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Chapter 5. Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible

Chapter 5

Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible

“Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible (“the Old Testament”)

The Name Yahweh (יהוה, YHWH) occurs 6828 times in the OT; this figure does not include the 49 occurrences of “Yah,” such as in Exodus 15:2; Psalm 68:5; and the many expressions of “Halleluiah” or Hallelu-Yah, “praise Yahweh,” in the Psalms. (If we include the suffixed –iah (=Jah or Yah) in such names as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the prefixed Je- or Jeho- (e.g. Jehu, and Jehoshaphat, “Yahweh judges”), the number would be further increased by thousands.) The total number of references to Yahweh in the OT amounts, therefore, to far beyond 10,000.

The word “God,” Elohim (אלהים), is found 2600 times; but a consid­erable portion of this number refers to the many other gods mentioned in the OT. So the number of references to “God” (espe­cially if the references to other gods are excluded) in the OT amounts altogether to little more than 1/3 of the references to “Yahweh”. The absolute preponderance of “Yahweh” is perfectly evident. The com­bination “Yahweh (‘Lord’) God (Elohim)” (אלהים יהוהappears 891 times in 817 verses.

From these figures it is clear that Yahweh is by far the predom­inant Name in the OT. Moreover, nowhere is there any sign of there being another person equal to Yahweh or that there is more than one person within Yahweh Himself.

What will the trinitarian do about Yahweh?

What is truly remarkable is the fact that in spite of the huge number of refer­ences to Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible, His Name does not appear in the major versions of the English Bible; it has, in effect, been eliminated from all of them! (The New Jerusalem Bible is a notable exception.) This serves the trinit­arian pur­pose perfectly because it thereby avoids having directly to face the crucial question: How exactly is trinitarianism compatible with Yahweh? The truth is: trinitarianism has no answer to this question! That is because Yahweh, who is consistently revealed as the only true God besides whom there is no other, simply cannot be made to fit into the trinitarian scheme of things. It is no more than a subterfuge to identify Him with “the Father” in the Trinity, besides whom there are two other persons co-equal with Him—something abominable to Yahweh, as anyone who has so much as read the OT ought to know, but, blinded by trinitarian dogma, failed to see or care.

What a trinitarian must come to grips with is that he or she is faced with a stark choice: Either Yahweh or the Trinity but not both. Either God is one or there are three. Trinitarianism tried to “have its cake and eat it,” that is, tried to have the best of both worlds, monotheism and trinita­rianism, by reducing “God” to a “divine nature” in which the three co-equal persons are made to partici­pate. The final outcome of trying to ride two horses at the same time is not difficult to imagine; and the spiritual end of those who suppose that they can get the best from two totally incompatible worlds (monotheism versus trinitarian polytheism) should also not be difficult to foresee. From the point of view of Scripture, it is utterly foolish to suppose that a choice could be avoided, because the final spiritual outcome will be disastrous. Elijah put the choice before the Israel­ites on Mount Carmel: “How long will you waver be­tween two opinions? If the Lord (Yahweh) is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1Kings 18:21) But long before the remarkable events on Mount Carmel, Joshua had already called the people of Israel to face up to the same kind of choice, “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). He made his own stand unequivocally clear before all the people: “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord (Yahweh).” May the Lord grant us cour­age to make the same stand today.

The Name “Yahweh”

In NT times the Jews (including, of course, the members of the Jewish church) would for the most part have known the Hebrew Bible because it was regularly read in the synagogues (Lk.4:16f). But Hellenistic Jews (Jews brought up in Greek society and/or culture) would have been less conversant with Hebrew, and therefore had to rely on the Septuagint (LXX) in which YHWH (Yahweh) was translated as “Lord” (kyrios); this was in accordance with the exilic and post-exilic practice of not enunciating or pronouncing God’s Name for fear of His Name being “taken in vain” (Ex.20:7). English Bibles (with notable ex­ceptions such as the New Jerusalem Bible) follow the Septuagint in translating YHWH as “Lord,” but with the difference that the word is put in small caps (which is irrelevant when the word is spoken). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testa­ment (TWOT) informs us, “Only in pre-NT times was God’s per­sonal name [Yahweh] replaced with the less intimate title ădōnāy (Gr. kyrios) ‘Lord’.”

TWOT also makes the following instructive observation about “Yahweh”:

Scripture speaks of the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) as ‘this glorious and fearful [awesome] name’ (Deut 28:58) or simply ‘the name’ (Lev 24:11). But it connotes God’s nearness, his concern for man, and the revelation of his redemptive coven­ant. In Genesis 1 through Genesis 2:3, the general term elōhîm “deity,” is appropriate for God transcendent in creat­ion; but in Gen 2:4-25 it is Yahweh, the God who is immanent in Eden’s revelations. (TWOT, יָהּ (yāh) Yahweh, italics added).

The result of the Jewish fear of pronouncing God’s revered Name was that in time the pronunciation of His Name eventually became unknown or, at least, uncertain. The Name of God is now generally unknown to most Jews and Christians. God, for them, is now nameless! But the Scripture says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (Yahweh) will be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). Should we then not ask: How shall they call on His Name when they don’t know what it is? For the verse does not merely say, “Call on God,” but to call on “His Name”. The phrase the “Name of Yahweh” (shem YHWH) occurs 97 times in the Hebrew Bible. If calling upon His Name is a matter that concerns man’s salvation, then it must be a matter of near insanity to eliminate His Name from daily use. More­over, who initially author­ized the non-pronun­ciation of the Divine Name? Who has authority to forbid the use of His Name? It seems impos­sible to trace the origin of the ban on the use of Yahweh’s “glorious name” (Dt.28:58). Its develop­ment long ago seems to have been much like the way a rumor is spread, its origin can no longer be discovered—yet, though false, it is believed!

