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 too 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)
It is important that you catch what Dr. Moore is saying here. Whenever the Targums translate the Hebrew phrase “the word (dabar) of Yahweh” as in the phrase “the word of Yahweh came to . . .,” it is not the Aramaic word memra that is used but the word pitgama (and less seldom the word milla). But it is in these very passages that apologists claim that we see the Memra appearing in the Hebrew scriptures. The fact is that the word memra is not used in the Targums to translate anything in the Hebrew text in those passages which apologists often employ to substantiate the ‘word’ as a personal entity. Rather, it is simply added by the targumists where the Hebrew text might simply have Yahweh or God saying or doing something, so that it reads “the memra of Yahweh” or “the memra of God” did such and such. This fact alone is sufficient to refute the claims of the apologists.
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, memra 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 memra 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 (memra) 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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. Based on Numbers 12:6 we should probably regard visions and dreams as God’s primary method of communicating his word 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. It is probably safe to assume in most, if not in all instances where the means of communication is not explicit, that it was by either a vision or a dream.
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 we’re 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 message. In 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 probable that Abram is seeing Yahweh in some representative form, likely the form of a man. 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’s 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, probably 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 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.
Here are the main points I have argued in this article:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.