The contents of this post are nothing new; I am presenting some material that may be unfamiliar to some readers of the blog. All credit goes to Michael Heiser (PhD) and other scholars whose work in this field has contributed to a more nuanced understanding of Scripture. Links to articles and books by these scholars will be provided at an appropriate juncture.
It became common to assume that Trinitarian concepts found in the New Testament were conceptually unpalatable to the Israelites of Jesus’ day. According to this view, His claim to be divine was more than they could take. While the Incarnation is, without doubt, difficult to grasp (we are still struggling with it today), the idea that Yahweh should visit His people was neither new to the Jews of the Jesus’ day nor difficult for them to accept.
Much of the language that describes Yahweh in the Old Testament is anthropomorphic. In Genesis 3 (quite possibly composed during the Babylonian Exile), Yahweh is described as walking in the Garden of Eden. The broader Ancient Near East (ANE) context of the creation account actually requires the reader to think of Yahweh as holding His council in the Garden, a kind of earthly counter-part (or “shadow”, to use the language of the author of Hebrews) to His council in heaven.
In Genesis 11 Yahweh descends to the plain of Shinar “to see” the tower that the offspring of Noah are building in rebellion against His command to “go forth and multiply”. Their rebellion results in the confusion of tongues and the disinheritance of the nations, which are allotted to the “sons of God”, who are charged with administering them and reporting to God’s council (Deut. 32:8; Ps. 82).
In Genesis 18 Yahweh comes in the form of a man to Abraham, accompanied by two angels. Contra Andrey Rublyev and others who understood the group of three to be a reference to the Trinity, I do not take that position. Nevertheless, one of the three is Yahweh in a human form; but this should not be understood as full-on incarnation as found in the New Testament. Rather, it should be understood as analogous to the way that angels appear as humans when they interact with people, who even refer to them as “men” (e.g. Dan. 9:21).
Yahweh appears in an anthropomorphic fashion to the prophets Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, who describe Him as: sitting on a throne; wearing a robe; having hair whiter than wool. In the Wilderness Wanderings, God is described as “walking” in the Tabernacle, behind the veil. He meets Moses “face to face”; Moses and the elders of Israel eat a meal in His presence and in the presence of His angels on Mt. Horeb. Moses beholds God’s “backside” as God passes by, because no one can see God’s face and live.
As modern post-Enlightenment thinkers we tend to pass over this anthropomorphic language and explain it away as either a necessary literary device with no bearing on experience to describe how ideas came to prophets or as real encounters between God and men, but severely restricted and not part of orthodox conceptions of God in the time of Jesus (Second Temple Judaism). The loss of this anthropomorphic, pre-incarnate view of God has a number of sources, but two of the most important are: Rabbinic Judaism’s abandonment of this worldview in its conflict with Christianity; Protestantism’s move away from inter-testamental literature.
The next post will look at the “Angel of Yahweh”.