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The question of “personification”

Though occasionally the Memra as a special manifestation of Yahweh or His power appears to be personified, it most cer­tainly was not intended to imply that it is a person apart from Him. Instead, it directs attention to a particular aspect of Yahweh’s Person and work.

On this matter of personification, Jewish Encyclopedia provides a whole section to illustrate this type of use of “Memra” in the Targum. But before we consider it, we need to first be very clear what the word “personification” means. It basically means speak­ing of something as though it were an actual person; thus in Proverbs, Wisdom is often described as if it is a living person. Here is a definition of personificat­ion from Britannica (2003):

Figure of speech in which human characteristics are attributed to an abstract quality, animal, or inanimate object. An example is ‘The Moon doth with delight / Look round her when the heavens are bare’ (William Wordsworth, ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,’ 1807). Another is ‘Death lays his icy hand on kings’ (James Shirley, ‘The Glories of Our Blood and State,’ 1659).

Personification is something found frequently in poetic language; it is a characteristic of the vivid language of poetry. Here are some examples from the Scriptures:

Psalm 147.15: He (Yahweh) sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. (Notice that this verse speaks about the Word of God.)

Psalm 85: 10 Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteous­ness and peace kiss each other. 11 Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky. 12 Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. 13Righteousness will go before him and make his footsteps a way.

Psalm 107.42: The upright see it and are glad, and all wick­edness shuts its mouth.

Job 5.16: So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth.

Job 11.14: If you repudiate the sin which you have doubtless committed and do not allow wickedness to live on in your tents 17 Then begins an existence more radiant than noon, and the very darkness will be bright as morning. (NJB)

Regarding the personification of the Word

Under the general heading “Personification of the Word”, the Jewish Encyclopedia has the following:

Mediatorship.

“Like the Shekinah (comp. Targ. Num. xxiii. 21), the Memra is accordingly the manifestation of God.” [Bold italics added].

How exactly is this statement to be understood? How does a mani­festation function in a mediatorial way? This manifestation of God must stand in some way between God and men, both revealing and concealing at the same time. It would thus be something like the glory of the Shekinah which reveals Yahweh’s glory yet also conceals His Person.

But though we could speak in this carefully defined sense of the Memra functioning in a kind of mediatorial way, it is misleading (to polytheistic Gentiles) to speak of its role in terms of a “mediator” or “mediatorship” without giving the impression that one is speaking about an actual person. The Jew knows that there is no such person as the “Memra”, but not the Gentile.

The same is true of such a statement as, “The Memra is the agent of God”, for though “agent” does not necessarily refer to a human being such as an “estate agent” or a “travel agent” and could also refer to a chemical “cleansing agent” such as a detergent, this ambiguity in “agent” leaves the Gentile mind free to select the meaning of his choice, namely, the reference to a person. It is, therefore, important to bear in mind (if we would avoid mis­leading ourselves and others) that Jewish literature never thinks of the Memra as an actual person distinct from God but as “the manifestation of God”, as stated at the beginning of this section.

The Memra is “mediatorial” in the sense of being a “mediat­orial word”, that is, a word that serves to refer to Yahweh without directly mentioning his Name. It is thus a word that “stands between” Yahweh and the speaker or hearer, and in this sense “mediates” between them. This was done out of reverence for Yahweh by avoiding direct refer­ence to Him. Such mediatorial words and terms are probably found in most languages as a means of avoiding the pronunciation of the name of the person, out of reverence or respect for that person. Examples of this in English are “Your Majesty” (or “His majesty”), “Your Excellency”, “Your Honor”, etc. Similar forms of address are also common in classical Chinese. For example, out of courtesy even to people of not part­icularly high status, people could be addressed by the term “zu xia” which, translated literally, would mean “below your feet” or “to (or, at) your feet”, thus respectfully addressing the feet of the person as a “mediatorial” or indirect way of saying “you”.

If, however, the Word is not thought of as an entity or a being distinct from God, then it can be said correctly that the Word was an “agent” in creation in that it was by, or through, His Word that God created all things “in the beginning”. This fact is stated in John 1.3: “Through (dia) him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” All things owe their origin to God: all things are from (ek) God (1Co.11.12); and He accom­plishes His eter­nal purposes through (dia) His Word, His Wisdom, and His power.

The Targums were apparently less concerned about “anthropomorphism” than with direct references to God

It is often asserted that the use of such terms as Memra and Shekinah was to avoid anthropomorphism, but this is not necess­arily supported by the evidence. For example the “anthropomor­phic” reference to God’s “hand” in Deut.32.41 is still translated as “hand” in the Targums, both in this verse and elsewhere. Yet refer­ences to His “face” are consistently changed to His “Shekinah”. So it seems clear that the concern was not primarily with anthropo­morphisms but with direct references to God, which were con­sidered irreverent.

The following are a few examples of Memra as a form of indirect reference to Yahweh in the Targums as given in the Jewish Encyclopedia:

“‘The Memra brings Israel nigh unto God and sits on His throne receiving the prayers of Israel’ (Targ. Yer. to Deut. iv. 7).” [This kind of “mediatorial” language could give the impression that the Memra is an actual person, but when one looks at the second part of the verse—the Memra “sits on His throne receiv­ing the prayers of Israel”—one realizes that to the monotheistic Jew only God can sit on God’s throne, and to Him alone Israel prayed. So the first part of the verse means: God’s Word brings Israel near to God. Moreover, only Yahweh is mentioned in Deut.4.7.]

