The Netzari Faith

Netzarim, Original followers of Yeshua & His 12

The Divine Unity and the Diety of Messiah

by  Noam Hendren

(This article originally appeared in the Messianic Journal “MISHKAN”, issue 39/2003 )

The unity of God is axiomatic to the faith of the Jewish people. Not only is the “Shema” (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”) the essential statement of faith in Judaism, it is the personal declaration of faith for every Jew. Throughout the centuries, Jews have lived and have been willing to die for “kiddush haShem,” the “sanctification of the Name” as expressed in this simple, yet deeply profound, creed.

With the expansion of the major monotheistic religions, which today dominate more than half of the world’s population, the faith in one God may appear to be a universal “given,” a commonplace which has always been obvious to thinking people everywhere. Yet clearly that is not the case. The revelation of this truth – or, from a biblical perspective, its restoration – came in the context of worldwide idolatry, at a time when the most advanced civilizations of the ancient world were hopelessly polytheistic.

Israel’s roots and the context of her early existence – from the beginning and until well after the coming of Yeshua the Messiah – are in pagan polytheism. From the time of the Patriarchs until the return from Babylonian captivity, Israel’s key challenge – and most consistent failure – was in the struggle against idolatrous worship. More than 500 years after the call of Abram, Joshua still needed to lay the challenge before the nation:

But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD (Josh. 24:15).

It is little wonder that the biblical revelation is so emphatically monotheistic, not only in underlying theology but also in the nuances of expression. The biblical prophets, from Moses on, were fighting an uphill battle to wean Israel from her pagan roots and to immu­nize her from the contagion of polytheism which surrounded her on every side, and with which she shared the Land of Canaan. Every phrase spoken and written would be weighed to exalt the one true God and to exclude utterly the “gods of the nations” from the faith and worship of Israel.

This, Israel’s cultural and religious context, must inform our interpretation of the biblical evidence concerning the nature of God and the person of Messiah if we are to understand that revelation aright.

The Unity of the Godhead

The expression of the divine unity in the Shema includes at least two senses: singularity and uniqueness.  The Lord God of Israel is one God, not many. Israel has no pantheon; neither is the divine name (YHWH) a collective term designating abstract divinity which comes to expression in a multitude of individual deities.[1] The golden calf incident flies in the face of this truth not only by representing the infinite God by a created object, but also by associating the Lord with the plethora of pagan gods worshipped in Egypt and Canaan.

[Aaron] took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD [YHWH]’ (Exod. 32:4-5; cf. I Kgs. 12:28).

The fact of God’s singularity, however, does not deny the existence of other spirit beings. In the wilderness Israel “sacrificed to demons, which are not God – gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear”[2] (Deut 32:17). But the Shema declares that the Lord is unique as the infinite and self-existent One.[3] Moses also declares: “the LORD is God; besides him there is no other” (Deut. 4:35). And Isaiah reaffirms: “Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (Isa. 45:21). The God of Israel is the only God worthy of the name.

Significantly, the Rambam (Maimonides), in his Thirteen Principles, speaks of God not as “echad” (“one”) in the words of the Shema, but as “yachid”: “[God] is one (or “unique,” Hebrew yachid), and there is no oneness (yechidut) like unto His.”[4] Why should the Rambam abandon the language of the universally accepted credo of Israel in his declara­tion of Israel’s essential faith? The answer lies in the Rambam’s Aristotelian conception of God as an absolute philosophical unity[5] (as in Islam) – one which contrasts starkly with the biblical description of God as a compound personal unity.

For the Rambam, the term “echad” allowed for elements of personal complexity within the Godhead which he had excluded a priori for philosophical reasons. As used in the Tanach, “echad” is the word of choice to express the unification of two or more elements to form one entity. Whether it is “the evening and the morning” combining to form “one day” (Gen. 1:5), male and female becoming “one flesh” (2:24), or Ezekiel’s two sticks becoming “one stick” in his hand (37:17), a compound unity is the result.

Nevertheless, in contrast to the above examples, because the God of Israel is infinite spirit, His unity is not the linking of pieces into an artificial “jigsaw puzzle” oneness, nor is it the combination of elements to form a new compound. His one eternal divine “substance” is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7-10), and thus the distinctions within the Godhead are not mate­rial, but rather personal – as we shall see. Truly God’s unity is unique.

