Early Jewish Interpretation
A common misconception about the New Testament is that it teaches belief in three gods. I mean look, the trinity is a core idea in Christianity. Everyone knows the trinity is three God’s –case closed. Well, “Trinity” is a contraction of the words Tri-unity. So, “trinity” is intended to emphasize God’s oneness. God is one, but we need to look at what the Torah teaches about the oneness of God.
Before the time of Jesus, many early Jewish scholars read scripture and knew that God somehow was at the same time “one” but also not quite solitary. Respected Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh in the second temple period attempted to make sense of this. In two essential Jewish works that predated Jesus, 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, the authors clearly believed that there was a divine-human figure ruling alongside God (1 Enoch 48:2-6 taken together with 62:6-7). The scroll of 4 Ezra mentions that the human-like being who ruled alongside God also existed before creation with the Most High. So, the understanding of some sort of multiplicity within God’s oneness is not a new understanding of Scripture.
Okay, so it isn’t a new idea, but is it the correct interpretation of Scripture? We have a central and very significant verse to interpret. The Shema has been on the lips of the Jewish people for thousands of years, and for good reason. It is a really important verse. We absolutely should not just ignore the Shema. The New Testament claims to be firmly rooted in the Tanakh, so if the New and Old Testaments disagree on who God is, then the New Testament can’t be correct. Let’s examine the Shema, the Tanakh as a whole, and what the New Testament teaches to see if we can discern who God tells us He is.
“Hear, Israel! YHWH is our God, YHWH is one [echad]! And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.”Deuteronomy 6:4
The Hebrew word for “one,” “echad,” is a unique word. Before we do anything else, let’s just look at one of the first appearances of the word “echad” in the Torah.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one [Echad] flesh.(Genesis 2:24)
The first time the Torah uses the word echad to show “oneness,” it’s speaking of two people being united together as one entity. It’s talking about a unity. And “unity” is a great way to describe what “echad” means. You might think – okay but that’s just the Hebrew word for “one” right? The authors had to use the words at their disposal and the word for one and unity just happen to be the same. Actually no, the Torah authors had another word for “one” that they could have used to show the onlyness of God if that’s what they wanted to do. There is another Hebrew word that the biblical authors use several times, but never to describe God. The word “Yached” means “one” but carries a different connotation than “echad.” While “echad” means a multiplicity in one, or unity, “yached” means one and only. So, the word “one” in the Shema does not teach us that God is an isolated God and cannot be a unity, it actually implies that He is some sort of multiplicity in one.
We are introduced to God on the first page, in the first sentence of the Bible. “In the beginning God [Elohim] created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). It’s curious that the word first used for God, and used over 2,000 times, has a plural ending. In Hebrew to make a masculine word plural, you add on “im,” very similar to adding an “s” in English. The Torah also gives us a glimpse into how God refers to Himself. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (Geneses 1:26). Notice that God uses the plural words “us” and “our” to refer to himself.
Some say that maybe this kind of language is used to show the royalty or nobility of God. In Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great referred to himself as “us” in a show of “plurality of majesty.” In the ancient Greek world this was a standard practice. But the writing of the Torah is thousands of years earlier than the introduction of this norm. In other words, even though thousands of years later, Greeks used “us” to talk about “me” this was not a usage of the word in ancient Hebrew. Not one of the Hebrew Kings is ever referred to in this “plurality of majesty.”
Others say that God was talking to the angels, “Hey angels let us make man in our image.” This theory is even less credible. The very next sentence shows that man was created in the image of God and God alone, they were not created in the image of Angels. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). That means that God sees Himself as an “Us” and he can refer to His image as “Our” Image.
This nature of God existing as some sort of multiplicity in One – unity – is why we come across interesting passages of scripture. YHWH appeared to Abraham along with two angels and ate with him. Then YHWH told Abraham that he was going to destroy Sodom, so YHWH is on earth at this point and scripture tells us: “Then YHWH rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah from YHWH out of heaven” (Genesis 19:24). So YHWH was on earth, and he rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, where did the brimstone and fire come from? YHWH in heaven. The Torah is depicting YHWH as two distinct people in two places at once. This depiction of God existing as a multiplicity in one appears all over scripture, noticeably the first time God reveals his name YHWH. In Exodus 3, there is an intentional and glaringly obvious confusion about who is appearing to Moses in the burning bush. The Authors tell us that the angel of YHWH appeared to Moses from within the bush (Ex. 3:2). Then the authors tell us that YHWH God himself is the one who spoke to Moses from within the bush (Ex. 3:6, 7 & 14). The angel of YHWH who appeared to Moses is the one who said to Moses is the one who says God’s name “EHYH ASER EHYH,” which not even Moses could not repeat. So, the angel of YHWH is intentionally being portrayed as distinct from YHWH, but also as YHWH himself. Mindboggling, but also clear.
