Binitarianism In The OT – Truth or Myth

It has become fashionable of late for some Christian scholars, teachers, and apologists to assert the idea that the Hebrew Bible presents a picture of the Godhead as binitarian, rather than unitarian. It is claimed that the Jews of ancient times had no problem seeing a plurality in God in such a way that this plurality did not infringe upon the strict monotheism which was so clearly their fundamental belief. It is then contended that this binitarian belief  of the ancient Hebrews is the foundation of the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity, that the Trinity flows naturally from it. Then biblical passages which supposedly show this plurality are interpreted as references to the members of the Trinity.

The best known proponent of this claim is Dr. Michael Heiser, and it may not be exaggerating to say that most other popular proponents of this view derived it from Dr. Heiser. In other words, Dr. Heiser is probably more responsible than anyone else for the widespread acceptance of this concept among Christians of all stripes. I will be examining Dr. Heiser’s teaching on this subject, drawn from various papers and lectures he has published, which are free of charge on the internet.

Defining The Terms

Binitarianism is defined as the belief that their is one God which exists or manifests or reveals itself as two persons. Heiser is not a binitarian but a trinitarian i.e. God as three persons. When he speaks of binitarianism in the OT he means that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is presented as two distinct personages, one invisible and the other visible. He often speaks of the invisible Yahweh and the visible Yahweh. That these were not to be understood as being the same person is seen in the fact that they can appear in the same scene at the same time, as Heiser puts it. Even though they are two distinguishable beings, that they are both referred to as Yahweh supposedly ensures that this is no violation of monotheism.

Another way that Heiser will often refer to this concept is as ‘the two powers in heaven.’ This designation comes from rabbinic literature from the second through the fifth centuries C.E. These rabbis spoke against those who were said to hold that there were two powers in heaven. Heiser refers often to the work by Jewish scholar Alan Segal, titled “Two Powers In Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism.” The controversy centered on specific biblical passages which were interpreted in a binitarian way by certain sectarian Jews. The rabbis sought to refute these interpretations by providing a different interpretation to these passages which did not entail binitarianism. As far as I am concerned, both the binitarian and the rabbinic interpretations of these passages are, for the most part, nonsensical. The sectarian Jews were not polytheists but monotheists. Their ‘heresy’ was to postulate that God shared his heavenly rule with some other being. This second figure was usually either some angel (whether Michael, Raphael, Yahoel or Metatron) or some man (whether Adam, Abraham, Moses or Melchizedek) who had been exalted to this high position. It is noteworthy that the second power was typically a created being, as even Dr. Heiser acknowledges, not a being who shared the uncreated nature of Yahweh.

So we see an ambiguity in the terms here. Both Segal and Heiser use the terms ‘binitarianism’ and ‘two powers in heaven’ interchangeably, but it seems to me that these two terms should not necessarily be synonymous. While ‘binitarianism’ denotes one God which consists of two persons, presumably on an equal level, in both ontology and status, ‘two powers in heaven’ can denote a lesser, inferior and even a created being, who shares authority with the one God because God has so willed it. Dr. Heiser has repeatedly stated, regarding the second power, that the views of the Jews of the Second Temple period “ranged from divinized humans from the stories of the Hebrew Bible to exalted angels.” But when he asserts that the early Christians held Jesus to be the second power he then shifts to speaking of Jesus as though he shares not only Yahweh’s authority but also his nature. But does he think that the Jews who held that the second power was either an exalted man or angel, believed these exalted figures to be ontologically on par with Yahweh? This exposes Heiser’s underlying presupposition and shows that he set out to prove his conclusion i.e. that Jesus is God and that he has always existed with God the Father.

The fact that certain Jews believed that God shared his authority with some man, who was exalted to heaven and functioned in a mediatorial role, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the Trinity doctrine has it’s roots in Hebrew thought rather than Greek thought. The two concepts are really quite different. While faithful Jews could certainly entertain the idea, based on certain biblical passages, that Yahweh could elevate a man or a non-human created being to a vicegerent position under Him, it is certain that no faithful Jew could conceive of Yahweh as existing as two (or three) distinct persons who are sharing the same substance or essence. To a Jew this would amount to polytheism. This would not even have been within the categories of thought concerning God for a faithful Jew. The faithful Jew was committed to the biblical revelation:

“Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one (masculine, singular).” Duet. 6:4

For a Jew to believe that Yahweh would grant a human or non-human agent a high representational status would not be in conflict with this statement of faith in the one God. But the idea that the God of Israel consisted of more than one personal being named Yahweh, i.e. two or more Yahwehs who were distinct from each other, one visible and one invisible, is certainly not something a faithful Jew would have conceived, that is, not without the influence of Greek metaphysical thought. There was one such Jew that we know of, Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are also appealed to by Trinitarian apologists as evidence that binitarianism (which then leads to trinitarianism) was a thoroughly Jewish concept. But Philo, if anything, is the quintessence of a Jew under the influence of Greek philosophy. The website Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says this about Philo:

“When Hebrew mythical thought met Greek philosophical thought in the first century B.C.E. it was only natural that someone would try to develop speculative and philosophical justification for Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. Thus Philo produced a synthesis of both traditions… Philo was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture… He had a deep reverence for Plato and referred to him as ‘the most holy Plato’.

At the center of Philo’s philosophy was the concept of the Logos. It is still debated among scholars as to whether this Logos of Philo was supposed to be understood as an actual personal being, a sort of Platonic Demiurge, who mediated between God and the created world or as simply a personification of attributes of God which then take on an intermediary role between God and his creation. It is obvious that he was using categories of Greek metaphysics to explain the Hebrew Scripture’s presentation of God. He interpreted many of the strange passages from the OT (some of which we will examine shortly) simply by recourse to the Logos. Later Christian apologists, like Justin (mid 2nd century), followed Philo’s lead in this. Like Philo, Justin was also highly influenced by Platonic philosophy, either directly or through the writings of Philo. And like Philo, who sought to explain the God of Judaism through metaphysical categories, Justin sought to explain the relationship of Christ to God through the same metaphysical categories. Seeing the Logos as the pre-human Jesus, Justin interpreted those strange OT passages as pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God. It is clear though, that Justin saw the Logos not as an equal, co-eternal member of a binitarian God, but as a subordinate to the one true God, who he identified as the Father. For Justin the Logos was distinguished from and second to the one God, the Maker of all things. Therefore Justin’s theology would fit the ‘two powers in heaven’  concept that the rabbis sought to refute.

Problems With The Claim

In 2013 Dr. Heiser gave a lecture at the Messianic congregation Beit-Tefillah in Gig Harbor WA, titled Two Powers of the Godhead. The video of this lecture is available on YouTube and as of this writing has had 46,799 views ( a link can be found at the bottom of this article). No doubt this video lecture has had a profound effect upon the many who have viewed it and has probably helped to shape the belief of many. It has, no doubt, given many the much needed justification for their belief in the Trinity and deity of Messiah Jesus. Because of the recent proliferation of online materials which expose the historical and exegetical weaknesses of these beliefs, many Christians have become confused about the validity of these doctrines and have sought reassurance for their faith. Dr. Heiser has given them that reassurance, not only through this video lecture but by means of all of his books, websites and other resources. Because he is a scholar many laypersons confidently and uncritically accept what he says as gospel. Personally, after listening to this lecture multiple times I am not impressed in the least by Heiser’s attempt to ground the Trinity doctrine in the Hebrew Scriptures. I found his explanations of the relevant passages to be weak, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, but always displaying more of an eisegesis rather than an exegesis. I wonder how well Heiser would hold up in a debate where someone could push back on his exegesis, but as far as I know he doesn’t do debates. I even noticed that the Comments  was disabled for this video on YouTube. In fact I do not recall ever seeing or hearing Dr. Heiser in a position where he had to defend his beliefs against an able opponent. There is a proverb which has stuck with me ever since a first read it many years ago, Prov. 18:17 – “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” I do not think that Dr. Heiser would ever engage in a debate on these issues, whatever his reasons may be, so I am presenting here some push back to his teaching on the subject of “two powers in heaven” as set forth in the video lecture.

My first point of contention is that Heiser makes it seem that binitarianism was just a normal part of Jewish belief prior to the time of Jesus, accepted by most, if not all, Jews and even rabbis, and that this belief later fell out of favor with the rabbis because of the Christians’ insistence that Jesus is the second Yahweh. He claims that Alan Segal proved this in his book. But I did not get this impression from Segal’s book. In fact, throughout his book Segal refers to the proponents of the ‘two powers’ concept in ancient Judaism as “sectarians,” which he describes as “a disapproved rival among many factions within the parent group.” It is by no means clear that this belief was mainstream or widespread among Jews of the 2nd Temple period and into the first century C.E. There were a number of Jewish apocalyptic works produced during this period, such as 1 Enoch, which played off of and elaborated upon the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, especially that of ‘the son of man.’ Segal expresses uncertainty as to whether these works would have been considered heretical by the rabbis, but he clearly regards them as sectarian. Dr. Heiser makes it seem like the concept of ‘divine plurality‘ was just normative among the first century Jews, but this cannot be proven. It is also instructive that these ideas among Jews do not appear until well into the Hellenistic period. That some Jews, like Philo, could have been and in fact were influenced by Greek ideas is not debatable. But is there any evidence that the  OT prophets would have viewed Yahweh as a plurality? This is the real question that needs to be answered. So it is not really a matter of what some Jews came to eventual think later in history, but what do the law and the prophets proclaim. Heiser makes a valiant attempt to find such plurality in those strange passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, but, in my opinion, fails.

Another point of contention is Dr. Heiser’s claim that the second power must be ontologically the same as Yahweh in order to maintain the strict monotheism of the Shema. In Heiser’s scheme this is important because, as he asserts early on in the video, the second power turns out to be Jesus, and based of orthodox Christology, Jesus must be ontologically the same as Yahweh. Yet this turns out to be wrong in relation to the Jewish concept of ‘two powers.’ As far as I can tell none of the figures put forward in the 2nd Temple Period literature as the second power are to be regarded as ontologically the same as Yahweh; they are always either angelic beings or exalted humans. They may be regarded as representationally or functionally equal to Yahweh, i.e. whatever they do can be understood as Yahweh’s action, yet they are always inferior on an ontological level. But Heiser would have us believe that a first century Jew would have no problem embracing Jesus of Nazareth as God in the flesh because that Jew had a belief in two powers in heaven who were both ontologically Yahweh. This cannot be substantiated by anything found in either the Hebrew Bible or the 2nd Temple Period literature. Heiser seems confused here. He wants to point to Jewish ideas of ‘two powers’ to show how a first century Jew could accept Jesus as Yahweh but none of those Jewish ideas fit that paradigm. Philo’s Logos is the closest thing to what Heiser proposes as normative Jewish belief in a second power that was ontologically equal to Yahweh. But two problems plague Philo’s Logos concept: 1) Scholars are uncertain as to whether he meant the Logos to be understood as an actual hypostasis or as a personification of attributes of God, and 2) Philo was heavily influenced by Greek metaphysics. Philo’s teaching would hardly count as normative Jewish thinking. It is not until 2nd century Christians like Justin, who were influenced by Philo’s work, begin to push Jesus closer and closer to an ontological sameness  as God that the rabbis begin to attack the concept of ‘two powers.’ Segal’s work shows that the first rabbinic polemics against the ‘two powers’ idea were directed at Gentiles, probably Christians, maybe even against Justin himself.

The Biblical Passages

In the video, Dr. Heiser systematically presents a series of OT passages in order to build his case that the Hebrew Scriptures portray a binitarian Godhead. I heard him say in a podcast interview that the OT no where teaches binitarianism with direct propositional assertions, but that there are verses scattered all throughout the OT which seem to present Yahweh in two distinct ways, visible and invisible, and often in the same scene at the same time. It is all of these passages taken together, which in his mind, then portray God as a duality. Now if it can be shown that Heiser’s interpretation of these passages, each one taken by itself in it’s context, is not the only or the necessary  interpretation of these texts, then his case falls apart. If each individual passage can be shown to not support his thesis, then the accumulation of these passages cannot be proof of the thesis.

So let’s examine  the main passages which Heiser puts forth in his lecture video as proof of ‘divine plurality‘ in the Hebrew Scriptures.

1.) Gen. 19:24 –  “Then Yahweh rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Yahweh out of the heavens.”

Heiser rightly points out the oddness and awkwardness of this verse, which seems to suggest two Yahwehs, one supposedly on earth and one supposedly in heaven. Of course, he interprets the verse to fit his paradigm of two Yahweh’s, a visible one (the one who was talking to Abraham as a man in ch. 18) and an invisible one (the one presumably in heaven). But is this really a plausible interpretation of this passage? Yes, the language is strange to our ears, but that is no reason to resort to a postulation of two Yahwehs.

Let’s look first at the construction of the verse. The word from in the phrase “from Yahweh out of the heavens” is me-et, which is the untranslatable mark of the accusative eth preceded by the preposition me, which means from. Eth is used to mark the accusative of the verb and always directly precedes the accusative noun. This is true probably in the majority of it’s occurrences. But there are times when it appears to serve a different function, as here in this verse. We can see that rained is the only verb in this verse, and the accusative would seem to be brimstone and fire. Eth does not appear before brimstone and fire because they are not definite and eth is only used with definite objects. But why does eth appear before the second mention of Yahweh, which is certainly not an accusative noun in this sentence? Could it be that eth is serving some other purpose here? This passage from An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax may throw light on this verse:

… A. M. Wilson, late in the nineteenth century, concluded from his exhaustive study of all the occurrences of the debated particle that it had an intensive or reflexive force in some of it’s occurrences. Many grammarians have followed his lead. On such a view eth is a weakened emphatic particle corresponding to the English pronoun self … It resembles Greek ‘autos’ and Latin ‘ipse’, both sometimes used for emphasis. pp.177-178

Perhaps the verse could be read like this: “Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire. It was from Yahweh out of the heavens.” Or perhaps like this:

Yahweh rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire; Yahweh himself out of the heavens.

Understood in this way it is emphasizing the fact that the judgment came not by the will or power of the agents involved, but by the will and power of Yahweh. For a fuller treatment of this verse and it’s preceding context see this article:Refutation of the Master’s University Bible Faculty Document on the Trinity and Divinity of Messiah (Part 1)

2.) Amos 4:11 – ” ‘I have wrought destruction among you, as when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; you have become like a brand plucked from the burning. Yet you have not turned back to me,’ declares Yahweh.”

A better translation might be:

I overthrew some of you, like the overthrown of God, Sodom and Gomorrah…

Heiser points to the fact that Yahweh is speaking, yet refers to himself in the third person as God. He then rightly points out that this is not the only place where this kind of thing occurs. In fact it happens quite frequently in the Hebrew Bible. Dr. Heiser, in presenting this verse, is implying that if Yahweh is speaking of himself in the third person, he must be speaking about another distinct hypostasis who shares his being. But this is nonsense. What he must know, but fails to inform his audience of, is the phenomenon known as illeism. There is a wonderful dissertation by Ervin Roderick Elledge from 2015 titled The Illeism Of Jesus And Yahweh: A Study Of The Use Of The Third-Person Self-Reference In The Bible And Ancient Near Eastern Texts And It’s Implication For Christology (I’ll include a link at the bottom of this post), in which he shows that illeism is a common phenomenon in the Bible, in the speech of Yahweh and of kings in the OT, and of Jesus in the NT. He also documents it’s common use in ANE literature in the speech of gods and kings. While referring to oneself in the third person may seem weird to 21st century Westerners, it apparently was not that strange among ANE peoples. But is it really that uncommon even for us? I can remember, when my daughter was a young child, telling her, “Daddy loves you very much.” I do the same thing with my granddaughter now, telling her, “Papi loves you.”

Andrew S. Malone, in an article on illeism in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (52.3), cautions against the use of illeism in the Bible as a “tool for divining OT hints of the trinitarian plurality of God … I propose that the various rhetorical uses identified by  biblical and secular commentators offer a more responsible hermeneutic than do the revelatory claims made by many Christian apologists and theologians. 

Another possible alternative explanation is that the phrase ‘like the overthrown of God, Sodom and Gomorrah‘ could have simply become a popular adage, a proverbial saying among the Israelites, that even Yahweh himself incorporated in his prophetic pronouncements. If one wanted to speak of the utter destruction of something he would use this phrase. The exact phrase is also found in Is. 13:19 and Jer. 50:40; the phrase without the words ‘of God’ is found in Deut. 29:23 and Jer. 49:18.

3.) Gen. 22:11-12,15-18 –  “But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” … “Do not lay a hand on the boy … Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your… only son … The angel of Yahweh called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, ‘I swear by myself,’ declares Yahweh …

Heiser makes this sound like it is confusing, like we can’t tell who is speaking – is it the angel or is it Yahweh. The implication Heiser wants his audience to get is that there are two Yahwehs, one visible i.e. the angel of Yahweh, and one invisible i.e. the one that the visible Yahweh here refers to as God. We know from other sources of Heiser’s teaching that he believes the OT figure ‘the angel of Yahweh’ to be the second Yahweh, the visible one, and that he shares an ontological equality with Yahweh. Heiser’s presupposition causes him to simply read the passage in a way that fits. He apparently does not even attempt to find any other alternative meaning, it just has to be made to fit his theological prepossessions. But a better solution to the text is staring him in the face, even though he cannot see it.

First, I want to point out a misguided assumption of Heiser and of many other commentators and apologists. It is a very common belief that the OT phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh‘ is a designation belonging to one specific entity, one special agent of Yahweh who alone shares a kind of mystical relationship with Him, a sharing of his very essence. Heiser and others see this entity as the pre-incarnate Son of God. Now I have thoroughly refuted this notion in another article on this blog, so I will not rehash the whole thing here. If you have not read that article I encourage you to do so here:Pre-incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 1)

In that article I show conclusively that it can no longer be maintained that the phrase is a title that is borne by one single individual being, but is rather a generic designation that can be applied to any and all of Yahweh’s myriad of agents, whether the non-human celestial kind or the human kind.

Now let’s talk about how Yahweh’s agents act on his behalf and how the authors of Scripture record these actions. What I find incredulous is that a scholar in the field of ANE studies seems ignorant of a basic part of ancient near eastern culture, that of the concept of agency. The concept is simple: If a king or some other important person employed an agent, whether a trusted servant, or friend, or a faithful son, to go on his behalf and  carry out some task or relay some message, it was understood that what ever this agent did or said in the name of the one who sent him, it was tantamount to him doing it himself. It could therefore be recorded as though the principal had actually done the deed or spoke the message. That this was common practice can even be seen in Ugarit literature, of which Heiser is familiar, where messengers sent by the gods speak the message of the god in the first person.

Now Heiser brings up many passages where we see an angel of Yahweh speaking in the first person as if they were Yahweh, but I have never heard him mention this concept of  Semitic agency as a possible explanation. Instead, he simply falls back on his predilections and reads them into these texts. That an ‘angel’ i.e. a non-human agent, would speak for God in the first person should not be taken to imply an ontological sameness between God and the angel, for the same practice can be seen to be employed by God’s human agents, the prophets. Twice in Deuteronomy, in 11:14 and 29:6, Moses slips into speaking for God in the first person without the usual formula ‘thus says Yahweh.’ The prophetic books occasionally do the same thing – Micah 1:6-7; Habakkuk 1:5-6; Zech. 14:1-3; Hosea 14:1-8, Is. 3:1-4; 34:1-8; 53:1-12.

In our passage we are explicitly told (v.11) that it was an angel of Yahweh who called to Abraham, but the words the angel speaks are not his own words but the words of Yahweh. Therefore the angel can speak for God in the first person, which he does. So the words should be understood as Yahweh’s words, not the angel’s words. Now, as to why Yahweh would say to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God,” this is just one of those many instances of illeism that are found in the speech of not only Yahweh, but of human kings also, in both the Bible and in ANE literature. Then in vv.15-18 the angel again speaks for God in the first person but this time uses the customary formula “declares Yahweh.” What we learn from this is not that the angel is somehow Yahweh but still distinct from Yahweh or that there are two Yahwehs, but rather that a commissioned agent of Yahweh can speak for Yahweh in the first person, either with the prophetic formula or without it. To say anything more than this is to read ones presupposition into the text. Nothing in the text requires Heiser’s interpretation.

What I have said here regarding ‘the angel of Yahweh’ applies fully to the next passage presented by Dr. Heiser in the video, i.e. Exodus 3.  I will only make a couple of comments about Heiser’s take on the passage. He seems to think that because v. 2 plainly says that “the malak of Yahweh” was in the bush, and then v. 4 says that when Yahweh saw that Moses turned aside to look, God called to him from within the bush …,” therefore both Yahweh and the angel were in the bush together. This is one of those passages of which he refers to as ‘both Yahwehs appearing together in the same scene.’ But it is not necessary to resort to such an explanation, unless you are just trying to get the passage to fit your own paradigm. Surely a better way to understand the passage is through the concept of  Semitic agency, of which it is axiomatic that the agent is to be regarded as the one he represents. It is not necessary that Yahweh be literally in the bush because he is in the bush through the angel. It is also acceptable for the author of Exodus to record the angels speech as if Yahweh himself were speaking, since the agent is merely the mouthpiece of God and is speaking Yahweh’s words on his behalf.

4.) Exodus 23:20-23 – “See, I am sending an agent before you to have charge of you on the journey and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Keep yourself before him and listen to his voice. Do not embitter him (for he will not bear your transgressions) because my name is within him. But if you listen intently to his voice (to obey) and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies… My agent will go before you and bring you into the land …”

In the video, at the 14:12-14:20 mark, Heiser states that this one particular angel is singled out as being different, presumably from other angels, because God’s name is in him. Later, at 19:58- 20:20, he paraphrases God’s words to Moses like this:

“…when you look at that angel … my name is in him, my presence, my essence, who and what I am is in that angel. That’s Me out there …”

Heiser believes this angel to be the second Yahweh. We know from elsewhere that Heiser believes the OT figure ‘the angel of Yahweh’ to be the second Yahweh, so we can assume that he thinks the angel mentioned in Ex. 23:20 is ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ He asserts that this angel is “singled out” and is different from other angels by virtue of the fact that God said, “My name is in him.” Heiser then interprets the meaning of God’s words to be “my presence, my essence, who and what I am is in that angel.”  Please note that this is an interpretation of the phrase; the text does not say “my presence, my essence … ” Dr. Heiser finds support for this interpretation of the phrase in what he refers to as ‘the Name theology.’ From mark 14:22-19:35 he quotes a number of verses to prove that the Name is a circumlocution for God himself, and in some cases this may be true. But what he does not tell his audience is that the mention of ‘the name of Yahweh’ can have different meanings according to context. All he gives the audience are the verses where ‘the Name’ could plausibly refer to God himself or his presence. Yet even in some of the verses Heiser uses to prove his point it is not clear that the ‘Name’ simply means God himself or God’s presence. For example, he quotes Deut. 12:4-11 where it is stated twice that God would choose a specific place at which he would establish his name. Heiser claims that this simply means that God would choose a place to dwell. But I think that is a little to simplistic. In light of 1 Kings 8:27-30 and Is. 66:1-2 we know that God did not literally dwell in the temple in Jerusalem, although his presence was there in a sense that it wasn’t anywhere else on earth. But I think the real significance of his name being established at Jerusalem and in the temple is that this is the one place on earth that was to be associated with Yahweh, the Most High God. Though God cannot literally be contained within the confines of a particular place he can put his name at a particular place so that everyone would know that this is God’s one special place with which he has chosen to associate himself.

Is there an alternative way to understand the phrase “my name is in him?” I think so. The phrase “in the name of Yahweh” occurs quite a few times in the Hebrew Bible and in none of these passages does the word ‘name‘ stand as a circumlocution for Yahweh. The following verses speak of people who perform some action in Yahweh’s name – Deut. 18:5, 7, 20, 22; 21:5; 1 Sam. 17:45; 20:42; 1 Kings 18:32; 22:16; 2 Kings 2:24; 1 Chron. 21:19; Ps. 118:26. In most of these verses it appears that the meaning is that these people performed the act by the authority of Yahweh, i.e. having been commissioned by Yahweh to do so. In a couple of cases it could mean something like ‘with Yahweh as a witness.’ So from this data, why could we not assume a possible interpretation of the phrase “my name is in him” to be “my authority is in him,”  meaning “I have commissioned this one and he is acting in my stead, with my authority behind him.” Now of course this would apply to any agent who was sent by God to accomplish some task on His behalf and so would not mark this angel out as distinct from other angels. God would be simply reminding the Israelites that this agent is acting on his behalf and therefore must be obeyed as if he were God himself. In other words, this could just be an idiom of agency. Because an agent who is commissioned and sent to conduct business on behalf of another has the authority and resources of the sender behind him and therefore the reputation of the sender is at stake, it could be said that the name of the one who sent him is in him. Heiser simply presupposes that the phrase has some sort of mystical meaning that involves some kind of metaphysical connection between God and the angel. I hope you can see that this is not at all required by the language or the context of the passage but is merely assumed and then read into the passage. But why does Heiser assume this? Simply because of his theological prepossessions. He already told the audience early on that in the NT Jesus turns out to be the second Yahweh figure and everyone knows that in orthodox Christianity Jesus is ontologically the same as God. Heiser looks for anything in these texts that he can interpret as an ontological connection between Yahweh and this supposedly special angel. Therefore, it becomes clear that Heiser is not exegeting this passage, but rather is  merely interpreting it to fit this paradigm. We will notice, as we make our way through the video, that this is Heiser’s standard way of interpreting these passages.

I want to offer another possible interpretation of this passage that may seem odd at first, but stay with me because I think it will bear itself out. It may be that this ‘angel’ is a reference to Moses himself. The first objection to this might be that the text says it was an angel. The word translated as angel in our English Bibles is the Hebrew word malak which means messenger. Now this is one of those translation issues that just irritates me. The word angel is a really poor translation of malak, and I wish English versions would drop it’s use. The word angel comes straight out of the Greek of the NT, for it is the transliteration of the Greek word angelos, which also means messenger. So why do translators take an English transliteration of a Greek word and use it to translate a Hebrew word meaning messenger? Can somebody say ‘traditional rut.’ Anyway, the basic meaning of both malak and angelos is messenger. But this word messenger does not do justice to the use of these words in the Scriptures. Messenger may give the wrong impression that the entities who bear this designation have one sole task i.e. to relate a message on behalf of another. While it is often true that a malak/angelos is sent to relay a message, they are also often sent to carry out other tasks as well. Because of this I like the word agent instead. An agent is defined as “one who acts for or in the place of another by authority from him.” This expresses well how the biblical malak/angelos functioned. Now here’s the main point – in the Bible a malak/angelos can be either a human being or a non-human, celestial being. This is what makes the translation angel wrong, because in our vocabulary today the word angel has only the connotation of a non-human, celestial being. Now when modern English translators come across these two words, if the context is clearly referring to a human agent they will always translate them by the word messenger or occasionally envoy. And when the context is clearly referring to a non-human, heavenly agent, they translate as angel. The problem is that it is not always clear, in many of the places where they translate as angel, that it really is a non-human being that is in view. It is basically left up to the translators discretion. I happen to think that there are a number of OT passages where our English versions have wrongly assumed that the word malak in those passages is referring to a non-human entity, i.e. an angel. And this may be the case in Exodus 23:20.

Another objection that might be raised to the proposal that Ex. 23:20-23 may be referring to Moses is the fact that Yahweh is speaking to Moses when he says these words. At first glance this seems like a formidable objection but not upon closer scrutiny. While it is true that Yahweh is speaking to Moses, what he is saying is not directed toward Moses but toward the Israelite community. The context of the passage goes back to chapter 20 where God appears on the mountain in fire and audibly speaks the ten commandments to the Israelites. In vv. 18-21 the people are afraid and beseech Moses to speak to them on God’s behalf and to not have God himself speak to them. It seems that God was happy with this arrangement and no longer spoke audibly and directly to the people { see Deut. 5:23-31}. In 21:1 we read:

These are the ordinances you are to set before them.

Everything written from 21:2 – 23:33 are God’s words which Moses is to relay to the Israelites; God is speaking to the Israelites in the first person. 23: 20-23 falls within this framework and should be understood as Yahweh’s words to the Israelites not to Moses. Moses is the one who is to relate Yahweh’s words to the people. In the lecture Heiser reads the passage as if God is speaking to Moses to reassure him. But this is just not the case. Therefore Yahweh is speaking to the Israelites and telling them:

Look, I am sending an agent (Moses) before you to have charge of you on the journey … Keep yourselves before him and listen to his voice … Do not embitter him … because my name is in him (i.e. I have commissioned and sent him).

Now I want you to think with me here. Do we see anywhere in the rest of Exodus, in Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy, where a non-human agent is addressing the people of Israel with words from Yahweh? The answer is no! But who do we see doing that very thing? The answer is Moses!

Further evidence in favor of this view is that the assigned task of this agent was to shamar the people. The word has a wide range of meaning which includes to keep, to guard, to have charge of, to watch over. It is used of the act of keeping or tending sheep and this may be the intended meaning in our text, the people being analogized to a flock of sheep {see Num. 27:15-17 and Is. 63:11}. Now is there any passage of Scripture that applies this word to Moses in his commissioned task of leading Israel? Yes, Hosea 12:13:

And by a prophet Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt and by a prophet he (Israel) was kept (Heb. shamar).

