Question: How many gods does it take to create humankind?
The whole universe is created in six days at the beginning of the first book and first Torah portion of the bible, both called Bereishit (“In a beginning”). God announces what will exist, and then it does. Here is the first act of creation:
Vayomer Elohim: “Let light be! And light was.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3)
vayomer elohim (ובַיֺּאמֶר אֱלוֹהִים) = And God said. (vayomer (וַיֺּאמֶר) = and he said + elohim (אֱלוֹהִים) = God; multiple gods.
Grammatically, elohim is the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהָּ = a god.1 But the plural elohim is also used to refer to the God, the one with the four-letter personal name abbreviated Y-H-V-H.2
We know that only one God speaks light into being, because vayomer is singular—“he said”, not “they said”. (In the Torah the God is referred to by the default gender: male.) Hebrew has no capital letters, but I capitalize elohim in this essay when it is clear that the word means “God” rather than “gods”.
The words Vayomer Elohim precede each new creation in the first story of Genesis.3 On the sixth day, God makes land animals of various kinds, and finally human beings. But the grammar of the sentence in which God initiates the creation of humans is peculiar.
Vayomer Elohim:“Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness. And they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over the big animals and over all the earth and over all the crawlers that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
The speaker is God in the singular. But what God says is “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness.”4
Us? Neither the kings nor the God speak with the royal “we” in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, God uses the first person plural only four times in that entire canon:
- In Genesis 1:26 on the sixth day of creation (above).
- In Isaiah 6:8 in a vision calling the first Isaiah to become a prophet.
- In Genesis 3:22 regarding the Garden of Eden.
- In Genesis 11:7 regarding the Tower of Babel.
Can we figure out whom God is addressing in Genesis 1:26 by examining the other three times God says “we”?
Serafim were standing in attendance from above; each had six wings … And I heard the voice of my lord saying: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said: “Here I am. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:2, 6:8)
In “Whom shall I send?” God speaks in the first person singular. But in “And who will go for us?” God is probably including the serafim, six-winged fiery creatures who surround God in Isaiah’s vision. God addresses them because in this case God is looking for a human prophet, rather than an angel, to pass on God’s words to the people.
No serafim appear in the book of Genesis. However, medieval commentators proposed that God is addressing a different kind of angel in Genesis 1:26: a malakh. (Malakh, מַלְאַךְ = messenger, emissary. Plural malakhim, מַלְאָכִים.)5
A malakh sent by a human being is simply a man who delivers a message to another human. A malakh sent by God also delivers a message, but the human recipient perceives a voice, a fire, or something that at first looks like a man (without wings) but then vanishes dramatically.6 Every “angel” mentioned in Genesis through 2 Kings is called a malakh.
By the fifth century C.E., Talmudic rabbis considered malakhim not just mouthpieces, but half-human creatures with independent thoughts and feelings. Bereishit Rabbah 8 claims that God created the “ministering angels” (malakhei hashareit, מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת) before creating the universe. According to this text, angels and humans are similar in how they stand, speak, understand, and see; but only humans are also animals that eat, drink, bear children, excrete, and die.
11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, built on this idea when he explained Genesis 1:26. He wrote that the malakhim were created in God’s image before God created the universe. When God wanted to create another kind of being in God’s image, God included the malakhim in the decision as a tactful way to prevent them from feeling envious. Perhaps these angles might be jealous of humankind’s animal functions. Alternatively, angels might envy humans because right after God creates them, God tells them to rule over the earth and all its animals.7
This fanciful characterization of malakhim is entirely absent from the Hebrew Bible, where a malakh is not an independent person with feelings, but only a mouthpiece God that uses and discards, like a marionette. Sometimes in the Torah a malakh speaks to a human, and then with no transition the next sentence is from God in the first person singular.8
A malakh in the Torah has no will of its own and cannot create something. When God says “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness,” God is addressing fellow creators—creators who can collectively make a new kind of animal. Thus in the context of the book of Genesis, God is not addressing any angels.
Does that mean God is addressing other gods in Genesis 1:26?