The Father and the Son
Does the Tanakh teach us anything else about the nature of this God. Yes, the Tanakh teaches that God is Father, Son and Spirit and that God is one. When Jesus came, he revealed this more clearly and it became more understandable, but it was not absent from the Tanakh, in fact we can see the Father, Son and the Spirit in the one God by reading the Tanakh. God is Father, it is essential to who He is.
“For I am a Father to Israel…”(Jeremiah 31:9, see also Deuteronomy 1:21, Deuteronomy 8:5, Exodus 4:22 and Isaiah 1:2)
“How I would set you among My sons and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful inheritance of the nations! And I said, ‘You shall call Me, My Father, and not turn away from following Me.’”(Jeremiah 3:19)
Everything God does stems from his fatherhood. He creates and rules His creation as Father. Michael Reeves captured this beautifully, he wrote “For if, before all things, God was eternally a Father, then this God is an inherently outgoing, life-giving God. He did not give life for the first time when he decided to create; from eternity he has been life-giving.”
A father can’t be a father with no child. And we know that God is not dependent on creation. He is not a lonely needy God who needed to be a father but had no children. God is a father and since He isn’t dependent on his creation to make Him who He is. God is Father because He has been eternally giving life to His Son. (Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 42:1) This means the son is eternal as well. The pre-Christian Jewish interpreters knew that God has eternally been a father. That’s why they wrote about the divine human son of God (1 Enoch 48: 2-6 taken together with 62:6-7 & 4 Ezra). Jesus and the New Testament authors were not adding anything new when they described God as an eternal Father. They were revealing more about the relationship between the Father and the Son. They taught that The Father has eternally loved the son and the Father’s love prompts the Son to love the Father in return.
“The Father loves the Son and has entrusted all things to His hand.”(John 3:35)
“…but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me…”(John 14:31)
God the Spirit
Time and time again we see the Spirit of God acting on God’s behalf, somehow a distinct person, yet One with God. The Prophet Isaiah understood God’s Spirit in this way. “And now YHWH God has sent Me, and His Spirit” (Isaiah 48:16). If we go back to the first page of the Bible again, we see the Spirit “Ruakh” of God hovering over the waters. “And the earth was a formless and desolate emptiness, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit [ruakh] of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis1:2).
“Ruakh” is the Hebrew word for breath, wind, and Spirit. In the minds of the biblical authors these things are deeply connected. They are not exactly homonyms. When God created Man, he breathed his Spirit/Ruakh into man giving him life. “Then YHWH God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruakh] of life; and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7). So, man’s breath is the “ruakh” that God breathed into him. The Torah speaks of our breath being God’s own ruakh that we have borrowed (Genesis 6:3). Even the wind is seen as deeply connected to this idea of God’s Spirit in creation. After flooding the earth, God causes the flood to subside by sending a “ruakh” over the waters. Just like his ruakh was hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:2. So, God can send His Spirit to go act on his behalf, His Spirit is One with Him yet somehow distinct. This explains why the prophet Isaiah said that God sent him and His Spirit.
The New Testament authors tell us that the way the Father loves his son is by giving Him His Spirit. Paul told us that God loves his people in the same way, by giving us His Spirit (Romans 5:5). After Jesus was baptized by John, (the prophet in the Spirit of Elijah who heralded the coming of the Messiah from Malachi 4:5) God’s Spirit hovered on Jesus over the waters.
“And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon Him; and a voice came from the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.’”(Mark 1:10-11)
Relationship is intrinsic to God, He has been in real relationship for all of eternity, He did not need to create in order to be Father, Son or Spirit. He has always been all three. God is inherently Father, Son, and Spirit in loving relationship, and He decided to share that relationship with us, so He created us, and we get to benefit from this life-giving fatherly love. Sam Nadler expressed this excellently: “Since relationship is intrinsic to the triune God, it is intrinsic to our lives as well.”