But the spread of this “rumor” or, more precisely, a lie (because it not only has no authorization in God’s word, but is contrary to it), has spirit­ually disastrous consequences, in parti­cular for the church, for the only true God has now been deprived of, indeed, robbed of His Name! The Jews at least still address Him by the title “Adonai” (“Lord”). But for Christians “Lord” is primarily the form of address for Jesus Christ, so Yahweh is actually left without any specific title! Some Christians may refer to Him as “Father” but, of course, in the trinitarian sense in which “Father” is one of three persons, thus constit­uting a third of the Trinity. But even this use of “Father” is not necessarily consistently applied because some Christians use the term “Father” for Jesus ac­cording to their interpretation of “everlasting Father” in Isaiah 9:6. So Yahweh is left without Name or specific title in the church! What a shocking state of affairs! Yet it would seem that few, if anyone, in the church has discerned the seriousness of the spiritual condi­tion of the church as revealed by this appalling situa­tion. This would seem to indicate that a certain spiritual numbness, blind­ness, or even paralysis has taken hold of the church. We may wonder: Where are those who belong to Yahweh, who care about His Name and His glory?

Christians can sing the hymn, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear” without ever being disturbed that Yah­weh’s glorious and beautiful Name has been relegated to oblivion. It is also something of a mystery as to why the English translations (except the Jerusalem Bible) choose to follow the Septuagint when it is not the Septuagint they are trans­lating but the Hebrew Bible! Moreover, I am not aware of Christ­ians ever having con­sidered them­selves bound by the Jewish refus­al to pronounce the Name. The Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Old Testament pro­duced by Jewish trans­lators in Alexandria (Egypt) during the 2nd century BC to meet the needs of Greek-speaking Jews who were no longer conver­sant with Hebrew; there was the further aim of intro­ducing their Scriptures to the Gentile world. These transla­tors, bound by the post-exilic taboo among Jews prohibiting the pronunciat­ion of the Name “Yahweh,” replaced it with “Adonai” (Lord). What is the Christian translator’s reason or excuse for following this taboo? Is it because it happens to suit trinitarianism better?

As for the “beautiful” name of Jesus, it is actually Yahweh that makes that name beautiful, because “Jesus” in Hebrew means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation,” or simply the “salvation” which Yahweh provides; so in an indirect sense to call on Jesus’ name is to call on the Name of Yahweh. But Christians do not think of Yahweh when they pray to Jesus, so it would not amount to calling on Yahweh’s Name. Yet Christians do think that when they pray to Jesus they are praying to God, that is, to “God the Son” in trinitarian termin­ology. And since Jesus to them is God, what need do they have of Yahweh?

As for the word “Jehovah,” BDB (Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament) explains its origin in the Western church: “The pronunciat­ion Jehovah was unknown until 1520, when it was introduced by Galatinus; but it was contested by Le Mercier, J. Drusius, and L. Capellus, as against gramma­tical and historical pro­priety.” In spite of this, the Darby translation, made at the end of the 19th century, uses this word in place of “Yahweh,” as does the Chinese (Union) translation.

The pronunciation of the Name

Note: Some readers may find some of the material in the following short section too technical. It is included for the sake of completeness, and for the convenience of those who desire such information but may not have access to the reference works mentioned here.

The pronunciation “Yahweh” seems to be well-founded because the first part “Yah” (יָהּ) appears frequently in poetic use (38 times in the Psalms, twice in Exodus, and twice in Isaiah = 42 times in OT). This is familiar to us from “Halleluiah,” where “iah” is the same in Hebrew as “Yah”. This also appears in many Biblical names, e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., and also in contracted form in Joshua = Yeshuah (“Jesus” in Greek).

BDB, Hebrew and English Lexicon, also notes the “traditional Ἰαβέ [Iabe] of Theodoret and Epiphanius”. Similarly, The Theological Word­book of the OT (TWOT) says, “Theodoret in the fourth century A.D. states that the Samarit­ans pronounced it ‘iabe’. Clement of Alexandria (early 3rd century A.D.) vocalized it as ‘iaoue’.” Some earlier sources appear to have been available to these church leaders (the Samaritans in the case of Theodoret).

‘Iabe’ (Ἰαβέ) is pronounced “Yaveh,” and is the equivalent of “Yahweh” because the Hebrew letter ו (“w”) is pronounced as an English “v” (“w” in German is also vocalized like the “v” in English), while the Koine Greek “b” was probably pronounced like the English “v”, as it still is in modern Greek.[1]

The meaning of “Yahweh”

It is generally recognized that the meaning of the Name “Yahweh” is given in Exodus 3:14: ‘God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. {Or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE} This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (NIV)

The Hebrew word translated as “I am” is in the imperfect tense. That is why the NIV is here quoted to show that what is translated as “I am who I am” can also be translated as “I will be what I will be” (as can be seen in the margins of various other translations; this was also how Luther (1545 German Bible) translated it: “Ich werde sein, der ich sein werde.”) So, too, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Koehler and Baumgartner): “אֶהְיֶה אְַשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה I shall be who I shall prove to be, Ex.3:14.”