“It [the Memra] shielded Noah from the flood (Targ. Yer. to Gen. vii. 16) and brought about the dispersion of the seventy nations (l.c. xi. 8)”;

“It is the guardian of Jacob (Gen. xxviii. 20-21, xxxv. 3) and of Israel (Targ. Yer. to Ex. xii. 23, 29); it works all the wonders in Egypt (l.c. xiii. 8, xiv. 25); hardens the heart of Pharaoh (l.c. xiii. 15); goes before Israel in the wilderness (Targ. Yer. to Ex. xx. 1); blesses Israel (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxiii. 8); battles for the people (Targ. Josh. iii. 7, x. 14, xxiii. 3).”

“As in ruling over the destiny of man the Memra is the agent of God (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxvii. 16), so also is it in the creation of the earth (Isa. xlv. 12) and in the execut­ion of justice (Targ. Yer. to Num. xxxiii. 4).” [Notice here the words which I have put in bold italics because of its special relevance for John 1.3,10.]

“So, in the future, shall the Memra be the comforter (Targ. Isa. lxvi. 13): [Cf. the use of this word “comforter” in John 14-16] “My Shekinah I shall put among you, My Memra shall be unto you for a redeeming deity, and you shall be unto My Name a holy people” (Targ. Yer. to Lev. xxii. 12).

“‘My Memra shall be unto you like a good plowman who takes off the yoke from the shoulder of the oxen’; ‘the Memra will roar to gather the exiled’ (Targ. Hos. xi. 5, 10).”

“The Memra is ‘the witness’ (Targ. Yer. xxix. 23); it will be to Israel like a father (l.c. xxxi. 9) and ‘will rejoice over them to do them good’ (l.c. xxxii. 41).”

“‘In the Memra the redemption will be found’ (Targ. Zech. xii. 5). ‘The holy Word’ was the subject of the hymns of Job (Test. of Job, xii. 3, ed. Kohler).”

When these texts from the Targums are compared with the Hebrew texts it will be readily evident that Memra functions as “mediatorial” word in each instance to avoid a direct reference to Yahweh. For example, in Isa.66.13 Yahweh speaks of Himself as the comforter; the Targum avoids the reference to Yahweh and replaces His Name by “Memra”. Again, in Hosea 11.10 it is Yahweh Himself who “will roar like a lion”, but also here His Name is replaced in the Targum by “the Memra”.

The final portion of the article on the Memra in the Jewish Encyclopedia considers the relationship of Memra with its Greek equivalent Logos:

The Logos.

“It is difficult to say how far the rabbinical concept of the Memra, which is used now as a parallel to the divine Wisdom and again as a parallel to the Shekinah, had come under the influence of the Greek term “Logos,” which denotes both word and reason, and, perhaps owing to Egyptian myth­ological no­tions, assumed in the philosophical system of Heraclitos, of Plato, and of the Stoa the metaphysical meaning of world-con­structive and world-permeating intelli­gence.”

We will take note in particular of two points in the above excerpt:

1) The Memra, Wisdom, and the Shekinah were seen as parallel concepts.

2) The philosophical systems of Greek thought, under Egyptian influ­ence, conceived of the Logos in terms of a “world-constructive and world-permeating intelligence” but not in personal terms as God. Therefore, the deification of the Logos as a personal God was the work of Gentile Christians, perhaps beginning already in the middle of the 2nd Century AD.

The article continues:

“The Memra as a cosmic power furnished Philo the corner-stone upon which he built his peculiar semi-Jewish philo­sophy. Philo’s ‘divine thought,’ ‘the image’ and ‘first-born son’ of God, ‘the archpriest,’ ‘intercessor,’ and ‘paraclete’ of humanity, the ‘arch type of man’, paved the way for the Christian conceptions of the Incarnation (‘the Word become flesh’) and the Trinity.”

From this it becomes clear that Philo’s Logos was itself built upon the idea of the Memra as its “corner-stone”, even though he bor­rowed Greek elements so that his philosophy is described here as “semi-Jewish” (Philo himself was a Jew). It is, therefore, rather pointless to speak of John having borrowed the Logos idea from Philo seeing that Philo himself based his ideas on the Memra, and John needed only draw directly on the idea of the Memra well-known to the Jews from the Targums without any recourse to Philo.

The article on the Memra continues:

“In the ancient Church liturgy, adopted from the Synagogue, it is especially interesting to notice how often the term ‘Logos,’ in the sense of ‘the Word by which God made the world, or made His Law or Himself known to man,’ was changed into ‘Christ’ (see ‘Apostolic Constitutions,’ vii. 25-26, 34-38, et al.).”

From this excerpt the following points are worth noting:

1) The ancient church adopted and adapted its liturgy from that of the Synagogue; this fact reflects a time when the church had been pre­dominantly Jewish, that is, during the time of the apostolic church of the 1st century.

2) From the early church’s adaptation of the Jewish liturgy, the Logos understood as being “the Word by which God made the world, or made His Law or Himself known to man,” was applied to Christ as the one in whom the Word became incarnate. But the Jewish Encyclo­pedia indicates that by the time of the Apostolic Constitutions, about AD 380, the Logos “was changed into ‘Christ’”, which is to say that Christ and the Logos had become equated.

