Why Matt. 23:37 Is Not A Proof Text For The Deity Of Jesus / A Rebuttal of Jonathan Rowlands’ 2019 Article “Jesus and the Wings of YHWH”

I recently listened to an episode of the Theopologetics podcast hosted by Chris Date about the deity of Jesus. Date, a committed trinitarian, just recently published a debate book with Dale Tuggy, a biblical unitarian (BU) and host of the Trinities podcast. The book grew out of a live debate between the two in May 2019 on the proposition ‘Jesus is Human and Not Divine.’ In this podcast episode, as well as in the live debate (the audio of which I have listened to) and the book (which I have not yet read), Date offered what he considers to be an unassailable proof-text for the deity of Jesus – Matt. 23:37.

In the podcast Date gave a tacit acknowledgment that BUs have plausible sounding explanations for many trinitarian and deity of Jesus proof-texts which are routinely used by trinitarian apologists (TA) in debates with BUs. Date lamented the debate tactic used by many TAs of throwing out a plethora of verses in support of these doctrines in a machine gun like fashion. He said that this enables the BU, who could not possibly give an answer to every text cited, to focus on the easier texts, the “low hanging fruit,” and to give plausible interpretations of those texts, thus giving the appearance that they could possibly have answers for all of the other texts cited. Date’s solution to this is to focus only on a few texts, those which he considers the “most powerful biblical texts in support of the deity of Christ,” among which is Matt 23:37.

In the podcast Date quoted from Jonathan Rowlands’ article (which seems to be the source of Date’s confidence), which I summarily downloaded and read and to which I now offer this rebuttal.

At the bottom of this article I have included the relevant links.

Matthew 23:37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Rowlands’ Premise

Rowlands premise is stated in his abstract:

” . . . the picture of Jesus as a mother hen builds on an established metaphor that uses the imagery of a protective bird to refer to YHWH’s divine protection over Israel. The author therefore asserts this pericope most likely portrays Jesus as the person of YHWH.”

This is indeed a bold assertion and his method of establishing it’s validity is to:

“assess bird imagery in the ANE ( i.e. the ancient Near East) and HB (i.e. the Hebrew Bible) and then analyse the lament (i.e. Matt. 23:37-39) considering this material.”

He also claims that:

“The HB – following the ANE material – uses this imagery exclusively with reference to YHWH. I contend Matthew and Luke infer the same referent and suggest this reading is preferable over alternative readings.”

Evidence from ANE

First, in section 1, Rowlands admits that bird imagery is used of kings with respect to “acts of war, or even siege warfare,” but is quick to add that “when protective bird imagery is used, it always concerns a deity.” I don’t believe he actually establishes this as a fact in the article, but I will get to that later. In section 1.1 he offers evidence of ‘winged sun disk’ images and speaks of sun worship. He gives a quote from a book by two German scholars in German, so I have no idea what it says. He then makes this statement:

“As solar worship became common, YHWH too was imagined in solar terms.”

What exactly it means that YHWH “was imagined in solar terms” is not clear. He offers Ps. 84:11 as a proof-text:

“For Yahweh God is a sun and shield . . .”

I would hardly say that this passage “imagine[s] [YHWH} in solar terms.” Is YHWH also being imagined in terms of defensive battle equipment? These are simply metaphors or analogies, i.e. God, in some way, is like a sun and a shield. The ‘shield‘ metaphor obviously denotes protection, while the ‘sun‘ metaphor is less obvious. Perhaps it denotes dependability, as the sun can be depended on to rise every morning {see Hosea 6:3}. As far as I can tell, this is the only verse in Scripture that directly speaks of God metaphorically as a sun. Both terms (sun and shield) are metaphorical synonyms for a ‘king‘ and so are meant to portray God as a King, and indeed v. 3 explicitly refers to God as King. The Davidic king was also analogized as the ‘shield’ of the people he ruled, as v. 9 of this psalm states, as well as Ps. 89:18. It is also evident that sun imagery was also used of kings, as in 2 Sam. 23:3-4; Ps. 72:5, 17; Song of Solomon 6:10 and Mal. 4:2. Mal. 4:2 may be a reference to the coming Messianic king, who will arise immediately after or in conjunction with the time of God’s judgment. This seems to be confirmed by an allusion to Mal. 4:2 in Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:67-79 {see v. 78}. If so, then the king is directly analogized as “a sun of righteousness,” which is said to have “healing in it’s wings.” This would coincide with the winged sun disk symbol which was ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, before and after the Babylonian captivity. I find it strange that Rowlands, in a section titled ‘Winged-Sun Disks’, fails to mention Mal. 4:2 with it’s clear parallel. If my contention is correct, that Mal. 4:2 refers to the coming Messiah king, then Rowlands’ assertion that this kind of imagery only applied to deities is false.