In a previous section, attention was given to the important obser­vation made in The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) that the Name “Yahweh” is indicative of His immanence, His nearness to man: “Scrip­ture speaks of the Tetra­grammaton [YHWH, Yahweh] as ‘this glorious and fearful name’ (Deut 28:58) or simply ‘the name’ (Lev 24:11). But it connotes God’s nearness, his concern for man, and the revelation of his redemptive covenant.” (TWOT, יָהּ (yāh) Yahweh; italics mine)

On Exodus 3:14, TWOT concludes that the Name “Yahweh” ex­presses His “faithful presence” with His people:

God’s immediately preceding promise to Moses had been, ‘Certainly I will be with you’ (Exo 3:12). So his assertion in verse 14 would seem to be saying, ‘I am present is what I am.’ Indeed, the fundamental promise of his testament is, ‘I will be their God, and they will be my people’ (Exo 6:7; etc.; contrast Hos 1:9); thus ‘Yahweh,’ ‘faithful presence,’ is God’s testa­mentary nature, or name (Exo 6:2,4; Deut 7:9; Isa 26:4). (TWOT, יָהּ (yāh) Yahweh; italics mine)[2]

Commenting on Exodus 3:14, Prof. Robert Alter provides the follow­ing useful observations:

’Ehyeh-’Asher-’Ehyeh [“I AM WHO I AM” in most English translations]. God’s response perhaps gives Moses more than he bargained for—not just an identifying divine name but an ontological divine mystery of the most daunting character. Rivers of ink have since flowed in theological reflection on and philologi­cal analysis of this name. The following remarks will be confined to the latter considerat­ion, which in any case must provide the grounding of the former. ‘I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be’ is the most plausible construction of the Hebrew, though the middle word ’asher could easily mean ‘what’ rather than ‘who,’ and the common rendering of ‘I-Am-That-I-Am’ cannot be excluded. (‘Will’ is used here rather than ‘shall’ because the Hebrew sounds like an affirm­ation with emphasis, not just a declarat­ion.) Since the tense system of biblical Hebrew by no means corresponds to that of modern English, it is also perfectly possible to construe this as ‘I Am He Who Endures.’ The strong consensus of biblical schol­arship is that the original pronunciation of the name YHWH that God goes on to use in verse 15 was ‘Yahweh’. (R. Alter, The Five Books of Moses, Norton, 2004; italics added)

Alter’s observation that what Yahweh reveals to Moses is “not just an identifying divine name but an ontological divine mystery of the most daunting character” is an important one. This is to say that the Name reveals something about the very nature of His Being or Person. “I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be” would, for example, indicate the timeless or eternal nature of His Being, as expressed also in “I Am He Who Endures.” This implies complete control of the future, which in turn implies omnipo­tence. But Alter points out that the Hebrew word “’asher, could easily mean ‘what’ rather than ‘who’”. The ‘what’ would point strongly to the ontological element in the divine Name. Yet Exodus 3:14 does not appear to reveal explicitly the ‘what’ of the divine char­acter. This is precisely what is done in magnificent fullness later on in Exodus.

When Yahweh first appeared to Moses in Exodus 3, Moses was so over­awed that he could scarcely have borne a fuller revelation of the divine Being than what was then initially given him. In Exodus 34 we find Moses ready and eager for a fuller revelation of the divine Person and His charact­er. “Then Yahweh passed before him and called out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh,[3] God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy’” (Exodus 34:6, NJB). In the whole statement, including v.7, five fundament­ally important elements about Yahweh’s character are revealed which provide us with a unique and profoundly deep view into the nature of His inner Being. It is also most reassuring to know that these five ele­ments of His character are firmly un­dergirded by an uncomprom­ising commitment to justice and right­eousness that will pursue wickedness to the extent necessary to terminate it (Ex.34:7).To know that this is the character of the God who created all things, and who is working out His eternal purposes for His creation, must surely inspire us with hope and courage.

The revelation given in Exodus 34:6 is of foundational import­ance for Biblical monotheism as can be seen from the fact that it echoes through the Hebrew Bible no less than 9 times.[4] Yahweh’s loving-kindness is a frequent theme in the OT, and it is beautifully expressed in these words in Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jer.31:3; NKJV).

The echo of Yahweh’s loving-kindness is also heard throughout the NT, where God’s redeeming love in Christ is its key element, and which is immor­talized in the well-known words of John 3:16. It is powerfully re­flected in the person of Christ who, as the visible image of God, manifested God’s love on the cross in the one “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal.2:20).

Exodus 3:14 in the Greek Bible

We get some further insight into how the Name “Yahweh” would have been understood by those who read the Greek Old Testament (LXX), which was the Bible of the early Greek-speaking church. The first part of Exodus 3:14 reads, “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, egō eimi ho ōn)’.” The importance of God’s words is not in the first “I am (egō eimi)” but in the second “I am” which translates the very different words “ho ōn” (“he who is”), for the Greek text has, “I am ho ōn” (ὁ ὤν, lit. ‘the One who is’ or ‘the existent One’). Now notice carefully the second part of Ex.3:14, “This is what you (Moses) are to say to the Israelites: ‘Ho ōn has sent me to you.” What emerges from the Greek is the understand­ing of Yahweh as the eternal, self-existent One; the One who owes His existence to no one, but is the ulti­mate source of all that exists.

The book of Revelation refers to “the Lord God,” “the Almighty,” three times by the description “him who is and who was and who is to come,” a description which gives excellent express­ion to the meaning of the Name “Yahweh”:

Revelation 1:4, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.

Revelation 1:8, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’”

Revelation 4:8, “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”

From the foregoing discussion it becomes clear that “Yahweh” is no ordin­ary name. An ordinary name such as “John Smith,” for example, tells us virtual­ly nothing about who that person is. In contrast to this, the Name “Yahweh” is profoundly self-revelatory, revealing His unique nature and character. “Yahweh” is, therefore, undoubtedly the most out­standing and distinctive name in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testa­ment”) not only because of the frequen­cy of its occurrence (almost 7000 times) but because it reveals the wonderful character of the only true God. This is the Word par excellence of the OT. So it should not be surprising that this is the word which underlies “the Word” of the Johannine Prologue.

