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Monotheism | Anti-myth in Genesis
"Elohim" in Context

The Genesis Plurals

by Paul Sumner

"Bring forward your strong arguments,” says the King of Jacob.
"Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place...
That we may consider them...
That we may know that you are gods...
That we may anxiously look about us and fear."

(Isaiah 41:21-23)

  Three times in the book of Genesis (in its Primeval History, chaps. 1—11), God speaks in the first person plural.
Let us make man in our image. (Gen 1:26)
Behold, the man has become like one of us. (Gen 3:22)
Come, let us go down and there confuse their language. (Gen 11:7)
To whom is God speaking? The plural Hebrew verbs "make" [na'aseh], "go down" [nerdah], and "confuse" [novlah], and the implied plural pronoun "us" [mimmennu] are not ambiguous. God is speaking to or about someone else.

na'aseh is a Qal imperfect 1st person plural, from asa.
nerdah is a Qal imperfect 1st person plural, from yarad.
novlah is a Qal imperfect 1st person plural, from balal.
mimmennu ("from or by us") would be a 1st person plural form of manan.

Historically, most Jewish commentators have said the Creator is here speaking to the angels of the heavenly assembly, his divine court. Most Christian interpreters have said the texts allude to interaction within the Triune Godhead.

In the last century, there has been a marked opinion shift among Christian commentators toward the traditional Jewish interpretation. The reason for this shift has not been due to ecumenical feelings but to a different approach in reading the Hebrew Bible ("Old Testament" in Christian terms).

Most commentators now believe the Bible should be interpreted on its own terms, without imposing later theological beliefs or agendas, either Jewish or Christian.

In other words, these verses in Genesis (and passages like Isaiah 41:21-23 quoted above) need be viewed in light of their own contexts without biased interpretation. The desire is to understand what Moses or Isaiah, Jeremiah or the Chronicler understood by what they themselves wrote, in their own times.

This doesn't mean the original meanings cannot have implications beyond their contexts. Later biblical writers often appropriate and extend earlier texts to their own time or into the future. But, in my view, those "implications" should not contradict or turn the original words upsidedown.

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Six Options

Presently, commentators itemize six explanations for what I call "the Genesis Plurals." They include:

1) God is speaking to members of his heavenly council.

2) God is speaking to himself, in self-deliberation ("Let us do this" = "I've decided I will do this").

3) God is using the "royal we," as ancient monarchs did when issuing divine decrees. We find older scholars often use "we" instead of "I" to express their opinions. In the Qur'an, Allah speaks as "we": "To Jesus, son of Mary, We gave clear evidence of the truth" [2:87].

4) The plural pronouns match the plural noun Elohim (God) in what some call a "plural of majesty" or "plenitude of might." Human monarchs have long done this. Since they are great, they use amplified pronouns for themselves. "We" means "I." The plural noun Elohim actually reflects a plural of intensified magnitude.

5) The plurals are a vestige of polytheistic belief that the Israelites borrowed from their pagan neighbors. God is speaking to a pantheon of fellow deities: his wives and children, as in Canaanite and Babylonian religions.

6) God the Father is speaking to other members of the Trinity: either to God the Spirit or to God the (preincarnate) Son, or to both.

This website endorses Explanation #1: the Genesis Plurals allude to the Creator speaking to his heavenly council.

Of the various explanations, this one best explains the inner content of the book of Genesis, as well as numerous other passages in the Hebrew Bible. [See Visions of the Heavenly Council in the Hebrew Bible & the New Testament.]

Yet no one can be dogmatic about this. Genesis does not tell us to whom God is speaking. We have to infer on the basis of other biblical texts.

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The Prevalence of the Council

Belief in the reality of the Heavenly Council is woven throughout the fabric of ancient Israel’s faith, from Genesis to the later writings of the post-Exile period.

The heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD;
Your faithfuless also in the Assembly of the Holy Ones.
For who in the skies is comparable to the LORD?
Who among the sons of God is like the LORD,
A God greatly feared in the Council of the Holy Ones,
And awesome above all those who are around Him? (Psalm 89:5-7)

This belief did not contradict Israel’s worship of Yahveh as the one, unique God.

