How do we use the word, “we?” We count the ways. There is the “royal we” (aka, the majestic plural) where kings and queens speak of themselves in the plural. Apparently, King Henry II, having all power, wanted to insure people obeyed his every whim; and so, he often spoke of himself in the plural to remind people that he was God’s appointed king and that failure to obey him would most certainly result in eternal damnation. I believe another “royal” expression also originated during the reign of Henry, expressing that the king was a “royal pain.” Today, the “royal we” is seldom used; and if it is, it is not in reference to divine right, but to note that the person is not speaking merely as an individual, but in their official capacity. There is also the “judicial we,” where judges speak for the court and the “editorial we” where journalists speak on behalf of their newspaper or other publication. An author often will use the “authorial we” when he or she (or they!) want to draw their readers into a discussion (or have their readers agree with something they say). However, since Mark Twain, the use of the “authorial we” has dropped off significantly (Twain said, “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.’”). Today, the “sarcastic we” is very popular (“So we’ve lost our car keys again, haven’t we?”), as is the “condescending we” (you may say to a child, “Billy, WE don’t bite people. People from the city let their kids bite people, but we certainly don’t.” The “second-person we!” is also still popular. Doctors, for instance, will use this saying, “And how are we feeling today?” Jerks. And waiters will say to us, “And what are we in the mood for today?” Jerks. And don’t forget the “inclusive and exclusive we.” In other words, our use of “we” can serve a rhetorical function. If we want to communicate group cohesions, we can use the “inclusive we” to say, “We are all in this together!” However, if we want to deliberately exclude someone, we can use the “exclusive we” to say, “Don’t call us, we will call you!” There is also the “ambiguous we” where we as speakers want to represent ourselves as speaking for the whole group, but know we are probably not. I do this every Sunday when I say, “This WE believe.” Now, we could go on, but I bet you are ready to say with Queen Victoria, “We are not amused.” So, we need to move on and get to the point.
Genesis 1:26 says, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image. . . .” The million-dollar question is to whom is God speaking when he says, “Let us”? Most Christians believe that this is a reference to the Trinity. Most Jews do not. And what do “we” think (see, what we did there?)? Unfortunately, it is not a simple question, and it is made even more difficult since the New Testament doesn’t ever cite Genesis 1:26 as a proof for the Trinity. Now, honestly, if I was a New Testament author and wanted to “prove” the Trinity—and which NT author wouldn’t—I would absolutely have used Genesis 1:26 as my starting point, but no one did. That’s weird. Here’s today’s question from Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s book, The Bible With and Without Jesus: Is the Trinity found in Genesis 1:26? We have seven options.
First, we could read the plural here as the “royal we.” However, we don’t see this usage anywhere else in the Bible; and if Israel’s kings never spoke this way, we would be hard pressed to believe the “royal we” is being used in Genesis 1.
Second, the “us” could be the Torah. Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, a Jewish work from after the rise of Islam says: “The Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to the Torah: ‘Let us make man in our own image.’” But in this account, the Torah thinks this is a bad idea and encourages God not to create since man would be “full of anger” and come under “the power of sin.” God replies, “And is it for naught that I am called slow to anger’ and ‘abounding in love?” I like the story here, but I am hard pressed to believe in a talking Torah (I also have problems with “Psalty,” the singing songbook, but that is for another blog). So, I think we ought to talk about throwing this option out.
Third, the “us” could be wisdom. Proverbs 8:22-23 says:
“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.”
And again, in verses 30-31 we read that wisdom was with God as he created:
“Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.
Without a doubt, wisdom is a crucial biblical theme, but wisdom in Proverbs is a personification and not a real person which would make it difficult for the Genesis 1:26 conversation.
