The Cosmic Temple
Among others, both John Walton (Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology) and G.K. Beale (The Temple and the Church's Mission) argue that the cosmos and Eden are constructed in Genesis 1-2 in terminology fitting of a temple. Beale in an article titled, "Eden, The Temple, And The Church's Mission In The New Creation", elaborates at least nine points of contact between Eden and temple imagery, among them: hithallek describing God's presence in Gen 3:8 and Lev. 26:12, 'abad and shamar as the role of Adam (Gen 2:15) and priests (Num 3:7-8), and its facing east.1
Walton makes a comparitive study, noting, for instance, how commonplace was the connection between temples and rivers which flowed from them:
This association between ancient Near Eastern temples and spring waters is well attested. In fact, some temples in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and in the Ugaritic myth of Baal were considered to have been founded upon springs (likened to the primeval waters), which sometimes flowed from the buildings themselves. Thus the symbolic cosmic mountain (temple) stood upon the symbolic primeval waters (spring).2
If there arguments hold (and Walton thinks the temple-nature of the cosmos would have been assumed by ancient readers), then it would be fitting to find what was normally found in a temple: an image of the deity.
Image of God
Likewise, while the word for image in Genesis 1:26 (selem) differs from that in the Decalogue found in Exodus 20:4 (pesel), Sarna notes the use of the Genesis phrase elsewhere:
The words used here to convey these ideas can be better understood in the light of a phenomenon registered in both Mesopotamia and Egypt, whereby the ruling monarch is described as “the image” or “the likeness” of a god. In Mesopotamia we find the following salutations: “The father of my lord the king is the very image of Bel (ṣalam bel) and the king, my lord, is the very image of Bel”; “The king, lord of the lands, is the image of Shamash”; “O king of the inhabited world, you are the image of Marduk.” In Egypt the same concept is expressed through the name Tutankhamen (Tutankh-amun), which means “the living image of (the god) Amun,” and in the designation of Thutmose IV as “the likeness of Re.”3
The concept seems to express, then, God's ruling presence in the world. Walton, emphasizing that an idol is not the god itself (nor does it have the power of the god), concludes that mankind being made in "the image of God" shares the functional role of an image in a temple: "The image is a physical manifestation of divine (or royal) essence that bears the function of that which it represents; this gives the image-bearer the capacity to reflect the attributes of the one represented and act on his behalf."2
With some key differences (e.g. God does not worship the image he creates), it seems appropriate to understand mankind's being in "the image of God" along the lines of an image/idol within a temple - as the manifestation of the ruling presence of the deity with the temple-cosmos.
(2005). Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48(1), 10.
Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 124). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Sarna, N. M. (1989). Genesis (p. 12). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Walton, John H. (2011-01-04). Genesis (NIV Application Commentary, The) (Kindle Locations 2833-2835). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.