Who really is the God of Genesis?
Published: 21 March 2012 (GMT+10)
The God of Genesis is not someone whom Christians share with Islam, modern-day non-Messianic Judaism,1 Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, or any other belief system which rejects the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Rather, unlike those systems, Genesis portrays the God of Christianity (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) to be the God who is not only one, but is also more than one.
The very first verse of the Bible reads: ‘In the beginning God (plural) created (singular) the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). Moses, the author of Genesis under the direction of the Holy Spirit, chose to use the Hebrew plural term elohim for God,2 rather than the singular el3 or the singular poetic form eloah. But he does use the singular form of the verb ‘created’!
Besides elohim, Moses also used other plural forms with reference to God in Genesis. Genesis 1:26 reads, ‘Then God said, “Let us make [plural] man in our [plural] image.”’4 Here Moses uses the singular verb ‘said’, but quotes God as using a plural verb and a plural pronoun with reference to Himself. See also Genesis 11:7, where God says, ‘Let us go down and confuse their language.’
Why did Moses use these plural forms?
Some have suggested that this plurality is merely a plural of majesty, like the ‘royal we’ grandly used by kings, queens and others today. However, the kings of Israel and Judah were all addressed in the singular in the Bible accounts. Linguist Dr Charles Taylor says:
‘Nobody is in a position to show that in Moses’ day or earlier, people were in the habit of addressing kings and princes in the plural. In fact, there is no evidence at all from the Bible itself, and the Bible is one of the oldest books there is.’5
Others have gone further and said that elohim shows that God includes within Himself plurality of powers, attributes and personhood. With this we agree. Elohim is a plural noun with a singular meaning. The Old Testament writers used it over 2,500 times, usually with singular verbs and adjectives (as in Genesis 1:1), implying that God is one, yet more than one—what some commentators have referred to as the ‘uniplurality’ of the Godhead.6 So does this ‘uniplurality’ or ‘plurality of personhood’ refer to the Trinity?
Second Person: the Word of God
The doctrine of the Trinity was not, and could not be, fully formulated or understood until the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, in the New Testament (see box). After Jesus came, one of His titles was revealed in John 1:1–14 to be ‘the Word’ (Greek logos), and note that ‘the Word was God’ (John 1:1, emphasis added). If we reread Genesis chapter 1 with this in mind, we find that everything that God created on each of the six days of Creation Week was by His word. The formula God used on each day was ‘And God said …’, and it was so.
We should note that although this activity of the Son of God is not defined at this stage in Genesis, it is clearly confirmed in the New Testament, which explicitly states that God created everything through Jesus. For example, Colossians 1:16 reads: ‘For by Him [the Son of God (v. 15)] all things were created.’7 Thus, the heavens and the earth and all things in them came into being, not through self-causation or evolutionary natural processes, but by the divinely powerful, intelligent will of God, operating through the Son of God. Furthermore, the same Son is ‘upholding all things by the word of His power’ (Hebrews 1:3; cf. Colossians 1:17).
Third Person: the Spirit of God
Genesis 1:2 reads, ‘… and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters’. The Hebrew word ruach used by Moses can mean ‘spirit’, ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, with the choice being determined by the context. So did Moses mean to say that a wind was fanning the waters, or that the Spirit of God8 was participating in the creation event, particularly with regard to making the unfinished earth habitable?
Answer: The participle ‘hovering’ does not adequately describe the blowing of a wind. And if the text merely says that at the start of all the momentous events of Creation Week a wind was blowing, we might reasonably ask, ‘So what?’ We conclude that it was Moses’ intention to tell us that ‘despite the fact the earth was not then habitable, all was under the control of God’s Spirit’.9
We should be wary of using as proof texts any verses of the Bible which the author did not originally write with that purpose in mind. So it is probably better not to say that Genesis 1 explicitly teaches the Trinity.
Having said this, we need to emphasize that we should expect that the wording of Genesis would not contradict later biblical teaching about the Son of God or about the Holy Spirit. In fact, we find that the terms Moses used by divine inspiration in writing Genesis are completely in harmony with the Bible’s later and fuller revelation in the New Testament about all three Persons of the Trinity (see box).