This verse is clearly speaking of Moses and describes his commission with the same term as that in our text. In fact, Hosea 12:13 may be directly referencing Ex. 23:20. Here Moses is also called a prophet, and we know that prophets were also considered ‘the malak of Yahweh‘ according to Haggai 1:1, where Haggai is called a prophet, and 1:13 where he is called “the malak of Yahweh.” Prophets are also referred to as malak in 2 Chron. 36:15-16. So we know that Moses was a prophet and as such that he fulfilled the role of a malak or agent of Yahweh.

There may be other passages where Moses is designated a malak. In Numbers 20:14-16 Moses sends messengers (malakim in the Hebrew) to the king of Edom to request safe passage through his territory:

This is what your brother Israel says: You know all about the hardships that have come upon us. Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we lived there many years. The Egyptians mistreated us and our fathers, but when we cried out to Yahweh, he heard our cry and sent an agent (malak) and brought us out of Egypt.

Though all English versions, with the exception of the NET and YLT, translate malak here as angel, implying a non-human agent, this is clearly wrong. Exodus 3:7-11 describes how Yahweh heard the cries of his people in Egypt and appeared to Moses to commission him saying:

So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.

Many verses attribute the bringing of the Israelites out of Egypt to Moses – Ex. 14:11; 16:32; 32:1, 7, 11, 23; 33:1; 1 Sam. 12:6-8; Acts 7:34-36. Because of a mistranslation of the word malak in Num. 20:16 (as well as our Ex. 23 passage) most commentators, for many centuries, have wrongly concluded that a non-human agent was sent by God to deliver the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Some, like Heiser, believe that the pre-incarnate Son of God was the one sent to deliver the Israelites. But there is nothing in these OT texts which even hints at such a conclusion; that is merely reading ones predilections into these texts.

But what of Isaiah 63:9 which speaks of  “the angel of his presence (which) delivered them (the Israelites)?Surely this refers to one special agent of Yahweh who enjoys some mystical oneness with Yahweh, an ontological sameness of sorts? While that may be a possible interpretation, on what basis should it be preferred other than that it fits with ones presuppositions? Why does the oddity of a text always have to be interpreted in a mystical sense? Is there a possible interpretation of this text which demystifies it? Yes, I believe so. Once again, the problem is the translation of malak as angel, implying a non-human agent. But what if we were to understand it as referring to a human agent? Why should this be so hard to accept, seeing that all throughout Scripture God works in and through human agents to accomplish his purposes? The best candidate that can be assumed from the context would once again be Moses.

It appears that Is. 63:7-14 is recounting Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel from the Egyptian army after their exodus from Egypt. Similar language can be found in Ex. 14:29-15:17:

  • Is. 63:8 – Savoir (Heb. = the one delivering them) = Ex. 15:2  [related words]
  • Is.63:9a – delivered them  =  Ex. 14:30  [same word]
  • Is. 63:9b   =  Ex.15:13   [synonymous words]
  • Is. 63:11b  =  Ex.14:29   [same idea]
  • Is. 63:12  =  Ex. 15:11   [same idea]
  • Is. 63:11-12 = Ex. 14:15-16, 21, 31 [Moses’ role is highlighted in both]

Now there is a mention of an “angel of God” in Ex. 14:19-20, which does appear to be a non-human agent, but his role in the whole scene is very limited. His only task seems to be, through the use of the cloud, to hold off the Egyptian army while the Israelites cross through the sea on dry land. Moses’ role is more pronounced, as the sea does not part until he raises his staff and stretches forth his hand over the sea. In verse 31 the result is that the people put their trust in Yahweh and in Moses, not in the angel who was in the cloud. Moses’ role is even more pronounced in the Isaiah passage. In v.11 he is called “the shepherd of his (Yahweh’s) flock.”  Verse 12 is interesting in what it might be saying about Moses. As is typical in the OT text, the Hebrew is open to several possible ways of translation. One possible way is:

(Yahweh) … who led (the Israelites) by the right hand of Moses, the arm of his (Yahweh’s) glory.

If this is correct, then Moses is here described as the arm of Yahweh’s glory, by whose right hand he led the Israelites {see also Ps.77:20}. For someone to be the arm or hand of another is an idiom meaning that one is the agent of the other, the one through whom the other accomplishes something. Yahweh saved the people, but he did it through Moses. Yahweh led the people through the wilderness, but he led by Moses. This would coincide perfectly with his being designated in v. 9 as “the malak of his presence.”

But in what sense is Moses the malak of Yahweh’s presence? First of all we should understand it as “the agent of his presence.”  Secondly, we should not just assume that this designation implies that this entity has a heavenly origin. The phrase may imply nothing more than that this agent has a special association with Yahweh’s presence, not necessarily his presence in heaven, but his presence in connection with his earthly people. And this is exactly the case with Moses. The phrase in question is literally “the agent of his face.”  This designation, in all probability, refers to the fact that Moses alone enjoyed a “face to face” rapport with Yahweh. This is brought out in Ex. 33:7-11, Numbers 7:89, 12:5-8 and Deut. 34:10. Yahweh’s presence was associated with the cloud that would appear at the tent of meeting. Moses would go there to speak ‘face to face ‘ as it were, with Yahweh. ‘Face to face‘ should not be understood literally but should be taken in the sense of directly, without a go-between, i.e. without an agent (an angel) or a dream or vision. Yahweh dispensed with these mediating forms when communicating with Moses and spoke to him directly, with audible voice, from the cloud, which was regarded as his presence. This is how Moses can rightly be designated “the malak of his presence.”

But can it legitimately be said of Moses that he “saved” Israel? Yes, in a sense. In this context Moses would be designated a malak, i.e. an agent, and therefore it should be understood as through the agency of Moses Israel was saved. It is not uncommon for this type of language to be used of those whom God raises up and appoints, as the following verses show – Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9, 15; 1 Sam.9:16; 2 Sam. 3:18; 2 Kings 13:5; 14:27; Neh. 9:28.

Another objection that might be raised to Moses being the agent in whom is Yahweh’s name, from Ex.23:20-21, is the use of the second person singular pronouns (you and your) from vv.20 -33. Surely this means that Yahweh is speaking to a single person, Moses, and so Moses can’t be the agent that Yahweh is promising to send with Moses. But this argument will not hold up. First off, all the things Yahweh says he will do in these passages cannot be said only of Moses but must be applied to all of Israel. Also, in the midst of all these singular pronouns we see a shift to plural in v.25 with the words “So you (pl.) shall serve Yahweh your (pl.) God.” It immediately shifts back to singular in the same verse with “and he will bless your (sing.) bread and water and will take away sickness from among you (sing.).” Surely this is referring not to Moses but to the whole Israelite community, which is being viewed as a single entity throughout. This same use of singular pronouns for the Israelite community can be seen throughout the whole passage starting from Ex. 21:2 right up to 23:20. Once again, in 22:21-22, we see an abrupt change from singular to plural and then back to singular in v. 23., then back to plural in v. 24, and plural again in v. 25. I am not going to go through the whole passage; I think the point has been made sufficiently. So the use of singular pronouns in 23:20-23 cannot be made to mean that Moses, and not the Israelites, is the intended recipient of these words.

There is one final objection that must be answered. What about Ex. 33:2-3, where God once again tells Moses, “I will send a malak before you …?” There are two possible ways to view this. First, we could understand this as God speaking to the Israelites, to reassure them, that regardless of their rebellion to him (see Ex.32), he would still send his agent Moses to lead them to the promised land and that he would still show up at that time to drive out the inhabitants of the land, but that he would not be among them on the journey to the land lest he destroy them for their stiff-neckedness. The sense in which Yahweh would not go up in their midst is that he would withdraw his personal presence as found at the tent of meeting, where he would appear in a cloud and speak directly to Moses, giving him directions in leading the people. This would effectually leave them with only the human guidance of Moses.

The second option is to see this as God telling Moses that he would not be personally going with them on the journey from this point, but that he would send an angel, i.e. a non-human agent, to lead them to the land. This would mean that there would be no ‘face to face’ interaction between Yahweh and Moses at the tent of meeting, but that Yahweh would only communicate to Moses through the mediation of this angel. Moses does not like this at all and in vv. 12-17 he pleads with Yahweh to change his mind and to continue with them on the journey to the promised land. Clearly Moses understood God’s threat of not going with them in this way, as can be seen by the paranthetical insertion of vv. 7-11, explaining how God would meet with Moses face to face at the tent of meeting, and by Moses’ words and God’s reply in vv. 12-16 about his ‘presence’ (Heb. face) going with them.

So this whole pericope in Ex. 33 really shows that the original promise of Yahweh in 23:20 to send an agent was not referring to a non-human agent at all. Moses does not object at that point as he does in Ex. 33. Plus, as I noted earlier, the agent in 23:20 cannot be a non-human agent because the Israelites are told to listen to this agent and the only agent we ever see communicating God’s words to the people is Moses.

If the identification of the agent in Ex. 23:20 as Moses can be maintained, this is a serious blow to Heiser’s whole thesis, since he makes so much to depend on this ‘angel’ being the ‘second Yahweh’ and none other than the pre-incarnate son of God himself. Once again I will point out, that Heiser does not arrive at that conclusion by careful exegesis of the text but by simply reading his predilections into the text, which I hope is evident by now.

5.) Deut. 4:35-37 –  “To you it was shown, that you might know that Yahweh is God … Out of heaven he let you hear his voice… you heard his words from out of the fire. And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his presence, with his mighty power … ” 

Heiser feigns confusion over this verse, “Wait I thought it was Adonai who brought them out. No it’s the malak Adonai that brought them out. No, it’s the panim … it’s all the same thing.” It appears that Heiser really is confused about what this verse is saying. Once again, based on his presuppositional paradigm, he assumes that “his presence” is a reference to the angel whom God said he would send before them in Ex. 23:20 and of the angel of his presence mentioned in Isaiah 63:9. But I have shown that these two passages are more likely referring to Moses, who is the only agent of whom it is recorded in Scripture, that he was commissioned to bring the Israelites out of Egypt { see Ex. 3:10-12}. So “with his presence” is not referring to ‘the angel of Yahweh’; that would be eisegesis. So what does it refer to?

The only thing in the whole account recorded in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, that the ‘presence’ (Heb. panim lit. face) is associated with is the cloud. Now there are to many verses which speak of this cloud to list here, but it is clear that the cloud always was associated with the presence of Yahweh – Ex. 13:21; 16:10; 19:9, 16-20; 20:21; 33:7-11; Lev. 16:2. That this ‘presence’ in the cloud was not the angel is shown in Ex. 33, as noted above, where God tells Moses that he will no longer go with the Israelites on the journey to the promised land  but would appoint an angel {vv.1-5}. Then we have the parenthetical paragraph about how Moses would meet with Yahweh ‘face to face’ at the tent of meeting (this was not the tabernacle, which, after it was built, was also called the tent of meeting), where the pillar of cloud would appear {vv.7-11}. In vv. 12-17 Moses pleads with God to continue to go with them, presumably in the cloud. Yahweh assures him that his presence would continue with them. So for the rest of the journey the cloud would appear, at first in the preliminary tent of meeting, then afterward in the tabernacle, also called the tent of meeting { see Ex. 40}.

Heiser is correct to stress that the panim is referring to God’s actual presence, that “it really is him” but he is wrong to associate the panim with ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ That is simply eisegesis. It cannot even be maintained that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ refers to one special angel who has the essence of Yahweh; that may fit with orthodox christology, but it is not supported by Scripture.

In my next post I will continue through the video, examining the passages presented by Dr. Heiser

Here are some pertinent links ( right-click then choose ‘open link in new tab’):

Two Powers of the Godhead video
Elledge_sbts_0207D_10248
JETS 52-3 499-518 Malone

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The Rider On The Clouds – A Critique Of Dr. Michael Heiser’s View Of Daniel 7

I will be critiquing Michael Heiser’s view on Daniel 7 as found in the condensed form of chapter 6 of his dissertation on the Divine Council. Here is the PDF: daniel7

Daniel 7 – A Divine Council Scene?

Dr. Heiser asserts that in Daniel 7 what we have is a divine council scene, and we can be assured of this because this is “not disputed among scholars.” But these are the same scholars who do not believe the book of Daniel, much less chapter 7, to be a divine revelation from God, i.e. that Daniel actually saw a vision from God. As a result they look for ways to explain the contents of Daniel chapter 7 on a natural human level, i.e. the author is drawing on material from other ANE literature and they believe that the best source is the Ugarit divine council. But how does Dr. Heiser, who seems to believe that the scriptures are a divine revelation, reconcile this belief with the assessment of these scholars, with whom he seems to agree? He never really tells the reader how he is able to hold these two contradictory views in conjunction. Just to be certain as to his view of Daniel 7, I quote:

This vision has long been considered to have derived from outside the Hebrew Bible… This writer concurs with Collins’ carefully argued rejections of an Iranian or Babylonian background for the visions in favor of  a Canaanite provenance, specifically that of the Ugarit Baal Cycle.       pp.6-7

Now it is true that neither Dr. Heiser nor the scholars he quotes would believe that the author of Dan. 7 simply reproduced the Baal Cycle of Ugarit in his own work, but rather that he, being cognizant of the pagan myth, borrowed imagery from it and incorporated that imagery into his dream vision. But this does not alleviate Heiser’s dilemma. If Heiser wants to hold that Dan. 7 is divine revelation while at the same time hold that it borrows imagery from Ugarit literature, then the only way I can see for him to do so is to say that God himself borrowed this imagery from a pagan religious source and incorporated it into the vision which he gave to Daniel. Does anyone else have a problem with this kind of thinking? Imagine God, having sent his chosen people into captivity because of their persistent idolatry, which included the worship of Baal, then using  pagan religious imagery connected to Baal, to portray himself in a vision to one of his prophets. Wouldn’t this make God guilty of sending a mixed message to his people?

I want to state, for the record, that I believe that there is in Scripture the concept of God as a heavenly king, and that surrounding him is a host of heavenly ministers, agents who carry out his will and purposes in the earth. That there is some sort of order and structure among these beings is also evident from Scripture. But whether this concept was ever intended by the authors of Scripture to mirror the divine council of the pagan nations surrounding Israel is another question. Heiser, following the scholars he quotes in his work, believes this to be the case. As a result he ends up using this pagan religious concept as a grid through which he interprets biblical passages. I noted in my previous article a few of the biblical passages into which Heiser reads this concept – Deut. 4:19-20; Deut. 32:8-9 and Ps. 82. I, personally, do not think these verses say anything about a divine council and have offered alternative interpretations for them which better fit their contexts. Could it be that with Daniel 7 Heiser is once again reading this concept, which has become for him an over-arching paradigm, into the passage?

What is clear is that in the pagan divine council the members of the council are deities, under the authority of the supreme deity. In the biblical concept this is not so. In the Hebrew Bible the host of heavenly beings who do God’s bidding are not considered deities, i.e. they do not share an ontological divinity with Yahweh. They may at times be designated as ‘gods’ (Heb. elohim), even as certain human agents of God have been, but this should be understood in a representational or functional sense, not in an ontological sense. Yet this does not keep Heiser from constantly referring to the Israelite divine council as ‘divine plurality‘, which is certainly a misleading designation. The word ‘divine‘ connotes deity and ‘plurality‘ connotes more than one. Of course Heiser does not believe that the ‘host of heaven’ in the Hebrew scriptures are actual deities in the sense that Yahweh is. I believe the reason he uses the phrase ‘divine plurality‘ is to set up his readers at the beginning for his conclusion. He just keeps referring to this ‘divine plurality‘ in Israelite religion as if it were a given, setting up his readers for his conclusion that there are multiple, ontologically divine hypostases in the Godhead. As we will see, Heiser thinks that this idea is evident in Daniel 7.

It is not even clear that the events of vv. 9-14, as seen by Daniel in this vision, are taking place in heaven, despite Heiser’s confident assertion:

Specifically, the plurality of thrones in heaven (as opposed to an earthly throne or thrones / earthly ruler[s]), and hence a divine bureaucracy, is evident in Daniel 7:9. p.2 emphasis in original

When you  carefully follow the vision from the beginning it is evident that the events are taking place on earth. First, there is a succession of four earthly kingdom, portrayed as four beasts, in vv. 2-8. Then comes the supposed divine council scene in vv. 9-10. Then vv. 11-12 focus again on the beasts. In vv. 13-14 we see the son of man figure come on the scene. If the events of vv. 9-10 and 13-14 are taking place in heaven this results in a shifting back and forth between heaven and earth in the vision, which I suppose is possible but I’m just not sure that it’s necessary. Why can’t all of the events of the vision be taking place on earth? Heiser and others may object, claiming that it is obvious that these events are taking place in heaven, but is it really that obvious? The language in vv. 9-10 describe what appears to me to be a courtroom scene, where God is preparing to pronounce judgment upon the beasts (earthly kingdoms). This is very reminiscent of Joel 3 where Yahweh gathers the nations to the valley of Jehoshaphat to enter into judgment with them there. Verse 12 reads:

Let the nations be roused; let them advance to the valley of Jehoshaphat. For there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.

The two passages seem to be closely related and may be referring to the same end time event. In both passages God is taking his seat as judge to pronounce judgment on the nations that have oppressed his people. In both passages the oppressing nations are destroyed and the people of God are exalted. But in the Joel passage it is specifically stated that Yahweh is sitting as judge in the valley of Jehoshaphat, not in heaven. The Daniel passage does not specify the location of the courtroom scene, it is merely assumed by most to be in heaven. Of course, Daniel 7 is a vision and the images within the vision are not to be taken literally, they are representative of certain realities that will take place (from Daniel’s perspective). Therefore it is plausible that vv. 9-10 should be understood to be happening upon the earth rather than in heaven. Also, it is often just assumed that the “one like a son of man” is coming from earth to heaven, but this is not conclusive from the text itself. It could, rather, be portraying the ‘son of man‘ coming from heaven to earth.

Plurality of Thrones

A plurality of thrones is clearly described in the vision. Contrary to the view that the plurality is incidental since only one individual is seated for judgment, or the rabbinical interpretation that the plurality here denoted one throne for God and another for David, the text clearly states that it was the council that was collectively seated along with the Ancient of Days. The setting for this meeting of the divine council is apparently in heaven, but these thrones are not located in the clouds. This observation is important since it rules out the idea that the plurality refers to a second throne upon which the “one like a human being”, who receives everlasting dominion, was seated. This figures comes with the clouds later in the scene, after the court has already been seated.      p.5 emphasis in original

Heiser sees the plurality of thrones as referring to the members of the divine council, which he says is clearly stated in the text. But where? I fail to see it clearly stated. He must be interpreting the phrase in v. 10, “the court was seated,” as a reference to the council members, but this is hardly “clear.” The phrase literally translated is “the judgment was seated” which is unusual. The phrase appears again in v. 26, in the angel’s interpretation of the vision. If ‘the judgment‘ here is meant to denote the ones who judge, as most commentators think, how do we know it refers to the divine council members? Some see it as ‘the Judge’, singular. Of course, Heiser reads it according to his paradigm which is drawn from ANE literature. The phrase in question is obscure and therefore open to interpretation. We see a parallel in Rev. 20:4: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge.” Once again, this scene in Rev. 20 appears to be on earth, and again, who these are who are seated on these thrones is not explicitly stated. It could be resurrected believers since, if the events of Rev. 19-22 are consecutive, the rapture/resurrection of believers would have already taken place. Perhaps it refers to the Twelve, who were promised by Jesus to  sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel in the kingdom age {Matt. 19:28; Lk.22:29-30}. Both the Daniel and Revelation scenes are both taking place at that time in history when the kingdoms of this world are being made subservient to the kingdom of God.

Dr. Heiser dismisses out of hand the rabbinic interpretation that the plural ‘thrones‘ refers to God’s throne and the throne of David, which would be occupied by the promised son of David, the Messiah. He also dismisses the interpretation that a second throne is for the ‘son of man‘ figure who comes on the scene afterwards. His reason for this seems rather confusing. He says it’s because the “thrones are not located in the clouds,” though he says they are “apparently in heaven,” and because the ‘son of man’ figure comes with the clouds “after the court (literally judgment) has already been seated.”  But this assumes the correctness of his interpretation of this ambiguous phrase. Why couldn’t a second throne be set in place awaiting the arrival of the ‘son of man‘ figure who would then take his place on that throne? It is true that the passage no where explicitly states that the ‘son of man’ figure sits on a throne, but v. 14 does say that “he was given sovereignty, glory and a kingdom” which is certainly what is signified by the concept of sitting on a throne. It seems that Heiser is taking the visionary imagery much to literal. This may be because he is attempting to associate the images in Daniel 7, which are being seen in a vision, with the imagery in the Baal Cycle of Ugarit, which to my understanding, is not the record of a vision but rather a  mythological religious narrative. In the Hebrew Bible images seen in visions are not literal reality, but only representations of literal reality; e.g the four beasts in Daniel 7 are not literal beasts but instead represent literal earthly kingdoms. I’ve noticed in  Dr. Heiser’s written and audio teaching that he does not make a distinction between things which were literally seen by prophets and patriarchs, and things which were seen in visions and dreams. The two are not the same and to treat them as such leads to misunderstandings of the texts.

Identifying The Son of Man

We come now to the crucial question regarding the vision of Daniel 7, the identification of the “one like a son of man” in verse 13. On pages 18-20 of Heiser’s paper, where he refutes the identification of the ‘son of man’ figure as Michael and leads the reader to his ultimate conclusion, we read the following statements:

The above proposal is congruent with the divine character of the “one like a human being’ in Daniel 7. The imagery and flow of Daniel 7 points to a deity figure that shares the sovereign rule of the highest tier of the council … Neither Michael nor any other angel is associated with the throne-chariot theophany, which motif is only mentioned in Daniel at 7:13, and is elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible only attributed to a being of the first tier of the council. It is one thing to be a member of the second tier… but quite another to be spoken of as being at Yahweh-El’s level … The picture that emerges from Daniel’s vision and it’s description is that Yahweh-El’s vice-regent represents the interest of the divine council and Yahweh-El’s chosen people, Israel, in such a way that the everlasting dominion envisioned is shared under the authority of Yahweh-El … If Michael, who is Israel’s prince, is not the figure of Daniel 7, what other being could be so associated with the divine council and the chosen nation?
The New Testament answer to this question is clear … Jesus quotes Daniel 7:13 (cf. Matt. 26) when pressed by Caiaphas the high priest to confess who he was – HE is the rider on the clouds, the “son of man,” the “one like a human being’ who is Yahweh’s co-ruler, the “Prince of princes,” the “Prince of the host,” and therefore “THE Prince of the host of Yahweh” in Joshua 5.   emphasis in original

While I agree that the ‘son of man’ figure is not Michael the archangel, and that Jesus did apply the designation to himself, I have to disagree with Heiser’s overall impressions of the passage and the exegetical details that frame his conclusion. It seems that Heiser, as a committed Trinitarian, had really begun his investigation of Daniel 7 with his conclusion already in mind. Wanting to find support from the Hebrew Bible that Jesus really is somehow Yahweh, yet distinct from Yahweh, he simply interprets Daniel 7 to fit that conclusion. In order to get there though he has to do some finagling with the specific details of the text.

First of all, it must be understood that the ‘one like a son of man‘ in Daniel’s vision, who receives dominion, glory and a kingdom, is a representational image and not the actual reality which it represents. The actual reality is given to us in the interpretation of the vision given by the angel in vv. 15-28. The angel interprets the images of the vision for Daniel in those verses. If we follow the vision through from the beginning we see a succession of four beasts. The first was “like a lion,” the second “like a bear,” the third was “like a leopard,” and the fourth was apparently not like any beast Daniel had seen before, for he simply describes it as an exceedingly powerful beast that inspires dread and fear. Now if we look to the angel’s interpretation of what these four beasts represented, we find that “the four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth” {vv. 16-17}. While Daniel did indeed see a literal lion, bear, leopard and an unidentifiable terrible beast, these were not the reality themselves, but only images representing the reality. The reality is the four earthly kingdoms. These four kingdoms coincide with the the four kingdoms in Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in chapter 2. These are four successive kingdoms, each replacing the one before it as the dominating world power, and each one oppressing and dominating over Israel, the kingdom of Yahweh, to some degree or another.

Now after this Daniel sees the courtroom scene where “one that was ancient in days took his seat.” The translation ‘the Ancient of Days‘ does not appear to be correct although it is the predominant one among the English versions. This phrase in v. 9 is anarthrous i.e. without the definite article. The other two occurrences of the phrase, vv. 13 and 22, do have the definite article but are anaphoric in nature, referring back to the first anarthrous mention. This phrase is not a title for God as ‘the Ancient of Days‘ suggests. Rather this is an image that is being seen in the vision; the image of an elderly man (that’s what ‘one who is ancient of days’ means) taking his seat on the throne. This image represents God, who is repeatedly throughout the interpretation, given the title ‘the Most High.’ I did find four versions that confirm this translation – the ASV, the ERV, the JPS Tanakh, and the Jubilee Bible 2000.

In verses 11-12 Daniel sees the demise of the fourth beast and how the other three had been deprived of their dominion but allowed to continue for a time.

Verse 13 then picks up where verse 8 left off. Using the same exact language as in verses 2 and 7, “I was watching in visions of the night and behold one like a son of man coming…” The most logical way to understand this figure is in the same vein as the four beasts which preceded it. In other words, the “one like a son of man” is an image representing another reality, in this case a fifth kingdom which succeeds and replaces the fourth kingdom as the dominating world power. Actually we do not have to guess as to it’s meaning, for the angel gives Daniel the interpretation of the vision in vv. 16-18:

… so he spoke to me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: “The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever — yes for ever and ever.

I see an inherent contradiction in Heiser’s interpretation of the passage. First he interprets the ‘son of man‘ in v. 13 as Jesus, understood as deity and a first tier member of the council. This one is said to be given authority, glory and a kingdom. Yet in the angelic interpretation it is the ‘holy ones‘, whom Heiser sees as the second tier council members, who receive the kingdom and authority {vv. 18, 22, 27}. Heiser tries to obscure the contradiction by stating that:

Yahweh-El’s vice-regent represents the interest of the divine council and Yahweh-El’s chosen people, Israel, in such a way that the everlasting dominion envisioned is shared under the authority of Yahweh-El …

Represents the interest of the divine council and Israel? What does that even mean? It is a vague attempt to cover over a glaring contradiction.

The mistake of Heiser and others (I myself made the same mistake for many years) is to take the imagery of v. 13 as literal reality while at the same time taking the four beasts as representational images. But the image of “one like a son of man” must follow the same pattern as the preceding images. The angelic interpretation does not say that the “one like a son of man” is a first tier divine council member and vice-regent of Yahweh, who is deity himself, but instead identifies this image as the Most High’s kingdom people, Israel, who in the coming age will receive “the sovereignty, dominion and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven” {v. 27} (Gentile believers do not worry, we are grafted in and will share in the inheritance of the holy ones in the kingdom of light – see Col. 1:12). In other words, it is likely that the “one like a son of man” does not refer to a single individual, whether of a divine, angelic or human nature, and so all discussion as to the identity of this image along the lines of a specific individual, like Michael or Gabriel or David or Jesus, may be superfluous. The interpretation of the image of the “one like a son of man” is given to us in the text, and it appears to be a corporate entity, the holy ones of the Most High {see vv. 18, 22, 27}.

But even here Dr. Heiser’s presupposition of the divine council prevents him from reading the text properly. He understands “the holy ones of the Most High” in v. 18 to be the members of the council instead of the people of God. He then translates v. 27 like this:

The kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdom under all heaven, shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High …

He takes the phrase to be referring to two groups, the people, whom he rightly understands to be Israel, and the holy ones, whom he understands to be the second tier members of the divine council (see p. 19 of Heiser’s paper). He doesn’t really explain what the phrase would mean if taken this way. In what way would the people of God be regarded as the people of the members of the council? If the members of the divine council have been apportioned to the Gentile nations, as Heiser teaches, then how can Israel be said to be “the people of the holy ones.” It doesn’t make sense. But is the translation “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” preferable to “the people, the holy ones of the Most High,” which would refer to one group, i.e. Israel (with engrafted Gentiles included), the inheritors of the kingdom. The English versions are split on this verse with the ASV, ERV, ESV, NASB, NET, KJV and the JPS translating “the people of the holy ones“; The HCSB, ISR, YLT, NIV, ISV and the Jubilee Bible translating the people and the holy ones as the same group. In favor of the former wording is first, the fact that this phrase forms a construct state which results in a genitive or possessive construction, and second, the fact that ‘holy ones‘ in Daniel, outside of chapter 7, refers to heavenly beings.

In answer to the second point I will say that while it is true that every other usage of ‘holy ones‘ in Daniel, outside chapter 7, is referring to heavenly beings, this does not preclude it’s usage in Chapter 7 from having a different meaning. The Aramaic word occurs six times in this chapter and refers to the same thing in each instance. Since chapter 7 is a separate and distinct vision there is no reason to assume the word, as used in this chapter, must mean what it meant in other places in Daniel. In 8:24 the corresponding Hebrew word is used and refers to people, not angels. God’s people are referred to as ‘holy ones‘ elsewhere in Scripture. So the most that can be said is that the designation ‘holy ones‘ can refer to both men and angels, the meaning being determined by the context. In the context of Daniel 7, in verse 21, the little ‘horn‘ of the fourth beast is said to wage war and prevail against these ‘holy ones‘. We know from the angel’s interpretation (vv. 24-25) that the horn represents an earthly king. Does Heiser think that an earthly king will wage war and prevail against the members of the divine council?

