One of the frequent questions readers of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives ask me is, “If Jewish tradition insists that there is only ONE God, why does the Story of Creation in Genesis use the plural “us” when referring to God?”
Since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is rapidly approaching, celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world; it is a good time to address this important question. Those who raise it may not realize that rabbis who lived nearly 2000 years ago also pondered that apparent contradiction between Jewish theology and the biblical text.
Our Sages of that period were acutely aware that the early Fathers of the Christian Church saw the verse in question and the word “us” in particular as a proof text for the Divinity of Jesus. For the Church, Jesus was with God at the beginning of the world. For the rabbis, of course, and for Jews to this day, he was not.
For the rabbis, Jesus is not God. So they sought—and sometimes stretched for—other answers to the question: with whom did God counsel when the Eternal One said, “Let us make humanity in our image?”
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani suggested that God consulted the previously created works of heaven and earth. From this idea, our Sages taught, we learn humility. If God would consult the mosquito before engaging in the most important creative act of all, should we too not be humble enough to learn from others whose station in life may be lower than ours? Rabbi Ammi offered the opinion that God consulted the Divine heart before creating human beings. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:3)
Another suggestion is that God took the quality of mercy as the Divine associate when creating human beings. According to the Midrash, God wondered whether it was wise to create human beings or not. The rabbis pictured God pondering: If I create humans, wicked people will spring from them; but if I do not, how will righteous people come into the world? Ultimately God disregards the wicked offspring, takes mercy as a partner and proceeds. (Bereshit Rabbah 8:5)
The Sages postulated several other possible answers as to what “us” means in the creation story. The ministering angels (yes our Sages spoke often about angels), the souls of future righteous people, and the Torah are among the suggestions.
To me, though, it is clear that the rabbis were trying to say: The word “us” in the Story of Creation can mean almost anything one may imagine with one exception. It does not refer to Jesus.
In those days mutual antipathy and scorn marked the relationship between the Jewish Sages and the early Fathers of the Christian church. Today I pray that we can all understand and accept that Christians and Jews see Jesus differently. Can we learn at last not only to tolerate but also to respect and even affirm those differences?
Note: Midrash is a generic term for Jewish stories and teachings which expound upon or explain the meaning of biblical verses.
Bereshit Rabbah is a collection of midrashim (plural of Midrash) on the book of Genesis. Its origins might stem from the third century CE although most scholars believe its final editing occurred much later.