Binitarianism In The OT – Truth or Myth (Part 1)

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 there 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. In fact, we have a NT commentary on this passages which plainly states what I am saying:

He (Moses) was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God, through the agency (lit. hand) of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.

Acts 7:35b

Note that it is said that God sent Moses, even though it was through an angel that he did it. 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 the time 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.

There is another aspect of this passage that Heiser doesn’t touch on but which most apologists promoting the two Yahwehs theory do indeed think affirms this theory. In verse 21 we read:

“Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion . . .”

What the apologists claim, based on the statement “he will not forgive your rebellion,” is that this angel must be a divine being since he has the prerogative to forgive sins, and only God has that prerogative. Maybe I am missing something here but does the text not say that “he will not forgive your rebellion.” It is assumed by the apologists that this means he has the prerogative but will choose not to forgive. But this is merely an assumption on their part. The grammar can just as readily mean that the angel will not forgive because he is not authorized to, it is not part of his job description or he is not able to do so. The phrase consists of the negative particle lo (not) followed by the Qal imperfect form of nasa (will forgive). That this construction need not imply the ability to perform the stated action can be seen by the use of the same or similar construction in other passages, such as Num. 14:30; 20:24; Is. 46:7; Jer. 34:3. In each of these passages the imperfect verb implies an inability to perform the stated action instead of a volitional act. Therefore it is not necessary to take this statement as an assertion of an ontological ability which this angel possesses, but as a statement of what the angel is not authorized or able to do.

I want to propose 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, and, in fact, this is what I have come to believe. 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 23:201.

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!

Now, this agent is said the be “sen[t] … before you(Heb. shalach lapaneka) , the “you” referring to the Israelites, not to Moses. Sometimes this phrase can denote someone going ahead of someone else, to arrive somewhere before them. But the phrase can also denote to be before someone as their leader, and this is what it means here. Did God appoint a non-human agent to be the leader of the Israelites or did he appoint Moses? The best way to answer that question is with scripture itself:

Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

Micah 6:4

Note that the phrase “sent before you” (shalach lapaneka) is the exact phrase found in Ex. 23:20 and it is explicitly in reference to Moses. While most versions simply translate this phrase literally, some versions do translate the idiom:

Complete Jewish Bible – ” I sent Moshe, Aharon and Miryam to lead you.”
CEV – “I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to be your leaders.”
GW, GNT, NET – ” I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.”
The Message – “I sent Moses to lead you— and Aaron and Miriam to boot!”
NCB – ” I sent as your leaders Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
NIV – “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.”

So here we have an explicit statement that Moses was sent before the Israelites i.e to lead them, the exact statement made about the ‘angel’ in Ex. 23:20.

Further evidence in favor of this proposal 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. If this text, which we know is referring to Moses, would have instead said, “And by a malak Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt and by a malak he was kept,” then every commentator and expositor would claim that God did these things by a supernatural being i.e. an angel, but it would still be referring to Moses.

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.

There is no reason not to understand the agent in Num. 20:16 to be Moses. Moses (and Aaron) alone was sent to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses was the agent by which God would keep them and lead them to the land of promise. Many verses attribute the bringing of the Israelites out of Egypt to Moses – Ex. 3:10, 12; 14:11; 17:3; 32:1, 7, 23; 33:1; Deut. 9:12; 1 Sam. 12:6-8; Acts 7:34-36. Because of a mistranslation of the word malak in Num. 20:16, as well as in 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 non-human 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 – Savior (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. 14:19-202, 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 personage 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. 9:27.

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.

Another objection that could be raised concerns 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 parenthetical 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.

There is one final objection that must be answered. The agent is assigned to bring the Israelites into the promised land but Moses never makes it into the promised land, so this eliminates Moses as the agent. This is not really a formidable objection. First, the wording in v. 20 need not imply that the agent would enter into the land himself but only that he would lead them to the land. This Moses does, bringing them to the very border of the land. Second, it was God’s intention at this point in the narrative for Moses to enter the land of Canaan. It is only later in the narrative {Num. 20:6-12} that God prohibits Moses from entering the land because he did not honor the Lord properly before the people. Therefore, this objection does not eliminate Moses as the agent.

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 way of denoting that it is really God himself, and because this certain ‘angel’ is said to have brought them out of Egypt in Ex. 23:20 and Is. 63:9, then the angel must really be God himself, but not the invisible Yahweh but the visible Yahweh, nevertheless it is Yahweh himself. But I have shown that these two passages are more likely referring to Moses, who is the only agent recorded in Scripture who was commissioned to bring the Israelites out of Egypt { see Ex. 3:10-12}. So what exactly does “by his presence” refer?

