2022-11-19

When God Created Humans, then Retired: Genesis 1 as Science — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 5c]

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by Neil Godfrey

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image [LXX εικόνα], according to our likeness [LXX όμοίωσιν]; 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 [LXX εικόνα], in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)

Thanks to Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group for the review copy.

RG focuses on two interesting details here.

1. Whereas plants, sea creatures, land animals are made “after their own kind”, mankind is made in the likeness of the gods — made in the genus of God.

In Gen 1:26 the Septuagint renders … “in our image according to our likeness” with …. “according to our image and according to [our] likeness”,. . . using the double κατά (“according to”) . . . . The κατά phrases . . . echo the phrase κατά γένος (“according to [its] kind”) of the preceding verses, suggesting more strongly than in the Hebrew that humankind belongs to the γένος [=race, genus] of God, or, at least, highlighting the contrast with the animals more strongly than in the Hebrew. (Loader, 27f)

2. In creating mankind we read God for the first time saying “Let us…”, that is, “Let us make man in our image.”

The language employed here, which points to some form of gathering of the gods, who state their intention to create humans in their image, implicitly recognizes older, polytheistic traditions. The announcement of their collective decision to make humankind suggests the divine council as narrative context (Westermann 1984: 144). Creation in the divine image is distantly reminiscent of Mesopotamian regnal imagery, where the king was created in a god’s image . . . , but here it was all of humanity that was created in the image of the gods. It is likely that both male and female gods were here envisioned, since humans were created “in the image of the Elohim… male and female” (Gen 1:27). (Gmirkin, 136)

“Let US . . .

Various attempts have been made to explain God saying: “Let us….”. Westermann (cited by RG) believes the most economical explanation is that “Let us” implies a council of gods involved in the decision to create humans. Compelled to find out what was behind that interpretation I turned to Westermann who cited Schmidt and Schmidt, it turned out, said everything Westermann said except in German. (The price one sometimes pays just to be sure!) — Here is a synopsis of Schmidt’s (Westermann’s) argument:

Is it the Trinity speaking?

An early church view was that God was speaking as the Trinity. There is nothing else in Genesis to suggest the Trinity so we can put that view aside.

RG in another forum discounted the “plural of majesty” explanation:

I did a pretty thorough independent research on that whole “plural of majesty” thing. This theory was first put forward, as near as I can discover, after the time of Elizabeth I, who famously started the English custom of monarchs referring to themselves as “we”. I can find no evidence that this was earlier put forward as an explanation of Elohim, and no evidence of any ancient god in the Mediterranean or Ancient Near Eastern world in any language referring to themselves in the plural. I haven’t found other academics who have undertaken a similar study on the history of scholarship on this topic, so don’t cite me as a source, since there’s always the chance that I missed something. . . . .

Esther 8.8 allegedly has Ahasuareus refer to himself in the third person, but I don’t read it that way. In any case that is different from referring to himself in the plural (which I can’t find anywhere in Esther or elsewhere of a king or god in the biblical text). . . .

Is it a plural of majesty?

Another is that we have a “plural of majesty” … as in the monarch saying “we” where lesser mortals would simply say “I”. Exegetes who have worked on the view that Genesis was written very early have discounted that possibility because a clear instance of a “plural of majesty” only appears elsewhere for the first time in the mouth of the Persian king in the Book of Esther. (RG, though, does argue for a post-Persian era composition of Genesis.)

Is it a council of gods?

Note that God is found speaking of “us” in other books of the Old Testament whenever he is in a council with other divine beings. [See the insert below for references.] But again, many scholars have been reluctant to accept the view that God is addressing a council of gods in Genesis because they are convinced that the (“priestly”) author would never have thought to imagine God as a “first among equals”.

Is God talking to himself?

Another view: are we reading here God turning over an idea in his mind, speaking to himself? The problem with that view is that there is nothing in the declaration to suggest a pondering: the words are a proclamation, an announcement, of what “they” are about to do.