With “the parting of the ways” between Jews and Gentiles some time before the middle of the 2nd Century, and the Gentile deifica­tion of the Word as a person equal to Yahweh God resulting in the emer­gence of trinitarianism, the Jewish response was to cease referring to the Memra:

“Possibly on account of the Christian dogma [i.e. the Trinity], rabbinic theology, outside of the Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra.’” (Jewish Encyclopedia, art. ‘Memra’)

Memra as rooted in Psalm 33.6

We should also take note of the following statement in the Jewish Encyclopedia (art. “God”) which points to Ps.33.6 as the root of the use of Memra in the Targums:

“The Old Testament idiom, according to which ‘by the word of Yhwh were the heavens made’ (Ps. xxxiii. [xxxii.] 6)—which passage is at the root of the Targumic use of Memra,”

Note also the following important statement in that same article:

“The Memra (“Word”; “Logos”) and the Shekinah, the divine effulgent indwelling of God ... are not hypostases” [that is, they are not persons in the sense in which Christ is said to be a person in the Trinity” (bold italics mine)]

The following observations are also relevant for understanding the way Memra is used in the Targums; these are quoted from the Jewish Encyclopedia, art. ‘Anthropomorphism’:

“They [the older Targums] always speak of the Memra (“word” of God) if in the Hebrew text God is represented as speaking.”

“Ginsburger is accordingly right when he deduces the following rule for the employment of memra in the older Targumim [Targums]: ‘Whenever a relation is predicated of God, through which His spiritual presence in an earthly being must be assumed, the paraphrase with memra is employed.’” (italics added)

It is clear from these statements that wherever in the Hebrew text there are references to God relating to human beings in some way (e.g. speaking to him, etc), the Targums would replace the word “God” with “Memra.”

A few examples of the Memra or the Word in the Targums which are particularly relevant to the Word or Logos in John 1

The Wisdom and the Word of the Lord Created the Universe

1 By Wisdom the LORD created and perfected heaven and earth.

2 And the earth was waste and void,

a desert without the sons of men or any cultivation at all.

And darkness was spread on the face of the deep,

And the Spirit of mercy from before the LORD blew

on the face of the waters.

3 And the Word [Memra] of the LORD said:

—“Let there be light!”

And there was light in his Word [cf. Ps 119:105]

4 And it was revealed before the LORD that the light was good;

and the Word of the LORD divided the light from the dark­ness.

—Targum, Fragment on Gen 1:1-4

The Word as Light

The first night was when the LORD was revealed above the earth to create it:

the earth was void and empty

and darkness was spread over the face of the deep.

And the Word (Memra) of the LORD was the light and it shone;

and he called it the first night.

—Targum Neofiti on Exod 12:42

The Word created the Son of Man (=man) in His own Divine Image

26 And the Word of the LORD said:

—“Let us create the son of man [bar nash] in an image like us

and let them have dominion over (all creatures)...

27 And the Word (Memra) of the LORD created Adam in his own image,

in the image from before the LORD he created them:

he created them the male and his mate.”

—Targum, Fragment on Gen 1:26-27

The following passage finds fulfillment in crucial elements in the gospels:

 39 When the Word [Memra] of the LORD (Yahweh) will be revealed to release his people

he will say to all the peoples:

—“Now see that I (am) he [ani hu] who is and was

and I (am) he who is destined to be.

There is no other god beside me!

With my Word I make dead and I make live!

I humbled the people of the house of Israel

and I will heal them in the end [suq] of days.

And there is none to rescue from the hands of Gog and his army [Ezek 38],

when they come to order the ranks for battle against them.”

—Targum Neofiti on Deut 32:39

The main elements in this passage are found in the gospels:

(1) The Memra of Yahweh embodied in Jesus was “revealed to release His (Yahweh’s) people”, that is, to save them; the purpose of his coming is thereby declared.

(2) “Now see that I (am) he [ani hu] who is and was”: There is an echo of some of the occurrences of “I am” in John.

(3) “There is no other god beside me!” A declaration of mono­theism such as that found in Mark 12.29; John 5.44 and 17.3.

(4) “With my Word I make dead and I make live!” The Memra in Jesus not only healed the sick but raised the dead on a number of occasions; these words may also imply Jesus’ own death and resur­rection.

(5) The words “I humbled the people of the house of Israel” would seem to be a reference to their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and what happened to Israel not long afterwards, especially the destruction of the Temple; but this does not result in Yahweh’s rejection of them because,

(6) “I will heal them in the end [suq] of days”, and this lovingkind­ness of Yahweh is absolutely vital because,

(7) “there is none to rescue from the hands of Gog and his army”, which is precisely what Jesus referred to about “the end of days”, the end time and the horrors that the tribulation of those days would bring (Matt.24; Mark 13; Luke 21.5ff).

From this exposition of the Targum on Deuteronomy 32.39 by cor­relating it with the gospels, it is evident that there is much of spiritual value in the Targums.

The Shekinah and its relevance for understanding John 1.14

Very closely related to the Memra is the term “Shekinah” which, functionally, is its equivalent because both words are used to designate God; but whereas Memra is used in the Targum, Shekinah also appears in the Talmud and Midrash. Since the word “Shekinah” (lit. “the dwelling”) comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to dwell”, this has significance for understand­ing John 1.14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (NIV). The following quotations are from the article “Shekinah” in the Jewish Encyclopedia:

‘Shekinah—In the Targumim.

‘The majestic presence or manifestation of God which has descended to “dwell” among men. Like Memra (= “word”; “logos”) and “Yekara” (i.e., “Kabod” = “glory”), the term was used by the Rabbis in place of “God” where the anthropomor­phic expressions of the Bible were no longer regarded as proper [sic].’

‘The term “Shekinah,” which is Hebrew, whereas “Memra” and “Yekara” are Aramaic, took the place of the latter two in Talmud and Midrash, and thus absorbed the meaning which they have in the Targum, where they almost exclusively occur. Nevertheless the word “Shekinah” occurs most frequently in the Aramaic versions, since they were intended for the people and were actually read to them.’

