Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Proto-Trinitarianism of the Old Testament Part II: Genesis 1:26

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)
Since the New Testament teaches that God the Father and Son of God were involved in creation,[1] and since the Holy Spirit is depicted as active in creation (Gen 1:3), it is apparent that the plural verb נַעֲשֶׂה (“Let us make”) and plural nouns בְּצַלְמֵנוּ (“in our image”) כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ (“according to our likeness”) refer to the Triune God. However, some have sought to offer an alternative to the trinitarian explanation. Hamilton cites five such explanations.[2] These are:
  1. 1. The Mythological Explanation: According to the so-called “mythological” interpretation, the “us” is said to refer to other gods. This interpretation neither coheres with the theology of Genesis or an inerrantist reading of Scripture. God alone created the heavens and the earth.[3]
  1. 2. The Heavenly Court/Angelic Host Explanation: On this view, the plural pronouns refer to a heavenly court of angelic hosts. While it is popular to explain the utilization of the plural pronouns by appealing to created angels, such an interpretation would necessarily mean that humankind was not only created in the image of God, but also other creatures, namely angels.[4] The emphasis in v. 27 itself (i.e., “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him…”),  rules out the ad hoc appeal to angels. Judging by Moses’ commentary, he clearly believed that humankind was created in God’s image alone, stating in Gen 5:1 that “when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.”[5] Further, nowhere in Scripture is it said that God created with the cooperation of any creatures. Rather, the Father created through his Son. A case in point is the argument made within the prologue of the epistle to the Hebrews. There, the Son is identified as the one “through” (δια) whom the Father created the world. In that same pericope the writer has given a prosponic application of Psalm 102 wherein the Father says to the Son, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (v.10).[6]Therefore, God wasn't speaking to angels, but rather to his Son.
  1. 3. The Earth as Addressee Explanation: This view argues that God speaks to something he has recently created, the most likely addressee being the earth. There is nothing within the context of the creation account that affords such an interpretation. Even if, for some reason, one were to countenance this option, it is apparent that it finds no parallel within the Old Testament.
  1. 4. The “Plural of Majesty” Explanation: The literary device known as the pluralis majestatis or “plural of majesty” is a feature of nouns, adjectives,  and only certain participles, but never pronouns. The Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics states,
The pluralis majestatis appears most frequently in nouns…, but may also be used with some nominalized adjectives…[and] some participles. There are no undisputed examples of a pronoun or a verb displaying the pluralis majestatis… ‘Let us make man in our image’ (Gen 1:26), has occasionally been explained as a pluralis majestatis, but comparative Semitic and contextual factors favor other explanations.[7]
Even if one were to insist that Genesis 1:26 is an example of the plural of majesty, the existence of the cohortative plural would result in a confusing sentiment. Baker has explained:
The plural of majesty (in effect singular) would not make sense of God’s call for unanimity in the endeavor. Such a meaning on God’s part would have required a singular cohortative voice (singular in the verb even if a plural of majesty were used for the noun/pronoun) rather than a plural cohortative. Even if it were here to be understood as a singular cohortative (difficult as that would be), we then would have the problem of understanding why God was trying to psyche himself up to some great feat.[8]
Some have sought to offer examples of the plural of majesty being used with pronouns in the Old Testament. The two typical texts cited are Ezra 4:18 and Daniel 2:36. In Ezra a plural pronoun is utilized, but in Daniel a plural verb used, and both of these occurrences are better explained by a consideration of their respective context. The so-called “royal we” is simply not a feature of the Hebrew Bible, and is instead an invention of the 4th century AD.[9]
  1. 5. The Self Deliberation Explanation: According to this alternative explanation, the pronouns signify a kind of self deliberation akin the statement, “Let's see.” This option finds no linguistic parallel within the canon. According to Wenham, this option “is uncertain, for parallels to this usage are very rare.”[10] While there are Scriptures wherein speakers engage in self deliberation (e.g., Ps 42:5), plural nouns are never utilized. Moreover, if self deliberation were a viable interpretation, we would expect non-Christian Jews within antiquity to utilize the such an explanation in their response to their Christian interlocutors. Instead, Sarfati has notes that
Early Jewish Christians were using this passage [i.e., Gen 1:26] as evidence of plurality, because the establishment rabbis were already trying to get around this. E.g. the Midrash Rabbah (8.8) on Genesis tries to answer:
Rabbi Samuel Bar Hanman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan said, that at the time when Moses wrote the Torah, writing a portion of it daily, when he came to the verse which says, “And Elohim said, let us make man in our image and after our likeness,” Moses said, “Master of the universe, why do you give herewith an excuse to the sectarians?” God answered Moses, “You write and whoever wants to err, let him err.”[11]
Given these alternative interpretations, there exists good reason to accept the traditional trinitarian explanation. Wenham, however, objects on that basis that “it is now universally admitted that this was not what the plural meant to the original author.”[12] Consequently, he resorts to two untenable interpretations, arguing that “the choice then appears to lie between interpretations…’us’ = God and Angels or…plural of self-exhortation.”[13] The trouble with Wenham’s appeal to authorial intent is that he fails to adequately observe the prominence of the angel of Yahweh within the Pentateuch. The angel of Yahweh is a persistent presence in Genesis and is both identified as Yahweh/God and as personally distinct from Yahweh.[14] Hence, if one takes into account the mention of the Spirit within the creation account, and the heavy involvement of the divine angel within the books of Moses, there remains little basis for using authorial intent to dismiss the interpretation that is all but explicitly indicated by the New Testament.