Thus, by describing the Lord as “echad,” the Shema does not exclude complexity within the essential divine unity. As the Rambam understood, the term falls far short of asserting an absolute philosophical unity.

Divine Dialogues: Personal Plurality in the One God

Despite the dangers of miscommunication to a people besieged by idolatry, the Tanach repeatedly alludes to – or emphatically asserts – a personal plurality in the Godhead.

The first hints of plurality are found in the terms used to designate God – “Elohim” and “Adonai” – both of which are plural forms of existing singular nouns.[6] Had the biblical authors intended to assert the absolute (rather than compound) unity of the Godhead, they had readily available singular terms (EloahAdoni, as well as El) which would have avoided any confusion on this crucial point.[7] And while it is usual for Elohim, for exam­ple, to appear with singular verbs and adjectives (Gen. 1:1; Exod. 34:6); on a number of occasions a plural is used: “God caused (hit‘u) me to wander” (Gen. 20:13); “He is a holy God (elohim kedoshim)” (Josh. 24:19); “Remember your Creator” (lit., “Creators,” Eccl. 12:1); “Let Israel rejoice his Maker” (lit., “Makers,” Ps. 149:2).

Such occurrences can be dismissed as mere grammatical agreement, but given Israel’s cultural and religious setting and the dangerous implications of the plural forms in that context, it is hard to explain a sudden attack of grammatical precision on the part of monotheism’s guardian angels. However one chooses to relate to the preceding anoma­lies, they leave the door ajar for an understanding of plurality within the Godhead.

God Himself pushes the door wide open in the Genesis 1 account of mankind’s crea­tion:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26-27).

Verse 26 describes the interpersonal communication which took place within the Godhead on the occasion of man’s creation, the climax of the entire account. This divine consulta­tion is revealed in order that the readers might understand God’s purposes in the creation, centered on mankind made in God’s image. Man has been created as a personal-social being, even as his Creator is personal and social. But while God would later declare “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18), God himself lacked nothing, being eternally satisfied with personal relationship and communication within the Godhead itself (cf. John 17:27, “for You loved Me before the foundation of the world”).

Certain Rabbinic interpreters have posited that God’s interaction in this passage was with the angels, with whom he consulted prior to man’s creation. This proposal is in sharp contrast to the declaration of Isaiah that God consults with no other being in planning and carrying out his purposes (Isa. 40:13-14). It is further contradicted by verse 27, which reasserts the essential unity of God, making it clear that he alone created man and that man was created in His image, not in that of God plus the angels.[8] It is significant that, in Breshit Rabba, the sages portray Moses as challenging God’s wisdom in allowing this passage to be written as it was: “Why do you give an excuse to the Minim [Jewish follow­ers of Yeshua]?”[9] Apparently the implications of the passage were clear enough to them!

Similar consultations are recorded on the occasion of two other especially significant divine interventions in early biblical history: following the fall of man (Gen. 3:22-23), and in response to the building of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:7). In the first, man, having eaten from the tree of knowledge, is described as having become “like one of us, knowing good and evil” – a clear parallel to the serpent’s promise that they would become “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). As before, the deliberation is followed by God him­self acting (singular verb): here, driving Adam and Eve out of the garden (cf. 1:26-27 and 11:6-8). In each case the plural pronoun (“Us”, “Our”) is identified with God alone, and all others are thereby excluded.

Divine Teamwork: Personal Plurality II

Not only is there interpersonal communication within the Godhead, the Scriptures also refer to two or more distinct personalities as “God” or “LORD” (YHWH) in the same con­text (for example, Gen. 19:24; Ps. 45:7-8; Isa. 48:12-16; 63:7-14; Zech. 2:12-13). In these passages, the distinct persons of the Godhead are seen fulfilling different roles in the execution of the divine program.