The prophets and theologians of Israel were not burdened by later apologetical demands to articulate a Unitarian Monotheism. They worshiped the Lord of the Shema (Deut 6:4) who was also "YHVH Tzeva'ot — the LORD of hosts, or armies" — the God who commanded and led into battle his divine armies.

In later history, Israel’s prophets envisioned a "Lord" (Adon) who sat beside God as vice-regent; an image enacted materially by the Davidic kings who sat on God’s throne in Jerusalem. [See The Two Lords.]

This imagery of God-and-his-Lord comes from two primary Hebrew texts: Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:9-14. And both passages are central to Yeshua’s self-identification as God’s Lord, and to the apostles' apologetic about Yeshua (Matt 22:41-46; 26:63-65; John 17:3; Acts 7:55-56; Eph 1:20-23; 1 Tim 5:21; 6:13; Heb 1:2-3).

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From an internal, biblical perspective, Explanation #1 above should be given priority as an interpretive model for readers of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

Here is why the other five explanations fall short.

  • Explanations #2, 3, and 4 have little or no support from the Hebrew Bible itself. They do not take into account the literary thrust of the Primeval History in Genesis 1-11, or the continuity of belief in the heavenly council in ancient Israel. The plural noun Elohim is rarely used with plural verbs. [See "Elohim" in Biblical Context]
  • Explanation #5 comes from commentators who hold to minimalist, deconstructionist, evolutionary views of biblical religion. They do not take seriously the rigorous anti-pagan, anti-mythological theology in Genesis and the rest of the Bible. Their approach is actually unhistorical, for they impose personal skeptical unbeliefs on the Text while ignoring the Text’s internal witness.
  • Explanation #6 (God is speaking to members of the Trinity) has been popular since the early apostolic fathers Barnabas and Justin Martyr. It also seems to resonate with several passages in the New Testament.

    But if Genesis is read on its own terms, this interpretation must be set aside because there is no evidence that the author/editor of Genesis conceived of a triune Godhead, in terms of the later philosophical constructs of post-NT Christian theology. And, significantly, no one in the NT appeals to these plurals as proof-texts for the Messiah’s place next to God in the court.

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Did God Consult the Son About Creation?
The New Testament assumes the reality of the heavenly assembly, though it does not use that term. It depicts Yeshua the Son of God as residing on the heart [lit. chest] of God. This alludes to the Hebrew imagery of the Sod, the inner council around a king with whom he consults about his plans (John 1:18; Jer 23:18, 22; Pss 54:15; 89:7; Job 19:19; 29:4).

What's more, the Son is depicted as the agent of creation, the one "through" whom God created the universe. For example:

All things came into being through him. (John 1:3)

In him all things were created...all things have been created through him and for him. (Col 1:16)

God...in these last days has spoken to us in his Son...through whom he made the world. (Heb 1:1-2)

But the NT never depicts a Tribunal of Father, Son, and Spirit. It pictures the Messiah either standing before a throne on which God is sitting, or he is seated "at the right hand" of God. No one describes seeing the Spirit in the scene.

I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55)

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Messiah Yeshua and the chosen angels to maintain these principles... (1 Tim 5:21)

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem...to God, the judge of all...and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant. (Heb 12:22-24)

[See the patterns in Worship in the N.T. and Psalm 110:1 in the N.T.]

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From these sample texts, we hear the NT witness that the Son was "in" or a member of the Assembly. But neither Genesis nor Isaiah 41 says who is in the Sod YHVH. Mention of "spirits," "hosts," "holy ones" and "sons of God" occur in 1 King 22:19-21, Ps 89:5-7, Job 1:6, and Nehemiah 9:6.

Only in Daniel 7:13-14 do we glimpse someone else who is uniquely acknowledged by God ("the Ancient of Days") and escorted into his presence. If we accept the NT witness, we assume the Messiah is foreseen in the heavenly council chambers. The ancient Hebrew authors "saw" someone beside God who was not an angel or spirit. But the revelation of his identity would come later.

Did Angels Assist in Creation?
Some interpreters object to the view that the Creator was consulting with or speaking to his divine council prior to creation. They reject the idea that angels could participate in the creation of the universe and human beings, since they themselves are created beings. This is a presupposition without biblical warrant. Who’s to say God did not create his servants first, then command them to administer the work of physical creation?