As for the phrase “the people of the holy ones of the Most High” being a construct state, this would not disallow the meaning “the people, the holy ones of the Most High.” The word people is singular and can be translated nation. The phrase would then read “the nation of the holy ones of the Most High” and would mean “the nation consisting of the holy ones.” Another possibility is that the ‘holy ones‘ in the phrase in v. 27 is referring back to the ‘holy ones‘ who are being persecuted and given into the hand of the ‘horn’ in v. 25. The people of those holy ones is Israel.

The Rider On The Clouds

So why does Heiser think the “one like a son of man” is a first tier member of the divine council, whom he identifies as none other than Jesus, whom he also identifies as the Prince of the host of Yahweh, from Joshua 5:14? Because his exegesis is not being driven by the text but by his predilections, namely the divine council concept and the Trinity doctrine. Heiser believes that the “one like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision is meant to fill the role that Baal filled in the Ugarit divine council as found in the Baal Cycle. There, Baal serves as El’s vice-regent and his “stock epithet” is ‘Rider of the Clouds.’ Heiser asserts that this epithet marks one out as a deity figure. Not only was this one of Baal’s titles but it was also said of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible – Deut. 33:26; Ps. 68:4, 33; 104:3; Is. 19:1. Heiser reasons that because Baal, a deity in Ugarit religion, and Yahweh, the deity of Israel, are both said to ‘ride on the clouds’, then this epithet can be used only of one who is a deity. But this is just an assumption on his part. And since the “one like a son of man” comes on the clouds, he reasons that the author of Daniel 7 wanted his readers to understand this one to be a deity figure. But my question to him is this – If the author of Daniel 7 wanted his readers to understand “the one like a son of man” to be a deity figure then why did he not use the same terminology that was used for both Baal and Yahweh. The same word is used of both Baal and Yahweh, rkb in Ugarit and rokeb in Hebrew, both meaning ‘to ride‘. Why did the author of Daniel 7 not seal the deal by using this term in his description of ‘son of man‘ figure? Instead he simply says that he saw “one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven.” If his intention really was for his readers to make the connection that this figure is a deity why did he not write that he saw “one like a son of man riding on the clouds of heaven?” This is one of the weaknesses of Heiser’s interpretation. To seemingly add strength to the assertion that the ‘son of man’ is a deity figure, Heiser says:

… the Ancient of Days (El) is depicted as riding a fiery throne-chariot, a stock Baal descriptor not used of El at Ugarit. The fact that both the Ancient of Days and the “one like a human being” are associated with Baal throne-chariot imagery mars a strict El and Baal model for Daniel 7 …      p. 12

Is Heiser serious here? Where in Daniel 7 is the “one like a son of man” associated with a fiery throne-chariot? We see the ‘one ancient of days‘ associated with a fiery throne -chariot in v. 9, but where is the ‘son of man‘ figure depicted in the same way? If Heiser is referring to the fact that this figure is seen “coming with the clouds” then he is overstating the case; how does “coming with the clouds” equal riding in a fiery throne-chariot? It appears that he is reading into the imagery what he needs it to say in order to arrive at his conclusion, the conclusion he obviously began with.

We have already seen in the angel’s interpretation that the “one like a son of man” is more likely than not, an image representing the “holy ones, the people of the Most High.” So what does it mean that this image is seen coming with the clouds? Let’s first deal with the preposition used in the phrase – is this ‘son of man‘ coming with or on the clouds of heaven? If he is coming on the clouds this might give support to the idea that he is ‘riding on the clouds‘ although it would not prove it. But if he is coming with the clouds this would further weaken the assertion that he is ‘riding on the clouds‘. Heiser touches on this point only briefly:

The inquiry of R.B.Y. Scott into the issue has demonstrated that the prepositions im and be (Hebrew characters in original) are interchangeable and can mean “on” or “in,” appealing to Daniel 2:43 and 7:2 as examples. J. Collins follows Scott, noting that “there is no basis for the distinction,” since the act of coming upon or in the clouds, or with an “entourage of clouds” denoted divine status in ancient Israel and Canaan.

Now I am not a Hebrew scholar, so whether or not the statement that these two prepositions are interchangeable is accurate or not I cannot say. But I did look at the 22 occurrences of im, the preposition in 7:13, in the books of Ezra and Daniel and could not find one instance where on or upon or in would fit the context; with was the predominant meaning. Even the two passages mentioned in the above quote do not bear out a meaning of on or upon for im. The LXX has meta = with. The NT references to this verse are not helpful, for in Rev. 1:7 meta is used, but in the Gospels epi is used, which means on or upon. We should, however, interpret Daniel 7:13 according to what is in that text, which is with.

It could be possible that the “one like a son of man” is a reference to an individual i.e. the Messianic son of David, and the clouds are representative of the armies of heaven and together they make up the ‘holy ones‘ of the Most High. There is precedent for this metaphor in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Jer. 4:13 we read with reference to the army of Babylon:

Look! Like clouds he comes up, his chariots come like a whirlwind, his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us! we are ruined!

In Ezekiel 38:9, 16 the armies of Gog are depicted as a cloud:

You will come up as a storm, like a cloud covering the land, you and all your troops and many nations with you.

If invading armies could be analogized to clouds in prophetic declarations, then it is certainly fitting for clouds to represent armies in prophetic visions. Is there any other evidence from Scripture that would support the idea that the clouds in Dan. 7:13 could be representing armies? It may be that the New Testament authors saw it this way. In Rev. 19:11-21 there is a scene which appears to coincide with the vision of Daniel 7 and is believed by many to be a depiction of the return of Messiah to overthrow the ruling world power and establish the kingdom of God upon the earth. In the vision, John sees the returning Messiah neither riding upon nor accompanied by clouds but by the armies of heaven:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war … The armies of heaven accompanied him, riding on white horses …             vv. 11-14

But of who do these armies consist? In Rev. 17:14 we get a clue:

They (the ten kings of the last world power) will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings — and with him are his called, chosen and faithful followers.

Also we are told in the NT that Messiah, in his coming in glory to reign over the kingdom of God, will be accompanied also by angels – see Matt. 16:27; 25:31; 2 Thess. 1:7. So the plural ‘armies‘ in Rev. 19:14 could refer to an angelic army and an army of redeemed, immortal humans, the ‘holy ones‘ of the Most High.

Although I have shown that it may not even be the case that the ‘son of man’ figure in Dan. 7 is being depicted as ‘riding on the clouds‘ in the same way as Baal and Yahweh do, let’s just assume that such is the case. Is Heiser’s assertion that ‘riding on the clouds‘  designates one as a deity even valid? What does it even mean in the Hebrew Bible when Yahweh is depicted as riding on clouds? In other words, can one who is not an ontological deity ever be depicted in this way? The concept of one riding on the clouds does seem to denote a high and exalted status, but could this status be bestowed on one who is not an ontologically divine being?

When we examine the passages that describe Yahweh in these terms it doesn’t seem that the point of the authors is to establish, by this language, that Yahweh truly is God. After all, how could this be an attestation that Yahweh is God, since these statements are evidently poetic, hyperbolic descriptions of Yahweh. I mean has anyone ever actually seen Yahweh riding across the sky on a cloud and as a result come to believe that Yahweh is really a deity? And it matters very little to me what the adherents of the Ugarit religion thought about this i.e. whether this epithet of Baal was to be taken literally or only symbolically. It is clear that in the Hebrew Bible this poetic language is meant to convey something about Yahweh, but what exactly? In the context of most of these passages Yahweh is being portrayed as a heavenly warrior coming to fight on behalf of his people.

There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. He will drive out your enemy before you saying, ‘Destroy him!’ so Israel shall live in safety alone … Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by Yahweh? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.
Deut. 33:26-29

He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind … He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies … He reached down from on high and took hold of me … He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.        Psalm 18:9-17

May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him… may you blow them away… may the wicked perish before God. But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God… Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds — his name is Yahweh…       Psalm 68:1-4

An oracle concerning Egypt: See, Yahweh rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them… In that day the Egyptians will be like women. They will shudder with fear at the uplifted hand that Yahweh Almighty raises against them.  Isaiah 19:1, 16

Even Psalm 104:3, although the context is about the wondrous works of God seen in creation, at least suggests the idea that Yahweh is a warrior: “He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” Are not chariots instruments of war? Elsewhere Yahweh is portrayed as a mighty warrior. In Exodus 15 we have a song composed by Moses recounting God’s victory over the Egyptian army. Verse 3 reads: “Yahweh is a man of war; Yahweh is his name.” 

So my point is this – even if someone insists that the ‘son of man‘ figure in Dan.7 is a reference to the future coming of Messiah, and that he is depicted as riding on the clouds, this would not necessitate understanding him to be an ontologically divine being. At best it would denote that he is a mighty warrior on a divine mission, coming to deliver God’s people from their enemies. And this is the precise picture we get of Messiah’s return in Rev. 19:11-19. There we are told he “judges and makes war” {v.11}; “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” {v. 15a}; and “he treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” {v.15c}. The last statement shows that this one is not God Almighty but the agent who carries out God’s vengeance on God’s behalf.

Jesus – The Son Of Man

I have offered two possible ways to understand the ‘son of man‘ figure in Dan. 7:13:

  1. If we take the “one like a son of man” as a representative image, following the pattern of the four kingdoms which were likened to different kinds of beasts, then it is an image representing the “holy ones of the Most High.” This is consistent with the angel’s interpretation in vv. 17-18, 22 and 27.
  2.  The figure might indeed be more literal and be referring to the Messianic warrior coming to conquer the enemies of God’s people. In this case the ‘clouds’ would be representative of the armies of heaven, the redeemed, immortalized people of God. The Messianic warrior and these redeemed ones with him, together constitute the “holy ones, the people of the Most High” to whom the kingdom is given. This is also consistent with the angel’s interpretation.

If option 1 is correct, how would this coincide with Jesus’ application of the designation ‘son of man‘ to himself. If the ‘son of man‘ figure in Dan. 7:13 is representing the collective people of God, the holy ones, then how can Jesus assume it as a self referent? Jesus, in the gospels, refers to himself by this title numerous times and as Heiser points out, affirms his identity as this son of man before Caiaphas, the high priest.

The phrase, as it appears in the gospel’s and in it’s one appearance in Acts, is different than any of the uses of the phrase in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible the phrase never appears with the definite article. But, with Hebrew, as with Greek, the definite article is not always necessary for a word or phrase to be understood as definite. But when the definite article is given in the text then it serves a definite purpose (no pun intended) and should be given full weight. In it’s every occurrence in the gospels, with the exception of John 5:27, and in it’s only appearance in Acts, the phrase is always doubly definite, reading literally, the son of the man. The phrase in Dan. 7:13 is certainly non-definite, for definiteness is used to specify a person or thing and what specific son of man would be being denoted in the context of Daniel’s vision? A noun or phrase which is without the article in the text could be considered as definite if there was a previous mention of the same noun or phrase in the context, and so it would be pointing back to that specific noun or phrase. But such is not the case in Daniel 7. Therefore all English versions which render the phrase in Dan.7:13 as “one like the son of man” rather than “one like a son of man” are wrong.

Jesus’ application of this epithet to himself is specific, hence the double definite article. The epithet in the gospels is only ever found on the lips of Jesus; no one else calls Jesus this. Jesus never came out and said, “I am the son of man,” but rather he would refer to himself in the third person by this epithet. This is surely one reason why the phrase is definite in the gospels but not in the OT. Since Jesus is referring to a specific person – himself – then the definite article is appropriate. Whenever Jesus said, “the son of man” it was tantamount to him saying “I.” But another reason for the definiteness of the phrase is that it points back to a specific son of man, the one seen in Daniel’s vision. If this is so, how could Jesus assume this epithet if “the one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 represented the collective people of God?

The answer to this question is to be found only in the NT. In the NT we learn that not all Israelites have an automatic assurance of entrance into the kingdom age simply because they are descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Of course, this has always been true. Just being a natural descendant of the fathers was not sufficient; one was also required to be faithful to Yahweh. What has evolved is what exactly it means to be faithful to Yahweh. Faithfulness to Yahweh had always involved a sole allegiance to him as the only God {Deut. 6:4-5, 13}, faith in his word, as given through the prophets {Ex. 14:31; 2 Chron. 20:20}, humilty and contrition before him {Is.66:2b; Ps. 51:17; Micah 6:8}, and to act justly toward your fellowman {Micah 6:8; Prov. 21:3; Hosea 12:6; Zech. 7:9-10}. But now that Messiah Jesus has come and has been made Lord, as the first man to receive immortality, one must acknowledge him as such in order to be faithful to Yahweh {Rom. 10:9-10; 1 Peter 1:21 – read “those who, through him, are faithful to God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory… “}. From that time forward the people of God, the holy ones, are reckoned in the Messiah, Jesus. Therefore, as the one in whom the whole body of holy ones is subsumed, he stands as the preeminent holy one and representative of the whole. He is the head of the whole body and as so he stands in for the whole, much like the leader of a nation would represent the whole nation. We see a hint of this concept in Isaiah’s depiction of ‘the servant of Yahweh‘ in chapter 49:1-6:

…Before I was born Yahweh called me; from my mother’s womb he has made mention of my name … He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will glorify myself” … And now Yahweh says – he who ordained me, from the womb, as his servant, to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of Yahweh and my God has been my strength – he says, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel. I will also appoint you a light for the Gentiles, that you should be my salvation even to the ends of the earth.”

The servant of Yahweh i.e. the Messiah, is here called Israel because, I believe, he is the one in whom the ideal Israel shall finally come to be. Only in association with this one will anyone, Jew or Gentile, have an inheritance among the holy ones of God in the kingdom age. We see this same idea in John 15:1 where Jesus says “I am the true vine.” The vine was an ancient symbol for Israel {Ps. 80:8-9; Jer. 2:21} but here the Lord applies the metaphor to himself and appears to make final salvation dependent upon a vital connection to himself.

Therefore, Jesus’ application of the epithet ‘son of man‘ to himself is just another way of expressing the idea that he is the ideal ‘holy one‘ and the representative head of the whole body of ‘holy ones.’

The Psalm 89 Connection

Heiser also sees Psalm 89 as following the Baal Cycle but admits that it is the human Davidic king who fulfills the Baal imagery there. But if the Davidic king is fulfilling the role of Baal as Yahweh’s vice-regent then why is it necessary to see the ‘son of man‘ in Dan. 7:13, who is supposedly fulfilling the same role, as a co-deity figure and a first tier member of the divine council? Does Heiser think that the Davidic king is a member of the council, and a first tier member at that? On pages 14-15 of his PDF Heiser acknowledges that in the Hebrew Bible the Davidic king is called God’s son, has a divine status bestowed on him, is also called God in Ps. 45, has an everlasting rule, and yet remains “manifestly a human being.” Now since the NT clearly portrays Jesus as the ideal and final Davidic king, who shall rule over God’s kingdom forever {Luke 1:31-33}, and in view of the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures regarding the exalted status of the human Davidic king, how does Heiser extricate himself from an apparent conundrum?

In chapter 6 of his full dissertation Heiser spends a number of pages attempting to show a correlation between Dan. 7, Psalm 89, and the Baal Cycle. He even makes the highly untenable equation of the ‘son of man‘ of Dan. 7:13 with the ‘witness in the clouds‘ in Ps. 89:37. Once again, reading Scripture through the lens of his divine council paradigm, he sees this ‘witness in the clouds‘ as an “exalted… member of the divine council.” But this is pure fantasy on Heiser’s part. Nothing in the context of Psalm 89 even suggests that this ‘witness in the clouds‘ is even a living, personal being. Heiser simply imports that idea into the text from an outside source i.e. the Baal Cycle. If you follow the flow of thought from v. 28 down to v. 37 you will see that Yahweh is speaking of his covenant with David, his promise to establish David’s line and throne forever, for “as long as the heavens endure.” In vv. 33-35 Yahweh is saying in unmistakable terms that he will never go back on this promise to David; he has sworn and his faithfulness is at stake. Then in v. 36 he compares the enduring nature of the line and throne of David to that of the sun, and in v. 37 to that of the moon. Now some English versions make the final clause “the faithful witness in the sky” simply a parallel line to the previous line about the moon, i.e. the moon is the faithful witness in the sky. This is a possible translation and interpretation of the clause. Another possible translation would be “and like the witness in the sky it endures.” The preposition of comparison prefixed to the word for ‘moon’ in the previous line would be carried over and applied to the word ‘witness.’ Thus the meaning would be ‘and like the witness in the sky/clouds the throne of David will endure.’ Hence, Yahweh is pointing to three things in the heavens which have an enduring nature and comparing them to the everlasting nature of the Davidic dynasty – the sun, the moon, and another witness in the sky/clouds. Heiser thinks this witness in the clouds is Yahweh’s vice-regent, first tier member of the divine council, none other than the son of God. He believes this witness, through intercession, “obligates Yahweh to keep the terms of the covenant with David’s line.” But does Yahweh really need someone to hold him to his promise when he has already sworn by his holiness to fulfill it? Not only that but to make this witness in the clouds a member of the council is to break the congruence between it and the other two heavenly witnesses to the everlastingness of the Davidic line, the sun and the moon. I mean how effective can a witness in the sky be if it is completely unseen? The other two witnesses are visible for all to see, but who can see this divine council member in the clouds making intercession with Yahweh to make sure he keeps his promise? The whole idea is ridiculous. Heiser tries to prove his point by showing how Baal made intercession to El on behalf of some king  who had no son to keep his dynasty going, but the comparison falls flat.

So what is this witness in the sky/clouds? I contend that this third witness must be as visible to all as the other two are i.e. the sun and the moon. This leaves us with only one possibility, the rainbow:

“I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant between me and you… for all generations to come. I have set my rainbow in the clouds and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you… Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life…”           Gen. 9:11-17

This view keeps the passage consistent with itself, with vv. 36-37 expanding upon v.29 which states, “I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure.” While it is true that vv. 5-8 of Psalm 89 do refer to the multitude of heavenly beings who surround Yahweh {see also 1 Kings 19-23}, the reason for their mention is to show how even they fear and praise Yahweh for his awesome wonders and his faithfulness. The faithfulness of Yahweh to keep his promise to David is the main theme of the Psalm {see vv. 1, 2, 5, 8, 14, 28, 33-35. To turn this Psalm into a divine council meeting patterned after the Baal Cycle is, in my opinion, sheer eisegesis.

Therefore, the connection between Psalm 89 and Daniel 7 is tenuous at best, and the ‘witness in the clouds‘ has no correlation to the ‘one like a son of man‘. As to how Heiser extricates himself from the seeming incompatibility of the “manifestly” human king of Psalm 89 with the supposed first tier, co-deity member of the divine council of Dan. 7, he does so with a mere assertion:

In point of fact (that is debatable), the truth is that Daniel 7 and Psalm 89 are two sides of the same coin — one has God’s co-ruler as a deity, the other as a human being in David’s line. This is why the New Testament portrays Jesus as both god and man (does it really, where?).

Heiser has simply wedded his divine council paradigm to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I hope that everyone can see that this conclusion is not a necessary deduction from the text of Scripture itself. The conclusion which Heiser arrives at (which really he began with) is the result of ideas drawn from sources outside of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Ugarit divine council and the fourth century Trinity doctrine, which was developed mainly from a Greek metaphysical mindset.

Although there is much more that can be said on this subject, this must suffice for now. I am examining the two powers in heaven concept and hope to post on it next month. That article may expand further on this one.

Conclusion

I cannot be certain of this, but it seems as if Heiser may have had trouble, at some time in the past, explaining the Trinity from a biblical, Hebraic perspective. Wanting to remain orthodox in his doctrine may have spurred him on to find some way to ground the Trinity doctrine in the Hebrew Scriptures. It may be that only after discovering the divine council concept and other concepts, like the two powers in heaven, did he find a way to make sense of the Trinity within a Hebraic framework. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. But what I can say with certainty is that these concepts, which have their source in ANE literature and ancient rabbinic writings, are being superimposed upon the biblical text rather than being derived from the text. For scholars like Heiser, these concepts become the grid through which the biblical text must be interpreted.

I want to reiterate that I have no personal animus toward Dr. Heiser, and that I have learned much about the historical setting of OT passages and original language issues etc. from his teaching. I am here simply critiquing his exegesis of specific passages of Scripture, which he has made public, and showing how his exegesis is being driven by certain presuppositions which are being imposed upon the text rather than drawn from it.

 

 

 

An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept

In this article I will examine Dr. Michael Heiser’s views on the Divine Council, as found in various articles on his website The Divine Council.com. My purpose is to offer a critique of Dr. Heiser’s methodology in arriving at the conclusions he does regarding the biblical texts and to offer alternative interpretations. I find his interpretation of certain passages in both the OT and NT to be faulty. When one discerns what are the underlying beliefs which lead him to interpret Scripture the way he does, it then becomes clear that  the interpretive conclusions he arrives at are really the conclusions he began with.

What is my motive in this exercise? I have been listening to Michael Heiser’s podcast for a number of years now but had never read any of the available online material of his work until recently. I have heard a few radio interviews he has given regarding his books and on various topics for which he is known. When I was first introduced to his ideas I was intrigued. It was something I had not heard before and I was always willing to learn new things. I tended to accept what he was saying at first because he was a scholar and though I really did not fully grasp everything he was putting forth (some of it was technical), I was taken in by other personalities, who I admired, who were fast becoming devotees of Dr. Heiser’s work. But over the ensuing years I just lost interest in his work, due mainly to the fact that I was constantly in disagreement with him on his interpretation of specific verses of Scripture. This was while I was still trinitarian in my theology. Since renouncing trinitarianism in favor of biblical unitarian monotheism I have taken a closer look at Dr. Heiser’s work and I now understand more than at any time before what he is promoting. This is because I have actually read his material on a deeper level than ever before and have also listened multiple times to his lecture series Biblical Theology of the Spiritual World. Now that I more fully understand his theses and the underlying presuppositions he holds, I find that I am even more at odds with his biblical interpretation than before.

But so what, I am sure that I am at odds with many scholars’ interpretation of Scripture; why focus on Dr. Heiser? Michael Heiser is one of those rare scholars who have broken through the scholar / layperson divide. He has been able to bring his work down from the heights of academia to the level of popular Christianity. It is not often that scholarly work has such an influence on the folks in the pew. And coupled with that is the sort of awe with which many in the pew regard scholars, especially those who are as accessible as Dr. Heiser. I fear that many will and do take his conclusions for granted, without critical analysis, simply because of his status as a scholar. Many will assume that he knows what he is talking about, he is the scholar and they are just a layperson. To be sure, Dr. Heiser does know what he is talking about when it comes to his specific field of study. He knows the languages and the literature of the ancient near east (ANE) as well as the literature of the second temple period (c. 516 BCE – 70 CE). So when Dr. Heiser is giving data concerning ancient Semitic languages and ANE literature, listen to him, for he knows that material. I have learned a lot about the biblical text and about ANE studies from listening to his podcast. But many laypeople fail to distinguish between that kind of knowledge and biblical interpretation. They just assume that if he is knows what he is talking about with regard to those things he must be correct in his interpretation of Scripture. But this is just not the case. The fact of the matter is that the data he has collected from his field of study has caused him to develop certain presuppositions (along with presuppositions which exist due to orthodox dogma) which then determine how he will interpret Scripture. If the presuppositions are wrong then the interpretation of Scripture that flows from them will also be wrong. It is my contention that his presuppositions are indeed wrong and so his interpretation of Scripture cannot automatically be trusted by virtue of his scholarship.

The Priority Of Extra-Biblical Literature

In introductory material from Heiser’s websites and his podcast one will hear of “Dr. Heiser’s approach to the Bible.” What exactly is his approach to the Bible? Does he regard the Bible as inspired revelation or as a product of purely human invention, or perhaps a mixture of the two? It is hard for me to determine precisely his thinking on this matter as he seems a bit ambivalent. Sometimes he will make  statements in which he seems to regard scripture as revelatory, but at other times he will appear to regard Scripture on a completely human level, speaking of how the biblical authors borrowed from the literature of the surrounding nations in their portrait of the true God. One specific example involves a discussion about the visions of Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7, in which Heiser makes this statement:

This writer (i.e. Dr. Heiser himself) concurs with Collins’ carefully argued rejections of an Iranian or Babylonian background for the visions in favor of a Canaanite provenance, specifically that of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle.

He goes on after this to show the congruence between the imagery in Daniel’s vision and material found in the Baal Cycle. What is he saying here? Is he saying that the source or origin of these visions is Canaanite literature, i.e. the Baal Cycle of Ugarit? Is he suggesting that the authors of both Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7 were borrowing from a Canaanite source when they wrote these portions of Scripture? The texts themselves claim to be visions given directly by God to the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. Does Dr. Heiser believe that to be the case? It is unclear what he believes. Again, there is a certain ambivalence with him regarding how the biblical texts came about. Was it by divine revelation or was it by the Hebrew authors adapting Canaanite religious concepts and imagery to fit their Yahwistic religion?

Assuming that there is indeed a similarity of concepts about God and of imagery used to speak about God, and I have no reason to doubt that to be the case, how does that coincide with the self claim of much of the Hebrew Scriptures to be direct revelation from God? Because the extant ANE literature is chronologically prior to the Biblical texts, it is assumed by scholars in general that the authors of the Hebrew Bible borrowed from and accommodated the ideas found in these writings in the setting forth of their own religion. Many of the scholars that Heiser quotes no doubt fall into this category. Heiser himself seems to agree, at least to a degree, with this assessment. I might note here that most, if not all, of the scholars quoted by Heiser, do not regard the Scripture to be of divine origin, i.e. they do not believe in divine revelation. They view the Hebrew Bible the same way they view other writings of the time – products of human ingenuity and the result of an unguided process.

For what it is worth I offer here my understanding of why there is much similarity between the Hebrew Scriptures and ANE literature. Although the ANE literature is prior in time to the Hebrew Bible, the religious ideas and concepts of the Hebrew Bible were prior to ANE religion. If we go back to the beginning, when God first created man, we see that God revealed himself to the original human pair. Even after man sinned and was exiled from the garden we can still see that the knowledge of the Creator was still among the human race for a time. Eventually however, man’s knowledge of the Creator degenerated into false religion and the worship of false gods. This led to widespread immorality and debauchery and violence. God eventually destroyed the human race, by means of the flood, with the exception of eight people: Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives. These were spared because they were righteous, maintaining the worship of the Creator. As they began to repopulate the earth after the flood, they no doubt passed on the knowledge  and worship of the true God. So there would have been a time when the true worship of the true God would have been prevalent in the earth. Once again though, as time went on, men turned from the worship of the Creator and were eventually spread over the whole earth, bringing with them their false religions, with remnants of the true religion contained therein. Is it any wonder that similar religious concepts are found in various religions, especially those within the same cultural and linguistic environment. False religion was not a pure invention out of thin air, but rather a perversion of the true religion, and therefore elements of the original will still be seen in the false, only now in a mythologized version. Just because these false religious concepts were recorded prior to the recording of the true concept of God, the Creator, in the Hebrew Scriptures, does not mean these concepts predated those of the Hebrew Bible, or that the Hebrews developed their religious concepts from these false religions. In fact, the false religions were developed out of whatever revelatory knowledge of the true God would have been available to man after the flood. So yes we should expect to see an overlap of concepts and imagery between the Israelite religion and the false Canaanite religions.

The Divine Council

It should be clear to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Heiser’s work, that the concept of the ‘Divine Council’ is the overarching idea that governs how he will interpret any given passage. Indeed, this is what he is mainly known for. Although the concept is not original to him, he more than any other scholar has brought these ideas to the people in the pew, and has made them popular, at least in some circles of American Christianity. The idea is that there is a council or pantheon of divine beings under the one true God, who administrate God’s rule upon the earth in various ways. It is confirmed by scholars that all ancient near east cultures had such a divine council in their religious systems. This only came to light after the discovery of  cuneiform tablets from ancient Ugarit in the late 1920’s. This is why there is no talk of a divine council among the commentators prior to this time. But if the concept of the ‘divine council’ is so clearly taught in the Hebrew Bible why did no one see it there until this discovery? The concept seems to be derived from the Hebrew Scriptures only by inference, while it is unambiguously laid out in Canaanite literature; and the inference from the Bible only appeared after the discovery of this literature. While I do not doubt that some such a system is employed by God, I do think that Heiser may be overstating it’s importance in understanding OT theology. He seems to think that one cannot fully or accurately understand the Hebrew scriptures without first understanding this concept. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he is obsessed with the idea of the divine council. This is proved by how he tends to see this concept in biblical passages where it really is not found. An example is Deut. 4:19-20, where God says to the people of Israel:

And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, and the moon and the stars, all the host of the heavens, beware lest you are driven to worship them and to serve them, which Yahweh your God has apportioned to all the nations under the whole heavens. And you Yahweh has taken and has brought out of the iron furnace of Egypt to be his people, a possession, as you are this day.

Heiser interprets the ‘host of  the heavens’  here to be the divine council members which he believes Yahweh gave to the nations, to be their gods, while he chose Israel to be his nation. But it seems plain enough to me that ‘the host of the heavens‘ is simply the corporate designation for the sun, moon and stars which were just mentioned. The phrase ‘the host of heaven‘ does not have a single meaning – it can refer to all of the heavenly bodies, as here, but it can sometimes refer to the angelic armies which serve at God’s pleasure {1 Kings 22:19}. It can even refer to the people of God as in Daniel 8:10-12. The context must determine the meaning in each specific passage. The context here speaks of the sun, moon and stars, not of members of a divine council. These gifts God gave to all nations for their benefit, not to be worshipped as the pagans did. Israel is being reminded of their privileged status as God’s possession, and as such they must not follow the practices of the other nations who have gone astray {see Deut. 17:2-5}.

