Plurality or Power: The Meaning of “Let Us Create” in Genesis 1

It is widely known that one of the most important tenets of Jewish faith is the oneness of God.  For millennia, faithful descendants of Abraham have affirmed their strict monotheism by starting each day by reciting the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”; Deu 6:4).

Given the centrality of monotheism to Jewish theology, it is all the more surprising to encounter this strange statement in Genesis 1:26:  “Let us make mankind as our image, according to our likeness…”.  The use of plural pronouns here (us, our) has puzzled many readers of the Bible as it seems to imply that there is more than one God and that their creation of mankind was somehow a collaborative effort.

Of course, for many Christians, this verse presents no difficulty at all.  Rather, it is taken to be an implicit affirmation of the Trinitarian nature of God; that is, God consists of three distinct persons:  Father, Son and Spirit all of Whom were involved in the act(s) of creation.  Though the doctrine of the Trinity is not made nearly so clear in the Old Testament as it is in the New, the use of first person plural pronouns here in Genesis 1:26 is taken by many to be strong evidence that the doctrine is also taught, albeit somewhat less directly, in the Old Testament as well as in the New.

But is this the correct interpretation of these pronouns in Genesis 1:26?  Probably not.

Please understand that I’m not questioning the doctrine of the Trinity itself or the involvement of all three persons of the Trinity in creation.  It seems clear to me that Gen 1:2 describes the Holy Spirit’s involvement in creation.  Moreover, John 1:1-3 obviously associates the activity of creation with the Son, so the whole of Scripture clearly teaches that each person of the Trinity was involved in creation.

However, it is unlikely that the first person plurals of Gen 1:26 are direct references to the Trinity and we may be missing something important that God is saying here by misunderstanding them this way.

Historically, there have been three broad strands of interpretation when it comes to these puzzling pronouns:

  1. The plural pronouns refer to the Trinitarian nature of God.
  2. The plural pronouns are a reference to the angels.
  3. The plural pronouns are an example of the “majestic plural” (pluralis maiestatis) figure of speech.

Regarding the first option, it should be pointed out that it is not impossible for these pronouns to be a reference to the persons of the Trinity.  It is simply that such an overt declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity is out-of-keeping with the progressive way in which God seems to have revealed this truth about Himself.  This seems to be one of those truths God told us “slant”[1] as it were, probably because it is a truth that would have been so easily twisted into polytheism if not revealed carefully and progressively.  An overt statement of His Trinitarian nature here in Gen 1 would seem to be at odds with the observable trajectory of revelation elsewhere in Scripture.  It is also worth noting that no New Testament writer, though affirming the three-in-oneness of God, ever made reference to Gen 1:26 to support what was, contextually, a very radical theological recognition. In other words, the New Testament writers don’t give us any reason to think that they saw Gen 1:26 as a revelation of the Trinity.

But what about this second option, that the plural pronouns were references to both God and the angels?  This seems very unlikely.  First, there is no other hint that angels were co-creators with God.  Second, Gen 1:27 explicitly states that “God created man in His own image”, using both the singular pronoun “His” and a particular verb that is only used in this way[2] to speak of God’s creative activity. If Moses had meant to convey here a sense of angelic involvement, he ought to have a) avoided this particular use of this particular verb and b) continued to use of the plurals; i.e. “So they created man in their own image.”  Finally, while there are several other mentions in Scripture of humans being the Image of God, there is never any association of angels with this concept.

The third option, however, that these pronouns are an example of the “majestic plural” (a figure of speech by which kings referred to themselves in the third person plural during formal declarations) has several things which can be said in its favor:

