Does Genesis 1:26 Prove A Multiplicity Of Persons In God?

Gen. 1:26 – “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.’ “

The assertion that the plural pronouns in the phrase “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness . . .,’” are a reference to multiple persons within God, i.e. the Father speaking to the Son, and hence a reference to the Trinity, is typical of many Christian apologists, bible commentators and lay people, as well as many of the early church fathers from the 2nd century on. And certainly, for anyone who already accepts the Trinity doctrine, this could be a confirmation of that belief. But it must be said right from the start that the Trinity doctrine is not taught by this passage. Of course it may accommodate that belief for the one who already holds that doctrine; but it could also accommodate the belief in poly-theism and Arianism. And why would the  plural pronouns suggest ‘three’ persons in God? Why not two or ten? The only reason it would suggest ‘three’ is because the Trinity concept, which came along at a much later time, is being read back into this text. The simple or plain reading of the text is that God, a singular person, is speaking to someone else, whether one or more persons.

So is this verse a slam dunk for Trinitarians? While many popular commentators and apologists think so, and many church fathers thought so, modern scholarship is decidedly against the notion that Gen.1:26 implies a multiplicity of persons within God. This is true even among Trinitarian scholars. Gordon J. Wenham comments on this verse in the World Biblical Commentary on Genesis, saying:

Christians have traditionally seen [Gen. 1:26] as adumbrating the Trinity. It is now universally admitted that this was not what the plural meant to the original author.

Charles Ryrie, in the Ryrie Study Bible gave this brief comment on Gen. 1:26:

Us…Our. Plurals of majesty.

The Liberty Annotated Study Bible, published by Liberty University states regarding this verse:

The plural pronoun “Us” is most likely a majestic plural from the standpoint of Hebrew grammar and syntax.

The staunchly Trinitarian NIV Study Bible has this in it’s commentary note on this passage:

us… our…our. God speaks as the Creator-King, announcing his crowning work to the members of his heavenly court …

H. L. Ellison, in The International Bible Commentary, edited by F. F. Bruce, says regarding the traditional Christian view that the plural refers to the Trinity:

This should not be completely rejected, but in it’s setting it does not carry conviction. The rabbinic interpretation that God is speaking to the angels is more attractive, for mans creation affects them … But there is no suggestion of angelic cooperation. Probably the plural is intended above all to draw attention to the importance and solemnity of God’s decision.

The Cambridge Bible Commentary states on the passage:

i. Until recently, the traditional Christian interpretation has seen in the 1st pers. plur. a reference to the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. The requirements of a sound historical exegesis render this view untenable: for it would read into the book of Genesis the religious teaching which is based upon the Revelation of the New Testament.

Gleason Archer, in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, while not commenting on Gen. 1:26, does comment on Gen. 3:22, where again God speaks in the plural ‘us’:

Who, then, constitutes the “us” referred to in verse 22? Conceivably the three persons of the Trinity might be involved here (as in Gen. 1:26), but more likely “us” refers to the angels surrounding God’s throne in heaven …

I want to note again that the above quotes are from Trinity-believing, traditional, orthodox scholars, honest ones I might add. At this point, it becomes difficult to see how Gen. 1:26 can be considered a proof-text for a multi-person God, and hence, a proof-text for the Trinity, when so many OT scholars, themselves trinitairans, deny that it proves such a idea. Even some popular level scholars like Dr. Michael Heiser and Dr. Michael Brown deny that this text proves the Trinity. Of course, this does not prevent less thoughtful trinitarian apologists from repeatedly using Gen 1:26 with great confidence in debates with unitarians.

As we can see, from most of the quotes above, the most prominent alternative interpretation is that God is speaking to his heavenly court, the angelic beings surrounding his throne.1 Some object to this on the basis that angels could not have been active participants in the creation of man – this was God’s work alone. Isaiah 44:24 is often cited as proof of this –  “I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by myself and spreading out the earth all alone.” In response, it should be observed that Is. 44: 24 specifically mentions the creation of the heavens and the earth, which had already been accomplished before day 6 of the creation week, when man was created. And as far as I am aware, there is no passage which states emphatically that God alone was involved in the creation of man. We do see, in the text of Genesis 1, a distinction in the way that God created everything else leading up to the creation of man. In every other case the text says that God simply spoke “and it was so.” Yet when it comes to man’s creation God does not just speak and it happens, but he involves others in the act. Why could we not surmise that God involved the angels in some way, perhaps as the ones who gathered the dust of the ground and formed the shape of the man. From that point God would have taken over to actually transform the lifeless man-shaped dirt into a body of flesh and blood. In this scenario the angels are simply agents of God who are doing his bidding, but it is God who provides the power necessary for the completion of the process.

