The Spirit & Plurality in the Godhead
What is clear from the second verse of the Bible is that the Spirit of God was superintending the process of creation. The word for “was hovering” or “brooded” (merakhepet, 1:2) implies a determination to act. It strains credulity to think that the Spirit brooded over a glob of matter for billions of years before deciding to do something with it. There is no logic to starting the work of creation by bringing forth matter and then leaving it all in idle suspension. The making of the unformed earth was with the intention of forming it!
As we are but two verses into the Genesis account it would be premature to think that the “Spirit (ruah) of God” can be distinguished from “God” in the first verse. But already the verb “brooded” discloses personality. The “S” should therefore be capitalized. This is no inanimate breath. The same Holy Spirit who would come in to a person and regenerate them, making them “new creatures in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17), is the power behind the formation of the Cosmos.
Nevertheless, the writer is not here teaching about the Trinity. That will be done when the Apostle John takes up this passage in his grand prologue. Yet before this first chapter ends it will start to become a distinct possibility that the reader is being told there is a plurality within the one God.
No evangelical Christian has any problem with a “canonical reading,” which sees the Trinity in the act of creating. But the text of Genesis does not include the doctrine. It is revealed progressively. Going to John or another author for more light on these verses is not wrong, just so long as we understand what it is we are doing. We are bringing John’s added information into our comprehension of the creation narrative (the only actual creation narrative in Scripture. Other passages refer to creation but do not describe it), but we are not altering anything in the creation account by so doing. One later direct statement is throwing complementary light on an earlier one.
Unfortunately, there are common uses of “canonical” interpretation which allow a later passage to effectively overpower and change what seems to be deliberately and carefully declared in an earlier passage. This is misguided, creating tension where none exists, and promoting eisegesis.
When we arrive at day six and the making of the man and the woman we are confronted again with the plural pronouns “us” and “our” in verse 26.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…”
But this is qualified with the singular pronoun in the next verse:
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
The most natural way to understand these verses is to see a plurality in God’s unity. It is not wise to guess at some angelic council which God is addressing. For one thing angels are never said to be made in God’s image. That privilege seems to be reserved for those created to have dominion over the earth. The pantheons of ancient civilizations cannot provide a backdrop for the words because the Bible is strictly monotheistic. If Genesis set forth a teaching about Councils of gods deciding matters in creation week it would be natural to think of the “Let us…our image” language in such terms. But there are no gods to speak to in Scripture, and angels are servants of God. They do not comprise some sort of celestial committee to decide weighty matters like the making of man.
Biblical Creation & ANE Cosmology
Creation accounts from pagan cultures, and the origins of the gods as they construe them, radically affect the worldviews of these nations. In these ANE Creation Myths, we find that the creation of the world, and of people, is connected with the battles and squabbles among the gods and their relative functions. The ancient primal-gods, the first gods, are formed somehow from the original Chaos (variously depicted), and are, for the most part, fairly inert and inactive. It is because of this general dilatoriness in the original gods that they need to be replaced by active gods, gods that function. The idea of activity and function was central to the way peoples of the Ancient Near East, including the ancient Israelites, conceived of reality, and so went about defining and describing things. So when you named something, you named it because of its function as well as its essence, and probably more its function than its essence. If, then, you have an inert god, a god that isn’t doing much of anything, then there is not much that can be named; there is not much that is gotten going in your worldview/religion: hence, the need for newer, more active gods to destroy, or at least control, the other gods.
All non-biblical gods of the Ancient Near East had origins. Also, these gods had familial relationships with other deities; one sees gods in families. Often, for example, with the Mesopotamian god of power and force—Enlil, one finds a begetting or sonship; so that Enlil is begotten by Anu—the sky god, who is the god of authority (often called the patriarch of the gods).
The Ancient Cosmologies are very different than the Biblical Cosmology:
- There is no creation out of nothing
- There is no explanation of where the gods came from, apart from emerging somehow from the water/chaos, but we are not told where the waters came from.
- We are told that these gods created, very often, in order to get humans to do work for them. If that was the case, then the gods needed humans, therefore they were contingent gods.
- They worked inside the cosmos and inside the one circle of reality, not both inside and outside it as the biblical God.
- The gods are subject to the decrees of the council of gods. This is how Marduk came to power in the Enuma Elish narrative; the council of gods voted to make him the king of the gods after he defeated the horrific goddess Tiamat.
Thus, none of the pagan gods is all-powerful, unchanging, all-knowing or eternal, since these attributes can only be predicated if a single uncreated Creator-God. From the outset, then, the God of Genesis 1-3 and the creator-gods of ANE pagan culture are utterly different! Whoever fails to recognize this fact is simply unqualified to comment any further on the matter. His retelling of Creation doctrine will go badly awry if the contrasts between the pagan gods and the biblical God are neglected.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.