On Interpreting Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.

Trinitarians often claim that the plural pronouns used by God when speaking in v.26 suggest that God is multi-personal and that, in light of the New Testament terminology of Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt. 28:19), this text is an example of either 1) the Father speaking to the other two persons or 2) the three persons speaking to each other.

However, this interpretation is problematic. The NIV Application Commentary (hereafter, NIVAC), authored by committed trinitarians, has this to say by way of introduction to the topic:

The theological [interpretation; that is, the trinitarian interpretation] is probably the most popular in traditional circles, but it suffers when subjected to hermeneutical cross-examination. That is, if we ask what the Hebrew author and audience understood, any explanation assuming plurality in the Godhead is easily eliminated.

This “traditional” trinitarian interpretation seems to me a prime example of eisegesis, that is, reading one’s desired interpretation into the text rather than drawing from the text that which the author intended to communicate by the text. As we see from the above quote even scholars committed to trinitarianism recognize that this interpretation was not held by either the author of the text nor the audience to whom the text was first delivered. This fact places a very large burden of proof on the shoulders of the one who wishes to use this text as support for the doctrine of the trinity.

Again, they say:

If the interpreter wishes to bypass the human author with the claim that God’s intention is what is important [that is, that His intention was to teach the doctrine of the trinity with this text], there are large obstacles to hurdle. If the divine intention is not conveyed by the human author, where is it conveyed? Certainly if the New Testament told us that the Trinity was referred to in this verse, we would have no trouble accepting that as God’s intention. But it is not enough for the New Testament simply to affirm that there is such a thing as the Trinity. That affirmation does not prove that the Trinity is referred to in Genesis 1:26. Without a specific New Testament treatment, we have no authoritative basis for bypassing the human author. Further commending the human author is the belief that the Old Testament audience also had an authoritative text being communicated to them. We cannot afford to approach the text with the question, “Which interpretation fits best with my beliefs?” We must ask what the plurals would have meant to the original audience.

Notice an interesting fact which this quote points out: the New Testament writers never alluded to this verse in support of the doctrine of the trinity. How intriguing. You would think that if this were a proof-text for the trinity they would have picked up on that and made use of it in their writings. They were happy to quote the OT for other doctrinal matters. Why not for this, the supposed “heart of Christian belief”? I think this fact counts against the notion that this text is a trinitarian proof-text. One might object that this is an “argument from silence”. I’m not resting my argument on their silence. I’m pointing out that their silence on this point is noteworthy and should be part of our consideration of their understanding.

Notice also that this quote points out that even if the New Testament did teach trinitarianism (which I would heartily dispute) this fact wouldn’t legitimize the appeal to this text as a trinitarian proof-text. We need much more than the fact of the plural pronouns to establish this as a trinitarian proof-text. But, unfortunately, it just isn’t there. And, there is a better interpretive option that actually accounts for what the author and audience would have understood. Before I mention that option, let us hear a final word on the trinitarian interpretation of this text from Dr. Michael Heiser, himself a trinitarian:

Many Bible readers note the plural pronouns (us; our) with curiosity. They might suggest that the plurals refer to the Trinity, but technical research in Hebrew grammar and exegesis has shown that the Trinity is not a coherent explanation…Seeing the Trinity in Gen 1:26 is reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament, something that isn’t a sound interpretive method for discerning what an Old Testament writer was thinking.

It would be even worse than “reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament” if it could be demonstrated that the doctrine of the trinity is not a New Testament teaching but rather an interpretation of the New Testament that arose during the 3rd and 4th centuries largely due to the “Logos Christology” of the 2nd century. Then, it would be reading, at best, 2nd century Logos Christology back into this text. I’ll simply quote one resource on this point for the time being. The New Catholic Encyclopedia says:

When one does speak of an unqualified Trinitarianism, one has moved from the period of Christian origins to, say, the last quadrant of the 4th century. . . . From what has been seen thus far, the impression could arise that the Trinitarian dogma is in the last analysis a late 4th century invention…The formulation “one God in three Persons” was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title the Trinitarian dogma.

Now, what of the alternative interpretation? I think Dr. Heiser is more right than even he knows when he says:

The solution is much more straightforward, that an ancient Israelite would have readily discerned. What we have is a single person (God) addressing a group— the members of his divine council.

