From its first pages, the Hebrew texts reveal that the Biblical god, Yahweh, is a complex spiritual being unlike any other in ancient mythology. Though it is tempting to read the God of the Old Testament as a uniform spiritual being, singular in form and personhood, Hebrews claimed Yahweh was something other and separate, which is exactly what the term ‘holy’ means.
The Hebrews held both that Yahweh ‘is one’ but also acknowledge that their Scriptures (the modern Old Testament) depict Yahweh in numerous ways, namely through the Angel of the Lord and the personified attributes of Yahweh.
The Angel of the Lord
Yahweh is completely separate from his creation, and even forbids attempting to replicate his likeness (to do so would disrespect both him and his images, humans). But as the Biblical narrative enfolds, readers see that there is a second Yahweh figure that appears throughout the Hebrew texts: the Angel of Yahweh (or what is usually rendered ‘angel of the LORD’ in English). This messenger (angel) character appears in a physical human form throughout the Old Testament scriptures. He is both Yahweh, but is somehow different from him as many of the most iconic stories of the Bible show.
Consider Moses’s encounter with the burning bush – God does not just appear in the theophany, but also as this physical being:
And the angel of the Yahweh appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed…When Yahweh saw that [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Ex 3:2-5
Joshua has a similar encounter with the angel of the Yahweh before invading Canaan and reveres him as Yahweh, by taking off his shoes as Moses did. The pillar of smoke and fire that led the Hebrews out of the desert was accompanied by this character.
The ambiguous natures of Yahweh and the angel of Yahweh are clarified – or perhaps made more obscure – in a strange passage from Judges 6 when Gideon, a Hebrew tribal leader, and interacts with the angel of Yahweh:
And the angel of Yahweh appeared to him and said to him, “Yahweh is with you, O mighty man of valor.” And Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the Yahweh is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Yahweh bring us up from Egypt?’ But now Yahweh has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
So far, Yahweh and the angel of Yahweh appear separate, the latter being a messenger from the former. Gideon clearly treats this messenger like another man.
And Yahweh turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” And Yahweh saidto him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.”And he said to him, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Please do not depart from here until I come to you and bring out my present and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay till you return.”
Now, it is clear the messenger is himself Yahweh physically speaking with Gideon, which Gideon understands and responds by wanting to present him with an offering:
“So, Gideon went into his house and prepared a young goat and unleavened cakes from an ephahof flour. The meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the terebinth and presented them.And the angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour the broth over them.” And he did so. Then the angel of Yahweh reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes. And fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes. And the angel of Yahweh vanished from his sight.”
Gideon made an offering to the messenger who consumed it in fire as Yahweh does elsewhere in the Scriptures before disappearing. Gideon recognized he has just encountered the ‘angel of Yahweh’ (and it is assumed the reader already recognizes what that means) and continued to speak with Yahweh after the messenger disappeared:
Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of Yahweh. And Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of Yahweh face to face.” But Yahweh said to him, “Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.”Then Gideon built an altar there to Yahweh and called it, Yahweh Is Peace.
Ancient Hebrews clearly had the mental shelf space for Yahweh appearing in physical form, while still maintaining that he was transcendent and unable to be contained (Jer 23:23-24, 1 Kings 8:27). Historians now believe that it was not until the second century AD when the Jewish community began to downplay this embodied Yahweh figure because Christians were claiming it was Jesus.
Attributes of Yahweh
Along with the human-Yahweh figure, the Hebrews often portrayed their god by personifying his attributes. In many cases, Yahweh bound his very personhood to these traits so that they replace himself in texts. Bible readers are often so familiar with these that they often do not consider how odd it is to personify these attributes. Here are some of the common ones:
- The Spirit (or Hebrew ‘breath’) of Yahweh – It animates all living creatures, but certain people are also uniquely endowed with it such as Solomon. It is ‘fills’ (or leaves) humans to accomplish Yahweh’s purposes while remaining distinct from the actual person. Yet the Spirit also sometimes exhibits physical manifestations such as hovering over objects (such as in Genesis 1).
- The Word of Yahweh – This attribute flows from the Spirit (which makes sense as words come from our breath) and is related to God’s will in action. It is distinct from Yahweh as it can come and go while Yahweh remains (1 Sam 3). It can be just audible but is often is often a physical being that can be seen, speak, and reach out with hands (Gen 15).
- The Wisdom of Yahweh – This attribute is closely aligned with his Spirit and is often personified as a woman (as in the Proverbs). It is even described as a workman or child of Yahweh, yet it is also the mode by which God created the world, similar to his Word (Prov 8; Gen 1).
- Yahweh’s Glory – Glory is depicted as an extension of Yahweh himself, similar to the abstract concept of reputation, but it is also sometimes concrete such as the cloud during the Exodus into the wilderness. At other times, God’s glory is a person and the psalmist even claims God’s glory lives inside the Temple (Ps 26).
- The Name – Yahweh’s name is often personified as living and dwelling among God’s people (Deut 12:5) and is often interchanged with God himself. The Hebrews called out to his name, gave thanks to his name, and to this day will not speak it because it is so closely tied to God himself. Strangely, God places his name inside the angel of Yahweh as it led his people in the wilderness.
Understanding the thematic layering of God’s complexity from the Old Testament should allow contemporary readers to recognize the depth of so many New Testament passages. Jesus’s claim to manifest the name of God and to have the glory of the Father takes on new meaning (John 17). When Jude, Christ’s half-brother, claims Jesus led the Israelites in the desert, one recognizes he is calling Jesus the Angel of the Lord (Jude 1:5). Simple commands to not abuse God’s name don’t seem so simple or shallow because God attaches himself to his name.
Consequently, for the Jews, the scandal of Jesus of Nazareth was not that God became a man but rather that Yahweh became this man. Jesus was not a part of any religious or political establishment, but rather confronted that his own people were far from him. Sinners and outcasts of society flocked to him while the pious struggled with him. He told people they were loved but also called them to a new life of self-sacrifice rather than self-fulfillment.
Taken together, the Old Testament shows that Yahweh is a complex being that could be abstract but physical; a person and also a spirit. Understanding this allows readers recognize that the early Christians did not ‘create’ the Trinity but were rather using categories already present in Hebrew culture. Christians did not invent a new religion, nor a new doctrine apart from Judaism. Rather, like isolated instruments warming up before a symphony, the writers of the New Testament demonstrated how the Gospel calls what was revealed into harmony.