Anthropomorphism in relation to Yahweh

What has long been noticed by those who read the OT is the strikingly “anthro­pomorphic” descriptions of Yahweh, that is, describing Him in language that makes Him ap­pear to be rather like a human being. If the Scriptures are indeed the inspired word of God which we believe to be true, then we should be careful about using this term “anthropomorphic” because the use of this term usually implies that the human author is describing Yahweh in human terms, i.e. that this is a human work attempting to des­cribe Yahweh in human terms. But if Scripture is inspired by God, then the striking thing is that it is Yahweh (not the human author) who is speaking of Himself in human terms.

What can this mean? Is this to be understood as meaning that Yahweh is using human forms of description to make Himself under­stood to us? But in so doing, is there not the danger that we will actually misunderstand, rather than understand, the descript­ion by taking it literally and assuming that what we read is an actual description of Yahweh, as so many teachers of Scripture both Jewish and Christian warn against? But could it be that Yahweh Himself did not fear the possibility of such “misunder­standing”? Indeed, could it be that under­standing Yahweh in this way is no misunder­standing at all, but precisely what Yahweh intended? That is to say, Yahweh portrays Himself in human terms because that is the way He actually related to Adam and Eve, to Abraham (e.g. Gen.18:1ff), and to others. One could say that He humbled Himself to relate to them on their level.

In fact, if we dehumanize the language of Scripture in these accounts, how then are we supposed to understand them at all? What exactly would emerge from a dehumanized rendition of those signifi­cant accounts? Would we not be left with little more than a nebulous or even ghostly encounter of Yahweh with those He approached and spoke to? Why is it so inconceivable that Yahweh should appear in human form? And is it utterly impossible accord­ing to the Scriptures that the human form is really His form? Does not Scripture affirm that man is made in God’s image and glory (1Cor.11:7, etc)?

By ruling out the possibility of Yahweh’s actually having a “human” form, we must then seek some other explanation as to what it means that we are created in His image. As is well known, a variety of explan­ations are offered, none of which is satisfactory, or at most offer a partially acceptable explanation.

Would it not be true to say that we are in “divine” form, having been created in His image, rather than that Yahweh appears in “human” form? If this is true according to Scripture, then the gap between God and man, from God’s point of view, is not so wide as we have supposed or been led to believe. So, instead of speaking of God having appeared anthropo­morph­ically we can say that man was created theomorphically, which is what the Scriptures explicitly state.

Elliot R. Wolfson (Professor of Hebrew Studies and Director of Religious Studies at New York University) in his essay ‘Judaism and Incarnation,’ in Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview Press, 2000), writes,

One must distinguish between the prohibition of depicting God in images and the claim that God cannot be manifest in a body. One may presume, as indeed the evidence from the Bible seems to suggest, that God is capable of assuming corp­oreal form, although that form should not be represented pictorially.

Needless to say, many passages in Hebrew Scriptures pre­sup­pose an anthropomorphic conception of God. This con­ception, moreover, is predicated on the notion that God can assume an incarnational form that is visually and audibly available to human perception. There is no reason to suppose, as have apologists of Judaism in both medieval and modern times, that the anthropomorphic characterizations of God in Scripture are to be treated figuratively or allegorically. I will cite here one example of what I consider to be a striking illustration of incar­national thinking in biblical religion. In the narrative concern­ing Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious ‘man,’ who is explicitly identified as Elohim and on account of whom Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, Jacob is said to have called the place of the theophany ‘Peniel,’ for he saw Elohim face-to-face (va-yikra ya’akov shem ba-makom peni’el ki ra’iti elohim panim el panim Gen.32:30). The anthropomor­phization of God in this biblical text suggests that in ancient Israel some believed that the divine could appear in a tangible and concrete form. The issue, then, is not how one speaks of God, but how God is exper­ienced in the phenomenal plane. In this light, it becomes quite clear that in some cases the anthro­pomorph­isms in Hebrew Scripture do imply an ele­ment of incarnation. (p.242)

There is ample evidence, however, that the biblical concept­ion (at var­ious stages reflected in the redactional layers of Script­ure) maintain the possibility of God manifesting himself in anthropomorphic form. For example, God is frequently depicted in regal terms: in the theo­phany related in Exodus 24:10-11, in Isaiah’s vision of God enthroned in the temple (6:1-3), in Ezekiel’s vision of the glory enthroned upon the char­iot (chapters 1 and 10), and in Daniel’s apocalyptic vision of the Ancient of Days (7:9-10). These epiphanies of the div­ine in human form have the texture of a tangibility that one would normally asso­ciate with a body of flesh and bones. Clearly, the God of Israel is not a body in this sense, but this does not diminish the somatic nature of the divine appear­ance attested in various stages of the history of the biblical canon. (p.243)

What cannot fail to seize the attention of any attentive reader of the Torah—the Pentateuch—is how remarkably “human” Yahweh appears in His self-revelat­ion. Therein lies the beauty and power of His self-revelation, because He thereby closes the distance between Him and us, reveal­ing His remarkable imman­ence which, strangely enough, scholars prefer to expunge in favor of His transcend­ence, as though they think it their business to protect God from us, that is, from our coming too close to Him!

There is another way that this Biblical anthropomorphism has been dealt with, and that is by declaring it to be mythological lang­uage, written in much the same way as children’s stories are told. Alternatively, it could be read as fictional literature, like those “who are prepared to read the Bible in something like the same spirit in which they read Shakespeare” (Harold Bloom, The Book of J, Grove Press, 1990, p.12; Bloom uses “J” as abbrev­iation for “Yahweh,” and “The Book of J” refers to the Pentateuch as edited by “the Yahwist”). Bloom’s more recent book is Jesus and Yahweh, The Names Divine (Riverhead Books, 2005; Bloom is Professor of Humanities at Yale University). In the latter book he makes it clear that he is not a believer; so in what other way can he read the Bible if not as litera­ture? Can Biblical language be demythologized, and if so, what would it mean? What meaning or significance does it have as literature?

