The Bush, the Cloud and Genesis 18
Christians believe that Jesus, a man who lived and breathed like all other human beings, was in some mysterious way – divine. On the basis of this belief, Christians direct veneration and worship towards Jesus. They call this belief the “incarnation of the divine”.
Ever since Christians began promoting this belief, the Jewish people have identified it as idolatrous and have chosen to give their lives rather than direct worship to Jesus.
Christian apologists have presented many arguments in their attempt to justify their worship and their belief. All of these arguments are wasted on the Jew who is loyal to his or her nation’s covenant with God. The heart of the Jew’s covenant with God is the knowledge that God directly implanted into the hearts and the minds of His nation – that there is no entity deserving of worship aside from Him (Deuteronomy 4:35). This knowledge was bestowed upon the Jewish people before God gave them the Bible and it is in the context of this knowledge that the Bible is to be read. An argument that is based on the piecing together of a complex and mysterious theological structure from enigmatic passages scattered throughout a book that contains about 30,000 verses – cannot go against the direct teaching of God.
With this in mind, we will direct our focus to some of those passages that Christian theologians see as a support for the doctrine of the incarnation.
Christians point to the burning bush which Moses encountered at Horeb (Exodus 3:1-4). The Christian contends that if God spoke to Moses out of the fire in the bush, He can also speak to us out of the person of Jesus.
Another passage that Christians point to is Exodus 40:34, where the cloud covers the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord is said to have filled the tabernacle. The Christian argues that if God’s glory can be manifest in a cloud, why can it not be manifest in the person of Jesus?
These arguments ring hollow for several reasons, but in the space of this brief article, we will limit our focus to one argument.
The Christian does not believe that the relationship between Jesus and God is the same as the relationship between God and the burning bush or between God and the cloud. No Christian theologian ever maintained that there are five members in the trinity (- add the bush and the cloud to the trinity). The person of the bush and the person of the cloud are insignificant entities in our relationship with God. No one ever recorded an adoring description of the bush or the cloud. The bush and the cloud were used by God to convey certain messages and that is all that remains of these two entities – the messages that God conveyed through them. Christians do not see Jesus as a mere medium that was used to convey a message. The person of Jesus himself is exalted and venerated by Christianity. The books that describe Jesus’ human activities; his birth, his travels, his human struggles and his suffering and death stand at the center of the Christian’s worship of Jesus. These books have no parallel in the Jewish memory of the bush or the cloud, and the Christian veneration of the person of Jesus has no parallel in the Jewish Bible’s teachings on the bush and the cloud.
Another passage that Christians point to in support of the incarnation doctrine is Genesis 18, where Abraham hosted three men. Two of these men turn out to be angels (Genesis 19:1) but who was the third one? The text tells us that after the men went to Sodom, Abraham was still standing before the Lord (Genesis 18:22). Since the text tells us that only two of the men arrived in Sodom, these Christian concludes that the third man is the one before whom Abraham was still standing.
The widely held Jewish interpretation of this passage posits that four separate entities appeared to Abraham; God (in a prophetic vision) and three men. Throughout Scripture, visions of God are accompanied by the sighting of angels and this is but another example (Judges 6:12-23, Isaiah 6:1,2). When the two angels left, the third stayed behind while Abraham spoke with God. There is no contextual reason to assume that God and the third person are one and the same.
However, some Jewish commentators (Rashbam) explain that the third person was the Angel of the Lord who is commissioned to speak God’s words throughout the Scriptures. It is he that is called “Lord” in his capacity of bringing God’s word to Abraham. Christian theologians, on the other hand, argue that this person was God incarnate.
Before we determine which of these two positions is rooted in the Jewish Scriptures, we will point out that even according to the Christian interpretation (which is erroneous), this text cannot serve as a justification for the worship of Jesus. The Bible tells us nothing about this person aside from the words that he said and the message that he conveyed. The entire function of this entity 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.
But who was this person? The Bible provided us with an answer before we got to this chapter. In chapter 16 in this same book (16:7-13), Hagar meets the Angel of the Lord. In an uncharacteristic usage of Hebrew, the text emphasizes that it was the Angel of the Lord who spoke to Hagar. Three verses, one after another, all open with the words: “And the Angel of the Lord said to her” (16:9,10,11). Yet when Hagar speaks of her encounter with the Angel, she says that it was the Lord who spoke to her (16:13). It is clear that the Angel of the Lord is chosen to convey God’s words and that when one converses with this angel, he or she has conversed with God Himself – although they have only seen the angel.
We encounter this same angel in the book of Numbers. The text describes how the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the Angel of the Lord (Numbers 22:31). The text makes it clear that the Lord and His Angel are two different entities. The Angel goes on to warn Balaam that he may only speak what he, the Angel, will tell him to speak (22:35). When Balaam actually receives the word that he is to pronounce, the text tells us that it was the “Lord” who met Balaam and placed the words in his mouth (23:16). But the text has already made clear that it was the angel who was commissioned by God to put the words into Balaam’s mouth. This passage gives us to understand that when one meets with the Angel of the Lord, it is described by the text as having met the Lord.
In the book of Exodus we are told that the Lord traveled before His people in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). Yet when the pillar of cloud moved from its position in front of the people to stand behind them to protect them from the pursuing Egyptians, the text tells us that it was the Angel of God who moved from before them to stand behind them. Again, we learn that when God acts through the agency of the Angel, the text will describe it as the Lord traveling before His people.
In light of all of these texts we can confidently state that the Jewish interpretation that it was the Angel of the Lord who Abraham saw as a man and not God Himself, is firmly rooted in the words of Scripture. The Christian interpretation, that insists that it was God Himself incarnated as a man, is without Scriptural foundation. There is not one passage in Scripture which Christians can point to with confidence and say that here God appeared as a physical human being.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal