A hundred years after the heyday of Angkor Wat, the Khmer capital of ancient Cambodia was overrun in a surprise attack by a people called the Chams. A new king, Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), rose to power by successfully evicting the interlopers. To celebrate and consolidate his victory, he built a new capital city just north of Angkor Wat, and called it Angkor Thom: “the Great City.”
And Angkor Thom was impressive. Laid out in a huge square, the city was surrounded by a wall 25 feet tall and nearly 10 miles in length, in addition to a 100-yards-wide moat that encircled the city and was said to have been inhabited by fierce crocodiles. Some think Angkor Thom may have supported a population of as many as a million people.
The causeway leading to the south gate of the city is lined by the giant statues of 54 devas (gods) to the left, and an equal number of asuras (demons) to the right, all of whom grip the body of the seven-headed serpent, Naga. The gate itself, more than 60 feet in height, is decorated with elephant heads and topped by four enormous faces that stare unnervingly in every direction.
At the very center of Angkor Thom lies the Bayon temple, perhaps the ultimate head trip. It is built in three levels, with the lower levels, both square, featuring nearly a mile of amazing bas-reliefs depicting historical and mythical events. Visitors on brain-overload usually skip those, however, and are taken directly to the third level, a mind-bending circular platform dominated by 54 towers of varying heights, all of them topped by the same four monumental faces featured on the city gates.
Although guides often refer to the structure as the “four-facing Buddha,” the faces are not of the Buddha. Rather, they appear to have been designed to promote a new religion favored by Jayavarman VII, Mahayana Buddhism. Unlike Theraveda Buddhism, which forswears gods and portrays the Buddha only as a guide to the goal of enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhism thinks of several personages as being at least godlike, including the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who represents those who seek enlightenment.
The all-seeing faces of the Bayon temple probably depict the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, whose face was almost certainly modeled on that of the king, Jayavarman VII. Thus, peasants who came to the city would have been suitably impressed by the tall towers and the all-seeing eyes of the king-who-looks-like-a-god. At almost any spot on the temple platform, a dozen of the faces are visible, some at eye-level, some peering magnanimously from above.
It’s just plain spooky.
It’s also a clear reminder of the human tendency to make our concept of God in our own image. Jayavarman VII didn’t go as far as the kings of ancient Egypt and Sumeria, who declared themselves to be gods, but he made sure at least one of the gods looked like him.
Isn’t that the way it is? Even in the Hebrew Bible, while some sources imagine God only as hidden in a cloud or residing above the heavens, others portray God in human form. In Genesis 2-3, for example, God kneels in the mud to hand-make a man, then performs surgery on him to make a woman, and later walks with them in the cool of the garden. Later in Genesis, God walks, talks, eats, and bargains with Abraham like a regular (if really powerful) man.
Limited by our own experience of humanity, it’s not surprising that humans tend to think of God in human terms, though stretched into superhuman qualities and accompanied by superhuman powers. When we think of God as loving and kind, we are working from our own experience of love. When we think of God as being judgmental, we are in touch with our own desire to criticize or condemn.
Nevertheless, we hold to the belief that God, in scripture, inspired human writers to reveal aspects of God’s nature that we might not come to naturally. That same scripture declares that God chose to create humans in God’s own image (Genesis 1). That’s an amazing thought, though no one can claim to fully comprehend it. Something about us is very much like God.
In our daily life and relation to God, however, it’s worth asking ourselves to what extent we are made in God’s image, and in what ways we make God into our image, a deity who favors our personal desires. Some make God into a get-rich guru, while others call on God to condemn those with whom they disagree, and yet others think of God as a feel-good spirit with whom most anything goes.
When we ponder our understanding of God, it’s worth asking ourself who’s made in whose image.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.