I’m still thinking about the email I got a couple of weeks ago that mentioned a 14-year-old Jewish girl who is “interested in Yeshua as Messiah but has questions about the Trinity and the Shema balancing out.” As I noted in my earlier blog on this topic, you don’t exactly have to make the Trinity and the Shema balance out because they’re different kinds of statements. The Trinity seeks to describe the nature of God, whereas the Shema tells us who God is and how we are to relate to him. Still, the question remains, how can we say that God is one and believe in a Messiah who is God with us, or Immanuel?
Let’s stay in the neighborhood of the Shema itself, namely the Torah, while we consider this question.
The Torah doesn’t describe God as absolutely One, but as a complex One. Or I should say that the Torah records God describing himself that way, since God is the ultimate author of the Torah. There, when God names himself, he uses multiple terms to bring out complexity within his oneness.
In Exodus, after Moses suffers a setback in his effort to lead the Israelites out of bondage, “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name YHVH’” (Ex. 6:2–3). Notice that Deity in these two verses has three different names—“God,” “YHVH” or Lord, and “El Shaddai.”
Now you might say that these are just three different names for one and the same God, which doesn’t suggest any division within his oneness, but just helps us understand different aspects of it. That’s true, and that’s the point. Only God can name himself. Back in Exodus 3, Moses asks God what his name is, and God doesn’t say, “You can describe me by whatever name works for you—since I’m ultimately beyond naming anyway.” Rather, he answers, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh—I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.” And then he continues,
“Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations.”
God has a name for himself, but to describe himself more fully he doesn’t limit himself to that one name, but uses several.
The first name that appears in the Torah is “Elohim” or “God,” not the personal name YHVH. Commentator Nahum Sarna explains,
The preference for the use of ’elohim in [Genesis 1], rather than the sacred divine name YHVH, may well be conditioned by theological considerations; the term ’elohim, connoting universalism and abstraction, is most appropriate for the transcendent God of Creation. (JPS Torah commentary on Genesis 1)
Only at the conclusion of the creation account does the name YHVH appear, and then it is used repeatedly in Genesis 2–3 in combination with the more generic name Elohim. Sarna continues,
The repeated use here may be to establish that the absolutely transcendent God of Creation (’elohim) is the same immanent, personal God (YHVH) who shows concern for the needs of human beings.
The ancient rabbis noticed this same usage, “the Lord God” and explained it in terms similar to those of the 20th century commentator, as joining two very diverse aspects of the one God. But they explained this with a story:
This may be a compared to a king who had some empty glasses. Said the king: “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract and snap.” What then did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and they remained unbroken. Even so, said the Holy One, blessed be He: “If I create the world on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and of mercy, and may it then stand!” Hence the expression, The Lord God.
This is from the Soncino edition of Midrash Rabbah Genesis 12:15 (on Gen. 2:4), which comments, “The rabbis hold that Adonai (YHVH) refers to God under His Attribute of Mercy, while Elohim describes Him as a God of judgment.” So, are there two Gods? Of course not! But God in his fullness provides two different names, emphasizing two different aspects of his being, so that we can understand him a bit better. Perhaps that’s a step toward God revealing himself in “three persons” to use terms similar to trinitarian thinking. But there’s still more to consider—in another blog—closer to home within the Torah itself.