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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Is it true that the Hebrew word for God in Genesis 1:1 is plural?
Yes, it is. It is the Hebrew noun ’elohîm; the singular form is ’el and ’eloah. I suppose you are wondering whether this plural supports the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament; this is how it has been interpreted in the history of Christian theology. But since the term is used in a variety of ways, including designating pagan gods, you have to take into consideration the context in which it is employed. The context in Genesis is unique. This ’elohîm is the first character that confronts us as we open the Scriptures.
1. The Plural ’Elohîm: Concerning the use of the plural in Genesis 1:1, it is difficult to argue that it is being used in the sense of a plurality of gods (suggesting polytheism), because it is the subject of a third person singular verb (bārā’, “he created”). In other words, we have the grammatical oddity of a plural subject with a singular verb: “In the beginning the Gods (he) created . . .” From the Christian perspective the plural “Gods” would not be theologically sound, because there is only one God. Scholars have proposed different explanations for this phenomenon, but there is hardly any consensus on the significance of the plural ’elohîm in Genesis 1:1.
In other words, we do not know why the Hebrew text in our passage reads the way it reads. It is not difficult to understand why Christians found here a reference to the Trinity. The text, as it is, speaks clearly about one God—“He Created”—not about many gods. The plural, ’elohîm, was taken to refer to the three persons of the Godhead. But the most we can say contextually is that the plural may be a veiled way of suggesting a plurality within the one/singular divine being.
2. Plural God and Plural Verb and Pronoun: The plot thickens when we realize that in the context we find both a grammatical oddity and correct grammar with respect to the plural and the verbs. This is the case in Genesis 1:26: “Then God [’elohîm] said [he said], ‘Let us make [na‘aśeh: verb, first person plural] mankind in our [nû: first person plural pronoun] image, in our [nû: first personal plural pronoun] likeness . . .” (NIV). We find the plural ’elohîm with the singular verb in the descriptive narrative, but in the divine speech we find the subject, the verb, and pronouns in the plural. Then in the completion report we read: “So God [’elohîm] created [bārā’: verb, third person singular] mankind in his [ô: first person singular pronoun] own image, in the image of God [’elohîm] he created [bārā’: verb, third person singular] them” (verse 27, NIV). We are back to Genesis 1:1. Scholars have tried to explain the plural verb and the plural pronouns in verse 26, but hardly any consensus on the suggestions have been made. The easiest solution would be to recognize that the text testifies that the main character of the Bible is one God whose inner being is a plurality. Since this plurality deliberates with itself, one could go a step further and suggest that there is a plurality of persons within the one God.
3. Plurality of Persons: The context itself advocates for a plurality of persons. We find not only the God who creates but also “the Spirit of God [rûakh ’elohîm]” directly involved in Creation. The biblical witness reminds its readers that there is only one Creator: God. The Spirit has to be divine. One more element is present in the Creation account, namely, the spoken word: “God said.” The Word mediates between God and creation itself (God→Word/Spirit→Creation). The psalmist makes this clear when writing: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, the starry host by the breath [rûakh] of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6, NIV): God, Word, Spirit, and Creation. The most we can say is that in Genesis we find, within the intradivine being, the one God, a plurality of persons that through further divine revelation will be identified as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.