Genesis 1:26-27; 2:4
Today we will be looking at two verses in the Genesis Creation narratives which have proven challenging for commentators over the centuries. Both passages are instructive for us, in that they demonstrate the importance of careful study, with sensitivity to the nuances of the ancient Hebrew language. The first of these examples comes from the Creation account in chapter 1—the famous account of the creation of humankind at the climax of the sixth day (i.e., at the climax of God’s creative work), verses 24-31.
The distinction which introduces God’s creation of humankind (“man”, °¹d¹m, <d*a*) is well-known to most students of Scripture. While the divine directives throughout the “days” of creation are third-person jussives (imperfect verb forms with the force of a command, “there shall be…”, “let there be…”, etc), the creation of humankind begins with a first-person cohortative of the verb ±´h—na±¦´eh, “We shall make”, “Let us make…” This use of the first-person plural has been the source of much discussion by commentators and theologians, in light of the strong monotheistic view of God which is fundamental for nearly all Jews and Christians. The plural continues in the directive:
“We shall [i.e. let us] make man in our image (and) according to our likeness, and they shall [i.e. let them] rule…”
The expression “image (and) likeness” will be discussed briefly below; but, as to the use of the plural, there have been a number of attempts to explain this. The most notable include:
- It reflects a genuine plurality in God (or the Godhead), in which various elements (including ‘persons’ or personifications) may be distinguished. For Christians, it has been popular to read the Trinity into the use of the plural here. Jewish mystics have recognized a different sort of multiplicity in the Godhead (e.g., the Sefirot traditions in the Kabbalah).
- It is a vestige of an ancient polytheistic view of God (and the Divine Council), especially preserved in the majestic poetry-prosody of the Creation account, much as we see echoes of Semitic (Canaanite) mythology in the earliest Psalms, etc.
- The scene is that of the heavenly (royal) court, and God is depicted as taking counsel with other heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”); in some versions of this view, the heavenly beings specifically take part in the process of creating humankind.
- It is the plural of majesty, in which the king or ruler speaks on behalf of the people whom he represents, and in a majestic fashion, using the plural (“we, us”), though it is he himself who gives the directive.
- It is the plural of exhortation, in which a person may use the plural to exhort him/herself to do something.
- It is a simple grammatical agreement with the plural noun °§lœhîm (see below).
The first two options are, on the whole, most unlikely. Despite the popularity of the Trinitarian interpretation among Christians, there is really no evidence supporting the idea of plurality in the ancient Israelite view of God, nor do we see anything of the sort expressed in the Old Testament. The third and fourth views are more plausible, the third generally favored by many scholars, going back to the medieval Rabbinic commentators (including Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides). In my view, however, the last two options are the simplest explanations and relate directly to the grammar and syntax of the passage.
The word (and name) used for “God” in chapter 1 is °§lœhîm (<yh!ýa$), a plural noun related to the fundamental Semitic word °¢l (la@), which, as I discussed last week (and elsewhere), most likely originally meant something like “Mighty (One)”. The best explanation of the plural °§lœhîm, more or less equivalent to the simpler form °¢lîm, is an intensive plural. In the Semitic languages (including ancient Hebrew), the grammatical plural does not always indicate numeric plural; it can be used to express other aspects, including use as an intensive. The plural form, which normally would mean “mighty (one)s”, would, in the case of the Divine, actually mean something like “Mightiest (One)”. It is also possible to understand it as a comprehensive collective plural, perhaps meant to reflect the idea of all of the divine ‘beings’ (i.e. all Deity) embodied in one God—the one true Creator God. This would have special significance in the context of Israelite monotheism, in contrast to the polytheism of the surrounding peoples.