Genesis affirms, from the very first verse of the Bible, that the Creator God is truly one God. This is taught in the famous Shema (Hebrew for ‘hear’) from Deuteronomy 6:4: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.’ But even here, the word for ‘one’ is echad, which is often used for plurality within the oneness. E.g. in Genesis 2:24 (which Jesus cited in Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:8) the husband and wife (two people) shall become one (echad) flesh.10
The rest of the Bible reveals this one God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three personal distinctions within the one eternal divine nature or essence. Thus, the Trinity can indeed be found in Genesis 1. And it is clear that only the God of Christianity—unique and triune—is the God of Genesis, who is not only Creator, but also Lawgiver, Saviour and Judge.
The root meaning of elohim is ‘the powerful one’, and so elohim stresses God’s omnipotence. As such, it was a particularly appropriate term for Moses to have used to describe the Creator God of Creation Week. ‘His power is seen much more clearly in creating many diverse objects and beings in a short time, than it can be seen in a long, drawn-out evolutionary timetable.’1
Although generally thought of as a name for God, elohim is rather a title or a descriptive expression. The truly personal name of God is the one He revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:15), namely YHWH, often transliterated Yahweh or in English as Jehovah and written in capitals, Lord. It means ‘I am who I am’ and so means ‘the self-existent one’ or ‘the one who causes to be’. It is used of God’s personal relationship with Adam and Eve in Genesis chapters 2 and 3,2 where Moses uses the combined term Yahweh elohim, which the translators have rendered as ‘the Lord God’.
References and notes
The Tri-unity of God
The doctrine of the Trinity states that in the unity of the Godhead there are three eternal and co-equal Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the same in essence but distinct in role—three Persons (or three centres of consciousness) and one Being (see diagram). This doctrine is difficult to understand, but this is what God has revealed in the Bible about His own Being, so we should believe it. For example, at the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was seen descending and landing upon the Son, and the voice of the Father was heard from Heaven (Matthew 3:16–17). And when Jesus gave the Great Commission, He ordered His followers to baptize in the name (singular) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18–20).
The different senses of oneness and threeness mean that the doctrine is not self-contradictory. This is similar in principle to saying that the navy, army and airforce are three distinct fighting entities, but are also one armed service. Note: this is not to suggest that the three persons are ‘parts’ of God. Indeed, each Person has the fullness of the Godhead (see Colossians 2:9). A better analogy is that space contains three dimensions (length, breadth, height), yet the dimensions are not ‘parts’—the concept of ‘space’ is meaningless without all three dimensions.
The Trinity and the God of love
The Bible reveals, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8, 16). This is distinctive of the Christian faith, and means that love is part of God’s very nature, even before He created anything. But love requires at least two persons—self-love is not really love at all. So there must be at least two persons in the Godhead. If God were only one person, then love could not be part of His nature.
Love is even greater when the love between two persons is not restricted to themselves, but is combined and directed towards another. This should happen in a family, where the husband and wife love each other, and also combine their love towards their child. So for God to exemplify love in its fullest sense, there must be three Persons, so there is both individual and collective love. Any more than three is unnecessary for collective love, because it would just increase the number of persons involved, not the nature of the love.
- Modern-day non-Messianic Jews might believe that God created as per Genesis, but they reject God’s uniplurality. Return to text.
- The first of some 2,570 times elohim is used of God in this way in the Old Testament. Although it usually refers to the Living God, it is also used occasionally in the Bible to refer to pagan deities (in the plural), as in: ‘You shall have no other gods [elohim] before me’ (Exodus 20:3; cf. Joshua 24:16; Jeremiah 5:7). Return to text.
- Corresponding to the Greek theos, the Latin Deus, and the English God. Return to text.
- Some antitrinitarians try to claim that God is conversing with angels here. But there is no indication anywhere in Scripture of angels being involved in creation, or having such creative power. And more importantly, mankind was made in the image of God, not in the image of ‘God plus angels’—see also Hebrews 2. Return to text.
- Taylor, C.V., The First Hundred Words, The Good Book Co., Gosford, NSW, Australia, p. 3, 1996. Return to text.
