Evangelical Scholarship’s Struggle With OT Proofs For the Trinity

In this post, I am going cite the textual notes of the New English Translation (NET) of the Holy Bible in relation to specific Old Testament (OT) references, where the scholars acknowledge that the Hebrew Bible employs plural pronouns, verbs, adjectives, participles, etc., for one true God. Yet instead of admitting that these hint at the Triunity of God, serving as an OT basis for the revelation of God existing as a multi-Personal Being, these Evangelicals offer other reasons in explaining why the inspired authors employed such plurals to describe the true God.

It is apparent why they do so since they do not want to disturb academia, particularly liberal scholarship, which frowns upon anyone who would dare to establish the foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity from the OT writings. To these scholars, the Trinity is not even an explicitly New Testament (NT) teaching, let alone a revelation that can be solidly anchored in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, if we set aside these liberal assumptions and simply let the God-breathed Scriptures speak for themselves then these examples of where plural pronouns, verbs, participles, etc., which are used in relation to the true God are just one of many lines of evidence showing that the later, more fuller revelation of God’s Triunity is based on the sound exegesis of the OT.

With that said I now present the NET’s text notes which affirm that God is often spoken of as being a plural Entity, even though the scholars and translators of this specific version seek to explain this phenomenon away by offering other interpretations of why the inspired authors used such plurals for the one true God.

GENESIS 1:26-27

“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.”

sn The plural form of the verb has been the subject of much discussion through the years, and not surprisingly several suggestions have been put forward. Many Christian theologians interpret it as an early hint of plurality within the Godhead, but this view imposes later trinitarian concepts on the ancient text. Some have suggested the plural verb indicates majesty, but the plural of majesty is not used with verbs. C. Westermann (Genesis, 1:145) argues for a plural of “deliberation” here, but his proposed examples of this use (2 Sam 24:14; Isa 6:8) do not actually support his theory. In 2 Sam 24:14 David uses the plural as representative of all Israel, and in Isa 6:8 the Lord speaks on behalf of his heavenly court. In its ancient Israelite context the plural is most naturally understood as referring to God and his heavenly court (see 1 Kgs 22:19-22; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Isa 6:1-8). (The most well-known members of this court are God’s messengers, or angels. In Gen 3:5 the serpent may refer to this group as “gods/divine beings.” See the note on the word “evil” in 3:5.) If this is the case, God invites the heavenly court to participate at the creation of humankind (perhaps in the role of offering praise, see Job 38:7), but he himself is the one who does the actual creative work (v. 27). Of course, this view does assume that the members of the heavenly court possess the divine “image” in some way. Since the image is closely associated with rulership, perhaps they share the divine image in that they, together with God and under his royal authority, are the executive authority over the world. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+1; underline emphasis mine)

GENESIS 3:5, 22

“for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing (kelohim yodae) good and evil.’… 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 forever’—”

tn Or “like divine beings who know.” It is unclear how THE PLURAL PARTICIPLE participle translated “knowing” is functioning. On the one hand, יֹדְעֵי (yodʿe) could be taken as a substantival participle functioning as a predicative adjective in the sentence. In this case one might translate: “You will be, like God himself, knowers of good and evil.” On the other hand, it could be taken as an attributive adjective modifying אֱלֹהִים (ʾelohim). In this case אֱלֹהִים has to be taken as a numerical plural referring to “gods,” meaning “divine or heavenly beings,” because if the one true God were the intended referent, a singular form of the participle would appear as a modifier. Following this line of interpretation, one could translate, “You will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” The following context may support this translation, for in 3:22 God says to an unidentified group, “Look, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” It is possible that God is addressing his heavenly court (see the note on the word “make” in 1:26), the members of which can be called “gods” or “divine/heavenly beings” from the ancient Israelite perspective (cf. KJV, NAB, JPS). (We know some of these beings as messengers or “angels.”) An examination of parallel constructions shows that a predicative understanding (“you will be, like God himself, knowers of good and evil,”) is possible (see Gen 27:23, where “hairy” is predicative, complementing the verb “to be”). Other evidence suggests that the participle is attributive, modifying “divine/heavenly beings” (see Ps 31:12; Isa 1:30; 13:14; 16:2; 29:5; 58:11; Jer 14:9; 20:9; 23:9; 31:12; 48:41; 49:22; Hos 7:11; Amos 4:11). In all of these texts, where a comparative clause and accompanying adjective/participle follow a copulative (“to be”) verb, the adjective/participle is attributive after the noun in the comparative clause. The translation of “God,” though, is supported by how אֱלֹהִים (ʾelohim) is used in the surrounding context where it always refers to the true God and many translations take it this way (cf. NIV, TNIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, HCSB, NLT, NASB, REB, and NKJV). In this interpretation the plural participle refers to Adam and Eve. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+3; capital and underline emphasis mine)

