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The Liberating Image

The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

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"An excellent contribution to biblical exegesis and biblical ethics. . . . Scholars and preachers alike, particularly those who stress right relationships with the whole of creation as the key to human survival, will find study of this book to be time well employed."--W. Sibley Towner, Interpretation

For centuries, biblical scholars as well as lay Christians have been intrigued by the somewhat enigmatic Imago Dei references in the book of Genesis. Much theological ink has been spilled mulling over the significance and meaning of these words: "Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness . . . "

 In The Liberating Image, J. Richard Middleton takes on anew the challenge of interpreting the Imago Dei. He argues that the study of the Imago Dei might function as a theological and ethical resource in the contemporary world. Reflecting on the potential of the Imago Dei texts for developing an ethics of power rooted in compassion, he relates their significance to the Christian community's calling in an increasingly violent world. 

The Liberating Image presents a careful exegesis of Genesis 1:1-2:3, reading the role of human beings as "royal-priestly mediators of God's presence and power on earth, entrusted with the task of shaping earthly life in accordance with the Creator's purposes." Following a deft discussion of the Ancient Near East contexts and parallel texts, Middleton outlines "the distinctive challenges represented by the worldview of Genesis 1."

Scholarly and fresh, with pages of rich and fascinating footnotes, The Liberating Image explores a relevant, deeply informed take on an important Christian doctrine. It will appeal to theologians and laypeople alike and will be useful as a text in courses on systematic or biblical theology, or studies in Ancient Near East contexts of scripture.


"In an image-saturated culture that 'brands' personal identity in terms of consumer choices while rendering the planet an ecological wasteland, can the ancient biblical notion of humans created in the 'image of God' be good news? In a world of violence in which a 'war on terrorism' is given near-mythological legitimation by means of an us/them ideology that dismisses the 'enemy' as the forces of chaos opposed to the civilizational order of democratic capitalism, does the biblical view of creation offer a counter-ideological alternative? Richard Middleton thinks so. In this wonderfully rich book Middleton deeply respects the text as he attends to its rhetorical, historical, and cultural meaning in such a way that we might hear it speak to us anew. Here is 'theological' interpretation at its very best--an exhaustive and lucid study that will not only change how we think about the imago Dei but perhaps change how we engage in biblical scholarship."--Brian J. Walsh, University of Toronto

"Middleton exhibits a powerful capacity for big issues, a patience with detail, and a sure theological sensibility. His study ranges all the way from comparative historical analysis to contemporary issues of ideology critique. The result is a study of a crucial biblical-theological phrase that is sure to become a benchmark in exegetical-hermeneutical work. Middleton's unwavering theological focus keeps the detail in the service of big issues, and culminates with a wondrous affirmation of a generous God. Such a God stands over against ancient modes of parsimonious violence and, by implication, over against contemporary practitioners of the same parsimonious violence. A most important read!"--Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary (emeritus)

"I have long thought that the description of humanity as made in God's image (along with the rest of Genesis 1-3) has been the subject of so much comment over the centuries that we could never get to its inherent meaning behind all that interpretation. Richard Middleton's fascinating book has made me think again."--John Goldingay, Fuller Theological Seminary

"Up-to-date interpretations of the Imago Dei have long been needed. Richard Middleton has accomplished this considerable feat with great learning and sophistication, both by gathering the issues so clearly and accessibly and by providing an important advance in thinking about this theme. He has presented an expert historical and literary analysis, ranging widely across extrabiblical and biblical literature. Even more, Middleton has drawn out significant theological dimensions of the text and demonstrated the ethical implications of his analysis--with a lively engagement of contemporary concerns. Readers will encounter here fresh ways of considering both God and the human beings created in the image of that God."--Terry Fretheim, Luther Seminary

"The Liberating Image is a balanced yet challenging articulation of the Imago Dei in Genesis, its ancient Near Eastern context, and its present-day theological implications. By locating himself in his postmodern context, Middleton brings a refreshing hermeneutical self-consciousness to the scholarly task, which is aimed at providing a substantive and compelling argument without posing as the last word. His analysis of Imago Dei in Genesis and in the context of ancient Near Eastern religions leads Middleton to the conclusion that the Israelite theological traditions of Genesis 1-11 are recontextualized in conscious opposition to ideological categories of Mesopotamia. That Israel's story promotes the dignity of all humans, not just of the royal or priestly classes, should have vital ethical implications for today."--Peter Enns, Westminster Theological Seminary

