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The Divine Plural in Early Genesis

Wed, Nov 12, 2014

The first four chapters of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible are interesting for many reasons. In these chapters the ancient editors have stitched together two even more ancient written sources — the Yahwist and Priestly — to give an account of the creation of the world and humankind. The saga of Earth’s first people and their dealings with God are masterfully presented to set the stage for the later patriarchs and the coming of Israel as a covenant people. Genesis chapters one through four are, therefore, a fertile ground for critical study of the Hebrew Bible; redaction, form, source, literary, etc. all forms of Biblical criticism can be applied to these early chapters. However, one peculiar facet of early Genesis stands out even to the casual reader of the Hebrew Bible: twice — Gen 1:26 and Gen 3:22 — the singular, monotheistic god of the Hebrews is referenced using the plural pronoun us. This “divine plural” is the source of much scholarly discourse.

Thomas Keiser in volume 34.2 of the 2009 Journal for the Study of the Old Testament notes six main scholarly interpretations used to explain the divine plural in Genesis. Some scholars say that the divine plural is the remaining fragment of an earlier pagan myth. Others claim that us refers to creation — the entirety of Earth — or a heavenly court watching and maybe even participating in the creation. Some, still, see God using the “royal we” or majestic plural used by many monarchs. Textual and literary scholars see a colloquialism of self-deliberation or self-summons also used in Isa 6:8 and 2 Sam 24:14. Lastly, the interpretation seen by many as reading Christian theology from the New Testament into the Hebrew Bible, that the god of Genesis is a plurality of persons, is also in the mix of conversation around the divine plural.

The divine plural being a fragment of an earlier ancient Near Eastern or even proto-Hebrew polytheistic, pagan creation story is indeed possible. If both the Yahwist and Priestly sources — scholars place the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as having been stitched together by ancient editors from three distinct sources — had origins in a shared oral culture of a polytheistic people, both could have inherited a remnant of this earlier mythology in their written texts. As Michael Coogan notes in his The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, other cultures around ancient Israel had creation stories involving a pantheon of gods. It is possible that a pre-monotheistic Hebrew people had similar mythologies. However, at the same time, the Yahwist and Priestly written sources do not stand alone. Ancient editors redacted and merged the original written sources into a newly formed text comprising the Pentateuch. These editors did not work blindly, but purposefully to share the story of the one god of the Hebrews and how He alone was to be worshiped as a god. Keiser asks of Gen 1:26 and Gen 3:22, if the ancient editor or “the author […] removed all traces of polytheism throughout [the Pentateuch] […] [why] was [he] not able to do so here?” Gen 1:26 is attributed to the Priestly source and Gen 3:22 to the Yahwist source. Would two separate authors and then a series of final editors all neglect to remove a polytheistic reference to gods? This question is what leads many scholars to discount the polytheistic myth fragment explanation of the divine plural in Genesis.

The most popular — scholarly and otherwise — theory for the use of the divine plural in Genesis is that the us who is making humankind is the divine council or heavenly assembly. This explanation for the use of the divine plural in Genesis in scholarly circles is tangentially related to the polytheistic myth fragment theory just described. Coogan notes that in a creation story from Babylon, another ancient Near Eastern culture that thrived around and interacted with ancient Israel, the god Marduk requires the ratification of an assembly of before he creates humans. In this interpretation, like the myth fragment theory, a remnant of the divine council from the earlier ancient creation story remains in the Hebrew Bible. This is an academic theory behind the divine council interpretation of the divine plural; however, faithful Jewish reasons for the existence of a divine council, and thus the need for a plural pronoun, exist. The Jewish Publication Society’s The Jewish Study Bible notes that there are references to a divine council in several places in the Hebrew Bible: 1 Kings 22:19-22, Isa 6, and Job 1-2. Jewish midrash speaks of God telling His ministering angels — a sort of divine council — of His intentions with creating humankind and sparking a debate. With academic hypothesis and faithful Jewish midrash supporting the theory, it is clear why the divine council explanation is popular. However, it must be noted that a divine council is not actually referenced in early Genesis. This theory is based solely off an understanding of other, possibly related, creation mythologies and later written Biblical texts. In short, the evidence supporting this theory is strong, but not conclusive.

On the surface the solution to the meaning behind the divine plural could be self-evident. Just as the English monarch might say “we are not amused” using we in the sense of the majestic plural, so, too, would the singular God use a plural pronoun in creation to attest to His majesty and sovereignty. In volume 56.2 of the 2006 journal Vetus Testamentum Lyle Eslinger explains the majestic plural used by God as a sort of “plural of deliberation” where the plural pronoun denotes God priming himself for the act of creation. Though the majestic plural of kings and queens seems like the simplest and most probable solution to the divine plural in Genesis, the hypothesis falls apart quickly on analysis and is therefore not the majority view. First, the majestic plural is used by monarchs because they are said to be acting on behalf of either the people or God/the gods. The god of the Hebrews acts on no one’s behalf except His own; He is singularly god with no pantheon around Him and, in the context of the first four chapters of Genesis, humankind is the receiver of His action and thus God cannot be said to be creating on humankind’s behalf. Further Randall Garr notes in his book In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity, and Monotheism that the majestic plural as known to modern Western culture was “not a part of the vocabulary of kings or individual gods in the ancient Near East.” The majestic plural, then, is not an easy solution to explain the divine plural in the Hebrew Bible.

The traditional Christian explanation for the divine plural in Gen 1 and Gen 3 is to cite the triune nature of God. Naturally, to the Christian, God could refer to Himself in the plural as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit all take part in the creation. God would refer to himself in the plural at critical junctures with humankind, as explained by Eslinger, to preserve the “ontological difference that distinguishes gods from humans.” Humankind, though created to reflect some part of God’s image, is not three-in-one nor divine, so when God says us He is making that difference clear. The “plurality of the Godhead” explanation for the divine plural in early Genesis has, according to Keiser, not gained much traction in scholarly circles because it has traditionally been based solely off a New Testament and Christian understanding of God. (Scholars of the Hebrew Bible shy away from reading the New Testament into Old Testament texts without any contextual justification to do so.) Keiser, however, points to a method of interpretation that points to a plurality in God referencing and engaging only the Hebrew Bible text within its own context. In Keiser’s interpretation he notes that a singular-plural pattern is used for both God and humankind in the text. This, he says, points to a deliberate parallelism by the authors of Genesis to point to a relationship between God and humankind. Humankind is a community that acts in unity with regard to creation, so to is God. Just a human couple might say, “We are having a baby, “ so, too, might a plural Godhead say, “We are creating humankind.” With this interpretation Gen 1:26 and Gen 3:22, according to Garr, provide “a credible basis for interpreting the divine plurals […] as references to God’s attendant beings.”

The Hebrew Bible is rich for study. With its many authors, editors, oral traditions, and cultural influences it is a masterwork of ideas, literary genres, historicity, and theology. In the first four chapters of Genesis while the story of creation and the first human beings unfolds, God is twice referenced using a plural pronoun. This flies in the face of the staunchly monotheistic faith of the Hebrews and raises many questions for casual readers of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical scholars. Over the centuries many have proposed solutions or hypotheses for why the divine plural is used in Gen 1:26 and Gen 3:22. The theories around the divine plural all have their own evidence in the Biblical text and the cultural context of ancient Israel and the ancient Near East; they, too, all have counter arguments that weaken their hypothesis. In the end, the Hebrew Bible is simple too beautiful and rich to pin down to one simple solution. The divine plural is used and, though it is an interesting point of study, in the end some part of the mystery will remain and continue to enrich the reading and interpreting of the Hebrew Bible for centuries to come.