‘In the great majority of cases “Shekinah” designates “God”; but the frequent use of the word has caused other ideas to be associated with it [e.g. His light or power?]’

“Shekinah” is spelt “Shekhina” in Encyclopedia Britannica 2003. For convenience of reference, that article is here attached:

‘Shekhina also spelled Shekhinah, Shechina, or Schechina (Hebrew: “Dwelling,” or “Presence”), in Jewish theology, the presence of God in the world. The designation was first used in the Aramaic form, shekinta, in the interpretive Aramaic trans­lations of the Old Testament known as Targums, and it was frequently used in the Talmud, Midrash, and other postbiblical Jewish writings. In the Targums it is used as a substitute for “God” in passages where the anthropomor­phism of the original Hebrew seemed likely to mislead. Thus, belief in the transcen­dence of God was safeguarded. In many passages Shekhina is a reverential substitute for the divine name.

‘In rabbinic literature the Shekhina is associated with several other religious and theological terms. It is said that the Shekhina descended on the tabernacle and on Solomon’s Temple, though it is also said that it was one of the five things lacking in the Second Temple. The glory of God that filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) was thought of as a bright radiance, and the Shekhina is sometimes similarly conceived.

‘There is also an affinity between the Shekhina and the Holy Spirit, though the two are not identical. Both signify some forms of divine immanence, both are associated with pro­phecy, both may be lost because of sin, and both are connected with the study of the Torah. Certain medieval theologians viewed the Shekhina as a created entity distinct from God (the divine “light,” or “glory”).’

In Wikipedia it is spelt “Shekhinah”; an extensive discussion can be found there. Wikipedia explains the origin and meaning of the word: “The Greek word σκήνη [skēnē]—dwelling—is thought to be derived from שכינה [noun ‘shekinah’] and שכן [verb ‘shakan’].”

The Tabernacle and, later, the Temple as Yahweh’s dwelling place: Wikipedia: “The Shekhinah is referred to as manifest in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem throughout Rabbinic liter­ature.” Hence John 2.19, where Jesus’ own body is spoken of as Yahweh’s temple; he is the one in whom Yahweh dwells bodily, Col.2.9. Cf. Jer.17.12.

The verb skēnoō (σκηνόω, ‘live, settle, take up residence’, BDAG) is the word used for the Word dwelling among us in John 1.14. The noun skēnē (σκηνή, ‘tent, dwelling’, ‘Yahweh’s taber­nacle’, BDAG) occurs 20 times in the NT of which 10 times are in Hebrews. Most of these instances refer to “the tent of meeting” or “tabernacle” where God’s presence “dwelt” (cf.Jo.1.14).

Whether or not these Greek words were actually derived from the Hebrew (there is indeed a striking similarity between the Greek and Hebrew words that may be more than coincidental), more relevant for our purpose is the fact that the two words are identical in meaning. That “dwelt” (skēnoō, the verb of skēnē, σκήνη) in John 1.14 refers to the Shekinah appears to be confirmed by the words which immed­iately follow it: “we have beheld his glory”; the glory of the Shekinah manifested the glory of God’s presence.

This same truth about the Shekinah is reflected again in Hebrews 1.3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God”, and again in the phrases “the Lord of glory” or “our glorious Lord”: 1 Corin­thians 2.8, “None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” and James 2.1, “My brothers, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

In this connection, there is also the glory described in the gospel accounts of Christ’s transfiguration: “And he was transfig­ured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” (Matthew 17.2); “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9.2,3).

The Shekinah as the manifestation of Yahweh’s presence and glory, as seen in the Targums:

“And He [Yahweh] cast out Adam, and made the glory of His Shekina to dwell at the front of the east of the garden of Eden, above the two Kerubaia [cherubim].” Pseudo-Jonathan and Jerusalem Targums on Genesis 3.24.

“And she [Hagar] gave thanks before the Lord whose Word spake to her, and thus said, Thou art He who livest and art eternal; who seest, but art not seen! for she said, For, behold, here is revealed the glory of the Shekina of the Lord after a vision.” (PsJon. Gen.16.13)

“And immediately the Glory of the Shekina of the Lord was revealed to him, and Israel [Jacob] worshipped upon the pillow of the bed.” (Ps.Jon. Gen.47.31)

“(Of BENJAMIN) I will liken him to a ravening wolf. In his limits will the sanctuary be builded, and in his inheritance the glory of the Shekina of the Lord will dwell.” (Jerusalem Targ. Gen.49.17 [27]; so also Targum Onkelos, “shekinah” Gen.49.18.)

All the above examples are taken from the Targums on Genesis, but Shekinah also occurs frequently elsewhere in the Pentateuch; for example, Shekinah occurs 22 times in Deuteronomy in Targum Onkelos. In all cases the term indicates Yahweh’s unique imman­ent presence; a comparison with the Hebrew text makes this clear.

God’s manifest Presence is constantly linked with “Glory” in OT

The following paragraphs from Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT, art. כָּבוֹד, “glory”) are instructive:

“Over against the transience of human and earthly glory stands the unchanging beauty of the manifest God (Psa 145:5). In this sense the noun kabôd [glory] takes on its most unusual and distinctive meaning. Forty-five times this form of the root relates to a visible manifestation of God and whenever ‘the glory of God’ is mentioned this usage must be taken account of. Its force is so compelling that it remolds the meaning of doxa from an opinion of men in the Greek classics to some­thing absolutely objective in the LXX and NT.