"Richard Middleton has written a comprehensive and deep interpretation of the Imago Dei in the light of its immediate scriptural context as well as in relation to ancient Near Eastern understandings of the image of God and of the human. The value of this work, however, goes beyond those contributions. He has ventured to explore, in conversation with biblical scholars, theologians, and ethicists, some of the ethical and theological issues that arise from Genesis 1 and the human being as created in the image of God. The book is probably the most comprehensive treatment of this topic in the English language and will be an automatic point of reference in the continuing effort to understand the human in the light of Scripture."--Patrick D. Miller, Princeton Theological Seminary (emeritus)

"J. Richard Middleton examines an exegetically worn phrase, 'the image of God,' and gives it a theological freshness. His careful attention to the Genesis context as the decisive factor for understanding this intriguing concept is a good example of exegetical method."--C. Hassell Bullock, Wheaton College (emeritus)

"Middleton's study of the Imago Dei represents biblical scholarship at its best. Here is a book that displays careful and meticulous research, balanced judgment, and insightful application, all of which are clearly and logically presented in a most readable fashion. By engaging meaningfully with current ethical debates that utilize the concept of Imago Dei, Middleton highlights the importance of his conclusions for contemporary discussion. Readers will find their horizons broadened and their preconceived ideas challenged by a work that contributes very positively to a better understanding of what Genesis 1 means when it states that human beings were made in the image of God."--T. Desmond Alexander, Union Theological College, Belfast

"Finally, in one book, an interdisciplinary (exegetical, hermeneutical, theological, and ethical) conversation on the Imago Dei. Beginning with a careful treatment of the biblical Imago Dei against its backdrop in ancient Near Eastern literature and ending with an ethical discussion of power and violence, Middleton deftly shows that imaging God is--surprise, surprise!--imaging God's wondrous generosity."--James H. Olthuis, Institute for Christian Studies

The Author

  1. J. Richard Middleton

    J. Richard Middleton

    J. Richard Middleton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. He is the author of The Liberating Image and the award-winning A New Heaven and a New...

    Continue reading about J. Richard Middleton


"[T]his significant new study of the concept of the imago Dei is not only a comprehensive exegetical and theological treatment of the imago Dei; Middleton's interpretation of the imago Dei poses a critical challenge to the ideologies of violence that continue to plague us."--Kevin Hall,

"An excellent contribution to biblical exegesis and biblical ethics alike. . . . [Middleton] draws frequently and deeply on the scholarly discussion. Yet, taken as a whole, his book is original and profound; furthermore, its denouement in a fruitful discussion of the biblical basis of social and environmental ethics is invigorating. Scholars and preachers alike, particularly those who stress right relationships with the whole of creation as the key to human survival, will find study of this book to be time well employed."--W. Sibley Towner, Interpretation

"A well-written and well-presented argument that may be given to students with confidence. Its concerns are welcome and some of the ethical and theological implications of the representational interpretation engagingly discussed. . . . This is a useful contribution to an ongoing discussion whose value will be judged by its ability to stimulate thoughtful conversation."--Nathan MacDonald, Review of Biblical Literature

"This interesting book explores the meaning of the 'image of God' and seeks to uncover the ideological and historical context of the concept. . . . One of the distinctive features of this book is Middleton's conviction of the importance and significance of the 'image of God' concept for our self-understanding. . . . The book opens a new chapter in the study of the imago dei and breathes new life into an old discussion."--James McKeown, Themelios

"Middleton explores the crucial theological metaphor of the image of God, probing into its ancient Near Eastern roots and carrying the discussion toward poignant consideration of contemporary ethical issues. The metaphor is crucial for issues in both sexuality and environmental responsibility. Middleton does much of the preparatory work for new interpretive initiatives."--Christian Century