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Anti-myth in Genesis
Behind the Hebrew text — that is, outside the evidence of the biblical canon — lies the world of the ancient Near Eastern milieu in which the Bible and the people of Israel emerged.

Documents from Babylon, Egypt, and Canaan reveal the religious thought-world that the Israelites encountered in their history. And based on these ANE materials, historians of ancient Israel believe that some of the contents in the Hebrew Bible are polemical in nature. That is, they are aimed at refuting the religious views of their (pagan) neighbors — views that often became popular within Israel itself.

Especially in the book of Genesis is this Hebrew anti-myth evident. Genesis outlines the story of creation in order to tell its readers "what really happened."

One of the common myths held by Israel’s neighbors was belief in a pantheon of multiple deities. (For example, the chief God of the Canaanites was El, his wife was Asherah, Astarte or Ashtoret, their boy children were Baal, Yam, Mot, and their daughter was Anat.)

Genesis denies these mythological concoctions. But it doesn’t deny the reality of the divine world.

In the Genesis version of that world there is one Elohim or Supreme God. But he does not have a wife or children. He does not create by having relations with a female deity, as did El with Asherah. The true God creates by speaking words: "Let there be . . . and there was."

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God is, indeed, surrounded by a celestial court of servants (as we learn from later passages in the Bible). They are called "sons of God," but they are not his divine offspring (Gen 6:2; Ps 29:1; Job 1:6). God alludes to them ("Let us . . . "), but he alone is the initiator of all creative acts. They are his administrators of creation, not competitor gods, as in the cultures around Israel.

Bless YHVH you his angels [messengers],
Mighty in strength, who perform his word. . .
You who serve him, doing his will. (Ps 103:20,21)

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth! ...
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God [benei elohim] shouted for joy? (Job 38:7)

In other words, the Genesis creation account is reframing the ancient Story in order to contradict the belief systems popular in other lands. The symbolic language of Genesis 1–11 is meant as polemical truth for those who needed to hear it in their time. [See the longer article on this Anti-myth in Genesis.]

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Following are interpretations of the Genesis Plurals from Jewish and Christian commentators, both ancient and modern. The list is selective. Quotes by diverse Christian interpreters are given so readers will know that even conservative commentators have adopted a more Text-centered attitude about the passages, though they are fully aware of traditional, trinitarian exegesis.

Jewish Interpreters
Targum, Midrash, Talmud, Cassuto (1972), Sarna (1989)

Christian Interpreters
Franz Delitzsch (1888), Davidson (1904), Miller (1978), Waltke (2001)

Jewish Interpreters
(Ancient)
Targum
Targum of Palestine (Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Gen 1:26
The Lord said to the angels who ministered before Him, who had been created in the second day of the creation of the world, Let us make man in Our image.

Targum of Palestine (Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Gen 3:22
The Lord God said to the angels who ministered before Him, Behold, Adam is sole [yechidai—unicus, unigenitus] on the earth, as I am sole in the heavens above.

Targum of Palestine (Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Gen 11:7
The Lord said to the seventy angels which stand before Him, Come, we will descend ...

Midrash
Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 8, 3, 1 [trans. Jacob Neusner]
"And God said, ‘Let us make man’ " (Gen 1:26). And with whom did he take counsel? R. Joshua b. Levi said, "With the works of heaven and earth he took counsel. . . ." R. Ammi said, "He took counsel with his own heart."

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 21, 5, 1-2 [trans. Jacob Neusner]
"Behold, the man has become like one of us" (Gen 3:22): R. Pappias interpreted the verse as follows: "‘Behold, the man has become like one of us’ means, like one of the ministering angels." . . . [5, 2] R. Judah bar Simon said, "[‘Like One of us’ means] like the One of the world: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deut 6:4)." Rabbis say, "[‘Like One of us’ means] like Gabriel: ‘And one man in the midst of them clothed in linen’ (Ezek 9:2) . . ."

