Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Interpretive Challenges in the OT #1: Genesis 1:26

with 11 comments

There are many textual difficulties in the OT, to be sure, most of which take lengthy essays or articles to explain. The task in this series, “Interpretive Challenges in the OT,” will be to examine these puzzling texts, survey the conclusions proposed by other writers and scholars, and arrive at a succinct and cogent explanation. Pray for me…


One of the first problems one might face when reading through the Bible from cover to cover (if he or she does that) is the question of who God is addressing in Genesis 1:26. In particular, who is the “us” and the “our” in God’s words, “Let us make man in our image.” Before delving into the text itself I want to briefly summarize the many options proposed to explain the “us.”:

  1. “Us” refers to a various gods in the ancient Near East, and thus perpetuates the mythological origins of Genesis.
  2. “Us” refers to the creation itself, which means that the creation not only has life but personality and will.
  3. “Us” is an honorific plural, much like Elohim (“God”), which is a plural word that speaks of a singular God.
  4. “Us” refers of God’s self-deliberation (a “plural of self-deliberation” was first proposed by Gesenius).
  5. “Us” refers to the Trinity.
  6. “Us” refers to the divine council, i.e. angelic beings in God’s presence.

The first two views can clearly be set aside since the whole aim of Genesis 1 is a polemic against polytheism. The third view is not likely since honorific plurals occur only with nouns (like Elohim, “God”) and not pronouns (like “us”). The fourth view may be discarded on the basis that no other text supports God self-deliberating within himself. The fifth view, however, is another kettle of fish. Traditional orthodoxy has asserted “us” as being a reference to the Trinity. This makes sense theologically on a number of grounds. First, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all identified as Creator (Job. 33:4; John 1:3; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). Second, it seems that the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Gen. 1:2 – “And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” Third, it would make sense that the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, would be a plural word since the Trinity is three distinct persons.

However convincing the Trinitarian perspective may be, the arguments are flawed to some extent. For instance, while the Spirit is clearly present in creation based on later texts it is hardly possible that Moses, writer of Genesis, had a multi-personed view of God at the time of his writing. Based on the antecedent context the only possibility of a plurality of deity is Gen. 1:2, but even that verse is more likely translated “wind from God” (cf. the recreation in Gen. 8:1 and the “wind” that blows over the waters after the flood). Furthermore, it is against the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis to read the theology of later texts into early ones. While the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly attested elsewhere in Scripture, it is faulty to try and locate ambiguous texts to support that doctrine when they are not clearly present. Be minded, I am not denying the existence of the Trinity nor their role in creation. But based on the text it doesn’t seem like the other persons of the Godhead are mentioned until later revelation.

A more coherent explanation of Gen. 1:26, I believe, is view six; that “us” refers to the divine council/angels. This view is affirmed by most OT commentators (cf. Waltke, Sarna, Wenham, Gentry, and others; contra V. Hamilton, Mathews, Alexander). Waltke (“The Bruce”) notes the contextual support for this view by taking Gen. 3:5 into consideration:

“The Serpent, who becomes identified as Satan in later revelation, tempts the man and woman to eat forbidden fruit to gratify their pride: ‘You [plural] will be like divine beings [Elohim], knowing good and evil.’ Conceivably, Elohim here is another honorific plural for God, but its attributive modifier, ‘knowing’ (lit. ‘knowers of’), is plural.”

Normally, whether a word is plural or singular is decided not only by its form but also by its accompanying modifiers. For example, for the first clause at the beginning of 3:5, “God” (Elohim) and the modifier, “knows,” are both singular, which clearly means Elohim is to be taken as singular. But at the end of the verse Elohim takes a plural modifier, which means Elohim should be rendered, “divine beings”, instead of the usual, “God.” This is confirmed in Gen. 3:22 when God says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” Without understanding the final clause in 3:5 as “divine beings” v. 22 would make no sense. The Serpent knows of the divine counsel, and thus his temptation in 3:5 refers to that very group. Additionally, we must keep in mind that there are  two other passages in the OT that mention God in the plural but do not seem to be referring to the Trinity (Gen. 11:7; Isaiah 6:8). Out of these I think that Isaiah 6:8 is the strongest evidence against a Trinitarian understanding of “us.” In that passage God is surrounded by heavenly Seraphim who constantly bring him praise, and Isaiah hears God asking them, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (6:8). This is not God self-deliberating, nor is it a reference to the Trinity, but a scene in which God acts jointly with the heavenly court (Seraphim).  In sum, all four uses of “us” in conjunction with Elohim in the OT refer to divine beings and not a plurality of deity (i.e. the Trinity).