"The Liberating Image is clear, careful, and comprehensive. . . . [Middleton] is well known in theological circles for publications on postmodernism and Christian belief. Remarkably, he is as much at home in the latest debates about Sumero-Akkadian creation accounts as he is in arguments about the nature of truth. He writes with one eye on scholars in their study carrels and the other on Christians in the pews. The result is biblical scholarship that is religiously relevant without being watered down."--Stephen H. Webb, Books & Culture

"Middleton's primary contribution is his post-critical hermeneutic that acknowledges the complexities of interpretation without submitting to relativism or abandoning the technical work of exegesis. His approach embodies a humility that encourages the biblical interpreter to listen to, think with, and be transformed by the biblical text."--Steve Garrett, Trinity Journal

"Highly recommended."--Dianne Bergant, CSA, Bible Today

"The phrase 'image of God' has been investigated so thoroughly and has been the source of so many theological interpretations that many have concluded little more can be said about it. The Liberating Image should change that perception, as it reexamines the imago Dei in light of its many historical interpretations, its usage in the biblical creation accounts, and its relation to ancient Near Eastern concepts that ground the image of God in kings and priests. As a bonus, the book moves beyond exegetical, philosophical, and theological considerations by providing suggestions for applying this concept to ethical practice. . . . Due to its clear articulation of the image of God in its biblical and socio-political context and for its guidance in how to live as God's image in the world, I would heartily recommend this book to my colleagues and students."--Walter L. McConnell III, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

"A good understanding of an important concept will prevent us from using it carelessly. What Middleton offers is more than a good understanding; he gives us a comprehensive one. Although many of his conclusions will neither shock nor surprise us, they have the great benefit of giving our views a firm and credible basis. But this is not to imply the book is merely a reassuring audit. It contains challenges that cause us to pause and reflect. . . . Each part [of the book] contains a comprehensive consideration of the relevant material, with sufficient explanation for the non-theologian to follow. . . . Middleton offers--presented on a solid theological base--a vivid reminder of God as gracious giver. Relatedly, the reminder that, with the privilege of being created in God's image goes responsibility: a challenge that the Christian community needs to hear often. The book is a methodical consideration of the issues; the type of reference one returns to with confidence. . . . Middleton's voice is clearly active in the discussion. . . . He works openly and honestly with subjectivity, especially where he recognises where it could significantly influence his analysis. . . . Theologically, Middleton's book gives us a great opportunity to understand what it means to be created in God's image."--Tony Hobbs, Evangelical Quarterly

"Few exegetical studies are as self-aware, accessible and thorough as this one. . . . At a time when many so-called 'close readings' of biblical texts do injustice to the phrase, it is refreshing to encounter a work that takes the task of reading intertextually and canonically so seriously. Behind Middleton's conclusions there lies a great deal of exegetical heavy lifting and sound judgment. The author's commitment to ethical reflection on his conclusions makes this work one that merits attention beyond Old Testament studies and situates it as a model for other biblical scholars who seek to provide value to those outside their discipline."--Brian P. Irwin, Toronto Journal of Theology

"For one wanting a mature and ground-breaking work of biblical studies, this is one of the most important books I could recommend because it is about what it means to be made in the image of God (and how in Christ that scarred image is restored). . . . Much of the rhetoric that comes up in many recent books on spirituality revolves around the notion that in Christ we can reject our 'false selves' and become our true selves. . . . Yet, without a robust theology of the human person made to image God in God's creation, and a profound awareness of the cultural damage caused by humans misappropriating their high and holy calling to reflect the true King of the Universe as stewards, such emphasis on rediscovering our authentic selves can drift off into psycho-babble and fund a very un-Christ-like narcissism. . . . Middleton's sound and sophisticated treatment of the meaning of the imago dei and the implications of the biblical call to reflect God's rule over a blessed, pregnant-with-possibility, but very damaged creation is a needed foundation for any development of fruitful and humane spirituality. . . . It really does offer a brilliant and needed perspective!"--Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds Books blog

"An extraordinary work, with vast implications, and should be on the shelf of anyone with serious interested in biblical theology. It is that important."--Byron Borger, Hearts & Minds Books blog