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Talmud
Talmud Bavli/Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b (trans. Jacob Shachter)

Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: When the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to create man, He [first] created a company of ministering angels and said to them: Is it your desire that we make a man in our image? [Gen 1:26]

R. Johanan said: In all the passages which the Minim* have taken [as grounds] for their heresy, their refutation is found near at hand. Thus:
Let us make man in our image [Gen 1:26],
— (refutation) And God created [sing.] man in His own image [Gen 1:27];

Come, let us go down and there confound their language [Gen 11:7],
— (refutation) And the Lord came down [sing.] to see the city and the tower [Gen 11:5]

* "Minim" is used in Talmudic literature to designate heretics of various kinds, including the Jewish disciples of Yeshua. The word literally means "believers."

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Jewish Commentators
(Modern)

Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary of the Book of Genesis (trans. Israel Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1972)

[Gen 1:26] The view that God took counsel with the ministering angels has been regarded by some commentators, both medieval and modern, as the actual meaning of the verse. But against this interpretation it can be contended: (1) that it conflicts with the central thought of the section that God alone created the entire world; (2) that the expression Let us make is not one of consultation; (3) that if the intention was to tell us that God took counsel, the Bible would have explicitly stated whom He consulted, as we are told in the other passages that are usually cited in support of this theory (1 Kings xxii 19; Isa. vi 2-8; Job i-ii). . . .

The best explanation, although rejected by the majority of contemporary commentators, is that we have here the plural of exhortation. When a person exhorts himself to do a given task he uses the plural: "Let us go!" "Let us rise up!" "Let us sit!" and the like. Thus we find in ii Sam. xxiv 14: Let us fall [nippela] into the hand of the Lord ... but into the hand of man let me not fall [eppolah]" [p. 55]

[Gen 3:22] Like one of us — like one of my entourage, like one of the Divine entities, which are of a higher order than man, for example, the cherubim and their kind. We have already seen . . . that the idea prevailed among the Israelites that the knowledge of good and evil, that is, of everything in the world, was one of the specific attributes of the angels (ii Sam. xiv 17: for my lord the king is like the angel of God to discern good and evil; ibid., v. 20: But my lord has wisdom like the wisdom of the Angel of God to know all things that are on the earth). [p. 172]

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Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis (JPS Torah Commentary; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989)

Gen 1:26. The extraordinary use of the first person plural evokes the image of a heavenly court in which God is surrounded by His angelic host.

[Footnote 353: For the celestial court, cf. 1 Kings 22:19-22; Isa. 6:8; Ps. 29:1-2; 82; 89:6-7; Job 1:6; 2:1. In Job 38:7, divine beings are present at creation. The present interpretation is found in Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 8.3; Rashi.]

Such a celestial scene is depicted in several biblical passages. This is the Israelite version of the polytheistic assemblies of the pantheon—monotheized and depaganized. It is noteworthy that this plural form of divine address is employed in Genesis on two other occasions, both involving the fate of humanity: in 3:22, in connection with the expulsion from Eden; and in 11:7, in reference to the dispersal of the human race after the building of the Tower of Babel. [p. 12]

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Christian Interpreters
(Modern)

Franz Julius Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol.1 (trans. S. Taylor; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1888)

Gen 1:26. Let us make man in our image. ...such a plural cannot be shown in Holy Scripture where God is speaking of Himself. Where it seems to be found, we have to admit that God the Father is comprising Himself either with the Son and the Spirit or with the celestial spirits. Scripture itself confirms the latter, for from the beginning to end it testifies that God communicates to the spirits who surround Him what He purposes to do upon earth, 1 Kings xxii. 19-22; Job i; Dan. vii. 10; Luke ii 9 sqq.; Rev iv. sq., with Ps. lxxxix. 8 and Dan. iv. 14... [p. 98]

It is in this communicative sense that na’aseh ["let us"] is intended. Just as Jahveh comprises Himself with the true Israel, Isa. xli. 21 sq., so does He with the seraphim, Isa. vi. 8, and here, as also iii. 22 and xi. 7 with the heavenly spirits in general.... [p. 98]

Elohim no more concedes thereby a share in the creation itself to the Bene Haelohim than He does in sending (Isa. vi. 8); but He does give them an interest therein as to their knowledge and will. The communicative speaker ever remains, in relation to those whom he thus comprises with Himself, the Higher. But He imparts to them and gives them an interest in the matter at hand. It is in accordance with this that we must understand "in our image and in our likeness" as including the angels. According to Scripture, the angels form together with God one family, and man, being made in God’s image, is for this very reason made also in the image of angels (brachu ti par’ angelous according to Ps. vii. 6, LXX [=Ps 8:6 Heb]), though this is not directly stated. [p. 99]

