The Trinity in the Old Testament II

Continuing on from my previous post on the Trinity in the Old Testament, I will now discuss the use of the plural "we" in Genesis 1:26.  This verse has interested scholars and theologians for centuries; how it is both translated and interpreted could have a significant impact on one's theology.

To set the stage, I will first remind the reader of the familiar creation account from Genesis 1. God created the earth and it was without form, dark, and void. The choice of language here paints a picture of chaos, but also of potential; for the Spirit of God was hovering over the water, pregnant with power, ready to create, form and organize. First God created light and separated it from the darkness.  Next, He created and separated the sky, the sea and the land, providing realms for His future creatures to dwell, and then vegetation and fruit to sustain them.  Moving on, He provided function for the sun and the moon in the sky: that they may provide signs for the seasons, the days and the years, as well as provide light.  During God's fifth and sixth day, He filled the earth with animals-- birds of the sky, fish of the sea, swarms of insects, and beasts to inhabit the land.  This is where we find ourselves upon approaching Genesis 1:26. God has created and shaped the earth, the sea, the sky, the luminaries, the flora and the fauna; but He is not through yet, for the capstone of His creation is still forthcoming: man.  Consider Genesis 1:26-27 in this context, using the following three translations.

ESV, Updated:

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.

To begin the analysis, I would like to draw the readers' attention to two things: first, verse 26 uses "us" and "our" referring to God's creative decision, in every translation shown above.  Second, verse 27 uses "his" and "he," referring to God's creative action, in every translation shown above.  We have both first person plural and third person singular pronouns being used for the subject of the same set of actions.  What could this mean?  Allowing some charity for the author or redactor of these verses (it is unlikely that an author or editor would be stupid enough to contradict something written only a verse prior), we have a few options:

1. The account represents a polytheistic worldview in which one god, אלהים (Elohiym), discusses his imminent creation of man with other gods.

2. The account describes a monotheistic worldview in which the one true God addresses, and perhaps collaborates with, his heavenly court of angels.

3. The account uses a "we" and "our" of the one true God in a sort of self-address. This option obviously opens the door for discussion of the Trinity.

Option (1) is generally only accepted by more theologically liberal scholars (though not in insignificant numbers).  Gordon Wenham and John Collins are both in agreement that option (1) is not feasible: "Genesis 1 is distinctly antimythological in its thrust, explicitly rejecting ancient Near East views of creation.  Thus modern commentators are quite agreed that Gen 1:26 could never have been taken by the author of this chapter in a polytheistic sense." 1
Options (2) and (3) each have conservative supporters in both Judaism and Christianity.2 Collins defends option (3) for several reasons. He argues:
the possessive "our" in "our image" should refer to the same person(s) as the "us" that is the subject of the verb: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Then God carries this out in Genesis 1:27, "God created man in his own image"; that is, only God is the subject of the verb, and only God is the referent of the possessive.  In fact, man is only said to be made in God's image, not in the image of any other heavenly being (as also Gen 5:1).  Second, the verbs make and create have only God as their subject throughout this account; no one joins him in the work.  Third, we have a parallel in Genesis 11:7, where the Lord says, "Let us go down and confuse," with its fulfillment in Genesis 11:8, where the Lord is the only actor.3

Wenham counters that while men are not explicitly said to have been made in the image of angels, "when angels do appear in the OT they are frequently described as man (e.g. Gen 18:2)."4 Wenham's main support seems to be the idea that the Trinitarian Godhead is anachronistic to the setting of Genesis 1, and not likely to have been understood or intentionally conveyed by the author.  Holding that Genesis 1:2 should be translated "wind of God" instead of "Spirit of God" (see previous post), Wenham does not believe there is a precedent for the Trinity in the Old Testament.  However, it could be that the plural self-address was intended, while not explicitly or consciously (by the human author at least) referring to the Trinity.  Collins advocates a sensus plenior ("fuller sense") view of this text:
The kind of sensus plenior that I can accept occurs when a later passage amplifies an earlier one in a way consistent with the intent of the earlier one.  If the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is true, then the referent was present in Genesis 1.  This is not the same as claiming that the author or a pious Israelite reader must have been able to see it, only that the narration allows it.5

In fact, Wenham agrees that this view is possible: "this is not to exclude [interpretation 3] entirely as the sensus plenior of the passage.  Certainly the NT sees Christ as active in Creation with the Father, and this provided the foundation for the early Church to develop a trinitarian interpretation."6

In conclusion, it is very likely that Genesis 1:26 is to be read as a self-address from God. That is to say that I agree with what Collins argues outright, and what Wenham agrees is possible. However, whether or not God inspired this verse to allude to the Trinity, it is clear that the human author had no knowledge or understanding of it as such. It is only upon looking back at this verse from a New Testament standpoint that we can cleary see the possibility that all three persons of the Trinity were involved in the creation act.


1. Wenham, 1987
2. According to Collins, Delitzsch and Waltke (both conservative Christians) both hold to interpretation (2), while Cassuto (a conservative Jew) holds to interpretation (3).
3. Collins, 2006
4. Wenham, 1987
5. Collins, 2006
6. Wenham, 1987
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  1. Gents, idea for a future post - for those of us less learned, could you point out some implications if "the wind of God," and not the Holy Spirit, was the inspired intent?

  2. Thanks for the comment. Ill think about whether there is enough to be said about that in a dedicated post. The main implication really is that there is less evidence for the Trinity, however I do believe the same word in Hebrew is used for when God breathed into man. I'll have to check to make sure.