The second time in the book of Genesis that God uses the first person plural occurs after the two humans in the Garden of Eden eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God says:
“Humankind is becoming like one of us, knowing good and evil! And now, lest it stretch out its hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever—!” And Y-H-V-H Elohim sent it away from the Garden of Eden … (Genesis 3:22-23)
Here, “us” includes fellow beings who are aware of good and evil. These beings must also be immortal, or they would not be alarmed by the idea of humans living forever. The only other information about them in this week’s Torah portion comes from the snake in the Garden of Eden, who tells Eve:
“Because Elohim knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like elohim, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)
The second elohim in this sentence could refer to either the one God, or to gods in general. Most English translations use a plural such as “divine beings” for the second Elohim. It makes sense, and not just because God says “one of us” later in the story. After all, what is a moral immortal? Not an angel; before the later prophets, biblical angels appear to be amoral and transient manifestations.
But the bible does contain other passages assuming the existence of multiple gods. Lesser gods appear in Genesis 6:2-4 at the of this week’s Torah portion (where the “sons of the elohim”impregnate the “daughters of humankind”). There are also references to a court of gods who acknowledge the God of Israel as their king in Exodus 15:11, Job 1:6-2:7, and Psalms 29, 82, and 97.
The remaining sentence in the Hebrew Bible in which God speaks in the first person plural appears in the Tower of Babel story in next week’s Torah portion, Noach:
Vayomer Y-H-V-H: “Hey, one people and one language for all of them, and this is how they have begun to act! So now nothing that they plan to do will be impossible! Come, let us go down there and let us make their language fail, so that a man cannot understand the language of his neighbor.” (Genesis 11:6-7)
Here God’s “us” includes fellow beings who can separate collaborators and turn them into strangers, aliens who cannot even understand each other. These beings cannot be malakhim, who only repeat God’s words. Nor can they be human beings, since all the humans on earth are building the Tower of Babel together. Therefore the obfuscators can only be subsidiary gods, gods that have power to move people to different locations and change their ways of thinking. (I will discuss this further in next week’s blog post, Noach: Alienation.)
Why do lesser gods make several fleeting appearances in the book of Genesis, which otherwise posits a single god powerful enough to create the heavens and the earth? Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7 might be remnants of other ancient stories—polytheistic tales about a chief creator god with lesser gods to assist him. This could also explain the perfunctory story in Genesis 6:2-4 about how the “sons of elohim” took human wives who bore them children who became legendary heroes. The scribes who wrote down the book of Genesis may have been inspired, but they were only human. There are many rough spots in the Torah where different oral traditions were combined without being edited for consistency.9
Question: How many gods does it take to create a universe, invent humankind, set up the Garden of Eden, and turn human language into babble?
Answer: Only one, but that God makes the other gods that are hanging around feel included and empowered.
Apparently God is considerate of other gods.
- The first place in the Torah where the word elohim definitely refers to plural gods is Genesis 3:5 in the Garden of Eden story.
- See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God. God is referred to as elohim throughout Genesis chapter 1. The first use of God’s personal name, Y-H-V-H, occurs in Genesis 2:4.
- Genesis 1:3, 1:6, 1:9, 1:11, 1:14, 1:20, 1:24, 1:26.
- “Let us make” is na-aseh, נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה. The prefix נ indicates a first person plural verb. “In our image” is betzalmeinu, בְּצַלמֵנוּ, and “like our likeness” is kidmuteinu, כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ. In both nouns, the suffix einu (ֵנוּ ) indicates the first person plural possessive, i.e. “our”.
- The Septuagint (3rd century B.C.E.), the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, routinely translates the word malakh as “angelos”, whether the malakh in question is human or supernatural. Many English translations call a malakh from a human a messenger, but a malakh from God an “angel”.
- See my post Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel.
- Genesis 1:28.
- E.g. Genesis 22:11-2 and 22:15-18.
- Most modern scholars agree that the first creation story in Genesis, the one about the six days of creation and seventh day of rest, was written by a Levite who was deported to Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E. and was influenced by Babylonian theology. The Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel stories are attributed to a different author, whose century is still a matter of debate; but scholars agree that this author or redactor drew from more than one oral tradition.
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