Now someone might object that Gen. 2:7 states that “Yahweh God formed the man from the dust of the ground . . . ,” and that this precludes that the angels were involved. But such an objection simply fails to understand the concept of agency in scripture. God is often credited with the actions of his agents. Moses was sent by God, as his agent, to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and he did so. Yet, God is credited as the one who brought them out {see Ex. 3:9-10; Num. 20:14-16; Joshua 24:5; 1 Sam. 12:6-8; Acts 7:34-36}. Likewise, though the prophet Samuel anointed David with oil, God speaks of himself as doing it {see 1 Sam. 16:13; Ps. 89:20}. In Is. 29:3 God says to Jerusalem, “I will encamp against you on all sides; I will encircle you with towers and set up my siege works against you,” yet it is the army of Babylon led by Nebuchadezzar that fullfills it. Who delivered the Israelites from their enemies in the book of Judges, God or the judges {see Judg. 2:16-18}? I could go on with many more examples but this should suffice to show that the objection is without merit. That God is ultimately the one who created man, even if the angels assisted in some way, is seen by verse 27 which reads literally, “So God, he created man in his own image . . . ” Here the verb is singular and so is the pronoun, showing that God alone is credited with the act of man’s creation. 

Another possible way to understand it is that if God was speaking to the angels it was not necessarily to include them in the act of man’s creation, but perhaps to invite them to be observers of his crowning achievement. This was also the predominant rabbinic interpretation. It may also be that angels are also created in the image of God, and so the “us” and “our” is intended to include them in that regard only. As far as I  am aware, there is no verse in Scripture which says that man alone is created in the image of God. We should also note that if verse 26 is referring to multiple persons in God, then why does verse 27 not read, “So God, they created man in their own image?” The fact is, that the text does not give us enough information to be absolutely certain, but what I have presented here is certainly plausible, and is, in fact, a better interpretation than the one that imports a concept into the text which would not come into existence until many centuries later.

So I conclude that the best or most plausible way to interpret Gen. 1:26 is that God is speaking to his angels. This interpretation would likewise apply to the three other “us” texts, found at Gen. 3:22; 11:7 and Is. 6:8.

Endnotes
1. Gordon Wenham, in volume 1 of his Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis, lists six possible ways to understand the “us” in Gen. 1:26 and concludes that the angel view is the most probable, even briefly answering two main objections to this view.

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

4 thoughts on “Does Genesis 1:26 Prove A Multiplicity Of Persons In God?”

  1. Trinitarian Dr. Michael Heiser asks:
    “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).”
    (From The Unseen Realm)

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  2. Hello Troy, can you explain what you think of passages where plural Elohim is used alongside a plural verb (Gen. 20:13; 35:7; 2 Sam. 7:23; Psa. 58:11)? I’ve seen explanations of one or two of these passages, for example, Genesis 35:7 seems to be referring to Jacob’s vision of angels (elohim) descending and ascending a staircase to heaven (Gen. 28:12). But the other passages are more difficult to answer, and seem to be definitely referring to Yahweh. Is this proof that Yahweh is grammatically more than one person?

    Thanks!

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    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for reading the article and for asking your question. I agree with you that Gen. 35:7 is referring back to 28:12. Ps. 58:11 is likely referring to righteous kings who are called elohim as in Ps 82. For a better understanding of my position on both of these psalms see my article titled Psalm 82 – Of Gods or Human Kings? The final two passages (Gen. 20:13; 2 Sam. 7:23) I chalk up to scribal error, which should be expected. Can you imagine a scribe having to repeatedly go against the grain in using singular pronouns and verbs in relation to a plural noun? Some scribe somewhere was bound to make a mistake. The fact that there are only two, or possibly three such errors is amazing.

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