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?
“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