“The bulk of occurrences where God’s glory is a visible mani­festation have to do with the tabernacle (Exo 16:10; Exo 40:34; etc.) and with the temple in Ezekiel’s vision of the exile and restoration (Ezek 9:3, etc.). These manifestations are directly related to God’s self-disclosure and his intent to dwell among men. As such they are commonly associated with his holiness. God wishes to dwell with men, to have his reality and his splendor known to them.

“The several references which speak of God’s glory filling the earth and/or becoming evident are instructive. On the one hand they quite legitimately refer to that reputation for great­ness which God alone deserves, not only because of his natural position as king, but because of his unsurpassed activity as deliverer and saviour. However, as the preceding discussion indicates, something more is intended here. It is not merely God’s reputation which fills the earth, but it is the very reality of his presence. And his desire is that all persons may gladly recognize and own this. His first step toward the achievement of these goals was to fill the tabernacle with his presence and then the temple.

“But nowhere is the reality and the splendor of his presence and his character seen as in his son (Isa 4:2). Here the near blinding quality of his glory is fully portrayed, ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14; cf. Jn 17:1-5).” (TWOT, italics added)

From this it can be seen that both the idea and the reality of Yahweh’s dwelling among men is deeply woven into the fabric of the Old Testa­ment. It then came to its final fulfillment when “the Word/Memra became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (Jo.1.14, NIV).

As we have seen, both “Shekinah” and “Memra” are important words in the Aramaic Targums. It is interesting that even though “Shekinah” is Hebrew (from the root שָׁכַן (shākan) dwell, taber­nacle; see also Jastrow, Dict. of the Talmud), not Aramaic, the Targums incorporate this word into their Aramaic translation. This draws attention to the fact that in the Hebrew Bible the truth expressed by the word “Shekinah” is a vitally important aspect of Yahweh’s relationship with His people: Yahweh does not just visit His people from time to time, but He chooses to live with them (e.g. Exodus 25:8, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”)

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament has this interest­ing observation about the tabernacle:

“Something of the cruciality of the tabernacle can be gauged by observing how many chapters the Bible devotes to the original event. Here it is thirteen chapters, Exo 25-31, 35-40, in contrast to, say, creation and the fall which merit a total of three skeletal chapters in Gen. If the tabernacle is the place where God and man meet for worship, the latter to worship the former, it is imperative that this institution be spelled out intricately.” (TWOT, מִשְׁכָּן (mishkān) tabernacle)

The Hebrew word for “tabernacle” (mishkān) is related to “Shek­inah” by the fact that both words are from the root shākan. Yet the idea of “Shekinah” goes further than speaking of the glory of God abiding in a particular place; it refers to Yahweh’s special presence.

The Memra

“Memra” (“Word”) on the other hand is an Aramaic word, and a link to Hebrew cannot be established. It is often used in a way that is different from “the word of the Lord” in the Hebrew Bible. It is in fact used in a way so similar to Shekinah that it is replaced by Shekinah in the Talmud. The following shows how it is used in Targum Ps-Jonathan (or “the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel; in the translation by J. W. Etheridge the remaining fragments of the Jerusalem Targum are incorporated). These verses are selected because they are instruct­ive for our understanding of the Logos (Word) in the Johannine Prologue:

Gen.1.27: “And the Lord created man in His Likeness: [JERUSALEM: And the Word (Memra) of the Lord created man in His likeness, in the likeness of the presence of the Lord He created him, the male and his yoke-fellow He created them.]”

Notice how instead of “the Lord created man” the Jerusalem Targum has “the Word (Memra) of the Lord created man”. This corresponds to the role in creation of the Logos in John 1.3. “The presence of the Lord” in the preceding quotation seems to be a reference to the Shekinah.

Gen.2.8: “And a garden from the Eden of the just was planted by the Word [Memra] of the Lord God before the creation of the world, and He made there to dwell the man when He had created him.”

Here the Word or Memra of God is none other than God Himself as we can see by comparing it with the Biblical text: “And the LORD (Yahweh) God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” It is exactly as in John 1.1, “the Word was God”.

Gen.3.8-9: “And they heard the voice of the word [memra] of the Lord God walking in the garden in the repose of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from before the Lord God among the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called to Adam, and said to him, Is not all the world which I have made manifest before Me; the darkness as the light? and how hast thou thought in thine heart to hide from before Me?”

What is interesting about this passage is that “they heard the voice of the word (memra) of the Lord God walking in the garden”, yet in the following sentence it is “the Lord God” himself who “called to Adam” and spoke to him. Again the identification of “the Word of the Lord” with “the Lord God” is clear within the Targum itself, and this is all the more so when we compare it with the Biblical text: “And they heard the sound of the LORD (Yahweh) God walking in the garden”. And instead of the words, “The Lord God called to Adam” in Ps-Jonathan, the Jerusalem Targum reads: “The Word of the Lord God called to Adam”. The Hebrew has, “Yahweh God called to Adam (or ‘the man’)”.

Gen.3.22: The Jerusalem Targum has, “And the Word [Memra] of the Lord God said, Behold, Adam whom I have created…” Again it is the Word or Memra that is said to have created Adam.

Gen.4.26: Where the Biblical text has “the Name of Yahweh”, the Targum reads, “the name of the Word of the Lord”.

Gen.6.3: Bible: “And Yahweh said”; Jerusalem Targum: “And the Word [Memra] of the Lord said”.