Even though °§lœhîm is plural, when used of the one Creator God (El-Yahweh), it typically agrees with the singular (“he, his, him”, etc). Indeed, the plural is only used here in verse 26; when the corresponding narration occurs in verse 27, we find the singular:
“And God [°§lœhîm] created man in his image…”
This makes it far more likely that the plural in verse 26 is a plural of exhortation. Normally, in such a plural cohortative, a person is attempting to exhort his audience to take a course of action, etc. However, on occasion, it is used in reference to the person himself, as self-encouragement. Here, too, we may understand this as an intensive plural, i.e. spurring oneself to take action, or envisioning a specific outcome. Consider the example in 2 Samuel 24:14 (Cassuto, p. 55): “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord…but into the hand of man let me not fall”. In such a case, “let us…” is clearly the same as “let me…”.
Another point of difficulty in verse 26 is the use of the words ƒelem (“image, figure, shape”) and d®mû¾ (“likeness, resemblance”). The two words make for a synonymous pairing, and occur together in an extra-biblical (Assyrian-Aramaic) inscription from the 9th century B.C. The noun ƒelem tends to refer to a concrete physical shape, as of a solid object (such as a statue) cut out or formed in a pattern-mold. It was used specifically for statues and likenesses of deities in the Ancient Near East. More importantly, in ancient royal theology, the king (in his person) was often viewed as the “image” of God. The ancient Israelites certainly would have been aware of this tendency, and it informs the account in Genesis. What applied primarily to the ruler, as God’s image and representative on earth, is here viewed as applying to all humankind, at the point of our very creation. Even so, there have been numerous ways of understanding human beings as made “in God’s image”:
- It is related to the physical shape, which resembles that of the Deity (anthropomorphic)
- It is to be understood in an intellectual and/or spiritual sense—i.e. we resemble God in the uniqueness of the human mind, reasoning, moral and religious awareness, etc
- It refers specifically to the human soul
- It relates primarily to humankind as God’s representative (“image”) on earth.
- It is meant to express the special exalted status of human beings in the order of creation (see Psalm 8:4-7)
The last two views best fit the context of the passage. According to vv. 27-31, God created humankind to have dominion and rule on earth; this is the primary emphasis given in the passage for the role of human beings, and it fits the idea that we function as God’s representatives on earth. The climactic position of the account of the creation of humankind, and in the exalted language that is used to describe it, confirms the nobility of human beings in relation to God. This semi-divine status is confirmed by the famous hymn on humankind in Psalm 8.
When we turn to Gen 2:4, we find a different sort of critical question—one which typically has been thought to relate to the composition of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and the sources (or source documents) used in its composition. While somewhat obscured in translation, the Creation account in 1:1-2:3 uses the word (or “name”) °§lœhîm throughout. As I noted above, this plural noun, probably should be understood as “(the) Mightiest (One)”, and it is used by the ancient Israelites, and throughout the Old Testament, as the common designation for “God”—that is, the one true God (El-Yahweh). Only infrequently is it used as a genuine plural “mighty ones” (i.e. “gods”, etc). We typically translate °§lœhîm in the Old Testament, and here in Genesis 1ff, as “God”.
However, in 2:4 the nomenclature changes, with the introduction of the divine name hw`hy+, the so-called tetragrammaton (YHWH), usually vocalized as Yahweh. The origins and meaning of this name remain uncertain, and debated by scholars, though there is general agreement that it derives from the root hyh/hwh (“to be, exist, live”). This is confirmed by the tradition in Exod 3. One line of interpretation reads the name itself as a verbal form, probably as a causative—”he causes to be, he makes live”, etc. As such, it would be a fundamental designation of the Creator God, otherwise known as °¢l in ancient Semitic language, both in Mesopotamia and Canaan. Abraham and the Patriarchs would have spoken of “God” as °E~l. Subsequently, as narrated in Exodus 3:11-15, the divine name was declared to be Yahweh, and, from at least the time of Moses on, Israelites identified Yahweh with the one Creator God El. For more on this dynamic, see my earlier discussions of the names El, Elohim, and Yahweh.
