1) Gen 1:26: Moses wrote, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, and the cattle, and all the earth, and all of the creeping things which creep on the earth.”

A momentous event was about to take place on “the sixth day.” The cosmos had been created and organized in a serene process to provide for God’s masterpiece.[1]

This is the only place in Gen 1 where God announced his plan in advance. In addition, Moses replaced the usual closing formula—“and it was so”—with a blessing.[2]

By shifting from “Let there be” to “Let us make,” the Lord hinted that he was about to perform an act of great significance.[3]

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this represented “the significance and sublimity of the creator’s action.”[4]

Several major issues complicate these verses.

First, we’ll examine what the Lord meant by using a plural in stating, “Let us make humanity in our image.”[5]

Our presuppositions and our method of interpretation affect how we understand this plural pronoun.[6] Many Christian readers assume that this verse proves that God exists in tri-unity.[7]

However, approaching the passage by asking, “How can I make this fit with what I already believe?” may make it harder for us to understand what the text is actually teaching.[8]

During the time of Moses, Israelites questioned whether they should worship multiple gods who were self-serving and fickle, not whether God consisted of one or three persons. Thus, we should seek to understand how the original audience interpreted the word “us.” We’ll consider six possibilities.[9]

The first of these involves the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural background.[10]

For those scholars who view this text as borrowed mythology, the “us” remains as a reference to pagan gods which the monotheistic editor overlooked and failed to remove.[11]

Thus a remnant of polytheism remains. This concept fails to convince most scholars,[12] especially since the overall thrust of Gen 1 rejects any polytheistic elements.

In fact, modern commentators are virtually united in asserting that the author would not have permitted this.[13]

List the arguments for and against this view at the bottom of this post.

Other scholars contend that God was speaking to his heavenly court of angels,[14] also known as the “sons of God.”[15] Jewish commentators have long held this view.[16]

According to the first century AD philosopher Philo:

Man[kind] is almost the only one of all living things which…often chooses that which is worst…

Very appropriately therefore has God attributed the creation of this being, man[kind], to his lieutenants, saying, ‘Let us make man[kind]’, in order that the successes of the intellect may be attributed to him alone, but the errors of the being thus created, to his subordinate power.[17]

In addition to meshing with the ANE conception of a group of gods who confer to make decisions,[18] this position has some biblical support.

The Old Testament (OT) describes the Lord meeting with “the sons of God” (1 Ki 22:19–20; Job 2:1; Ps 89:5–7).  Some scholars object that it debases God for him to consult with created beings like angels (Isa 40:13–14). However, the Lord chooses to operate in that fashion, rather than needing to do so (Gen 18:16–19).[19]

For example, in Gen 11:5–8, the Lord discussed his plans with his heavenly court, but he carried out the decision himself (cf. Job 38:4–7).[20]

While God did not create humans in the image of angels, he may have fashioned those supernatural beings also in his likeness. The divine image differentiates between animals and people, not between angels and people. Therefore, this interpretation could easily mesh with how Moses’s original audience understood the plural pronoun.[21]

Record the arguments for and against this position below.

God does not exist in isolation but as one in close community with others.[22] Thus, the plural “us” may represent the creator and the Holy Spirit (Gen 1:1–2).[23]

Aside from the Old Testament (OT), the name Elohim (the plural form of “God”) always refers to multiple gods in the ANE, yet the singular “El” occurs as the name of one of the highest gods.

In reference to the God of Israel, “Elohim” appears 2,372 times, while the singular “El” appears only fifty-seven times, mostly in the book of Job.[24] This linguistic evidence points to the possibility of several persons within the creator.[25]

The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 80–120 AD), specifically identifies the Son as the one to whom the creator spoke in Gen 1:26.[26]

Although Christians have traditionally adopted this interpretation, scholars unite in agreement that the author of Genesis would never have intended to convey that to his original audience.[27]

The other cases where the OT refers to God with a plural pronoun do not seem to refer to various persons within the Godhead (Gen 3:22–24;[28] Gen 11:7; Isa 6:6–8).[29]

Even within the New Testament (NT), no text specifically states that the plural in Gen 1:26 refers to the Trinity.[30]

On the other hand, the NT does provide hints of plurality within God, such as John 1:1–3; Col 1:15–19; and Heb 1:2.[31]

List the positive and negative aspects of this view.