After weighing up the above options, Schmidt concludes that the sentence here is a relic from a polytheistic era. Both Schmidt and Westermann conclude that the saying originated in the context of a heavenly court of divine beings but continued as a form of speech even after the idea of a heavenly court was no longer part of their belief system. No doubt many later readers and copyists did treat it as a form of speech and ignored its original and literal meaning. But that leaves open the question of why the first author chose to use the expression. For RG, we have here one more instance of a borrowing from Plato:

In light of Plato’s Timaeus, the appearance of a multiplicity of gods becomes entirely comprehensible. (Gmirkin, 136)

In Timaeus the Demiurge or Craftsman God first created the universe and then in a subsequent stage delegated the creation of humanity to the other gods he had also created. That Creator God addressed these lesser deities to explain why he wanted them to be the ones to create humankind:

Once all the gods had been created — both those that traverse the heavens for all to see and those that make themselves visible when they choose — the creator of this universe of ours addressed them as follows: ‘Gods, divine works of which I am the craftsman and father, anything created by me is imperishable unless I will it. Any bond can be unbound, but to want to destroy a structure of beauty and goodness is a mark of evil. Hence, although as created beings you are not altogether immortal and indestructible, still you shall not perish nor shall death ever be your lot, since you have been granted the protection of my will, as a stronger and mightier bond than those with which you were bound at your creation. ‘Now mark my words and apprehend what I disclose to you. Three kinds of mortal creature remain yet uncreated, and while they remain so the universe will be incomplete, for it will not contain within itself all kinds of living creatures, as it must if it is to be perfect and complete. If I were to be directly responsible for their creation and their life, they would have the rank of gods. To ensure that they are mortal, and that this universe is truly whole, it is you who must, in fulfilment of your natures, imitate the power that I used in creating you and turn, as craftsmen, to the creation of living creatures. . . . .

After this, he handed over to the younger gods the task of forming their mortal bodies. When they had also created any further attributes a human soul might require, and whatever went along with such attributes, he left it up to them to govern and steer every mortal creature as best they could, so that each one would be as noble and good as it might be, apart from any self-caused evils. (41a – 42e; Waterfield translation)

20 For the celestial court, cf. 1 Kings 22:19—22; Isa. 6:8; Ps. 29:1-2; 82; 8926—7; Job 1:6; 2:1. In Job 38:7, divine beings are present at creation. The present interpretation is found in Gen. R. 8:3; Rashi. (p. 353)

Sarna in his commentary on Genesis supports the interpretation that “Let us” is a pointer to a heavenly court:

Let us make The extraordinary use of the first person plural evokes the image of a heavenly court in which God is surrounded by His angelic host.20 Such a celestial scene is depicted in several biblical passages. This is the Israelite version of the polytheistic assemblies of the pantheon — monotheized and depaganized. It is noteworthy that this plural form of divine address is employed in Genesis on two other occasions, both involving the fate of humanity: in 3:22, in connection with the expulsion from Eden; and 11:17, in reference to the dispersal of the human race after the building of the Tower of Babel. (Sarna, 12)

The image of God

What does the expression — “image of God, after our likeness” — mean? The fact that these words are not explained in Genesis indicates that it was well enough understood not to need further explanation at the time it was written (Schmidt, 136). So we must look for parallel usages. If we turn to Mesopotamian creation stories, however, we search in vain:

Can a precursor of the tradition be found in the ancient Orient? Although the similarity between God and man is repeatedly stated there in that man is said to be created from clay and the blood of the gods or even in the divine image, the expression “image of God” hardly has its home in the (Babylonian) creation myths. (Schmidt, 136f – translation. Cited by Clines who is cited by Gmirkin, 136)

What happens when we look in another direction?

When we turn to Egypt, however, we find a wide variety of forms in which the concept appears in reference to the king. In the New Kingdom, especially in the I8th Dynasty (16th century BC), the pharaoh is entitled ‘image of Re’, ‘holy image of Re’, ‘living image on earth’, ‘image of Atum’, etc. . . . This terminology continued to be used as late as the Greek period.

It is of interest that the pharaoh is several times said to have been begotten or created by the god whose image he is: he is

‘the shining image of the lord of all and a creation of the gods of Heliopolis . . . he has begotten him, in order to create a shining seed on earth, for salvation for men, as his living image’.

Amosis I is:

‘A prince like Re, the child of Qeb, his heir, the image of Re, whom he created, the avenger (or the representative), for whom he has set himself on earth.’

Amenophis III is addressed by the god Amon as:

‘My living image, creation of my members, whom Mut bare to me.’

