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Elohim, Adam, and the divine relationship with humanity

Published: 8 January 2022 (GMT+10)

Stephen E. raises a point about the Trinity in terms of the meaning of the name of God, Elohim, in Genesis 1:1. He then asks about the implications of this for Adam, and humanity as a whole. Andrew Sibley responds by highlighting the tri-unity of God, and the centrality of Christ in the Gospel message which is the hope for mankind.

You say that the plural gods (Elohim) of the Genesis creation account refer to the trinity. When, after Adam eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the gods say ‘the man has now become one of us’. Which one does he become - the father, the son or the Holy Spirit?

Stephen, thank you for your question.

You say that the plural gods (Elohim) of the Genesis creation account refer to the trinity.

Strictly speaking that is not how we have described the meaning of Elohim [אֱלֹהִ֑ים] in Genesis 1:1. Along with most Christian theologians we recognise that the name Elohim on its own doesn’t give a complete picture of the doctrine of the Trinity. It may only partially hint at it; see for example: What’s in a name, Who really is the God of Genesis?, The Creator: Linguistics, Genesis, and evolution.

The name Elohim is a plural noun, where El = God or Lord. It means the mighty one, or the powerful one, and alludes to His omnipotence. The Reformer John Calvin called for caution in trying to glean the Trinity from this noun. He suggested that the plurality may infer the many divine attributes: he wrote in his commentary on Genesis 1:1, “For me it is sufficient that the plural number expresses those powers which God exercised in creating the world.”1 Wilhelm Gesenius, in his Hebrew Grammar, has proposed (as have others) that it is an example of a ‘plural of excellence’ or ‘plural of majesty’; i.e. the “Royal we.”2 Incidentally, Elohim can also be used for angels (Psalms 8:4–6, quoted in Hebrews 2:6–8), or for human judges (Exodus 21:6, Exodus 22:8, Exodus 22:9).

In the creation account Elohim is used alongside singular verbs; for example, bara = ‘created’, wayyōmer= ‘said’, etc. This connection of a subject plural noun with a singular verb, points to a unified activity with a single plan and purpose in mind. There is, then, a suggestion of a plurality of names or attributes acting with one plan of action, which implies no division within the Godhead.

We ought to note for the sake of context that Jews today generally do not believe that Elohim teaches the doctrine of the Trinity as understood by Christians. And yet the doctrine was present, even though hidden or not understood, in the Old Testament.3,4 We read in the first few verses of Genesis of the Spirit of God ruach Elohim [ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים], hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2), and of the creative acts coming through the divine command; i.e. “And God said…” (Gen 1:3). We should remember, however, that the Old and New Testaments are not in conflict. St. Augustine of Hippo’s maxim is very apt: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old. The Old Testament is revealed in the New.”5

The full revelation comes through the New Testament’s apostolic teaching. In the New Testament the Word became flesh (the Incarnation), personified in Jesus the Messiah (John 1:1): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Moreover, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as an advocate for the believer (John 14:26): “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”6

When, after Adam eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the gods say ‘the man has now become one of us’. Which one does he become—the father, the son or the Holy Spirit?

You are referring here to Genesis 3:22, which reads:

“Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—.”

And we read in Genesis 1:26, 27:

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

By way of answering your question we need to set our priorities right by considering the context. The text of Genesis 3:22 says “like one of us in knowing good and evil”; addressing this question without considering the wider message leads to confusion. We see that Adam and Eve were already created in the image of God at creation; that is from before the Fall, but created in innocence.7 In the Fall there was a loss of innocence, along with a gain of knowledge of good and evil. Therefore, God did not allow Adam and Eve to partake of the Tree of Life in an unregenerate state, as they could have lived forever as rebels, with no hope of fulfilling their calling to live in right relationship with God. So, God forced them out of the Garden of Eden as an act of grace.

Furthermore, to ask which member of the Trinity Adam and Eve became is to ask the wrong question. We need to recognise that there is no division within the Trinity—so we speak for instance of the triune God (a unity of three persons). However, some theologians, such as Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–395), considered that the incarnate Jesus was the archetype, or the blueprint, for Adam in the creation.8 Paul also compares Adam with Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:45–49:

“Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”

Christ came to this world in the flesh to redeem mankind from sin and the effect of the Fall through his death and resurrection—to make it possible for Adam and Eve’s offspring to be brought into God’s wider family through repentance and faith. The Gospel of John tells us that Christians dwell spiritually in Christ, and Christ within us (John 15). Paul also writes that the Christian is being transformed into God’s image—who is Spirit—as we focus our hearts and minds upon Him; transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18).

References and notes

  1. Calvin, J., Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, trans. by King, J., Edinburgh, Calvin Translation Society, 1847–1850. Return to text.
  2. Gesenius, W., Hebrew Grammar, edited by Kautzsch, E., and revised by Cowley, A.E., Clarendon Press, Oxford, II Syntax of the Noun, 124–126. Return to text.
  3. Fruchtenbaum, A., A Jewish View of the Trinity Based on the Hebrew Scriptures, JewsforJesus.org, 23 April 2018. Return to text.
  4. Tom Wright suggests that Jewish monotheism in the period of Greek and Roman influence was essentially polemical against paganism and dualism, and that some Jews did discuss the possible plurality of God. Wright, N.T., The New Testament and the People of God, SPCK, London/Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p. 259, 1992. Return to text.
  5. Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch2.73. Return to text.
  6. Swain, S., Is the Trinity in Genesis 1? thegospelcoalition.org, 1 Jan 2020. Return to text.
  7. The divine image includes rational, emotional, relational and volitional capacities. Partridge, T., Hughes, S., Image of God: His Attributes and Character, CWR, 2003. Return to text.
  8. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, III. That the nature of man is more precious than all the visible creation; in: Schaff, P. (Ed.), Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (NPNF), series 2, vol. 5., T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1886–1890. Return to text.

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