Another passage heavily utilized by Heiser is Deut. 32:8-9:

When the Most High apportioned to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the boundaries of the nations with regard to the number of the sons of God (or Israel). For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.

Heiser interprets the verse to be saying that when God divided up the nations he did so according to the number of divine council members (sons of God), to whom he then allotted the nations as their inheritance, while taking Israel as his own inheritance. But the context has to do with the geographical boundaries of the nations in relation to Israel’s numbers. What would national boundaries have to do with God giving dominion over the nations to divine council members? Heiser, of course, prefers the DSS reading of ‘sons of God‘ rather than ‘sons of Israel.’ But this makes no difference to the meaning of the verse. For in this whole chapter Israel is synonymous with the sons (or children) of God {see vv. 5-6, 18-20}. The LXX’s  ‘angels of God‘ is irrelevant, being a sort of paraphrase of ‘sons of God‘ from the DSS, though it does show that ‘sons of God‘ is probably original. The point is that ‘sons of God‘ in this context is not referring to angels or to divine council members, but to the people of Israel who are God’s children. When God divided up the nations (Gen. 10-11) he set their boundaries taking into account his planned intention to place a people of his own in the land of Canaan, which would be of sufficient size for his chosen nation.

Psalm 82

Of course there is Psalm 82, which in the first verse reads:

God takes his place in the congregation of God, he executes judgment among the gods.

Heiser translates the verse as “God has taken his place in the divine council… ” Obviously he assumes this passage to be referring to this divine council concept. But is this the absolute necessary way to understand this passage. Heiser thinks so. But why did no one prior to the discovery of the Ugarit literature understand the passage that way? The almost universal way of understanding this passage prior to the Ugarit discovery was that the psalmist was speaking metaphorically of rulers or judges in Israel. Heiser decries this interpretation and insists that the passage should be understood in light of the Ugaritic concept of a divine council (i.e. a group of gods, who, along with and under the authority of the supreme God, administer the affairs of the cosmos). It is clear that Heiser makes the correct understanding of the biblical text dependent upon the extra-biblical texts. Unless we read the biblical text in the light of the Canaanite text we will fall short of accurately ascertaining the meaning of it.

If we remember that Psalm 82 is poetic literature, then we should not find it strange to find the use of poetic imagery as metaphor. The psalmist is metaphorically portraying the human rulers of Israel, specifically the Davidic kings, but possibly the kings of the Northern kingdom also (judges may be included, as those who administer justice on the king’s behalf – see 2 Chron. 19:5-7), as an assembly of gods, who are being called to account by the Most High, who gave them their authority and commission, for failure to properly fulfill their divine duty. The charge against them is laid out in verse two. In vv.3-4 their divine commission is delineated:

Vindicate the poor and the fatherless; bring justice to the afflicted and the needy. Deliver the weak and the oppressed; rescue them from the hand of the wicked.

These are not the duties of heavenly beings but of earthly kings, as can be seen from the following verses – 2 Chron. 9:8; Ps. 72:2-4, 12-14; Jer. 21:11; 22:1-5. Here we have a number of passages that clearly set forth the divine duty of the Davidic king in the exact language used in Ps. 82:3-4. My question for Dr. Heiser is this – where in the Hebrew Bible is the commission and duty of the members of the divine council even spelled out at all, much less in these exact terms?  It isn’t; but perhaps it is spelled out in these terms in the Canaanite literature. If that is the case, then he is letting extra-biblical literature determine how we should interpret this passage rather than the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.  Therefore, vv. 3-4 are more conducive to the human ruler view than to the divine council view. But what of verse 6, where God says of these rulers:

I designated you gods, every one of you sons of the Most High.

The mistake of Heiser is to take this literally, but that is because his underlying presupposition is driving his interpretation. Why can’t human rulers, and even more specific, the David kings, be addressed in this way? They can be, but not in an ontological sense, but in a representational and functional sense. The reigning Davidic king is so designated in 1 Chron. 28:5-6 (son); Ps. 2:6-7 (son); Ps. 45:6 (elohim). If the common translation of Ps. 45:6 is correct, “Your throne O god is forever,” this should be understood as a representational and functional designation, i.e. the Davidic king is the visible representation of Yahweh’s rule over Israel, functioning as Yahweh’s vicegerent. It is not referring to the king’s ontological nature. On Heiser’s website The Divine Council.com, in a PDF titled The Plural Elohim of Psalm 82, at the end of page two he says, “there are actually five (he really gives six) different entities referenced as elohim in the Hebrew Bible.” In the list that follows he fails to include Moses, who is so designated in Ex. 7:1 and the Davidic king in Ps. 45:6, as noted above. The reason for this omission is found in the next section of the PDF (2.2):

All the figures called [elohim] in the Bible have one thing in common: they all inhabit the non-human realm. That is, they are by nature not part of the world of humankind …

Again, his underlying presupposition prevents him from seeing that certain humans can be designated by the word elohim.

Another reason Heiser thinks Ps. 82 can only be referring to divine beings is because of Ps. 89:5-7. But what does Ps. 89 have to do with Ps. 82? He is simply assuming (being driven to do so by his presuppositions) that a similar phrase in Ps. 89 is referring to the same thing as Ps. 82. I do believe that Ps. 89:5-7 is speaking about the angelic host that surrounds God in the heavens, but it is unclear to me why this has to determine the meaning of Ps. 82. Just as we saw above, regarding the phrase ‘the host of the heavens,’ even the exact same phrase can have completely different meanings according to context. So a similar phrase in Ps. 89 which does indeed refer to heavenly beings does not really have any bearing on Ps. 82, which to my mind has a totally different context.

In the same document, on pg. 13, after discussing Jesus’ use of Ps. 82:6 in John 10, Heiser makes this claim:

The human [elohim] view (of Ps. 82) derives from two assumptions brought to the text: (1) that it is required by the assumed impossibility of their being other [elohim] because of Judeo-Christian monotheism; and (2) that the phrase (used by Jesus in John 10) “to whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai.

But I have argued for the human king view without any reference whatsoever to these two asumptions. In fact I do not accept either of those assumptions as fact. Heiser doesn’t even address the reasons for seeing the Ps. 82 ‘gods’ as human kings that I have presented here. Is he unaware of the points that I have made? Or is he just picking the low hanging fruit? I would be interested to hear how he would answer these objections to his view.

Verse 7 offers only a slight challenge to the human view:

But in fact, you shall die like men, and fall like one of the rulers.

Heiser interprets this as saying that the divine council members who have rebelled will lose their immortality. Does the phrase “you shall die like men” require that the recipients of these words are not men? Of course not. The phrase is in contrast to their exalted status and to God’s own designation of them as ‘gods’. Read Psalms 2, 45 and 72 and see the exalted ideal of the Davidic king ruling on Yahweh’s throne. God is reminding them of their mortality and that their exalted status will not prevent God’s hand of judgment from bringing them down because of their rebellion to him. That they will “fall like one of the rulers” signifies the exalted status of the Davidic king in relation to the kings of the nations. In Ps. 89:27 God calls him “... my firstborn, the most high (elyon – one of God’s titles) of the kings of the earth.” But this will not prevent God from bringing the rebellious in their ranks down to the ground. I think the NIV captures the intent of the psalmist here, “But you will die like mere men; and fall like every other ruler.” {see also Ps. 73:3-5}

Heiser then interprets the final verse in line with the divine council concept. He envisions the psalmist calling upon God to take back the rule of the nations from these corrupt members of the divine council. But what if the psalmist is simply recognizing that God’s ideal for the Davidic king ruling his kingdom in such a way as to bring under the shadow of his rule, as it were, the Gentile nations, had up to this point not been fulfilled. And this is a plea for that ideal to become a reality. Note the similarity of language with Ps. 2:8-9, where the Davidic ruler is promised the nations as his inheritance. And also note the apostle Paul’s declaration that God

…has set a day in which he intends to judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has furnished assurance of this to all men by raising him from the dead.                 Acts 17:31

John 10:30-38

Michael Heiser’s presuppositions regarding the divine council and orthodox Christology surely lead him to his faulty interpretation of John 10:30-38. In typical orthodox fashion he sees v. 30 – “I and the Father are one” – as a claim to deity by Jesus. This is simply assumed by Heiser and most other orthodox trinitarian believers. There is nothing in the words themselves which necessitate that meaning. In other words, the words, as they stand, do not definitively mean that Jesus is claiming deity; this meaning is merely assumed based on the presupposition of orthodox Trinitarianism. Because they believe Jesus is deity, then that must be what he means by saying these words. This is an example of how orthodox dogma stifles inquiry into a text of scripture. If you think you already know the meaning of any particular passage, based on orthodox dogma or creedal declarations, then why seek for other possible or more plausible meanings of the text. But we must ask, “One what?” The orthodox answer is ‘one substance.’ And so we are told that Jesus was claiming to be one in substance with the Father and that the Jews to whom he was speaking understood him in this way. This is why they picked up stones to stone him, they said, “because you, being a man, make yourself a god.” Yes I said ‘a god‘, but we will get to that soon.

But is ‘one substance‘ the only way or even the best way to interpret Jesus’ words? Is there no other possible tenable alternative? Of course there is, but many trinitarians may be completely unaware of it due to orthodox conditioning. I believe a much more adequate way to interpret these words is in light of the Semitic understanding of agency. As I have explained in other articles on this blog, the concept of agency is ubiquitous in the Scriptures, both in the OT and the NT. The main idea of agency in the ancient Semitic world was that the agent was to be regarded as the one who sent him, since he carried the name, authority, and resources of his lord. The agent came, not to carry out his own will or plans, but those of his master. In this sense it could be said of any faithful agent,  that he and his lord are one. The identity of the agent is in a sense hidden in the one who sent him. The lord is in his agent and the agent is in his lord. Forty times in the gospel of John Jesus is spoken of or speaks of being sent by God. I think that qualifies the idea of Jesus as God’s agent as being a major theme of John’s gospel. This language of being sent is the language of agency. There are other phrases and words in this gospel, other than sent, which also denote agency, such as:

  • Jesus makes the Father known – 1:18
  • Jesus is ‘come from God’ – 3:2; 7:17; 8:42; 13:3
  • Jesus is ‘given authority’ to act on the Father’s behalf – 5:27; 17:2
  • Jesus comes in the Father’s name – 5:43; 10:25
  • Jesus is given a task to do by the Father – 5:37; 17:4
  • The Father is in Jesus and he is in the Father – 10:38; 14:10-11; 17:21
  • Jesus speaks only the Father’s word -7:16-18; 8:28; 12:49-50; 14:10,24

The idea that Jesus was speaking of a metaphysical unity with God, and that the Jews understood him to be so speaking is out of context with the Hebraic culture and mindset. Heiser should know this but seems unaware of it. The Jews did not think or speak of God in such metaphysical terms. It was later Gentile Christians, who were imbued with the Greek mindset, who introduced metaphysical concepts about the relationship between God and Jesus into the church’s thinking. The Jews thought of God in terms of functional relationship, i.e. the ways God acted toward them in covenant relationship. The relationship of Jesus to the Father is laid out in terms of divine agency not divine metaphysics.

I was very delighted to find a prestigious Evangelical commentary that agrees with this understanding of Jesus’ words, the Expositor’s Greek Testament, whose comment on this verse I could not have said better:

An ambassador (another term for agent) whose demands were contested might quite naturally say: “I and my sovereign are one”; not meaning thereby to claim royal dignity, but only to assert that what he did his sovereign did, that his signature carried his sovereign’s guarantee, and that his pledges would be fulfilled by all the resources of his sovereign. So here, as God’s representative, Jesus introduces the Father’s power as the final guarantee, and claims that in this respect he and the Father are one. Whether this does not involve metaphysical unity is another question.

How refreshing to see an Evangelical, orthodox trinitarian commentary actually get it right on a passage that is all too often touted as a proof text for the deity of Jesus. Of course they did have to add the final sentence so as to not lose all credibility and respect with their peers.

The agency view is further borne out in what Jesus says in vv. 34-38. Heiser, working under his presupposition of orthodox trinitarianism and his divine council model, sees not only v. 30 as a declaration by Jesus of metaphysical equality with God, but also v. 38, where Jesus declared, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” But Heiser is simply reading his predilection of some sort of metaphysical unity into this statement. The statement on it’s own accords well with the concept of Jesus as God’s agent, as does the rest of what Jesus says here.

But the fact that the Jews wanted to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for “making [himself] a god,” surely proves that they understood his statement as a claim to ontological sameness with the Father, doesn’t it? Not at all. First off, there is no definite article before the word theos in the Greek and so the better translation is ‘a god‘ rather than ‘God.’ It is absurd to imagine these Jews as understanding Jesus’ words to be a claim to being ‘the God‘ of Israel, Yahweh himself, or that he was claiming some sort of metaphysical sameness with Yahweh. These opponents of Jesus were prone to exaggerating Jesus’ claims and his actions {see John 8:56-57} to make him look foolish or guilty of sin, therefore to use their words as a proof that Jesus was indeed claiming deity in his statement is ridiculous. What if they understood him as I have proposed i.e. that Jesus was claiming to be the special agent of God who was foretold in the prophets, the Messiah, the final and ideal son of David. Then they would have understood his statement as a claim to functional equality with God, not of ontological equality. Then their accusation would be an extreme exaggeration of Jesus’ claim. Jesus was not claiming to be a god in a sense that would threaten the monotheism of Judaism, but he was claiming that as God’s set-apart  and sent agent {v.36} he would carry out the same function as Yahweh, that of shepherding the flock {vv.1-30}. But why should this be controversial? In the Hebrew Bible the chosen and anointed ruler was tasked with shepherding God’s flock {2 Sam. 5:2; 7:7-8; Ps. 78:70-72; Is. 63:11}, while God himself was seen as the ultimate Shepherd of Israel {Ps. 80:1}. The coming ideal Davidic ruler is also portrayed in these terms {Ezek. 34:23-24; Micah 5:2-4 (see also Matt 2:7)}. The idea is really quite simple – God, the ultimate Shepherd, carries out that function of his covenant relationship with his people, by means of an empowered human agent, the anointed of the Lord. God, as Israel’s ultimate King rules over his people through his appointed agent, the Davidic king.

But why would it be blasphemy for Jesus to be making this claim? If the Jews were exaggerating Jesus’ claim it may be because they saw it as a usurpation of God’s role by Jesus. These Jews did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah. They thought he was a false claimant to that title; he did not fit the bill of what the Messiah was supposed to be, a military leader who would lead Israel to victory against the oppressive Gentile nations. Such a claim by one who obviously didn’t meet the standard would be considered blasphemous. The idea that blasphemy is defined only as a claim to be God is nowhere found in the Bible. To blaspheme is to speak of one in such a way as to defame them. Hence, Jews held that Moses (as well as the patriarchs), and even the law and temple could be blasphemed {Acts 6:11-14}. In the Hebrew Bible a false claim to speak for God was punishable by stoning {Deut. 18:20}.

Jesus answers the Jew’s false accusation against him by referring them to Psalm 82:6:

34.”Is it not written in your law, ‘I have said you are gods’ ? 35. If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came — and the Scripture cannot be broken —36. what about the one whom the Father set-apart and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s son’ ? 37. Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does.”

Heiser thinks that the only way to make sense of Jesus’ use of this passage is if Ps. 82 is speaking about the divine council. In his document titled Jesus’ Use of Ps. 82 in John 10:34 he summarizes his conclusions as follows:

(1) Jesus uses Ps.82 to identify himself as belonging to the divine realm.
(2) Jesus also identifies himself with the Father, who belongs to the divine realm.

Briefly, I view John’s use of Ps. 82:6 in John 10:34 as making the point (from Jesus himself) that there are other non-human sons of God. By referencing Psalm 82, which is not about “human elohim,” Jesus is in effect tweaking his opponents by claiming to be more than human … John is both asserting Jesus is divine and distinct from other divine sons of God. In effect, Jesus is lord of the council.

I am sorry, but none of Heiser’s conclusions follow from the text itself. He is simply assuming his concept of the divine council (as well as orthodox trinitarianism) and forcing that upon the text.

Now I agree with Heiser that Jesus’ statement “to whom the word of God came” is not referring to the Law being given to the Israelite nation, so that all Israelites are being called ‘gods‘ here. But he acts as though that is the only alternative one has if they don’t take it his way. Yes “to whom the word of God came” refers to those whom God is specifically addressing in Ps. 82, but Heiser sees them as the members of the divine council, when, as I have shown, it is the kings who rule God’s people who are addressed there. Jesus’ point is simple – if God himself referred to his appointed representative rulers as ‘elohim’ (all of whom, by the way, failed to live up to the ideal), then what of the special, ideal and final representative agent, the long awaited coming one (this is the significance of the words “the one the Father set-apart and sent into the world“), who Jesus was claiming to be, is it blasphemy for him to claim to be God’s son? No, in fact he has a right to that title. Note that in Ps. 82:6 the designation ‘gods‘ is equivalent to the designation ‘sons of the Most High’, which, as we saw earlier, are both designations given to the Davidic kings. Far from the divine council view of Ps. 82 being necessary in order to make sense of John 10:30-38, it does not even adequately address the language of Jesus in the whole passage. If the divine council members are ‘sons’ of God, and Jesus is claiming to be God’s son also, how does that establish the distinction between Him and the other council members that Heiser envisions?

One final point, Heiser sees v. 38 as parallel to Exodus 23:20-23, where Yahweh tells Moses he is sending an agent ahead of them and that his name is in this agent. Again, driven by his presuppositions, Heiser  sees a metaphysical relationship between Yahweh and this agent, who he describes as “Yahweh in human form”, or at other times “the visible Yahweh” as compared to the invisible Yahweh i.e. the Father. But this is simply reading his foregone conclusion into the text. That Yahweh’s name was in the agent is completely intelligible from the agency view. Of course the name of an agent’s master is in him, this is what gives the agent the authority to speak and act in the master’s stead. No metaphysical or ontological connection between the two need be posited for this language to make sense, in fact it only brings confusion into what really is a simple concept.

The Divine Council Of Ugarit vs The Divine Council Of The Hebrews

In his Old Testament Godhead Language pdf, Heiser tells us the difference between the divine council in Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible. In Ugarit religion there was a divine council consisting of three tiers, maybe four. The first tier consisted of El and his wife; the second of the royal family, the sons of God, of whom Baal served as El’s co-regent; and the third was for ‘craftsman deities’ (Heiser doesn’t explain what these are); and a possible fourth tier consisted of mere messengers, the malakim.

Heiser then explains the divine council according to the Hebrew Bible as follows. It is a three tier system, where Yahweh occupies the top tier. The second tier consisted of the lesser ‘elohim‘, called the ‘sons of God.’ The third tier consisted of the malakim, or angels.

Now let’s look at what Heiser says next in this paper:

Orthodox Yahwism replaced the co-regent spot that Baal occupied with a sort of binitarian Godhead, in which Yahweh occupied both slots … Within Israelite religion, Yahweh’s occupation of both of the two highest tiers resulted conceptually in two Yahwehs – one visible, the other invisible. At times both speak as characters in the same scene, but more frequently, they are virtually interchangeable.

Heiser sees Jesus as the second Yahweh. Even though he is called son of God, like the lesser elohim of the second tier, he is not a lesser elohim, but occupies the top tier along with the Father, as a second hypostasis in the Godhead, a second Yahweh figure, while remaining distinct from the Father. Heiser has simply fused his divine council concept with orthodox Christology. But please notice how he had to adjust the Ugarit divine council to arrive at an Israelite divine council that would accommodate orthodox Christology. How convenient. In Heiser’s scheme Jesus replaces the Baal figure of Ugarit; but a second tier deity won’t do for orthodox, creedal Christianity, so Heiser bumps him up to a first tier Deity along with the Father. He then asserts that this binitarian Godhead was simply a part of the orthodox worship of Yahweh.

This is quite an assertion; what evidence does he offer for it. Well he begins with the OT figure known as ‘the angel of Yahweh‘. I have dealt with the popular notion promoted by many trinitarian teachers and apologists that the angel of Yahweh was the pre-incarnate son of God in Part 1 of my series Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT, so I won’t go into it too deep here. He mentions Ex. 23:20-23, where the angel has God’s name in him, which I dealt with above. He mentions Judges 6 but doesn’t explain much, except to say, “Yahweh and the Angel can be simultaneously – but seperately – present.” Judges 6 can be understood easily when one understands Semitic agency, where God would be acting in and through his agent so that the authors of Scripture can speak of the agent’s speech as Yahweh himself speaking and the agent’s actions as Yahweh himself acting. No postulation of a metaphysical unity between the two is necessary. He next mentions how Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is sometimes attributed to God and sometimes to the Angel of Yahweh, which is supposed to imply this metaphysical sameness. The solution to this is so simple that the fact that Heiser misses it is inexcusable. When God does a thing through an agent then surely it can be said that God did it or that the agent did it. Not only is the bringing of Israel out of Egypt attributed to God and to the angel but also to Moses {1 Sam. 12:6-8}. Should we then postulate a metaphysical relationship between Yahweh and Moses? God was acting in and through his agents (whether human or divine) and so he gets the ultimate credit, but Scripture still recognizes the role of the agents. This is why in the book of Judges Israel’s deliverance from their enemies is attributed to both Yahweh and the human judges {Judges 2:16-18}.

He next mentions Gen. 48:15-16, which reads, regarding Jacobs blessing of Josephs two sons:

May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm — may he bless these boys.

Heiser thinks that this establishes the identity of the angel of Yahweh as Yahweh himself, a sort of metaphysical sameness which he describes as “a tight fusion of the two divine beings.” But why can’t it just be understood that Jacob realizes that God’s deliverance of him from all harm was accomplished not by God’s direct involvement but rather by an agent assigned by God to protect him. He knows that ultimately God is the source of his protection, but he also knows that God accomplished it through an agent, whom he recognizes in this blessing. The singular verb bless in the phrase “may he bless” would be referring to God alone not to the angel who acted on God’s behalf.

Heiser then mentions the Rider on the Clouds of Daniel 7:13 which I will be examining in my next article, so I won’t here.

Next he references how Yahweh speaks sometimes of himself in the third person, as in Amos 4:11. This is a phenomenon known as illeism. There is a dissertation by Ervin Roderick Elledge on illeism in the Bible and in ANE literature, which is available online, which documents the widespread use of this rhetorical device among ANE gods and ANE kings, as well as in the speech of Yahweh and kings in the OT and Jesus in the NT. It really has nothing to say about whether their might be multiple persons in the Godhead.

Next he mentions the two powers in heaven doctrine of Judaism, which I will also deal with in the next article.

None of these supposed ‘evidences’ really merit the over confidence of Heiser in his assertion that orthodox Yahwism made room for a binitarian Godhead which consisted of a visible and an invisible Yahweh. Heiser never really tries to explain on too deep of a level how he conceives of the relationship between these two Yahwehs – how they are the same person but yet distinct, he just asserts it and expects his followers will accept his word for it. If Heiser wishes to view things the way he does, fine, he is free to do so. But he should tell his followers that this is just one way to see things, that there are other viable ways of explaining the data. Instead, he presents his interpretations as the only plausible way of reading the text. But as we have seen there are other alternative interpretations of these passages that are really much better than what Heiser offers.

In my next article we will examine Heiser’s interpretation of Daniel 7. Please come back.

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 3)

Melchizedek

Melchizedek is an OT figure who typically gets nominated for being a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ by Trinitarian apologists and expositors. This conclusion is usually drawn not so much from what the OT says about Melchizedek, but from what the NT book of Hebrews says regarding him. If all we had was the OT record I do not think people would be making this claim; there is nothing in the OT record to lead one to the conclusion that Melchizedek was the eternally begotten son of God. It is based largely, or even solely, on what the author of Hebrews says concerning him that has led many to this false conclusion. It is my assertion that these folk are misunderstanding the author of Hebrews. I must say though, that this belief is not universal among Trinitarians, for one can find plenty in that camp who do not see Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. In fact, when I was a Trinitarian, I myself did not hold that Melchizedek was Christ, so that my belief on this point has not changed since becoming a Unitarian.

OT Record Concerning Mechizedek

In Genesis 14, as Abram was returning from defeating the kings who had taken captive Lot and his family and other citizens of Sodom, Melchizedek is abruptly introduced into the story line as follows:

“And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. And he was priest of God Most High, and he blessed him and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of the heavens and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.  vv. 18-20

This is all we know from the OT record about Melchizedek, which is very little. We know he was the king of the city state of Salem, which would later be known as Jerusalem (see Ps. 76:2). He was a priest of the Most High God, who is identified by Abram in v. 22 as Yahweh. He met Abram, and those with him returning from the battle, with bread and wine, presumably as refreshments. He pronounced a blessing upon Abram, who then gave him a tenth of all the recovered goods. That’s it, we are given no other information concerning this man. The only other mention of Melchizedek in the OT is in Psalm 110:4, where God swears an oath to the Davidic King:

Yahweh has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, after the manner of Melchizedek.”

Here we are given one final bit of information concerning this Melchizedek, that he is a priest forever, i.e. his priesthood had no end, no one succeeded him. This passage becomes the ground upon which the author of the book of Hebrews makes a case for Messiah’s everlasting priesthood. So let’s turn our attention to Hebrews 7, for there the author draws some interesting conclusions based on this passage.

Hebrews 7

1.This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, 2. and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means ‘king of righteousness’; then also ‘king of Salem’ means ‘king of peace.’ 3. Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, having been made like the son of God he remains a priest forever.

In verses 1-2 the author gives us the exact information about Melchizedek that we saw in Gen. 14. It is in verse three that he tells us things about him which we would never have ascertained from the OT record. Can these things really be true? Melchizedek did not have a father or mother; he had no beginning of days or no end of life? And if none of this is recorded about him in the OT record, then from where did the author of Hebrews get this information? It is this verse alone which leads many to regard Melchizedek as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. But this conclusion is based on a misunderstanding of what the author of Hebrews is really saying. It is supposed that the things said about Melchizedek, i.e. “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life,” are to be understood literally and that these coincide with facts about the son of God. But to read the passage this way is to misread it. So then what exactly is the author trying to convey to his readers?

If we back up a little in the letter we see that the author has already quoted or referred to the Psalm 110:4 passage three times, in 5:6, 5:10 and 6:20. In each case he is applying it to Messiah Jesus. Let’s look first at what is meant by “the order of Melchizedek.” This is  really not a good translation, because it actually works against the author’s main point. The word ‘order‘ implies a group of people united in some way; in this case a priestly order would denote a group of people functioning in the same priestly duties. It also implies succession within the order, i.e as members die others take their place. This idea is exactly opposite of what the author of Hebrews sees in Psalm 110:4, where Melchizedek is said to be a priest forever, i.e. no one succeeded him. The Hebrew for the phrase “according to the order of” is best translated “after the manner of” (see Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary). The point is not that there is a priestly order called ‘the order of Melchizedek‘ but that whoever is being addressed in Ps. 110:4 is being appointed as a priest in similitude to Melchizedek, the sole point of comparison being that their priesthood is everlasting. This understanding of “in the order of ” is confirmed by Hebrews 7:15-16:

“And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like (Gr. homoiotes) Melchizedek appears, one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.”

So the point of the author in 7:3 is not to say Melchizedek is without father or mother, the son of God is without father or mother; Melchizedek is without genealogy, the son of God is without genealogy; etc. The only point of comparison between the two is the continuing nature of their priesthood. No one succeeded Melchizedek (based on the silence of Scripture) and no one shall succeed Jesus in his priesthood. Once again, this is substantiated by the context:

“And indeed, many are those who became priest (under the Mosaic law) because they were prevented from continuing by death. But because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood,”   vv.23-24

So what does the author mean by saying that Melchizedek was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life?” Simply put, he sees in the statement of Ps. 110:4 that Melchizedek is a priest forever, as playing off the fact that the Scripture record regarding this man is silent as to his parents, his descent, his birth or death. He does not mean for us to take these statements about Melchizedek literally, but only that the complete silence of Scripture pertaining to these facts of his life was a deliberate device, by the Spirit of God, in order to make the point later in Ps. 110:4 that the Messianic King would have an enduring priesthood. In verse 3, after delineating these aspects of Melchizedek’s life which were not written in the historical record, the text literally says of him, “having been made like the son of God.” Note that it does not say that the son of God is made like Melchizedek but that Melchizedek was made like the son of God. How was he made like the son of God in respect to his continuing priesthood? By the fact that Scripture did not record his lineage, his birth or his death. Of course, Melchizedek was born, like all other men; he had a father and mother; he had a genealogy; he died like all other men do. But the silence of Scripture regarding these facts presents his priesthood as a seeming continuous or perpetual priesthood, and in this way he was made like the son of God, who’s priesthood shall never end.

The Fourth Man In The Fire

Daniel 3:24-25 – Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellers, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. He answered and said, Lo I see four men loose and walking in the midst of the fire and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.   (KJV) 

It is easy to see how people, eager to see the son of God active in the pages of the OT, would latch on to this verse as a proof text. But this underscores the problem with simply reading one’s favorite English version and just accepting it at face value, without ever studying beyond that. If you were to check all available English versions you would find that the vast majority render this phrase as ‘like a son of the gods.’ This is true even of staunchly Trinitarian versions, like the NIV, ESV and the NASB. Have all of these versions tampered with the text to take away a clear reference to a pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God in the OT? The answer is NO! There is a simple reason why these versions read differently than the KJV – the original language demands it.