  1. Genesis 1 is clearly concerned with showing that God is King, making the use of the “majestic plural” natural and even expected.  This happens in several ways.  One way is the fact that God is described as having created by speaking.  In the ancient world, the ability to accomplish simply by speaking was exclusively the right of kings.  Everyone else had to go out and make things happen with an expenditure of their own strength.  So for God to create by speaking affirms that He is King over all things.  Incidentally, this is in stark contrast to the creation myths that were prevalent in the Ancient Near East where the gods created by striving and struggling.  The God of the Bible, however, simply spoke and things were brought into existence.  Another way in which Gen 1 affirms God as King is His ability to give names to things.  This was another sign of His authority over them as their King.  Since God is intentionally portrayed as King here in Gen 1, the text sets the stage for God to use the “majestic plural”.
  2. Human beings were created to act as God’s regents in creation and the use of the “majestic plural” to designate them as such is normal.  A regent is someone who exercises a king’s authority on the king’s behalf in a realm where the king is not literally present.  Obviously, God is omnipresent, and so the regent analogy breaks down somewhat at a certain point, because God is never really absent from creation.  However, as an infinite spirit (John 4:24) God transcends the physical realm and so is not present in it in precisely the same way that we are.  Therefore, human beings were made to be God’s physical representatives in the creation and to exercise delegated authority and power over the physical realm as His regents. A full explanation of this is beyond the scope of this short article, but more details are available here.  In short, the original Hebrew for Image (ts’lem) strongly suggests this meaning as it was often used to speak of idols, physical objects that were crafted to represent various spirits in the hopes that those spirits would manifest their presence in the world through the objects/idols (see 2Ki 11:18 and Num 33:52 for examples of ts’lem to refer to idols).  But more tellingly, what did God say He was creating mankind was to do?  We are to “rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, etc.”  And what was the first thing we saw Adam do?  He named the animals.  In other words, the first thing Adam did was exercise delegated authority to do what God Himself had been doing (i.e. naming things).  In this way, Genesis clearly shows Adam acting as regent. An Ancient Near Eastern king would normally have designated a regent by saying something like, “We now designate so-and-so to act on our behalf and to guard our interests in the realm of x-and-such.”  God seems to follow precisely the same pattern, but of course He had to make someone to be His regent first, so He said “Let us create mankind as our Image…and let them rule over…”  Thus the use of the “majestic plural” here would be perfectly consistent with the creation of mankind to act as God’s Image.
  3. If these are examples of the “majestic plural”, then it explains why God doesn’t use this same language at other points in the creation story or regularly in the Old Testament.  Even among kings, the use of the “majestic plural” was reserved for special occasions.  It was not an everyday figure of speech but was limited to formal, usually state-related, declarations.  In other words, a king might say “we delegate our power to so-and-so” but he would not say “we are feeling hungry and would like someone to get us a snack.”  God used the “majestic plural” when He created mankind and designated us as His Image because it was a big deal and its use in this way was very consistent with other Ancient Near Eastern usages.  Note that we don’t see this kind of plural stuff used to describe God actually doing something.  It’s always singular:  “God said let there be…”  That’s even true in Gen 1:27 where “God created mankind in His own Image” (note the singular pronoun).  The plural pronouns are only used in formal declarations of what God intends. This too is a pattern which is typical of other Ancient Near Eastern usages.  A king might say “Let us show our power and might by destroying the invaders” but then the description of his activity will say “and the king went down and he defeated them soundly.”It is worth noting that there are only three other examples of God referring to Himself with plural pronouns in the Bible, all of which follow this pattern and clearly involve serious, formal declarations:

Genesis 3:22-23  Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever “–  23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. (a formal declaration of exile/banishment)

Genesis 11:6-8  The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.  “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. (another statement of exile/banishment, specifically because of human encroachment on divine territory)

Isaiah 6:8: Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (another example of formally delegating a representative)

In light of these observations, it seems relatively safe to say that the plural pronouns of Genesis 1:26 (and the three other instances discussed above) fall into the category of “majestic plural” rather than being hints at God’s Trinitarian nature or the participation of angels in creating the universe.  Again, this doesn’t mean that there is no evidence that all three Persons of the Trinity were involved in creation.  On the contrary, as we saw at the beginning of this article, Genesis speaks directly of the Spirit’s activity and John explicitly teaches the Son’s involvement. By identifying these plural pronouns as an example of the “majestic plural” we do not lose our ability to defend the Bible’s early and progressive revelation of the Trinity or the involvement of all three Persons of the Trinity in creation.

Conversely, however, by failing to acknowledge the use of the “majestic plural” in Gen 1:26, we do lose something of tremendous importance:  a recognition of the supreme gravity with which Scripture speaks of the creation of mankind.  The use of the “majestic plural” at this point in creation – and at this point only – functions to make the invention of mankind the pinnacle of God’s creative activity and invests us with tremendous importance in God’s economy; thus answering the Psalmist’s question (“What is man that You are mindful of him?”; Psa 8:4) and making comprehensible the otherwise ridiculous truth that God not only pays attention to us but was willing to sacrifice His own Son for our redemption.  Why would He do that?  Because we are His Image, elected to be invested and entrusted with His glory and royal honor.

What is man indeed?

[1] From Emily Dickinson who said, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.  The truth must dazzle gradually lest every man be blind.”

[2] The verb in question here is bara and occurs in the Qal stem.  This verb in this form is only used in Scripture to speak of God’s creation ex nihilo.