These first six occurrences of “the Word of the Lord” in the Targums provide us with a clear perception that this term is used as an indirect form of referring to Yahweh, yet implying the idea that His interact­ion with man are mediated through His Word.

It should now be perfectly clear that the Jews in NT times were very familiar with idea of “the Word of God”. B.D. Alexander (in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia article ‘Logos’) wrote the following perceptive observations:

“It would be inconceivable that the apostle [John] lighted upon this word [Logos] by chance or that he selected it without any previous knowledge of its history and value. It may be assumed that when he speaks of the “Word” in relation to God and the world, he employs a mode of speech which was al­ready familiar to those for whom he wrote and of whose general import he himself was well aware.

“The truth that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ was borne in upon John. The problem which confronted him was how he could make that truth real to his contemporaries. This he sought to do by using the language of the highest religious thought of his day.” (ISBE, ‘Logos’)

Why, then, would we suppose that the Logos in John was derived from Greek philosophy? I now realize how foolish it was to have assumed that the monotheistic Jew, John, who (on the basis of what we learn about him in the gospels) grew up in Aramaic-speaking Galilee, would have derived the Logos idea from Greek philosophy (including Philo’s version), which almost certainly nei­ther he nor the people for whom he wrote would have had any knowledge of. How many people today (even well educated peo­ple) know anything about philosophy, Greek or otherwise, even if they were educated in the arts rather than the sciences?

Is the term ‘pre-incarnation Jesus’ Scripturally correct?

Is it Scripturally correct to speak of “Jesus’ preexistence” in the way that trinitarians do? Can this phrase be justified in view of John 1.14? For this phrase assumes, of course, that Jesus existed as Jesus or Christ, and not just as Logos, before the incarnation of the Logos. But according to John 1.14, Jesus came into being at the incar­nation; he did not exist as Jesus or Christ before that; it was the eternal Logos who “became flesh” in Christ. It was the Logos that was preexistent.

The meaning of John 1.14, is the message “veiled”?

In view of the foregoing evidence it should now be clear that the Logos in John 1 is the Memra so familiar to the Jews; John was certainly not referring to some philosophical concept foreign to his readers. It is true that the Memra was “a means of speaking about God without using his name” (Barrett). By observing the way Memra is used in the Targums we can see that it referred speci­fically to His self-revelation as expressed by His creative Word, and to His imman­ent Presence in relation to mankind as expressed by word and deed. If so, then something truly astonishing is stated in John 1, namely, that Yahweh Himself came into the world, embod­ied in the person of Jesus the Messiah. A mind-boggling event is revealed in John 1. Could it be that it is for this reason that it appears to us (if not to the Jews of John’s time) that the event is stated in somewhat veiled language?

Yet the language in Col.1.19 does not appear to be veiled at all, it states explicitly: “For in him (Christ) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. In case we did not get the message, it is repeated shortly afterwards in Col.2.9: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” The very same words and ideas are used here as in John 1.14, “dwell” or “live”, and John 1.16, “fullness”. By now it should be clear that when John and Paul speak of “God” in these verses, consistent with Biblical monothe­ism, they do not refer to some other deity besides Yahweh God. That God “dwelt among us” (Jo.1.14) through His Word/Memra is explained in Colossians in terms of “all the fullness” or “the whole fullness” of God dwelling in “bodily form” in Christ. Is that not precisely what Jesus himself was also saying when he said that neither his words nor his actions were his own, but those of his indwelling Father, Yahweh (John 14.10)?

But is it correct to suppose that the message of John 1 is veiled? Or is it veiled only to those who are perishing, as the apostle Paul says (2Co.4.3)? The fact is that John evidently tried to make the point as clear as possible by twice quoting the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning” (Ἐν ἀρχη, en archē, John 1.1,2):

Genesis 1.1: “In the beginning God created…”

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים

John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Logos…”

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος

בּרֵאשִׁיח הָיָה הַדָּבָר

What is being equated is evidently “in the beginning God and “in the begin­ning the Logos; this is even clearer in the Greek: ὁ θεὸς (the God) and ὁ λόγος (the Logos), both with the definite article.

Now this surely raises the question: Why did John replace “God” with “Logos”, when by “Logos” he meant God, which he explicitly states: “the Logos was God” (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). And who is this “God” that is being referred to? In a world where there were “Gods many, and Lords many” (1Cor.8.5f) the answer to this question was not as self-evident as it may be to most of us. The Hebrew word elohim (אְֶלֹהִים) “God” could refer not only to “the one true God” of whom Jesus spoke (John 17.3) but also to the gods of Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, etc.; it could even refer to angels (e.g. Ps.8.5, cf. Heb.2.7) and to men (“I said, you are gods”, Ps.82.6; Jo.10.34). The Greeks and Romans also had their many gods.

It was, therefore, essential to state with absolute clarity who exactly was the one who came into the world in Christ. If it were simply stated that it was the one who created heaven and earth, which is implied by the parallelism with Genesis 1 and stated expli­citly in John 1.3, it might still leave open the possibility that a hypostatic agent who was said to have been involved in the creation, such as Wisdom (an idea which Barrett and others looked upon favorably), could be meant as that which became incarnate in Christ. Wisdom was not usually used as a metonym for Yahweh, so it would not have served John’s purpose if his message was that Yahweh had come in Christ to dwell with His people. Even so, if the Logos is interpreted in terms of OT Wisdom (and that of intertesta­mental literature), then it must be remembered that Wisdom in the Scriptures is an attribute of Yahweh and, as such, could serve as a metonym of Yahweh. This means that interpreting Logos in terms of Wisdom or Memra would come to exactly the same result.

