The word “Trinity,” most laypersons know, is not explicitly written in Scripture: it is not written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek; rather, it was a descriptive theological term neologized by the Church to best convey that perplexing connection between the three persons of God–as Scripture leads us to conclude. It is for this reason, then, that when we look at Genesis alone to exhume some dogma from its ancient narrative, we must take all Scripture into account. It is this holistic understanding of Scripture that the writers of the New Testament had, both Jesus and his apostles.
Indeed, as Paul writes in 1 Tim. 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” in such a way we also must look at the entirety of Scripture, especially at the Old Testament. The central topic in this post will not be an apologetic for the Trinity as a whole, where we would consult the spectrum of Scripture and chiefly reside in the New Testament. Our focus instead is on the Trinity in the early parts of Genesis, where we see the “we” language used by God.
Both instances of the “we” language are found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, one of the densest mythopoeic sections of Scripture. Here are the two instances below:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'” (Gen. 1:26, NKJV)
“‘Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.'” (Gen. 11:7, NKJV)
Let’s begin with the claim and issue. There are no textual difficulties in these two passages.
The claim is something I am sure you have heard before: “The Trinity is in Genesis; I mean, it says ‘let Us,’ as in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And, it is likely that, whether or not you have made this assertion before, you have probably agreed with it to some extent. After all, who else would God be talking about?
The issue is a direct corollary of thought for those who have scrutinized these parts of Scripture. Not only is the immediate context rigidly monotheistic, Jesus is clearly nowhere to be found. Of course, the Holy Spirit, a person of God and partaker in the creation process, is mentioned in Gen. 1:2. He is a near referent, but two persons do not comprise a trinity, a unity of three persons.
An ancillary issue is the play on words done in the second instance, in the narrative of the Tower of Babel. God seems to be intentionally mimicking the syntax of those who wanted to build a tower. If we juxtapose the two verses,
“And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city….'” So the Lord came down and said, “‘Come, let us go down there and confuse their language.'”
It is not readily apparent to many that there is a wealth of literary devices in Scripture, and especially in the first eleven chapters of Genesis; and although the literary mockery, if you would, impinges on our interpretation of this language, we can’t help but ask if the “us” was more than literary–perhaps it intimated… company?
And, as a gentle riposte, let us not assume that Elohim, a plural noun (“gods”) that functions singularly while in reference to God, is the reason for the “us.” That strain has never been a critically acclaimed one.
Historically speaking, early church interpreters somewhat overclocked the Trinitarian understanding in Genesis: the Son is never separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit, and likewise the New Testament should never be torn asunder from the Old Testament in interpretation.
Textually speaking, the Hebrew reading is forthright. “Let us make man (na-a-seh) in our image (be-sal-me-nu), according to our likeness (kid-mu-te-nu).
Concerning the primary issue, does the cohortative “let us make” plausibly include angels as God’s co-creators? Either angels created or angels did not; and as we follow Scripture until Revelation, it is clear they did not. Further, an angel, save the elusive cherubim guarding Eden, is not mentioned until the Angel of the Lord’s encounter with Hagar in Genesis 16. To claim that angels were God’s company in Gen. 1 and 11 would be grasping at an emergent heavenly vocabulary, and is discordant with both the context (with the lack of angels and the presence of beings with creative power other than God) and the scriptural corpus (with both traditional interpretation and Scripture itself lacking testimony that angels ever created anything or anyone [cf. Hebrews 1]).
What about a “royal we” as the reason for this language? Patriarchs of yore used this language to tacitly express their unity–a sort of equanimous, humble position as a leader of unequalled power–with their kingdom, over whom they ruled. If a king desired, say, to institute a new law over his serfs, he may state, “Let us onward relegate all duties pertaining to the death and dismemberment of recalcitrant subjects of my kingdom unto my most honored serfs.” His legislative decision is not performed by anyone but him, yet its utterance captures and includes all of his recipients–or, through a different medium, all readers or oral recipients.
