Plural Pronouns Used for God
In Genesis 1:26 God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...." Who is being referred to by the use of the plural pronoun our? Does this imply that God is more than one? Does it indicate that Jesus pre-existed the incarnation as the second person of the Trinity? Considering the strict monotheism of the Old Testament this does not seem likely.
This is not the only occurence in the Bible where a plural pronoun is used of God. The plural usage is found in three other places. In Genesis 3:22 God said, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil." At the building of the Tower of Babel God said, "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one anothers speech" (Genesis 11:7). Isaiah heard the Lord say, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" (Isaiah 6:8). How do we explain these verses?
Four major theories have been proposed to explain this plural usage in reference to God. The first theory claims that God counseled with His own will, or deliberated within His mind as to what He would do. This is based primarily on Ephesians 1:11 where it is said that God works "all things after the counsel of his own will." God is compared to a human that reasons in his mind saying something like, "Let me see...." This view does not seem to be correct when the Hebrew grammar of these verses are examined more carefully. The grammar indicates that God was speaking to somebody besides Himself.
The second theory is that the plural pronouns are used as a "majestic plural." This type of language was typically used by royalty, but not exclusively. Biblical examples include Daniel's statement to Nebuchadnezzar, "We will tell the interpretation thereof before the king" (Daniel 2:36). Daniel, however, was the only one who gave the king the interpretation of his dream. King Artaxerxes wrote in a letter, "The letter which ye sent unto us hath been plainly read before me" (Ezra 4:18). The letter was sent to Artaxerxes alone (Ezra 4:11), yet he said it was sent to "us," and was read before "me." Clearly the letter was only sent to, and read to Artaxerxes. When Artaxerxes penned another letter to Ezra he used the first person singular pronoun "I" in one place and the first person plural pronoun "we" in another (Ezra 7:13, 24).
This view, although not beyond the realm of possibility, does not seem very credible. The question arises as to why God would use singular pronouns of Himself in thousands of places in the Bible, yet would choose four occasions to use plural pronouns in a majestic plural sense? It would seem that God would either use singular pronouns exclusively, or plural pronouns exclusively when speaking of Himself. The small number of plural pronouns seems to suggest that there are some special reasons attached to its usage.
The third theory explains these passages by saying that although not present physically in the flesh at these times, God spoke to Jesus in a prophetic manner, having foreknowledge of His future arrival. It is reasoned that since God calls those things which are not as though they were (Romans 4:17), He spoke to the Son even though He was not physically present. God could do so because He does not live in time as we do, and does not view time as we do (II Peter 3:8). The Son was present in the mind of God as the Word (John 1:1). In defense of this I Peter 1:19-20 and Revelation 13:8 are cited which show that the incarnation and crucifixion were always in the plan and mind of God.
Specifically as it relates to the creation of man in Genesis 1:26, it is said that God made man in the appearance that Jesus would have in the future. It is reasoned that God made man in the image of what He knew Jesus would look like. This relegates God's reference to "our" to be spoken to Jesus in a prophetical sense. He was not actually there, but because He was the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, His presence had always been in the mind of God (not in the physical, real world until the incarnation), and therefore can be spoken of as being present at the creation (I Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8).
The other basis for this view arises from the Biblical teaching that Jesus created the worlds, and that all things were created for His purpose (John 1:1-3, 10; Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:2-3). It is argued that since Jesus created the worlds, He was present at the creation and therefore must have been the One God was speaking to. When the Bible says that Jesus created all things, it cannot mean that Jesus was present at the creation. When speaking of Jesus, we are specifically referring to God's existence as a man. This existence did not begin until His incarnation in approximately 6-5 B.C. Jesus (God made flesh) did not exist before this time. Jesus did preexist the incarnation as it pertains to His deity, for Jesus' deity is none other than that of Yahweh Himself, the omnipresent self-existing Spirit. John called this preexistence of Jesus the Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him [Word]; and without him was not any thing made that was made. ... And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-3, 14 italics mine). The same Word that existed at the creation of the worlds was the Word that became flesh (Jesus Christ). John identifies the Word as being God Himself, not some other God or person.