Additionally, the mere existence of a contingent of devout Jews who affirmed a form of proto-trinitarianism prior to the birth of Christ, and that this belief subsisted within the purview of orthodox Israelite religion, is good evidence that the trinitarian interpretation is not in contradiction with Moses’ intent. Segal, a late orthodox Jew and Semitic studies scholar, has demonstrated the existence of a pre-Christian Jewish tradition in which there existed a belief in a second divine figure who is at the same time Yahweh. Segal argues that “the early biblical theophonies which picture God as a man or confuse YHWH with an angel are the basis of the tradition.”[15] He notes that this Jewish tradition, known by its rabbinic detractors as “two powers in heaven,” “grew through differing exegeses of a variety of theophany texts,” and was present “among of groups and was later canonized by the rabbinic community.”[16] This tradition posited both a distinction of persons in God and monotheism. Rightly, Segal goes far enough to say that this two powers tradition “seems to be one of the basic issues over which Judaism and Christianity separated.”[17] However, his statement assumes the existence of a minority form of  Judaism which naturally flowed into Christianity. Barker similarly states: “The roots of Christian trinitarian theology lie in pre-Christian Palestinian beliefs about the angels.”[18] 
Additionally, there is good evidence to suppose that the unitarian stream of rabbinic theology was in part a reaction against Jewish proto-trinitarianism. As Boyarin observes:
Two different strands of the religious imagination, one in which the ancient binitarianness of Israel’s God is essentially preserved and transformed and one in which that duality has been more thoroughly suppressed, live side by side in the Jewish thought world of the Second Temple and beyond, being mixed in different ways but also contesting each other and sometimes seeking to oust the other completely.[19] 
Jewish proto-trinitarianism is also heartily portrayed in the Targumim (i.e., ancient Jewish paraphrase translations of the OT into Aramaic). While some argue that the memra of the Targums is not a distinct divine person from Yahweh, as much is evident from the texts themselves.[20] Edersheim argues that:
Rabbinic theology has not preserved to us the doctrine of Personal distinctions in the Godhead. And yet, if words have any meaning, the Memra is a hypostasis, though the distinction of permanent, personal subsistence is not marked.[21] 
In many places the Targums identify the mal’āk yahweh as the memra (i.e., word). The Jerusalem Targum translates Genesis 16:13 “And Hagar gave thanks, and prayed in the name of the Word of the Lord who had been manifested to her.” Whereas the Hebrew account of the sacrifice of Isaac states that it was the angel of Yahweh who called to Abraham to stop the sacrifice (Gen 22:11), pseudo-Jonathan tells us it was the “Memra of the Lord.” Gieschen cites the following examples:
“The Destroyer” or “Angel of YHWH” in the Exodus Passover is substituted with “My Memra” in the Targumim: “And I, in My Memra will pass by over the land of Egypt on this Passover night” (Tg. Neof. Exod 12.12; cf. Tg. Neof. Exod 11.4; 12.13). The Angel of YHWH who guided Israel in the desert is also reinterpreted: “And the Shekinah of the Memra of YHWH will go before you” (Tg. Ps-J. Deut 31.6. The “Angel of the Covenant” in Mal 3.1 becomes “My Memra” (Tg. NEB. Mal 3:1).[22]
Gieschen rightly concludes that “this substitution demonstrates the possibility that the Memra could have been interpreted as a divine hypostasis by some Jewish exegetes.”[23]
If one supposes, as virtually all subordinationists do, that the angel of Yahweh is a distinct person from Yahweh (e.g., a created agent), then consistency demands that Memra ought to be similarly understood. As it turns out, consistency among subordinationist interpreters isn't a strong suit. A case in point is the study offered by Chang. He identifies the angel of Yahweh as either a theophany or as “ordinary angels,”[24] and yet argues extensively that the memra of the Targums is non-personal, stating that “Memra absolutely never referred to another person distinct from Yahweh.”[25] Such a position is self-contradictory. One the one hand, subordinationists relegate the angel of Yahweh to finitude, while on the other hand insisting that the memra, the Targumic translation of the angel of Yahweh, is non-personal. Here it is shown that subordinationists utilize a hermeneutic of pretense.