Now, as I’ve mentioned, and you may already be aware, Dr. Heiser professes trinitarianism. In fact, his doctoral dissertation, from what I understand, centered on bridging the gap between supposedly “New Testament trinitarianism” and ancient Jewish monotheism with the popular idea in 2nd-Temple Judaism about “Two Powers in Heaven”. So, when he says “what we have is a single person (God)” I know that he doesn’t mean that “God” is actually a unipersonal entity; this is why I said “he is more right than even he knows”. Nevertheless, he does make an important point: “God” in Genesis 1:26 means just that, “God”. If “God” is a trinity of three persons, then this is a reference to all three persons speaking to some other being (s) than the “God” that is speaking.

This is just how the text reads naturally. If you read a text where one of the characters said: “Let us go the store and buy groceries so that our fridge may be full”, you would naturally read this text as this character speaking to someone else. [This would be the case especially if the surrounding context refers to the character in question with exclusively singular personal pronouns as the context of Genesis 1:26 does (see 1:5, 10, 21, 27. 29-31)]. After all, plural personal pronouns suggest a plurality of persons!

But, hold on, Mr. Trinitarian! I can feel your heart racing at that statement. Such plural pronouns, when spoken by a subject, suggest that the subject speaking is speaking to some other subject(s). Thus, if “God” is speaking, and He uses such plural pronouns, it suggests that God (the subject speaking), is speaking to some other subject(s) than Himself. Thus, the subjects being spoken to are not the subject that is speaking (“God”).

As Dr. Heiser says, the subjects being spoken to are “the members of his divine council”. Or, as the NIVAC calls it, God’s “heavenly court”. These are the “sons of God” that we know were present at creation (Job 38:7) and that God has chosen, in His wisdom, to include in His planning and acting in the world on at least certain occasions (1 Kings 22:19-22). This notion of a “divine council” or “heavenly court” is not a developed concept, one that arose in the New Testament, or worse, in the post-apostolic era. It is found in the context of the OT and the Ancient Near East. And, this option, along with the general grammatical considerations I’ve already mentioned, fits nicely with the text we are considering. In the words of the NIVABC:

The other position informed by cultural background, the heavenly court option, is much more defensible in that the concept of a heavenly court can be shown to be current not only in the ancient worldview, but also in the biblical text. Thus, the belief in such a heavenly court does not need to be imported from the general culture (though the evidence for it is extensive and clear); one needs only read the Bible…In the Old Testament, the heavenly court is made up of angels, or more specifically, the “sons of God.”…If, then, we are going to link our interpretation to the sense that the Israelite audience would have understood…the heavenly court is the most defensible interpretation and poses no insuperable theological obstacles.

The facts as I’ve presented them here are sufficient to convince me that this is the correct interpretation. However, there are two objections that are often raised against this interpretation that deserve consideration.

First, trinitarians will often argue that in saying “let us create” God indicated that the one(s) to whom He spoke were agents in creation. However, elsewhere in Scripture, God indicated that He created alone (Is. 44:24). They claim that this contradicts the notion that God spoke to His divine council. My first response would be that the alternative is untenable as it would be indistinguishable from polytheism. You would have one being called “God” differentiated from other beings who were agents in creation and apparently subordinate to God since He is the one who ordered them to do as they did. But, the NIVAC has something else to say:

Some…point out…that it is contrary to biblical teaching to think of the angels being involved in creation… Careful reading, however, demonstrates that these objections cannot be sustained. (1) We must distinguish between consulting and discussing. God has no need to either consult or discuss with anyone (as Isa. 40:14 affirms). (2) It is his prerogative, however, to discuss anything he wants with whomever he chooses (Gen. 18:17 – 19). Such inclusion of the heavenly court in discussion does not in any sense necessitate that angels must then have been used as agents of creation. In Isaiah 6:8 the council’s decision is carried out by Yahweh alone.

Heiser has this to add:

It’s like me going into a room of friends and saying, “Hey, let’s go get some pizza!” I’m the one speaking. A group is hearing what I say. Similarly, God comes to the divine council with an exciting announcement: “Let’s create humankind!” But if God is speaking to his divine council here, does that suggest that humankind was created by more than one elohim? Was the creation of humankind a group project? Not at all. Back to my pizza illustration: If I am the one paying for the pizza— making the plan happen after announcing it— then I retain both the inspiration and the initiative for the entire project. That’s how Genesis 1:26 works. Genesis 1: 27 tells us clearly that only God himself does the creating. In the Hebrew, all the verbs of creation in the passage are singular in form: “So God created humankind in his image, in the likeness of God he created him.” The other members of the council do not participate in the creation of humankind. They watch, just as they did when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:7).

