The passages in Genesis where God refers to Himself in the plural have intrigued Bible readers for centuries. In Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And later in Genesis 3:22, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God remarks, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”
Several explanations have been proposed for these plural references:
1. God is speaking to the angels
One possibility is that God is addressing the angels when He uses the plural pronouns. We know from other parts of Scripture that God does interact with the angelic hosts (Psalm 103:20; 148:2; Hebrews 1:14). Some interpret the “us” in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22 as God conferring with the angels about His plans for mankind. However, this view has some difficulties. Nowhere else does God ask the angels for advice or input on His plans. The context of Genesis 1-3 also does not indicate any angelic conversations are taking place.
2. God is speaking to the Trinity
Many Bible scholars believe God is speaking as a Trinity in these passages, referring to the divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While the New Testament provides the clearest teaching on the Trinity, some see hints of it in the Old Testament as well. The plural pronouns in Genesis could be an early intimation of the triune Godhead. Some also point out that creation itself demonstrates diversity within unity, as God creates various kinds of plants, animals, and humans. This creative diversity reflects the diversity within the Trinity.
However, it is debatable whether the doctrine of the Trinity can be read back into these Genesis texts. The Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Old Testament. Other interpreters argue we should be cautious about assuming trinitarian concepts in books written well before the incarnation of Christ.
3. God is addressing the divine council
Another view is that God is speaking to His “divine council” in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22. Throughout the Old Testament, there are references to God presiding over a divine assembly of heavenly beings (Psalm 82:1; 89:5-7; Daniel 4:17). These passages portray God ruling the cosmos in consultation with His heavenly court. So when God says “Let us make man in our image,” He may be addressing His divine council.
However, the characters and identities of those comprising the divine council are somewhat vague. Some equate these figures with angels, while others argue they are not exactly angels but rather divine beings or representatives of God’s authority. So it remains unclear who is being addressed in these plural passages in Genesis.
4. God is speaking in the “plural of majesty”
Another proposal is that God’s use of “us” and “our” in Genesis reflects a “plural of majesty” or “plural of absoluteness.” This refers to the ancient practice of rulers using plural pronouns like “we” and “us” to represent their absolute sovereignty and power. Many commentators point to parallels of this practice in ancient Near Eastern literature, where kings would use the plural as an expression of their preeminence.
From this perspective, God’s use of plurals is not meant to indicate any equality with others, but rather expresses His supreme majesty and authority over creation. However, critics of this view assert there are key differences between the biblical texts and pagan rulers’ use of plurals. They also argue this interpretation does not fit well with the overarching themes of Genesis 1-3.
5. God is speaking collectively
Some suggest the plurals in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22 represent God speaking collectively, on behalf of the entire Godhead. From this perspective, “Let us make man in our image” is the three persons of the Trinity together proclaiming the divine decision to create humanity. So while the passage may hint at early seeds of Trinitarian theology, the primary emphasis is on God’s unity of purpose and action.
Similarly, in Genesis 3, God could be speaking collectively when He says man has become like “one of us.” Even though Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons, together they share the divine attributes like omniscience. So in His unified divine state, God recognizes man’s newfound knowledge from eating the forbidden fruit. The plurals emphasize the oneness of the Godhead.
This collective interpretation highlights God’s unity while allowing for divine diversity. However, some argue it still depends on later Trinitarian concepts not fully formulated in Genesis.
6. “Us” refers to God and humanity
A unique view held by some rabbis is that God uses the plural “us” because He is addressing humanity. This interpretation draws on Genesis 1:27, which states: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Based on this verse, some argue God is inviting humanity to participate in the work of caring for creation. So in Genesis 1:26, God does not consult the angels or a divine council, but rather seeks mankind’s partnership in advancing His kingdom on earth. This fits with Genesis 1:28, where God commissions humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it.” According to this perspective, the “us” includes God and the human race together.
However, the weakness of this interpretation is that humans were not created until after God speaks in Genesis 1:26. So there was not yet any humanity for God to address.
7. “Us” and “our” serve a grammatical function
Some interpreters argue the plural pronouns in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22 are not theologically significant. They propose these grammatical forms were commonly used by Hebrew writers to convey the indefinite sense of “one” rather than a specific plural meaning. Similar singular verses with plural verbs elsewhere in the Old Testament seem to support this linguistic explanation (2 Samuel 24:14; Isaiah 6:8).
From this perspective, the “us” passages in Genesis do not necessarily imply any plurality within God or between God and others. The use of plural rather than singular pronouns reflects customary grammatical convention, not divine mysteries.
However, this viewpoint has been critiqued for downplaying the specific choice of words used in Genesis 1-3. The text appears to intentionally use plural pronouns rather than singular ones in these significant passages.
8. The plurals are honorific self-deliberation
A proposal that synthesizes some of the best elements of previous views is that the plurals are examples of “honorific self-deliberation.” This refers to God using the plural as a way of expressing divine fullness within Himself as He purposes to act. The “us” conveys how God honors and upholds the glory of His own perfect character and counsel as He decrees His will.
So in Genesis 1:26, God is not seeking outside advice or input. Rather, He is declaring the counsel of His own mind, which perfectly expresses His infinite wisdom and authority. And in Genesis 3:22, God acknowledges that mankind’s newly realized moral awareness, though limited, now reflects an aspect of God’s own divine moral nature.
The plural phrasing in both passages honors God’s absolute holiness and majesty, reminding us that all God’s thoughts and actions hold true to His flawless character. This interpretation allows for divine mystery while maintaining God’s unity and supremacy.
In the end, the plural passages in Genesis remain somewhat enigmatic. While we may not fully understand the intricacies of their grammar or theology, these texts remind us that the nature of God is far beyond human comprehension. The plurals invite awe and humility before the divine Creator who has revealed Himself, but not yet His full glory.
God’s plans and actions always align with His perfect wisdom and holiness, even when the details exceed our finite understanding. So while fascinating, the plurals in Genesis 1-3 should not distract from the passage’s main purpose – depicting God’s supreme power and grace in originally shaping humanity’s place in His cosmic design.