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I am under the impression that the Trinity is a Christian idea, and that the Jews did not view God as "three in one and one in three". How, then, was the following passage interpreted by the people of God prior to Christianity arriving on the scene?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness -Genesis 1:26

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4 Answers 4

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You are correct that according to Judaism God is indisputably one, not several beings in one (nor a member of a pantheon of gods). So what does the use of first-person plural mean? The predominant explanation is that God is addressing other (non-godly) beings, though some say God is speaking with himself (like one does when considering both sides of a dilemma).

In B'reishit Rabbah (an early midrash collection) 8:3 Rabbis Yehoshua ben Levi and Shimon ben Nachman say that God is consulting the rest of creation, like a king who consults advisors. R. Ammi says God is consulting his own heart. On 8:4 R. Berekiah seems to say that God refers to mercy personified (God infuses man with mercy as part of creation, he says). It's worth noting that the rabbis personify various attributes and inanimate objects quite a bit in the midrash; R. Berekiah isn't doing anything unusual here.

In 8:5 R. Shimon reports an argument among the ministering angels about whether man should be created. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b, also addresses this idea; R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav that when God wanted to create man, he first created a company of ministering angels and then said to them "is it your desire that we make man in our image?".

Why would God consult anyone? B'reishit Rabbah 8:8 offers this (quoted from the Soncino translation):

R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: When Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to write the work of each day. When he came to the verse, AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN, etc., he said: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why dost Thou furnish an excuse to heretics?’ ‘Write,’ replied He; ' Whoever wishes to err may err.’ ' Moses,’ said the Lord to him, ‘this man that I have created -- do I not cause men both great and small to spring from Him? Now if a great man comes to obtain permission [for a proposed action] from one that is less than he, he may say, " Why should I ask permission from my inferior!" Then they will answer him, " Learn from thy Creator, who created all that is above and below, yet when He came to create man He took counsel with the ministering angels.’"

Conclusion: God created all things and is the sole ruler of the universe. But that doesn't mean that God didn't create and interact with divine beings (a heavenly court), just like he would later interact with earthly beings, and according to R. Shmuel he had an intentional educational purpose in doing so.

Further reading: In compiling this answer I made significant use of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (English: The Book of Legends), compiled by Hayim Nachman Bialek and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky along with the sources I cited previously.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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The example makes me think of a qal vkomer in reverse. This shows us "as does the greater, so must the lesser." QvK says, "If the minor is true, the major must also be true." –  Frank Luke Jul 15 '12 at 1:42

Occam writes:

In Genesis 1:26, there aren't in fact three instances of "us". There is only one instance, "We will make", or "Let us make", followed by two possessives of the same number. The verse can be translated equally well as "Let us make mankind in our image and likeness" - with only two "us"s, as the Cambridge "New English Bible" translates. Furthermore, you might notice a glaring change of number in this verse as "mankind" (Adam) is first referred to, apparently, in the singular, and then in the plural when ruling the fishes of the sea and the fowl of the air, and then switching back to the singular again on the following verse when God creates "the man" (ha Adam) using only the first trait, the "image" (what happened to the "likeness"?). So we are on shifting sands if we try to build working religious doctrine based on translations of our ancestors' rather fluid view of grammar.

Regarding the usage itself, there are other examples, such as:

In II Samuel 24:14 David says to Gad "... Let us fall into the hands of the Lord..."

In II Samuel 16:20 Avshalom says to Ahitophel "Give us your advice, how shall we act?"

In Exodus 1:10 Pharaoh suggests "Let us trick him lest he increase and when war breaks out he will join our enemies and will escape from the land."

In each of these cases, as in Genesis 1:26, an individual uses the plural (we or us) when considering some action, even if he is the only one deciding or taking the action. In English we might think to ourselves "Let's say the butler did it", or "Let's go surfin'", even when we are one person going to the beach alone, because in English, as in Hebrew, that is the way we express a hypothesis or a proposal pending decision. And in light of the consequences of this particular decision, it was indeed wise to consider carefully, certainly worth the extra verse (which thematically ties into Genesis 6:6 and Genesis 9:9-18).

The context of Genesis 1 uses singular voice consistently when referring to God. Both texts of the Decalogue and Deuteronomy 6:4 leave no doubt as to the final interpretation.

Note that this answer does not answer the OP as does this answer; rather it questions the premise of the OP.

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Hi Eli, thanks for the answer! (+1) This was very interesting. A few questions for you, though: (1) RE: "on shifting sands..." do you mean that we are better equipped to interpret it now than the ancient Rabbis were? (2) Couldn't the "other examples" be explained as a person speaking on behalf of their group? (e.g. Pharaoh: "let us, Egypt, trick him") (3) Can you cite any authoritative sources? –  Jas 3.1 Jul 14 '12 at 23:38
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With comparative linguistics and archaeology we are in better position today to understand the texts than were the Rabbis of the Talmud, who in any event were not interested in hermeneutics. They used the text to define norms of behavior, the "halacha", reading into the text the messages that they wished to convey in accordance with their sensibilities. 2) Not in the case of Avshalom, and possibly but not likely in the other cases. 3) The Yemenite Taj pentateuch from the Hebrew University Bible. Grammatical analysis is my own. –  Eli Rosencruft Jul 15 '12 at 1:59

I think it is clear that the final redactor(s) thought of Elohim as one, and therefore as the sole-one who created mankind (human beings).

The phrase 'Let us make...' is a borrowed-motif from other Ancient Near East cultures, and alludes to the concept of a Divine Council (Assembly) - something that the final redactor(s) believed based on the following passages from the Hebrew Bible.

Job 1:6-7 (NASB)
6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

The LORD is addressing the sons of God - the bene elohim - who surround his throne. It was this same heavenly council that was present at creation.

Job 38:6-8 (NASB)
6 “On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
7 When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
6 “Or who enclosed the sea with doors
When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb

Therefore 'Let us make...' is the declaration of Elohim to make man in their (our) image. He is addressing this heavenly Council (Assembly) in the collective as a King would his subjects. The image is therefore functional and not ontological - that is, we as humans are created to the image of God by representing his character and attributes faithfully [this proposition may be taken loosely]. In this image of God, Elohim delegated his authority to humans - that is to have dominion over the earth - as such they are to reflect the character of God in their daily life.

Jason Rogers

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

    
Welcome to BH.SE, Jasoin. Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're different from many other sites. Could you add some sources to back up your claims (that the language is borrowed from other ANE cultures, etc.)? We require answers to 'show their work', which means connecting all of the dots for us, to include citing sources for factual claims such as these. Thanks –  maj nem ɪz dæn Aug 10 at 3:27

Three aspects to the Jewish soul

Man was created in the image of God and reflects his triune nature.

Another related manifestation of the three-fold cord is the statement of the Sages: "On three things the world stands: on Torah, on service, and on acts of lovingkindness" (Avot 1:2).

This is very similar to the word, works and life triad in referring to the Trinity in SP.

Personification

The many gates of revelation and creative power are personified in Kaballistic writing, and transferred to Jewish myth as divine beings which are lesser than God himself, such as angels. Even the letters of the alphabet are themselves personified, and given personal characteristics such as humility. This is not very different from the personification of the Word as the Son, or Meshiach, or as Adam Kadmon who represents the personification of the Torah itself.

Jewish understanding of Gen 1.26 involves conversations between the personified characteristics of God.

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I've made a major edit to remove lots of stuff that isn't related to the question. I'm not sure that what remains addresses the question either, but it's not as obviously misplaced as what I edited out. –  Gone Quiet Nov 27 '13 at 20:23

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