Argument for the Trinity #8: How the Old Testament Prepared God’s People for the Trinity – Section 1: Plurality in One God

I have alluded to two-powers theology several times, and addressed this issue in some detail in my previous series, but I wanted to take some time to cover it in some more detail here. While the New Testament contains record of the deeply Trinitarian theology of the apostles and first believers, it was not an entirely new revelation. The Old Testament contains various passages throughout that allude to the complexity of God’s nature, in multiple different ways. Here, we will be examining several ways in which the Old Testament prepares the way for a Trinitarian faith to be revealed in the coming of the Son in the flesh and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

A Historical Comment

We are primarily examining Scripture in this series, but I want to make one point very clear at the outset. The passages we will be examining and interpreting in light of New Testament revelation were not unknown to the Jews prior to the coming of Jesus. They wrestled with these passages and asked the same questions we will be asking. Most groups that attack the Trinity make the claim that Judaism never had anything like a Trinity and never spoke of God in complex ways analogous to Trinitarians. These groups claim that God is just one Person and complexity was added by syncretistic Christians in the early centuries of the church that were trying to combine the monotheism of the Jews with pagan philosophy and beliefs.

This is demonstrably false. In a previous article, I cited some examples of how the Jews wrestled with complexity in God as found in the Hebrew Scriptures. If this fascinates you, I would recommend several books: The Unseen Realm, by Dr. Michael Heiser, an ancient near east linguistic scholar, who is a Christian, Volume 2 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, by Dr. Michael Brown, a Jewish Christian and a Semitic Scholar, The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish Scholar, and Two Powers in Heaven, by Dr. Alan F. Segal, a Jewish Scholar. I have heard no meaningful response to their research on this topic by those who deny the Trinity and continue to advance a narrative that the ancient Jews believed the same thing about God’s nature that most modern Jews believe. This narrative has been proven false to anyone open enough to just actually read what the ancient Jews wrote

What this means is that, while the passages I’ll be examining here will be examined in light of later revelation and in concert with Trinitarian truths later revealed in Scripture, it is nonetheless the case that this is not an exercise in Trinitarian bias causing Trinitarians to see the Trinity in the Old Testament. Christians didn’t ask these questions first. Jews did. Jews developed a theology around it and that theology just happened to give Jews of the first century just the right concept of God to be able to accept the deity of Christ and Trinitarian truths. Two-powers theology was accepted in Judaism until the second century, when it was deemed a heresy within Judaism. It is because of a rejection of Jesus that Jews today are no longer two-powers Jews.

This is not to say that all Jews agreed on this. We can see in the Gospels some of the divisions of sects within Judaism of that time. This is just to say that, while Jews universally accepted the Shema, they were not monolithic in their interpretation of it. Some definitely had complexities in their views that were compatible with what the Christians were saying about Jesus.

The Testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures

If what we have said up to this point is true, that the definitional doctrines of the Trinity are indeed biblical, then how should we expect that to be revealed in the Old Testament? Truly, any answer we give to this question must be held loosely. As we look at the coming of Jesus and the birth of the church, we see that, while there is certainly some continuity between the Old and New Testaments, there are also new things being revealed and new ways of looking at the Old Testament being taught in the New. I would say that, when it comes to new things being revealed, what we should expect would fall somewhere on a spectrum, where on the one end you have truths that admit of no new knowledge or adjustment, like the fact that God’s words are trustworthy. On the other end of the spectrum would be those truths that were completely unknown, unforeseen in the Old Testament at all, like the fact that the Holy Spirit would come to permanently indwell all believers. Everything we know about God and about every truth of Scripture falls somewhere on this spectrum. This fact alone refutes any argument that tries to argue that the Trinity was not true because the Jews “didn’t know about it”, or some other equivalent statement. The fact is that the Jews didn’t know about or expect quite a lot about Jesus, His ministry, and certainly the manner and purpose of His death.

So, what should we really expect to see? I believe that, like many of the truths of the Gospel, there are foreshadowings, types, clues, and all kinds of hints in the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the truths of the Trinity. Only later, in light of the New Testament, do we get real answers to the questions about what’s in the Old Testament, but the questions, as already discussed, were already there. Now, let’s look at what sparked those questions. As I see it, there are several kinds of passages we will examine. First, there are passages that point at plurality within God by placing it in the language of the text, whether by having there seem to be two Yahweh’s in a passage or having Yahweh talk both about Himself and about “God” in the same sentence as if “God” is someone else. These lead to seeing two in the passage who both seem to be God. Just a few passages even seem to hint at three. The second kind of passage we will look at regards the many names and titles that seem to point to a Person who is distinct from God in the passage, and yet also is God in the passage. There are many varieties of this kind of passage, and many titles are used in these passages, including: The Name of Yahweh, the Word of Yahweh, the Angel of Yahweh, the Glory of Yahweh, the Face/Presence of Yahweh, the Wisdom of Yahweh…you get the picture. We won’t go through everything, but there are some powerful passages in this group. Finally, we will spend some more time looking at the concept of the “cloud rider” in the Hebrew Scriptures and how important this was in two-powers theology. And how much this actually influenced the New Testament, such that we even see two-powers language in the New Testament, but now about the Holy Spirit.