This passage in Daniel falls in the section of the book that is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The phrase in question reads in the Aramaic dameh lebar elahin. Dameh means to be like; lebar means unto a son  – there is no definite article, so it should not be translated the son. Elahin is plural and means gods (the singular form is used in the next verse with the definite article in referring to the true God). The KJV is deceptive here, whether intentional or not, to capitalize the words son and god. What the pagan king of Babylon actually said was “and the form of the fourth is like unto a son of the gods.” Think about this, how would a pagan king 600 yrs. before Jesus was born know of the 2nd person of the Trinity, if such a thing even existed. But ‘a son of the gods’ to a pagan king would just be referring to a divine-like being. What he saw in the fire with the three Hebrews was simply one of God’s angels sent to protect them from the flames. This is even explicitly stated in v. 28:

Then Nebuchadnezzar said. “Praise be to the God… who has sent his angel and delivered his servants.”

Sorry, but no pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God here.

The Captain Of Yahweh’s Army

Joshua 5:13-15 – Now when Joshua was near Jericho he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, ” but as captain of Yahweh’s army I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my lord have for his servant?” The captain of Yahweh’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. 

This is another mysterious figure who is usually put forward as a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, the son of God. This passage contains some of the typical elements which are supposed to establish this personage as either a theophany or a christophany. Just as a side note, from a Trinitarian perspective I fail to see the difference between a theophany and a christophany. The term theophany is usually reserved for what is considered a manifestation of the Father and christophany for a manifestation of the son. But if the son is fully God, as Trinitarians confess, then wouldn’t a pre-incarnate  appearance of the son be a theophany? Perhaps if they wish to distinguish between appearances of the Father and the son, they should use a different term for the Father, such as paterophany. Anyway, the typical elements which suggest a theophany or christophany in this passage are:

  1. Joshua fell to the ground and worshiped and the personage did not stop him from doing so.
  2. Joshua addressed the personage as ‘lord’.
  3. Joshua was told to remove his sandals because the place was holy.
  4. When the personage instructs Joshua (6:2-5) the text refers to him as Yahweh (v.2).

Let me say first that the passage nowhere explicitly states that this figure is Yahweh himself, whether the Father or the son. If one draws that conclusion it is based solely on the four implications above and the presupposition of Trinitarianism, or at least binitarianism. If one does not approach the text with this presupposition then the four implications can be interpreted just as easily within a Hebraic, unitarian monotheistic framework.

Now before I interpret these four implications from a biblically Hebraic framework, I want to suggest another candidate for who this personage might be. This suggestion cannot be proven absolutely, but I don’t see any obvious disqualifiers. I would like to propose that the captain of Yahweh’s army is Micheal. My reasons are these:

  1. The word translated as ‘captain’ is the Hebrew word sar (chieftain, ruler, official, captain, prince). In Daniel 10:13 & 21 Micheal is referred to by this same term. Dan. 10:13 specifically calls him “one of the chief princes” (sar).
  2. As a chief sar he would have other sarim under his authority. This is probably the same thing that is meant by archangel, in the NT.   See Jude 1:9  & Rev. 12:7
  3. Dan. 10:21 and 12:1 state that Micheal is the chief sar specifically in relation to the people of Israel.
  4. In the Joshua passage this personage is the sar of Yahweh’s army, presumably fighting for the benefit of the Israelites. The passage in Rev. 12:7 presents Micheal as commanding an army of angels.

Thus the Scriptural data concerning Micheal presents him as a chief prince (archangel) who commands an army of angels under him on behalf of Israel. This fits well the description of this figure in Joshua 5:14 as the ‘commander of Yahweh’s army.’ So assuming that this is Micheal, how would the four implications listed above be explained?

  1. Joshua did not worship this personage as God, but in keeping with the time and culture he was showing homage to a superior. This would not at all be out of place in that culture for it was quite common to demonstrate one’s honor for another of superior rank by bowing down before them. The Hebrew word translated ‘worship’ in some English versions is shachah. This word is used many times in the OT to denote proper honor or homage being given to fathers, brothers, husbands, masters of servants, officials, prophets, kings and angels. The problem is in our English versions, when translators chose to render this verb differently according to theological presuppositions. When the word is used of homage being given to men it is usually rendered simply as ‘bowed down‘, when used of God it is usually rendered ‘worship.’ Now here’s the rub. When the translators believe that a personage is a christophany they will translate the verb as ‘worship,’ thus giving the impression to the reader that the one giving the shachah believes the personage to whom he gives it to be God. This is exactly the case in this passage. Because the translators believe this figure to be a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, many versions render the verb shachah as worship rather than as bow down. The reason why Micheal (assuming this is him) does not stop Joshua from paying him homage is because he knows the proper customs of the culture and knows that Joshua is not worshiping him as if he were God. But someone will point out that in Rev. 19:10 and 22:8-9 the Apostle John offered homage (Gr. proskuneo, the Greek equivalent of shachah) to angels and the angels refused it. First, it is ludicrous to think that John was attempting to worship this angel as if he were God. Again, he was simply paying homage to one whom he considered a superior being. Perhaps the reason these angel deflected such homage was because they viewed believers in Messiah, who was now their superior, as equals, rather than inferiors. In fact they both say to John, “Do not do it, I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers…”
  2. That Joshua addressed this personage as ‘lord‘ does not imply that he considered him to be God. The Hebrew word is adon, and once again, the custom of that time and culture was to address a superior by this designation. All of the types of people I mentioned above, who properly receive shachah in the OT are also addressed by this title. In fact, they often go hand in hand, someone will bow before a superior and call them ‘adoni’ i.e. my lord, just as Joshua does here.
  3. There is one other occasion in the OT where someone is told to remove his sandals because the ground where he was standing was holy. When Moses encountered an angel of Yahweh in the burning bush in Exodus 3 he was told to remove his sandals. Of course, most Trinitarians regard that event as a theophany, some as a christophany. The fact that Moses has to remove his sandals is supposed to confirm that perspective, as does Joshua removing his sandals. But here is a question for all Trinitarians who regard these two incidents as pre-incarnate appearances of the son of God. Why would the necessity of removing one’s sandals (in these two instances only) be a proof that a personage who appears must be God, when there are many more incidents in the OT, which are regarded as christophanies, that lack this requirement? Why only on two such occasions is this required? If one wants to assert that the removal of the sandals marks these incidents as theophanies or christophanies, then he should only claim these two incidents as such and not any of the others that are usually claimed to also be so. What about Gen. 18, Judges 6 and 13, which are all asserted by Trinitarians to be pre-incarnate appearances of Christ; no one is asked to remove their sandals in these passages? What about Ex.34:4-9 where the manifestation of God’s presence came down in a cloud before Moses, yet he is not told to remove his sandals? The fact of the matter is no one is certain as to why Moses and Joshua were asked to remove their sandals on those specific occasions. Yes it was because the ground was holy. But why was the ground holy on those two occasions and not at any of the other times when angels or even God’s presence appeared?
  4. This implication may appear to be the strongest, since the text actually attributes the speech of the personage to Yahweh. But in fact this is the easiest of the four to explain. In the ancient Semitic culture when one was sent by another to convey a message on that other’s behalf, his words were regarded as the words of the one who sent him. So in this case, Micheal is sent to give instructions from Yahweh, to Joshua, on how to defeat Jericho. Therefore the author of the book attributes the speech of the messenger to Yahweh, for it is Yahweh’s word that the messenger speaks. This reminds me of the occasion in Jesus’ ministry when a centurion came to Jesus to request his help on behalf of his dying servant. This incident is recorded in two of the gospels, in Matt. 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10. Matthew presents the story as if the centurion had come to Jesus personally and made the request, but Luke tells us the fact of the matter. The centurion actually enlisted the help of some Jewish elders, whom he sent to Jesus to make the request on his behalf, because he felt himself unworthy to approach Jesus himself. Matthew was free to report the request made of Jesus as being directly from the centurion simply because the request was indeed his, although it was presented through the Jewish elders. In the same way, the authors of the OT Scriptures will often present the messages given by agents of Yahweh as being spoken directly by Yahweh.

Abraham’s Three Visitors

We will now look at the incident recorded in Genesis 18, where Abraham is visited by three men. Verses 1-2 read:

And Yahweh appeared to him (Abraham) by the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. And he looked up and behold three men were standing by him …

Here we have an explicit statement that Yahweh appeared to Abraham. Trinitarians see this as a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son because they believe that the Father cannot be seen, and so this must be God the Son, who is also Yahweh. This is the reasoning that leads them to the conclusion. But is this sound reasoning? Yes, but only if the presuppositions which lie behind it are true. They start out with the belief in a second hypostasis in Yahweh as their presupposition and based on that they interpret the fact that God has not and cannot be seen (1 Tim. 6:16) as referring to the Father only. So then any appearance of God must be God the Son. Of course it is never explained how the Son, who is equal in deity and glory to the Father, can be seen while the Father cannot. Their presupposition is not grounded upon the Hebrew Scriptures but upon Greek metaphysical concepts.

Now someone is sure to point out the Jewish belief in ‘two powers in heaven’ during the second temple period. But the Jews that postulated a second power in heaven typically identified this power as a created being, either an angelic being such as Metatron, or an exalted human such as Moses or Messiah, to whom God gives authority to rule on his behalf. But this is quite different from the idea that God generated out of his own substance another hypostasis which is equal to him. The first idea is consistent with Jewish concepts of agency, while the second idea would not have been consistent at all with the Jewish understanding of God. I doubt that any Jew, uninfluenced by Greek philosophy regarding God, would ever have agreed with such a thought. The concept of God generating out of himself a second hypostasis is consistent with Platonic thought. Philo and early church fathers like Justin were highly influenced by Platonic thought and interpreted Scripture through that grid.

Back to the passage before us. When the text says that Yahweh appeared to Abraham can this be understood in a non-literal way? I think it can and here’s why. The Hebrew word for appear is raah, which has as it’s basic meaning to see. In the Niphal stem 3rd person imperfect it means to appear. While this word does usually denote literal seeing, it does not always have that precise a meaning. For example, it is used in the command for all Israelite males “to appear before the face of the Lord Yahweh” three times a year {Ex. 23:17}. This refers to the fact that all the men were required to go to the specified place where the tabernacle (and later the temple) was set up, to keep three of the seven yearly feasts – the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks, and the feast of tabernacles. This was spoken of as appearing before Yahweh (some translations say present yourselves before Yahweh). Surely this denotes more than simply being seen by Yahweh. Did these men have to go to a specific place in order for God to see them? The sense is more that they were required to be present before the Lord at these specific times, at this specific place. We could understand Yahweh’s appearing to Abraham in the sense that he was present in the three visitors. This is in keeping with ancient Semitic thought. Let me repeat a quote that I gave in part one of this series, from the eminent Professor and Hebrew scholar Aubrey R. Johnson, in speaking of personal agents sent to transact business in the name of their lord in the ancient near east:

“In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

In other words, it is not necessary to assume a literal personal appearance of Yahweh from the word raah, but only that in some way Yahweh was representatively present; in this case in the three visitors.

We may also understand raah in a non literal sense based on God’s appearing to various people in visions and dreams. As I noted in part two of this series, visions and dreams are not actual real world events, i.e. the things being seen are not literally happening, but are images being cast upon the screen of one’s mind. Therefore, when God ‘appears’ to someone in a dream or vision he is not literally being seen by that person. What they are seeing is some representative image of God being played out in their mind. Take Jacob’s dream in Gen. 28:11-16, where Jacob is literally, in the real world, sleeping, with his head on a stone. Yet he is experiencing this dream/vision in which he sees Yahweh, presumably in the form of a man, who speaks to him. Later, in 35:1, he is told to go back to that place, Bethel, where “God appeared (raah) to you.” In v. 7 the original experience of the dream is described as when “God revealed himself to him.” Once again, in 48:3, Jacob relates this incident to Joseph saying, “God Almighty appeared (raah) to me at Luz in the land of Cannan …” Twice we are told that God appeared (raah) to Jacob but Jacob never literally saw God, he saw only a representative image of God in a dream.

Another example is in 1 Kings 3:5, “At Gibeon Yahweh appeared (raah) to Solomon  during the night in a dream.” There is no description of what form God appeared in in the dream, but probably in the form of a man. In v. 15 we read, “Then Solomon awoke and behold, it was a dream.”  In 1 Kings 9:2 we are told, “Yahweh appeared to him a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon,” i.e. in a dream. In 11:9 we are told concerning Solomon, that he “turned away from Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.” Again, in both of these passages the word is raah. So again we see that raah can describe God appearing in a non-literal way. This is how Paul can say of God in 1 Tim. 6:16, “whom no one has seen or can see.” Paul must mean that no one has or can see God literally, but to see him in a vision or dream is not to see him literally.

One final example is in Deut. 31:15, where we read: “Then Yahweh appeared at the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood above the entrance to the tent.” Again we see the word raah referring to a non- literal appearance of Yahweh. By non-literal I do not mean that something was not seen, but that what was seen was not literally Yahweh but only a representational form, in this case the pillar of cloud. When the text says he appeared “in a pillar of cloud” this should be understood as he appeared by means of a pillar of cloud.

So just as God may appear, in a non-literal way, by means of a dream or vision, or a pillar of cloud, he may also appear by means of  his personal agents a.k.a. angels. Just like Matthew could record that the centurion personally appeared before Jesus, when in fact it was others acting on the centurion’s behalf, so the author of Genesis could record that Yahweh appeared personally to Abraham, when in fact it was his authorized agents acting on his behalf. Now most who believe that a christophany is happening in Gen. 18 will at least admit that two of the three visitors are indeed angels. These two angels then leave and go to Sodom (v. 22 and 19:1) and the remaining personage, presumed to be the pre-incarnate Son, then carries on a conversation with Abraham. But I hope you can see that to read the passage that way is to read a whole lot of much later theological development back into this text. And I hope you can see that to do so is completely unnecessary in order to explain the text. The explanation I give here is much more coherent and satisfying when viewed within the cultural milieu of the ancient near east. Abraham’s three visitors were simply personal agents of Yahweh. One of them especially was given the task of personally representing Yahweh and communicating to Abraham and I believe Abraham understood this. It should be noted that no where in this entire passage is Abraham portrayed as calling this personage Yahweh; he simply refers to him as ‘my lord.’ It is the author of Genesis who attributes the speech of the messenger/agent to Yahweh.

What I have said here regarding Abraham’s three visitors applies to any and all OT occurrences of an ‘appearance’ of Yahweh. This would include such passages as Ex. 24:10-11; 33:18-34:7; Ezek. 1:25-28; 3:22-23; 8:1-4; and Dan. 10. All of these were either appearances of God in a vision or dream, or in some representational form.

To attempt to reconcile these OT appearances of Yahweh with the NT declarations that no  one has or can see God, by postulating multiple hypostases in Yahweh, one (or two if you include the Holy Spirit) which cannot be seen and one which can be seen, is both illogical and without scriptural warrant, as well as completely unnecessary.

This concludes this series. If you wish to express disagreement on any points made in this series please feel free to comment on the blog or through email.

 

Pre-Incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 2)

The Word Of Yahweh

In this part of our study I want to examine the claim that the word ‘word’ in the phrase ‘the word of the LORD (Yahweh)’ is an actual entity rather than merely that which Yahweh has spoken. The proponents of this idea hypostatize ‘the word of Yahweh‘ making it into a personal being. Hence, in the common OT phrase “the word of Yahweh came to” so and so, it is asserted that an actual entity, a personal being, has come to the person. Trinitarians have latched on to this idea in recent years, seeing it as another prop for the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. But how does this idea support those doctrines? Simply by asserting that this entity who was known as ‘the word of Yahweh’ is none other than the pre-incarnate son of God. So when it says in Gen 15:1,

“After this, the word of Yahweh came to Abraham in a vision saying …,”

we are supposed to understand that the Son of God himself came to Abraham. And because this entity, the pre-incarnate Jesus, says to Abraham in v.7,

“I am Yahweh, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land …,”

we are supposed to understand that the Son of God is Yahweh, or a part of Yahweh, or part of Yahweh’s identity, or something like that.

When I first heard this idea I thought it was laughable, and now after spending some time examining this claim, I still find it laughable, regardless of the fact that some heavy scholars have thrown their weight behind it.

The Source – The Memra

Where did this idea come from? I believe that among orthodox Christians, it derives from the more recent attempt to ground the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ in a Jewish context rather than, as has been widely thought, in a Greek philosophical context. It is an attempt to show that these doctrines were not developments within a gentile Christianity, but the natural outflow of Jewish ways of thinking about God. Some orthodox scholars believe they have found support for this proposal in the Targums (Aramaic paraphrases and expansions of the Hebrew scriptures) with the use of the word memra. It is claimed, that in the Targums, memra is used by the translators to denote the hypostatization of God’s word, i.e. God’s word is an actual entity distinct from God. One can often find today Christian apologists and Bible expositors claiming that ancient Jews believed in more than one hypostasis in God, and one of the evidences pointed to is the use of memra in the Targums. This is supposed to show that the idea of God as Trinity would not have been foreign to the Hebraic mind and was not an invention of Greek influence on gentile church fathers. The Memra is then interpreted by Christians to be a second hypostasis in God, and this second hypostasis, none other than the Son of God himself, a.k.a. God the Son, second person of the Trinity.

As I have looked into this assertion about the memra more closely than I had in the past, I have come to the conclusion that there is much misinformation being promulgated on the internet and through other means regarding the memra. I am not saying that it is being done on purpose, but people are to quick to jump on the bandwagon without sufficient investigation. There is an eagerness in many to find grounding for the Trinity in ancient Hebrew sources that causes them to too easily accept misinformation as truth.

So let’s look at some facts regarding the use of the word memra in the Targums. Memra is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew ma’amar, from the verb amar, which means ‘to say’. Both nouns refer to that which is spoken and can denote ‘a word’ ‘a command’ or ‘a decree’. As I have read some scholarly papers on the subject of memra  in the Targums, it has become quite obvious that much of what is being put out in popular internet apologetics websites and blogs is way overblown and simply does not match the actual data found in the Targums. To prove this I will be quoting extensively from one main source, an article published by Cambridge University Press in the Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan. 1922) pp.41-85. The article is titled Intermediaries in Jewish Theology: Memra, Shekinah, Metatron, by George Foot Moore. Dr Moore was an eminent scholar in his day who wrote numerous books on the Old Testament and the history of religion, as well as a Presbyterian minister.

To substantiate the credentials of Prof. Moore I quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica website regarding him:

“American Old Testament scholar, theologian and Orientalist, whose knowledge and understanding of the rabbinic source literature was extraordinary among Christians.

Graduated from Yale College in 1872 and from Union Theological seminary in 1877…He was Hitchcock professor of the Hebrew language and literature at Andover Theological Seminary, 1883-1902. In 1902 he became professor of theology and in 1904 professor of the history of religion at Harvard University.

Prof. Moore, in his day, put his finger on the underlying rationale for the investigation of Christians into ancient Jewish literature:

“As was pointed out in a former article in this Review, the material that was diligently collected to prove that Jewish theology made a place for a being (or beings) of divine nature through whose mediation the ends of the Supreme God were effectuated in the world of nature and of men as they were in Christian theology by the Son and Spirit, has more recently been appropriated to prove that Jewish theology, unlike Christian, interposed intermediaries between God and the world, rendered necessary by it’s ‘transcendent’ idea of God, of which error, conversely, the invention of such intermediaries is the proof. Christian investigation and discussion of the terms Memra and Shekinah have thus in all stages been inspired and directed by a theological motive, and the results come around in a circle to the theological prepossessions from which they set out.”      p. 42

One of the chief misconceptions regarding the use of memra in the Targums is that the phrases ‘the memra of Yahweh’ and ‘the memra of God’ are translations of the OT phrases ‘the word (Heb. dabar) of Yahweh’ and ‘ the word of God’. An example is on the website jaymack.net, in an article titled The Memra of God the author says:

“Whenever the Tanakh used the word Davar, the Aramaic used the word Memra.”

But this turns out to be exactly wrong, as Prof. Moore, who knew the literature firsthand, explains:

“To dispel misunderstandings at the outset, we may begin by showing when and how memra is not used. First, then, ‘the memra of the Lord’ in the Targums is not employed as the Aramaic equivalent of the ‘word of the Lord’ (dabar YHWH) in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew dabar, in all senses and uses, is customarily rendered in the Targums by pitgama. The ‘word of the Lord’ or ‘of God’ is pitgama de YHWH (e.g. Gen. 15:1), not memra de YHWH; and similarly in ‘my word,’ ‘thy word,’ ‘his word,’ when the pronouns refer to God. The word of the Lord to a prophet is pitgama nebu’a, a word of prophecy, e.g. Hosea 1:1, ‘the word of prophecy from before YHWH which was with Hosea’ … Therefore, wherever the ‘word of the Lord’ is the medium or instrumentality of revelation, or of communication to men, in Greek logos or rhema, the term employed for this medium in the Targums is not memra , but pitgama…” pp.45-46 (emphasis in the original)

Another misconception is that the Targums actually present the memra as a personal being. Again, I will quote from the article on jaymack.net :

“First, the rabbis taught that the Memra was a person.”

Now if he means to say that the Targums taught this, and that must be what he means because the Jewish Encyclopedia states that “rabbinic theology, outside of the Targum literature, made little use of the term ‘Memra,'” then once again, he has got it wrong. In the Targums the phrases ‘the memra of the Lord,’ ‘the memra of God,’ ‘my memra,’ ‘his memra,’ etc. are used as metonyms for ‘the Lord’ or ‘God’ . The authors of the Targums substituted these memra phrases for God himself. Nowhere do the Targums teach that ‘the Memra’ is a hypostasis or person, in the sense of a second hypostasis within the Godhead. Prof. Moore enlightens us here:

“The sum of the whole matter is that nowhere in these Targums is memra a ‘being’ of any kind or in any sense, whether conceived personally as an angel employed in communication with men, or as a philosophically impersonal created potency … or God himself in certain modes of self-manifestation … The appearance of personality which in many places attaches to the memra is due solely to the fact that the phrase ‘the memra of Y.,’ or, with pronouns referring to God, My, Thy, His, memar is a circumlocution for ‘God,’ ‘the Lord,’ or the like, introduced out of motives of reverence precisely where God is personally active in the affairs of men; and the personal character of this activity necessarily adheres to the periphrasis. The very question whether the memra is personal or impersonal implies, from the philological point of view, a misunderstanding of the whole phenomenon; and every answer to a false question is by that very fact false.”       pp.53-54

“It is an error of equal dimensions, when, in association with the Christian doctrine of the Logos and by abuse of a technical term of Christian theology, the Memra is described as a ‘hypostasis.’ … and to employ this term, with it’s denotation and all of it’s trinitarian connotations, of the supposed personal, or quasi-personal, ‘Memra’ of the Targums, is by implication to attribute to the rabbis corresponding metaphysical speculations on the nature of the Godhead. But of speculation on that subject there is no trace either in the exoteric teaching of Judaism or in anything we know of it’s esoteric, theosophic, adventures into the divine mysteries.”   p.55

Once again we see how popular misconceptions are being put forth as fact, and are then used to support the doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Christian apologists are reading what they want to see into the use of memra in the Targums. You can often find in Christain literature on this subject statements like the following: “The Targums use the word Memra to describe a person whom they say is the creator of the world.” They will then go on to lead the reader to the false conclusion that this person is the pre-incarnate Messiah. Yes, personal actions are attributed to ‘the memra of the Lord’, but that is because the phrase is used as a substitute for ‘the Lord.’ To understand ‘the memra‘ as a hypostasis distinct from God is to misunderstand it’s usage in the Targums. Regarding it’s usage in the Targums let’s hear what Prof. Moore has to say:

“We have now surveyed the various uses of memra in the Targums of the Pentateuch and the Prophets… Most of the uses of the word are easily explicable in their contexts in the light of the ends and methods of the synagogue interpretation. If analogy, or some subtlety of interpretation that escapes us, has sometimes introduced it on less obvious occasions, these are exceptions which need cause us neither surprise nor perplexity. The inquiry must set out from the common and plain uses; and our conclusions must be drawn from them, not from the residuum, if there be such, of unexplained occurrences. Proceeding in this way we find that God’s memra has sometimes the connotation of command — we might in imitation of the etymology say ‘edict’ — the expression of his will which is an effective force in nature and providence; sometimes it might be best translated ‘oracle,’ the revelation of his will or purpose (not, however, a specific word of prophecy); sometimes it is the resolution of a metaphor for God’s power, his protection, and the like. In many instances it is clearly introduced as a verbal buffer — one of many such in the Targums — to keep God from seeming to come to too close quarters with men and things; but it is always a buffer-word, not a buffer-idea; still less a buffer-person.                                                                                                                                            pp.52-53

Also instructive is his footnote #24:

“It is to be observed that memra does not occur without a genitive — ‘the word of the Lord,’ ‘my word,’ etc., or a circumlocution for the genitive, ‘a memar from before the Lord.’The Memra,’ ‘the word,’ is not found in the Targums, notwithstanding all that is written about it by authors who have not read them.”

This statement refutes yet another misconception that I have seen among those who promote this idea. The fact that the phrase ‘the Memra‘, as a stand alone, never occurs in the Targums is certainly damaging to the proposal that memra is being used to denote a hypostasis who is at once Yahweh and distinct from Yahweh.

From what Prof. Moore relates in this article it appears that in the majority of passages in the Targums where memra is used it is an addition to the Hebrew text by the Targum author. In other words, in the majority of instances memra is not translating some word in the Hebrew text but is simply added in, with nothing corresponding to it in the Hebrew. Dr. Moore gives numerous examples but here are just a few. In Numbers 21:5 the Hebrew reads: “The people spoke against God and against Moses.” In the Targum it reads: “The people murmured against the word (memra) of Yahweh and contended against Moses.” The Hebrew of Deut. 32:51 reads: “Because you proved false to me in the midst of the Israelites,” whereas in the Targum, “because you proved false to my word (memra).” One last example, in Gen. 20:3, where the Hebrew has: “God came to Abimelech in a dream in the night and said to him.” The Targum reads: “A word (memar) from before Yahweh came to Abimelech …”

One final point on the Targums and other Jewish sources such as the Talmud. It seems that some Christian scholars and apologists who are eager to find support for the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and deity of Messiah in these Jewish sources are also all too eager to attribute some level of authority to them that is unwarranted. But should we really be putting all of that stock in these sources for a grounding for our doctrine? My first objection is this — who gave these rabbis the authority to add words to the Scriptures or to change the words of Scripture? For example Ex. 16:3 says,”The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by Yahweh’s hand in Egypt.'” Yet the Targum reads, “If only we had died by the word (memra) of Yahweh in the land of Mizraim.” I ask every Christian, especially those of the Protestant tradition, is this ok with you? And why should we think that these Jewish authors should be taken as authoritative? Even if they did teach that ‘the memra‘ was a distinct hypostasis ( the nearly unanimous conclusion of scholars in this field is that the memra is not regarded as a hypostasis in the Targums) why should we believe that? Jews are not automatically immune from misunderstanding their own Scriptures, are they? I think that the NT clearly demonstrates that to not be the case.

The Communication Of God

Before we take a closer look at the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in the OT, I want to lay some ground work concerning how Scripture tells us that God has communicated with his people throughout history. I have discerned, in Scripture, four different means by which God has communicated his message to the prophets and the patriarchs.

  1. Visions – Often God’s message would come by means of a vision. A vision occurs when the mind of the visionary is thrown out of it’s normal state and mental images are impressed upon it. A vision is not an actual real time event; what is being seen in a vision is not actually happening in the real world. We know this from certain instances in Scripture where people have had visions. For example, in Acts 10:9-16 Peter is up on a roof praying when suddenly he finds himself in a trance and has a vision of a sheet being let down from the sky by it’s four corners. The sheet is filled with all kinds of unclean animals. Is this actually occurring in the real world? Can others who are nearby see this huge sheet coming out of the sky to earth? Or is Peter alone privy to this revelation? The images that Peter sees are only mental, cast upon the screen of his mind like a movie upon a theater screen. In Acts 12: 1-11 we find the story of when Peter was arrested by Herod and put in the prison. That night an angel comes and frees him from his prison cell. Now this was not a vision but a real time event, but Luke tells us something interesting in verse 9, “Peter followed him (the angel) out of the prison,but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision.”   The person seeing the vision is also often part of the vision. In Daniel 8:2 Daniel has a vision and describes it like this: “And I saw  in a vision, and it happened that I saw that I was in the citadel of Susa, in the province of Elam; and I saw in the vision that I was by the river Ulai.” Some suggest that Daniel was transported from where he was to this location, but this is unwarranted. That he was seeing images in his mind and not actual real world events is confirmed by the remainder of the chapter where he describes what he saw. Clearly these things were not actually taking place. The Lord would often use visions to communicate his word, his message, to the prophets.
  2. Dreams – Dreams are simply visions that one has while asleep. We easily recognize that dreams are not actual reality but just images being played out in the mind.
  3. Heavenly messengers – Sometimes God would send angelic messengers to convey his word to the prophet.  See Dan. 8:15-19; Joshua 5:13-15; Gen. 16:7-12
  4. Audible voice – See Num. 7:89; 1 Sam. 3:2-11; 1 Kings 19:13; Lk. 9:34-36

These are the ways in which God has conveyed his messages to his prophets. Sometimes the text will specify by which of these ways a specific message came to a specific prophet, but many times the means of communication is not disclosed to us in Scripture. In some of those instances we can discern from the context what means was used; in other instances we cannot.

