attributes we share with Him such as emotions. While it is certainly true that we share several of God’s traits, there is a different and lesser known third option of what being made in God’s image entails.

What is an image?

The word which is translated image in this passage is the Hebrew word tselem (צַלְמֵ֖) and means “a replica, statue, figure, likeness, idol.”1 If you are wondering, yes, this is the same word used for idols in the Old Testament! The word images in the following verses is translated from tselem:

“then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.” (Num. 33:52 ESV)

“Then all the people of the land went to the house of Baal and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces” (2 Kings 11:18 ESV)

“You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore.” (Ezek. 16:17 ESV)

“You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves,” (Amos 5:26 ESV)

While this may come as a surprise to us, it actually makes sense if you keep in mind that God created the Universe to be His cosmic temple. Mankind was an image of God, a replica, meant to represent Him on the Earth. Where did people of the ANE place an image of a god? In a temple! And this is exactly what God did with the man He created; God placed Adam in the garden which was the Holy of Holies in His cosmic temple.

“And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” (Gen. 2:8 ESV)

The fact that mankind is an image of God is further evidence supporting the idea of God’s cosmic temple and that Adam served a priestly role in God’s temple. Adam (and Eve) were images which inhabited God’s sacred space. This squares nicely with the “creation as cosmic temple” motif which would have been obvious to an ancient reader. To be an image bearer of God is to represent Him on Earth.

The idea that a temple existed long before Israel was a nation or the tabernacle was built at Mt. Sinai comes as a surprise to most of us. G. K. Beale in his paper “Adam as the First Priest in Eden as the Garden Temple” says:

“The first sanctuary was in Eden. But how could we possibly know this, since there was no architectural structure in Eden nor does the word “temple” or “sanctuary” occur as a description of Eden in Genesis 1-3? Such a claim may sound strange to the ears of many.”2

Beale goes on to point out nine observations which show that Eden was the first holy sanctuary.

God made us in His image in order to give us the ability and the authority to rule His world.

We tend to assume that when an ancient pagan made an idol of wood, stone or metal they thought of this idol as their god. However, the ancient people didn’t see idols as we suppose they did:

The biblical prophets love to make fun of idol making. It seems so stupid to carve an idol from wood or stone or make one from clay and then worship it. But ancient people did not believe that their gods were actually images of stone or wood. We misread the biblical writers if we think that.

What ancient idol worshippers believed was that the objects they made were inhabited by their gods. This is why they performed ceremonies to “open the mouth” of the statue. The mouth (and nostrils) had to be ritually opened for the spirit of the deity to move in and occupy, a notion inspired by the idea that one needs to breathe to live. The idol first had to be animated with the very real spiritual presence of the deity. Once that was done, the entity was localized for worship and bargaining.3

It would be more accurate to say that they believed the idol represented their god, or that their god may have even inhabited the statue. It therefore strikes me as a bit ironic that we ourselves are idols in that we represent God. For those who are Christians, God (the Holy Spirit) even lives inside us!

Notice that the NET Bible which I quoted at the top of the page says that mankind was made in God’s image “so they may rule.” The NET Bible translator’s note for this phrase says:

Following the cohortative (“let us make”), the prefixed verb form with vav (ו) conjunctive indicates purpose/result (see Gen 19:20; 34:23; 2 Sam 3:21). God’s purpose in giving humankind his image is that they might rule the created order on behalf of the heavenly king and his royal court. So the divine image, however it is defined, gives humankind the capacity and/or authority to rule over creation.

In simpler terms, for us to be suitable to rule over creation, we had to be made as God’s representatives. God made us in His image in order to give us the ability and the authority to rule His world. This makes sense if you think about it. What authority could a being not created for the purpose of representing God have? Could a cow, turtle or rabbit have the capacity or aptitude to rule creation? God created us with the potential to rule His world, and only a being created in His image could possibly be placed in such a role.

As Image bearers responsible for God’s world, we were to subdue it (Gen 1:28). This suggests that even though function had been imposed upon the world making it habitable, God left some work for mankind to do. This is the first indication in the Bible that God seems to take delight in sharing responsibility and delegating, but that is another topic.

What needed to be subdued?

What task exactly did God give mankind to do? What is involved in subduing, ruling, and representing God?

It makes no sense to subdue the garden of God. It’s already what God wants it to be. There’s no place on Earth like it. If it needed subjugation, that would imply imperfection. That’s something that cannot be said about Eden, but it’s true of the rest of the world.4

What the Bible seems to be implying is that outside the garden, there was some work to be done. The implication is that our job was to expand the borders of the garden to fill the entire world. God wanted us to finish what He started by bringing order to the remainder of the world beyond the boundaries of the garden.

All of the rest of creation functions in relationship to humankind, and humankind serves the rest of creation as God’s vice regent. Among the many things that the image of God may signify and imply, one of them, and probably the main one, is that people are delegated a godlike role (function) in the world where he places them.5

I would suggest that the functions of the animals and their role in the ordered system are addressed at the end of Genesis 1:26. When humans subdue and rule, they are identifying functions for the animals and determining what role they will play. This is part of the human role— to serve as vice-regents for God in continuing the process of bringing order.6

We have been assigned the role of ruling with Him and for Him. We are stewards of His creation. How are we doing in that role?


  1. Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  2. Beale, G K. (Gregory K). “Adam as the First Priest in Eden as the Garden Temple.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 22, no. 2 (2018): 9–24.
  3. Heiser, Michael S.. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (pp. 35-36). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Ibid., 50.
  5. Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 68). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Ibid., 42.