Amon-Re says to Amenophis Ill:

‘You are my beloved son, who came forth from my members, my image, whom I have put on earth. I have given to you to rule the earth in peace.’

The application of the phrase ‘image of God’ to a human person in the foregoing texts enables us to conclude, with particular reference to Egypt, that: It is the king who is the image of God, not mankind generally. The image of the god is associated very closely with rulerhood. The king as image of the god is his representative. The king has been created by the god to be his image. (Clines, 84f)

Tsumura picks up Clines’ discussion and summarizes the essential points (highlighting is mine in all quotations):

Man as the Image of God. Clines offers a thorough discussion of “The Image of God in Man,” reviewing the history of interpretation. He concludes that “Genesis 1:26 is to be translated ‘Let us make man as our image’ or ‘to be our image’. . . . according to Genesis 1 man does not have the image of God, nor is he made in the image of God, but is himself the image of God.” As for the image itself, Clines observes, with K. H. Bernhardt, that “in the ancient Near East the primary function of the image was to be the dwelling-place of spirit or fluid which derived from the being whose image it was.” He also notes that in the ancient Near East the king is “the image of God,” and “the image of the god is associated very closely with rulerhood. The king as image of the god is his representative. The king has been created by the god to be his image.” (Tsumura, 34)

Is an influence from Plato possible? William Loader in a 2004 study of the Septuagint’s influence on later Jewish writings,

The Hebrew (followed by the LXX) indicates a contrast by the change to the first person plural verb, (“Let us make”). (Loader, 28)

Another Septuagint scholar, Martin Rösel, also points to the influence of Plato’s Timaeus here. In the earlier post on the creation of different kinds of animals I did not mention that Rösel sees the influence of Plato’s Timaeus in the Septuagint version of the different kinds of animal species:

Again, in my opinion, an observation points to the Timaeus: there, in a context directly comparable in content, namely that of the differentiation of the animal species (92a), it is noted that those that are less rational than men and birds, are four-legged or many-legged kinds. The most irrational then become footless (creeping) animals. It is to be asked whether this passage of [Plato’s] dialogue is not behind the conspicuous use of τετράπους [=quadrupeds] in Gen 1:24. (Rösel, 47 –  translation)

But he continues his discussion by identifying another echo of Timaeus in the Septuagint’s account of mankind being made in the image and likeness of god [the gods = elohim]. In Rösel’s view, in Genesis 1:25 we read a command for the earth to bring forth “living souls” of each species (that is, the living souls of the quadrupeds, the creeping things, the domestic livestock), and that action is followed by God “making” these animals by bringing their souls into their bodies. (RG, as we saw earlier, suggests that we read in this passage a conflict between the scientific description and the mythical one: “let the earth bring forth” versus “God made”. We shall see in other posts where RG differs again from the views of Rösel.)

What does Rösel have to say about humankind being created in the image and likeness of God? By comparing other uses of the terms Rösel aligns with what we have read above. The word for “image”, είκών, most basically means a statue where the statue represents a ruler or a god:

Man would then be a representative of what God is according to Gen 1:26. The Greek είκών also originally denotes images of all kinds (coins, statues, paintings), but then also an image in the sense of an embodiment, so that, for example, on the Rosetta Stone the king can be called an image of God. (Rösel, 48 – translation)

What Genesis is describing here is the “as above so below” principle: there is a correspondence between the invisible world of spirit and the earthly world. Humans look like and embody some of the nature of God or gods. As the gods rule in the heavens so humans rule on the earth. Rösel was writing long before Gmirkin, of course, and sought other explanations for the connections between Genesis and Timaeus:

That such an idea was not completely impossible for Judaism at the time of the translation is proved, for example, by Dan 10:13, the description of a battle among angels, which corresponds to the war on earth. (Rösel, 49 – translation)

The Greek word for “likeness”, ὁμοίωσιν, is, furthermore one of many that Plato coined. (Rösel, 49)

So Gmirkin is not alone in pointing to the influence of Plato on the Greek translation of the Bible. The difference between Gmirkin and the Septuagint scholars I have referenced so far is that for Gmirkin Genesis was composed (in Hebrew then in Greek) in Hellenistic times and his textual analysis is aimed at demonstrating a direct influence in this context. (Other Septuagint scholars have worked with the assumption that the Hebrew Pentateuch predated the Septuagint by many generations. A few of these, though have even proposed that the Hebrew text was influenced by Greek thought transmitted to them by Phoenicians.)