In Zechariah Two, an angel of God is sent to bring a message from the Lord to Zechariah:

 “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls, because of the multitude of men and live­stock in it. For I,” says the LORD, “will be a wall of fire all around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.”… For thus says the LORD of hosts: “He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye. For surely I will shake My hand against them, and they shall become spoil for their servants. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me."[10]

The Lord declares himself to be the protective wall and glorious presence in the midst of the future restored Jerusalem. He continues making first person pronouncements, calling on Israel to leave the lands of her dispersion, “‘whither I have scattered you,’ declares the LORD” (v. 6, Heb. v. 10). Then, surprisingly, “the LORD of hosts” says, “He sent Me after glory,” to bring certain judgment to the nations which had plundered Israel, by shaking “My hand against them.” The “Me” of verse 8 (Heb. v. 12) is the speaker, “the LORD of hosts,” who by a mere wave of his hand brings destruction on his enemies (similar to “the waving of the hand of the LORD” in Isa. 19:16). Who then could be the “sender” of the LORD of hosts? The divine Speaker continues, explaining that when the plundering nations become “spoil for their servants,” “you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me.”

 “The LORD of hosts” sends “the LORD of hosts” to execute judgment on Israel’s enemies and thereby glorify himself. A clear personal distinction is revealed to exist within the Godhead, each equally “theLORD of hosts,” and yet “one” sending the “other” to carry out the divine work. Because Israel is “the apple of His eye,”[11] the Lord will entrust this job to no one but the Lord himself. 

When we turn to Isaiah 48:12-16 we find a similar situation, but with an added player. Once again we must carefully note that throughout the passage the Lord God of Israel is identified as the speaker. The speaker is the one who “called” Israel and is “the First” and “the Last” (v. 12; cf. 44:6). He is the creator and sovereign Lord of the heavens and the earth (v. 13). As he summoned all creation to attention (v. 13b), so he now calls Israel to attend to his comforting promise: To punish Babylon, Israel’s oppressor, through his cho­sen instrument (Cyrus, Isa. 44:28; 45:1) and thereby bring about Israel’s restoration (vss. 14-15; cf. v. 20; 45:13; 46:11).

In verse 16, the divine Speaker again calls for Israel’s focused attention in order to assure her that his revelation of this promise has been publicly and confidently made, because he himself has been involved from the beginning to insure its fulfillment. Without the slightest indication of a change in the speaker, he concludes: “And now the Lord God and His Spirit have sent Me.”[12] As in Zechariah 2, the divine Revelator is also the divine Executor of God’s saving works, even when a human instrument such as Cyrus is also used. He is the agent and representative of the entire Godhead by Whom He is sent; and yet, though clearly distinct, He declares Himself to be God, the Creator of the cosmos who also called Israel into existence.[13]

Theophanies in the Tanach: the Angel of the Lord

The revelation of personal distinctions in the one true God comes to remarkable expres­sion in the repeated physical appearances of God in order to reveal himself and his will to his chosen instruments. In these appearances, God takes on true physical form, often human form, as a distinct localization of the omnipresent, invisible God in heaven whom he reveals. These physical manifestations of the deity caused considerable consternation to later Rabbinic interpreters, who sometimes adjusted the text[14] or paraphrased its transla­tion[15] in order to mitigate – what was to their thinking – a theological inconsistency.

In the patriarchal period, God is often described as “appearing” in clearly physical form.[16] One could argue that such manifestations were merely visions representing themselves to the mind of the individual (cf. Gen. 15:17; 28:12-15), but in certain cases the true physical embodiment of God on earth is undeniable.[17] Genesis 18 is perhaps the classic example.

This passage opens with the simple statement that “the LORD appeared to him [Abraham] at the Oaks of Mamre” (v. 1). What Abraham actually sees is three “men,” two of whom the text later calls “angels” (cf. v. 22 and 19:1). All three are shown Abraham’s best hos­pitality, including washing their feet (v. 4); and he waits on them hand and foot while they eat (v. 8). There can be no question that all three are real physical manifestations and not mere visions.

The third individual is the focus of Abraham’s attention, and Abraham addresses him per­sonally as “Adonai,” calling him “the judge of the whole earth” (vv. 3, 25, 27, 30-32). When this person speaks, it is as the “LORD” (YHWH, vv. 13, 17, 20, 26, 33), Who has chosen Abraham to fulfill a crucial role in his plan for world redemption (vv. 17-19). He also reconfirms the promise that Sarah would bear a son, Isaac, just as “God” [Elohim] had promised when he “appeared” to Abraham in the previous chapter (vv. 10, 14; cf. 17:15-19). Having agreed to preserve Sodom if ten righteous men can be found in her, the LORD “walks” away (18:33) – apparently following the path of the two angels (cf. vv. 20-22).[18]

After the two angels reconnoitered the situation in Sodom, and removed Lot and his fam­ily, “the LORD rained down on Sodom fire and brimstone from the LORD, from heaven” (19:24). God, who has temporarily assumed human form, is distinct from God in heaven and exercises the prerogative of God (judgment) in God’s name.