- E.g. Morris, H., The Genesis Record, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 39, 1976. Return to text.
- See also John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2. Return to text.
- Whom the Bible tells us is eternal (Hebrews 9:14), omniscient (1 Corinthians 2:10–11) and omnipresent (Psalm 139:7–10). Return to text.
- Creation and Change, Christian Focus Publications, Ross-shire, UK, p. 91, 1997, who references Young, E., Studies in Genesis One, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co, Philadelphia, USA, p. 36, 1964. Return to text.
- Paul, thoroughly educated in Judaism and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understood this. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, he wrote: ‘Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.’ Here, Paul is applying the Shema, using the key phrase ‘one Lord’, and applying it to Jesus Christ, thus including Jesus in the identity of the one true God! Return to text.
I learned a great deal by reading this! I enjoy learning and gaining knowledge. I loved learning the Hebrew meaning of Elohim, as I was taught that it was one of Daddy's names. I also like the space analogy, great job!! I also loved how you showed, again, how HE is the GOD of Christianity and of Genesis, and NOT the god of any other religion or organization!!! THANK YOU. Sincerely Al.
If the Holy Spirit is actually a “third” party in the God Family instead of the power emanating from the Father and the Word, then the Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus Christ. Jesus must have been mistaken in calling God his father!
Also, why does Paul extend greetings of "“grace and peace” to the Romans, Corinthians, etc. from the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ but not the Holy Spirit? Paul would be showing contempt for the Holy Spirit by failing to include it in the greeting if it were.
The trinity is just another example of paganism in the Christian religion.
The first statement is false: the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary so she would conceive Jesus. As shown in The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?, this meant adding human nature to the divine nature that the Son already possessed from eternity. As Tertullian pointed out in Against Praxeas (see above):
Besides, the flesh is not God, so that it could not have been said concerning it, That Holy Thing shall be called the Son of God, but only that Divine Being who was born in the flesh, of whom the psalm also says, Since God became man in the midst of it, and established it by the will of the Father. Now what Divine Person was born in it? The Word, and the Spirit which became incarnate with the Word by the will of the Father. The Word, therefore, is incarnate; and this must be the point of our inquiry: How the Word became flesh—whether it was by having been transfigured, as it were, in the flesh, or by having really clothed Himself in flesh. Certainly it was by a real clothing of Himself in flesh. …
Of them Jesus consists—Man, of the flesh; of the Spirit, God—and the angel designated Him as the Son of God, Luke 1:35 in respect of that nature, in which He was Spirit, reserving for the flesh the appellation Son of Man. In like manner, again, the apostle calls Him the Mediator between God and Men, 1 Timothy 2:5 and so affirmed His participation of both substances.
Your second argument is just an argument from silence. The role of the Holy Spirit is largely to point people to Christ, not to Himself. It is folly to use such arguments and ignore the clear teachings of the personality of the Holy Spirit. For example, “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,’” (Acts 13:2), which shows the Holy Spirit referring to Himself in the first person.
Your third argument is the reverse of the truth. The early church was adamant that the true teachings must be derived from the Bible; we can see this copiously demonstrated by Tertullian, for example. And they fought strongly against pagan philosophies. Indeed, as Gerald Bray noted in Creeds, Councils and Christ (see above), “it looks strongly as if Platonism was refashioned to meet the challenge of Christianity, not the other way round.”
This is a good read, very informative. It would be good to include who originated the concept of Trinity, Tertullian, and why. The church father wanted to illustrate the unique (and complex) relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each maintaining their individuality but each distinct in function. This would assist the reader further understand this concept. Once more it is a good read.
We are glad you liked the article. We can’t cover everything, but indeed, the originator of the Trinity is usually considered to be Tertullian (AD c. 160 – c. 225).
An instructive work is Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the early Christians misrepresent Jesus? (updated 2009) by Gerald Bray, professor at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He explains that Tertullian, a lawyer and Christian apologist, realized that the Bible taught that God made a covenant with Israel. And on God’s side, there were actually three signatories: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now in Roman law, the word for party to a legal action was persona. From this, Tertullian summarized the biblical teaching as tres Personae, una Substantia (three Persons, one Substance).