Plato indicated that humans were to be fashioned in the likeness of the gods who were making them. The supreme Craftsman explained to these lesser deities about the mortals they were to create:

Now, there is a part of them that deserves to share with us the title of immortality — the part which is called divine and which rules in those of them who are ever prepared to follow justice, to follow in your train.

For Plato, the ideal person was in “the image of god”, as he further explained in Republic when speaking of the goal of educators:

“And then, I take it, in the course of the work they would glance frequently in either direction, at justice, beauty, sobriety and the like as they are in the nature of things, and alternately at that which they were trying to reproduce in mankind, mingling and blending from various pursuits that hue of the flesh, so to speak, deriving their judgement from that likeness of humanity which Homer too called when it appeared in men the image and likeness of God.” (6.501b)

There are three more points of note that I will cover quickly (I may be able to introduce extra material from the various commentaries and scholarly articles at a future time):

  1. Whereas other Levantine and Mesopotamian cultures thought of kings as being in the image of the gods, Genesis is distinctive in that it “democratizes” this image so that it applies to all of humanity.
  2. But the idea of rulership is not stripped out completely because God commands the humans to populate the earth and rule it and all that is in it.
  3. Finally, only with respect to humans does Genesis describe the different sexes, male and female. Plato, likewise, only draws attention to the origins of the sexes with respect to humans and not to any other creatures created. If we take the introductory speech, “Let us….”, as a reference to a council of gods, just as Plato’s Demiurge addressed a collective of gods to announce the plan to create humans, then it is possible that the author had in mind the gods who created mankind likewise being male and female. (Plato’s myth of the origins of the sexes was quite bizarre* and found no room for repeating in the Genesis account. However, other Septuagint scholars have identified other connections between Greek writing and the Genesis 2 account of the creation of Eve. I may address some of these in future posts.)

* In Plato’s myth a single body had to be cut into three: one part became male with an attraction for women; another a woman with an attraction for men; and the third was homosexual.

The Seventh Day

Plato never mentions a sabbath rest but he does speak of God’s ideal state as being at rest. After Plato’s Artisan Creator completes his work and hands over the responsibility for making humans to the other gods his role is complete and he withdraws from the scene. A similar sequence was found in the cosmogony of Anaxagoras. We have mentioned before the significance of names and puns in Plato’s creation account and we continue to see the same here again with “rest” and “seventh” sounding similar in Hebrew. (Recall Gmirkin’s thesis is that Genesis was written first in Hebrew then translated into Greek.)

There are a number of problems with our current manuscripts of Genesis, both Hebrew and Greek, and some have thought the original text said God finished his work on the sixth day, not the seventh. (RG, 138)

In both Timaeus and Genesis, we have the same striking sequence of concluding transitional events: the Creator’s work of ordering the perfect kosmos is completed (Timaeus 42e; Gen 2:1); the Creator, his work finished, retires from the scene as the administration of the sub-lunar world, including the task of creating mortal life forms, is delegated to the Creator’s offspring, the generated gods (Timaeus 41b-42a; Gen 2:4-25). The eternal, incorporeal Creator disappears from the narrative, his sole ongoing activity in the present to ensure the continued existence of the kosmos (Timaeus 42e; cf. Sedley 2007: 106; Runia 1986: 255-7), as the story shifts to the mortal terrestrial gods. As discussed in the next chapter, the so-called “second creation account” in a new literary unit beginning in Gen 2:4 has a shift in perspective to narrate stories about the terrestrial gods and the mortal life forms they created. (Gmirkin, 139)

Conclusions

That concludes my outline of Russell Gmirkin’s discussion of Genesis 1 – 2:3 as a scientifically based mythical-theological account of creation. (I was tempted to follow a swathe of detours along the way as I followed through on this and that citation, all initiated by some new idea RG presented. I am compelled to try to “get to the bottom” of new ideas, seeing how they originated, whether they “stack up”, and so forth. It means sometimes there are longer delays between postings than I would otherwise like.)

We have been looking primarily at the scientific content of Genesis 1 in recent posts but this one has necessarily contained more discussion of mythical elements, and RG does stress the importance of distinguishing between theological and scientific content.