It is also probable that kings in the Levant used the winged sun disk as a symbol of their kingship rather than as a symbol of some deity. John Walton, in his comment on Ps. 84:11, stated regarding the sun metaphor:

. . . Assyrian kings use the metaphor of their protection spreading over the land like the rays of the sun.

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible p.998

In 2015 a bulla of King Hezekiah’s seal was discovered. On the bulla was the inscription “Belonging to Hezekiah, of Ahaz, King of Judah.” Along with this inscription was an image of a winged sun disk. Now, if Rowlands is correct that such images were used only of deities, then King Hezekiah would have been an idolater, but this would be inconsistent with the portrait of him given in scripture, that of a faithful worshipper of YHWH. Chris Date thinks that the winged sun disk image on the Hezekiah bulla represents YHWH, but Israelites were forbidden to make any image of YHWH. If the portrait of Hezekiah in the HB is to be taken seriously then we must reject this interpretation of the bulla image. It is better to take it as symbolizing Hezekiah’s royal power and protection. It may be true that centuries prior to Hezekiah’s time, in Egypt, deities were represented by winged sun disks and as bird gods, but over time the winged sun disk symbol seems to have evolved into a symbol of royal power and protection, without being equated with deity, throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia.

The material Rowlands presents in sections 1.2 and 1.3 on Egyptian Bird Imagery and other ANE material, I find to be irrelevant to the proper interpretation of Matt 23:37, for the reasons already stated above. Rowlands would have us believe that anyone in the first century reading Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem would have thought of bird gods of Egypt and other ANE cultures. But does this seem reasonable? I think not.

Bird Imagery In the HB

What Rowlands presents in 2.1 is much more relevant to Matt. 23:37, but not necessarily in the way that he thinks. There are a number of passages in the HB where bird metaphors are used of YHWH: Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11-12; Ruth 2:12; Is. 31:5; Ps. 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:4. All of these denote YHWH’s care and protection of his people. The question is, are such metaphors used solely of YHWH in the HB? Well, even if that turned out to be true, would that really necessitate that we understand Jesus’ use of a similar metaphor as being a claim, on his part, to be YHWH. But, in fact, it is not true that this metaphor is never used except of YHWH, despite Chris Date’s vehement attestations in the aforementioned Theopologetics podcast episode. In the list of passages above we see Ruth 2:12, which says:

“May you be richly rewarded by YHWH, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

But what was not mentioned in Rowlands’ article is Ruth 3:9, where Ruth comes to the sleeping Boaz and lies down at his feet. When Boaz awakes during the night he discovers someone laying at his feet and he asks, “Who are you?” Here is how Ruth answered:

“I am your servant Ruth. Spread out your wing over me, since you are my kinsman-redeemer.”

Here Ruth uses the same metaphor regarding Boaz, that Boaz had earlier used of YHWH, entreating him to take her into his care and protection. This is significant but was left out of Rowlands analysis. Here is a clear passage attributing to a man the same metaphor of bird-like protection that is used of YHWH. This may not be the only passage where such imagery is used of a man, as we will see shortly.

I find a number of problems with Rowlands’ assessment of Is. 31:1-5, some of it based on a work by a Y. Shemesh, but since I do not find any relevance in it to a proper understanding of Matt. 23:37, I will not comment on it.

