"Vayomer Elokim, na'aseh et haadam b'tzalmenu kidmutenu..." (Breishit 1:26)
This verse is a favorite of those who would like to prove that Tanach acknowledges the existence of multiple deities. Not only does the word "Elokim" literally mean "gods" (though elsewhere the plural simply indicates a greater level of respect, similar to the "royal we"), but God uses the plural "let us make" in stating His intention to create mankind. This explanation can be quickly dismissed by pointing out that the third-person narrator of Breishit, when speaking of God, uses the singular form both in this verse ("vayomer") and consistently elsewhere. The question remains, though, why God chose to use the plural here. Who could the "us" under discussion have included, other than God Himself?
Many commentators, including Rashi, Rashbam, Radak, and Sforno, suggest that the remaining members of "us" are the angels. Either the creation of man was so important that it called for a public proclamation before the audience of the time, or else God wanted to ask the angels' permission before creating a creature that would take their place as the most important beings in the universe, other than God.
An irrefutable explanation, but I wanted to explore other possibilities. Specifically, I wondered if the remaining members of "us" were not the angels, but the chimpanzees.
Why the, um, chimpanzees?
The scientific evidence we have today indicates that humans form a species of great ape, descended from an ancient ape ancestor. The difference between us and other apes, of course, is that we have a sense of morality and can be held to an ethical standard. At some point in the evolution of the apes, God implanted these qualities into a humanoid ape, and the first human was created. Thus, the apes supplied the bodies of mankind, while God supplied the souls. It was a joint effort, and the roles of both parties is indicated by the words "na'aseh", "b'tzalmenu", and "kidmutenu".
Both Ramban and Radak provide explanations which are similar and congruent to this idea. According to Ramban, "God created ex nihilo only on the first day, and afterwards, from the created basics he fashioned and made... and the statement regarding land animals was 'May the earth bring forth'; thus, regarding man 'we will make', i.e. I and the aformentioned earth will make man - that the earth will bring forth the body from its basics as it did with land animals... and [God] will give spirit from above." One could read this as indicating that man came directly from the earth, but I see it as no stretch to say that man came from animals which themselves came from the earth, as the theory of evolution suggests.
The next verse, though, seems to upset this framework. "Vayivra Elokim et haadam b'tzalmo, b'tzelem Elokim bara oto, zachar unkeva bara otam." God is mentioned as creating three times here, while the animals (or the earth) are not mentioned at all! But - look closely at the verbs - in the last verse we had "naaseh" - "we will make". Here, the verb is "bara" - "created from nothing". The word "bara" is rare and the fact that it occurs three times in one verse should make us look closely. Clearly the animals were not creating from nothing - only God has that power. But while God was off conjuring up the soul, it makes sense to say that the apes were going about their daily business at the same time. Only the miraculous element - the creation of the soul - is worth mentioning in the text, so while verse 26 indicates that both God and nature were to be involved in the creation in man, just half of that story made it into the narrative of verse 27.