Fourth, the “us” could be the angels. In both Job 1 and 2, we read that the angels came to present themselves before the Lord. And in Job 38, we hear that the angels were singing together when God was laying the foundation of the earth. So, could the “us” refer to the angels? Probably not. After all, the Bible is very clear that God acted alone in the creation of the world and did not need the assistance of others. Isaiah 44:24 says: “I am the Lord, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself. . . .” But maybe God addresses the angels here, not to enlist their help in creating the world, but as an act of humility and camaraderie. After all, God often informs his servants of his plans. Amos 3:7 says: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” While this is true, there is a significant difference here. God is not just informing his servants about what he is going to do, but he is suggesting that they create humanity in their image. The verse says (Gen 1:26): “Let us make humanity in OUR image.” Throughout the Bible, we hear that we are made in the image of God, but not once is our creation spoken of as being created in the image of the angels. Therefore, I think we would have to reject this option.
Fifth, the plural in Genesis 1:26 could be “the plural of self-deliberation.” In Hebrew grammar, most plural subjects have plural verbs, but not here. The Hebrew word translated, “God,” in Genesis 1 is “Elohim.” Now grammatically, “Elohim” is a masculine plural noun (just like cherubim and seraphim); but the Hebrew Bible, when referring to the God of Israel, always uses the singular pronoun, “he,” and not the plural pronoun, “they.” “Elohim” also utilizes singular verbs and adjectives. (Interestingly, in cases when “elohim” does function as a plural noun, it always refers to the gods of the nations.) That’s why, after verse 26 where God says “let us make humanity,” we read in verse 27, “So God created humanity in his own image,” and not “So they created humanity” (“Created” is also a first-person singular verb). Therefore, we can safely rule out that Genesis 1:26 is talking about a plurality of gods. But there are cases in Hebrew grammar where singular nouns take plural verbs. And this plurality is called the plural of self-deliberation. For instance, in Isaiah 6:8 God says, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” But there are many instances in Genesis 1 where we read about God creating things that the “plural of self-deliberation” could be used, but verse 26 is the only time it appears which seems to mitigate against reading that sense here. But what do we know?
Sixth, the “us” could be the heavenly court. In the ancient near east, the high God was often depicted as surrounded by lesser gods, and the Bible sometimes speaks of God being in such a divine council. Psalm 82 begins: “God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the ‘gods.’” Psalm 95:3 repeats the same idea: “For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.” But it is not only in the Psalms. Exodus 15:11 says: “Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” We even get a hint of this in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (8:4-6):
“So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”
Not too surprisingly, Levine and Brettler argue that this is the correct view. They write (pg. 97):
“Historical critics, concerned with the original or early meaning of the Bible, see the divine court in ‘us,’ and so God as taking counsel with the heavenly hosts.”
Now, this idea works well if the ancient Israelites were monolatrists (meaning they worshipped one God, but believed in the existence of many gods); but if we deny this (or deny that it is that prevalent in the Bible), it seems unlikely to be the solution, but it is an option we need to consider.
And that leads to option 7: that the “us” we are talking about is a reference to the Trinity. Martin Luther wrote:
“The word ‘Let Us make’ is aimed at making sure the mystery of our faith, by which we believe that from eternity there is one God and that there are three separate Persons in one Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Jews indeed try in various ways to get around this passage, but they advance nothing sound against it. . . .”
Why so many options? Maybe because Genesis 1:26 is not as clear as we may like. Genesis Rabbah (8:8), a Jewish text written sometime between 300 and 500 CE, has this fun story of Moses wrestling with this verse. We read:
“When Moses was engaged in the writing of the Law, he had to write the works of each day [of creation]. When he came to the verse, ‘And God said, let us make man,’ he said: ‘Sovereign of all, why do you provide the heretics with an argument?’ God replied: ‘Write! Whoever wishes to err, let him err!’”
It sounds like we may have a problem with Genesis 1:26 here, so much so that we needed to create some explanation for why the text should leave the door wide open for Christians to see the Trinity right here in the very first chapter of the Torah! But that is what Genesis 1:26 does. It creates at least some confusion and debate!
Now, I bet we would all say that option 7 is the “us” we are looking for, but how do we know and how do we get there? That’s what we will look at next time when we get together for another wee blog about who we are to see in Genesis 1:26. In the meantime, which option do you feel we should embrace and why? Now, we have gone on much too long; but before we leave, we need to say thank you again to Levine and Brettler for their great book, The Bible With and Without Jesus. Without it, we would be royally lost.