Finally, there are grammatical and rhetorical issues to consider as our fourth, fifth, and sixth options.[32]

Genesis 1:26; Gen 11:7; and Isa 6:8 could all be cases where the authors employed a majestic plural,[33] as if the Queen of England had stated, “We are not amused.” Yet, a prominent Hebrew scholar observed that plurals of majesty are never used with verbs.[34]

Other possibilities include linguistic agreement with Elohim, the plural name of God,[35]or that the Lord was talking to himself for encouragement.[36]

Since none of these occur regularly in the OT, most scholars easily dismiss the grammatical and rhetorical categories.[37]

List the support for and against each of these possibilities.

Consequently, two strong contenders remain. When viewed through the lens of the understanding of the original audience, the most likely candidate is that God was speaking to his heavenly court.

In the OT, angels did occasionally appear as men (Gen 18:1–3; Gen 19:1). Note in particular that when God created in Gen 1:27, the verb “created” is singular. From that vantage point, this comprises a divine proclamation to the heavenly court.[38]

On the other hand, Moses was likely capable of grasping the concept of plurality within unity.

Although the OT never explicitly mentions the Trinity, one cannot dismiss the many clues within its pages (e.g. Ps 2; Dan 10:4–9; Rev 1:12–17). Certainly Gen 1:1–2 cites the Holy Spirit as present during the creation of the cosmos. These hints awaited the fullness of time to be revealed (Gal 4:4–6).[39]

Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

Read Gen 1:26. Cite the arguments for and against each of the options for “us” listed below:

 

– reflects pagan gods

positives

 

 

negatives

 

– God’s heavenly court

positives

 

 

negatives

 

 

– more than one person within God

Positives

 

 

negatives

 

 

 

– plural of majesty

positives

 

negatives

 

 

– agrees with plural Elohim

positives

 

negatives

 

– God speaking to himself

positives

 

negatives

 

Which one of these best fits the ANE context of the passage? How does the NT affect the way we understand the plural pronoun?

 

 

Go to Equality with God

 

[Related posts include In the Beginning of God’s Creating (Gen 1:1–2); Let There Be Light (Gen 1:3–5); Male and Female He Created Them (Gen 1:27); Access to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22); Driven Out (Gen 3:23–24); A Deity Descends (Gen 11:5–7); In the Beginning Was the Word (John 1:1–2); The Light Shines in Darkness (John 1:3–5); The Firstborn of All Creation (Col 1:15–18); Ancient Literature; and Author and Date of Genesis]

 

[Click here to go to Chapter 3: The Image of God (Genesis 1:26–31)]

 

[1] Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 1:31.

[2] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 64.

[3] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 134.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, 61.

[5] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 27.

[6] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[7] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 132.

[8] Walton, Genesis, 129.

[9] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 132–3.

[10] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[11] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 133.

[12] Walton, Genesis, 129.

[13] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 28.

[14] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 133.

[15] Walton, Genesis, 129.

[16] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 27.

[17]Philo, “On the Confusion of Tongues,” in The Works of Philo, Vol. 2 (trans. Charles Duke Yonge; London: Bohn, 1854), 35, 38, https://archive.org/stream/worksphilojudaeu02philuoft#page/38/mode/2up.

[18]“Enuma Elish” (The Creation Epic) in ANET, 66, https://archive.org/stream/Pritchard1950ANET_20160815/Pritchard_1950_ANET#page/n91/mode/2up.

[19] Walton, Genesis, 129.

[20] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 64–5.

[21] Walton, Genesis, 129–30.

[22]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 12.

[23] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[24]Terence E. Fretheim, “אֱלֹהִים” (elohim), NIDOTTE 1:405.

[25] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[26]Kirsopp Lake, trans., The Epistle of Barnabas, in The Apostolic Fathers (New York: MacMillan, 1912), 6.12, https://archive.org/stream/theapostolicfath00unknuoft#page/360/mode/2up.

[27] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 27.

[28] The plural here may allude to the presence of the cherubim.

[29] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 64.

[30] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[31] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 64.

[32] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[33] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 133.

[34] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 28.

[35] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[36] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 28.

[37] Walton, Genesis, 128.

[38] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 28.

[39] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 134.