You are here

05. 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.) The total number of references to Yahweh in the OT amounts, therefore, to about 7000.

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)” (יהוה אלהים) appears 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! This 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 try 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/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 can 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, NIV) 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, NIV). 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” (kurios); 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 the exception of the New Jerusalem Bible) follow the Septuagint in translating YHWH as “LORD”, but with the difference that the word is capitalized (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. kurios) ‘Lord’.”

TWOT also has 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 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” (NIV, 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” (Deut.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 now the only true God has 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 also use the term 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 praying 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”, and so 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.[28]

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)[29]

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,[30] God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy’” (Exodus 34.6, NJB). 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[31]. 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 2nd “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 who 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.

Rev.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.’”

Rev.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, and, as is well known, a variety of explanations are offered, none of which is satisfactory, or at most offer some 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 “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 demythologised, 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. [Christian 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, is 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” v. 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 would change with the coming of Jesus Christ. God would 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” (Jo.3.17). But He came into the world incog­nito, “the world did not know Him” (Jo.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.


[28] 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).

[29] 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: אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ 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).”

[30] 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.

[31] 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.



(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church