But does this mean that Gen. 1:26 says humans are made in the image of God and the angels, and not just God? Far from it! That stance is flawed theologically. Humans are not made in “their” image, but only God’s (1:27 – “his image”). However, when God addresses the angels it does not mean they are taking part in the creation or part of the divine image. Rather, God is the addresser of his court: the addressees. He is the primary actor, so to speak, but acting in concert with the divine beings.

One final point may help my argument, which comes from Psalm 8:5-8:

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [Elohim] and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

It has been argued elsewhere that this passage is a commentary on Gen. 1:26-28, to which I agree. Regarding Elohim as noted in this Psalm, it must be maintained that our oldest translation (LXX) has “angels” and not “God” in the first sentence. The writer of Hebrews also goes this route in 2:7. Moreover, throughout the Psalm David refers to God in the second person (“your”). It would be odd for him to suddenly switch (e.g. “Yet you have made him a little lower than yourself“). I believe, then, that David, drawing his thought from Gen. 1:26-28, understood the “us” suffix as referring to the heavenly court and not as a plurality of deity.

To conclude, while interpreting Gen. 1:26 as Trinitarian may be attractive in light of the NT data, this view is textually and contextually flawed. All OT examples of Elohim in the plural refer to divine beings, as well as David’s meditation on this passage in Ps. 8:5-8. A better route would be to see “us” as referring to the divine council/heavenly beings, an interpretation that is justified on solid exegetical grounds and grammatico-historical exegesis. Although this present essay is not exhaustive, my hope is that it has stimulated your thought on this difficult matter and helped you in understanding the text.


Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology and Genesis: A Commentary
Victor Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, in NICOT
Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, in NAC
Peter Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image, in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Vol. 12 No. 1
Nahum Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary
Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15, in WBC


Written by Josh Philpot

April 13, 2009 at 12:42 am

11 Responses

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  1. Josh,

    It may be against the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis to read the theology of later texts into earlier one, but is it against the reality of the inspiration of Scripture?

    Could God have placed in the mind of Moses traces of the reality of the Trinity, that God then clearly revealed through NT authors? Scripture gives us nothing that would deter us from such a thought. And I would suggest that the reality of divine inspiration and a clear plan of redemption in Scripture should push us in that direction.

    Imposing all of the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis in a straight-jacket sort of way on a divinely inspired text is to risk choking out such divine inspiration.

    Garrett Wishall

    April 13, 2009 at 3:35 pm

  2. Just out of curiosity then, when do you believe the Trinity is first mentioned in Scriptures?

    Also, you say that,

    “does this mean that Gen. 1:26 says humans are made in the image of God and the angels, and not just God? Far from it!… Rather, God is the addresser of his court: the addressees. He is the primary actor, so to speak, but acting in concert with the divine beings.”

    So, do you believe that although we are not created in the image of angels, they are integral in the creation of mankind? And if so, how do the divine beings act “in concert” with God in the process of creation?

    Very thought-provoking essay by the way. As a lay person it’s very eye-opening to hear this critique. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it preached that Gen. 1:26 was the first mention of the Trinity. I think I even wrote that in the margin of my Bible b/c of a pastor’s direction… I hope it was in pencil!

    Brandy Lee

    April 13, 2009 at 4:55 pm

  3. Garrett,
    Thanks for your comments! I’ll do my best to answer them.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “against the reality of the inspiration of Scripture.” Of course all Scripture is inspired, but that still doesn’t give us credence for reading NT theology into OT texts. I believe Moses was carried along by the Holy Spirit, but not necessarily writing about the Spirit.

    Perhaps God could have “placed in Moses’ mind traces of the Trinity,” but that is conjecture. Provide a textual example! Of course there are seeds in the OT that are in full bloom in the NT (resurrection, life after death). But can you point to any other Mosaic text that would validate your claim (without using “angel of the Lord” – another topic, someday)? Furthermore, your argument doesn’t stand up against the grammar I’ve mentioned in the post. The forms are clearly attested elsewhere in Scripture which further helps my argument and which I will hold to over against assumptions. If you think that “us” refers to the Trinity, grammatically you must hold that Gen. 3:22, 11:7, and Isa. 6:8 also refer to the Trinity. I believe that the grammar and infrequency of texts to validate your claim gives us reason to deter from the Trinitarian view. Be minded, however, that I’m not arguing against divine inspiration nor God’s redemptive historical plan. I am, however, arguing against the Rule of Faith.

