Thomas on Genesis 18

An argument frequently used by Christian apologists says that Jews cannot reject the trinity, or Jesus as divine, on the basis of Scripture, because there are many places in Scripture which seem to indicate that God manifest Himself into physical form, or that God has a plural nature. And therefore, who is to say the God of Israel is not a 3-part godhead, one of which took on flesh?

Indeed, there are places in the Hebrew Bible where it appears God takes human form (Abraham’s guests in Genesis 18, Jacob fighting with the man in Genesis 32, God appearing to Moses in Exodus 33). There are also instances where it appears God has a plural nature. Thus, apologists say, the Christian worship of Jesus is not worship of a form, but rather of a manifestation of God in the flesh as a human being. This article will focus on the example of Genesis 18.

Does this Christian argument stand? Can a Jew reject the trinity and the claims of Jesus’ divinity if Scripture itself appears to show God’s plural nature, and God manifesting Himself in physical form?

There are a few points to consider.

If idolatry is the worst sin against God, we can presume that God taught us clearly who Israel is supposed to worship, and that we are not forced to guess or rely on hints or vague allusions.

The central place where God reveals Himself to Israel is the revelation at Mt. Sinai- that was the foundational event where Israel as a people ‘met’ God. Prof. Kenneth Kitchen in “On the Reliability of the Old Testament,” calls the Exodus the central event of the Hebrew Bible, and the Sinai covenant its “pendant.” Clearly, the Sinai revelation is not only the only place where the people as a whole met God, but it is also clearly the most important narrative in Scripture for us to determine where the line between ‘God’ and ‘idolatry’ is drawn. Therefore, this must be the first place we look to see what God commanded on the subject of who Israel is to worship.

At Sinai, God expressly forbade Israel from making an idol because they saw no form. In fact, He repeated it (Deut 4:12, 4:15). This passage is not an irrelevant passage to the discussion- it is an explicit, direct passage placed in a central context, demanding Israel remember that they saw no form at Sinai.

This statement that Israel saw no form at Mt. Sinai is not simply a statement of fact; it is a command – direct and explicit – that because Israel saw no form at Sinai, it is to attribute no form to God. Christian theologian Edward P. Blair writes on this passage: “Men are not to worship anything that men can see.” Another theologian, WL Alexander, writes: “It is as a spirit that God is to be worshipped, and not under any outward representation.”

Clearly, then, the Sinai revelation teaches that, as far as Israel as concerned, they are to worship God as God, not in any form.

“But wait,” the apologist would say. “We worship God, not a form. God simply manifested Himself in human flesh as Jesus, and thus that is who we have to worship.” Firstly, this is a distinction without a difference, as ‘manifestation’ is no different than ‘form.’ Secondly, this line of reasoning utterly misses the purpose of the revelation at Sinai. Sinai was the formative event in Israel’s history- it was where the people were given a full understanding as to who they were commanded to worship. Thus, the question is not whether God ‘could’ manifest Himself as a human, but Who God command Israel to worship. And on this question, the Hebrew Bible never demand Israel worship God’s alleged manifestation as a human being.

What about Genesis 18, for example, where it seems God appears in human manifestation to Abraham?

Here, Abraham is visited by three men, and God seems to be interchangeable with (at least) one of the men. So doesn’t this prove God can indeed take on form?

Contrast Genesis 18 with Deuteronomy 4. Genesis 18 is neither a central teaching on who Israel is supposed to worship, neither is it a teaching at all. This is a narrative on Abraham, and the prophecy of his future son Isaac. This episode is never characterized by Scripture as being a central teaching (or a teaching at all) on who Israel should worship. Again, the Jewish claim is not based on the fact that “God can’t” manifest Himself as a human; rather, that He never commanded that we worship such a thing.

Not only is Genesis 18 not a teaching on idolatry, but it never even explicitly makes the Christian apologetic claim that God was one of the three men. At most, it is an inference.

This episode in Genesis 18 is also very vague.

In ‘Genesis: A Commentary,’ Lutheran pastor and scholar Gerhard von Rad says this episode is “troublesome,” with its “lack of clarity,” and is “strange and singular” in the Hebrew Bible.

In ‘Genesis,’ David W. Cotter says “This has proved to be an insoluble riddle to scholars throughout the centuries…difficulties are as numerous as solutions.”

Even among Conservative Christians, there is significant disagreement on who God is (or isn’t):

From Gerhard von Rad:

“In the narrative ch. 18.1-16 the notion that Yahweh appeared with two messengers is not the only one possible; it is not even the most likely. That the three men accepted the invitation together, if we were to think of the two as only a guard of honor to Yahweh, would be just as strange as their common question about Sarah (v.9). One is therefore rather inclined to think that Yahweh appeared in all three…”

Does that mean the trinity?

He continues:

“The interpretation given by the early church that the trinity of visitors is a reference to the Trinity has been universally abandoned by recent exegesis.”

David W. Cotter suggests a different interpretation: “Two different incidents are being described…in the first, the circumcision of Abraham is concluded by a visitation from YHWH, described in 18:1a. Subsequently, starting in 18:1b, the second incident begins with the arrival of the three visitors. This approach completely avoids one of the chief enigmas of the text as it is ordinarily read…it seems simpler, and more true to the text, to say that 18:1 introduces a new block of narrative.”

