In Muslim-Christian dialogue, a frequent refrain one comes across is the argument that a relevant religious text (e.g. the Bible, the Qur’ān) employs singular constructions in reference to God, therefore God must be unipersonal. While one possible response is to offer examples which show that singular constructions (whether verbs, pronouns, or pronomial suffixes) do not necessitate that an entity they relate to must be unipersonal, an alternative option is to note that the same corpus also employs a number of plural constructions in reference to God.
When discussions turn towards the latter option, one popular counter is to declare that the plurals in question are non-literal (e.g. “mere plurals of majesty”). At this point, two thoughts come to mind. The first is that it is curious to insist that singular constructions necessitate a unipersonal ontology, while also insisting that plural constructions do not necessitate a multipersonal ontology. That aside, a second thought is this: how obvious is it that certain divine plurals in the text are in fact non-literal?
This blog entry will not argue that so-called “royal plurals” are impossible; rather, it will merely look at select examples of divine plurals, and explore whether there is evidence for or against claims about how literal they may or may not be.
Is the Divine Plural in Genesis 1:26 Literal?
One of the most well known divine plurals can be found in Genesis 1:26, where the Hebrew verb laᶜasot (לעשות), “to make,” is rendered in the first person plural, imperfect tense, naᶜaseh (נעשה). The text quotes God, before the creation of Adam, declaring “We will make man” (or more popularly translated “let Us make man”).
There are lay Christians who will appeal to that text, and upon doing so, they will often get back an argument that any Jew, anyone who knows Hebrew, will know that the plural in Genesis 1:26 is merely a “plural of majesty,” and thus emphatically not literal. The reality, however, is that, while of course Jews are not monolithic, it is nonetheless the case that a number of Jewish exegetes, from antiquity, to the middle ages, and even on into the modern period, have treated the plural in Genesis 1:26 as quite literal.
Now, as a disclaimer, the argument here is not that any of those exegetes interpreted the verse the way a Trinitarian Christian might. Moreover, it is worth noting that these different exegetes are not even in full agreement with one another regarding the precise details. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that, in their own respective ways, (non-Christian) Jewish writers from very different schools of thought, different centuries, and different continents, treated the relevant plural as literal (and thus it is misleading to simply declare that “Jews know it is merely a majestic plural”). The reader is invited to consider some examples.
For an example from antiquity, there is Philo:
- Moses, when treating in his lessons of wisdom of the Creation of the world, after having said of all other things that they were made by God, described man alone as having been fashioned with the co-operation of others. His words are: “God said, let us make man after our image” (Gen. i. 26), “let us make” indicating more than one.
For a medieval example, there is the commentary of RaSh”Y, one of the most authoritative exegetes within the Rabbinic spectrum:
נעשה אדם: ענותנותו של הקב”ה למדנו מכאן לפי שהאדם בדמות המלאכים ויתקנאו בו לפיכך נמלך בהם
Translation: “let us make man” – the humility of the Holy One, blessed be He, we learned from this, for as Adam was in the likeness of the angels, and they would be jealous with him, therefore He took council with them.
For yet another (apparently?) medieval example, there is the Zohar:
- למלכא דהוה ליה כמה בניינין למבני והוה ליה אומנא וההוא אומנא לא הוה עבד מדעם אלא מרשו דמלכא […] אלקים אומנא לעילא ודא אימא עלאה אלקים אומנא לתתא ודא שכינתא דלתתא
Translation: [this is likened] to the King that has many buildings to build, and that has an artisan, and that artisan does not build anything except [he has] permission of the King. […there is] Elohīm the artisan to [the] higher [realm] and that is the exalted Īmā, [and there is] Elohīm the artisan to [the] lower [realm] and that is the Shekhīna below.
For an example from modern times, some (perhaps “liberal”?) Jewish scholars put it thusly:
The plural construction (Let us…) most likely reflects a setting in the divine council (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-22; Isa. ch 6; Job chs 1-2): God the King announces the propoosed course of action to His cabinet of subordinate deities, though He alone retains the power of decision.
At this point, an important disclaimer may be in order: the author of this blog entry does not intend to endorse of any of the specific (disparate) views above; rather the point was simply to showcase some of the history of (non-Christian) Jewish exegetes treating the plural in Genesis 1:26 as literal (which shows that it is far from obvious that the plural is non-literal). Nor is an argument intended along the lines of “these Jewish scholars thought the plural was literal, therefore it must be literal.”
An Argument for a Literal Plural in Genesis 1:26, from the TaNa”Kh
So, if the plural in Genesis 1:26 may or may not be literal, this raises an important question: might there be any textual indicators which can persuade one to lean in favor of it being literal? The answer is that may depend on how far one expands the corpus of text under exploration. If one is looking at Genesis 1:26 in a vacuum, then it is purely open to speculation. However, if one casts a wider net within the traditional text, a different answer may arise. This section of the blog entry will briefly look at the verse within the context of the TaNa”Kh (i.e. the Hebrew Bible recognized by Rabbinic Judaism, the Masoretic Text), and then the next section will take still wider view.
