Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Who is “Us”?
On the sixth day when God created humanity, Genesis 1:26 says something that has attracted the attention of biblical interpreters from early on until today: “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness....”
Why the plural? There are two problems here. The obvious problem is that this could easily imply that there are other divine creatures who share in the image and likeness that God says to bestow on humanity. In other words, it sounds like there are multiple heavenly beings on God’s level. Second, verse 27 reverts to the singular: “So created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It might be tempting for readers today to say that the singular in verse 27 neutralizes the plural of verse 26, but that was certainly not good enough for ancient interpreters who took every word of the Bible with utmost seriousness. The plural in v. 26 means something and the aim of interpreters was to find out what.
The modern explanation, based on our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian religions, is that “us” refers to a heavenly court over which Yahweh presides. Genesis 1:26 would not be the only place in the Old Testament where this appears. For example, in 1 Kings 22:19, Yahweh is sitting on his throne with “the host of heaven” standing around him. Also, in Job 1, God is holding court with the “sons of God” (that is, heavenly beings of some sort).
The modern view is certainly correct, but it was unknown among biblical interpreters until recently. Also, speaking of a divine court of some sort as in 1 Kings or Job is one thing. But Genesis 1:26 says something more: these beings are consulted at creation and share in God’s nature enough so that humankind would be made in their image and likeness. That is a much harder pill to swallow, both for the ancient interpreters and for us.
Throughout history, various explanations have been offered. A common Christian interpretation, especially in the early church, was that this is a reference to the Trinity. The fact that the Hebrew word for God is grammatically plural (‘elohim) only fed that idea. The problem with this is that a three-in-one God would have meant nothing to ancient Israelites, whereas a heavenly court would have meant something.
Other interpreters have suggested that the plural refers to God speaking to himself or perhaps using the royal “we”. Most scholars today reject these explanations because they seem forced, especially in light of the ancient Near Eastern context mentioned above.
In any event, none of these explanations were self-evident to ancient interpreters. They sought answers elsewhere.
Some interpreters called upon a figure we saw in a previous post: Wisdom [link]. For example, the Wisdom of Solomon 9:2 explicitly connects Wisdom to the forming of humankind, as do a number of other texts. Based on what we saw in that earlier post, Wisdom is an obvious candidate, since she was along side God at the beginning (Proverbs 8:22-31).
Of course, this is hardly explicit in Genesis, and so other interpreters sought other explanations. Some thought “us” meant that God consulted with his angels, for example Genesis Rabba 8:8. This certainly accounts for the plural, but it also comes dangerously close to saying that angels were involved in the creative process somehow.
This may have been what drove other interpreters to make it very clear that God did not receive help from anyone, angels included. A document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Hymn to the Creator (11QPsa), says that when God showed the angels his creation, they rejoiced because “he showed them what they had not previously known.” 4 Ezra 3:4 is very explicit when it says that God created the earth “without help.” Likewise, Josephus argues in Against Apion that God created “not with hands, not with toil, not with assistants, of whom he had no need.” All of these comments seem to be directed at maintaining some singular sense to “us.”
Genesis Rabbah 8:8, cited above, takes an entirely different—and entertaining—approach by scripting a delightful exchange between Moses and God. When Moses was writing down the words of Genesis at God’s direction and got to the passage of 1:26, Moses said, “Master of the Universe! Why should you give support to heretics?” God answered, “Let anyone who wishes to go astray go astray.” God said “us” in order to test peoples’ faith!
Ancient interpreters had their way of handling it and modern interpreters have theirs. But all agree that “let us make” needs to be explained somehow.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.