In a number of passages, beginning with the revelation to Hagar in Genesis 16, the visible manifestation of God is referred to as “the Angel of the LORD” – the term “angel” (mal’akh) meaning literally, “messenger” or “emissary.”[19] As used throughout the Torah and the Former Prophets (the historical books), the context of each passage makes it clear that God himself is the one intended, though in a physical form. The phrase “the Angel of the LORD” thus becomes a technical term for such a divine manifestation.[20]

God’s self-revelation to Moses in the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-15) demonstrates the identity of the “Angel of the LORD” with the “LORD” himself who is manifested, in this case, in a non-human form. The divine appearance at Horeb is introduced in verse 2 with the phrase, “Then the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a burning flame from within the bush.” Already in verse 4 we are told that “the LORD” saw that Moses had turned to see the phenomenon and as a result “God [Elohim] called to him from the midst of the bush.”

That the divine Person was literally present is evident from the command which arrested the approaching Moses, “Remove your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (v. 5).[21] To leave no doubt as to who was present, God immediately identified himself as “the God of Abraham…Isaac…and Jacob,” and Moses appropriately covered his face, “for he was afraid to look upon God” (v. 6). Only then did the Lord reveal the purpose of His personal “descent” into the world (v. 8): To save his people Israel and bring them to the Land of promise.

God’s manifest personal involvement in Israel’s redemption would extend beyond his call of Moses (v. 12). As the “Destroyer” he would pass throughout the Land of Egypt and strike their firstborns (12:12-13, 23).  As an “angel,” in the form of the pillar of fire and cloud, He would appear in order to guide Israel and to protect her from the Egyptian counterattack (13:21-22; 14:19). As the “Commander of theLORD’s armies,” He would direct the attack on Jericho (Josh 5:14-6:5), even as God had promised Moses that His Angel – “in whom is My Name” – would lead Israel into her inheritance and expel her enemies (Exod. 23:20-23).[22]

God Incarnate: The Davidic Messiah

All the above physical manifestations of God were temporary theophanies for the revela­tion of his will and the execution of his redemptive purposes. Though temporary and limited in scope, such divine appearances provided the archetype for the ultimate revela­tion of God’s unique unity and the fulfillment of his plan of salvation in the person of the divine-human Messiah. In contrast to the various theophanies discussed previously, the temporary assumption of physical form is not the focus of Messianic expectation, but rather a true “incarnation” – God literally taking on humanity through conception and birth. In the revelation of the Messiah, based on the Davidic Covenant and detailed in the prophets, the pattern of divine intervention in our world reaches its logical, and yet stun­ning, consummation.

The Scriptures hinted at the coming of a Redeemer from the moment that redemption became necessary and repeatedly during the pre-monarchial period.[23] With the establish­ment of David’s kingdom, the promise became firmly attached to his dynasty by divine covenant (II Sam. 7:12-15; cf. Ps. 89:1-4 [Heb. 2-5]). The chronicler provides an interpreted version of this covenant promise some 500 years later (I Chr. 17:11-14), which incorporates the prophetic revelation concerning the Davidic Messiah to his time. While the chronicler recognizes the Redeemer’s physical descent from David, he also affirms his divine nature and eternality. For in this version God declares, “I will be his Father, and he shall be My son;… And I will establish him in My house and in My kingdom forever; and his throne shall be established forever.”

In contrast to II Samuel, the chronicler does not limit the Father-Son relationship to a dis­ciplinary one, but leaves it undefined and, by implication, inclusive.[24] This is parallel to Psalm 2 which refers to “His Messiah” (Meshicho) as “My Son” who will rule the “ends of the earth” with “an iron scepter” (vv. 2, 7-9). The divine nature of the “Son” is con­firmed by the prediction of his everlasting rule in the kingdom and in the very house of God. The latter parallels Ezekiel’s description of the returning “glory of the LORD” per­sonified, establishing the throne of his kingdom in the restored temple (Ezek. 43:4-7).

The Chronicler’s interpolations reflect the prophetic revelation concerning the divine-Davidic Messiah, as exemplified by Isaiah 9:6-7 [Heb. vv. 5-6].