Protestant minister and scholar Walter Brueggemann (In ‘Genesis’) writes: “There is no need either to harmonize the two versions or to divide into sources or to seek a Christian statement of the Trinity here. The story is an unreflective account of a revelatory disclosure. That is enough.”

In the ‘International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,’ he writes:

“These three men had “appeared” to Abraham as a “sign” of the appearance or presence of the Lord. Even though they conveyed His Word, they were certainly not the Lord Himself.”

These citations demonstrate that the use of Genesis 18 as a ‘proof text’ for the trinity, or for our requirement to worship a physical manifestation of God, are at best, a vague inference. If Genesis 18 is supposed to teach us about God’s nature, and who we are to worship, it makes no sense that it is so helplessly ambiguous; that would defeat the entire purpose of the passage.

In contrasting Deuteronomy 4 and Genesis 18, we see Deuteronomy 4 is a direct command. It is not simply a statement of fact; rather, it is placed in a context where Israel is being taught who they are to worship. It is explicit, and unambiguous. There is no question what it is talking about, or what the message is.

It is important to contrast these two verses because the Sinai revelation is characterized in the Hebrew Bible as the standard against which all understandings of God must be compared. In other words, when God did reveal Himself to Israel, He did it in an unambiguous manner. He said nothing of a Trinity, nothing about Jesus or the messiah, and said explicitly Israel saw no form at Sinai. Now, yes, there are verses in Scripture which appear to teach the opposite of this. But make no mistake- those verses like Genesis 18 must be read in light of the Sinai revelation.

The apologetic use of Genesis 18 represents something more: that while Judaism relies on explicit, direct commands as the basis for understanding who Israel is to worship, Christian apologists argue that, as in Genesis 18, there is evidence of God’s nature throughout Scripture.

This debate is not a philosophical question of what God could theoretically do, but about ‘Who should I worship’ and ‘What constitutes idolatry.’ After all, this debate is about whether worship of Jesus is idolatry, and about whether belief in the trinity is precluded by the Sinai revelation. This is not an academic debate; it is one where one must choose who to worship. Therefore, in order to find God’s teachings on idolatry, it only makes sense to look to places where God explicitly teaches us about idolatry, and not rely on allusions and hints in Scripture.

But if, as Christian apologists do with Genesis 18, one is going to look beyond the direct commandments for guidance on God’s nature, and see hints everywhere, there is no reason to stop at the trinity and Jesus. Why not join many biblical scholars who say Moses and the Israelites were not monotheists at all, but henotheists (i.e. – they worshipped one god, while accepting that others existed). Would the same apologists who claim Genesis 18 is proof for God having taken on flesh, say that Exodus 12:12, where God says He will defeat the Egyptian gods, proves the existence of other gods aside from the God of Israel? And since Exodus 3 features God manifested in the ‘burning bush,’ does that mean the burning bush is the fourth member of the godhead?

Scripture has indeed many vague references where one can develop an infinite number of beliefs, but the central question is not what do these ambiguous passages seem to indicate, but rather- What did God command? At Sinai, where the teaching of idolatry was given, did God command worship of the Trinity or of the messiah? No. It is God’s commands to Israel – direct, explicit and unambiguous – which we need to use as the standard for our worship.

So when apologists say they do not worship a ‘manifestation’ of God in Jesus, it also minimizes their belief that Jesus was not simply a ‘representation’ of God, but rather, an entirely distinct member of the godhead- a member which Israel was never commanded to worship at Sinai. If at Sinai, Israel was never commanded to worship two of the three members of the trinity, then they are outside of what Israel is allowed to worship.


1/ The Jewish rejection of the trinity and Jesus’ divinity is based on their non-mention at the Sinai revelation, thus precluding them from legitimate Jewish worship.

2/ Deuteronomy 4 reminds Israel they saw no form at Sinai, and thus, Israel is to worship no ‘form’ (or manifestation) of God. If Deuteronomy 4 is not a command, and merely a statement of fact that Israel saw no form at Sinai then it makes no sense for God to place such emphasis on it.

3/ The Jewish rejection of worship of God’s manifestation is not based primarily on the question of “whether God is capable of” taking on flesh, but rather, as in Deuteronomy 4, what our parameters for worship are. In other words, did God ever demand our worship of it? If not, it is excluded.

3/ The instances in the Hebrew Bible where God appears to be in human or physical form (Abraham’s guests, or the burning bush) are not clear teachings on idolatry or who Israel should worship. They are almost always vague and unclear. However perplexing they may be, they cannot be used to influence who we are to worship.

4/ Christian belief does not simply place Jesus as a physical manifestation of God, but as a member of the trinity distinct from the other two. There is no command anywhere in Scripture which demands Israel to worship these other two members of the trinity.

5/ If the Sinai revelation does not preclude belief in the trinity, or in the divinity of Jesus, then it certainly doesn’t preclude a 4 or 5-part godhead, or worship of the burning bush as god, or worship of God as manifested as anything imaginable. And if Sinai does not preclude all this, then it becomes devoid of all meaning.

The Jewish cleaving to God is based on a simple command- worship the God who revealed Himself at Sinai. The Christian claim that God is a three-part godhead, one of which manifested himself as a human – is something that God never commanded Israel to worship.

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Yisroel C. Blumenthal

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23 Responses to Thomas on Genesis 18

  1. Yitzchak Meir says:

    Excellent post! Bravo. So often, Christians base some of their most controversial and problematic doctrines on passages in scripture that aren’t, in context, focusing on the issue at hand. Your distinction between Deut.4, which is a direct teaching about who and how we are to worship, vs. Gen.18, which is a Biblical story not concerned with these issues must not be ignored.
    A recent posting to a Jewish/Christian online debate highlighted why Gen.18 is such a shaky foundation upon which to build the doctrines of trinity and incarnation:

    Re: Gen 18- I have some agreement with the poster above- namely, that our concern should be less about what God is philosophically possibly capable or not capable of, and rather focus on where in the OT he directs us to identify Him.

    My problem with using Gen. 18 as a proof text for anything related to God’s identity is that it is so bloody vague. Some interpreters say God is one of the men; other interpreters say God was somehow all three of them (but, apparently, not the trinity). Others say it is a splice of multiple traditions, with the first verse of 18 and the following verses not even in the same narrative. Still others refuse to even speculate, saying that to do so would only be a product of their theological viewpoints. I say- anything that is that unclear should not be used as a proof text with respect to God’s identity.

    So I think that this discussion over Gen 18 is a bit of a red herring- an attractive, but ultimately perplexing and unclear passage which we ought to have far more reservations about making maximal theological claims from.

  2. Annelise says:

    The central idea of this post seems very right, that Genesis 18 is essentially unclear and can be explained in a number of ways. It isn’t a major or instructional text on the subject of worship, and while it may lend some important ideas to the discussion, they have to be read in the light of more explicitly central and obvious passages. Even if it were considered quite relevant, this wouldn’t be a satisfying passage to anchor faith solely upon.

    I’m still curious. In reading Deuteronomy 4, alongside the commandment against idolatry, how would you answer this idea: that God forbade worshiping him in a visible way in the specific context of humanly created representations? To *create* an object to worship, or take something out of nature or civilisation and *appoint* it as ‘divine’, is definitely at the heart of this command. I know it feels like an awfully fine distinction to be drawing, but it could be a genuine one.

    I know you believe God wouldn’t make the personal, complete aspect of himself visible, and that if a human is called God then that is an impossibility; most certainly a humanly initiated identity. (I agree that would be the probable explanation!, and serious.) Still, could it be said that God’s commandments about idolatry are directed at humans creating or choosing idols in place of God; that the mention of no image being seen should be read in an ancient cultic setting, but does not mean, inherently, that God himself would never appear visibly (that is, bodily)? At any time in the future, by his initiative? The command could be for humans not to set up idols, and the example of God not being seen could be perfectly relevant to that community without commenting heavily on the future.

    It’s a hard question, because the two events feel indistinguishable. It feels too, too likely that blatant idolatry is being passed off as the worship of God in the way he has chosen. These are the two completely opposite things, and that makes the whole discussion awful. Still, with a deep heart commitment to worship God in surrender to him, not to take control or reject him with heart, soul, mind, and strength… could it be said that the main theme being proven in this passage is that we should not worship any deity we ourselves have made? When God said that his form was not seen, then certainly that makes idols worthless, but it doesn’t mean he himself will not ever be seen, by his own powerful gift: by his initiative, not by invented religion. Whatever you think of the concept as a whole, how would you approach this thought in terms just of Deuteronomy 4, and any passages that reflect on this smaller question?

    I hope that question, and the distinctions within it as relate to this chapter, make sense. It’s not actually given as a real argument; I don’t have a formed opinion on it yet, and I’ve never heard the question asked before. So I’d love to know how you read it, as I think about this, and have the relevant scriptures brought to light.

    • thomas says:

      Hi Annelise,

      Here’s what I would say:

      We both agree that deut 4 forbids us from making an idol, and calling it God, but you ask a valid question- does that mean God cannot take on form Himself?

      I would ask- how do humans draw the distinction between our attributing deity to something not God, and God doing it Himself? The point is, yes, I suppose in theory God could take human form, but He could also in theory take on the form of a lampshade also. What was the purpose of telling israel they saw no form at sinai? If sinai was the basis for israel’s knowledge about God/idolatry, and they saw no form, then it’s clear that as far as israel is concerned, they are to worship no form. Otherwise, the statement loses all meaning, as it means not us, but God could do it. OK, so how do we know what’s God? Anything could be claimed to be a ‘manifestation’ of God, so I don’t think one can accept God can manifest in Jesus, but not in any other object or person.

      Secondly, yes, God can do anything, but He never commanded we worship a manifestation of Him in a man. That is the essence of sinai- anything not commanded is forbidden. Now, one might say jesus is the same as god of sinai, and thus was commanded, but again, jesus was not commanded at sinai. At most, one could say that sinai does not preclude the trinity, but it certainly does not command it. And if it does not command it (see the post 2 below), then it’s forbidden.

      And the other issue is that, if Jesus and the trinity are not precluded by sinai, then not much else is either. If I sincerely believed God had manifested Himself as an eagle, and that was the 4th member of the godhead, that could in theory be allowed too.

      Again, the point is that the purpose of the sinai revelation to teach israel about God/idolatry. As far as israel is concerned, there was no form when they ‘met’ God, so it must be on the basis of that they worship God. Otherwise, it’s at the very least misleading to say – you saw no form at sinai, don’t make statues, but I can take on form myself. Well, the question again is if we leave it that wide open, anything can in theory be God, so there would be no reason to stop at Jesus.