Dismantling The Myth

In a recent podcast interview dealing with the roots of the Trinity and Christology in the religions of ancient Canaan and Israel, Dr. Micheal Heiser was queried by the host concerning ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in the OT being a visual experience rather than a mere verbal or spoken phenomenon.  His answer was as follows:

“I would never say that every time you run into the phrase ‘the word of the Lord’ in the OT that were dealing with a visual event. But there are certainly a number of instances where you are dealing with a visual event because the text pretty much says that point blank… In Gen. 15 you get, ‘After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.’ The profound moment there is realizing that, hey visions, those are things you see. Visions aren’t invisible, they’re visions. OK, you see things in visions. Here we have the word of the Lord coming visually. You get it in 1 Sam. 3… if you look at what the passage actually says … ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days, there was no frequent vision.’ And visions are things that you see. Verse 7, ‘the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to Samuel,’ again you get vision language. Verse 10, Yahweh comes and he stands, the Lord came and stood… so you wouldn’t describe an invisible thing or a sound in your head as standing. This is the language of a visual experience. The chapter ends… the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, the Lord revealed himself to Samuel as the Word of the Lord. Then in Jeremiah you have the same kind of language…”

This is typical of what one will hear from the proponents of the thesis that ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is an actual being and not simply the conveyance of a message from Yahweh to a person. Because something visual is happening in the context of Gen. 15 this is supposed to be evidence that we should regard ‘the word of Yahweh‘ as an actual entity who appeared to Abram. Personally, I find this kind of exegesis to be inane and not worthy of the kind of attention it seems to be getting in some circles.

The first point I want to make in dismantling this myth is the same point I made in Part 1 of this series regarding the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ The phrase with which we are now dealing is the same construction as that phrase, i.e. a construct state. Because ‘Yahweh‘ is a personal noun and is therefore definite, the first noun in the phrase must be translated as definite (if you have not read Part 1 please do so to fully understand this point). But just because the word ‘word‘ in the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is grammatically or technically definite, it does not have to be so on a practical level. In other words, it does not mean that every time we see the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ that it is referring to the same ‘word.’ In fact, every first mention of the ‘word of Yahweh‘ in any given passage can be translated as ‘a word from Yahweh.’ This by itself, knocks the legs out from under the proposition that ‘the word of Yahweh’ is a personal entity who appeared to the prophets, and the same personal entity every time, i.e. the pre-incarnate son of God.

In the quote above, Dr. Heiser mentions the three main passages which are put forward as proof texts by the proponents of this thesis — Genesis 15, 1 Samuel 3 and Jeremiah 1. Let’s take a look at 1 Samuel 3 first. Dr. Heiser, in the above quote, makes much of the supposed visual aspect of Samuel’s first encounter with Yahweh. This is supposedly confirmed by the use of the word ‘visions’ in v. 1, ‘revealed’ in v. 7, the phrase ‘the Lord came and stood’ in v. 10, the word ‘vision’ in v. 15, and the phrase ‘the Lord continued to appear’ in v. 21. The phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ appears three times in the chapter. Dr. Heiser wants us to believe that ‘the Word of Yahweh‘ is an actual entity that was seen by Samuel. Can this be substantiated simply by the use of the words and phrases just noted? If you read the passage carefully you will see that, besides the words and phrases noted, there is nothing in the narrative to suggest that Samuel actually saw anything. Samuel hears Yahweh calling to him in vv. 4-10. When Samuel responds with “speak, for your servant is listening,” v. 11 begins “And Yahweh said to him.” We are never told that Samuel saw Yahweh or some other entity. Dr. Heiser and others, have fixated on the visual language in vv. 1,7,10,15, and 21, and are assuming based on this that Samuel’s experience was a visual one.

Let’s take v. 10 first. That “the Lord came and stood” does not have to mean that he was visible, only that he was present in some sense, i.e. Yahweh was in the room. This is similar to Ex. 17:6, where Yahweh instructed Moses to strike the rock at Horeb and promised him “I will stand there before you by the rock.” Nothing in the context indicates that Yahweh was seen. This was probably just a reassurance for Moses that God would be there with him. So also here, the text never says that Samuel saw Yahweh or ‘the word of Yahweh,’ neither does it say that ‘the word of Yahweh’ appeared to Samuel. What the text does say is that Samuel simply heard the word that Yahweh was speaking to him.

In verse 1 the phrase “there was no widespread vision” is synonymous with the preceding phrase “the word of the Lord was rare.” The word ‘vision’ there in the Hebrew text is chazon, which, although it can mean something that is seen, can mean simply a revelatory communication, without a visual connotation. For example take Psalm 89:19-20:

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: “I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have exalted a young man from among the people. I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.”

When did God say this? There is nothing in Scripture prior to this Psalm that coincides with this statement. What we have here is an inspired, poetic extrapolation of either 1 Sam. 16:1-13, where Samuel is instructed by God to anoint David, the son of Jesse as king; or of 2 Sam. 7:4-17 where God sends Nathan to David with a message of promise to him and his descendants forever. In neither of these incidents do the contexts reveal anything that was visual, we are simply told that words were communicated to the prophets. In the 2 Sam. passage, v. 4 can be translated, ‘a message from Yahweh came to Nathan’ and then we are given that messageIn verse 17 we read that “Nathan reported to David all the words of this vision.” The word ‘vision’ here  (Heb. chizzayon) is a synonym of chazon, which is used in the paralell passage in 1 Chron. 17:15 in place of chizzayon. The point is, there is no hint of anything visual taking place in these passages. Words which denote visual activity can be used metaphorically to simply denote verbal revelation. 2 Sam.7:17 can be understood as “Nathan reported to David  all the words of this revelation.” All languages use words of ‘seeing’ in this way. In English we might say “I don’t see what you are saying,” or “I have come to see ” and everyone understands we are not being literal in the use of the word ‘see.’ So the use of these ‘vision’ words is not at all conclusive that the young Samuel had a visual encounter rather than a merely verbal one. The same thing can be said of the ‘vision’ word in verse 15, which is a different word in Hebrew (mar’ah).

Now in v. 7 the word ‘revealed’  (Heb. galah) means to uncover and is used of the  uncovering of hidden information by means of verbal communication in numerous passages. The verse means that Samuel, prior to this event, had never received communication from Yahweh as a prophet. And finally in verse 21, that Yahweh continued to ‘appear’ in Shiloh does not necessarily mean that Samuel’s initial encounter was visual. The word is raah and often denotes the idea of ‘presenting oneself’ to another. That Yahweh can present himself to someone as being present with them, without actually appearing visibly, but simply by verbal communication, should be obvious.

Let’s look now at the Genesis 15 passage. In verse 1 we read:

“After this, the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision …”

Here we are explicitly told the means by which God communicated his message to Abram, i.e. in a vision. I understand the initial vision to be in v. 1 -9. Then in vv. 10-11 Abram obeys the instruction he was given. In v. 12 Abram  falls into a deep sleep and the remainder of the chapter is a second vision, or rather a dream. Going back to the earlier discussion about visions being mental rather than actual, physical, real world events, we can better understand what is happening in this story. All that Abram is experiencing in this vision is purely mental — the being taken outside by Yahweh in v. 5, the smoking firepot and torch in v. 17.  In this vision it is possible that Abram is seeing Yahweh in some representative form. Yahweh used this means to communicate to Abram his covenant promise to him and his descendants. Nothing in the context requires us to understand ‘the word of Yahweh‘ in v. 1 as an entity, a personal being. This is confirmed by v. 4, which repeats the phrase again. But if this entity came to Abram in v. 1 then he was already there; why does the narrative have him coming again in v. 4. But if we understand it as Yahweh message coming to Abram then it makes sense. In v. 1 he receives a message and then in v. 4 he receives a different message. To see this as an entity distinct from Yahweh is pure fiction.

The next passage I want to examine is Jeremiah chapter 1. The thought goes like this: In v. 4 ‘the word of Yahweh‘ comes to Jeremiah and then in v. 9 Yahweh reaches out his hand to touch his mouth. So the ‘word’ can’t be a mere verbal phenomenon, because a message can’t be said to ‘reach out his hand.’ I’m sorry, I don’t want to be unkind, but this way of reading the text borders on infantile. Verse 1 should be understood as ‘a message from Yahweh came to me saying.” Remember back under the section The Communication Of God I noted the four means that God used to communicate his word to the prophets. I also noted that sometimes the text is ambivalent as to which means is being used, whereas sometimes it is explicitly stated. In this case we are not told explicitly how ‘the message of Yahweh’ came to Jeremiah, but the context aids us in discerning how. As we read through the rest of the chapter it becomes clear that Jeremiah is experiencing a vision. He is asked in vv. 11 and 13, “What do you see?” In the first instance he sees a branch from an almond tree and in the second a boiling pot tilting away from the north. These are clearly mental images he is seeing and not actual physical objects. Likewise v. 9 should be understood not as a physical phenomenon but as mental. In this vision he sees a representation of Yahweh, possibly as a man, who reaches out his hand and touches  him. I will note that the text does not say  “then the word of Yahweh reached out his hand,” but simply “Yahweh reached out his hand.” But this does not stop the proponents of this myth from saying exactly that.

Also we encounter the same thing in this text that we saw in Gen. 15, that the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came‘ is repeated in v. 11 and again in v. 13. Once again, if this is an entity who arrived on the scene in v. 4 why is he arriving again in v. 11 and again in v, 13? It makes no sense unless we understand it of different messages being communicated to Jeremiah at different stages of the vision.

The next point is that the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to __________’ seems to simply be an idiomatic expression meaning something like ‘a message from Yahweh was given to so and so.’ Again, this should be obvious but apparently not. This can be proved easily by it’s usage. I would note first, in 1 Sam. 4:1, immediately following the 1 Sam. 3 passage we examined above, we find the same expression used of Samuel himself:

“And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.”

Are we to conclude that ‘the word of Samuel‘ is a entity distinct from Samuel but somehow still Samuel? Of course, no one would think something so ridiculous as that, but that is exactly what they are doing who claim the same thing about ‘the word of Yahweh.’ 

Now let’s go back to Jeremiah and see if we can follow the usage of this phrase throughout the book. Because the phrase appears so often in Jeremiah, we should be able to glean some helpful data from it. In Chapter one I want you to take note of how ‘the word of Yahweh came to me’ is substituted by other phrases, so that there is this back and forth between phrases. V. 4 contains our phrase, but v. 7 says simply ‘Yahweh said to me.” Our phrase occurs again at v. 11 but then in v. 12 simply ‘Yahweh said to me.’ This pattern is repeated in vv. 13-14. This is strong evidence that the two phrases are synonymous and if so then the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to me‘ is to be regarded as verbal communication and not a physical, visual phenomenon.

In chapters 7:1 and 11:1 we find another phrase which is also synonymous with our study phrase, ‘The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh‘. Note the similarities and the differences between this phrase and our study phrase. It is only rational to see the two phrases as meaning the same thing. 14:1 makes it even more clear:

“The word of Yahweh to Jeremiah concerning the drought.”

Clearly ‘the word of Yahweh‘ here is nothing but the message of Yahweh, specifically about the drought that was then occurring.

Chapter 13 is also illustrative of how our study phrase is simply one of various ways the authors of Scripture used to express the same thought, i.e. that Yahweh communicated a message to one of his prophets. In v. 1 we have “This is what Yahweh said to me,” followed by the message in v. 2. Then in v. 3 our study phrase shows up, but with a surprise: “The word of Yahweh came to me a second time saying.” The meaning of “a second time” can only be referring back to v. 1 saying, “This is what Yahweh said to me.” Thus once again, we see that our study phrase is used interchangeably with a phrase which is clearly verbal in nature and not visual. In all of these contexts it is messages that are being communicated to the prophet.

Throughout the rest of the book the different phrases are used interchangeably. In 16:1 it is “the word of Yahweh came to me,” but in 17:19 “this is what Yahweh said to me.” In 18:1 we see “The word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh,” but in 19:1, “This is what Yahweh says.”  Verse 21:1 has “the word that came to Jeremiah from Yahweh,” and then 22:1 has “This is what Yahweh says.”  Verse 25:1 has “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning,” while in v. 15 “This is what Yahweh, the God of Israel said to me.” Verse 26:1 says, “this word came from Yahweh” and in 27:1 “This word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh.”  In chapter 44:1 we have again “The word that came to Jeremiah concerning.” In 46:1 and 47:1 we read, “The word of Yahweh that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning.” The phrases which include the word ‘concerning’ surely prove that we are dealing with a message that is being communicated and not a divine entity showing up.

My next point is that if you were to substitute the phrase ‘the pre-incarnate son of God‘ for ‘the word of Yahweh,’ for this is the claim being made, you will, in many cases, see the ridiculousness of this assertion. Take 1 Sam. 3:1:

“… In those days the word of Yahweh was rare.”

Could we read this as, “In those days the pre-incarnate of the son of God was rare.” Or how about  v. 7:

“Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh. The word of Yahweh had not been revealed to him.”

Could we read this as, “The pre-incarnate son of God had not been revealed to him.” I am sure you can see the absurdity of this way of thinking.

Let’s Recap

Here are the main points I have argued in this article:

  1. It cannot be substantiated that the word memra in the Targums is regarded by the authors as a hypostasis. This seems to be simply the wishful thinking of those who are intent on finding support for the Trinity and Deity of Messiah in ancient Jewish sources. Since the memra seems to be the source of the proposal that the OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ should be understood as a divine hypostasis, this point greatly weakens that hypothesis.
  2. God communicated his word to the prophets through four means: visions, dreams, angelic messengers and audible voice. Whenever the means is not explicitly stated in the context of any given passage, it could be by any one of these four ways. Visions (as well as dreams) are merely images being played out in the mind of the visionary and are not real, actual, physical events.
  3. The OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is a construct state, and while it is technically definite (i.e. the word) it can and should be understood practically as indefinite (i.e. a word) according to context.
  4. In the three main passages, which are used as proof texts by the proponents of the idea that ‘the word of Yahweh‘ is a divine hypostasis, nothing in the context of these passages actually confirms that idea. Everything is easily explained according to God’s normal means of communication.
  5. The OT phrase ‘the word of Yahweh came to _____’ is an idiomatic expression meaning something like ‘a message from Yahweh was given to _____’ This was proved by it’s usage in 1 Sam. 4:1 and throughout the book of Jeremiah.
  6. One cannot substitute the phrase ‘the pre-incarnate son of God’ for the phrase ‘the word of Yahweh‘ without it resulting in absurdity in most cases.

 

In part three we will look at Melchizedek and other supposed OT appearances of the son of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-incarnate Appearances Of The Son Of God In The OT – Truth Or Myth (Part 1)

Ever since the time of the early Christian apologist Justin (middle of the second century), it has been a popular trend among apologists, Bible commentators, pastors and teachers, to claim that Jesus, the son of God, can be seen to be actively at work in the pages of the Old Testament. This, of course, would be prior to his becoming a man in his birth from the virgin Mary, hence these instances are usually referred to as ‘pre-incarnate appearances of Christ’. This idea obviously grows out of the belief that Jesus existed prior to his birth in Bethlehem, either as God himself or as some kind of divine being. If one denies that Jesus the Messiah pre-existed his birth then he has no motivation to find in the OT, instances of  his ‘pre-incarnate appearances’. Trinitarians are more inclined than others to see these ‘pre-incarnate appearances’, and by pointing them out, hope to bolster the doctrines of the Trinity and Deity of Christ. But it must be pointed out that even if one could prove that Jesus did exist and appeared to men, prior to his proper incarnation, this would not ipso facto be proof of the Trinity or of the proper deity of Jesus. At best it would only prove that he existed in some form prior to his birth as man. The early Logos theorists, such as the Justin mentioned above, Arians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and others throughout Christian history, have believed that the son of God existed and made appearances to men prior to his becoming a man, but would not classify him as the true God himself, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

There are a number of mysterious figures that appear in the OT which are claimed to be ‘pre-incarnate appearances of Christ’ (i.e. Christophanies). We will, in this study, examine the ones most commonly used by the promoters of this idea:

  1. The Angel of Yahweh
  2. The Word of Yahweh
  3. Melchizedek

The Angel Of The Lord

Much discussion has been had over this mysterious figure in the OT throughout the centuries, with most of the ‘orthodox’ considering his appearance a Christophany. Yet it must be stated categorically that there is no explicit or unambiguous statement in either the OT or the NT that equates the ‘Angel of the Lord’ with Jesus, the son of God. This indeed is astounding when one considers the nearly universal acceptance of this figure as Jesus himself. So how is this to be accounted for. One reason is that the identification of this angel with Jesus is very ancient, going back to the aforementioned Justin, in the middle of the second century (he was the first to assert this idea). Subsequent church fathers followed his lead in this and for many within orthodoxy today these early church fathers are sacrosanct, and their writings are, at least on a subconscious level, considered nearly inspired. For many in the orthodox camp the more ancient a belief the more reliable it is and so it should be unquestionably accepted as truth. This is what is known as tradition. But the fact that the NT is absolutely silent regarding this ‘angel of the Lord’ (well not completely, as we will see) and no where unequivocally teaches that Jesus was actively appearing to people in the OT (notwithstanding 1 Cor. 10:4 & 9 and Jude 5, which have textual problems and are ambiguous), should provide a caution, as we proceed, against the unquestioning acceptance of this tradition.

Because of the lack of explicit biblical statements on this topic one must find scriptural support by inference. This is usually done as follows:

  1. The angel of the Lord often appears as Yahweh himself, speaking in the first person. E.g. Genesis 16:10; Ex. 3:1-15; Judges 2:1-5.
  2. Yet the NT says that no one has ever seen God, which is assumed to mean the Father – 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John 4:12
  3. So then the angel of the Lord must be appearances of God the Son.

Now there are some serious flaws in this line of reasoning, which we will examine shortly. But before we do I want to first look at the issue of whether or not each time the ‘angel of the Lord’ is mentioned it is actually referring to one and the same specific individual being. If it can be shown that this is not the case, then the proposition that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is the pre-incarnate son of God is seriously weakened.

Arthrous or Anarthrous

The whole argument for the ‘angel of the Lord’ being a Christophany depends on the presupposition that this phrase is a designation belonging to one specific individual entityevery. This presupposition depends largely on the inclusion of the definite article (i.e. the word ‘the‘) before the word angel. The inclusion of the definite article before a noun makes that noun arthrous, i.e. with the article. The absence of the definite article before a noun makes that noun anarthrous, i.e. without the article. An arthrous noun would be more specific – the angel, whereas an anarthrous noun would be more general – an angel. The problem is, that with some languages such as ancient Hebrew, the definite article does not necessarily have to be explicit in the text, but is sometimes implied by the grammatical relationship of the words in a sentence. There was no indefinite article in either Hebrew or Greek, so a noun that is anarthrous in the text could be translated as either indefinite (a or an) or definite (the), by implication. Of course when the article is explicit in the text it must be translated as so. So, in the OT, in the Hebrew underlying the English phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’, is the noun angel arthrous or anarthrous?

There is in Hebrew what is known as the construct state. This is when two nouns are joined together in a construct relationship. The first noun is the construct noun and the second is the absolute noun. This forms a genitive construction and so the word ‘of‘ is placed between the nouns. This is the precise construction we have in the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ In Hebrew we have malak YHWH which literally translated is angel YHWH. Because this is a genitive construction denoting possession we get angel of Yahweh. The rule is that the definiteness or indefiniteness of the construct noun, here angel, is determined by the definiteness or indefiniteness of the absolute noun, here Yahweh. Now because all proper nouns are definite, and Yahweh being a proper noun,  the correct grammatical translation would be ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ But this in no way means that a Hebrew reader would have understood every instance of the phrase to be referring to the same specific being, as if ‘the angel of Yahweh’ was a title designating one specific individual. That the definiteness of the word angel just does not have to mean this is easily proved. First of all, it is noted by Hebrew scholars that when the construct state includes a proper name (Yahweh) as the absolute, though technically the construct noun would be definite, in actual understanding it can be considered indefinite, depending on the context. This is because there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh‘ since Yahweh is always definite and therefore the construct noun preceding it is always technically definite. But if the context requires it, then the grammatically correct definite noun should be understood as indefinite. In Exodus 10:9 we find the Hebrew phrase hag YHWH = feast YHWH = the feast of Yahweh. It is grammatically correct to translate feast as definite for the construction requires it, but it is not necessary to understand it as definite. In fact every English translation I checked renders this phrase as ‘a feast of the Lord.’ This is because the context clearly requires it be indefinite. Up to this point in the story in Exodus there has been no mention of any feast of Yahweh. If ‘the feast of Yahweh’ was referring to a specific feast, which one? Later in Exodus, Yahweh establishes seven feasts for Israel to keep, but up to this point no such feast has been mentioned; this is obviously a general feast, unconnected to the seven feasts established later. This is why English  translators are nearly unanimous in translating it as ‘a feast of the Lord.” Also the Jewish translators of the LXX (the Greek version of the OT) rendered feast as indefinite in this passage.

Now let’s look at another example. In Deut. 22:19 we have in Hebrew bethulah Yisrael = virgin Israel = the virgin of Israel. Are we to assume from this that there is one specific virgin in Israel who is designated as ‘the virgin of Israel.’ No, of course not. Once again, although virgin is technically definite because of the grammatical construction, it clearly should be understood as indefinite. In the context of the passage it refers to any virgin in Israel to whom the aforementioned circumstances apply. All English versions and the LXX render virgin as indefinite.

Now let’s look at examples where even though the English versions translate a construct noun as definite in a phrase, it cannot possibly be understood to be referring to one and the same individual person in every instance that phrase occurs. Take the Hebrew phrase ebed YHWH = servant YHWH = the servant of Yahweh. If what the proponents of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ being one specific individual person say is true, because of the definiteness of the word angel, then the same must apply here, for it is the exact same construction. But is this the case? Obviously not, for the OT tells us of various people who were so designated:

  • mosheh ebed YHWH = Moses the servant of Yahweh – Deut. 34:5
  • yehoshua ebed YHWH = Joshua the servant of Yahweh – Joshua 24:29
  • lebed Yahweh ledawid = of David the servant of Yahweh – Ps. 18:1

No one would conclude that Moses, Joshua and David were all the same individual person because they were each designated ‘the servant of Yahweh.’  We also see the paralell phrase used by Yahweh himself, “my servant.” Surely whoever Yahweh calls ‘my servant‘ must be ‘the servant of Yahweh.’ Yet the phrase ‘my servant’ is applied to:

  • Abraham – Gen 26:24
  • All Israelites – Lev. 25:42
  • Caleb – Numbers 14:24
  • The future Messiah – Is. 42:1
  • Zerubbabel – Haggai 2:23
  • all prophets – Ez. 38:17

It seems to me that one of the reasons that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is taken as a single individual is because whenever there is an appearance of the angel of the Yahweh there is no proper name given to him, as in the case with ‘the servant of Yahweh.’ But it must be remembered that in all of Scripture only two names of angels are ever given, Michael and Gabriel, yet there is said to be myriads of angels. It just doesn’t seem to be the norm to give the names of God’s celestial messengers when they appear, probably because they are not coming in their own name but in the name of Yahweh. If it had been common practice for these divine messengers to give their names when appearing then we might not be having this discussion because we would have seen that more than one specific messenger was being designated by the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh. But the lack of proper names for each messenger of Yahweh has aided in the misconception that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is referring to a single individual messenger.

One last example is found in Judges 13:6 and 2 Chron. 25:7 where we find the phrase ish haelohim = man the god = the man of God. Because the word elohim  has the definite article prefixed, the construct noun should technically be rendered ‘the man’ i.e. it is grammatically correct to translate it so. Yet, once again all English versions and the LXX render the word man, in these passages, as indefinite. Why? Because the context demands it. In the context of Judges 13, Manoah’s wife tells him for the first time about a man of God that came to her. In most languages this would be expressed by an indefinite noun. If I approach someone to tell them about a speeding ticket I got last week I wouldn’t begin by saying, “I was stopped by the police officer last week for speeding,” but rather, “I was stopped by a police officer.” (By the way, I did not really get a ticket last week). In the context of the 2 Chron. passage, the man of God is being introduced into the story for the first time in verse 7, and so it is proper to understand the noun man as indefinite. Also, as with the phrase ‘the servant of Yahweh’, the definite phrase ‘the man of God’ is applied to multiple persons:

  • Moses – Deut. 33:1
  • Elisha – 2 Kings 4:7
  • Shemaiah – 1 Kings 12:22
  • David – 2 Chron. 8:14
  • Igdaliah – Jer. 35:4

So if the definite phrases ‘the servant of Yahweh‘ and ‘the man of God‘ need not be referring to one single individual then neither must the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh‘, at least not based on the grammatical construction. If the definiteness of the ‘angel of Yahweh’ is to be maintained it must be solely on exegetical grounds.

Further evidence that the definite phrase, ‘the angel of Yahweh’ may be understood practically as indefinite is found in the LXX. As noted with the other definite phrases mentioned above, we find the same thing regarding this definite phrase – the Jewish translators of the LXX consistently render the phrase as indefinite (an angel of the Lord) at the first mention of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in any given passage. Subsequent mentions are then rendered as definite (the angel of the Lord), referring back to the initial indefinite first mention. Here is an example from Judges 13. In the Hebrew text all occurrences of the phrase are grammatically definite based on the construction. But in the Greek version we find something different. Verse 3, and the 2nd mention in vv. 16 and 21, are rendered as indefinite by the translators, while the remaining occurrences  are clearly given the definite article. How does one who insists that the phrase be taken strictly as definite account for this? Did these Jewish scholars not know how to read their own scripture and translate it into another language? The fact that there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh‘ does not mean that Hebrews reading the scriptures were not able to parse in their minds when a definite construction should be read as indefinite, and then translate that understanding into another language.

What I have just said about the LXX is also true of the 1985 translation of the Tanakh by The Jewish Publication Society. In almost every passage where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ appears, the first mention of the angel is indefinite, while any subsequent mentions within the same narrative are then definite, referring back to the angel first mentioned. This includes Gen. 16:7-12; 22:11-15; Ex. 3:2; Num. 22:22-35; Judges 2:1-4; 6:11-22; 13:3-21; Is. 37:36; Zech. 12:8. So we see that modern Jews, as well as ancient ones, understand the grammatically definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as practically indefinite when the context demands it.

One last point on why the definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh’ cannot be a designation for one single individual. There are actually two occurrences of this phrase where we are told exactly who is being referred to:

Haggai, the angel of Yahweh, spoke the message of Yahweh to the people …”
 Haggai 1:13

“The lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction, because he is the angel of Yahweh of hosts.”
Malachi 2:7

In light of these two passages, it cannot be maintained that one single individual being is denoted by the definite phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ The phrase is, in fact, a generic designation which applies to any and all of Yahweh’s agents, whether human or non-human.

 Faulty Reasoning

Having ruled out the necessity of seeing ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as a single individual being, this does not mean that at least some of the time, appearances of the angel of Yahweh could be pre-incarnate appearances of Christ. Let’s go back to the syllogism I noted earlier. First we will look at the second premise and how it relates to the conclusion. The premise is that the NT {1 Tim. 6:16; 1 Jn. 4:12} states that no one has ever seen God, meaning the Father, and so the conclusion is that if it can be shown that God did appear and was seen in the OT it must be someone other than the Father, but who is also God. My first objection to this is that it seems rather arbitrary on the part of Trinitarians to make ‘God’ in these passages to mean ‘the Father’ in the trinitarian sense i.e. one of the three persons of the Godhead. Why couldn’t it be referring to the Trinity? How do they come to the conclusion that it refers to the Father?  Simply by reading their presupposition into the text. It is true that the word God in these verses is referring to the Father, but in the biblical sense i.e. God and the Father are numerically identical, they are the same being. In fact the NT tells us explicitly that the Father alone is the God, i.e. the God of the OT whose name is Yahweh:

“Father … you, the only (one, single, alone, sole) true God.”     John 17:3

“Yet for us (i.e. Christians) there is one God, the Father …”      1 Cor. 8:6

“… one God and Father of all, the one over all …”                        Eph. 4:6

Not only this, but in all of Paul’s letters he often speaks of  “God the Father.” This is read by trinitarians as if Paul is making a metaphysical distinction between ‘God the Father,’ ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit.’ But please note that Paul never once speaks of ‘God the Son’, since such a concept was still a couple of hundred years in the future from when Paul wrote his letters. What should be plain to any unbiased reader is that what Paul means by “God the Father” is “God, who is the Father.”

To read the word God in 1 Tim.6:16 and 1 Jn.4:12 as meaning ‘the first person in the Trinity’ is anachronistic, for the word God would not take on that meaning until the 4th century.

But let’s assume that the Trinity doctrine is true. Does it not teach that the Son is of equal substance and glory, co-eternal with the Father? Does it not say that the Son existed in the form of God prior to his incarnation, which presumably is the same form in which the Father exists? So by what kind of logic can it be said that the Father cannot be seen but the pre-incarnate Son can? What is it about the pre-incarnate Son, that differs from the Father, that enables him to be seen while the Father is unable to be seen? This distinction is never made, at least not that I have seen. This exposes the completely arbitrary nature of this premise — they are just making it up as they go.

Now let’s examine the first premise in the syllogism. It states that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks in the first person and is spoken of as if he was Yahweh himself, and therefore it must be Yahweh himself (yet not Yahweh the Father, but Yahweh the Son). Now there are some scholars who see ‘the angel of Yahweh’ as a theophany rather than a christophany, i.e. that it is an appearance of Yahweh the Father himself. The explanation that I am about to present refutes the theophany concept as well as the christophany concept.