Speaking in natural terms, a person's word cannot be separated from their person. Their words do not have an identity separate from their person, but are expressions of their person. Likewise, Jesus (as the Word) is spoken of as being with God, but not in the sense as though He was separate from Him. God's word cannot be separated from Him any more than our word can be separated from us. The Word is the expression of God's person. John did not stop at the identification of the Word as being with God, but when on to point out that the Word was in fact God Himself.1
Jesus existed at the creation in His deity as God, but not in flesh as a human. These Scriptures have nothing to do with another "person" of the Godhead being present at the creation. They merely assert Jesus' preexistence as Yahweh. Henceforth we are still lacking the identity of the person(s) to whom God was speaking in these passages. Although not beyond the realm of possibility, there is not much Biblical merit to the idea that God was speaking to the Son "prophetically."
If Jesus was not physically at the creation, and God was not speaking to Him in some prophetic foreknowledge, then who was God speaking to? If God was not deliberating in His mind, or speaking of Himself in a majectic plural sense, who was He speaking to? I believe the answer is to be found in another direction.
We know that this passage in Genesis 1:26 cannot mean that there was anyone besides God who created. Yahweh said Himself, "I am the LORD that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself" (Isaiah 44:24). Malachi argued, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us?" (Malachi 2:10). It is very clear that there is only one Creator, and He is Yahweh. Jesus is said to have created the worlds, but He did so not as the Son of God, but as God before the incarnation. This does not deny, however, that the worlds were created with God-incarnate in mind (John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2). Truly all things were made with Christ in the center.
Directly following God's use of plural pronouns in verse twenty-six it is said that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him...." (Genesis 2:27 italics mine) Clearly it was one image in which man was created. He was not created in two or more images.
It appears that God was speaking to angels in these passages. The grammar of these verses support this view. The grammar of Genesis 1:26 is as follows: God (plural)2 said (third person masculine singular), Let us make (first person common plural) man (singular masculine noun) in our image ("image" is a first person common plural suffix), after our likeness ("likeness" is a feminine singular noun with a first person common plural suffix)."3 The plural pronouns "us" and "our" must be referring to someone other than God because the verb used in connection with "God" is singular. If God was speaking to Himself in a plural form, or performing self-talk as some say, the pronouns would also need to be singular to modify the verb. Because the pronouns are plural in form, God was truly speaking to someone else.
The very fact that God uses singular pronouns when speaking of Himself in thousands of cases causes us to question why He chose to use plural pronouns in this passage and in the other three I mentioned earlier. In the verses preceding Genesis 1:26 which speak of the creative acts of God, singular pronouns are used exclusively in reference to God, and in verse twenty-six a singular verb is used. There must be some reason for this peculiar usage in these passages. In verse twenty-six two plural pronouns and a plural verb are used in connection with God. This change in usage indicates that God is now including others in His address.
The only beings created at this point were the angels, so it seems best to understand angels to be the recipients of God's address. The Jews have always believed that angels were the ones being adressed by God in these verses. We know that the angels were present at creation (Job 38:4, 7), so it is very possible that God was speaking to them. He addressed the angels in a courteous manner, acknowledging that they too had an image like His. God created man in the image of Himself, an image shared by the angels also.
Two objections might occur at this point: 1. How could angels be said to have an image or likeness to God?; 2. How could angels help God create man?
In response to the first objection, it seems best to see the "image" in which man was created to be one of moral, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional qualities rather than any physical qualities or similarities. God and angels both possess all of these attributes that men have. Sometimes we view angels as android beings created by God that have no choice but to serve Him in holiness and righteousness, being emotionless, and have no way of thinking for themselves. This is an unbiblical view. Peter said angels are interested in the activities of the church when he said concerning the gospel being preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, "which things the angels desire to look into" (I Peter 1:12). We see from this verse that angels do have a will of their own by the fact that they desire to look into these things. God does not command them to do this, but they have a desire to do so. This indicates that angels have an emotional spectrum and intellectual independence. They have spiritual qualities in that they worship God and moral qualities in that they choose to stay pure.4
Regarding the second objection, angels did not participate in any way with the creation of man, but they did participate in some way in the making of man. The Hebrew word translated "make" in Genesis 1:26 is asah. The Hebrew word meaning "create" is bara. Angels do not have the power to create anything, but might have shared in the making of man from the dust of the ground. Vine's comparison and contrast of the two Hebrew words is helpful here:
In <Gen. 1:26-27>...`asah must mean creation from nothing, since it is used as a synonym for bara'. The text reads, "Let us make [`asah] man in our image, after our likeness.... So God created [bara'] man in his own image...." Similarly, <Gen. 2:4> states: "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created [bara'], in the day that the Lord God made [`asah] the earth and the heavens." Finally, <Gen. 5:1> equates the two as follows: "In the day that God created [bara'] man, in the likeness of God made [`asah] he him." The unusual juxtaposition of bara' and `asah in <Gen. 2:3> refers to the totality of creation, which God had "created" by "making."