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and right­eousness from that time on and forever.

Here the future Redeemer of Israel is clearly a human child, born of the lineage of David the king and therefore able to sit on his throne. And yet, as the chronicler later saw, this “son of God” would be no mere mortal, but would rule “from that time on and forever.”[25] These statements are accompanied by a startling list of personal names which leave no doubt as to the essential deity of the child to be born.

When God declared his name to Moses, “I am that I am” (Exod. 3:13-14), He revealed the essential significance of His covenant name YHWH and thereby made a direct statement about His true nature as the eternal, self-existent source of all being. Later God’s cove­nant faithfulness is reinforced repeatedly by the statement, “I am the LORD” (cf. Exod. 6:2-8), the eternal – and therefore unchanging – One (cf. Mal. 3:6).[26] In the same way, the divine nature of the Messianic King is emphatically asserted through the names by which God has declared he shall be called.

While each of the names given contributes to the identification of the Davidic Messiah as truly God,[27] perhaps the most significant in the context of Isaiah is “Mighty God” (El Gibor). This name, in its precise form, appears only twice in all of Scripture, here and in Isaiah 10:21; both part of the larger “Book of Emmanuel” section of Isaiah (chapters 7-12).

In Isaiah 10:20-21 Israel’s future national repentance and reliance on God alone for deliv­erance is promised: “The remnant of Israel … will rely on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.” This is followed immediately by a poetic restatement in the words, “A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to [the][28] Mighty God.” The identification of “Mighty God” with “the LORD” as the object of Israel’s trust and the agent of her redemp­tion is directly parallel to the declaration concerning the Davidic Messiah, “Mighty God,” in 9:6. The Messiah would be the literal embodiment of the Lord himself,[29] carrying out God’s redemptive work for Israel.

The consummation of the divine-human Messiah’s work, and the necessity of a true incar­nation, is seen in Zechariah 12. As a description of the last days, this chapter reveals in specifics the circumstances leading to Israel’s national turning to the Mighty God, as seen above. With “all the nations of the earth” gathered against Israel (12:3), God will enable Israel’s national repentance by the outpouring of his Spirit, so that, “they will look unto Me Whom they had pierced, and they will mourn…” (12:10). As a result, “in that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness” (13:1).

Once again, God himself is speaking: he is the one who intends to destroy the invading nations, and he will pour out “the Spirit of grace and supplication” on Israel (12:9-10a). To him, “whom they had pierced,”[30] will Israel look for deliverance in her time of great­est need.[31] Without giving the details of the “piercing” or its significance (see Isa. 53), the true physical embodiment of God is evident. God had taken human form and had been assaulted physically, apparently unto death as the subsequent mourning indicates (12:10b-14; cf. Dan. 9:26).

The universal national repentance over this act – however it was car­ried out – is what will lead to Israel’s national cleansing (12:10-13:1), making her “savable” as God himself desires. Thus, the death of the God-man Messiah has become a crucial link in the divine plan of salvation, leading to the ultimate redemption of Israel on the day when “the LORD will go forth to fight against those nations” and “His feet will stand…on the Mount of Olives” (14:3-4).

The Divine Unity and the Deity of Messiah

The unity of the Godhead is without question the central theological teaching of the Tanach. And Israel’s context – religious and social – demanded the clearest possible communication of this truth by Moses and the prophets. But the truth of God’s unique unity was not compromised to achieve polemical ends. Personal distinctions were revealed as not only part and parcel of the true nature of the Godhead, but also as essential elements in the revelation and execution of the plans and purposes of God our Savior.

From the beginning, God purposed that a perfect man in the image of God would rule the earth as God’s representative (Gen. 1:26). Following man’s fall and the marring of the divine image in him, such a purpose could only be fulfilled by the divine-human Messiah, who “had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9). More­over the redemption of mankind from sin and its effects, which God alone – “apart from [Whom] there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11) – could accomplish, required a sacrificial death that only a man could suffer. In his infinite wisdom and his infinite love, the one true God took on true humanity in order to offer up an infinite sacrifice to himself on behalf of all mankind. And he will return in his glorified human body to complete the redemption, restoring the physical world and taking his throne as God and King forever.

 “And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be—‘The LORD is one,’ and His name one” (Zech. 14:9).

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