The theology “drew exclusively on Plato”, as did the mythical speeches of a god or gods concerning the creation of humans. The scientific views were more often drawn from Zeno than Plato. Plato’s idea of reincarnation was flatly rejected by the author of Genesis. But Plato knew he was “making up” the myth and he expected others to accept it insofar as they found it plausible. He acknowledged that better “myths” may appear in the future. The mythical aspect was, for Plato, an important method of educating the general population, as was the avoidance of delving too deeply into scientific expositions.

RG concludes this chapter:

From a rhetorical analysis of Genesis 1, three major conclusions emerge.

• First, the cosmogony in Genesis 1 was created by a ruling class of educated elites who were steeped in Greek science and had developed their own theories on cosmogony that plausibly incorporated the best of contemporary Greek science but also incorporated the philosophical and theological ideas found in Plato’s Timaeus.

• Second, the educational aim of the authors was to promote pious beliefs in the young and the unsophisticated ordinary citizens for whom Genesis was written.

• Third, this guided their choice of format as a simple myth, an authoritative story set in distant antiquity that inoculated its audience against materialistic science by promoting belief in Elohim as the deity who fashioned the universe.

Genesis 1 is thus to be understood as myth authoritatively presented as fact, cutting-edge Greek science overlaid with theology, as in Plato’s writings. The mythical story content becomes ever more prominent in Genesis 2 and the rest of the Primordial History. (Gmirkin, 141)


Clines, D. J. A. “The Image of God in Man.” Tyndale Bulletin 19, no. 1 (May 1, 1968): 53–103.

Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.

Loader, William R. G. The Septuagint, Sexuality, and the New Testament: Case Studies on the Impact of the LXX in Philo and the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Rösel, Martin. Übersetzung als Vollendung der Auslegung: Studien zur Genesis-Septuaginta. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 1994.

Sarna, Nahum M. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Schmidt, Werner H. Die Schöpfungsgeschichte der Priesterschrift. Neukirchener-Verlag, 1964.

Tsumura, David Toshio. “Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: An Introduction.” In “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, edited by Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura, 27–57. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1994.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1 – 11: A Commentary. Translated by John J. Scullion S.J. Minneapolis, MN; London: Augsburg Publishing House; SPCK, 1984.

. . .

Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Robin Waterfield. OUP Oxford, 2008.

Plato hyper-linked references are from perseus.tufts.edu


 

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5 thoughts on “When God Created Humans, then Retired: Genesis 1 as Science — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 5c]”

  1. In her biography of Henry VIII, Alison Weir writes, “Since mediaeval times, the King had been seen as two bodies in one: a mortal entity and ‘the King’s person,’ representing unending royal authority; monarchs therefore referred to themselves in the plural form as ‘we.'” She is of course focusing on the practice as it existed in the 16th C., which will end with Elizabeth I still on the throne, but tracing its origins further back (but not far enough, in this case). In the Book of Job, we have, of course, “the court of heaven,” in which the Lord engages in his wager with Satan, as others (courtiers?) look on. The Trinitarian view, as indicated, post-dates Genesis, as does the resolution of the Arian heresy at the Council of Nicaea. It would be interesting to have a linguist who could go into the meaning and usage of the phrase translated as “let us”; because, even in English we have a tradition of using “let us/let’s” that does not necessarily require first persons plural physically in the room. Do we have a date for the Book of Job, anyone? Then of course we have Yahweh’s jealousy of other gods, which does not always imply that they don’t exist, but rather the opposite according to one view.

  2. Isn’t it clear by now that the Israelites were an offshoot of the earlier Canaanites, inheriting El, Asherah, and their 70 children, including Yahweh and Baal? Was not Israel given to Yahweh as a fief by this council? (Why else would a god choose a people and just a piddling people such as that one? Why not choose the powerful and literate Chinese or the Indus civilization?) How likely is it that the names El, Asherah (Queen of Heaven), Yahweh, and Baal would show up in the OT as major players by coincidence?

    1. I missed Julian’s comparison!

      But I did mention earlier suggestions that Timaeus influenced Genesis 1 in Niesiołowski-Spanò 2007 and Wajdenbaum 2011: 92-96.

      Niesiołowski-Spanò, Łukasz 2007. “Primeval History in the Persian Period?” SJOT 21: 106-26.

      Wajdenbaum, Philippe 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing.

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