I should note that I find a tendency in Rowlands to exaggerate or overstate the evidence from both the biblical text and from ANE culture. For example, in section 2.1, in commenting on Is. 31:1-5 he says, “In v. 5, the prophet imagines YHWH as a bird.” This is a strange way of expressing the meaning of the Hebrew text, which says:

“Like birds hovering, so will YHWH of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending and rescuing it, passing over and delivering it.”

This is a simile – God’s action towards Jerusalem is compared to birds hovering over their nests to defend their young.

In the last sentence of 2.1 he says that in the ANE culture (as well as in the HB) birds symbolize weakness. He bases this on a Hittite proverb, which he quotes in 1.3, and thinks that this conception of birds symbolizing weakness influenced Is. 31:1-5. Really! But hasn’t he already told us of the pagan deities who were depicted as great falcons or eagles. Were these depictions meant to convey the idea of weakness in these gods? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate to say that some aspects of birds could metaphorically denote weakness, while other aspects could denote strength?

One further example of how he overstates the case is in section 2.2, where in commenting on the story of Ruth he approvingly quotes from R. L. Hubbard Jr.’s commentary on Ruth immediately after quoting Ruth 2:12. Hubbard stated, ” . . . though the oath formula normally has Elohim, Ruth invoked the personal, covenantal name of Yahweh – the only time in the book in which she does so . . .” But in fact, Ruth does not invoke the name YHWH in 2:12, Boaz does. The only time in the book that Ruth herself invokes the name is in 1:17. This may be what Hubbard was referring too, but Rowlands makes it seem like he was referring to 2:12. This kind of inaccuracy pervades the article.

Sections 2.2, 3, 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 are also extraneous. While the information is interesting it has no value in determining the meaning of Matt. 23:37.

He begins section 4.1 asking, “Why does Jesus describe himself as a mother hen? The esoteric nature of the imagery ensures it stands out, but how has it been understood?” But what is so esoteric about Jesus’ use of a well known metaphor? It seems like he is trying to elicit a sense of mystique about Jesus’ saying, but it seems rather straightforward to me. As God’s chosen one from the line of David, destined to reign over the house of Jacob forever {see Lk. 1:32-33}, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus had often longed to fulfill his kingly role of caring for and protecting the inhabitants of the very city from which he is destined to carry out his reign. This would be part of his function as YHWH’s anointed one, the Messiah (more on this shortly). Why does it have to mean anything more than this? In fact, it doesn’t.

He goes on to talk about two camps into which commentators fall regarding this passage: 1. as denoting a generic offer of protection and 2. as an allusion to Wisdom. I concur with Rowlands’ assessment that the Wisdom angle is a dead end – sometimes I just don’t understand why scholars feel the need to find parallels between the NT writings and Jewish Wisdom literature that simply don’t exist. As for the other camp, I am not really sure what he means by “a generic offer of protection.” It seems that the only reason he calls it that is because these commentators don’t see Jesus’ saying this as him making a claim to be YHWH himself.

Section 4.1.2, about Wisdom, is simply irrelevant.

In section 4.1.3 he cites a few figures from church history who have seen in this passage a connotation of Jesus’ deity. But so what! What about all the early church fathers who mentioned this verse without connecting the bird imagery used by Jesus to a self claim to deity? And of the ones he cites it must be determined if they saw a connotation of Jesus’ deity in the passage because of the bird imagery or for some other reason.

Next he moves on to citing modern commentators. He laments how many, seeing the bird imagery as originating in the HB, fail to carry it to his own conclusion.

In section 4.2 he lays out his conclusion in clear terms:

“I contend this pericope portrays Jesus as equating himself with YHWH. By this I mean Jesus is said to be the person of YHWH in some sense. To be more specific . . . Jesus claims to be YHWH, not merely to be acting on the part of YHWH or to be an emissary of YHWH. This claim is ontological rather than economic; it primarily concerns who Jesus is, not what he does.” (Emphasis in original)