Note that in Genesis 1:2, the rūaḥ elohīm (רוח אלהים), the Spirit of God, is already present at creation. Later on in the corpus, Job 33:4 quotes Elīhū as declaring “the Spirit of God (rūaḥ el [רוח־אל]) made me”. The verb employed there, ᶜasatnī (עשתני), just so happens to be the same verb which is employed in Genesis 1:26, only rendered in the third person singular, perfect tense (with a first person singular pronomial suffix appended). Elsewhere, Psalm 104:30 refers to the participation of God’s rūaḥ in creation.
In short, it may be inferred from these verses that the Spirit of God was present at the beginning of creation, and participated in creation, even in the creation of man. That seems to provide some reason to interpret the plural in Genesis 1:26 as literal.
An Argument for a Literal Plural in Genesis 1:26, from the Christian Bible
Now, if one is willing to move away from limiting themself to just the TaNa”Kh, and look at the larger Christian canon, they would be asked to consider these four points according to the Bible:
- The Father participated in creation (1 Corinthians 8:6).
- The Son participated in creation (John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 1:10).
- The Holy Spirit participated in creation (Job 33:4, Psalms 104:30).
- God acted ALONE in creation (Isaiah 44:24).
The author of this blog entry would propose that those four points, above, provide not only the Biblical scope for understanding Genesis 1:26, but so too the verse which follows, verse 27. Talmūd Bablī, Sanhedrīn 38B, records Rab Yoḥanan arguing that it is significant that the verb create is rendered in the singular in Genesis 1:27 (and much of the Rabbinic literature since has employed that approach when discussing this subject of verse 26).
So Genesis 1:26-27 has God say “let Us make,” in the plural, yet then proceeds to create in the singular, as if alone. For those who are exploring the Christian Bible as a whole, rather than merely speculate about that shift in a vacuum, one can infer from the points above that there are three Persons who participate in create, yet God acts alone in creation. The best reconciliation of those points would be a multipersonal conception of God: the one God ‘comprises’ those three Persons. That provides the best interpretive framework for Genesis 1:26-27, and it entails treating the plural in verse 26 as literal.
A Brief Note on Divine Plurals in the Qur’ān
When the reader turns their attention from the Bible to the Qur’ān, they will find that it seems as though the it is almost universally taken for granted among professed believers in the Qur’ān that the divine plurals therein are non-literal.
However, here is an important question which rarely seems to be asked: what textual indicators, if any, necessitate the conclusion that the divine plurals in the Qur’ān are non-literal? In other words, it is one thing to just dismissively declare those plurals to be non-literal, as if with a wave of the hand, but it is quite another thing to show texts within the Qur’ān itself which might lead one to reach that conclusion. If there are no such indicators within the text, rather one arrives at their position based on extra-Qur’ānic traditions, then, at the very least, one should make that clear.
With that in mind, perhaps the most striking plural in the Qur’ān is found in sūrat al-Waqiᶜa 56:59, where God is quoted as uttering the phrase naḥnu al-khāliqūn (نحن الخالقون), literally “We are the Creators”. At the very least, the verse seems to make room for a fun question: is it permissible, from a Qur’ānic perspective, to refer to God as “the Creators”?
On a more serious note, however, if there are no textual indicators in the Qur’ān necessitating the conclusion that the divine plurals therein are non-literal, and if even noun forms are being rendered in the plural, then perhaps the possibility that said plurals are literal is not so absurd, after all?
If one entertains such a possibility, they are faced with the question of what then to do with the singular constructions the Qur’ān employs in reference to God. In other words, how does one reconcile the singular constructions with literal plurals? One easy answer might be that, from a literalist interpretation, God is singular and yet plural. While that might initially strike the mind as counterintuitive, its reconciliation can be found in a multipersonal conception of God.
(1) Philo, “On Flight and Finding (De Fugo et Inventione),” XIII, 68, in F.H. Colson & G.H. Whitaker (trans.), Philo, Volume V, (Loeb Classic Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 45.
(2) RaSh”Y’s commentary on the verse can be found online here.
(3) While much of the Zohar purports to quote the second century sage Shimᶜon bar Yoḥay, the author of this blog entry is sympathetic to the argument that it is likely a largely medieval corpus (though with portions therein predating Mosheh De Leon).
(5) Adele Berlin & Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 12.
(6) While it is outside the TaNa”Kh, Judith 16:14 may nonetheless also have relevance here.
(7) Note carefully that reference is made to “professed believers in the Qur’ān,” and not simply “Muslims,” as one can attempt to declare a person or group outside of [orthodox] Islām, but such takfīr would not entail that the accused are also outside the spectrum of those who affirm belief in the Qur’ān.
(8) For a rare exception, when limiting the universe of discourse to the western hemisphere, it might be said that, on the subject of divine plurals in the Qur’ān, members of the NOI are among the only scriptural literalists around.