A Reflective Christian

All for God’s Kingdom

Genesis 1-11, the image of God, and the plural Elohim

First off, I will be only intermittently posting on this blog till school gets out. Fewer viewers in the end, but the main purpose of this blog is to articulate my ideas more so than obtain an audience.

Over the past few weeks I have been doing study outside of my seminary work on the Old Testament, while reading authors such as Von Rad and Brueggemann. However, of particular interest to me is Genesis 1-11, due to the article in the JBL’s Winter 2008 article Shattering the Image of God by John T. Strong. While I do not agree totally with the article, of particular interest for me was seeing the Tower of Babel narrative as being understood in light of the image of God.

The image of God definitely plays a role within the Genesis narrative, especially early on. But the question as to what it means has received varied answers, many times reflected the views of the day more so than the intent of the text. As to my opinion, the way Genesis 1-11 is built, I think it in part reflects the many being united as one. In the Tower of Babel narrative, the language of the people follows the format of God’s declaration of creating humanity in his image in Genesis 1:16, the cohortive plural. God recognizes these people operating as one, and thus serves to divide them through the confusion of their language. As Strong notes, this is “in effect, smashing the [image of God] to pieces” (p. 628).

Multiplicity in the people is implied as being in the image of God. They were called to fill and subdue the earth, they were called to reproduce as a necessary consequence of filling and subduing the land, and humanity was made as male and female, as a the means for reproduction. Without there being many persons, they could not “rule” over the creation God had made.

And yet, there is a sense of unity implied by the image of God also. In making adam (used in this context not as the person Adam nor an individual, as 1:27 makes evident), the singular noun (compare with the singular nouns of the groups of animals, although they are frequently translated as plural) does not allow for the interpretation that each individual is itself in the image of God. That may be the case, but that would not conform the text at hand. Rather, this species was to be in God’s image. So a sense of unity in working together is probably conveyed by the text. Hence, this needed unity in God’s image perhaps explains why the image of God is evoked as support for capital punishment against murderers, who essentially would break up said unity.

So, I would contend the image of God conveying a multiplicity being one. Which I think coheres with the nature of the creator called Elohim, the plural for El (“god”). I am aware that some grammars refer to the plural here as the plural of majesty, but I think there is something more going on here. The narrative seems to have a polemical nature to it. For instance, Genesis 4:1 can be see as attributing Eve’s fertility to Yahweh, as if this was a counterclaim to a fertility god or goddess. Also, the inclusion of the serpent (nahash) has echoes of the Canaanite god Yam, who was also named Nahar and portrayed as a serpent (although, of the sea to be exact). Also, Elohim was used by the Cannaanites to refer to their pantheon of gods, but yet the Genesis narrative identifies Elohim with one named YHWH. Hence, the second creation narrative starting in 2:3 joins Elohim with YHWH.

My contention is that the creator is identified with the plural Elohim, to attribute all the powers of the gods within the Canaanite religion within one entity, such as the power of providing fertility and also over all the different animals, over the sea, and over the land. If that is the case, the narrative portrays the multiplicity as one. Therefore, Elohim can have verbs attributed to him that are both singular and plural. Thus, to be made in the image of God would mean to be a multiplicity working together as one. Therefore, in Genesis 3:22 the individual Adam (“the man”) is referred to being like “one of us.” The individual corresponds to a singular within YHWH Elohim.

Now if this sounds like a defense of the reading of classical Trinitarianism within the Genesis narrative, it isn’t. If Genesis 1 and on serves as a polemic against the multiple gods in attributing the many powers within one, it does not speak for a Trinitarian unity (of course, not against it either). Trintitarianism sees the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three sharing the same one substance (ousia), with the multiplicity being in the three persons (hupostases). On the other hand, the Genesis narrative has the multiple powers within one. To fit the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit directly into Elohim of Genesis 1, one would have to say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three different, distinct powers united as one. Not only does that reject classic Trinitarianism, but it is grossly anachronistic.


March 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I dislike Trinitarian language

The title makes me sound blasphemous, but do not get me wrong, I maintain the basic meaning of the Trinity. I will even use the Trinitarian language at times because it can at times be used in a good sense. But I think today, Trinitarian language does more harm than good in the end. In the modern understanding of it, it portrays the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as being same exact type of being/person. And the word God in the New Testament is essentially a reference to the Trinity. In the end, it now leads to a skewed concept of the portrayal of the three persons in the Bible.

Only once anywhere in the New Testament is Jesus referred to explicitly as God, John 1:1 (I’ll leave the discussion of the supposed references in the Pauline pastorals for another day). And in that instance, it is not ho theos (the Greek article and the Greek word for God) that was the frequent pattern used throughout the New Testament to refer to the God of Israel, but simply as theos. This isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness argument saying that it should be understood as “a god.” Rather, it is saying that Jesus wasn’t being identified as some person of a trinity, but rather that he is the God in essence, or in nature. A better way of putting it is that he proceeded from God, hence the usage of logos which had philosophic undertones along with a reference to the words attributed to God in Genesis 1 (see 1:3).

The importance of this for New Testament theology isn’t so much in Jesus ontological position, but rather what Jesus reveals. In 1:5 the word is spoken of as light. In Hebrews 1:3 it says the Son is the exact representation of God’s nature. Romans speaks of Jesus as the revelation of God’s righteous nature and the mercy seat (the place of atonement where also the cloud of God’s presence existed). And then, as NT Wright argues in Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus takes upon the roles that were attributed to YHWH throughout the Old Testament. My point is, with the exception of the last point, that Trinitarian language does a rather poor job of communicating that point, the point that is emphasized throughout the New Testament. To speak like this implies a sense of subordination, that Jesus is not revealing himself so much as the God YHWH. Such notions are not readily included in Trinitarian language, nor Trinitarian logic that necessities that Jesus is equal in all ways to the Father.

In addition, Trinitarian language also tends towards docetism. If Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and is one with the Father, he must take upon all the characteristics of the Father. So we tend to see the exclusion of his humanity. Trouble is attributed to sayings like that not even the Son of Man himself doesn’t know when he will come. And if we take away Jesus’ humanity, we get some “revelation” that is of little value for us people. He doesn’t really reveal to us God’s righteous nature that we are ourselves to emulate, because he is an unachievable ideal. He is God, we are merely human. We can not be anything like him.

It also struggles to make sense of some of the Gospel narrative, for instance when Jesus says “Why do you say I am good? None is good by God.” If we make the automatic equation of Jesus with God at the cost of his humanity, instead of a human that also happens to be the divine Word, we struggle to let Jesus himself be struggling for his own vocation. So questions like that either are interpreted awkwardly or are taken as express denials as Jesus’ own divinity. We can not see it as Jesus not sure of his exact nature of the time.

References to the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity have similar problems, but my main issue is how it portrays Jesus in this modern culture.

At one time Trinitarian langauge had value, in a struggle to maintain that Jesus as the fitting object of worship. It has value as a logical paradigm that allows us to maintain Jesus’ divinity in the face of Jewish monotheism. But when it is made as the source of Christian theology, instead of a logical conclusion to make it justified, it leads to problems with the Biblical claims of Jesus. And while one might argue that properly understood, the Trinity doesn’t lead to these problems, we have to ask is it really worth it to try to resurrect proper Trinitarian understanding? Would we claim the langauge itself is holy, or rather that the object(s) of the langauge?

(Later edit: You have to forgive me as I sometimes can be an idiot at times. John 20:28 is also another place where Jesus is explicitly referred to as God, and actually as ho theos, which serves as the final concluding proof for the statement in John 1:1.)

October 1, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 23 Comments