But if John 1.1 intended to say that it was Yahweh Himself who came into the world, how exactly could that be stated other than the way in which it is stated in that verse? John could not use the Tetra­grammaton (YHWH) because that would be offensive to the Jews and unintelligible to the Greeks or to Gentiles generally. Could anything else be done other than to use “the Word”, namely, the unspoken Tetragrammaton? His readers knew very well that “the Word” was the metonym for the Name “Yahweh”. Moreover, in the Targums “the Word” usually appears as “the Word of the Lord (Yahweh)”, so “the Word” is an abbreviation of the longer phrase. Even so, the Word or Memra, like Wisdom in Proverbs, could be spoken of in a person­alized way, as in the examples we saw earlier, such as: “the Word of the Lord said…” and “the Word of the Lord created…” But it must always be borne in mind that the “personality” of the Word or Memra derives from the personality of the Lord (Yahweh) whose Word it is.

How are we to understand the statement that “the Logos became flesh” (Jo.1.14)? It certainly does not mean that the Logos ceased to be the Logos and changed into “flesh” (the “flesh” was a way of referring to human existence or, specifically, to a human being, e.g. Isa.40.5 “all flesh, i.e. all human beings, shall see it [the glory of Yahweh] together”). How then is it to be understood? What it means is surely that the Word became embodied in a human being. This does not mean Word = human being, i.e. Jesus, but that the Word is embodied in Jesus. The Word of God became “incarnate” “in Christ”, in “the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim.2.5).

“The Word became flesh”; “flesh” translates the Greek word sarx (σάρξ), for which the definitions in BDAG Greek-English Lexicon specially relevant to this verse are: “the physical body as functioning entity, body, physical body” and “one who is or be­comes a physical being, living being with flesh”, specifically, “of humans: person, human being”. So the meaning of John 1.14 is clear: the Word entered into the world in a human being, a person with a physical body of flesh, namely, the Messiah Jesus.

BDAG also states “In Paul’s thought esp., all parts of the body constitute a totality known as σάρξ [sarx] or flesh, which is domin­ated by sin”. Jesus also declared that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (Jo.8.34; cf. Ro.6.16; 7.14). Since Jesus did not sin, his flesh was not dominated by sin. But sin could also operate in his flesh and be a cause of temptation. Sexual desires are a part of life in the flesh; BDAG states: “The σάρξ [sarx, flesh] is the source of the sexual urge, without any suggestion of sinfulness connected with it”.

In so far as Jesus had a true body of flesh like ours, he would have experienced the same temptations that all human beings exper­ience. And it is explicitly declared he “has been tempted in every res­pect as we are, yet without sin” (Heb.4.15). His having been without sin was something he accomplished in the face of temptations. If he had not had to face temptations then he was not truly human; and if he was God he could not even have been tempted (James 1.13), let alone sin. Trinitarianism has tacitly sacrificed the humanity of Christ in order to establish his deity. And by sacrificing the humanity of Christ in reality, though paying lip service to it, it has therewith effectively sacrificed the salvation which God accomplished for man­kind “through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom.5.17).

The “became” in “became flesh” (Jo.1.14) is ginomai (γίνομαι), which here serves to “indicate entry into a new condition” (BDAG, Greek-English Lexicon). The Word entered into a new state of being in Christ, that of human life.

The uniqueness of Yahweh’s indwelling Christ

Nowhere prior to the NT did Yahweh (or His Spirit) indwell any person. We must grasp this fact clearly if we are to understand the remarkable significance of what took place in Christ. The Spirit “rested on” people (Num.11.25, the 70 elders; Isa.11.2, a messianic prophecy), or “came upon” persons (e.g. Gideon, Judg.6.34; Samson, Judg.15.14); and in Micah 3:8 the prophet says, “I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might”, stating that this power was given him to fulfill his specific mission “to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.”

That Yahweh actually indwells a person as His dwelling place, His temple, is not found in the OT. The closest it comes to this is the promise in Leviticus 26.11,12 in which Yahweh says that if Israel obeys Him, “I will put my dwelling place {Or my tabernacle} among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (NIV). That the “dwelling place” referred to in this promise is not the tabernacle in the wild­erness which existed at that time is clear from Ezekiel 37.27 where the promised “tabernacle” is in the future: “My dwelling place [same word in Hebrew as in Lev.26.11] shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (NRSV)

These promises are fulfilled in Christ who, as Yahweh’s temple (John 2.19ff), is His dwelling place; and after Pentecost the church as Christ’s body has also become God’s temple. That is why Paul quotes those verses mentioned in the previous paragraph as having been fulfilled also in the church. They are referred to in 2Corinthians 6.16, “we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’.” But this translation (ESV; and others) has missed something important about this verse: the word translated as “among” is en, which has the basic meaning “in” (though it can sometimes also mean “among”). Thus RSV, NRSV, NKJV, etc, have, correctly, “I will live in them”. After all, since Paul states that we are God’s temple, God does not dwell “among” His temple, but in it.

But even “I will live in them” is unable to reflect strongly enough what Paul has written in 2Corinthians 6.16: enoikēsō en autois (ἐνοικήσω ἐν αὐτοῖς). This quotation is evidently Paul’s own in­spired rendering of the message in Lev.26.11 and Ezekiel 37.27. The spiritual point that he wants to emphasize here is that some­thing new has happened: God “indwells in” His people. This is emphasized by using en (ἐν, in) twice, as can be seen in the three Greek words quoted above, including the “en” in enoikēsō. The word oikeō (οἰκέω) by itself already means to “live, or dwell”, but the stronger form enoikeō (ἐνοικέω) is used instead. Enoikeō is the word used in Ro.8.11 and 2Tim.1.14, where not only this same word “indwell” is used but also the same emphatic structure “indwell in”. The message in both these verses is that God by His Spirit now actually lives within His people. No good translation would render these verses as “the Holy Spirit who dwells among us”.