    You write, “Imposing all of the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis in a straight-jacket sort of way on a divinely inspired text is to risk choking out such divine inspiration.” I would go farther! Imposing all the ill-defined rules of Christocentrism and the Rule of Faith in a textually deviant way to support a doctrine that is clearly not in the text (although the doctrine may be unquestionably present elsewhere) risks misinterpreting what is actually being written, as well as the author’s own intention.

    Great discussion, Garrett! As I’ve told you before, I’m working through these issues, albeit slowly. I don’t want to come across as the “I’ve got it figured out” guy. I’m open to critique and persuasion!

    Josh Philpot

    April 13, 2009 at 5:12 pm

  4. Brandy,

    Good questions! But the first one is really hard, and I’m not sure of the answer. Perhaps Psalm 45 or 110 could be first. Isaiah also has a lot of Spirit language in chapters 40-66. Coupled with Isaiah’s language about the “Servant of the Lord” (a clear reference to the Messiah), and further language about the incomparability of God the Father, this could be one of the main OT passages for evidence of the Trinity.

    For your second question, given the later passages in the OT where God says, “us,” I would argue that God is involving the divine beings in the venture but not seeking their advice (Isaiah 40 makes this clear). The text always portrays God as supreme, and since he is so fixed in his authority and security he can involve the heavenly court in his plans and even bestow “dominion” to humans.

    Josh Philpot

    April 13, 2009 at 5:37 pm

  5. Hmmm…

    Josh, I think Brandy ask the first question that I had, concerning “in concert.” I am still puzzled by the the involvement of angels in creation. One of the marks of God’s uniqueness in the OT is the fact that he alone is the Creator (cf. Isaiah 40-48). This is one of the most shocking things about Jesus and NT Christianity, he is co-creator with God. Yet, your analysis “involves the heavenly court in his plans”… saying that they are his audience and that they are his associates are miles apart.

    So, my question is this: what do angels do “in concert” with God in creation? If they are active participants, even if under obedience to YHWH, why does the Bible make so much of creation as the singularly unique act of God? I am concerned that allowing “the gods” to participate in creation diminishes a high Christology (cf. Richard Bauckham), and blurrs Creator-creation distinctions.

    Moreover, on the spirit in Genesis 1:2, see theologue Sinclair Ferguson and biblicist Meredith Kline who argue for more than a “rushing wind.” Especially, in light of the temple imagery in Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22, I think it would be hasty to deny the Spirit as simply a cosmic phenomena (cf. GK Beale).

    Love you bro!
    Prov. 27:17


    April 13, 2009 at 6:06 pm

  6. Are you saying that even though NT scripture confirms that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is involved in the creation “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all identified as Creator (Job. 33:4; John 1:3; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2)”, We shouldn’t regard it as truth because “To conclude, while interpreting Gen. 1:26 as Trinitarian may be attractive in light of the NT data, this view is textually and contextually flawed”? This appears to be heresy to me.


    April 15, 2009 at 2:17 am

  7. D,
    I need to be cautious in how I phrase things, because I know that words can only do so much. What I am saying is that I completely affirm the NT doctrine of the Trinity, although I do not think that you can argue that doctrine from Genesis 1. In a simplistic way that is all that I am arguing. The Trinity is present in the OT but in scattered parts and vague terms. We do not have a clear Trinitarian passage like Ephesians 1 in the OT, just seeds of each person of the Trinity here and there.

    Scripture confirms the Father, Son, and Spirit as all participating in creation, and we SHOULD regard that as truth. You are right to point out that it would be heresy to deny this. However, I am arguing that we cannot validate that claim from Gen. 1:26, or even Genesis 1 for that matter.

    Good question! Thanks for making me clear it up.