What Prof. Bloom does recognize is that the attack upon Biblical “anthropomorphism” has its roots in Greek thought:

Greek philosophy demanded a dehumanized divinity, and Jewish Hellen­ists rather desperately sought to oblige, by alle­gorizing away a Yahweh who walked and who argued [?], who ate and who rested, who possessed arms and hands, face and legs.

Philo of Alexandria, the founder of what I suppose must be called Jewish theology, was particularly upset by J’s Yahweh, since Philo’s God had neither human desires nor a human form, and was incapable of passion, whether anger or love. But even the less Platonized great rabbis of second-century C.E. [Common Era] Palestine tended to argue these same difficult­ies, as in the celebrated disputes between Akiba and his colleague Ishmael, who also followed allegorical proced­ures in order to expunge the anthropomorphic. (The Book of J, p.24).

In any case, it seems clear that man simply refuses to believe that God could or would walk and talk with man in the ways described in Genesis—it just cannot be; it’s impossible, according to them. Why? Don’t they believe that all things are possible with God? He is trans­cendent, but not immanent?

Very shortly before the manuscript of this book was sent on its way to the publishers, I came across the thought-provoking work by James L. Kugel (Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard Univer­sity) entitled The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible, 2003, just in time to insert a reference to it here. As the title and subtitle of his book indicate, the thesis of the book is that the concept of God as seen in the earlier parts of the Bible, where God interacted with men, was later replaced by a concept of God who is cosmic in the sense that He becomes too great to interact with puny human beings in the way that “the God of old” did. Thus the God of the Bible who could and would appear at any time in the world of men became an idea belong­ing to “the lost world of the Bible”. This is how Kugel describes the world of the Bible:

There is, I think, an important difference between the way that most people nowadays (indeed, starting as early as the author of the Wisdom of Solomon “written just before the start of the common era,” p.21) are accustomed to conceive of the spirit­ual and the way this same thing was conceived in ancient Israel, at least in the texts that we have been examining. There are not two realms in the Bible, this world and the other, the spiritual and the material—or rather, these two realms are not neatly segregated but intersect constantly. God turns up around the street corner, dressed like an ordinary person…He appears in an actual brushfire at the foot of a mountain [when He first spoke to Moses]” (p.35).

Kugel points to the fact that in the world of the Bible, God made Himself visible to man in one way or another. He mentions the inter­esting ancient sug­gestion that the name Israel means “a man seeing God” from the Hebrew ’ish ra‘ah [or ro’eh] ’El (The God of Old, pp.101,230).

The spiritual cost of this loss of the Biblical concept of “the world of the Bible” is expressed boldly and quite satirically by the great Jewish scholar G. Scholem:

“The philosophers and theolog­ians [of medieval times] were concerned first and foremost with the purity of the concept of God and determined to divest it of all mythical and anthropo­morphic elements. But this determin­ation to … reinterpret the recklessly anthropomor­phic statements of the biblical text and the popular forms of religious expression in terms of a purified theology, tended to empty out the concept of God… The price of God’s purity is the loss of His living reality. What makes Him a living God… is precisely what makes it poss­ible for man to see Him face to face.” (G. Scholem, Kabbalah and Myth, quoted by Kugel in The God of Old, p.201; italics added in the last two sentences.)

The force and satire of Scholem’s statements are better under­stood if the words “purity” and “recklessly” are seen in quotation marks.

Biblical “anthropomorphism” versus trinitarian Christology

We have seen that the Hebrew Bible can speak of the “hands” of God, or His “feet,” and even His “face” in what is called “anthropomorphic” forms of describing God. Indeed, Yahweh of Hosts is even described as a “man of war” (Ex.15:3). He appeared to Abraham in human form. Perhaps He also appeared as “the angel of Yahweh,” generally recognized as being a theopha­ny, who was seen as being in human form. Yahweh’s appear­ance in human form is repeatedly recorded in Scripture, especially in the Pentateuch. The immanence of Yahweh is thus strongly emphas­ized in the earlier books of the Old Testa­ment. His transcendence, however, is not lost sight of. As mankind—and Israel in particular—sank ever further into disobed­ience and sin, man’s distance with God increased; and we see in the Old Testament that God seemed to become ever more remote, and His presence became correspond­ingly harder to find: “Truly, you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa.45:15).

But this will change with the coming of Jesus Christ. God will come to save His people as He had said through His ser­vants the prophets. The mind-boggling message of the Gospels and of the NT is that God had done what He had promised He would: Yahweh Himself came in Christ “in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn.3:17). But He came into the world incog­nito, “the world did not know Him” (Jn.1:10).

John, particularly in his Prologue (1:1-18), stated this as clear­ly as he poss­ibly could and as simply as he could. The message is that God, in His dynamic self-revelation called the Word (Memra), came into the world em­bodied in the man Jesus the Messiah. The “flesh” or body of Jesus was the Temple in which God dwelt, which is why Jesus could speak of his body as the temple of God (Yahweh), John 2:19. God, for His part, came into the world in Christ in order through him to reconcile the world to Himself (2Cor.5:19); and the true man Christ Jesus, for his part, lived and died to bring us to God.

