For part 2 of this article, see 5 (More) Nuggets About the Jewish Trinity.
In Christian doctrine, God is comprised of three persons. Not only is this difficult to fully comprehend since we humans are only one person, but from where does that idea even arise? Was it an invention of the early church fathers later in history? Was it some kind of polytheistic doctrine that crept into the church over time? Or was it an idea deeply embedded in the Jewish scriptures that we use as part of the Bible today? Here are 5 things about the Trinity that you may not have known. (I sure didn’t!)
1. The Jewish Idea of “Two Powers” in Heaven
Jewish Rabbis in the Second Temple Period (ie, the time between when Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s rebuilding of the second temple and when it was destroyed by the Romans shortly after Jesus’ time in 70 AD) were very clear about worshiping the One True God, who’s Name is YHWH (see Deuteronomy 6:4 for the shemah). But they were also clear that there were “Two Powers” or two YHWH’s in Heaven! Now, this doesn’t mean that the Jews weren’t monotheists. Jesus believed this too… and in fact, he claimed the mantle of the second YHWH, which we’ll see later.
The idea that God was more than one individual or power was uniquely Jewish and caused a lot of famous (back then) theorizing of how their ONE GOD could be two. It was a generally well-understood property of YHWH that He was a multi-personal being.
Jewish rabbis certainly wouldn’t say this now, for obvious reasons. According to scholar Alan Segal in his book Two Powers in Heaven, he claims that, “The idea of the 2nd power was not considered heretical [to Jews] until the 2nd century AD.” That’s after Jesus claimed to be that second YHWH, died, and rose again! The rabbis had to do something, I suppose, given that thousands of Jews at a time were converting to Christianity after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The rabbis even changed the Jewish calendar so that Jesus’ death wouldn’t fulfill a prophecy in Daniel that proved He was the Jewish Messiah (a whole different article I’ll have to do some time! The change is chronicled in the Seder Olam, a Jewish text from around 160 AD).
This Two Powers thing sounds crazy, but there are many Old Testament examples that we tend to skim right over.
2. The word elohim is interesting.
Elohim in Hebrew is generally translated to English as ‘god.’ It is used just like in English to describe “spirit beings.” For instance, we might say that Elohim (God) called all His elohim (gods) together to tell them that He’s going to punish them for leading the Gentiles astray. (btw, that’s Psalms 82 and 89, if you’re interested). This is why when the Hebrew authors of the Scriptures want to talk about YHWH as a spiritual being, they’ll use the two terms together so you know Who they’re talking about (YHWH elohim, for instance, or another term like El Elyon (Most High God)). El is another generic term for ‘god,’ or ‘God.’
But the interesting thing is that, regardless of whether you grammatically refer to a singular entity or multiple spirit beings, the word elohim itself is always plural (kinda similar to deer or sheep in English). So the multi-personal aspect of YHWH is already built into the language, and therefore the minds and theology, of Hebrews from the very beginning.
3. Genesis 19:24 – Who Called the Fire from Heaven?
In Genesis 18, the LORD (Yahweh, Jahovah, YHWH… depends on the rendering of your Bible version) and two other angels visit Abraham and eat a meal with him. They discuss the fact that Sarah will become pregnant and then the other two angels leave while the LORD discusses the ‘cities of the plain’ and their sin. He tells Abraham that He will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the terrible things they are doing. Abraham knows his nephew, Lot, and his family are down there, so he discusses with the LORD about whether He’ll spare the city for the sake of any innocents that are within their walls.
In Genesis 19, Lot and his family are rescued by God. Then we come to verse 24.
“Then the LORD [YHWH] rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD [YHWH] out of heaven…” (King James Version, Gen 19:24a)
Now, while this may seem awkward, and may seem like a small thing, it’s actually a huge deal if you study the Hebrew grammar. The structure of this phrase is deliberate. You have two clear individuals that share a Name, and therefore a Nature, working together to accomplish a task. These two communicate and interact. Yet they are both the sovereign God of Israel.
And it’s not a mistake, as we’ll see in #4…
4. Amos 4:11 – 1st and 3rd Person!
Amos, the prophet, is giving warning to the rich and powerful Samaritans concerning their greed and treachery toward their poor, needy, and thirsty serfs. He calls them “the kine of Bashan,” which were a breed of stubborn and strong cattle. God had already disciplined them and pleaded with them to turn from their ways (“… yet you have not returned unto me…” over and over again) despite His signs. Hence calling them stubborn cows.
Amidst all this, we arrive at verse 11. Amos is recording YHWH speaking to the Samaritans. He says,
“I have overthrown some of you, as God [Elohim] overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning…” (King James Version)
Now, as we saw in #3, the only person credited with destroying Sodom and Gomorrah is YHWH (Genesis 19:24). And the grammar in Amos 4:11 is no accident. YHWH (through Amos the prophet) is referring to YHWH both in the 1st AND the 3rd person! If you’re not reading this critically, you would miss it, but Jewish teachers for hundreds and now thousands of years knew of these these and other passages and their significance.
5. Genesis 48:14-16 – Even Jacob Understood!
As the previous two verses illustrate, there was an understanding of the Jewish writers of the Old Testament scriptures concerning the identity of the individual who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. As we’ll see here, this understanding was illustrated in other ways.
The Angel of the Lord (malak YHWH) makes several appearances in scripture, and though some of them are ‘just’ messengers of God doing errands, there’s one Angel that seems to be identified directly with YHWH… as YHWH Himself!
Jacob understood this, and was so comfortable with it, that as he was blessing Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh on his deathbed as progenitors of future tribes of Israel, he makes the following prayer to God:
“…God, before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God which fed me all my life long unto this day, The Angel which redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads…” (King James Version, Gen. 48:15b-16a)
Jacob addresses God point-blank as “The Angel,” the one who wrestled him in Genesis 32! Jacob was comfortable enough with the knowledge that the Angel was YHWH that he’d address Him as such in a public prayer in front of his family, but not only that, he acknowledged that his redemption comes from The Angel specifically!
Many of these theophanies (or appearances of the second person of the Trinity in the Old Testament) are sprinkled throughout the OT, but this acknowledgement of His redeemer status all the way back in Genesis strikes me. Even Jacob understands that the “Second Power in Heaven” (whom Christians will later identify as Jesus Christ) is the one who saves him.
For part 2, see 5 (More) Nuggets about the Jewish Trinity. Thanks!
If you found this information interesting, check out The Unseen Realm by Dr. Michael Heiser. You can also watch his series of lectures on “The Jewish Trinity,” which much of this topic is pulled from, here. Enjoy!!
Lastly, the image is the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 6:4, or The Shema, which is often said as a prayer by the Jews all around the world.