It is unwarranted to overly refine the meaning of `asah to suggest that it means creation from something, as opposed to creation from nothing. Only context can determine its special nuance. It can mean either, depending upon the situation.5
That the creation consisted of creating and making can be seen in Genesis 2:3-4: "And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created [bara] and made [asah]. These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created [bara], in the day that the LORD God made [asah] the earth and the heavens." The TWOT is also helpful here.
The significant interchange between the words bara "create" and asah is of great interest. The word bara carries the thought of the initiation of the object involved. It always connotes what only God can do and frequently emphasizes the absolute newness of the object created. The word asah is much broader in scope, connoting primarily the fashioning of the object with little concern for special nuances.
The use of bara in the opening statement of the account of creation seems to carry the implication that the physical phenomena came into existence at that time and had no previous existence in the form in which they were created by divine flat. The use of asah may simply connote the act of fashioning the objects involved in the whole creative process.
The word asah is also used elsewhere in Scripture to describe aspects of the creative work of God (Psa 86:9; Psa 95:5; Psa 96:5).6
It might be best to understand the creation of man in a two-fold manner. He was both made and created. He was made (asah) in that his body came from the dust of the ground (earth). The earth was already created by God, so Adam was made from a substance which was already created. He might be said to have been created (bara) in that "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and He [Adam] became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). The life invested into the body was a creation of God; a creation which the angels could not participate in.
Because angels could not actually create man, it might be wondered why God even bothered speaking to them concerning man. The reason might be two-fold. First of all, God might have addressed them in a courteous manner because of their intimate presence at this amazing time. Secondly, He addressed them to declare His intentions of making man in their image as well as His: a moral, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional image. After God allowed the angels to participate in the making of man, He created in him a living soul which possessed this image of God and of the angels.
The angels participation in the making of man might be compared to the manner in which believers work miracles. Jesus said, "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8). This does not mean that we have the power in and of ourselves to work miracles, even though Jesus spoke these things in the imperative as though it was our responsibility to see that they come about. Although we are to do these things, we do them by relying on the power and will of God. Just as we do not actually work miracles apart from God, neither could the angels actually make man apart from the power and will of God.
Genesis 3:22 has a similar grammatical structure to that of Genesis 1:26: "God (plural) said (third person masculine singular), Behold, the man is become as one of us (first person common plural), to know good and evil."7 Here again we see a singular verb being used with plural pronouns.
Thus far we know that those to whom God spoke had an image that was like His, and could be considered to be enough like God to the extent that He could say, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil." It might be argued that angels do not know the difference between good and evil, or that at least before the fall of man they didn't know the difference. Again, this type of response is based off of the idea that angels are holy androids with no will of their own. If angels could not sin, then Lucifer and the other multitudes of angels that rebelled against God could have never actually done so. God would have had to have made them rebel against Him. Angels knew the difference between good and evil before man ever sinned. This knowledge was just as much a part of their nature as it was God's. They did not have to commit evil to know evil, just as God never had to commit evil to know the difference between evil and good.
In support of the idea that God addressed His angels in this passage, notice that immediately after man's disobedience and sin God evicted them from the Garden of Eden and stationed cherubims at the east end of the Garden to block its entrance from man. Angelic activity surrounded God's new creation. That God was addressing angels in Genesis 3:22 flows with the rest of the context, not being hindered by it whatsoever.
The grammar of Genesis 11:7 is even more conclusive that God must must have been addressing angels when He spoke using the first person plural pronoun "our" or "us." The grammar of this verse is as follows: "Go to (second person masculine singular), let us go down (first person common plural) and there confound (first person common plural) their language."8
"Go to" is an imperative in the Hebrew language. God was giving a command to the one(s) He was speaking to here. If these "our" and "us" passages are referring to God speaking to a manifestation of His Spirit or the Son in some way, then we have a case of one divine person commanding another divine person to do something. One can only be commanded to do a thing because they are subordinate to and inferior in rank to the one doing the commanding. If God was speaking to deity, then this deity was less than God.