    – Josh

    Josh Philpot

    April 15, 2009 at 2:30 am

  8. Josh,

    I am excited about this series. I have recently studied this “Let us make…” clause in Genesis 1:26 and came out on the same side as you. We must always be careful to let the text speak for itself. Your argument is strong on two points: 1) Gen. 3:22, 11:7, and Isa. 6:8 do not refer to the Trinity. Thus, to interpret the same syntax in 1:26 in a different manner is difficult (although not impossible). 2) The Old Testament only hints toward Trinitarian theology. We should note that that Thomas doubted Jesus’ divinity at first, Peter didn’t understand it at the transfiguration, and the Pharisee’s wanted to stone Jesus when he claimed divinity for himself. Orthodox Yahwistic Judaism was monotheistic, and the Old Testament shows thismonotheism to be simplistic.
    I would caution you on via Emmaus’s remarks above. Although Greg Beale’s work in his “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” is fantastic, he may push “The Temple in the Garden” motif too hard. I agree that the prophets (especially Ezekiel) apply Edenic categories to our expectation of New Creation. Further, the tabernacle and temple imagery is certainly alluding to the Edenic paradise (although much of this is also probably to be taken as royal imagery). However, at no point in the text of Genesis 1-3, nor the New Creation motifs in Genesis 9 and 12, link the Garden to it being a temple. Genesis 3 gives us the picture that Yahweh merely visited this garden. We do not get the idea that he resided there. Further, many take the verbs in Genesis 2:15 to be priestly verbs. It is true that they are only used together again in a priestly context; but, whatever words would have they used? So, was Eden a temple? Maybe. Did the temple use Edenic categories to help us understand its function? Yes. So what’s the point? Well, via emmaus noted that he struggled with not seeing Genesis 1:2 as a reference to the Holy Spirit. He wants to make it such because it fits his “Eden is a temple” scheme. I think we should be careful. Calling the spirit/wind in Genesis 1:2 the Holy Spirit requires many layers of conjecture. I think it would be better to argue as you have and see Genesis 1:26 (and possibly Gen. 1:2) as references to the heavenly court. Via Emmaus asked, “What do angels do in “concert” with God in creation?” I think Deuteronomy 4:26 can help us here. It reads, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed.” The prophets pick up on this exact theme in many of the judgment oracles. The idea is that “heaven and earth” were to witness what God was doing. Read Revelation 4 and 5, this is exactly what is going on in the “heavenly court.” Their role in creation is to simply witness to the fact that this creator – Yawheh – created it. They serve the same role in the Covenant, Yahweh will call the heavenly court (to paraphrase) into the courtroom to testify to his faithfulness. Anyhoo, just some food for thought. Great post.


    April 15, 2009 at 9:29 pm

  9. Hey Josh-
    I’m certainly not qualified to offer any substantive comment on this point, but I sure am enjoying reading your new blog and the helpful comments. Keep ’em coming, brother!


    Paul Cable

    April 16, 2009 at 3:15 am

  10. Hi Josh,
    I appreciate your argument on Genesis 1:26 I am currently writing an essay defending a christian viewpoint in light of the new age movement and my text resource can only be the first three chapters of Genesis! I have been looking for encouragement on taking a similar approach – not rejecting trinitarian hints but just the same – not wanting to read it in at this point…. I’m totally a beginner doing my first essay so thanks for worthwhile food for thought.

    Bev Gunn

    May 6, 2010 at 6:30 am

  11. If the “us” is the Divine Council then who is the “our”?

    If the text said “Let US make man in MY image, in MY likeness…” then the divine council interpretation would make sense. The text as is has the Us and the Our as the same audience. If we use the divine council imagery then the man would have to be created in the image of God and the Divine Council.

    It wouldn’t make any sense for the Us and the Our to not actually mean Us and Our, but only God.

    Dr. Michael Heiser used an analogy but I find it faulty. He uses an example to explain his reason for saying the Us is the Divine Council but never interacts with the Our.

    He says pretend you’re with your friends and you say “Let’s (let us) go get some pizza” but you drive to get pizza and you pay for it. Now if the text only said the first part “Let us make man.” then he would have a point. But the text doesn’t stop there. The example would have to be,

    “Let’s go get pizza for us to eat, the pizza will be for us” and then you drive and get pizza and pay for it and eat it yourself.” And then you go on to say “I got pizza and ate it by myself. By myself I ate it.” (“So God created man in His image, in His likeness He created them.)”The two don’t go together at all.

    It makes perfect sense for it to be a conversation between the members of the godhead just like when the Psalm says, “The LORD said to my Lord…” and interpret it as the Father speaking to the Son.

    In order for Genesis 1:26 to be referring to the Divine Council then man would have to be made in the image of both God and the other “gods” and then Gen. 1:27 contradict the previous conversation.


    May 3, 2016 at 2:29 pm

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