      So in sum- there was never a teaching or command from sinai to worship God in form, and considering we saw no form, that precludes our worship of God in any form (even if He can do it Himself). Perhaps the reason is that, if we are open to worshipping God in form, we have no way of knowing what was truly His form, and where we are simply ascribing deity to something or someone who is not God. Sinai’s message is simple- worship the God who revealed Himself at Sinai, and no other.

      • Annelise says:

        Thanks so much Thomas, that engages well with what I was trying to ask.

        I’m still unsure about one thing from that response. When you say God revealed himself at Mt. Sinai, so that only what was seen of him there can be accepted, what does a new revelation practically mean? I think that there are defining aspects of who God is that have become known in the time since Moses, which are (by nature) entirely compatible with what God showed to Israel at the mountain. It should be said first that it’s hard to know what was known earlier and put into writing later, but still. Through historical events, and through prophecy in particular (being in line with Torah, and also genuinely from God), there has been at least a great expansion of knowledge and imagery regarding who he personally is. History and the scriptures are filled with deepening, sometimes surprising, examples of this. We can form foundational beliefs from clear, agreeing passages throughout the Bible.

        The two main questions that come up in seeing Jesus as a new revelation of exactly this kind are the fact that humans have claimed to be God many times, and have emphatically not been him; and that the majority of the Jewish nation (including the religious authority as a whole) have not accepted him. These are hard problems. Even so, if God vindicated the message as his own revelation, it would be right and important to accept it. Writing this, I recognise that portraying exactly this is one of the strong intentions of the gospels. While Sinai has been given, and taken, as the cornerstone revelation of God and his covenant, not every revelation God gives is fully foreshadowed or spoken of before the moment. Deuteronomy 4 does refer clearly to humans making an image of a man or woman and worshiping it, or anything else. But when you say it’s technically possible for God that he could choose to reveal himself in the form of a lampshade, eagle, countless members of the godhead, or anything at all, and then ask how we would know… this is what the New Testament is talking about with the constant reference to the Father speaking audibly that Jesus is his Son, whom he loves, or to vindicating him through the resurrection seen by witnesses in the weeks before Pentecost, and even the miracles, and the testimony of God’s Spirit among some of the righteous Jews and prophets of the time who had the chance to understand who he was. I think that would count as a revelation in itself, like the others, and it would be right to accept it if it were clear that God had really spoken (one of the important things being that it is very much in keeping with previous revelations).

        I still ask whether it’s possible that the example of having seen no form could have referred more to the ancient context, when the Israelites were tempted to copy the idols of nations around them; whether it might not have been intended as saying that nothing about God, as we and all creation worship him, will ever be visible at all. Some of the prophets saw God on his throne, worshiped there, but how literal that is I don’t know; it’s important. I think you’re saying the intention was not only to stop people making their own conceived representations, but to warn Israel forever never to think anything visible is God. That’s a different reading, but it’s not one I can ignore. I think I’ll wait more on it.

        Thanks again.

  3. Thomas says:

    Upon reading my comment above, it’s a bit wordy, but I hope I made my point come across. Our central teaching on Sinai says that we saw no form- it’s not a question of God’s capabilities, but what He specifically commanded. And consider if Sinai does not preclude God manifesting in Jesus, then it also doesn’t preclude God from manifesting as a mountain, either. So if Sinai’s teaching on idolatry is really that open and vague, then we can in theory see any object as being God manifested. And if that’s the case, we have robbed Sinai of its central message.

    • Annelise says:

      Oh, I replied directly to the first reply, so my comment was set above this one… but I did read this before I posted.

  4. Thomas says:


    You wrote: “the example of having seen no form could have referred more to the ancient context, when the Israelites were tempted to copy the idols of nations around them.” Of course- it absolutely meant that. But again, Sinai was/is the base teaching for concepts of who Israel is to worship (regardless of what God is capable of doing). So Israel cannot physically make a statue because, at Sinai, it never saw anything. Thus, whatever God’s capabilities are with respect to manifesting Himself, it is of no concern to Israel.

    We cannot make idols because we cannot ascribe form to God for the purpose of identifying or worshipping Him. As above, the prohibition against idols included the fact that we would ‘make’ God in our image. And seeing God in a form – and demanding that we worship it – is in essence no different than physically constructing something with our hands. It was never commanded to us.

  5. Thomas says:

    Of course, even though I’m not even arguing God is incapable of taking on form (merely that for our purposes, we are to ascribe no form to Him), many scholars do say Deut 4 says specifically God has no form at all:

    “Deuteronomy 4 clearly portrays Yahweh as invisible…” Deuteronomic theology and the significance of Torah: a reappraisal By Peter T. Vogt

    “God had no form, which distinguished him from the pagan gods.” Deuteronomy By Gary Harlan Hall

    And those who say that God can potentially take form still say:

    “”The prohibition is based not on the objective absence of any form…but on the people’s non-perception of the same.” Ie- our interest is what we are commanded- what God “is” or “can do” is far outside our knowledge- but he expressly forbade we worship him as form. (Ian Wilson, Out of the Midst of the Fire).

    “The God of the Deuteronomistic tradition is explicitly aniconic, and the reason for the ban on images is that God has no form that can be revealed to mankind.” Christi Bamford, ‘Seeing God in the Hebrew Bible.’

