Creation in Genesis 1-3 (Part 4–The Heavenly Council)

Genesis 1.26-27 (NRSV) reads:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

When God proposes here in the plural to create man in his image, with whom is he talking? And with whom is God discussing when he says in later Genesis 3.22 (NRSV),”Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’”?

As biblical scholars such as Marc Brettler, Michael Coogan, and John Day have persuasively argued, this is yet another reference to the divine council in the Hebrew Bible. As Harvard’s Jon Levenson states:

“It is true—and quite significant–that the God of Israel has no myth of origin. Not a trace of theogony can be found in the Hebrew bible. God has no nativity. But there do seem to be other divine beings in Genesis 1, to whom God proposes the creation of humanity, male and female together: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (v. 26). When were these other divine beings created? They too seem to have been primordial. Whether their existence should be interpreted as a qualification upon God’s mastery in Genesis is impossible to determine. Because they do not dissent from his proposal to create humanity in his and their image, we cannot say whether God’s authority, like Marduk’s, involved some element of collegiality. From other biblical accounts of the divine assembly in session, it would appear that these “sons of God/gods” played an active roles and made fresh proposals to God, who nonetheless retained the final say.”[1]

A typical traditional interpretation of these passages is that God is using the “royal we.”  However, this is quite unlikely, as such usage is seemingly unattested with verbs elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible; moreover, the plural style here fits perfectly with other explicit references to the divine council in session, such as Isaiah 6, Job 1-2, and 1 Kings 22.19-23.[2]  For instance, 1 Kings 22.19-20a (NRSV) states, “Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?”.  Additionally, other biblical texts explicitly mention the divine council’s presence during the creation of the earth.  For example, Job 38.4-7 (NRSV) declares:

“‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Thus, it should be noted that the divine council’s presence during the creation narrative of Genesis 1.1-2.4a additionally strengthens the argument that creation ex nihilo is not being described in Genesis 1, since the existence of the deities who comprise the council, like that of the God of Israel himself, precedes any act of creation in the narrative.

[1] Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 5.

[2] Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-43.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Creation in Genesis 1-3 (Part 4–The Heavenly Council)

  1. Just a second shout out for Levenson’s book. I mention it all the time but it really should be on every Mormon’s bookshelf who is interested in the OT.

  2. anonymous

    I’m enjoying this series. Thanks for working it up. Last year, I began a more in-depth study of the OT than I had undertaken before. It was early in this process that I investigated the documentary hypothesis and learned more about the possible role of the Deuteronomists in shaping our present text. At that point, I abandoned my OT study because I felt I knew enough about the OT as background to the NT, and a more complete study could not be justified at a lay level if I couldn’t trust the texts. I realize that this is not the subject of the current post, but it is related to the series, so I would appreciate your insights.

  3. Anon,

    I guess I don’t really understand your question(s). Could you clarify a little more for me? Thanks.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  4. anonymous

    Agreeing 1) that the OT is valuable as background to the NT, and 2) that the OT has some literary/cultural value, what is the religious value of the OT if the texts can’t be trusted?

  5. Nitsav

    Can you elaborate on what and why the text is untrustworthy? Spell it out for us, walk us through your thinking…

  6. anonymous

    I don’t have the time or the ability to provide meaningful documentation of my issues, but in summary they are these: 1) The documentary hypothesis, if true, seems to indicate that the available texts of the Pentateuch have been cobbled together by some unknown person(s) in ways that obscure access to the original or “true” text; 2) if the Deuteronomists really did edit the texts and even create texts to support their particular views on the Messiah, etc., how can a lay person have confidence in what they left us?

  7. Anon, that is why you have the higher critic to hold your hand and lead you through the documentary rubble.

  8. Todd,
    That is unfair. Documentary critics were just discussing what made the most rational sense to them. It was not a ploy on their part to keep their jobs (quite a few of the early ones lost jobs over it). A similar accusation could be made of Christian ministers who come onto Mormon websites to defend their version of Christianity, you know. It assumes ill will on the other party.

    That comment was beneath you, Todd.

  9. Well, John, I would say that defending truth is worth losing one’s job and status within a community. And in heeding your comment, I will refrain from further sarcasm.

    YD, is this the fourth actual post on this topic? I would like to read through all of them again in sequence so that I am not just playing hit and miss or run and gun. I hope to link them in order for a post on my blog, coupling them with Blake’s first chapter of his third book. Ok?

  10. anonymous

    Todd, is your contention that a person of faith should just ignore the documentary hypothesis and the possible revision of the texts by Deuteronomists? If so, would your position be to ignore anything that challenged the traditional view of the texts? Further, would you argue that to be faithful, LDS should avoid/ignore textual analyses of their scriptures, too?

  11. Todd,

    If you click on my name on the right side of the blog you can see all the posts I have done so far, including those in this series (I believe that there have been five installments in this particular series so far, and I intend for three more). Moreover, the foundations of the future posts can be read at my other blog. I don’t care if you want to link to these posts.

    TYD

  12. Anon, if Joseph Smith were alive today, I would imagine that he would not be using the KJV or traditional LDS views or prevalent textual scholarship. He would be charting a brand new course. (Well, actually nothing is really new under the sun.)

    Thanks, YD. I will look around.

  13. Todd:

    This is your standard operating procedure — you have not addressed the point about the Deuteronomists. I have not seen you give a direct answer when people pose you anon’s question: are we simply to ignore the scholarship surrounding the Deuteronomists and their role in editing/changing/obscuring the text and religion from their/its earlier forms?

    Where does your view of a sufficient, inerrant Bible actually come from? I understand that the existence and role of the Deuteronomists, as highlighted by critics/scholars involved with the Documentary Hypothesis, are potentially very damaging to many of your core beliefs. But it would be nice to see a direct answer from you to questions such as those posed by anon above.