To crystallize the whole matter as clearly as possible, the matter can be put like this: As trinitarians we believed that “God the Son” became a hu­man being called “Jesus Christ” in order to save us. The Biblical teaching, in stark contrast, is that God our Father (Yahweh) came into the world by indwelling “the man Christ Jesus” as His living temple. This He did in order to save us by uniting us with Christ through faith so that we ourselves become living temples through that saving union with Christ (1Cor.3:16,17; 6:19). In short, trinitar­ianism teaches an incarn­ation of the Second Person of the Trinity. The pur­pose of this study is to show that the NT proclaims the coming in the Body of Christ of the “First” and Only Person, the one and only God, Yahweh.

Transcendence-immanence

Let us now study some of the instances in which God draws near to man. In the following section I quote some extracts from a tran­script of a message I gave about a year ago to a group of church leaders.[5] The following extracts from that mess­age have been edited and con­densed for inclusion in this study, but the colloquial style is retained and not re-written in a more literary form:

— Start of Transcribed Excerpt —

Let us now try to understand Yahweh God as both immanent and transcendent in the Biblical sense of these terms, but not trans­cendent in the Greek sense of the word: a “dehumanized” God. Try to understand Him as immanent in the sense that “God is very near,” or in the words of Jacob’s awe-filled experience in Genesis 28:16, “Truly, Yahweh is in this place and I did not know!” (NJB) Try to re-read the Bible one more time, without your old concept of a trans­cendent God high up and far away in the heavens. Read it again and see what it is that you are reading. When I read it again, I was surprised by what I had read. Let’s try a bit of reading in Genesis. Let’s go back to Genesis and see if you really know your Bible as well as you may think you do. After all, you are in the ministry this long; surely you know your Bible, right? Go back to Genesis 1 to see whether God is that remote, that transcendent, that far away. Now, in verse 27 it says:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen.1:27, RSV)

“God created man in his own image”. Why would you create a person in your own image? Presumably it is so that you could com­municate with the person, is it not? Can you think of any other reason why God would create us in His image? What else but to commune with us?

The next thing which I find very touching and which had never struck me before, is this: After God had created man, what was the first thing He did? He blessed them. This had never struck me before; it seems that I had never seen this verse before. He blessed them! That’s the first thing God did to man. He blessed us. Look at verse 28:

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen.1:28, RSV)

Is God remote? Is He distant? According to the Greek idea of God, He doesn’t care much about earthly affairs. Not so with Yahweh! After having created them, the first thing He does is to bless them. After that, He keeps on talking to them. Have you noticed that? Now, would a God who is very remote even bother to talk to the creatures He has made? In the next verse we read:

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. (Gen.1:29, NRSV)

And God said…” and you know what? I marked all the places in Genesis where it says, “and God said,” and I was amazed. Genesis was beginning to turn red with my markings. God spoke a lot to man! But did anybody listen to Him? God is still speaking to us today. And so, right from the begin­ning, He blessed us and spoke to us. In verse 7 of the next chapter, more detail is given:

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Gen.2:7, NRSV)

Notice the words “the Lord (YHWH) God”—the Lord God. The first occur­rence of Yahweh is seen in verse 4, “…the Lord God made earth and heaven”—Yahweh God. Now, you can learn to stop saying just Lord, because with the word “Lord” you don’t know who you’re talking about, whether it’s the Father or the Son or someone else. Remember that every occurrence of the capitalized word Lord is Yahweh. “And Yahweh God made...” So which God are we talking about? The God that is being referred to here is Yahweh. Why use the two words “Yahweh God” together? Because the Scriptures want to specify which God we are talking about: not the god of the Babylon­ians, nor the god of the Assyrians, but Yahweh God.

Chapter 2 verse 7, “Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being.” Notice the word “formed”. What does it mean? To give shape to something. It is the word used in the Hebrew Old Testament for a potter who is forming the clay. Think of this: He did not just say the words, “Man, come into existence,” thereby bringing him into existence by a word of com­mand (as He did with other things in Genesis 1) such that man immediately became a human being walking around with eyes, a nose and a mouth, and hair that stands up because he hadn’t got the chance to comb it yet. No, God took this clay, this mud, and formed it with His own hands. How does a potter form the clay? With his own hands! Here the word “formed” is specifically and purposely chosen. He formed the man. The shape of the man is formed by the very fingers of God. And if we didn’t get the point, it is repeated at the end of verse 8:

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (Gen.2:8)

“… he placed (into the garden) the man whom he had formed.” There is the word again. Chapter 1 made the general statement that God created man. But now it tells us what that creating of man involved: Yahweh took the mud and, like an artist, carefully shaped his nose, his eyes, his ears. Every part of his body was made with the fingers of God. And then Adam was formed. We too were formed, in Adam, by God’s fingers. Think about it. No word in the Bible is wasted. No word is put there for no reason. And if we don’t bother to look at what the word means, we won’t get the point. Our hair didn’t suddenly appear on our heads. Do you remember what the Lord Jesus said? Not a hair of your head will fall to the ground without your Father (cf. Mt.10:29-31). God created every hair on your head. And how many strands of hair drop off every day when you comb it? How much does God care? How much does Yahweh care? We may not care too much about small things like sparrows (Mt.10:29), or the strands of hair that fall on the ground, but God does.

Is God transcendent in the sense that He is far away? Not accord­ing to the Bible. Yahweh cares about us because He was the one who formed us. That’s the beauty of it. Is man of any value? Well, God took the time to form man. How long does it take a potter to make a vessel? Not very long actually, because a vessel is relatively simple to make. But have you ever seen an intricate carving which took an artist weeks or months to carve?