The names Yahweh and Elohim are joined together in 2:4, and are used this way throughout chapters 2 and 3 (twenty times); only in the dialogue with the serpent (3:1b-5) is Elohim used alone. In chapter 4, following the Creation narratives of chaps 1-3, Yahweh begins to be used alone as the name of God.
The varying usage of Yahweh and Elohim throughout the Pentateuch (and other portions of the Old Testament) spurred the critical hypotheses, beginning in the early 18th century, that the Pentateuch was at least partially composed from two earlier documents which primarily used the names Yahweh and Elohim, respectively. The supposed documents, labeled “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) and “E” (Elohist), became part of the so-called “Documentary Hypothesis” for the composition of the Pentateuch. Some variation of this hypothesis is accepted by most critical scholars and commentators today, though by no means drawn and defined so sharply as it has been in the past. While many traditional-conservative commentators continue to accept, on the whole, the traditional authorship of Moses, only rarely have critical scholars seriously questioned the basic approach underlying the Documentary hypothesis. One such scholar is the Jewish commentator Umberto Cassuto, who discusses the matter at length in his Commentary on Genesis (Part One), and his work The Documentary Hypothesis (both available in highly readable English translations). While I do not find his treatment of the matter entirely convincing, he offers a valuable reminder of the importance of studying the use of the divine names from the standpoint of the Hebrew language itself. These names had a particular meaning and significance for Israelites in the period c. 1200-500, when the Pentateuch received its final shape and began to be transmitted to later generations.
Of special significance is the way that Yahweh and Elohim are joined together in chapters 2-3, beginning with 2:4, which serves as a transition between 1:1-2:3 and the narrative in 2:5ff:
“These are the (period)s of giving birth [i.e. generations] of the heavens and the earth in their being created [i.e. when they were created], in (the) day when YHWH Elohim made (the) earth and (the) heavens.”
This both concludes the prior account and introduces what follows. Indeed, many commentators view v. 4b as the start of a new sentence and the beginning of the next narrative. In this light, the joining of Yahweh with Elohim (typically rendered in English as “the LORD God”) is important in the fundamental way it identifies Yahweh with the one true Creator God (Elohim), much as the early Israelites identified him with El. This identification marks the Creation narratives of chapters 1-3 and is uniquely characteristic of them. The conjunction of Yahweh-Elohim is relatively rare elsewhere in the Old Testament, and is only found in the Pentateuch, outside of Gen 2-3, at Exod 9:30. Interestingly, while Yahweh does not occur in chapter 1, there may be an allusion to it in the use of the jussive y®hî (yh!y+, “there shall be, let there be…”). The name Yahweh, referring to God as the one who creates (causes to be) originally seems to have been associated with the creation of the heavenly realms/beings. This association was preserved in the fixed expression Yahweh ‚§»¹°ô¾, “He (who) causes the (heavenly) ‘armies’ to be”, translated conventionally as “Lord of Hosts”. It is perhaps significant that the jussive y®hî is specifically used in connection with the creation of the heavenly bodies in chapter 1 (vv. 3, 6, 14; Sarna/JPS, p. 7).
For next week, we will be looking further ahead in the book of Genesis, to the narratives in chapters 15 and 17 which describe the covenant established between God and Abraham. Read those, along with the surrounding Abraham narratives, and then turn and study the account in Exodus 24 of the establishment of the covenant with the people of Israel. The background and setting of the “covenant” idea and imagery is of great importance if one wishes to understand the ancient religious thought and expression of the Old Testament, and how it was interpreted and applied in the New Testament. Read these passages carefully, thinking and meditating upon them…and I will see you next Saturday.
References marked “Cassuto” above are to U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Part One): From Adam to Noah, translated by Israel Abrahams (Magnes Press [Jerusalem]: 1944/1961). For his work on the “Documentary Hypothesis”, cf. The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, transl. Israel Abrahams (Shalem Press [Jerusalem]: 2006).
References marked “Sarna/JPS” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis ty?arb, Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society [JPS]: 1989).