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Why does the text in B'reishit refer to God in the plural?

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Throughout Parshat B'reishit, Hashem (God) is referred to in the plural multiple times. This includes in B'reishit 1:26:

ויאמר אל-קים נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו...

And God said: We will make a man in our form and our likeness...

Or in 3:22:

ויאמר ה' אל-קים הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו לדעת טוב ורע ועתה פן ישלח ידו ולקח גם מעץ החיים ואכל וחי לעלם

And God said: Now the man is like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he cast his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and live forever.
(both translations my own)

There's also the fact that "Elokim" (in its non-censored form) is in itself plural; in other contexts, it means "gods" plural, and the -ים suffix is... plural.

So why does the text repeatedly refer to God in the plural throughout especially Parshat B'reishit (and less so in other parts of the Torah)?

Why should this post be closed?

2 comments

You have 2 separate questions here -- one is why the creation narrative says "let us" (https://www.etzion.org.il/en/let-us-make-man) and whether the word "Elokim" is actually a plural (https://outreachjudaism.org/elohim-plural/) ‭rosends‭ 11 days ago

See Rabeinu Bechaya on first verse ‭Dr. Shmuel‭ 9 days ago

2 answers

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Hebrew uses the plural form of a word to indicate majesty and high status. For example, when speaking of a slave's owner it uses the term בעלים rather than the singular form בעל. Thus the use of the plural form in the noun does not imply a multiple or plural being. As an example we see from the very beginning in Bereishis 1:1 that the Torah begins בראשית ברא using the singular verb to show that the term of the subject is singular. This is similar to the way in which a king refers to himself as We, the majestic plural.

As far as Bereishis 1:26 Rav Hirsch points out that the announcement of the imminent creation of Man is actually stating that instead of just another creation, Man is going to be the ruler and purpose of the creation. as Rav Hirsch says:

All other creatures are introduced only with their creation, at Man, creation halts to proclaim to the world which is already created the intention to make a "Man", an "Adam". For this "Adam" is to enter the created world as appointed by Hawshem to be its ruler and master. This world is prepared for the entrance of its lord. In this sense the plural נעשה be understood. The use of the "Pluralis Majestatis" with which human sovereigns proclaim their will to their subjects probably has its origin in the idea that the ruler is not issuing orders from the standpoint of his own individual will, in his own personal interests, but that he only looks upn himself as being at one with his people, and the orders and decisions are only made from the point of view of the general interest, and for the general well being and happiness. It is only as representative of the people that the King rules over them. In the same way that the Creator announces to the world the appointment of its master equally in its own interest, out of consideration of the purpose for which it exists.

Rav Hirsch continues

The "Pluralis Majestatus" occurs in the speeches of Hashem in those cases where that, which on the surface appears to be a restricting, disturbing, interference, is meant to be understood as being in reality something which is happiness-bringing, rescuing and necessary.

Rav Hirsch on Bereishis 3:22 says that אחד ממנו does not mean as one of us. He translates this pasuk as

So Man has become according to one of them, to know for himself what is good and bad

That is, Man has been faced with two possibilities in order to exist. He has chosen to take one of those two possibilities and has established that as part of creation.

Hashem had left it for him to decide, of his own free will, whether he would defer to the Will of Hashem in determining what was good, what bad, and thereby tread the path of life, or decide himself what was good or evil and thereby have to be fated to death.

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The two passages you cite place the plural in God's mouth (God says "let us make..." and "like one of us" etc). I realize your question is more general, but I'm going to focus here on God's use of the plural.

The predominant explanation is that God is addressing other (non-godly) beings, though some say God is speaking with Himself (like one does when considering both sides of a dilemma). In Bereishit Rabbah 8:3 Rabbis Yehoshua ben Levi and Shimon ben Nachman say that God is consulting the rest of creation, like a king who consults advisors.1 R. Ammi says God is consulting His own heart. On 8:4 R. Berekiah seems to say that God refers to mercy personified (God infuses man with mercy as part of creation, he says).

In 8:5 R. Shimon reports an argument among the ministering angels about whether man should be created. Sanhedrin 38b also addresses this idea; R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav that when God wanted to create man, He first created a company of ministering angels and then said to them "is it your desire that we make man in our image?".

Why would God consult anyone? B'reishit Rabbah 8:8 offers this (quoted from the Soncino translation):

R. Samuel b. Nahman said in R. Jonathan's name: When Moses was engaged in writing the Torah, he had to write the work of each day. When he came to the verse, AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN, etc., he said: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why dost Thou furnish an excuse to heretics?’ ‘Write,’ replied He; ' Whoever wishes to err may err.’ ' Moses,’ said the Lord to him, ‘this man that I have created -- do I not cause men both great and small to spring from Him? Now if a great man comes to obtain permission [for a proposed action] from one that is less than he, he may say, " Why should I ask permission from my inferior!" Then they will answer him, " Learn from thy Creator, who created all that is above and below, yet when He came to create man He took counsel with the ministering angels.’"

Conclusion: God created all things and is the sole ruler of the universe. But that doesn't mean that God didn't create and interact with lesser heavenly beings (a heavenly court), just like He would later interact with earthly beings, and according to R. Shmuel He had an intentional educational purpose in doing so.

The text sometimes uses a plural-form word to refer to God (usually with singular-form verbs), which is a broader question, but God does not refer to other gods when using the plural.

Further reading: In compiling this answer I made significant use of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (English: The Book of Legends), compiled by Hayim Nachman Bialek and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, along with the sources I cited previously.

  1. From this point Sefaria lacks English translations and I am relying on an offline translation by Soncino.

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