Apparently God was only speaking to one being because "go to" is in the second person singular. What God was saying was, "You (singular) go to...." Apparently God was accompanied by only one angel to confound the languages at Babel. Should it seem strange that the Lord would choose to have angels accompany Him, remember the story of Abraham's encounter with God (Genesis 18). He was visited by three men: one of which turned out to be a theophany of the Lord, and the other two were angels (10, 13-17; 19:1).
The final Scripture in which God used a plural pronoun in connection with Himelf is Isaiah 6:8. The grammar of this verse is as follows: Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send (first person common singular), and who will go for us (first person common plural)?" The singular verb cannot have a plural pronoun as its antecedent. Again, God must be addressing someone else in this statement. Whatever the situation, we know that it was only God who was going to do the sending (v. 8). Considering that in the context of chapter six there is a lot of angelic activity (2-3, 6-7), it should not seem strange to think that the Lord was addressing angels.
It might seem strange to think that God would ask the angels for a plan of action to take against the rebels at the Tower of Babel. God does not need anyone else's advice does He? Even though God does not need advice, it is evident that He does sometimes seek after it. There is a detailed account of God corresponding with angels to come up with a plan of action in I Kings 22:19-23. In this passage Micaiah the prophet told Ahab and Jehoshaphat that he "saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left" (v. 19). This is clearly an assembling of the angels. The purpose for this meeting was to discuss a plan of action to bring about Ahab's death. The Lord posed the question to the angelic host, "Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth Gilead?" (v. 20). That there was actual debate is indicated by the phrase, "And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner" (v. 20). Finally an angel came up with a way to persuade Ahab that God was pleased with (v. 21). His plan was to be a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets. The Lord gave him permission to do this saying, "Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so" (v. 22). If the Lord wants the input of His angels before executing His plan, that is His prerogative. All we know is that God does on some occasions, and for whatever reasons, consult with His angels and involve them on His "missions."
In conclusion, it seems best to understand the plural references in Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7, and Isaiah 6:8 to be referring to angels whom the Lord addressed. Although not beyond the realm of possibility, the first three theories do not carry enough Biblical or grammatical support to be considered valid explanations. When considering the Hebrew grammar behind these verses, angels seem to be the best candidates for the identity of those included in the "us" and "our" statements made by God.
1. In I John 1:1-3 John spoke in similar terms as he did in his gospel. He spoke of the beginning of time (v. 1 compared with John 1:1), called Jesus the "Word of life" (v. 1 compared with John 1:1, 14), and declared that this life was manifested to men resulting in man's ability to come into contact with God (v. 2 compared with John 1:10-11, 14). Verse three says, "And this life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us." (italics mine) John identified the Word as the Word of life that was with the Father, and spoke of this Word as being manifested into the world. Can God's life be separated from His person? Can our life be separated from our person? The answer to both questions is a resounding no! Our life gives us our existence and identity. Likewise the Word of life is God, and God is the Word of life. Jesus is none other than the life and word of God, in no way having an existence separate from Him. <back>
2. Although God (elohim) is in plural form, it does not indicate that God is more than one. I already explained this earlier in the paper. Although elohim can mean more than one, if it was intended in this way here, the connecting verb would also have to be plural. In this sentence, however, the verb is singular indicating that the elohim who is speaking is one in number. <back>
3. Segraves, Daniel L., Theology of the Church II (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1995), p. 45. <back>
4. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois, Copyright 1980, as found on BibleWorks, 1998, version 4.0. <back>
5.. Some teach that angels have no choice but to serve God, and that they have no epistemological knowledge of good and evil. Instead of actually possessing an internal knowledge of the difference between good and evil, they only observe it. If this is true how did Lucifer and the other angels fall from heaven? There must have been the possibility of sinning among angels just as there was the possibility of sinning among Adam and Even. Both man and angels fell, but the difference between the two is that God has offered salvation to humans, whereas He has not to angels (Hebrews 2:14-17). Satan and all the other fallen angels are destined for the Lake of Fire without a hope for salvation and the mercy of God, but we have hope through Jesus Christ for complete redemption and salvation. <back>
6. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, as found on PC Study Bible. Computer Software. <back>
7.Segraves, 49. <back>
8. Ibid. <back>
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