    Again, what God is capable of is different. We saw no form. Thus, to worship God as manifested in something would be to worship something never commanded.

    You raise a good point about future revelation clarifying these teachings on idolatry, but I think once we have gotten to that point, we have robbed Sinai of all meaning. If Sinai is only teaching us that on that specific occasion, Israel saw nothing, who cares? If it is merely a statement of historical fact, then it makes no sense for it to be connected to the prohibition against idolatry. Idolatry is forbidden because Israel saw nothing. Again, not that God “cannot” take on form; rather, that His central teaching to us has us not being able to worship God as a manifestation.

    Again, the point of mentioning we saw no form is because we cannot worship any manifestation of God. Because if we are obligated to worship God as manifested, say in Jesus, who is to say God cannot also manifest in anything else either? If we start gettting into a philosophical discussion, it misses the point. Sinai was meant to teach us a clear lesson on who we are to worship, but if we are not setting up limits for how we know Jesus was a manifestation we are obligated to worship, and not other objects or people, we are making our own rules not dictated by Scripture.

    But again, we can easily see, according to the same standard, God says “You shall have no God before me” similarly does not each that, strictly speaking, no other gods exist. Rather, we are simply not allowed to worship them. Same for this- it is not a theoretical debate, but a practical one. God’s nature is not what we were commanded about. We were commanded to worship the God of Sinai- who was revealed at Sinai – and where we saw nothing. Worship of anything else is worship of a God we were never commanded to worship.

  6. Annelise says:

    Thanks, that makes sense. I think the only question remaining is my first one, and whether it’s valid; is has been helpful to hear these points expanded regarding your understanding of it. I’ll keep thinking about this one. Last night I was reading Nehemiah 8, which specifically speaks about this, and was encouraged to keep searching the scriptures to hear their heart spoken on the theme.

    God bless you deeply,

    • Thomas says:

      Hi Annelise,

      Your first question- is this it:

      “Still, could it be said that God’s commandments about idolatry are directed at humans creating or choosing idols in place of God; that the mention of no image being seen should be read in an ancient cultic setting, but does not mean, inherently, that God himself would never appear visibly (that is, bodily)? At any time in the future, by his initiative?”

      If so, then I’ll try to give some thoughts on that specifically.

      Let’s get back to the original point: Jews consider worship of Jesus idolatry because there is no command or directive to worship him, making him forbidden. Christianity focuses on Jesus, during his lifetime, as God in human form, and if Deut 4:19 refers to all created beings, as many suggest, then Jesus in the flesh, as a physical, finite creation, would be forbidden for Israel to worship. Plus 4:15 says Israel’s knowledge of who they were to worship was based on seeing nothing. In other words, no manifestation could be worshipped.

      Israel cannot physically make idols, nor can they worship created things (4:19). This was on the basis of Israel seeing no form. The underlying reason was, of course, that everything, including the ‘heavenly array’ and human creations, are just that – creations. Israel is to worship only the Creator- that is why they were given no physical form to assign to God – because that is what differentiates Creator from created.

      Strictly speaking, Deut 4 forbids only “making” images, and bowing to the stars in the sky, not, say, bowing to a living animal. So is that permitted?


      1/ The prohibition against idolatry was clearly not limited to the time of the receipt of the Torah, as Deuteronomy makes it clear (and the rest of Tanakh) it was the central, formative teaching from God to Israel.

      2/ Whatever the prophets saw of God, it was not commanded to Israel. That is an essential point. Again, the issue is what were the direct commands given to Israel about who it was they are to worship.

      3/ If the prohibition referred only to not being allowed the use of images in the cultic setting, as you suggest, does that mean I can believe that the stars are God manifested, but as long as I do not specifically bow down to them, it is permitted?

      4/ The issue is not merely the ‘form’ of God in Jesus, but also the issue of the trinity. Jesus was not simply, according to Christians, God ‘manifested,’ but one of three members of the godhead. And of course, no one claims at Sinai all 3 members were shown. There is no command, no directive, no teaching to recognize or worship a 3-part godhead.

      5/ As related to above, if Israel was never specifically commanded to worship (or believe in) god’s 3-part godhead, or God manifested in physical form, then there is no command to worship it. Sinai is the clear, formative teaching on God/idolatry, and yet not only are we not given a complete picture of who we are to worship, but the prohibition against idolatry is actually so open-ended it can theoretically include any non-created objects?

      6/ As we both recognize, if the teachings of Sinai do not necessarily preclude Jesus or the trinity from legitimate worship, then we of course also recognize it does not preclude the belief/worship of many other things, including direct worship of animals (Deut 4 only prohibits the ‘images’ of animals).

      The provenance of Deuteronomy 32, By Paul Sanders (pg 363-364), says Deut 4 was a prohibition for Israel, not the nations, and in fact, Deut 4:19 says God provided the stars for the nations, but God for Israel. So in other words, those who are not Jews are fully entitled to worship the gods in the universe.

      Conversely, Peter Vogt says 4:19 prohibits worship of anything created in the world. As Jesus was, at least for his lifetime, in physical form, that would absolutely constitute idolatry if his original followers considered him God.

      “God…does not reveal self in transparent ways or in ways that allow one to see (as one sees the astral bodies) or touch (as with humanly created objects).” (Deut by Patrick D Miller). This point is that God did not reveal Himself in a form (if He has a form at all) so Israel will not ascribe a limited form or manifestation to God.

