See Who is God speaking to in Genesis 1:26? That answer deals more simply with these two verses:
Gen 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Gen 3:22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—”
Those two verses are almost unique in the Bible in that God talks to “us” and about “us”, but it is not clear who the “us” is. There is no doubt that the word is in fact plural, since it is used again in Gen.11:
Gen 11:4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
Gen 11:7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Then after this, after the mixing of languages, the “let us” language of God never occurs again in the Old Testament. This has led some to speculate that the original record Gen.1-11 was written in a language other than Hebrew and the “let us” is a grammatical equivalent of “let me” or “I” in the original text, but this does not greatly help answer our question. As it stands, in Hebrew, “let us” and “like one of us” are clearly plural.
The common suggestions are:
- God was speaking to Christ (or the other two persons of the Trinity)
- God was speaking to angels
- God was speaking to ‘sons of god’, a heavenly court
- God was speaking to himself.
All of these explanations share one common problem: they do not explain what is different about Gen 1, 3, 11 that the “let us” and “like one of us” language never occurs again. Then each has its own specific problems:
- God was speaking to Christ
But this is clearly reading 3rd and 4th Century Christian ideas back into Genesis. Luke 2:40, 2:52 shows no sign of Christ having ever consciously been present with God before birth, but says that the infant Jesus “increased in wisdom”, which rules out that the infant Jesus would “know good and evil” before he was even born. Hebrews 5:7 says that he “learned obedience” from what he suffered. So to make Gen.3:22 about Christ effectively turns the whole of the New Testament into a charade with a being who already “knew good and evil” pretending to be a baby, pretending to be tempted, and so on.
- God was speaking to angels
This has something to recommend it, and is the traditional view among Jewish rabbis. The Jews generally viewed the angels as being created some time prior to the sixth day and therefore able to, in some sense, participate as observers in the creation of Adam. The major problem with this view however is that there is no sign in the Bible that the angels do “know good and evil”, which may imply free-will, whereas angels are only ministering spirits (Heb.1:14). The testimony of Eliphaz (Job 4:18) can be ignored (Job 4:27).There is some confusion here among Victorian commentators who sometimes misread that God (elohim) was talking to angels (elohim), and explained the verse in this way. Unfortunately that is based on two mistakes. Firstly elohim is one of several -im nouns in Hebrew where plurality is determined by the verb, elohim with singular verb (as translated “God made” in Mark 10:6 etc.) just means “God said”, whether “God said” to man, angels, whoever. Secondly if God was talking to angels then that would be Hebrew malakim not elohim. The identification of “angels” as a possible meaning of elohim in some 19thC lexicons is based on comparing Heb.2:7,9 with Ps.8:5. See this answer for further explanation.
- God was speaking to a heavenly court
This idea is partly informed by critical scholarship, in particular those critical scholars that see the Old Testament as influenced by Canaanite mythology, rather than the reverse. This is not a view that is consistent with the inspiration of the Bible, or the idea that Canaanite myths are a departure from the truth about One God — not the other way round.On the other hand, the idea of a divine court is occasionally found in the Bible as figurative language (such as the prologue to Job) and the descent of a divine court on the Tower of Babel is consistent as a judgement of God on what was presumably a polytheistic temple or ziggurat of some sort. This idea helps explain Gen.11:7, and helps explain why after the destruction of Babel such “let us” language is not used again, but does not help explain the reason for Gen.1:26, 3:22.
- God was speaking to himself
An answer suggested by some Hebrew grammarians is that this language is a form of reflection, contemplation by God before an action. Although this idea is still actually dependent on a combination or the angels and heavenly court ideas, since such royal “we” does not occur without a collective audience — either of heavenly courtiers or of angels – even if in this case the “let us”, never assumes that “we” will work together.
It would be foolish to pretend that there is a clear conclusion to this question. Jewish rabbis have puzzled over the verses for thousands of years. However there is more evidence in favour of a group of “like us” than the rather simplistic “God was talking to Jesus” reading common among those looking for evidence for a literal preexistent Jesus in the Old Testament. The inadequacy of such an answer is illustrated by the context of who actually is described as the agent (the doer) in these verses:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Note that the plural “in our image” has in practice, when moving from the saying to the doing, become singular “in his image”. The same is true in Gen.11, the plural saying “let us go down” in the doing becomes “the Lord (singular) came down”.
Gen.11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
Ultimately, we end up relying on the New Testament words of Jesus:
Mark 10:6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’
Not “my Father and I”, not “we made them male and female”, but “God made them male and female”, and it is from this male and female that Christ, the son of man, son of Abraham, son of David, too was born.