In China I watched a program about the skills involved in the carving of ivory (which was legally obtained, or else it probably wouldn’t have been shown on state TV). The beautiful and exquis­itely de­tailed artwork could almost be described as fantastic. One such work could occupy the artist for weeks or months, depending on how detailed the work is and how many balls, one within another, were to be carved. They were all formed from a single piece of ivory. I didn’t know that there could be as many as 34 balls within the one ball. Could you imagine the skill and work that goes into carving this ball—34 layers—one within the other, each able to rotate within the next? I am told that 34 is the absolute maximum that has ever been achieved. A lesser work may have only 4 or 5 free-floating balls within it. As remarkable as this is, just think how incomparably more complex is the living human body which Yahweh God had made. Making it could have taken some considerable amount of time. The intricate details! The wonderful workmanship!

Contemplating these things, the Psalmist exclaims, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are won­derful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:14, NIV) We can read this simply as an elated express­ion of praise and admiration for Yahweh’s work in the course of meditating upon it; or, on a higher level, it could express the elevation of the spirit of one who is carried into communion with Yahweh through having been granted a profound spiritual perception of the wonder of His Person as revealed in His works.

I say this because I was given such an experience—unexpect­edly—of Yahweh’s presence when, on one occasion, I was contem­plating His creat­ion of man and some of His other wonderful deeds. I would suppose that this is what His Word is meant to accomplish for every one of us, namely, to lead us into an experience of Him as the living, loving, and creative God.

If God didn’t care about man, why would He waste time on us? Why doesn’t He just speak His almighty word, and presto, a man comes into exist­ence? But that’s not what the word “formed” means. Presumably he could have done it that way, but He chose not to. Clearly the Genesis account shows how much God cares about man.

For this reason, too, God constantly speaks to man, and notice here, “the Lord God”—Yahweh Godcommanded”:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; (Gen.2:16, RSV)

Yahweh provided the food that man needed. He cares about what is good for man, so He provided him a companion:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” (Gen.2:18, NASB)

More than that, Yahweh Himself came to visit them, to be with them.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Gen.3:8, NRSV)

God was walking in the garden. What an amazing statement! What does He walk in the garden for? I mean, He’s got the whole of heaven to be in and He chose to walk in the garden. Why? Well, if it’s not to commune with man, then He would have nothing to do in the garden. He, the almighty God, is indeed transcendent but not solely trans­cendent. In the Old Testa­ment, the transcend­ence of God is spoken of much later on, as we shall see. But it begins with His immanence. He walks in the garden—we read about it and do not understand. It says that Adam and Eve had sinned, and they suddenly realized that they were naked. They tried to sew some fig leaves together, not exactly artwork I suppose, but quite an interesting way to get dressed. And then, “They heard ... God walking in the garden”. Note carefully the text: “They heard the sound of Yahweh”.

Let’s stop and think about it. Do we ever read our Bibles with any serious attent­ion? Can you imagine that? Nowadays we can buy shoes that make almost no sound. With these shoes I am wearing now, I can walk up to a person and he doesn’t hear me coming. But they heard Yahweh—“the sound of Yahweh”—walking in the garden. How did they manage to hear Him? Obviously Yahweh was not walking softly, softly, so that He could steal up on them and say “Boo!” and they jump! You can actually hear Him coming. Maybe it’s the sound of the leaves on the ground. Maybe it’s the sound of the grass that He is walking on. I presume they didn’t have paved roads in the Garden of Eden, on which you could walk with rubber-soled shoes that don’t make a sound. He was walk­ing, and they heard Him coming.

Now, a God who is transcendent and “light as air” would surely make no sound as He walks on the ground, right? Can you imagine a ghost walking and making a boom-boom sound? Is it a special kind of ghost? You may think that God is just floating through the air, but no, He walks on the ground in such a way that there is contact with the ground. And this creates a sound of some­thing moving, maybe the brushes, maybe the leaves of the trees. They hear Him coming and they hide themselves. If God had sneaked up on them, they wouldn’t have a chance to hide; it would be like treating them as children—so cute and so sweet. Do you think God doesn’t know where you are, and that you can play hide and seek with Him? He comes along and, like a loving father, He says, “Adam! Eve! Where are you?” An all-knowing, omniscient God doesn’t know where they are? That must be a joke. But He relates to us at our level, sort of plays our game, if you like, as if to say, “You want to hide? Okay, I’ll play hide and seek.” It’s really remark­able. And in case we missed that state­ment about “heard the sound of him,” it is stressed again in verse 10:

He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen.3:10, NRSV)

They could actually hear God walking in the garden? Do we ever think on these things? No, we were taught that God is transcend­ent and that we must not read this literally. It is all metaphor and sym­bolic language. But a symbol of what? Can you tell me what it is a symbol of? If it is a symbol, it must symbolize something. Why can’t we just take it as it is written there?

Going back to chapter 2 verse 8, we might not have noticed some­thing else there. There it says, “Yahweh God planted a garden”. Think about it. He is doing the work of a gardener or farmer! Yahweh God planted a garden. It did not come into being simply by His “speaking the word”. He brought light into being, He brought the creation into being, with a word, but now He is working in the garden. Amazing! If this is symbolic of something, would you kindly tell me what it is symbolic of? And He planted a garden for whom? For man! He fashioned man into existence, then He planted a beautiful garden for him. But we are told that what we read about God and His actions should not be taken literally. He is all transcendent and there­fore somewhere else. Transcendent? What are we doing? Are we dismiss­ing God from His creat­ion? That’s what we have been doing all the time because of the corrupted teaching we have received. God planted a garden (or assisted by angels, as some would have it)—can you imagine that? It means that He had to plan it and design it. He made a garden and put man there to enjoy it:

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (Gen.2:8, NRSV)

Then we come to the part about God walking in the garden and their attempt to hide from Him, as seen in the words “from the pre­sence of the Lord God” in chapter 3 verse 8:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Gen.3:8, NRSV)

How do you hide from an omnipresent God? Yet they tried to hide from Him. Did they suppose that God was transcendent, high up in the heavens, and was unaware of what they had been doing on earth, so they could still try to hide from Him? They hadn’t read Psalm 139!