      So while I think this whole nitty-gritty discussion does get off topic, it illustrates the point that if we are going to turn God’s statement in Deut 4 that Israel saw no form, and thus, for the purposes of avoiding idolatry, they are to avoid seeing any form or manifestation as God into an extremely-specific prohibition merely on created objects in cultic worship, then not only does that rob Sinai of all meaning, it also means that God’s prohibitions against idolatry are meaningless to us today. If we cannot say, scripturally, that straight-out bowing to a frog does not constitute idolatry, then I think we’ve missed the entire point. If we do not know if that’s idolatry or not, then we really have no idea how to avoid idolatry, do we?

      Discussing why Jesus can be God manifested, but nothing else, due to his supposed miracles, or vindication by God, or so on, similarly misses our point. As with above, we would now be relying not on scriptural demands, but rather our own justifications for how we know one thing is God, but not another.

      In sum, I think this entire discussion about idolatry being only in cultic worship, or only created beings, and so on, misses the entire ‘spirit’ of the biblical prohibitions against idolatry. Israel cannot worship a form because it never saw a form. God is the Creator of all, and for Israel to worship any manifestation of God is to commit the sin of idolatry- to bow to something which has not been revealed at Sinai.

      With the trinity, it’s a different discussion, not about incarnation or manifestation, but about the 3 members of the godhead. Israel was never told about 3 members of the godhead at Sinai. Just as it was never told of a 7-member godhead. All of these lie outside of what we were commanded to do. If we leave the door open for a 3-part, it leaves it open for anything else. And if that’s the case, we must realize our definition of idolatry is so vague, we can make up any theological arrangement.

      If God is forbidding idolatry, it’s simple. He either commanded it, or He didn’t. If we need to have this discussion to ascertain who is God and who isn’t, we are missing the message of Sinai.

      • Annelise says:

        Thanks for that. If I can ask a new question from a side-point (not to add to this conversation, but because I’m wondering)… what do you mean by those who aren’t Jews being entitled to worship other gods of the universe? I haven’t heard this taught before. Do you believe these other gods are real (though created), or imagined? But how could it be acceptable for anyone to worship a thing other than the God of Israel? Even without the covenant of the law or of being called his people, how could that be anything but wrong and devastating for us who are created by him? Even among other peoples, idols are considered detestable, as well as being worthless and invented. What about the many Messianic promises that his house will be called a house of prayer for all nations, that all people will come to worship him and bless Israel?

  7. Thomas says:

    Annelise- That’s the interpretation many scholars have to Deut 4:19, where it says:

    “And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. 20 But as for you, the LORD took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.”

    Here is one scholar on the verse:

    “Since the division of the nations among the gods Israel YHWH’s property, but the other peoples have different gods which they may also venerate. Deut 4:19-20 explicitly denies Israel the right to worship the gods of the peoples.”

    The provenance of Deuteronomy 32 By Paul Sanders (pg 364).

    I’m not taking that particular opinion, but I’m playing devil’s advocate. I think the point is that we can interpret Deut 4 as limiting idolatry in specific instances (only created objects in cultic worship), but as you can see here, it wouldn’t preclude this worship for the nations (according to some interpretations). For Israel, yes they cannot worship it, but other nations can. So I write that to demonstrate just how fluid we can see this chapter if we want to. So it’s proof that, if we can see Deut 4 allows for worship of Jesus, it allows – even encourages – worship of other gods among the peoples.

    The other interpretation of Deut 4:19 says it means simply anything in the created universe cannot be worshipped. Which, of course, is part of our discussion. Jews see the veneration of a human being – while he was on earth, certainly – as worship of a finite creature, because the difference between God and not God is Creator and created.

    But I think we need to appreciate it’s historical-critical context, but step back and ask: if this is a divine document, and God is actually teaching Israel lessons on idolatry, how on earth can I take anything from a prohibition on just the worship of created items only in a cultic setting? Does that mean anything else is allowed? Clearly, these are not sufficient laws on idolatry if that’s all it says. Deut 4 is only saying that Israel worships creator, not created. That is one reason they saw nothing- because nothing can be revealed to humanity (and thus, they couldn’t identify Him if he did come in ‘form’), and because if they saw God in a form, that would open the door to any kind of idolatry where they see Him in places God wasn’t. See also Isaiah 40:18.

    But of course, the essence of the discussion was and still is the veneration of a God who was explicitly commanded at Sinai. If we can intepret Deut 4 narrowly, it can allow for the veneration of so so many things. And if that’s the case, neither I nor you can say that believing an animal (or mountain) is the actual incarnation of God is idolatry at all. If we get that vague, we have clearly lost God’s message. Sinai was not meant to start a philosophical debate. It was supposed to show clearly who Israel was to worship.

  8. Annelise says:

    Oh, I get it. Thanks for clarifying that point, Thomas 🙂

    I still don’t completely identify with the way you’ve taken some possible readings to an extreme in order to show that they aren’t legitimate. That is a valid kind of argument, but in this case I think it ignores the claim of a nuance rather than addressing it, since it’s considered peripheral. There *is* a difference between something a person chooses to worship (an animal, a mountain, or such), and God’s ability to reveal what he will of himself in a way that we can come to understand. He did that at Sinai; that will never be contradicted, but he can do it again. Hypothetical situations have no weight because there is no examinable claim of God’s favour on them to begin with. (That’s another conversation again.)