But how does he know this is an ontological claim rather than an economic one? In fact, he doesn’t, he is merely asserting it. Why? Because that is the presupposition he started out with. There is no reason, based on anything he has presented in the article, to dismiss out of hand the interpretation that Jesus is speaking precisely as the premier representative of YHWH, i.e. YHWH’s anointed one. This shows that Rowlands approached the subject with the conclusion already in mind. Why else would he summarily dismiss the only truly viable alternative interpretation of Jesus’ words- he doesn’t even give it a proper hearing – while devoting much more time to less viable interpretations? This seems to be a case in point of what Dale Tuggy so wisely put his finger on in a recent Trinities podcast episode. He stated:

“One way you get a PhD in NT studies now is you study with one of the scholars who has famously committed to some version of ‘early high Christology’ and you come up with a new and creative way to try and find divine christology or even trinitarian theology in scripture and BOOM! that’s your thesis. Any kind of creativity in this area is applauded, at least in the evangelical wing of scholarship.”

Trinities podcast episode 306

While Rowlands’ article may not be his PhD thesis, one can certainly see the academic mindset that Tuggy noted at work in it.

Rowlands goes on to say, “I asserted that protective bird imagery was a common HB motif exclusively referring to YHWH’s protection of Israel developed under the influence of ANE iconography.” But as we saw earlier, this is not the case. I noted the passage in Ruth 3:9 and suggested that there might be another passage where this language is used of someone other than YHWH, and that is where we now turn. Lamentations 4:20 gives us further insight into the role of YHWH’s anointed king:

“YHWH’s anointed one, the breath of our nostrils, was caught in their traps; him of whom we said, ‘Under his shadow we shall live among the nations.’ “

Here the prophet poet, speaking as the nation of Israel, laments the loss of the care and protection that should have been theirs through YHWH’s anointed king. While the imagery of wings is not explicit in this passage, it is implicit. In the passages in the psalms, in which this metaphor is mostly found, it is explicitly the shadow of YHWH’s wings which is the place of safety and blessing. Here the anointed king also casts a shadow under which the people may find protection and refuge from the surrounding enemy nations. How the king casts this shadow is ambiguous in this passage and such ambiguity leaves open the possibility that some future anointed one of YHWH could and would apply the metaphor used of YHWH to himself.

More than this, YHWH’s anointed one shares certain epithets with YHWH that reveal how he functions as YHWH’s vicegerent in relation to the covenant people. Let’s see how scripture portrays the anointed one as sharing certain functions with YHWH:

1. King – YHWH: Ps. 149:2; Is. 41:21; 43:15; 44:6
YHWH’s anointed: Ps. 2:2, 6; 18:50; 20:6, 9
2. Shepherd – YHWH: Ps. 28:9; 80:1; Jer. 31:10
YHWH’s anointed: Ps. 78:71-72; Ezel. 34:23-24: Micah 5:4
3. Shield – YHWH: Ps. 18:30; 33:20; 59:11; 115:9, 11
YHWH’s anointed: Ps. 84:9; 89:18

Besides these shared functions between YHWH and his anointed one, the HB also presents the throne and kingdom of Israel as belonging to both:

“I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” 1 Chron. 17:14

“. . . YHWH . . . has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of YHWH over Israel . . . I will establish his kingdom forever.” 1 Chron. 28:5″

“So Solomon sat on the throne of YHWH as king . . . He prospered and all Israel obeyed him.” 1 Chron. 29:23

“Praise be to YHWH your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on his throne as king to rule for YHWH your God.” 2Chron. 9:8

“Don’t you know that YHWH, the God of Israel, has given the kingdom of Israel to David and his descendants forever . . . Now you intend to resist the kingdom of YHWH, which is in the hand of the descendants of David.” 2 Chron. 13:5, 7

The relationship between YHWH and his anointed one should be viewed in this way: YHWH enacts his covenant functions on behalf of his people by means of his anointed one. YHWH acts as king, protector, shield and shepherd through his anointed one. YHWH defeats the enemies of his people through the anointed king, who fights YHWH’s battles. The king performs these functions by YHWH’s power and strength which is vouchsafed to the king upon his anointing {see 1 Sam. 16:13; Ps. 18:29, 34-45, 50; 45:2-7; Ps 110; Is. 11:1-3; Micah 5:4}.

