Rabbinic views . . . On the oneness of God

In a “counter-missionary handbook” entitled, “The Jewish Response to Missionaries”, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz writes the following: “While Judaism believes that G-d manifests Himself to His creation (humanity) in many ways, (i.e. as a judge or a protector,) G-d’s essence itself is indivisible and therefore without any possibility of distinction. Something that transcends both time and space cannot be described as consisting of three different aspects. The moment we attribute any such distinctions to G-d’s essence, we negate His absolute oneness and unity. The following verses from the Hebrew Bible, when correctly translated, further substantiate this fundamental and crucial Jewish belief in the Oneness of God: “See now that I am He and there is no god with Me” (Deuteronomy 32:39) and ‘There is nothing else besides G-d’ (Deuteronomy 4:35). Jews are also forbidden to envision that G-d has ‘any likeness of anything.’ Deuteronomy 4:15-19 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9 are only some of the many biblical references prohibiting Jews from believing that G-d dwells in bodily form, as claimed in the New Testament.’


שׁמע ישׂראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.

This is the great confession of the Jewish faith upon which the Jewish conception of God is based. Does the New Testament deny this fundamental principle found in the Tenach and effectively embrace polytheism? Do Christians worship three gods?

Let us examine how the God of Israel has revealed himself in the Tenach. God is introduced in Genesis using the plural noun, elohim, (אלהים), which literally means Gods. Thus, immediately the plurality of God is revealed. Not only is the plural noun used but God makes it even more plain by saying, “Let us make man in our image.” The same word, elohim, is also used when referring to other gods but it is clear from the context when it is speaking of the elohim of Israel as opposed to the other elohim.

Now consider carefully the actual words of the Sh’ma, which declares the unity or oneness of God. “Sh’ma Israel, YHWH eloh nu, YHWH echad,” which literally translated is “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our Gods is YHWH a unity.”

The Sh’ma was given so that Israel would understand that, although there is a plurality revealed in the God of Israel, that plurality is revealed as echad, a complete unity. The God of Israel is not like the pagan conception of many gods warring among themselves for supremacy. The God of Israel is a complete unity in purpose, action and essence but nevertheless manifests himself in three personalities. The word echad means one in the sense of a compound unity rather than one in an absolute sense. For example Genesis refers to the union of evening and morning as day “one” and likewise to the union of a man and woman as “one” flesh using the term echad. If God had intended to emphasise His absolute oneness rather than His unity there are words that specifically connote singularity, such as yachid, rak, or bilti.

Scripture is the absolute authority for the revelation of God, yet Rambam, in formulating the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, chose to go against the revelation of scripture and describe God using the term yachid, which means one in an absolute sense. This he did primarily to counter the claims of Christianity, rather than to explain Scripture.

Another of the principles formulated by Rambam says that God is invisible and has no form whatsoever. However, through the revelation of scripture we see numerous instances where God has appeared in the form of an angel or in the form of a man. At the same time Scripture declares that we cannot see God and live. Can we not see God because He is invisible and has absolutely no form whatsoever or is it rather because of his consuming holiness that sinful man cannot look upon Him and live? Before Adam and Eve fell they were able to experience close fellowship with God, but after they had sinned they were banished from His presence. God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, but the Scriptures reveal many instances where God has broken into his creation and appeared to man by taking on human form.

The Lord appeared to Abraham, by the terebinths of Mamre, according to the Scriptures (Genesis 18). The word of God tells us that three men appeared, but in reading the entire account it is very clear that one of them was the Lord, and that the other two who went on ahead to destroy Sodom were Angels. The scripture says, “and the men turned from thence, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham stood yet before the Lord.” Later, when this same celestial being destroys Sodom, the Scripture says, “the Lord (YHWH) caused to rain upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord (YHWH) out of heaven.”

These passages, which are sometimes called theophanies, are often explained away as the angel of the Lord appearing in His Name. Nevertheless, Scripture addresses this person by the Divine Name. This does not imply that God is therefore subject to the confines of creation. God is Spirit and as the Creator is outside of the confines of His own creation, but God can take on form for the purpose of revealing himself to humankind who are subject to the confines of creation if He so chooses.

Another example in Scripture is that of Jacob wrestling with the “angel”: And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. . . And he said, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” And he said unto him, “What is thy name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” And Jacob asked him, and said, “Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.” And he said, “Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?” And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:22-30).

When Jacob asked the man to bless him, it was a prayer to God who had appeared to him in the form of a man! This was a definitive moment for Jacob because it was then that he was given the name Israel. The man touched Jacob in his hip near the tendon and from that day on Jacob walked with a limp as a constant reminder that he had wrestled with God face to face in the form and likeness of a man. He called the place “Peniel” which means “face of God” because he saw God and lived.

In the same way that Jacob wrestled with God, and his strength was broken, the descendants of Jacob wrestle with the concept of God coming to them in the person of the Messiah. Jewish people are still struggling with a man who claimed not only to be the Messiah, but also to be one with God, and to have existed with God from eternity. The Messiah could not accomplish what he does unless he is “Emmanuel,” which literally means “God with us.” The Jewish peoples’ struggle is not with a foreign religion of the Gentiles, but with their own Scriptures, which in some cases they are too afraid to translate literally. The prophet Isaiah said: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.” Is. 9:6-7 In the 1917 JPS translation into English the translators chose not to translate the highlighted portion, but merely gave a transliteration of the Hebrew.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the Messiah in the following terms: Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS (Jeremiah 23:5; 6).

Daniel was given a vision of the Messiah receiving worship from all peoples and nations: I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14).

The Messiah is not and could not be a mere man for the Scriptures declare that his existence is from eternity: But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2).

Although the Messiah was to be a son of David, David himself calls him “My Lord.” Why would David address a mere man in this way? The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies” (Psalms 110:1-2).

The Lord spoke through the prophet Zechariah, saying, “and they will look to me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and will grieve bitterly for him, as one grieves for his firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). Jesus is the Messiah and Saviour who has suffered with and for His people: For he said, ‘Surely they are my people, children that will not lie’: so he was their Saviour. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old (Isaiah 63:9).

The LORD said that he would himself become a stumbling stone for Israel (Isaiah 8:14). It is in the Messiah that God has become a stumbling stone to Israel, because they cannot accept his suffering to atone for their sin. “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” Isaiah 63:9.

The God of Israel, in the person of Jesus the Messiah, has completely identified himself with the suffering of his people. Those of his own people, who despise and reject him, will nevertheless continue to suffer, even according to their own interpretation of Isaiah chapter 53. Rabbi Eliyya de Vidas (1575 AD) revealed remarkable insight when he wrote: “The meaning of ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, . . . bruised for our iniquities,’ is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself” (From The Servant of Jehovah by David Baron pg. 13).

It is written in the Torah that God would speak to his people in the person of the Messiah and if they fail to listen to His word, they will be called to give account for their unbelief. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him (Deuteronomy18:19).

We believe that both the Old and New Testament revelation of the Messiah confirms that Jesus is the Messiah and as our risen Saviour is indeed worthy of our worship (See Daniel 7:13-14 & 2 Corinthians 5:16).

Despite a deliberate attempt to brush aside the claims of Jesus as of no consequence the mere fact that he is disparagingly referred to as “that man,” and that His name is continually blasphemed, illustrates the point that the question of who Jesus is, has always been, and will continue to be, a vital issue within the Jewish community.