An Ambiguous Figure

Is there any other way to explain the fact that when the angel of Yahweh appears, he speaks in the first person, as if he was Yahweh himself, other than just concluding that he must be Yahweh in some sense? I think there is, but before I get to that let’s look at a few passages where the angel of Yahweh appears. There are things said in some passages which should caution us against being to quick to see a numerical identity of the angel with Yahweh.

It is true that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as if he is Yahweh. Here are some examples:

  • In Gen 16:6 Abram’s wife Sarai causes her maidservant Hagar, who is pregnant with Abram’s child, to flee into the desert. There  ‘the (LXX- an) angel of Yahweh’ appears to her, and in v.10 says, “I will so increase your descendants that they will become too numerous to count.” Surely it is not an angel who is making this promise but Yahweh himself. The angel seems to be Yahweh himself.
  • In Gen 22:11, as Abraham is about to slay Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering to Yahweh, ‘the (LXX –an) angel of Yahweh’ calls out to him and says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy, … now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Was Abraham going to offer Isaac to the angel or to Yahweh. The angel seems to Yahweh himself.
  • In Exodus 3:2 “the (LXX- an) angel of Yahweh appeared to him (Moses) in flames of fire from within a bush.”  Verse 4 then says, “When Yahweh saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush …” In v. 6 God says, “I am the God of your father Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” The rest of ch. 3 through ch. 4:17 is a conversation between Yahweh and Moses. So the one first identified as ‘the angel of Yahweh seems to be Yahweh himself.
  • Judges 2:1 says: “The (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers…'” Here the angel of Yahweh speaks as if he were Yahweh himself.
  • In Judges 6 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ appears, as a man, to Gideon. After a brief conversation between the two we read at v.14, Yahweh turned to him and said, ‘Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midians hand. Am I not sending you.'” Once again, it seems as if the angel is Yahweh himself.

Now I could give more examples but this will suffice. So as you can see, the proponents of both the theophany and the christophany views do have a point. But is this phenomena a sufficient reason to conclude either of these views. Let me point out, first of all, that this phenomena concerning ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is not consistently seen in all occurrences of his appearance, and not even in the immediate context of the passages where this phenomena is seen, as in some of the passages above. For example:

  • In the Gen. 16 passage the angel switches from speaking in the first person, as Yahweh, in v. 10, to speaking of Yahweh in the third person at v. 11.
  • In the Gen. 22 passage the angel goes from speaking as if he were Yahweh himself, in v. 12, to speaking on behalf of Yahweh at vv. 15-18.
  • In the Judges 6 passage there is a switching back and forth between the angel and Yahweh. In vv. 11-13 it’s ‘the angel of Yahweh’; then in vv.14-18 it’s simply Yahweh; then i vv. 20-22 it’s back to ‘the angel of Yahweh.’ If we were meant to understand the angel to be Yahweh himself by vv. 14-18, then why revert back to calling him ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in vv. 20-22?
  • In Judges 13 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ appears as a man to Manoah’s wife. The angels never speaks in the first person as Yahweh, he only gives the woman a promise and instructions. Later he shows up again to Manoah and his wife, but they only think he is ‘a man of God.’ The angel speaks of Yahweh in the third person in v. 16. Throughout the whole account he is consistently called ‘the angel of Yahweh’ and never simply ‘Yahweh.’
  •  In 1 Chron. 21:11-27 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of  Yahweh’ is clearly, throughout the passage, distinct from Yahweh himself, as seen in vv. 14-15, 27.
  • In Numbers 22:21-35 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ seems to be distinct from Yahweh from vv. 22 and 31. Nothing in the passage would suggest the angel just is Yahweh.
  • In Zech. 1:11-13 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is explicitly distinct from Yahweh for he addresses Yahweh at v.12 and is spoken to by Yahweh at v. 13.
  • In Zech. 3 ‘the (LXX-an) angel of Yahweh’ seems to be called Yahweh at v. 2, but immediately speaks of Yahweh in the third person. In vv. 6-10 the angel speaks on Yahweh’s behalf with the common prophetic announcement, “This is what Yahweh Almighty says.”

So what we see from this is that while sometimes ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as Yahweh, in the first person, at other times, even within the same context, he speaks of Yahweh in the third person. Sometimes the angel is called Yahweh but is mostly called ‘the angel of Yahweh’ , and the text can switch between the two within a single pericope. As I noted earlier, these facts should caution us about being to quick to simply identify the ‘angel’ as numerically identical to Yahweh.

So, is there a way of understanding ‘the angel of Yahweh’ that would explain all of the data we find regarding this figure, and not just part of the data. Proponents of the  theophany view focus on the aspects of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ that seem to identify him as Yahweh, while ignoring the data that seems to make him distinct from Yahweh. The proponents of the christophany view acknowledge both aspects of this person, and think that this supports their trinitarian belief. They see the angel as Yahweh himself but somehow also distinct from Yahweh, hence two distinct persons who are both Yahweh.

The Missing Piece Of The Puzzle

One mistake that many people make when trying to interpret scripture is to not consider the cultural milieu in which the scriptures were written. In the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE) the concept of agency would have been a common idea, but the concept has escaped most within Christendom for the past two thousand years. Scholarship in the area of ANE studies, in the 20th century, has helped to throw much needed light on this subject. Once this concept is understood and applied to the biblical text, much of what seemed confusing or contradictory in scripture suddenly becomes lucid. The ancient Hebrew people certainly understood this concept and it should not surprise us to find the language of agency permeating the pages of Scripture.

OT scholar, John Walton, in his commentary on Genesis in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary said this regarding this ancient concept and it’s relationship to the angel of Yahweh:

“In the ancient world direct communication between important parties was a rarity. Diplomatic and political exchange usually required the use of an intermediary, a function that our ambassadors exercise today. The messenger who served as the intermediary was a fully vested representative of the party he represented. He spoke for that party and with the authority of that party. He was accorded the same treatment as that party would enjoy were he there in person. While this was standard protocol, there was no confusion about the person’s identity.

This explains how the angel in this chapter [Gen. 16] can comfortably use the first person to convey what God will do (16:10). When official words are spoken by the representative, everyone understands that he is not speaking for himself, but is merely conveying the words, opinions, policies, and decisions of his liege. So in Ugaritic literature, when Baal sends messengers to Mot, the messengers use first person forms of speech. E.T. Mullen concludes that such usage ‘signify that the messengers not only are envoys of the god, but actually embody the power of their sender.'”

Aubrey R. Johnson, in The One and the Many In the Israelite Conception of God, expressed the concept of agency as follows:

“In Hebrew thought a patriarch’s personality extended through his entire household … in a specialized sense, when the patriarch, as lord of his household, deputized his trusted servant as his malak (his messenger or angel), the man was endowed with the authority and resources of his lord, to represent him fully and transact business in his name. In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived of as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

Did you catch that? The duly appointed agent becomes, as it were, the person who sent him, the one whom he represents. However the agent is received and treated is in reality how the one who sent him is received and treated. This understanding is reflected even in the NT:

“When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me , but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me he sees the one who sent me.”                   John 12:44-45

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me…”                                                                                                                           John 5:24 

“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.”                                                                                                Matt. 10:40

“He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”                                               Luke 10:16

This is the language of agency, which every Jew hearing Jesus’ words would have understood. The above statements of Jesus were indeed axiomatic within the culture of ancient Israel and her surrounding neighbors. There are two incidents in the gospels which really drive home this point that the agent is regarded as the one who sends him — the story of the centurion seeking healing for his servant and the story of two disciples who wanted places of honor above the others in Jesus’ kingdom. The first incident is recorded in two Gospels, Matthew 8 and Luke 7. In Luke’s account, at verse 3, we are told that the centurion sends a delegation of Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. But in Matthew’s account, at verses 5 & 6, we are told:

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed and in much suffering.'”

Matthew says nothing about the delegation of Jewish elders whom the centurion sent to Jesus, but rather portrays the account as if the centurion himself had come to Jesus. Is this a contradiction? Whose version of this event is correct? Actually they both are. Because the Jewish elders had not gone to Jesus of their own initiative, but were enlisted by the centurion to ask the Lord on his behalf, they were acting as his agents, bringing the request to Jesus in the centurion’s stead. Therefore it is perfectly acceptable for Matthew, in his retelling of the story, to bypass the messengers and portray the centurion as personally asking Jesus for his help.

The second incident is recorded in Matt.20:20-21 and Mark 10:35-37. In Matthew’s account the mother of James and John, the son’s of Zebedee, came to Jesus to request of him that her two sons might be given the special places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom. Yet in Mark’s account the mother is not mentioned, but only that “James and John, the son’s of Zebedee, came to him.” We see again that the request can be portrayed as being made personally by the two brothers because they, no doubt, enlisted the aid of their mother to speak to Jesus on their behalf, i.e. the request was really coming from them, not from their mother.

So how does the concept of agency enable us to make sense  of the information we have in Scripture concerning ‘the angel of Yahweh’ ? I believe it has explanatory value for the passages where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ speaks as Yahweh in the first person and where the text seems to call him Yahweh. We can understand the angel as being an extension of Yahweh’s person and as such is rightfully regarded as Yahweh, the one who sent him and on whose behalf he speaks and acts. To receive the angel favorably is to receive Yahweh favorably; to receive the angel’s message is to receive Yahweh’s word. Of course, it also explains why on some occasions ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is clearly distinct from Yahweh and may speak of Yahweh in the third person and may even use the prophetic formula “thus says Yahweh.”  We may never know the reason behind this diversity of speech in God’s agents but we can certainly understand that as Yahweh’s representatives it is acceptable for them to speak in either manner.

I will not go through each passage where ‘the angel of Yahweh’ appears, but I encourage each reader to apply this concept of agency to each of the passages where the phrase occurs and see if it does not help to clarify what is going on in the text.

Objections To The Representative View

But what about the fact that some who saw ‘the angel of Yahweh’ believed they had seen Yahweh and were fearful for their lives. This is not really as weighty as it may seem at first. First, we should not assume that the patriarchs and the early Israelites, during the time of the judges, would have had a comprehensive understanding of what was going on in these appearances. They surely would have understood the concept of agency which was part of their culture, and that an agent was in a sense the personal presence of the one who sent him. They seem to have had the notion that if one were to see God they would die, but where they attained that idea from is unknown. It is not hard to imagine that such experiences would have been very traumatic for them and a cause of confusion. It’s not as though they had some definitive revelation from God to tell them how to decipher these experiences. Caught up in the ecstasy of the moment they uttered things which betrayed their confusion.

But what did they actually see? It seems that in most cases ‘the angel of Yahweh’ (or angels in general) appeared to them as a man; this is either explicitly stated in the text or is a reasonable inference {see Gen. 16:7-14; 18:2; 32:24-30; Joshua 5:13-14; Judges 6:11-22; 13:2-23}. We know that in the case of Jacob wrestling with the man, that although at the end of the encounter he declared, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared,” in actuality he only saw an angel, according to the inspired interpretation of the prophet Hosea, in 12:3-4. Now, if in this case, we know that the appearance of an angel was either misunderstood to be God, by the one to whom he appeared, or he was called God in some other sense than literally, then can we not conjecture the same in the other instances where men declared to have seen God after seeing ‘the angel of Yahweh’.

Another objection to the view that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of Yahweh, is the assertion that he receives worship. Exodus 3:5 (along with Joshua 5:15) and Judges 6:17-22 are offered as proof of this. In the Exodus passage (as well as in the Joshua passage) the angel of Yahweh, speaking as Yahweh, tells Moses to remove his sandals because the place where he was standing was holy ground. Why is Moses told to do this if ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is simply an agent of God and not God himself? First, it is not clear that the removing of his sandals amounts to an act of worship. Perhaps we can understand it to be an act of recognition that God’s presence being there makes the place holy. We can understand that Yahweh’s agent here carries with him the personal presence of Yahweh i.e. the agent in some way embodies the presence of the one who sent him. My question is this: If this is the proper response to a theophany or christophany, why is this the only time someone is told to do this when ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is encountered? Perhaps there is something unique about this encounter that we do not understand as yet. Anyway, I think it is going to far to call this an act of worship.

In the Judges passage, the first issue we must deal with is this: Who did Gideon think he was interacting with? The proponents of the theophany and christophany views  must believe that the ancients would have known that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ was actually Yahweh himself i.e. that it was common knowledge that if one saw the angel of Yahweh he was literally seeing Yahweh himself. Now in vv.18-19 Gideon prepares an offering and presents it to the angel. Was he offering this to one who he believed was God? This seems unlikely because he doesn’t even come to realize it is ‘the angel of Yahweh’ until after the offering is consumed by the fire that came out of the rock and the angel disappeared suddenly (vv. 20-22). When the angel first comes on the scene he sits under an oak tree and starts a conversation with Gideon (vv.11-12). Who does Gideon think this is? We can assume the angel looked like an ordinary man, for Gideon doesn’t seem startled or afraid. When this man starts speaking in the first person for Yahweh (vv.14 &16), who does Gideon think this man is then? Most likely he thinks the man is a prophet of Yahweh who has come to him with a message from Yahweh. Following the accepted norms of that culture he receives Yahweh’s messenger as Yahweh himself, yet not thinking he is literally Yahweh. But according to v.17, he’s not completely sure this is a prophet sent by Yahweh, and he wants a sign that Yahweh is indeed speaking to him, through this messenger. Gideon then expresses his intention to prepare and present an offering, which he does (vv.18-19). The point is, that if he believed this was a prophet of Yahweh then he was not making the offering to him but to Yahweh. It is most likely that he was presenting the offering to the prophet so that the prophet could offer it to Yahweh on his behalf, like the priests. In Lev. 2:8 we read:

Bring the grain offering made of these things to Yahweh and present it to the priest, who shall take it to the altar.”

It should also be noted that in Judges 13:16 ‘the angel of Yahweh’ tells Manoah, “If you prepare a burnt offering you must offer it to Yahweh.” It certainly appears that the angel is careful to make sure that Manoah understands that he is not Yahweh himself.

Further Considerations

As I noted earlier, the NT is completely silent regarding any connection of Jesus with ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in the OT. This is hard to conceive if the authors of the NT really understood ‘the angel of Yahweh’ to be the son of God, especially since this has been a constant assertion by Christian apologists, pastors, expositors, etc. from the middle of the second century down to our very day. Not only that, but in the one and only place in the NT where an OT appearance of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is recounted, no connection is made to Jesus. In fact, in this passage, some light is thrown on this subject, as to how Christians in the first century perceived this OT figure. In Acts 7 we have Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, where he recounts the history of Israel from Abraham’s day to their own day. In vv. 30-38 he relates the story of Moses and the burning bush. How many times in the past 1900 yrs. has the opportunity not been missed by Christian teachers, to identify ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in Exodus 3 with the pre-incarnate Son of God. Yet Stephen is completely silent in this regard. In fact, Stephen does not even refer to the figure who appeared in the flames as ‘the angel of the Lord’ but only as ‘an angel’. This coincides with what we saw above, where in almost every case of the first mention of ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in an OT passage, in the Hebrew text the phrase is technically, grammatically definite, but in the LXX is translated as indefinite. But if it was just common knowledge among the first Christians in Judea that Jesus had appeared on earth many times in past generations, as ‘the angel of Yahweh’, and that it was in fact the son of God who appeared to Moses in the flames within the bush, then why does Stephen, in recounting that event, simply refer to this figure as “an angel“? Why does he fail to tell his hearers this all important revelation? This is similar to the prophet Hosea’s brief account of Jacob wrestling with God. The story in Gen. 32:22-32 tells of Jacob’s encounter with a man with whom he wrestles all night. Now the text does not refer to this man as ‘the angel of Yahweh’ but this does not stop zealous trinitarians from asserting that he was Jesus. Others see the man as a theophany. But in Hosea 12:3-4 the prophet simply calls the man “an angel” (neither the Hebrew or Greek texts have the definite article). For those who believe the Scriptures to be God-breathed, we have two inspired commentaries, one by Stephen and one by Hosea, which refer to a supposed christophany or theophany as simply one of Yahweh’s malakim.

One argument put forward by proponents of the christophany view as further proof of that position, is that once the Son of God is incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth, ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears from history, never to be seen again. This is supposed to be positive evidence that this figure was indeed pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God. But do they not see that this is begging the question? First of all, if the assertion were true that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears in the NT, this is only proof that he was the Son of God if you already presuppose he was. That is not a positive proof, but only a circular argument. But the fact is, that the assertion that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ disappears when the NT begins, is easily proven to be invalid. As noted in the examples given earlier, the Hebrew phrase malak YHWH = messenger (angel) Yahweh must be grammatically and technically translated as definite, hence the angel of Yahweh. But as I stated earlier, this definite construction can be, on a practical level, understood as indefinite. This is because there is no way to write in Hebrew ‘an angel of Yahweh’. Since Yahweh (the absolute noun in the construct state) is definite, by virtue of being a proper noun, so malak (the construct noun) must of necessity also be definite. We saw however, that when the Jewish translators of the LXX translated this phrase, when it occurs as a first mention of this figure in any given context, they always render it with an anarthrous noun i.e. as indefinite. This means that these Jewish scribes understood, that this definite phrase should be rendered practically as indefinite when the context demands it.

Now let’s carry this knowledge over into the NT. The only reason you do not see the phrase ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the NT is because it is written in Greek, instead of Hebrew. The definite phrase only occurs once, in Matt. 1:24, and this is definite because it refers back to the angel mentioned in v.20. The indefinite phrase ‘an angel of the Lord’ occurs 10 times, in the following passages: Matt. 1:20; 2:13, 19; 28:2; Luke 1:11; 2:9; Acts 5:19; 8:26; 12:7, 23. My contention is that, if the NT would have been written in Hebrew, each of these occurrences would have been in the construct state and would therefore have been grammatically definite. Hence ‘the angel of Yahweh’ would be seen to still be making an appearance in the NT, even after the incarnation. The absence of ‘the angel of the Lord’ in the NT is not proof that when he appeared in the OT he must have been the pre-incarnate Son of God, but rather that the OT phrase was understood by Jews to be practically indefinite.

Conclusion

So let’s recap what we have learned regarding the proposition that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ in the OT is a christophany.

  1. We learned that the belief that ‘the angel of Yahweh’ is a designation for one specific individual cannot be maintained on grammatical grounds. Although the phrase is technically definite it can be understood on a practical level as indefinite. This is confirmed by other Hebrew phrases of the same construction and by the LXX. This greatly weakens the case for the christophany view.
  2. The biblical data concerning the angel of Yahweh shows an inconsistency in his speech and identification i.e. sometimes he is identified and speaks as Yahweh and other times he is clearly distinct from Yahweh.
  3. The concept of agency is adequate to explain the different ways that the angel of Yahweh presents himself and speaks.
  4. The lack of mention of OT christophanies by the NT authors is not what would be expected if this assertion were true.
  5. Various peripheral points made by proponents of the christophany view, in order to support the view, do not hold up under scrutiny.

In part 2 we will examine the claim that ‘the word of Yahweh’ in the OT is a pre-incarnate appearance of the son of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Immortality Of The Soul – Truth Or Myth (Part 2)

We will now survey the New Testament to discover it’s concept of the soul. Does the NT concept of the soul differ from the Hebrew scriptures? Many who agree that the OT does not really teach the concept of the immortal soul do not feel the same when it comes to the NT. They believe that the NT definitely does teach this idea. They attribute this to what is called ‘progressive revelation‘. They say that the truth of what happens in death was not revealed until Messiah came and made it known to his disciples. And this is given to account for why there seems to be a difference of understanding between the testaments.

Progressive Revelation

But we must be careful here. I can understand truth being revealed at different times in history so that there is a progression in revealed truth. Paul speaks of the “mystery of Messiah, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”  But a newer revelation can never abrogate a former revelation (this does not preclude older commands from being abrogated once they have fulfilled their purpose). In other words, the Hebrew scriptures cannot portray God in a certain way and then the NT scriptures portray him in a way contradictory to that prior revelation. Though new truth did come to light in the progress of biblical history, no new truth can overturn a prior revealed truth. Progressive revelation may add to the knowledge contained in the OT, but it will not contradict it. So, is what the Hebrew scriptures tell us about the soul revealed truth, or is it simply the way the authors of the OT scriptures expressed their lack of understanding of the subject, owing to the fact that the full revelation was not yet given?

Given the fact that the Israelite nation was formed while they were in Egypt, where a concept of the immortal soul did exist, and then when they possessed the land of Canaan they failed to drive out all the inhabitants of the land, who also had a belief in the immortal soul and probably influenced later generations of Israelites, it is a wonder that their scriptures do not reflect this concept. It is not as if this idea did not exist then and so was unknown to the Hebrews. They would have been aware of this concept of the immortal soul, yet, as we saw in part 1 of this study, their scriptures do not reflect a positive belief in it. In other words, what Moses and the prophets wrote regarding the soul is not the popular belief of Egypt and the Canaanite peoples, that the Israelites would have been influenced by. This is strong evidence that what they did write about the soul was revelation, revelation that was contrary to the beliefs of the surrounding peoples. Therefore, we should not expect to see a change in the understanding of the soul from the OT to the NT. And, in fact, this is what we find – a continuity of thought on this subject.

The Soul In The Greek NT

The Greek word used consistently in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures, known as LXX) to translate nephesh is psuche. Psuche appears 104 times in the New Testament, where it carries the same semantic range of meaning as nephesh does in the OT. This is because it is being used as a translation of nephesh. We must remember that the authors of the NT were all Hebrews, who spoke either Hebrew or Aramaic (a closely related Semitic language). If they originally wrote in Greek, which is the consensus of nearly all scholars, then psuche was the natural choice for conveying the Hebraic concept of the soul, since this word was used in the LXX to translate nephesh. Although the word psuche, among classical Greek writers and philosophers, carried the meaning of the immaterial part of man, distinct from the body, and which is immortal, we should not expect to see that meaning applied to this word in the NT. Again, the authors of the NT are writing from a Hebraic perspective, not a Greek one. So with that in mind, let’s see how psuche is used in the NT.

Psuche As Life

As with the word nephesh in the Hebrew bible, psuche can simply refer to one’s life in this world. Perhaps the clearest examples where this meaning is evident are three verses in John’s gospel where Jesus, the good shepherd, tells the Jews that he will “lay down (his) psuche for the sheep” { Jn. 10:11,15,17}. Along with these verses is John 13:37-38, where Peter declares to Jesus that he will lay down his psuche for Jesus, and 15:13 where Jesus says, “Greater love than this has no man, that he should lay down his psuche for his friends.” In every English version I checked the word psuche is translated as life in these verses. This includes the KJV, NIV, NASB, HCSB, ESV, ASV, ISV, and NET. It is clear that Jesus laid down his life for his sheep, not his immortal soul. Here are other verses where psuche carries this meaning:

  • Matt. 2:19-20“After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking his psuche are dead.”  Surely Herod was seeking Jesus’ life, to take it from him, i.e. to kill him. But why would Herod be seeking Jesus’ immortal soul?
  • Matt. 6:25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your psuche, what you will eat or what you will drink …” Is Jesus telling his disciples not to worry about their immortal soul? Isn’t this what believers in the immortal soul think that we should do, i.e. be concerned about our soul? And what would being concerned about our immortal soul have to do with what we eat or drink? No, it is our lives that we are not to be worried about, as all English versions state.
  • Mark 3:4“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save psuche or to kill?’ ”  The contrast is not between saving an immortal soul or damning it, but between preserving a life or destroying a life.
  • Mark 8:35 – “For if someone should be determined to save his psuche, he will lose it; but if someone loses his psuche on account of me and the gospel, he will save it.” If the psuche referred to the immortal soul how would this verses make sense according to popular Christianity. Shouldn’t a person be determined to save his immortal soul rather than lose it? The meaning is clear – if one is willing to lose his life for Jesus and the gospel he can be assured of life in the age to come. Yet if one, in an attempt to preserve his present life, should deny Jesus and the gospel, he can be certain that he will not have life in the age to come.
  • Acts 15:25-26“So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their psuches for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Were these men putting their immortal souls in danger for Jesus or their lives?  {see also Phil. 2:30}
  • Acts 20:24 “But I count my psuche of no value to myself, so that I may finish the course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.”  If Paul believed he had an immortal soul, would he really place no value on it. We can see that this concept does not fit Paul’s words here. It was his life in this present age that he placed no value on.
  • Acts 27:10“Men I can see that our voyage is going to be with injury and much loss, not only to the cargo and ship, but also to our psuches.”  Could a shipwreck imperil a so called immortal soul? No! But it could certainly bring about loss of lives.
  • Other verses where psuche carries this meaning are Matt. 16:25-26; Mark 10:45; Luke 12:20; Rom. 11:3; 1 John 3:16; Rev. 12:11.

Psuche As The Self

As with nephesh, psuche can denote the self, and be translated with various self-relating pronouns.

  • Matt. 11:29“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your psuches.”  At first glance this might seem to support the common Christian idea that salvation is about the immortal soul of a man being forgiven and so assured a place in heaven upon death. But when you look at the context of the preceding verse we see that psuche is parallel to hymas which is the common Greek pronoun for ‘you.’  So Jesus’ words in v. 28, “I will give you rest,” is equivalent to “you will find rest for your psuche” in v. 29. Psuche is simply used for the whole self, not one part of a person as distinct from some other part.
  • Matt. 12:18“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom my psuche has delighted; I will put my Spirit on him …”   Does God have an immortal soul? Translate “in whom I have delighted.”
  • Mark 14:34 “My psuche is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death …”  Was Jesus saying that his immortal soul was sorrowful to the point of death? Would that even be possible for an immortal soul? Jesus’ words here are a figure of speech which is explained by Mark in v. 33, “he began to be struck with terror and distressed.”   {see also Jn. 12:27}  Translate “I am overwhelmed with sorrow.”
  • Luke 1:46-47 – “And Mary said, ‘My psuche magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”   Here psuche and pnuema (spirit) are synonymous and do not refer to a distinct, immaterial part of Mary’s nature. This is a figure of speech expressing that something is done with deep conviction and intensity. This is a common idiom in poetic literature such as the Psalms. It simply means I, with deep conviction and feeling, magnify the Lord and rejoice in God my Savior.”
  • Luke 12:19“And I will say to my psuche, ‘Psuche, you have many good things laid up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink and be merry.'”  Can one’s immortal soul enjoy the wealth of this world? Can it eat and drink? Translate “I will say to myself, “You have many good things … ‘”
  • 1 Thess. 2:8 – “In this way, being affectionately desirous of you, we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own psuches, on which account you have become dear to us.”  How could Paul and his ministry team share their immortal soul with these people? Rather they gave themselves to them. This verse could also fall under the previous category, hence they shared their lives.
  • Other verses in this category are Acts 2:27; 2 Cor. 1:23; 12:15; Heb. 10:38; 13:17; 1Pet. 1:22; 4:19.

Psuche As Person And Living Creature

In this category, psuche refers to persons in general and creatures of all kinds, in imitation of nephesh.

  • Acts 2:41“Those who accepted the message were baptized and about three thousand psuches were added on that day.”  Psuche = people.
  • Acts 7:14 “After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five psuches in all.”   Psuche = persons
  • Rom. 13:1“Let every psuche be subject to the governing authorities…”  Psuche = person.
  • 1 Cor. 15:45 “So it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living psuche.'”  Psuche = person.
  • 1 Peter 3:20 ” … God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built, in which only a few, that is eight psuches were saved through water.”  Psuche = persons.
  • Rev. 8:8-9” … a third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living psuches in the sea died …”  Psuche = creature.
  • Other verses in this category are Acts 3:23; 7:14; 27:37; Rom. 2:9; 2 Peter 2:14; Rev. 16:3; 20:4.

Unusual Usages Of Psuche

  • John 10:24 “How long will you lift up our psuches? If  you are the Messiah tell us plainly.”   The phrase “lift up our souls” seems to be a figure of speech meaning, “how long will you keep us in suspense.”
  • Acts 14:22 “… strengthening the psuches of the disciples, exhorting them to persevere in the faith …”   This most likely means they strengthened the resolve of the disciples. 
  • Col. 3:23“Whatever you do, working from out of the psuche, as unto the Lord and not unto men.”   This means to work with sincerity and fervency.
  • Rev. 18:13 “… cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep, horses and carriages, and bodies and psuches of men.”   Bodies and souls of men is an idiom for slaves, i.e. slaves were being bought and sold.

Other Uses of Psuche

Another meaning of psuche, which corresponds to the OT use of nephesh, is to denote those inward activities or functions in contrast to that which is outward. This can be seen clearly in Psalm 103:1: “Bless the LORD my soul and all my inward parts bless his holy name.” This would involve such things as conscience, intellect, emotions, desires, affections, etc.

  • Acts 14:2“But the unbelieving Jews stirred up and embittered the psuches of the Gentiles against the brothers.”  What was stirred up and embittered in these Gentiles, their immortal souls? This is speaking of their feelings toward the believers being negatively influenced by the Jews.
  • Acts 15:24“We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and troubled you with words, unsettling your psuches.”  We know that what these men were saying is that unless the Gentiles were circumcised they could not be saved. This was disturbing the Gentile converts’ confidence and throwing them into confusion. It can be translated in various ways: “upsetting your lives” or “unsettling your minds” or “subverting your inner conviction.”
  • Phil. 1:27“… I might hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one psuche striving together for the faith of the gospel.”  Here psuche could refer to will or resolve or purpose. Paul is exhorting a congregation of believers to strive together with one purpose and will, as one person.
  • Hebrews 6:19“(Hope) which we have as an anchor of the psuche, both certain and steadfast …” Here hope is portrayed as a secure and trustworthy anchor which keeps the psuche from going adrift. Psuche here probably refers to one’s resolve to keep his faith to the end.
  • 3 John 1:2 “Beloved, I pray that in all things you may prosper and have good health just as your psuche is prospering.”   How was Gaius’ psuche prospering? Verse 4 gives the answer – his faith was sincere and he was maintaining his resolve to walk in the truth.