Genesis Sets the Stage

Genesis is a book of beginnings, and not just regarding creation. It contains the beginning of sin in the world, of judgment in the flood, the beginning of nations at the Tower of Babel, and the beginning of Israel in the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his twelve sons. Also, we have the beginning of God’s self-revelation to us. Genesis is so careful with its words that one should never think that a detail is there by accident or without purpose. We see both that God is transcendent over creation by the fact that He speaks it into being, but we also see that God takes on a physical body at times when relating to us. Consider in Genesis 3 that God is “walking” in the garden and Adam and Eve, fresh from their first sin, are hiding because they “heard the sound” of Him walking toward them. We should resist the urge to try to make Genesis out to be speaking metaphorically just because we are uncomfortable with a possible conclusion.

Just after the story of Babel, we have the beginning of the story of God and His people, when he chooses Abraham and begins working to bring about a nation through him. The story of Abraham is a series of scenes in which God steps in to reveal something about His plan to Abraham or one close to him, and these scenes take on a structure. In Scene One, Genesis 12, we have the calling of Abraham, and it begins like this:

Genesis 12:1

And Yahweh said to Abram, “Go out from your land and from your relatives, and from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.

So, the author wants us to know that it is Yahweh who comes and speaks directly to Abraham, and calls him out of where he is to go to another land. Now, what happens the next time Yahweh shows up? After the first meeting, Yahweh doesn’t speak to Abraham again until chapter 15

Genesis 15:1

After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision, saying: “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your shield, and your reward shall be very great.”

Do you see the subtle difference? It is not now “Yahweh” who comes and speaks to Abraham, but “the word of Yahweh”, and notice this isn’t just a metaphorical way of talking about the speech of Yahweh, for it comes “in a vision”, so Abraham sees the word of Yahweh, and the word of Yahweh speaks to Abraham. This is the same verb as in Genesis 12, where Yahweh speaks. This is not a haphazard phrase. The word of Yahweh claims to be Abraham’s shield and promises his reward. There is no disputing that Yahweh is the one speaking to Abraham, but the text uses this different title for Yahweh here.

Now some may say that this is just a metaphorical way to refer to Yahweh, or that it is just a fancy way of talking about what Yahweh said, but it’s really just Yahweh. This would be said to try to reduce the force of this phrase as a way of referring to a Person. The motivation is simple. From the perspective of one who denies the Trinity, drawing the connections that are threaded through the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the phrase “word of Yahweh” paints a picture that looks too much like the Trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1 concerning the Word who both is “with God” and who is God. The problem with this move in Genesis 15 is that the non-Trinitarian is not able to keep it up as we move through Genesis. Let’s look at the next time Yahweh speaks to see what I’m talking about.

Genesis 16:7-13

And the angel of Yahweh found her at a spring of water in the wilderness, at the spring by the road of Shur. And he said to Hagar, the servant of Sarai, “ From where have you come, and where are you going?” And she said, “I am fleeing from the presence of Sarai my mistress.” Then the angel of Yahweh said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her authority.”

And the angel of Yahweh said to her, “ I will greatly multiply your offspring, so that they cannot be counted for their abundance.” And the angel of Yahweh said to her: “Behold, you are pregnant and shall have a son. And you shall call his name Ishmael, for Yahweh has listened to your suffering. And he shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and the hand of everyone will be against him, and he will live in hostility with all his brothers.” So she called the name of Yahweh who spoke to her, “You are El-Roi,” for she said, “Here I have seen after he who sees me.”

Now, we have the third encounter, and the third name, malak YHWH, the Angel of Yahweh. We have a promise, similar to the previous chapter, of multiplying of descendants, and notice that this Angel says “I will multiply your offspring”, but also refers to Yahweh as someone else later on. Now, in the Hebrew, malak just means “messenger”. It did not carry the same meaning we think of today, as some sort of spiritual being that is less than God. It says literally nothing about the nature of the being. It is a word that refers to function, but then transforms in later times to have a more specific meaning. The Angel here takes credit for what will happen with Hagar, and then notice that she says to the Angel that He is “El-Roi”, which means “the God who sees”.

The Trinitarian, knowing that one cannot prejudicially interpret “angel” anachronistically and assume this is some created being, can see that He speaks as God and is called God, but also refers to God as someone else. The Trinitarian can also see that a pattern has developed in these encounters with Abraham. We have three encounters. The speaker has the name “Yahweh” attached in each case, but the title is different in each case, and this is the last of these encounters to introduce a new name or title, so the Trinitarian can see that it is Yahweh all three times.

Can the non-Trinitarian do the same? No. The non-Trinitarian sees Yahweh in the first case, and then sees that Yahweh is the one speaking in the second encounter, as the passage continues and says specifically that Yahweh is there, speaking, but has to say that the “word of Yahweh” is just a way of referring to the speech fo Yahweh. Then in the third case, the non-Trinitarian has to force this Angel to be anyone but God, and has to import other ideas about how the Angel represents God and so can have His name, even though there is no Scripture to that effect. For the non-Trinitarian, these are isolated events and there is no continuity across interpretations.