GENESIS 11:7-8

“‘Come, let US go down (neradah), and confuse (wanabalah) their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”

tn The cohortatives mirror the cohortatives of the people. They build to ascend the heavens; God comes down to destroy their language. God speaks here to his angelic assembly. See the notes on the word “make” in 1:26 and “know” in 3:5, as well as Jub. 10:22-23, where an angel recounts this incident and says “And the Lord our God said to us…. And the Lord went down and we went down with him. And we saw the city and the tower which the sons of men built.” On the chiastic structure of the story, see G. J. Wenham, Genesis (WBC), 1:235. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+11; underline emphasis mine)

GENESIS 20:13

“And when God caused me to wander (hitu oti elohim) from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”

tn The Hebrew verb is plural. This may be a case of grammatical agreement with the name for God, which is plural in form. However, when this plural name refers to the one true God, accompanying predicates are usually singular in form. Perhaps Abraham is accommodating his speech to Abimelech’s polytheistic perspective. (See GKC 463 §145.i.) If so, one should translate, “when THE GODS made me wander.” (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+20; capital and underline emphasis mine)

GENESIS 35:7

“and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because it was there that God had revealed himself (elohim niglu) to him when he fled from his brother.”

19 tn Heb “revealed themselves.” The verb נִגְלוּ (niglu), translated “revealed himself,” is plural, even though one expects the singular form with the plural of majesty. Perhaps אֱלֹהִים (ʾelohim) is here a numerical plural, referring both to God and the angelic beings that appeared to Jacob. See the note on the word “know” in Gen 3:5. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+35; underline emphasis mine)

JOSHUA 24:19

“But Joshua said to the people, ‘You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God (YHVH ki elohim qadoshim hu). He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.’”

tn In the Hebrew text both the divine name (אֱלֹהִים, ʾelohim) and the adjective (קְדֹשִׁים, qdoshim, “holy”) are plural. Normally the divine name, when referring to the one true God, takes singular modifiers, but this is a rare exception where the adjective agrees grammatically with the honorific plural noun. See GKC §124.i and IBHS 122. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Joshua+24; underline emphasis mine)

2 SAMUEL 7:23

“Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went (haleku elohim) to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods?”

tn The verb is plural in Hebrew, agreeing grammatically with the divine name, which is a plural of degree. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/2+Samuel+7; underline emphasis mine)

PSALM 58:11

“People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges (elohim shophetim) on earth.’”

 29 tn The plural participle is unusual here if the preceding אֱלֹהִים (ʾelohim) is here a plural of majesty, referring to the one true God. Occasionally the plural of majesty does take a plural attributive (see GKC 428-29 §132.h). It is possible that the final mem (ם) on the participle is enclitic, and that it was later misunderstood as a plural ending. Another option is to translate, “Yes indeed, THERE ARE GODS who judge in the earth.” In this case, the statement reflects the polytheistic mindset of pagan observers who, despite their theological ignorance, nevertheless recognize divine retribution when they see it. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Psalms+58; capital and underline emphasis mine)

PROVERBS 30:3-4

“I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the holy ones (qadoshim). Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is the person’s name? And what is the name of the person’s child? Surely you know!”

tn The epithet “the Holy One” is the adjective “holy” put in the masculine plural (as in 9:10). This will harmonize with the plural of majesty used to explain the plural with titles for God. However, NRSV takes the plural as a reference to the “holy ones,” presumably referring to angelic beings.

sn The reference to “son” in this passage has prompted many suggestions down through the years: It was identified as Israel in the Jewish Midrashim, the Logos or demiurge by some of the philosophers and allegorical writers, as simple poetic parallelism without a separate identity by some critical scholars, and as Jesus by Christian commentators. Parallels with Ugaritic are interesting because Baal is referred to as a son, but that is bound up within the pantheon where there was a father god. Some of the Jewish commentators exhibit a strange logic in expressing what Christians would say is only their blindness to the full revelation: There is little cogency in this being a reference to Jesus because if there had been such a person at any time in the past he would have left some tradition about it through his descendants (J. H. Greenstone, Proverbs, 317). But Judaism has taught from THE EARLIEST TIMES that Messiah was preexistent (especially in view of Micah 5 and Daniel 7); and the claims of Jesus in the Gospels bear this out. It seems best to say that there is a hint here of the nature of the Messiah as Son, a hint that will later be revealed in full through the incarnation. (NET https://netbible.org/bible/Proverbs+30; capital and underline emphasis mine)

It is refreshing to see the translators’ willingness to acknowledge that v. 4 does hint at the divine prehuman existence of the Messiah as God’s Son, even though they fail to appreciate how the plural adjective qadoshim in v. 3 is specifically employed because the verse that immediately follows speaks of two divine Holy Ones, namely God and his Son.

All scriptural citations taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Holy Bible.

Further Reading

The OT Evidence for God’s Uni-Plurality

Anti-Trinitarians agree that the reason why God in the OT referred to Himself in the plural is because He was speaking with his Divine Son!

The Trinity in Genesis 3:5 and 22

OT Proof That Echad Does Not Point to God Being Uni-Personal

The Early Church’s Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible’s Use of Plural Pronouns for God

Does the word Elohim in Genesis 1 point to God’s Triunity?

 

 

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