It is noteworthy that God’s image bearers are, like God, users of language. God spoke creation into existence saying “Let there be” and “Let us make.” To whom exactly was God speaking? Given the above evidence, the only tenable answer to that question is that God was speaking to God. That is not to say that God was soliloquizing. Rather, given that the Old and New Testaments teach one divine person speaks to the other two divine persons, it is apparent that God’s language in creation does not fall upon deaf ears. The Father, Son, and Spirit communicate with each other. The angel of Yahweh (i.e., God the Son) and Yahweh (i.e., the Father) speak with each other (1 Sam 24:16; Zec 1:12; John 12:28), and the Spirit speaks with the Father and Son (John 16:13-15; Rom 8:26-27; Rev 22:17). Poythress notes:
This speaking on the part of God is significant for our thinking about language. Not only is God a member of a language community that includes human beings, but the persons of the Trinity function as members of a language community among themselves. Language does not have as its sole purpose human-human communication, or even divine-human communication, but also divine-divine communication. Approaches that conceive of language only with reference to human beings are accordingly reductionistic.[26]
The communication of God is not merely a convention of creation. God spoke before creation existed“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6), and therefore divine language pre-existed creation. The earth was formed “by the word of God”—it was divine language that effected the creation of all created things. God’s communication presupposes another party, and in the case of Genesis 1:26, another party who is also God.

[1] See John 1:1-3; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2. John’s gospel begins with the familiar words, “In the beginning” ( Ἐν ἀρχῇ) which are certainly intended to invoke Genesis 1:1. John, by placing the Word in the place where we might expect God, has already identified the Word with Yahweh, and placed the Word directly within the creation account.
[2] Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 134.
[3] See also Isaiah 45:18.
[4] See for example the interpretation offered by Heiser, Michael, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015), 41, 52. Heiser never really deals with the emphatic structure of the text, or the other texts which reaffirm a single image giver.
[5] cf. Gen 9:6 wherein the punishment for murder is predicated upon man’s possession of the imago Dei.
[6] Ellingworth has noted that “κατ’ ἀρχάς is a classical synonym, rare in the Greek Bible (Ps. 119 [LXX 118]; 152 for ἐν ἀρχῇ (Gn. 1:1; Jn. 1:1).” Ellingworth, Paul, The New International Commentary on the Greek Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 111, also n. 71.
[7] Khan, Geoffrey Ed., Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, (Boston: Brill, 2013), 146.
[8] Baker, Doug P., Covenant and Community: Our Role as the Image of God, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 19.
[9] See Brown, R., Gilman, A., 1960. “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity,” Style and Language, MIT Press, 254. See also Baumgarten, Nicole, Du Bois, Inke, House Juliane Eds., Subjectivity in Language and Discourse, Boston: Brill, 2012), 326.
[10] Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 28.
[11] Sarfati, Jonathan D., The Genesis Account: A Theological, Historical, and Scientific Commentary on Genesis 1-11, (Powder Springs: Creation Book Publishers, 2015), 73.
[12] Wenham, 27.
[13] ibid., 28.
[14] Gen 16:7-14; 28:20-22; 31:13; 48:15; Exodus 3:4; Num 22:22-38; Joshua 5:15.
[15] Segal, Alan F., Two Powers in Heaven, (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2002), 261.
[16] ibid.
[17] ibid., 262.
[18] Barker, Margaret, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 3.
[19] Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels, loc. 1455.
[20] E.g., Barrett, C. K., The Gospel According to St. John, 2nd Ed., (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1978), 128. See also Ronning. John, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010), 263. Ronning wrote, “The old argument that the Targumic Word is a ‘hypostasis,’ meaning a being distinct from God, certainly overstretched the evidence.” While Ronning did an admirable job demonstrating the Targumic influence in John, he did not make an adequate assessment of the angel of Yahweh texts.
[21] Edersheim, Alfred, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (Whitefish: Kessinger Pub., 2010), 214.
[22] Gieschen, Charles A., Angelomorphic Christology : Antecedents & Early Evidence, (Boston: Brill, 1998), 113.
[23] Ibid., 113-114.
[24] Chang, Eric H. H., The Only True God: A Study of Biblical Monotheism, (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2013), 377
[25] ibid., 464.
[26] Poythress, Vern Sheridan, In the Beginning was the Word: Language—A God Centered Approach, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 18.