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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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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.

  • 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
  • @EliRosencruft, you're source is Occam and he was controversial in the church. He built his "working religious doctrine" on philosophy, which came from the Greeks. I'm glad you included it but I don't think this is objective. – Daisy Apr 19 '16 at 14:56
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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.

  • 1
    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 – Dan Aug 10 '14 at 3:27
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As noted on this question, one option is that "us" may simply be a usage of the Royal "we" - basically God is talking to himself and it is simply a turn of phrase.

More likely however is that "us" here refers to God and the Holy Spirit noted in Genesis 1:2

Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.

Now, though you asked what this meant before the doctrine of the Trinity, it is important to note that just because Judaism did not have this doctrine does not mean that that they did not regard the Holy Spirit as an entity separate from God the Father. According to Jacob and Blau

Although the Holy Spirit is often named instead of God ..., yet it was conceived as being something distinct. The Spirit was among the ten things that were created on the first day

So most likely, the "us" in Gen 1:26 refers to God and the Spirit of God under the pre-messianic interpretation.

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    In Hebrew, spirit and breath are exactly the same word, so 1:2 could equally have been translated "the breath of God was moving over the surface of the water." – Dick Harfield Sep 4 '16 at 8:06
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I'm going to rearrange the question to answer it more pointedly to deal with the exegesis first; the quotations are all answered here but in another order; also the caps are adding emphasis, please don't edit.

"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".

In this portion of the question it is assuming that the "Trinity", or "three in one and one in three". is implied by whom?

  1. The speaker
  2. The writer
  3. The translator
  4. The reader

In this case it is by the reader importing his knowledge into the question this is absolutely the case as the word Trinity and the phrase "three in one and one in three" does not appear in Genesis thus far. The question whould be perhaps better asked plainly in the latter part alone, and then see if the text offers from it's own exegesis as to how this could be understood:

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

  • ויאמר אלהים נעשׂה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו וירדו בדגת הים

There are 4 parts to this statement that should draw a hermenutic students attention:

Because in Hebrew the Noun for God- אלהים is a singular plural, not much concerning speaker אלהים - God(s) can be attained but that deity in the Hebrew sense offers plurality of speech even from one speaker if the speaker is deity, yet אלהים did not 'speak' to one and other in the plural, but rather אלהים "said" , thus implying one speaker, making a statement.

The following points are also of interest as to אלהים nature of this proclaiming to make Adam/man upon the earth:

The Verb: נעשׂה -let us Make

A Noun: בצלמנו - in our Image A Noun: כדמותנו - in our Likeness

There are 3 plural distinctions and pluralities to be noticed as made by the 1 אלהים- God, 1. the Making of man by US, 2. That man will be in OUR image, 3. That man will be in OUR likeness.

Is this trifold statement of creating of man significant with a trip fold nature, that of being Made, being made with an Image, being made with an image and Likeness? This depends on what is revealed concerning the אלהים -God prior in the text of Genesis 1 to find if this Making of man, that will be After God - אלהים in Image and Likeness, what is revealed of his nature or being. And in the first revealation of God to us from the Text is as well seen אלהים 's nature speaking in the singular command, making God (singular) an accurate choice to discribe אלהים :

Genesis 1

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

From this first revealation we have to comport into the Gen 1:26 question is how God interfaces with creation, which can be seen in:

  1. God created
  2. the Spirit of God moved
  3. And God said

While further revealation would show how the God head used his various functionaries, this is more than enough evidence to suggest that God interfaces in creation and imparts to man a trifold nature after his own, in: 1: God the Creator having being and thus making man to have being, 2. God having an Image in Spirit and making man to have his Image in Spirit, 3. God having Likeness in what is "Said" (logical word - logos) and making man to have Likeness after God's "said" ability.

The "said" Likeness is the hardest to communicate with out using a new tense of speaking, but it would best be said "His Word" Hebrew: DeBaR, Greek: Logos.

So while Christians are often taught trinitarian theology in context of total revealation of scripture, the OP's assertion that: "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".

On accurate, but it is not that a trifold nature could not be known of the one God אלהים.

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Interpretation of Genesis 1:26?

Genesis 1:26 (NASB)

26 "Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the [a]sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

When we are faced with such a question as in Genesis 1:26, we can look to the scriptures for our answer. From the scriptures we read that Jesus was engaged in the creation of the world and was beside his father as a master workman.

Proverbs 8:30 (NASB)

30 Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; And I was daily His delight,Rejoicing always before Him."

John 1:3 (NASB)

3 "All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being."

Colossians 1:15-16 (NASB)

15 "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For [b]by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him."

From "BibleHub."

Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary

Proverbs:8:22-31 The Son of God declares himself to have been engaged in the creation of the world. How able, how fit is the Son of God to be the Saviour of the world, who was the Creator of it! The Son of God was ordained, before the world, to that great work. Does he delight in saving wretched sinners, and shall not we delight in his salvation?

Conclusion.

The Word, was God’s only direct creation, the only-begotten son of God, and evidently the close associate of God to whom God was speaking when he said: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.”