The Saving Of Our Souls

The popular Protestant Evangelical notion of salvation goes something like this: All human beings have an immortal soul and will live forever, either in heaven or in hell. Because of sin we are separated from God and cannot enter into God’s presence (heaven). Jesus died on the cross for our sins and so if we accept what he did for us we can be forgiven of our sins. This means that when we die our soul can enter heaven and live out it’s eternal existence with God. If we do not accept what Jesus did for us on the cross our sins cannot be forgiven. This means that when we die our soul must remain separated from God for all eternity, living out it’s immortal existence in hell. In this scenario the purpose of Christ’ coming was to save our souls so that we can, upon death, go to heaven.

In contrast to this, the biblical understanding of salvation is this: Because of Adam’s sin all men are doomed to die once before the judgment {Rom. 5:12-14; Heb. 9:27}. Because all men have sinned personally they are doomed also to die the second death {Rom.2:5-9; 6:23; Rev. 2:11; 20:6; 21:11-15}, after having been raised from the first death {John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Dan. 12:2} and facing judgment before the throne of God. Death in both cases refers to literal cessation of life, where one, being destroyed, is removed from the land of the living {Ps. 37:9-13, 20, 38; 52:5; Ez. 26:20-21}. The first death is temporary, for all will be raised bodily; the second death is final, from which there is no return to life, ever. All who are saved in Messiah Jesus are saved from the first death through resurrection unto immortality { Lk. 20:34-36; Jn. 5:29a; Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:20-23}, and because of the gift of righteousness are exempted from the second death {Rom. 5:17; Rev. 20:5-6}. These will not live forever in heaven as disembodied souls but will live on the renewed earth in immortal bodies through out the ages to come {Matt. 5:5; 1 Cor. 15:50-55; 1 Peter 3:13}.

The popular Protestant Evangelical notion is confirmed to many Christians by passages in the Bible which speak of our souls being saved. Because the predominate tradition is that the soul is immortal, it is easy for unknowledgeable Bible readers to read these passages as saying that the soul is saved from spending eternity in hell, to spend eternity in heaven with God. Here are a few verses which speak in this way (you should read these verses from various English translations):

  • Heb. 10:39 “But we are not of those who shrink back unto destruction, but of those having faith unto the preservation of the psuche.”  If the soul is immortal how can having faith preserve it? Why does it even need to be preserved? Whatever psuche means in this passage it is in danger of destruction, if one draws back into unbelief. This shows that psuche is not by nature immortal; it can be destroyed or preserved. Here psuche should be understood as ones life in this world. This is what shall be preserved in the age to come for those believing unto the end. {See also Matt. 16:25-26; Mk. 8:35-37; Lk. 9:24-25}
  • James 1:21” … in humility take hold of the implanted word which is able to save your psuche.”   James simply means that the word is able to save you, to preserve your life in the age to come.
  • James 5:20 “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his psuche from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”   How is an immortal soul in danger of death? To avoid this obvious contradiction to the tradition, theologians have concocted the concept of spiritual death which they define as separation from God, i.e. the immortal soul is separated from God in Hell, where it lives out it’s immortal existence. Yet Scripture never uses the term spiritual death, especially not in reference to the fate of the wicked. Death, in Scripture, means death, i.e. the cessation of life.
  • 1 Peter 1:9“For you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your psuche.”   Is the goal of our faith merely the salvation of one distinct part of our nature, i.e. our immortal soul? Paul makes clear in Rom. 8:13-25 that we are saved in the hope (eager expectation) of the redemption of our bodies, i.e. in the resurrection, when the mortal shall put on immortality. The salvation of our soul is equivalent to the preservation of our life in the age to come.

Difficult Passages

A correct understanding of the Hebraic concept of soul and of how the words nephesh and psuche are used in Scripture, creates a difficulty for the traditional view of the immortal soul (i.e. the soul is the immaterial part of man’s nature, distinct from the body, which lives on in conscious existence after the death of the body). However, there are a handful of passages which seem to create a difficulty for the position I am presenting, the Hebraic view (i.e. that man is an integrated whole, a body with the breath of life, and that no part of man continues to live after death). Let’s examine some of these passages now.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather, be afraid of the one who can utterly destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
Matt. 10:28

Now this certainly sounds as if Jesus is making a clear distinction between the body and the soul, and saying that even if the body is killed the soul will still live on. Admittedly, one could read the text that way. When someone has their mind established in a certain way of thinking, they will tend to read that way of thinking into any language that will accommodate it, and this language seems to accommodate the idea of the immortal soul. But language that accommodates a certain belief is not the same as language that positively teaches that belief. Jesus would surely have been accustomed to the Hebraic understanding of man’s nature and so we must be careful in interpreting his words contrary to the Hebrew Scriptures.

The first clue that we get, that we may need to take a closer look at these words of Jesus, is the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel, which reads somewhat different:

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you must fear. Fear him who, after the killing (of the body) has authority to cast into Gehenna.”   Luke 12:4-5

Notice the underlined parts, which show the difference in comparison to the Matt. passage. What can account for this difference? When you are reading the gospel accounts and you come across a difference in wording, of the same saying of Jesus, between two or more of the accounts, there is one or more of three things going on. First, there may be a variant reading in some manuscript, a scribal addition or deletion. These are usually easily detected by scholars and are so noted in footnotes in most modern versions today. The second reason may be due to the fact that the original saying of Jesus was spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic, which was then translated into Greek by the authors of the gospels. Now when you translate something from one language to another there is more than only one way to do so. Also they may be trying to translate Jesus’ thought more than just his words. A third reason may be that they are interpreting Jesus’ words, for the reader, in their translation, not wanting the reader to miss the real significance of what he said.

Now if Jesus had spoken these words in Hebrew he would have used the word nephesh, which was then translated by Matthew with the Greek word psuche. But Matthew is a Jew and thoroughly Hebraic in his thinking. He most likely wrote his gospel to Jews in the dispersion and would have assumed that they would know the Hebraic concept of nephesh behind the Greek word psuche. But Luke, on the other hand, is writing for a mainly Gentile audience, who would have a different concept of soul than Jews would. Perhaps Luke was hesitant to use the word psuche here, fearing that his readers might construe by it the Greek concept of the immortal soul, so he gave the meaning of Jesus’ words rather than a word for word translation. If this is true then Luke’s account should inform us as to how to understand Matthew’s account, not vice-versa.

In Luke’s account Jesus is saying that we should not fear those who can kill us but have no power to hurt us further. This is said in the context of the fear of persecution, where one, out of fear for his life, disowns any relationship to Jesus {see vv.8-9}. There is a fate worse than death – the second death, i.e. being cast into Gehenna. From the first death there is a return to life in the resurrection; from the second death there is no return to life forever – it is final. Matthew’s account says that men can kill the body but not the soul. This is not because the soul is immortal, but because Jesus’ followers are promised everlasting life in the resurrection, which men cannot take from us. Only God has the power to take away one’s place in the age to come and after the resurrection to cast the whole person, body and soul, into Gehenna, where they will be completely destroyed. Luke’s “has authority to cast you into Gehenna” is equivalent to Matthew’s “who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” This takes place only after the resurrection of the wicked according to Rev. 20: 5, 11-15. Therefore, this passage in Matthew, and in Luke as well, is not teaching that the soul survives the death of an individual to live on in a disembodied state.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one believing in me, even though he should die, he will live. And whoever is living and believing in me will never die.’ ”   John 11:25-26

The typical way of understanding this verse is that even though a believer dies he is not really dead, but alive in heaven as a disembodied soul. But the context is against that interpretation. Jesus begins this statement with the declaration that he is the resurrection and the life. This is because, as the first man to be raised immortal, God has entrusted to him the task of overseeing the resurrection of all other men {see John 5:21-30; 1 Cor. 15:20-22}. But what does that have to do with the idea of the immortal soul flying off to heaven upon one’s death? That is no resurrection of the dead. The statement speaks of Jesus in his coming to judge the living and the dead. The dead who believed in him during their life will be raised to immortality, and those believers still living when he comes will never see death but will be changed from mortal to immortal.

Another similar misunderstood passage is Luke 20:38, where Jesus states that because Moses called Yahweh the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob that therefore:

“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

This verse is supposed to be saying that the dead patriarchs are really still alive, whether in Sheol or in heaven. But once again, the context must be ignored to arrive at this conclusion. The whole passage, starting at v.27 is about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection, came to Jesus with a question concerning the resurrection, with which they hoped to embarrass him ( vv. 27-33). Jesus answers their question, exposing their ignorance {see Mark 12:24-27}. But then Jesus shows them from their own Scripture (the Sadducees only accepted the five books of Moses as Scripture) that the resurrection of the dead is indeed a truth clearly inferred by the Scriptures. From Exodus 3:6 he quotes how God is called “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He then concludes, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” The Lord’s point is that God would not identify himself as the God of people who were dead and forever gone, who, in effect, have perished.

So did Jesus mean that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were living at the time he said this, and that they had been living for many centuries, as disembodied souls; that even though they had died they were not really dead, but very much alive as immortal souls? I don’t think so. Verse 37 clearly establishes that God being identified with the patriarchs is showing or declaring that the dead do in fact rise. But this would be no proof at all of the resurrection if the patriarchs were then and had been alive as immortal souls. If the patriarchs had been alive (as disembodied souls, since their deaths) then God would, by that fact, be the God of the living. What need would there be of a resurrection? And how would a resurrection help to establish that God is the ‘God of the living’? In other words, a resurrection would not be necessary to show that God is the ‘God of the living’ if the dead are already alive in any way. The fact that God identified himself with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is proof that God will raise them to life again. He counts them among the ‘living ones’ (present participle, masculine plural of zao) for their names are written in the book of life and they are slated for resurrection unto life everlasting. Not only is this passage no proof text for the immortal soul doctrine, but if that doctrine were true then Jesus’ words here would make no sense whatsoever.

Next, we will look at Rev. 6:9-11:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls (psuche) of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

Now this seems like a clear cut passage telling us that the souls of certain people who had been killed were consciously existing in heaven and even praying to God. How does this square with the Hebraic view? Quite well actually, once you understand what is really going on in this passage.

The first thing to understand is the kind of writing the book of the Revelation is. It is what is called in scholarly circles ‘apocalyptic literature’, in which vivid imagery is used to convey or reveal information of future events and/or of hidden things. This means that one has be careful, when interpreting this book, to not take everything as literal. The whole book is filled with images that represent realities which are other than that of the images. The souls under the altar are not the reality but the image or symbol of a reality. Just a little contemplation should make this clear. For example, if these are immortal souls in heaven why are they segregated from the rest of the souls in heaven? People have been dying for many centuries and their souls supposedly going to heaven, but these specific souls are confined to a place under the altar, while the rest are presumably free to roam about heaven. Why? And why are they told to wait a little longer? Are they discontented with their present circumstances? This is a clue that something here is not what it seems to be.

Like most of the imagery in the Revelation, the images in this passage are allusions to ideas found in the OT. The ‘souls under the altar‘ are a clear reference to Leviticus 4:7 & 34, where the high priest pours out the blood of the bull, used as a sin offering, at the base of the altar, where it undoubtedly flowed under it. But why then did John not see the ‘blood‘ of those who were slain under the altar, rather than the ‘souls.’ This is another allusion to the OT, specifically to Leviticus 17:10-14:

10.”Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood – I will set my face against that person who eats blood and I will cut him off from his people. 11. For the nephesh ( psuche) of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for the nephesh … 14. because the nephesh of all flesh is its blood. It’s blood is as it’s nephesh.

Here we see that the nephesh/psuche (soul or life) of every creature is in it’s blood – there is a close connection between the two. The image of the souls under the altar is meant to convey that the life-blood of these martyrs has been, as it were, poured out at the base of the altar, showing that their sacrifice was acceptable to God.

The third allusion in this text, that of the souls crying out for vengence, is a reference to Gen. 4:10:

The LORD said (to Cain), ‘What have you done? The voice of the blood of your brother (Abel) cries out to me from the ground.”

Now did anyone in Israel, long ago, reading these words, think that blood has a literal voice and can speak? Does anyone today believe such a thing? No! We understand that this is a figure of speech meant to convey a reality different than the figure itself. The reality it conveys is that when innocent blood has been spilled there is required an accounting for that blood, the one responsible must pay, for justice to be served. Though the LORD did not spell this out in Gen. 4:10 he did so later in Gen. 9:5-6:

And indeed, I will require the blood of your souls (nephesh) from the hand of all the living, and from the hand of the man (the murderer) I will require it. From the hand of each man’s brother I will require the soul (nephesh) of the man (the murderer). Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God he made man.”

Therefore, the image of the souls under the altar crying out to God to avenge their blood is not to be taken literal, anymore than Abel’s blood crying out should be taken literal. It is meant to convey that God will indeed require the blood of those who unjustly shed the innocent blood of these martyrs. This passage gives no positive evidence for the doctrine of the immortal soul.

“For to me, to live is Messiah and to die is gain. However if I am to live in the flesh, this means to me fruit from labor. And which will I prefer? I do not know. I am hard pressed from the two; having the desire to depart and to be with Messiah, indeed much better by far, but to remain in the flesh is necessary for your sake.”
Phil. 1:21-23

It appears as if Paul is saying that if he departs this life, through death, that he will be with Messiah, presumably in heaven. Of course, this is what Christians, at least Protestants, have believed for many centuries. But if this is what Paul means here then we have a problem. First of all, we have seen that the Hebraic view does not involve the concept of the immortal soul. That idea came from pagan religions, then into Greek philosophy, then into Christianity. Second, if Paul means that when Christians die, some part of them is still alive and goes to be with Jesus in heaven, then he has contradicted his own clear teaching in his epistles. Throughout Paul’s letters he always presents the hope of the believers to be the personal return of Jesus and the resurrection and/or transformation from mortal to immortal of the believers. Here are some passages which illustrate this – Acts 23:6; 24:15; Rom. 2:6; 8:22; 1 Cor. 15:12-23, 50-55; 2Cor. 5:1-5; Phil. 3:10-11, 20; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:1; Titus 2:13.

In none of his letters, does Paul speak of believers who have died, as being in heaven with Jesus. In fact, in the place where you would have expected him to say such a thing, he fails to mention it. For in 1 Thess. 4:13 he said, “Brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant concerning those who have fallen asleep (i.e. died), so that you may not grieve like the rest, the ones not possessing hope.” Now here Paul is going to tell us something about believers who have died. Here is his opportunity to tell us about how they are not really dead but are with Jesus in heaven. But is that what he tells us? No! He goes on to clearly establish the believer’s hope to be the personal return of Jesus and the resurrection, not going to heaven when we die. This is significant, because if you ask most Christians today what their hope is concerning life after death, they will answer, “to be with Jesus in heaven when I die.” It is rare to find a Christian whose hope is set on the resurrection of the dead or the personal return of Messiah.

Also, in a few of the above passages, as well as others, Paul refers to dead believers as those who have ‘fallen asleep.’ This fits with the language of resurrection. The Greek word consistently used to refer to the resurrection of both Jesus and of believers is  egeiro, which literally means ‘to awaken from sleep‘. The dead are in a state which is metaphorically spoken of as sleep. But how can that be if the dead are fully conscious and active in the intermediate state? Why would such a state be referred to as sleep. The resurrection is clearly being presented as an awakening from the sleep of death. Therefore it is the resurrection which is the hope of the believer.

In 1 Cor. 15 Paul is addressing those among the Corinthian believers who were saying that there was no resurrection of the dead (v.12). This probably stemmed from the fact that these Gentile Christians were formerly indoctrinated in the Greek mindset, which regarded a bodily resurrection as an absurdity. In verse 18 Paul said something that must come as a shock to those who hold to the immortality of the soul, and who think that believers who have died are now enjoying heavenly bliss in the presence of God, fully conscious and active, as disembodied souls. For if there is no resurrection “then those who have fallen asleep in Messiah have perished.” But how can this be? How can such a state of existence ever be spoken of as perishing? They would have perished because there would be no awakening from their sleep. Later in the chapter (vv.30-32) he speaks of his daily exposure to danger (in the carrying out of his ministry to the Gentiles) as to no profit or advantage, if indeed, there is no resurrection. But why would he say this? Doesn’t Paul believe that when he dies he will be with Messiah in heavenly bliss? Why would no resurrection mean no profit from his labors? Won’t he still be in heaven with Jesus and the Father, even if only as a disembodied soul? Notice that Paul’s language does not include that concept at all. For him “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”

So then what does Paul mean in Phil 1:23? Whatever Paul might mean, it is incumbent on us to interpret his obscure words here consistently with his plain and constant teaching throughout his letters. If our interpretation of him here makes him contradict himself in the many statements he has made throughout his letters, then we should look for another way to understand his words. This is what I propose to be Paul’s meaning – if the dead are not alive in any sense, not conscious and active, but are, metaphorically ‘asleep’, then when they die they will know nothing during the time of their death and the resurrection. They will not be aware of any passage of time; their last conscious moment before death will lead right into their next conscious moment, i.e. when they are raised from the dead at the return of Messiah. It will seem to them like just a moment of time has elapsed, when in reality it may have been many years. So when Paul says he wants to depart and be with Messiah, he means at the resurrection, for that will be his next conscious moment, which to him will seem simultaneous with his death.

Now someone is sure to say to me, “Did not Paul say, ‘To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.'” Well, actually no! That is a misquote of Paul’s words and puts on them a meaning which the context does not bear out. What Paul actually said was:

“But we are hopeful and we choose rather to be away from home, out of this body, and at home, with the Lord.   2 Cor. 5:8

Now, if taken by themselves, apart from the immediate context of the letter, and the larger context of Paul’s overall teaching in all of his letters, his words here could be construed as referring to an intermediate state between one’s death and the resurrection. But these words do have the contexts described above and so must be interpreted with those contexts in mind. We have already seen Paul’s overall emphasis on the resurrection of the body as the hope of the believer and that no where does he mention believers who have died as being in heaven enjoying personal fellowship with Messiah. Now let’s look at the context of this specific passage.

Verses 1-5 are clearly a reference to the resurrection body. Our present mortal bodies are compared to a tent, a temporary dwelling, while the resurrection body is compared to a building, which he says “we have from God, an eternal house, not made with hands, in the heavens.” This language is meant to express the idea that this is predestined, a promise of God that is certain and sure. Our confidence is that even if this mortal body is destroyed (i.e. if we do not remain alive until the coming of Messiah) we have the hope of the resurrection. While we wait for the Lord’s return “we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our dwelling place from out of heaven.” For “if we are clothed upon” with our immortal body (while still alive) “we will not be found naked” i.e. without a body. “For being in this tent we groan, being burdened, not wanting to be unclothed” i.e to die, “but to be clothed upon” with our immortal bodies, “so that the mortal may be swallowed up by the life.” God is the one who has “prepared us for this very thing and gave to us the Spirit as a deposit” guaranteeing it’s fulfillment in us.

Now if Paul is speaking of the resurrection in the first five verses, setting that out as our hope and expectation, why would he then speak of preferring to be absent from the body and present with the Lord as a disembodied soul. Didn’t he just say we groan, not wanting to be unclothed? We cannot interpret Paul in such a way that makes him contradict himself in a matter of five verses. To be sure, Paul’s switching of metaphors, from tents and buildings to being clothed or unclothed, is somewhat awkward and confusing. But if you carefully follow his train of thought, remembering his emphasis on the personal return of Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, it is easy to see his meaning. The statement in v.4 about not wanting to be unclothed was probably written in contradiction to the Greek concept of the immortal soul. To the Greek philosophers the body was a sort of prison in which the soul, the true you, is trapped. Only by death can the soul be freed to move on to a higher plane of existence. The idea of a resurrection of the body was nonsense to them – why would you want to be imprisoned again in a body. Therefore the hope of the pagan was to die and so be freed to live on unencumbered by the physical world. But this is the opposite of the Christian’s hope.

He then switches metaphors again in verses 6-8, going back to the tent and building metaphors of verse one, denoting two different dwelling places. He uses two Greek words to express his point – endemeo which means ‘to be at home’ and ekdemeo which means ‘to be away from home.’ Again, Paul’s use of these metaphors can get confusing, so follow his thought closely. I will add words to clarify what I believe his thought is:

v.6 “Therefore, being always hopeful and having come to understand that being at home in (this mortal) body, we are away from home (in our immortal body) away from the Lord. v.7 We walk by faith, not by sight.
v.8 But we are hopeful and choose rather to be away from home, out of (this mortal) body and at home (in our immortal body), with the Lord.”

As I said earlier, the language of Paul here, if isolated from it’s contexts, could be taken as speaking of an intermediate disembodied state between death and resurrection, as most commentators take it. But that is not a necessary interpretation of his words and not even the best way to understand his words, in light of the contexts noted above. Paul clearly teaches that believers are ‘with the Lord’ only as a result of the Lord’s personal return and their being gathered to him {see 1 Thess. 4:17}.

The Rich Man And Lazarus 

The next passage we will examine is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from Luke 16:19-31. I will not write out the whole passage here so please follow along with your Bible as we go through it. First I want to address the issue of whether or not this is a parable or a recounting of an actual happening. I myself used to hold to the immortal soul doctrine and at that time I believed this to be an actual event that the Lord was recounting. But there was only one reason that I could offer for this belief, which is also the common reason given by those who think this is an actual occurrence, i.e. parables do not give names to the characters in them, but this story does name Lazarus, the poor beggar, and Abraham, an actual historical person. This alone was the reason that I thought this had to be an actual historical event. Of course, needless to say, I do not see it that way anymore. In fact, I now think that reasoning to be rather shallow. Why couldn’t someone be named in a parable? Are there parable rules that one must follow? What if this were the only recorded parable of Jesus that gave names to characters within it? This does not seem like a strong objection, especially since I believe there is a specific reason why Jesus named the beggar in this parable, but I will save that for later. The reasons for seeing this as a parable seem much stronger. First, it comes in a section (chs. 14-16) in which five other parables are presented, along with other teaching material. Second, two of the other parables begin with the phrase, “There was a certain man” and the parable before this one begins with the exact same phrase as this one, “There was a certain rich man.”  To my mind, there is no good reason to conclude this was an actual event.

But if one wanted to insist that this is a parable, I had an objection to the idea that since it is a parable, therefore, it is not teaching the doctrine of the immortal soul. My objection was that all other parables spoke of actual things that occur in real life to teach some spiritual lesson. Therefore, what the parable is portraying must be something that is an actual reality, even if not an actual historical event. This seems like a reasonable argument and does bear out concerning all other parables. But is it possible that at least one of Jesus’ parables does not fit that criteria, and that for a very good reason? Again, there is no ancient set of rules for parables that we can consult; we just have to use good biblical sense when thinking through these things.

Since we are dealing with a parable we should not interpret the elements in it literally, as if Jesus were simply recounting an actual historical event. Rather, we should interpret it allegorically, as we do all other parables.

We have already seen the biblical view of the Hebrew scriptures concerning the soul and Sheol, in Part 1 of this study, but it is important for a correct understanding of this parable, to get a sense of the Jewish beliefs concerning the afterlife in the first century. When one looks into the various sources (Josephus, Talmud, 2nd Temple period writings, the NT) he finds a mixed bag of beliefs. Certainly there was no one, standard, universal belief regarding the afterlife, among Jews. It appears that by the time of Jesus, Greek ideas had influenced Jewish thinking in this area. Josephus tells us that the Pharisees believed in the immortal soul and that after death, rewards and punishments are meted out according to how one lived in this life (see Wars 2.8.14 and Antiquities 18.1.3-4). They believed the conscious souls of Jews were retained in Sheol/Hades until the resurrection when, it seems, only the righteous would be restored to life, while the wicked would be consigned to everlasting punishment. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not hold to the immortality of the soul and denied a bodily resurrection of any {see Acts 23:8}. Though the Pharisees were purists, in a sense, they did seem to succumb to Greek influence, at least with regard to the immortality of the soul, which as we have seen, is no where taught in the OT. It must be understood that because a certain sect within Judaism believed in the immortal soul that this does not validate that belief as true or in accordance with OT Scripture. It also does not appear that Jesus taught such a doctrine (this passage would be the only place, if Jesus was positively teaching that doctrine in this parable).

I will now present the way that I have come to see this parable. I believe the Lord had at least four purposes in telling this parable:

  1. To reprove the religious leadership for their love of money and their wrong view that wealth was a necessary indication of God’s favor and approval.
  2. To reprove the Pharisees for their succumbing to Greek influence regarding the immortality of the soul.
  3. To reprove both Pharisees and Sadducees for hardness of heart regarding the manifest work of God in his own ministry.
  4. To hint at a near, future miraculous wonder which would prove and solidify the hard-heartedness of the religious leaders.

The rich man stands for the high priest, Caiaphas, who was probably the wealthiest man in Israel, but not just him alone. He is the symbol of all the wealthy religious leaders who deemed that their wealth was proof of God’s favor on them and that poverty was a curse proving one’s wickedness. That the rich man represents the high priest, and so by extension all of the wealthy religious leaders, can be seen in the description of his attire in verse 19, which would bring to the mind of the hearers the description of the high priest’s garments in Exodus 28:5. This identification is further strengthened by the mention of his five brothers, which would have been understood of Caiaphas’ five brothers-in-law, who all held the high priestly office in turn.

Lazarus represents the ‘sinners’ among the people, who were despised and written off by the religious elite {see ch. 15:1-2}. His extreme poverty was proof to the religious aristocrats of his rejection by God. These despised ‘sinners’ desired some measure of grace to be given them by the religious leaders, even the smallest degree of compassion. But they received more comfort and compassion from the Gentiles (v.21 – dogs) than from their fellow Israelites.

It is evident that these two men symbolize two groups or kinds of people in Israel at that time (in fact, the audience he is talking to consists of both of these groups – see Luke 15:1-2). The parable is really not about what happens to individuals after they die. Three of the preceding parables highlight the difference between these two groups, that of the lost sheep (15:3-7), the lost coin (15:8-10), and the prodigal son (15:11-32).  To take the story and these two men literally would lead to the absurdity that the wealthy are to be regarded as unrighteous simply by virtue of their wealth, and that the poor are to be deemed righteous simply by virtue of their poverty. Now many of these ‘sinners’ were repenting and turning back to God, through the preaching of first, John, and then of Jesus, but the religious leaders were not {see Luke 7:29-30 and Matt. 21:32}.

In the false concept of the Pharisees, it is the ‘sinner’ who would have ended up in torment in Hades, and the rich man at Abraham’ side. Jesus uses their own false idea of the afterlife to reprove them for their hardness of heart, for he has them, symbolized by the rich man, in conscious torment in Hades. I believe the Lord is using this parable as a sort of taunt or mocking of their erroneous belief regarding the soul, similar to Isaiah’s taunt of the king of Babylon in chapter 14:4-20. In that passage also, there is an allegorical depiction of the dead in Sheol/Hades as conscious, aware, speaking and rising from their thrones – all clearly not to be understood literally. Jesus further shows the absurdity of their position in the description of the two men in Hades. The departed souls of these two men seem to look the same as they appeared in life, complete with a body (v.24). Look at the ridiculous way Jesus portrays this scene. Can the rich man’s tongue really be cooled by Lazarus dipping the tip of his finger in water and then touching it? Most of the elements in the parable (Abraham’s bosom, the torment of the wicked and the comfort of the righteous, the great gulf and the ability to see across this gulf) come straight from the then popular notion among the Pharisees, regarding souls in Hades.

In the lead up to the punch line, the rich man asks for Lazarus to be sent to warn his five brothers. He is clearly depicted as asking for the disembodied soul of Lazarus, i.e. his ghost, to go and warn the brothers (vv. 27-28, 30). This would also be a mocking of the Pharisaical belief that departed souls could be allowed to appear to living family members for a time after death, a belief probably derived from a Hellenistic reading of the story of king Saul’s attempt to contact Samuel from the dead (see Part 1 under the heading But What About…).

Then comes the main lesson of the parable (v.29), where Jesus has Abraham answer the rich man’s request like this:

They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them.”

Here Jesus presents a denial of the rich man’s request, amounting to a denial of the idea of such a thing being possible. This is a major rebuke to the religious leaders, who deemed themselves the keepers of the Law and the Prophets. How could anyone accuse them of not listening to the Scriptures they so clearly honored and cherished? Yet these Scriptures foretold of the days they were living in and of Messiah’s coming, which was now being fulfilled before their eyes, and yet they had placed themselves in opposition to the very one they claimed to be awaiting.

In the finale Abraham says: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Could Jesus be hinting at the soon to occur resurrection of his friend Lazarus (perhaps this is the reason Jesus named the character in the story Lazarus), and if so, we can see from the account of that event in John 11, that the religious leaders did indeed respond just how Jesus predicted they would {see John 11:45-53 and 12:19}.

Once again we see, that when interpreted in line with the Hebrew Scriptures, the NT is not teaching something contradictory to the OT. This passage does not promote the pagan concept of the immortal soul, which infected Christianity through the early Gentile  church fathers.

Stay tuned for part 3 of this study, in which we will examine the scriptural concept of spirit and how that differs from soul.