The only thing in the whole narrative, recorded in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, that the ‘presence’ (Heb. panim lit. face) is associated with is the pillar of cloud and fire. Now there are too 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 Num. 9:15-23. That this ‘presence’ of Yahweh in the cloud is mediated by an angel is shown in Ex. 14:19. This is what Heiser fails to grasp, that the presence of God can be mediated through his agents, especially his non-human ones, without this implying an ontological or metaphysical oneness between God and the agent, which is what Heiser simply assumes. As Aubrey R. Johnson stated in The One and the Many In the Israelite Conception of God, with regard to how agency worked in the ancient Semitic world: “In Semitic thought this messenger-representative was conceived of as being personally — and in his very words — the presence of the sender.”

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
JETS 52-3 499-518 Malone

End Notes

  1. It is worth pointing out that Justin Martyr, the second century apologist, who was the first to postulate that the Angel of the Lord was the pre-incarnate son of God, and upon whom modern apologist rely for this supposition, understood this ‘angel’ in Ex. 23:20 to be Joshua, the servant of Moses. What is significant about this is that he is the first to have commented on this passage. Here is his thoughts on this passage from his “Dialogue With Trypho” ch. 75:

“Moreover, in the book of Exodus we have also perceived that the name of God Himself which, He says, was not revealed to Abraham or to Jacob, was Jesus, and was declared mysteriously through Moses. Thus it is written: ‘And the Lord spake to Moses, Say to this people, Behold, I send My angel before thy face, to keep thee in the way, to bring thee into the land which I have prepared for thee. Give heed to Him, and obey Him; do not disobey Him. For He will not draw back from you; for My name is in Him.’ Now understand that He who led your fathers into the land is called by this name Jesus, and first called Auses (Oshea)[i.e. Joshua]. For if you shall understand this, you shall likewise perceive that the name of Him who said to Moses, ‘for My name is in Him,’ was Jesus.”

Later in the 2nd century Tertullian said the same thing:

And accordingly it is agreed that the Son of God Himself spake to Moses, and said to the people, “Behold, I send mine angel before thy”—that is, the people’s—“face, to guard thee on the march, and to introduce thee into the land which I have prepared thee: attend to him, and be not disobedient to him; for he hath not escaped thy notice, since my name is upon him.” For Joshua was to introduce the people into the land of promise, not Moses. Now He called him an “angel,” on account of the magnitude of the mighty deeds which he was to achieve (which mighty deeds Joshua the son of Nun did, and you yourselves read), and on account of his office of prophet announcing (to wit) the divine will; just as withal the Spirit, speaking in the person of the Father, calls the forerunner of Christ, John, a future “angel,” through the prophet: “Behold, I send mine angel before Thy”—that is, Christ’s—“face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee.”

Tertullian, Answer To The Jews , ch. 9

2.This is undoubtedly the same angel mentioned in Ex. 32:34 & 33:2 whose only role was to represent the presence of Yahweh, through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, going out in front of the camp of Israel to guide them through the wilderness to the promised land. This angel is never depicted in the narrative as ever addressing the Israelites, as this was the role that Moses assumed. That scripture speaks of God himself being in the cloud {see Ex. 13:21; 14:24; Num. 14:14; Neh. 9:12} leads many to misunderstand these passages because they do not understand the concept of agency. That God could send an angel to guide the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and of fire, and then this be recorded as God himself doing it, is just the way agency works. The principal sends the agent, who then acts on the principal’s behalf, with the principal’s authority and power behind him, and then the principal gets the credit for doing it.


Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

5 thoughts on “Binitarianism In The OT – Truth or Myth (Part 1)”

  1. Excellent. That Moses is God’s messenger who led Israel out of Egypt, and not a non-human angel, is a great insight. Thanks for putting this all together.


  2. Just re-read this and wanted to say thanks for taking the time to share your research on this. Your point on illeism really takes the wind out of these strange polytheistic/trinitarian readings of these passages. And the differences between a real binitarianism within one God vs a “two powers” scheme in which the one God has an exalted creature at His right hand is also such an important point to drive home. Thanks again.


  3. I’m really enjoying your articles. I’m seeing this reference to binitarianism in 2nd temple judaism as justification for the trinity as an apostolic idea thrown around a lot. Your work here is really helpful. thank you.


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