Does Elohim foreshadow the Trinity in Genesis 1?

The age-old riddle—“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”—is no mystery for the Christian. Biblically speaking, the answer is unequivocally: “the chicken” (cf. Genesis 1:24; 2:19). A more difficult question to answer, however, is whether the word for “God” (singular) or “gods” (plural) in the Hebrew Bible, i.e., Elohim, may be interpreted as a legitimate foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament.

In his book From Exegesis to Exposition, Robert Chisholm denies any hint of a Trinitarian interpretation for the plural noun Elohim:[1]

The grammatically plural name אֱלֹהִים [Elohim] when it refers to the God of Israel, is a plural of respect. (The plural of respect is sometimes used idiomatically for individual pagan deities as well.) When the form is used as a numerical plural, it refers to the pagan gods or, in some cases, to lesser members of God’s heavenly assembly (beings known to us as “angels”). When the plural is one of respect, then it is improper to argue, as many have done, that the form hints at a plurality of persons within the Godhead and thus foreshadows in some cryptic way the doctrine of the Trinity.

When lexicographers (i.e., those scholars who write dictionaries/lexicons) define the various glosses (i.e., definitions or meanings) for a particular word, they always look at the referent within the context of the passage in order to dictate which meanings are applicable. So, for example, when it comes to the word Elohim in Genesis 1, even though it is parsed as a masculine plural noun, it is translated as singular “God” instead of “gods.” This is similar to the example found in Judges 19:26 where it literally reads “her lords” (masculine plural noun), but the context clearly demands that it be translated “her lord” (masculine singular noun), referring to the concubine’s Levite master. Again, this is a clear example of a plural word referring to one person as a “plural of respect” (honor or majesty).

However, from a canonical (or “biblical-theological”) perspective, a valid case can be made that the word Elohim may be taken in a Trinitarian manner because God is the “referent” in Genesis 1. How is this possible? There are two guiding principles that must be taken a priori:

  1. We must begin with the premise that God, the Holy Spirit, is the “primary author” of Scripture who used divinely inspired men as “secondary agents” to record divine revelation (cf. 2 Peter 1:21). Thus, Moses may not have been aware of a Trinitarian sensus plenior (i.e., “the fuller meaning”) as he employed the word Elohim, but this ought not detract from the fact that it is God’s “authorial intention” from which the meaning of the Scriptures is ultimately derived.[2]
  2. Where the New Testament addresses Old Testament texts either explicit or implicitly, the New Testament is the divinely inspired and authoritative interpretation of the Old Testament.

If one were to compare New Testament texts such as John 1:1-3 and Colossians 1:15-18 with Genesis 1, there are unequivocal justifications toward legitimizing a Trinitarian interpretation. For example, in Genesis 1, the Father speaks the fiat commands from heaven, while the Holy Spirit is “moving over the surface of the waters” in Genesis 1:2. Where is Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, in Genesis 1? He is the “Word” or Logos (John 1:1), and it was He, the pre-incarnate Christ, who created the “heavens and the earth” both visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16).[3]

Additionally, in passages where the honorific sense of a “plural of respect” occurs, as in Judges 19, the pronouns that refer to the Levite do not refer to him as a plurality, i.e., the text does not use the third-person plural pronoun (“us,” “we”). However, in Genesis 1:26; 3:22; and 11:7, the third-person plural pronoun is used in direct address, where God speaks of Himself as a plurality. Interestingly, Elohim is also addressed by the narrator in the third-person singular (i.e., “He”) in Genesis 1:4, 5, 10, 16, 27, 31; 2:2, 3. There is an unambiguous dynamic or tension here in Genesis 1-2:3: Elohim is both plural (“Us”) and singular (“He”). Eugene Merrill notes, “Since the subject is ’ělohîm [in Genesis 1:26] it is clear that God, who normally is perceived to be singular, is here at least cast in the plural not only grammatically but functionally.”[4]

Furthermore, because Elohim, as the referent of the “plural of respect” in Genesis 1, refers to none other than the Triune God, it is fitting that Christian theologians should either add a sub-point to the “plural of respect” category or include another use of the plural noun and designate it specifically for the word Elohim alone. This may be justified, because biblical texts that address a man (such as the Levite in Judges 19) as “lord” in the plural are completely different from those that address God, Elohim, as a plurality, especially in the biblical-theological sense of the one God who exists as a plurality of Persons. Therefore, while it is true that the “plurality of respect” is a valid syntactical category, the explicit Christian use of the plural word Elohim, as it pertains to God alone, should be a Trinitarian one. Victor Hamilton fittingly asserts,

It is one thing to say that the author of Gen. 1 was not schooled in the intricacies of Christian dogma. It is another thing to say he was theologically too primitive or naïve to handle such ideas as plurality within unity. What we often so blithely dismiss as “foreign to the thought of the OT” may be nothing of the sort. True, the concept may not be etched on every page of Scripture, but hints and clues are dropped enticingly here and there, and such hints await their full understanding “at the correct time” (Gal. 4:4).[5]

[1] Robert B. Chisholm, From Exegesis to Exposition: A Practical Guide to Using Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 59.
[2] C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 61.
[3] Cf. Geerhardus J. Vos, Reformed Dogmatics: Theology Proper (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), Kindle Locations 3219-3240.
[4] Eugene Merrill, “Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Implied in the Genesis Creation Account?: Yes,” The Genesis Debate, edited by R.F. Youngblood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), 120-1.
[5] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 134.