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8, NASB)

Sinners, to the extent that they believe in God at all, would undoubt­edly prefer to believe that He is transcendent, far away from human affairs, and does not concern Himself with their sins. Such an idea of transcend­ence would be a good way to hide from God, at least in the sinner’s mind. But even after Adam and Eve had sinned, we continue to see the words “Yahweh said”. He con­tinued to talk to this couple. God still talked to man after he had sinned; He mercifully did not completely close the door on communicat­ing with man.

And then what happened in chapter 4? Cain murdered Abel out of jealousy because Abel’s sacrifice was accepted and his was not. When I re-thought this whole passage, freeing myself from the theological con­cepts I had been taught from the beginning, I began to see things there that I hadn’t seen before. For example we read,

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your count­enance fallen?” (Gen 4:6)

Here it does not speak of “Lord God” but simply “Lord” (Yahweh). Yahweh says to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your counte­nance fallen?” Then He goes on to warn him that if he does well, he will be accepted; but if he does not, his desires will master him. Then Cain tells Abel about what God had said to him. The story goes on to say that Cain, out in the field where he thinks nobody is watching, kills Abel. A wicked man! The first mur­derer. But wait, there’s something else. The account goes on to say that even after Cain had murdered his brother, Yahweh continues to talk to him. Have you noticed this? If Cain is such an evil person, why is Yahweh talking to him? In the following passage, we see that Yahweh (again the word “God” does not appear) talks to Cain:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Gen.4:9-10, NRSV)

That’s quite a conversation with Cain. And the amazing thing is that Yahweh protects Cain from being killed. Why would Yahweh do this? Doesn’t the Law say that if you kill someone, you must pay for it with your own life? That’s the Law of Yahweh. Yet Yahweh protects Cain from death, by putting a mark on him so that nobody would kill him:

Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. (Gen.4:15, NRSV)

Yahweh speaks to Cain. Notice again that the word “God” does not appear, so the focus is on the name “Yahweh” alone. Yahweh says to Cain: “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance”. What a pro­tection He puts on Cain! But Cain’s a murderer. Why doesn’t some­body in Sunday school explain to us why Cain is protected? But it reminds us of someone who, in the New Testament, is called a friend of sinners, presumably in­cluding mur­derers. Jesus is indeed called a friend of sinners (Mt.11:19; Lk.7:34). How amazing!

Yahweh asks Cain, “Why are you angry?” God had rejected his offering and that greatly disturbed him. He could not cope with Yahweh’s reject­ion. Cain took the rejection of his offering as indication that Yahweh had rejected him altogether. He could not accept being rejected by Yahweh. He was so des­perate that it drove him quite insane, such that he killed Abel. Do you get what I’m saying? If God rejects you, does that worry you? Maybe, maybe not. The average person on the street would hardly be worried about being rejected by God. But Cain was so disturbed by Yahweh’s rejection that he couldn’t take it.

Now why should it disturb Cain that Yahweh didn’t accept him? Is there any reason but that he loved Yahweh? Can you think of another reason? You wouldn’t endure being rejected by somebody you love, would you? If you are rejected by someone who hates you, you wouldn’t care less; you simply reject him back. But if you are rejected by someone who had loved you or whom you love, you can’t cope with that. Some people commit suicide over rejection. Cain didn’t commit suicide, but he killed his brother instead. He was jealous because Abel was accepted. But jealousy comes from love, does it not?

In other words, Cain committed murder out of love, which is what people still do today. If somebody gains the girl you love, you might go out and kill that guy so you can have the girl all to yourself. Cain wants Yahweh’s love and acceptance, but Yahweh doesn’t accept him. He accepts Abel instead! That won’t do, so remove Abel!

I can’t think of any other explanation for God’s sparing Cain. God knew his heart. He knew that Cain loved Him, but loved Him in the wrong way. Otherwise God would have put him to death for having killed his brother. But God instead put such a protection on him that anybody who dares to touch Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. That’s frightening. What other pur­pose could there be in sparing Cain from immed­iate death than to give him the chance to repent of what he had done, and thus to be saved? Yahweh cares even for the worst sinner.

Continued ...


[1] Seeing that there is no “v” sound in Chinese (Mandarin; there is in Shanghai­nese), the “w” in “Yahweh” will have to be pronounced as “ou” (cf. Clement of Alexandria above).

[2] Similarly BDB Hebrew and English Lexicon: “יהוה [YHWH]… is given (in) Ex 3:12-15 as the name of the God who revealed Himself to Moses at Horeb, and is explained thus: עִמָּךְ אֶהְיֶה I shall be with thee (v:12), which is then implied in אֶהְיֶה אְַשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה I shall be the one who will be it v:14a (i.e.: with thee v:12) and then com­pressed into אֶהְיֶה v:14b (i.e. with thee v:12), which then is given in the nominal form יהוה He who will be it v:15 (i.e. with thee v:12).”

[3] This double proclamation of the Name of Yahweh is found nowhere else. It is unique in the OT. The fact that it is proclaimed by Yahweh Himself indicates the exceptional significance of the self-revelation recorded in this passage.

[4] Ex.34:6; Num.14:18; Neh.9:17; Ps.86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon.4:2; Nah.1:3.

[5] The original transcription of this message was done by Elena Villa Real and Rhoda Batul; their work is here acknowledged with thanks and appreciation.

 

 

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