Tertullian explained the Trinity at length using copious biblical passages as proof that there was one God in three distinct Persons in Against Praxeas newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm:
Bear always in mind that this is the rule of faith which I profess; by it I testify that the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit are inseparable from each other, and so will you know in what sense this is said. Now, observe, my assertion is that the Father is one, and the Son one, and the Spirit one, and that They are distinct from Each Other.
Praxeas was a heretic who taught a modalistic view like that of modern ‘Oneness’ groups: that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all the same Person in different modes. Tertullian convincingly demonstrates the error with Scripture, while Praxeas’ few Scriptures alleged to support that view are shown to do the opposite.
Actually, a little before Tertullian, Theophilus of Antioch (AD 115–181) wrote in an apologetic work to the learned pagan magistrate Autolycus. In a commentary on the fourth day of creation, Theophilus asserted that the previous three days were literal days before the sun, and “types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.” (To Autolycus 2:15, AD 181 newadvent.org/fathers/02042.htm).
Thank you for including the analogy about space. I find that it has expanded my understanding of the triune diety, and I hope to share it with others. Thank you for your work! God Bless You!
I believe I heard somewhere that Genesis 3:8 also is a clue that Jesus was there in the Garden. They heard the sound of the Lord God... The word for that is "voice". They heard the voice of God walking in the garden. How do you hear a voice walking? Doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless they heard the "Word" of God walking, which would be Jesus.
There is an important aspect which you haven’t made clear—that is that in Hebrew, a noun can have 3 forms—singular, dual, and plural (with plural being more than 2—unlike English where plural is 2 or more) and that elohim is plural implying that “God” involves a minimum of 3.
Thanks for explaining such a difficult concept in simple terms. The ‘space’ analogy worked for me and I never heard (read) it before.
It is good that you qualified that Genesis ch. 1 does not specifically nominate a Trinity, nor does Scripture refer to the deity as “persons”, except in job 13;8 where there is a reproof if one is to secretly accept persons. Whenever “person” is used in reference to deity, the Greek renders this word as “Substance”. If God is not a numerical “One”, why is it declared in Isaiah "thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel” or “Iam God and there is no God beside me”. If it had been possible to know the Son apart from the Father when Phillip asked Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and it sufficeth us,” Jesus would have done so. On the contrary he reproofed Phillip by stating “Have I been so long time with you,and yet has though not known me.” …
[Replied after some of those below]
Here, as below, I will confine myself mainly to Tertullian’s Against Praxeas and Gerald Bray’s Creeds, Councils, and Christ.
You assert that the oneness of God must be understood in an absolute unity rather than a composite unity (see The Hebrew language and Messianic prophecies). And Tom Wright pointed out, “there is no suggestion that “monotheism” or praying the Shema, had anything to do with the numerical analysis of the inner being of Israel’s god himself,” (more at The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?). In fact, to show that “there is nothing new under the sun”, Tertullian also noted the dogmatism of those who thought that belief in one God entailed belief in one Person in the Godhead:
this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.
Your other claim is based on something lost in the translations between Greek and Latin. Tertullian defined the Trinity as three Personae and one Substantia. As pointed out below, persona in Roman Law was a party to a legal contract. But a hyper-literal translation to Greek results in πρόσωπον prosōpon, which means “mask”. Thus the Greek church misunderstood the Latin usage, and originally thought that the Latin Church taught modalism. And the Greek Church formulated the Trinity as three hypostases (singular hypostasis ὑπόστᾰσις) and one oὐσία ousia. But a hyper-literal translation to Latin results in substantia—both sub and hypo mean “below”. Yet this is a misunderstanding, because in Greek theological usage, hypostasis meant a quasi-personification of attributes proper to a deity. Indeed, as you inadvertently note, it was used in the Greek New Testament to mean “person”.
Thus as Bray notes, in the 4th century, Basil (a noted creationist theologian) realized that what the Greek church meant by hypostasis, the Latin church meant by persona, so they really believed the same thing.
Great article, the best treatment of the Trinity I have come across, and uncompromising in its stand on Who is the true and only God. So often people try to look for “common ground” between Christianity and other religions. There isn’t any, and we need to plainly say so. Thanks Russell.