    But I see what you’re doing there, considering the revelation at Sinai to be the full definition by which Israel should always examine such claims. So when it says God was not seen, that is definitely one reason and explanation behind the command not to worship idols; and as you say, it could also be suggesting that no claim of God being visible will be trustworthy. Because I acknowledge the seeming possibility of that reading, and yet also don’t resonate with the part of your approach that finds it to be certain (in the paragraph above; I think we keep responding with the same two ideas on that point), I don’t know if we’ll be able to take the discussion too much further at the moment. I’d like to spend more time in the scriptures and asking God, searching through what is really being given here, before trying to engage with this more. Thank you for pouring so much into these responses, and opening your heritage to me in that, and the two millennia of deep discussion and scholarship in the background of this specific point. I’ve learnt a lot about how you read this, along with the background of the New Testament as it addresses the same thing, and have appreciated discussing and wrestling with the scriptures with you in this regard 🙂

  9. Thomas says:

    I think the point is that if we look at the Sinai revelation and say we cannot make a form of God, but He can, it misses the point of us seeing no form. If we saw no form, we cannot ever connect worship God in a manifestation of any kind.

    You said: “There *is* a difference between something a person chooses to worship (an animal, a mountain, or such), and God’s ability to reveal what he will of himself in a way that we can come to understand.”

    Ah, but the point of Sinai is to teach us that because we saw no form, we won’t know what the difference is! You say God revealed Himself as Jesus, whereas I say it was people who chose it (though they probably actually believed it). In other words, one could really, actually, truly believe that God had manifested Himself as a mountain, and is not simply ‘choosing’ it. According to your reasoning, one could rationally think God had manifested Himself AS Mt. Sinai- with the miracles and the changed lives as proof! I think Sinai’s revelation was, in part, teaching that this could never be the case. I think you’re making a distinction that there’s no indication of in the text. We saw no form because, as one scholar says “God has no form that can be revealed to mankind.” Thus, one needs to worship God devoid of any manifestation.

    We worship only that which was revealed at Sinai. You ask whether he could in future reveal himself in a form or manifestation which we must worship. I say – God can ‘do anything’ – but His teaching about idolatry is based exclusively on who He revealed and commanded. To worship a manifestation of Jesus is to miss Sinai’s message- God is not saying he “cannot” do A or B, but rather- our only focus is the one who revealed Himself. Sinai teaches that God is the Creator, whereas everything else – every manifestation – is but a creation. So it’s not that Sinai ‘allows’ for worship of Jesus or worship of anything else that one really believes God manifested Himself as, but rather – says anything not revealed at Sinai is not to be worshipped, because any “form” you see is not God, but merely one of His creations.

    But reflect on this – why would God’s central teaching on idolatry not teach me anything at all? If God can “reveal what he will of himself” in anything (!), then how am I to know the difference between what I am ‘choosing’ falsely (though sincerely) versus God actually becoming something for me to worship? Miracles? Changed lives? Is this a scriptural teaching? Nowhere in the OT. And even then, Christianity has no market cornered on miracles or indwelling spirit. I say Mormonism’s golden plate is well-attested, and they all have the ‘spirit’ in them. But that is irrelevant, because if we are now using miracles and whatnot to distinguish between how we know God has manifested Himself as something, we have totally missed the message. God is God because He revealed Himself to Israel.

    Again, we saw no form because everything else was just a creation. If we leave open the possibility that God will manifest in a form for our worship, it is a slippery (and fast) slope to idolatry. Sinai is not teaching that “you can’t choose, but I might do it,” because we are never given any parameters for evaluating how to know the difference! Rather, as we saw no form, worshipping God in any manifestation is to worship not God at all, but one of His creations.

    I am NOT saying this: “no claim of God being visible will be trustworthy.” No! I am simply saying that we cannot worship any physical manifestation of God, as not only do we not know if it’s God or not (as we have no parameters outlined by scripture), but because we were never commanded to! What God is capable of is unclear; what He commanded us to do is much clearer.

    So another issue is- if God knew He would reveal Himself in a physical form – despite Israel having no idea how to distinguish between a real God in the ‘flesh’ and a false one – why did He never actually teach that? At most, a Christian can say Sinai does not “preclude” Christianity, but I think Sinai is teaching a more direct message that anything not present there *is* “precluded;” otherwise, as I wrote above, virtually anything can in theory be God in the ‘flesh.’ But to believe that is to miss the purpose of a national revelation, and to see God as a trickster who tells us the extreme penalties for idolatry, while not actually telling us if so many things are idolatry or not.

    So if I am guilty of taking an over-general approach to Sinai, I think the approach which allows for Jesus takes a far more flawed approach, because it robs the entire national revelation of all meaning. He showed the entire nation who we are to worship. Having a discussion about God in future becoming something else, and we have to worship that, is to miss Sinai’s message: only that which was commanded at the revelation can be worshipped. Anything else is not God. Because, as I said, to believe that only “we can’t make something,” but “God might do something,” is to worship something He never commanded us to! Rationales can be used to justify *any* belief, but if we are even getting to that discussion, we need to look back and say- what were we actually commanded to do, not what can I in theory imagine is not technically excluded.

    To sum, I’d repeat what I wrote just above: what God is capable of is not my concern; what He commanded us to do is much clearer.

