(Gen. 1:26) Does this passage prove the Trinity?

CLAIM: In Genesis, God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). There are many other examples of the plural name for God in the rest of the OT (c.f. Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8). Here, the Hebrew refers to God in the plural, but it states that he creates in the singular. Does this passage prove that the doctrine of the Trinity existed in the first chapter of the Bible?

RESPONSE: Christian Hebrew scholar Michael Brown observes, “It was common to refer to the deity in the compound plural, and when speaking of an owner or master, it was often the rule to speak of him in such terms.”[1] He cites a few examples; for instance, David is spoken of as the lord (plural) in 1 Kings 1:11 (c.f. Isa. 1:3; 19:4). Brown argues, “While these references to God or Lord in the plural do not in any way prove Trinitarian beliefs, they are certainly in perfect harmony with everything we are trying to say here, namely, that in some way the Lord’s unity is complex.”[2] Therefore, this passage shouldn’t serve as a proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. However, it is certainly harmonious with this biblical teaching. For more on the doctrine of the Trinity, see my earlier article, “Defending the Doctrine of the Trinity.”

Bruce Waltke notes, however, that “a plural of majesty or intensification does occur in Hebrew with nouns (the word for God, ʾelōhîm, is plural for that reason), not however with pronouns. Pronouns are always countable plurals. For this reason, grammatically the ‘us’ cannot be a plural of majesty or intensification.”[3] Therefore, the pronouns in this section (“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness”) carry a unique plurality for biblical Hebrew.

Does the plural refer to the angelic host?

Many commentators believe that God is referring to the angelic host, rather than the Trinity here. For example, Bruce Waltke[4] and Gordon Wenham[5] take this interpretation. These interpreters support this view with the fact that the plural pronoun occurs later in the text (Gen. 3:22) in close proximity with the cherubim who guard the Garden (Gen. 3:24). Moreover, Job 38:7 states that angels were present at creation. Finally, when angels later appear in the book of Genesis, they look like humans (Gen. 18:2).

The problems with this interpretation are fourfold:

First, we are not made in the image of angels—but the image of God. Genesis 1:27 states, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.” Sailhammer writes, “The singulars in v.27 (beṣalmô [‘in his own image’] and beṣelem ʾelōhîm [‘in the image of God’]; cf. 5:1) rule out… that the plural refers to a heavenly court of angels, since in the immediate context man’s creation is said to be ‘in his image’ with no mention of man in the image of the angels.”[6] Moreover, nowhere in the Bible does it state that we’re made in the image of angels.

Second, angels are not mentioned in the context. The reader wouldn’t know about angels until chapter 3, which speaks against this conclusion.

Third, the presence of angels at creation doesn’t support their case. While Job 38:7 does state that angels were present at creation, their presence doesn’t help support that we are made in their image. Of course, Satan was present at creation as well (because he is in Genesis 3), but this wouldn’t support being made in the image of Satan.

Fourth, the fact that angels appear as humans doesn’t support their case. While angels do frequently appear as humans (Gen. 18:2), they also have a number of different appearances (see “Angelology”).

[1] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 9.

[2] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 10.

[3] Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: a commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Waltke writes, “The explanation that better satisfies all such uses of the pronoun is that God is addressing the angels or heavenly court.” Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: a commentary (p. 64). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Wenham writes, “‘Let us create man’ should therefore be regarded as a divine announcement to the heavenly court, drawing the angelic host’s attention to the master stroke of creation, man.” Wenham, G. J. (1998). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, p. 28). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[6] Sailhamer, J. H. (1990). Genesis. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (Vol. 2, p. 37). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.