In conclusion, it seems to me that this objection is not sustainable. God can announce His intentions to His divine council in order to involve them in His work without requiring that the divine council actually be agents in the work.

Second, trinitarians will often argue that in saying “let us create man…in our image, after our likeness” God indicated that the one(s) to whom He spoke also have the “image” and “likeness” that He and we have. But, they say, this can’t be God’s divine council because the Scriptures don’t indicate that the angels were “made in the image of God”. Before I quote Heiser on this, consider this from the NIVAC:

Some…point out…that it is contrary to biblical teaching to think of…people being in the image of angels…the idea that the image should be referred to as “our” image does not imply that humans are created in the image of angels; it is possible, though not necessary, that angels also share the divine image in their nature. The image of God differentiates people from animals, not from angels. 

If it were true that God spoke to His divine council in v.26 this would not necessitate that humanity was created “in the image of angels”. The emphasis is upon the image referenced being God’s image. As they say above, it may very well be true that God’s image is shared by both angels and humans, but this doesn’t mean we are created “in the image of angels”.

But, this isn’t precisely the more subtle objection I referenced above. The objection is that the Scriptures don’t indicate that the angels themselves were made in the image of God. What might we say in response to this?

First, this objection begs the question as it assumes that 1:26 is not such a place in Scripture. As I’ve said before, it seems grammatically required to understand that God is speaking to someone(s) other than Himself in v.26. Also, the OT context suggests the others to whom God is speaking is His divine council. Therefore, it would seem that this text could very well be exactly what the objection claims isn’t present in Scripture, namely, the association of the angels with the image of God in which humanity was made.

Next, let’s back up and consider what it means to be made in the image of God. Heiser has this to say:

Humankind was created as God’s image…We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.

Thus, Heiser argues, what it really means to be made in the image of God is that we are made in such a way as to be God’s image, that is, to represent God on the earth. Given the immediate context it would seem that the way in which humanity was meant to represent God on the earth was by having dominion and ruling the earth in cooperation and harmony with God.

Now, it must be added that this functional interpretation of the “image of God” recognizes that there must be certain attributes possessed by the objects made to be imagers in order for them to function properly. Thus, this interpretation includes the notions that mankind was made with intelligence, morality, and so on. However, it suggests that this notion of being made “in the image of God” is more than merely possessing these properties.

What I would argue is that whether we interpret the “image of God” as a collection of attributes God endowed humanity with, a function for which He created us, or, more correctly, I think, a combination of both, the presentation of God’s divine council in Scripture suggests that they were likewise made in this image. The spiritual beings under consideration have intelligence, moral agency, etc. They were created by God for a specific purpose, one of which is to represent Him. They too were given the privilege of ruling in cooperation and harmony with God. They were even given dominion and rulership of the earth due to the rebellion of mankind.

As Heiser says:

Understanding that we are God’s imagers on earth helps to parse the plurals in Genesis 1: 26 and the change to singular language in the next verse. God alone created humankind to function as his administrators on earth. But he has also created the other elohim of the unseen realm. They are also like him. They carry out his will in that realm, acting as his representatives. They are his heavenly council in the unseen world. We are God’s council and administration in this realm. Consequently, the plurals inform us that both God’s families— the human and the nonhuman— share imaging status, though the realms are different. As in heaven, so on Earth.

Therefore, I don’t think this objection can be sustained. It may be, as the NIVAC suggests is a possible interpretation, that the phrase “our image” doesn’t require the angels to be made in the image of God any more than the “let us create” requires them to be agents in creation. However, I think the more plausible interpretation is that they are, in fact, imagers of God like humans, for, it seems to me that, however you conceive of the “image of God”, they are presented in Scripture in ways that are compatible with the notion that they too were made in the image of God.

To conclude, it seems to me that the only reason one would interpret this text as supportive of trinitarianism is a prior commitment to trinitarianism. This text simply does not suggest a multi-personal God. Thus, to insist as much would be to commit eisegesis and read one’s own preference into the text instead of letting the text speak for itself.

Lord, deliver your people from eisegesis!

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