Now, why do I think that this continuity is important, other than I’m a Trinitarian? I think it’s on purpose. I think that the author wants us to see the first three encounters that Abraham and those near him have with Yahweh and to notice the three names given, because, after one more encounter in which Yahweh appears and gives the sign of circumcision, we have this:

Genesis 18:1-2

And Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre. And he was sitting in the doorway of the tent at the heat of the day. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing near him. And he saw them and ran from the doorway of the tent to meet them. And he bowed down to the ground.

Now, most Christian scholars will say that, based on what comes after this, that this is Yahweh with two angels, (of the created sort) and I don’t disagree, necessarily, but this passage does raise some major questions about God. I do not think it a coincidence that we have had three divine titles given and now see three men. Notice that verse 1 says “Yahweh appeared to him”, and when he raises his head, what does he see? Three men. It does not say, “Yahweh appeared with two angels” It is a jolt to read and I think it was a jolt for its first readers.

Remember that the word for “angel” in Hebrew just means “messenger”, and that this word isn’t used for the duration of chapter 18. Yahweh speaks to Abraham and Abraham speaks to Yahweh, and at first, the three men all seem to be speaking in unison, until just one seems to begin to speak alone. We see this from the pronouns shifting from plural to singular in the middle of the scene. Then, as Yahweh tells of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, He says in verse 21 that He “will go down” to Sodom. Later, it is the other two “men” who go down, and the next chapter tells of their meeting with Lot.

The whole narrative of chapters 18-19 is full of ambiguity about who is doing what. Yahweh says He will go down to see Sodom, but the two men go down. In chapter 19, the men say they are about to destroy Sodom, having been sent by Yahweh (v. 13), but then it is just one who says he will overthrow the city (v. 21). Ultimately, though, it is Yahweh who rains down the destruction, but it says so in a strange way:

Genesis 19:24

Yahweh rained down from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Yahweh.

Why is Yahweh in this verse twice? Many scholars see, from comparison with the many verses before this that speak of the angels doing the destruction, along with the statement Yahweh makes in chapter 18 about going down to Sodom, that there is a Yahweh, embodied in human form and standing on the earth, calling down destruction from Yahweh in heaven. Whether this embodied Yahweh is the one who remained speaking with Abraham or whether it is one of the two men is uncertain, which is the point.

Here, in the opening chapters of God’s dealing with the father of the nation of Israel, the circumstances of the meetings leads us to ask lots of questions about the nature of God and whether there is a plurality here that is not being explained.

Those who want to dismiss this plurality in Genesis, in addition to having to deal with the historical realities mentioned earlier, also run into the problem that later prophets see this ambiguity and perpetuate it when talking about this event.

Isaiah 13:17-19

Look! I am stirring the Medes up against them,

who do not value silver

and do not delight in gold.

18 And their bows will shatter young men.

And they will not show mercy on the fruit of the womb;

their eyes will not look compassionately on children.

19 And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be like when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.

Jeremiah 50:40

As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah

and their neighbors,” declares Yahweh,

“no one will live there,

and the son of humankind will not dwell as an alien in her.

Amos 4:11

“I overthrew some of you as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a stick snatched from the fire, and yet you did not return to me,” is the declaration of Yahweh.

The fact that these all reference the same event surrounded by plurality throughout the narrative, coupled with the fact that each one either references Yahweh as speaking of “God” in the third person or goes one step further as Amos does by having Yahweh actually compare what He will do with what “God” did. This is not just a case of a symbolic speaking in the third person. This is God speaking in the first and third person in the same sentence and drawing a comparison. Much like the extrabiblical Jewish writings confirm they saw this plurality in their Scriptures, these statements in the prophets confirm that these prophets saw the pluralities in Genesis 18-19, just like we are pointing to now.

As an interesting capstone to the whole Abraham story regarding this plurality, we have Abraham’s account of all these things that he gives to Abimalech in chapter 20. In verse 13, when Abraham says, “God caused me to wander”, he calls God “Elohim”, which is known to be a plural form of God. This plural, in most cases, does not prove any plurality in the nature of God, as it is coupled with verb forms that are singular, and is used to speak of other gods as well. However, in this case, the verb form in this verse is plural. If singular verb forms indicate a singular subject, what does a plural verb form indicate?

Series Navigation<< Argument for the Trinity #7: The Deity of the Persons – Section 4: Still more of the SonArgument for the Trinity #9: How the Old Testament Prepared God’s People for the Trinity – Section 2: The Word of Yahweh >>

1 thought on “Argument for the Trinity #8: How the Old Testament Prepared God’s People for the Trinity – Section 1: Plurality in One God”

  1. Check out WHO WROTE THE BIBLE. I like his take on Genesis. I admit I didn’t peruse your whole post, sorry. What is your position?

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