Of course, the translation “indwells in us” may not sound like good conventional English, but then it probably did not sound like good conventional Greek either, but that very fact could serve to draw attention to the point that was being made. Paul is evidently strongly concerned to make the point that God indwells in us, as He did in Christ.

Paul was filled with wonder by the fact that Yahweh had done something in Christ that He had never done before, namely, to indwell a person—the person of Christ—“and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, mak­ing peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1.20). In this way, Yahweh in His mercy accomplished His eternal plan “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2.14). All this was so amazing that the Apostle burst forth into praise and adoration, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judg­ments and how inscrutable his ways” (Romans 11:33).

God’s Spirit indwells “the body of Christ”

The term “the body of Christ” refers to both Christ’s physical body (Ro.7.4) as also to the church (1Cor.12.27; Eph.4.12), in particular to the physical body of its members (1Cor.6.19,20). Does this mean that there is some vital similarity in the way that God in­dwelt Christ bodily (Col.2.9) and how He indwells the body of believers so that it constitutes His temple (1Cor.3.16; 6.19)? We remember that Jesus also spoke of his own body as God’s temple (John 2.19-21).

Further observations on the significance of “dwelt” in John 1.14

“The Word (Logos, Memra) became flesh and dwelt (skēnoō) among us” (Jo.1.14). The word “dwelt” does not bring out the idea of the “tent” or “tabernacle” inherent in the Greek word. The reference to the “tabernacle” (skēnē) is definitely intentional. If not, the ordinary or general word for “dwell” or “live” (oikeō) could have been used instead of skēnoō, which is the verb form of skēnē, a tent or tabernacle. The significant point about the reference to the “tent” or “tabernacle” is that this was the place where Yahweh “dwelt”. It is this vitally important point which is lost in the trans­lation, but which is unfortunately practically impossible to bring out in any translation. Yet the use of this word would not have been lost on a Jewish reader or one familiar with the OT.

The word “tabernacle” is familiar to us from the OT where it referred to the tent in which God’s presence dwelt. For conven­ience we can refer to International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

“The account (of the tabernacle) is given in Ex 25 through 27; 30 through 31; 35 through 40, with additional details in Nu 3:25 ff; 4:4 ff; 7:1 ff. The central idea of the structure is given in the words, ‘Make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them’ (Ex 25:8) [“make a Sanctuary to My Name, that My Shekinah may dwell among them”. Targ. Ps-Jon.]. It was the dwelling-place of the holy Yahweh in the midst of His people; also the place of His meeting with them (Ex 25:22).” (Italics added)

The last sentence finds a fuller explanation in the following passage:

Exodus 33: “7 Now Moses used to take the tent (skēnē, σκηνή) and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD (Yahweh) would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp [cf. Heb.13].

 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent.

 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD (Yahweh) would speak with Moses.

 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and wor­ship, each at his tent door.

 11 Thus the LORD (Yahweh) used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Numbers 35.34: “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the LORD (Yahweh) dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”

Another instance of Yahweh “dwelling” among His people is seen in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the newly built temple, “But I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever” (2 Chronicles 6.2; cf. Acts 7.44-47). The temple was mod­eled on the tabernacle or tent.

From all this, the message of John 1.14 should be perfectly clear: The Word (Memra, metonym for Yahweh) came in a human body in the person of Christ and “tabernacled” or “tented” among us. It is significant that in 2Corinthians the Apostle twice speaks of the human body as a “tent”: “For we know that if the tent (skēnos), which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (5.1; also v.4). This “tent” is also the temple of God (1Cor.3.16; 6.19). The powerful and astonishing message of John 1.14 is that it was into such a “tent” as this that Yahweh came to “tabernacle among us”.

Conclusion

In view of all that we have discussed, the truth as stated in terms of the monotheism of the Bible can be declared powerfully, simply, and yet profoundly in this way: Yahweh in all His “fullness” (plērōma, Jo.1.16; Col.1.19; 2.9), which in Scripture was ex­pressed through His Word from creation to revelation, chose in His divine mercy and wisdom to come into the world by indwelling the man Christ Jesus, and in him to “be with us” (Immanuel) and in this way to accomplish our eternal salvation.

This stands in sharp and clear contrast to trinitarian dogma which declares that a hitherto unheard of person called “God the Son” (and one who had no prior connection to the Word or Wisdom) was incarnate in Jesus, who thereby became “God-man”, “true God, true man”. The relationship of “God” and man in Jesus is described as a “hypostatic union”, a union of a personal kind, and is “ex­plained” by the impressive Latin term “communicatio idiomatum”, meaning that his “human and divine attributes and experiences, etc. might properly be interchanged” (Kelly, Doctrines, p.143, etc). Actually, this kind of “explanation” produces more questions than answers for the thinking person. But it is often useful for stifling further questions and for talking vaguely about “mysteries”. The truth is that the real “mystery” is: who is “God the Son”, seeing that he is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures? It is now evident that he was brought into existence by the misinterpretation of “the Word” in John 1.1, which we shall examine in even greater depth and detail in the next chapter.

Suffice it to say here that the difference between the Biblical teaching and trinitarianism is as clear as day and night.

 

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