Gen 3:22. Behold, the man has become as one of us. The plural is communicative, God comprises Himself, as, i. 26, xi. 7, with the benei elohim [sons of God, divine beings] as, Isa. vi. 8, with the seraphim; here indeed there follows immediately, ver. 24. the mention of other such * heavenly beings. [pp. 171-72]

Gen 11:7. Come on, we will go down . . . Judicial resolve, ver. 7 . . . Jahveh comprising the angels with Himself, as at iii. 22 and i. 26, but here as ministers of His penal justice. [p. 351]

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A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament (edited by S. D. F. Salmond; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1904)

In contrast to man, angels belong to the class of Elohim. . . . It might be an interesting question how the same name Elohim came to designate God and this class of beings. Perhaps we should be satisfied with the general explanation, that the name, meaning ‘powers,’ is applied from the standpoint of men to all that is above man, to the region lying above him. Though the same name is given, the two are never confounded in Scripture.... (pp. 293, 294)

These Elohim, or sons of Elohim, form the council of Jehovah. They surround Him, and minister to Him. He and they are Elohim. And it is from this point of view that some explain the use of the plural in such passages as "Let us make man" (Gen i.26); "Let us go down and there confound their languages" (Gen xi.7). (p. 295)

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Patrick Miller, Genesis 1-11: Studies in Structure and Theme (JSOTSup 8; Sheffield, UK: Univ. of Sheffield, 1978)

...the monotheistic character of Israel’s faith never precluded the notion of Yahweh having a coterie or surrounded by a court of semi-divine beings whom he addresses, commands, and with whom he holds conversation. [p. 18]

As for Gen. 1:26-28 ... the divine decree is given in verse 26: "Let us make adam in our image, according to our likeness." Then verse 28 reports: "So God created adam in his image; in the image of elohim, he create him." The point of the passage in this context is that adam is being made like elohim, i.e., the human like the divine. "Man" is being made elohim–like. In other words he is to be created in the image and likeness of the divine ones. The creatures of the earth are in some fashion, therefore, like the inhabitants of heaven. [p. 14]

If, then, the first person plural forms of Gen. 1:26 do refer to the heavenly court, the theologically significant fact is that the passage establishes a clear connection between the human world and the divine world in the creation of adam. Or to put it another way, when the narrative speaks of a close relationship between divine world and human world and suggests that the human partakes of the divine in some fashion or does so potentially, then it refers not just to the deity but to the divine world, the divine beings.... [p. 20]

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Bruce Waltke, Genesis, A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001)

Gen 1:26. us. See also 3:22; 11:7. Various referents have been suggested for the "us." The traditional Christian interpretation, that it represents a plurality within deity, has some textual support and satisfies Christian theology of the Trinity (John 1:3; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). That God is a plurality is supported by the mention of the Spirit of God in 1:2 and the fact that the image itself is a plurality. This interpretation would explain the shifts in the text between the singular and the plural. The primary difficulty with this view is that the other four uses of the plural pronoun with reference to God (3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8) do not seem to refer to the Trinity. [p. 64]

The explanation that better satisfies all such uses of the plural pronoun is that God is addressing the angels or heavenly court (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-22; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Ps. 29:1-3; 89:5-6; Isa. 6:8; 40:1-6; Dan. 10:12-13; Luke 2:8-14). It seems that in the four occurrences of the pronoun "us" for God, God refers to "us" when human beings are impinging on the heavenly realm and he is deciding their fate. [p. 64]

In Gen 3:22, God sees the human beings have grasped * the knowledge of good and evil and have become like divine beings. In Genesis 11 the heavenly court comes down to see what the earth-bound are building to attain the heavenly space. In Isa. 6:8, God is clearly addressing the heavenly court, which the prophet in his vision has entered. It is not surprising that God would address the heavenly court, since angels play a prominent role in Scripture (e.g., Gen. passim; Job 38:7; 1 Tim 3:16), and there is much commerce in Genesis between the angelic realm and human beings. [pp. 64-65]

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Contact: Paul Sumner

 

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