Other scriptures clearly prove that the Word was God’s agent through whom all other things came into existence: " yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him." (1 Cor.8:6 NASB)" the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:"(Rev. 3:14 NASB)

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In his commentary on Genesis in The Oxford Jewish Study Bible, Dr. Jon Levenson, List Professor of Jewish Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, also believes that the plural in Genesis 1:26 "most likely reflects a setting in the divine council: God the King announces the proposed course of action to His cabinet of subordinate deities, though He alone retains the power of decision."*

Similar occurrences, notes Professor Levenson, can be found in 1 Kings, Isaiah, and Job:

But Micaiah said, “I call upon you to hear the word of the LORD! I saw the LORD seated upon His throne, with all the host of heaven standing in attendance to the right and to the left of Him. The LORD asked, ‘Who will entice Ahab so that he will march and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said thus and another said thus, until a certain spirit came forward and stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him.’ ‘How?’ the LORD asked him. And he replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You will entice and you will prevail. Go out and do it' (1 Kings 22:19-22, JPS Tanakh)

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)

One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them (Job 1:6)


A similar interpretation can also be found in the Talmudic commentary of Rashi:

Let us make man: From here we learn the humility of the Holy One, blessed be He. Since man was created in the likeness of the angels, and they would envy him, He consulted them. And when He judges kings, He consults with His Heavenly household, for so we find regarding Ahab, that Micah said to him, (I Kings 22:19): I saw the Lord seated on His throne, and all the host of heaven were standing by Him, on His right and on His left. Now do left or right apply to Him ?! But rather, [the passage means that] these [angels] were standing on the right to defend, and these [angels] were standing on the left to prosecute. Likewise, (Dan. 4:14): By the decree of the destructive angels is the matter, and by the word of the holy ones is the edict. Here too, He took counsel with His heavenly household. He said to them, “Among the heavenly beings, there are some in My likeness. If there are none in My likeness among the earthly beings, there will be envy among the creatures of the Creation."

*. 1st ed., p.14

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Some have claimed the plural pronouns of Genesis 1.26 refer to the trinity. But this is not an proper exegesis of the Hebrew text. The plural pronoun "us" and "our" are simply required from the Hebrew noun elohim which is plural. It is simply Hebrew grammar and cannot be used to prove the doctrine of the Trinity. Read When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe page 30-31.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor May 23 '16 at 8:59
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    This doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. References are good (more than one would be great), but to supply a full Answer to the question you're handling, you would need to provide a summary of the argument you're presenting and engage with any relevant questions. Verb aside, the text chooses to use the plural Elohim throughout - is this necessarily inconsequential? Is the assertion strengthened by the fact Elohim makes a plurality of men in 'our likeness'? – Steve Taylor May 23 '16 at 9:08
  • If אֱלֹהִים requires a plural verb, then what about בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים in Gen. 1:1? בָּרָא is conjugated in the singular number. I'm downvoting your answer for inaccuracy. – user862 Jun 20 '16 at 5:00
  • The question isn't about verse 1, though. Perhaps you should up vote this and raise a question about verse 1? @woody1953 can you please copy in the passage from Geisler and Howe? Thanks. – Ruminator Apr 25 at 0:27
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This verse is actually prophetic, that is, it has an original significance and a future significance. It could be called a parable. See Matthew chapter 13 on Jesus teaching and explaining parables. Much of the stories and events of the Old Testament have a futuristic overture and are repeated. The making of man in the image of God was not the physical man made from the earthly elements, but rather that he was made a living soul. It's through the soul that we have eternal existence and know to do right and wrong. God is a Spirit (John 4:24). God has taken on a physical form at times to interact in this physical world. He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve (although we do not know the form). He appeared unto Mosses in the mount. Was a fire and cloud over the Israelites traveling through the wilderness. His glory filled the tabernacle, the temple. And in the latter days walked the earth as Jesus Christ. He being the image of the invisible God.

Collosians 1: 13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: 14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: 15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

*Hebrews 1: 1 God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, 2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; 3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:

1 Corinthians 15: 45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. 46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. 47 The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. 48 As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. 49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. 50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.*

God created the first man, Adam, in His image. Creating man in the image of God is a work that continues today through the ministry of Jesus and His disciples and all those who follow and share His teachings. Read what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 about being born again, not in the body, but in the Spirit; not of the earth, rather heavenly; in the image of God.

The 'us' and 'our' does not mean God talking to himself. The 'us' and 'our' does include the plural group of; God, Christ Jesus, and all who have followed in His ways and are living in the image of God. Those who are sharing with others to seek spiritual/heavenly things and not the things of this world, that the hearers also could be transformed to be in the image of the living God.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Jun 27 '16 at 12:50
  • (-1) This is a very good start to an answer, but avoids the OP's actual question entirely. Sure, it's good to describe why you conclude the passage is prophetic - but does/did it have any significance prior to Christianity? Can the plurality be rationalised prior to Trinitarianism - why, or why not? – Steve Taylor Jun 27 '16 at 12:52
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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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