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In the creation account in Genesis, God says, “Let us make man in our image” (1:26). Who is God speaking to? Doesn’t this verse imply that man had more than one Creator – that God created man with the help of someone else? I was recently speaking with a Christian friend who used this passage to support the idea of the Trinity, and I really didn’t know how to respond. Is there an alternate way the verse can be understood?
Thank you for your very important question. There are several approaches to understanding that verse. But even before I quote them, it’s significant to look ahead at the very next verse – which states, “And God created man in His image.” In actuality, a single God created man, without outside help. It is thus clear that whoever God was addressing in the previous verse did not assist Him in man’s creation. As the Talmud puts it, “Wherever the heretics misinterpreted, their refutation can be found right next to it” (Sanhedrin 38b).
Being that only a single God created man, whom was He addressing when He said “Let us make man?” And what purpose did addressing him (or them) serve? The commentators offer three approaches.
(1) God was talking to the angels and taking counsel from them, asking for their input. Why did an infinite God require anyone else’s advice? The commentator Rashi explains based on the Midrash that it was an act of humility. Since man in some ways resembles the angels, they might feel jealous that such a lofty creature resides upon Earth. God thus took their opinion into account and conferred with them beforehand. As Rashi continues, this teaches an important lesson in humility – that the superior should always seek the advice of his underlings before making a decision which impacts upon them (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:7, Rashi, Targum Yonatan).
(2) God was addressing the earth – instructing it to bring forth man's body. “Let us” implies that both God and the earth would create man – the earth would produce man's body (in a process obviously controlled by God), and God would directly breathe in man's soul (Nachmanides).
(3) God was addressing all of creation, asking each part to contribute its various strengths and qualities to man's creation – for man is the pinnacle of God's creation and contains the elements of everything within him (Vilna Gaon).
There is a beautiful ethical lesson contained in this. When God dictated the Torah to Moses, there were two ways He could have stated the verse: “Let Me make man” or “Let us make man.” The first version would have made it clearer there is a single God, while the second conveyed a lesson in humility – as we stated above that the superior should take the opinions of his servants seriously. God opted to do the second. And as we’ll see, this wasn’t just a matter of caring more about ethics than theology.
In fact, ethical behavior is a far greater guarantee that a person will be a believing soul than theology. If the Torah trains us to be moral human beings, we will be much more conditioned and willing to accept God and His Torah – even if there are always various nitpicky verses which are difficult to interpret. If, however, we are not ethical human beings, we will always look for a way out no matter how carefully the Torah attempts to spell out Jewish philosophy for us. Thus, in “Let us make man,” God opted to focus on ethics. If we are good human beings, there is hope we will live up to the Torah and its ideals (Sifsei Chaim. Mo’adim I pp. 185-6).