Now, in light of all of this, should Rowlands premise that Jesus is being portrayed as YHWH himself in Matt. 23:37, really be considered the “most plausible reading of this passage [with] the greatest explanatory power concerning the inclusion of this [bird] imagery?”

To answer ‘yes’ to this question one has to imagine that the early readers of this passage could not have conceived of any other sense in which to understand the metaphor of protection and care than that this man Jesus is being portrayed as YHWH himself. Chris Date, in his podcast episode, said that to imagine that the hearers of Jesus’ words would not have immediately made the connection to the HB imagery and conclude that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH is “the height of absurdity.” But I think that any fair-minded person would have to agree that this is simply bluster. It is not at all unreasonable to think that the early readers of this pericope could have imagined that someone claiming to be the anointed one of YHWH from the line of David could adapt the well known metaphor used of YHWH in the HB to himself, especially in light of Lam. 4:20.

I think it is clear that Rowlands has overstated his case and that his (as well as Date’s) confidence in his conclusion is unwarranted.

Additional Considerations

Another aspect of the passage in Matt. 23:37 that is typically used by apologists to establish Jesus’ deity is the fact that he said “. . .how often I longed to gather your children together . . . but you were not willing.” This is read as if Jesus was saying, “How often throughout the centuries I longed . . .” This is then made to mean that Jesus, as YHWH himself, had often longed to gather them prior to his incarnation. But a misreading of a text cannot produce a proof-text, regardless of how many luminaries are involved in the misreading. As I noted earlier, this can be understood simply as Jesus desiring and longing throughout his ministry to fulfill his destined role as Israel’s king. As a faithful Jewish male Jesus would have regularly made pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least three times a year for the three pilgrim feasts – Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Tabernacles. All males were required by law to attend these feasts in Jerusalem. John’s gospel also records that Jesus attended a non-mandatory feast in Jerusalem, the Feast of Dedication, known as Hanukkah. It is possible that Jesus attended other non-required feasts, making it possible that within the three to four years of his public ministry he could have gone to Jerusalem between 10-15 or more times. In each of these visit he would have felt a deep longing to fulfill his destiny as Jerusalem’s king, but this would be dependent upon the Jewish leadership publicly recognizing him as their king and placing themselves under his authority, something they were quite unwilling to do.

Also Jesus seems to be putting himself in the category of “those having been sent to her,” who, like those before him, is being rejected by the leadership, rather than in the category of the one who sent the prophets.

One More Alternative

Now, if someone just cannot see the validity of the interpretation that I have presented above, i.e. that in Matt. 23:37 Jesus is speaking as YHWH’s anointed one who shares certain functions of YHWH in relation to YHWH’s covenant people, and insists that the bird imagery can only be understood as something that only YHWH himself could say, then I offer this alternative interpretation. Jesus is speaking, in his role as a prophet, as YHWH in the first person, like many prophets before him had done. In fact, the whole pericope from v. 13 – v.39 could fall into this category. But someone will object that Jesus does not use the typical prophetic announcement “Thus says YHWH,” prior to speaking on YHWH’s behalf. But there are numerous places in the prophets where this phenomenon can be seen. If someone is known to be a prophet of YHWH it is not necessary for him on every occasion to use the prophetic formula, though they often do, before speaking as YHWH in the first person. Here are some passages which demonstrate this: Deut. 11:14-15; 29:6; Is. 3:1-4; 34:1-8; 53:1-12; Hosea 14:1-8; Micah 1:6-7; Habakkuk 1:5-6; Zech. 14:1-3. This may be the way the author of 5 Ezra, which Rowlands quotes from in 4.2, understood this text, since he puts the words spoken by Jesus in the mouth of YHWH himself.

Links

1.Rowlands’ Article: https://www.academia.edu/38624745/Jesus_and_the_Wings_of_YHWH_Bird_Imagery_in_the_Lament_over_Jerusalem_Matt_23_37_39_Luke_13_34_35_ (Right click and choose “Open link in new tab”)


2.Tuggy – Date Debate : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c35_uFjEbx8&t=1314s

3.Theopologetics Episode: https://www.theopologetics.com/2020/09/01/theopologetics-live-002-the-deity-of-jesus-christ/



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.

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