    • David Kaufmann says:

      These have been marvelous, spot on posts on this subject. However, I am going to throw in an addendum with reference to this business of the trinity. I have for decades studied christian doctrine and scriptures and I know these better than most christians. The fact of the matter is that the so called new testament also fails to prove the trinity and in fact flatly contradicts the concept in numerous places, particularly in the book of John (Try Jesus prayer in John 17 and see Who he says is the “only true G-d!) . In fact, the christian theologians do the same thing to the NT that they do to the Tanach; they ASSUME there is a trinity and then hallucinate the proof texts. Read for itself, the NT does not really teach a trinity at all. It teaches POLYTHEISM!
      Thank G-D for His truth, revealed to our nation! Sh’ma Y’srael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai ECHAD! Nothing ambiguous about it, that in the heavens above and the earth beneath, the L-rd, He is G-D; There is NOTHING ELSE!

  10. A basic question please. The first Divine manifestation at Sinai was to Moses alone, not to the nation as a whole (Ex.3:12). Was the respect and honour Moses paid to that manifestation of him who dwelt in the bush worship or not worship? When the passage says that Moses was afraid ‘to look upon God’, was Moses in error? When the speaker declares his identity, is he actually acting as a mouthpiece for another or declaring his own being?

    • Annelise says:

      Verse 2 makes it clear that it was through a messenger/angel that God was appearing and speaking. The Israelite emphasis on things like this in itself should push you in the direction away from what you’re trying to promote. So the respect and honour towards God was worship; towards the manifestation, certainly not. It was just a messenger, a servant of God (i.e. created) in which God’s communication was closely known to Moshe. Such a mouthpiece in quite common in the Torah.

      Anyway there are emotions involved so the line may seem thin. Let’s say, then, in Rabbi Blumenthal’s words, that angels have quite a different function in Tanach than J has in the Christian scriptures and worship: “The entire function of this entity [the angel] was to convey a message and that is the only function the Bible assigns to him. The Christian concept of venerating the human activities of the one that they see as an incarnation of the divine has no parallel in the Jewish Scriptures.”

      • Thanks, Annelise, so to be crystal clear, for you: no real worship was intended, the one ‘who dwelt in the bush’ (Deut.33.16) (and whilst we’re on the subject the blessed One who redeemed Jacob from all evil (Gen.48.16)) actually a created angel only, like Michael or Gabriel, the one who actually spoke just a mouthpiece for the true Speaker and Moses quite in error in thinking he was about to see God?

        Unless your candid answer to all these questions is yes, the problem is the Messenger Himself looks like much more than a mere creature – and if you avoid this, don’t you see that conclusion creates many more problems for you in distinguishing creature from Creator worship than it solves. It looks like hammering a square peg into a round hole.

  11. Pingback: GENESIS | Judaism Resources

  12. Yehuda says:

    Thanks for reposting Rabbi B. It’s Still Brilliant.

    My favorite excerpts include:

    “This debate is not a philosophical question of what God could theoretically do, but about ‘Who should I worship’ and ‘What constitutes idolatry.’”

    “When apologists say they do not worship a ‘manifestation’ of God in Jesus, it also minimizes their belief that Jesus was not simply a ‘representation’ of God, but rather, an entirely distinct member of the godhead- a member which Israel was never commanded to worship at Sinai. If at Sinai, Israel was never commanded to worship two of the three members of the trinity, then they are outside of what Israel is allowed to worship…Christian belief does not simply place Jesus as a physical manifestation of God, but as a member of the trinity distinct from the other two. There is no command anywhere in Scripture which demands Israel to worship these other two members of the trinity.”

    “Deuteronomy 4 reminds Israel they saw no form at Sinai, and thus, Israel is to worship no ‘form’ (or manifestation) of God. If Deuteronomy 4 is not a command, and merely a statement of fact that Israel saw no form at Sinai then it makes no sense for God to place such emphasis on it.”

    “The Jewish rejection of worship of God’s manifestation is not based primarily on the question of “whether God is capable of” taking on flesh, but rather, as in Deuteronomy 4, what our parameters for worship are. In other words, did God ever demand our worship of it? If not, it is excluded”.

    “The instances in the Hebrew Bible where God appears to be in human or physical form (Abraham’s guests, or the burning bush) are not clear teachings on idolatry or who Israel should worship. They are almost always vague and unclear. However perplexing they may be, they cannot be used to influence who we are to worship.”

    “If the Sinai revelation does not preclude belief in the trinity, or in the divinity of Jesus, then it certainly doesn’t preclude a 4 or 5-part godhead, or worship of the burning bush as god, or worship of God as manifested as anything imaginable. And if Sinai does not preclude all this, then it becomes devoid of all meaning.”

    To the second to last excerpt above, I would add the following thought which I believe is true. These “appearances” of a godly representative in Tanakh (to which one could probably add the beings that appeared to Manoach and Yiftach for good measure – unlike what Christianity does, were never themselves elevated to anything akin to a godhead (whatever that word means). The event or place of the divine revelation event was sometimes marked or commemorated (as with Jacob and Abraham building altars) but the Tanakh never records the people who experienced these things as having subsequently elevated and venerated the being they encountered nor having taught others to expand upon their worship through these beings. They apparently took the event as having been something supernatural – and extremely personal – that they somehow merited to experience (and thankfully survive) and then they continued worshiping God as they did before.

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