Even though the creation narrative in early Genesis is clearly a monologue–though it is intended to be read and recited by ancient Israelites to whom it would be passed–the “royal we” would require some textual sense of regality; yes, would it not require a kingdom context? The thought that God is King is never farfetched in Scripture, but in Genesis it is far from explicit. Does this rule out that a “royal we” language is used in Genesis, however? I do not believe so. As one who is so high above all, it would be God’s way of inducting all of creation into his narrative; and this induction appropriately precedes the first subject of his kingdom, Adam. The man whom God is about to create will be his most honored serf, if you will; and that serf will be given dominion over all the earth.
Finally, you anticipate the final of the major options: the Trinity. I have saved this for last because it is important to first touch on Genesis 11 concerning its unique syntax.
As I mentioned before, Genesis employs literary devices heavily, and in Gen. 11 God’s “let us come down and confuse” is salient mimicry. Just as the men of hubris who sought to build a tower, or a ziggurat, or whatever ancient, cultic edifice for their purposes, God was going to demonstrate that it is not they, but he, who ruled the world. He did not intend for his creation to be assimilated into one mass people of power, but to be spread over every nation (recall God’s edict to man in Gen. 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”).
Instead, the author juxtaposes their language: The people could authoritatively say, “Let us build and magnify ourselves and be exalted,” or God could remind them, saying, “Let us not exalt us, but remember that you are creation.” This is the literary play going on in Genesis 11, and it is highlighted because what is being conveyed here is not the person number of God or his company: it is the question of who is exalted, man or God.
I aver that if the “we” language in Genesis is going to argue for a specific interpretation, Gen. 1:26-27 should take precedence over Gen. 11:7 for precisely what I have shown above: the latter has a context in which mimicry makes sense, while the former does not.
So what about the Trinity as an interpretive option in Genesis 1:26-27? As we know now, Jesus is not explicit in the Old Testament, and especially not in Genesis. Many would argue that the sense of a messiah, or the gospel, first occurs at Gen. 3:15 (hence its name, protoevangelium); and this is as far as foretelling prophecy is concerned. But the tale of Scripture does not stop at Genesis, and neither at 2 Chronicles/Malachi: it ends at Revelation.
God’s people have always received progressive revelation in the sense that God’s inaugurated kingdom has taken steps toward its full realization. From creation to covenant, along with orders of better covenants, to the messiah, his death, resurrection, and return. And, insofar as we have received revelation since Genesis, we know that Jesus was before the foundation of the world, in the beginning (1 Pet. 1:20; Jn. 1:1-3), which was made through him and for him (Col. 1:16), and much more. We correlate Jesus’ relation to creation through the New Testament and through portents in the Old Testament.
Then, what did the ancient Israelites think about God’s “we” usage? We don’t know. In light of the Shema (Deut. 6:4), we can reason that they would not have thought of any other person of God or being of power (but when the Spirit of God is ascribed willful verbs and personal adjectives, it is curious how that was interpreted). We do know, however, that almost all early church interpretation was Trinitarian.
I now offer you three interpretations. On the basis of Genesis alone, (1) the “we” usage in Gen. 1:26-27 either constitutes a partnership between the Holy Spirit and God in the creation process, as their wills seem to continually mesh throughout the Old Testament. Or, (2) God was employing an archaic “royal we” to induct all of his creation into the royal fabric of his kingdom, which is a rather neutral stance: neither supporting nor opposing the concept of a Trinity in creation. Last, (3) the Trinity is there–God is speaking of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–but it is abstruse and only to be fully understood once the time comes for God to become enfleshed and die for the world through Jesus Christ.
I take both stances 2 and 3, that it was originally understood in a regal, united sense–perhaps even recalling polytheistic traces that were appropriated as polemic against the nations’ gods; and, concurrently, it was portentous of a fuller understanding of God’s nature: three persons of one will, one God.
I see these two as compatible interpretations, and they allow the ancient understanding of Genesis to be not only retained but also developed through progressive revelation throughout Scripture.
We should never be afraid to dig deeply into the past where ancient Israel was an eclectic religion and scriptural interpretation was fraught with variety, because God had always intended to procure his revelation to his people and speak to them where there were, and to us where we are.
Where do you place yourself among these three options? Is there a fourth that you find captures the theology in Genesis and the rest of Scripture better?