God Described as a Plural Being in the Old Testament
to the perception of some the doctrine of God as a unity of persons
was not something dreamed up
by first century Christians. In confessing Jesus as the only Begotten Son of God, coequal with God the Father
early Christians were accused by some of embracing the pagan view of there being many dieties. In reality,
the origin of God described as a plural being is found deeply rooted in the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures
beginning with the account of creation in Genesis, Chapter 1. The following is an article on the subject from
the website, Jews for Jesus.
The Name Elohim
It is generally agreed that Elohim is a plural
noun having the masculine plural ending "im." The very word
Elohim used of the true God in Genesis
1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the
earth," is also used in Exodus
20:3, "You shall have no other gods (Elohim) before Me,"
and in Deuteronomy
13:2, "…Let us go after other gods (Elohim)…" While
the use of the plural Elohim does not prove a Tri-unity, it certainly
opens the door to a doctrine of plurality in the Godhead since it is
the word that is used of the one true God as well as for the many
The Name Eloah
If the plural form Elohim was the only form available for a reference to God, then conceivably the argument might be made that the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures had no other alternative but to use the word Elohim for both the one true God and the many false gods. However, the singular form for Elohim (Eloah) exists and is used in such passages as Deuteronomy 32:15-17 and Habakkuk 3:3. This singular form could have easily been used consistently. Yet it is only used 250 times, while the plural form is used 2,500 times. The far greater use of the plural form again turns the argument in favor of plurality in the Godhead rather than against it.
Another case in point regarding Hebrew grammar is that often when God speaks of himself, he clearly uses the plural pronoun:
Genesis 1:26: Then God (Elohim) said,"Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.…"
He could hardly have made reference to angels since man was created in the image of God and not of angels.
The use of the plural pronoun can also be seen in:
Genesis 3:22: Then the LORD God (YHVH Elohim) said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us…"
Genesis 11:7: "Come, let Us go down, and there confuse their language…"
Isaiah 6:8: Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?"
One point that also comes out of Hebrew is the fact that often nouns and adjectives used in speaking of God are plural. Some examples are as follows:
Ecclesiastes 12:1: "Remember now your creator…" [Literally: creators.]
Psalm 149:2: "Let Israel rejoice in their Maker." [Literally: makers.]
Joshua 24:19: "…holy God…" [Literally: holy Gods.]
Isaiah 54:5: "For your Maker is your husband…" [Literally: makers, husbands.]
If we are to base our theology on the Scriptures alone, we have to
say that on the one hand they affirm God's unity, while at the same
time they tend towards the concept of a compound unity allowing for a
plurality in the Godhead. This cannot be overemphasized. The description of God as more than one Person is undeniably supported by the Old Testament Scriptures. To reject this is to reject the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures themselves!
Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!
Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, has always been Israel's great confession. It is this verse more than any other that is used to affirm the fact that God is one and is often used to contradict the concept of plurality in the Godhead. But is it a valid use of this verse?
On one hand, it should be noted that the very words "our God" are in the plural in the Hebrew text and literally mean "our Gods." However, the main argument lies in the word "one," which is a Hebrew word, echad. A glance through the Hebrew text where the word is used elsewhere can quickly show that the word echad does not mean an absolute "one" but a compound "one." For instance, in Genesis 1:5, the combination of evening and morning comprise one (echad) day. In Genesis 2:24, a man and a woman come together in marriage and the two "shall become one (echad) flesh." In Ezra 2:64, we are told that the whole assembly was as one (echad), though of course, it was composed of numerous people. Ezekiel 37:17 provides a rather striking example where two sticks are combined to become one (echad). The use of the word echad in Scripture shows it to be a compound and not an absolute unity.
There is a Hebrew word that does mean an absolute unity and that
is yachid, which is found in many Scripture
passages,2 the emphasis being on the meaning of "only." If
Moses intended to teach God's absolute oneness as over against a
compound unity, this would have been a far more appropriate word.
God Is At Least Two
Elohim and YHVH Applied to Two Personalities
As if to even make the case for plurality stronger, there are situations in the Hebrew Scriptures where the term Elohim is applied to two personalities in the same verse. One example is Psalm 45:7-8:
"Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions."
It should be noted that the first Elohim is being addressed and the second Elohim is the God of the first Elohim. And so God's God has anointed Him with the oil of gladness.
A second example is Hosea 1:7:
"Yet I will have mercy on the house of Judah, will save them by the LORD their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword or battle, by horses or horsemen."
The speaker is Elohim who says He will have mercy on the house of Judah and will save them by the instrumentality of YHVH, their Elohim. So Elohim number one will save Israel by means of Elohim number two.
Not only is Elohim applied to two personalities in the same verse, but so is the very name of God. One example is Genesis 19:24 which reads:
"Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens."
Clearly we have YHVH number one raining fire and brimstone from a second YHVH who is in heaven, the first one being on earth.
A second example is Zechariah 2:8-9:
For thus says the LORD of Hosts: "He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he that touches you touches the apple of His eye. For surely I will shake My hand against them, and they shall become spoil for their servants. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me."
Again, we have one YHVH sending another YHVH to perform a specific task.
The author of the Zohar sensed plurality in the Tetragrammaton and wrote:
"Come and see the mystery of the word YHVH: there are three steps, each existing by itself: nevertheless they are One, and so united that one cannot be separated from the other. The Ancient Holy One is revealed with three heads, which are united into one, and that head is three exalted. The Ancient One is described as being three: because the other lights emanating from him are included in the three. But how can three names be one? Are they really one because we call them one? How three can be one can only be known through the revelation of the Holy Spirit."
God Is Three
How Many Persons Are There?
If the Hebrew Scriptures truly do point to plurality, the question arises, how many personalities in the Godhead exist? We have already seen the names of God applied to at least two different personalities. Going through the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that, in fact, three and only three distinct personalities are ever considered divine.
1. First, there are the numerous times when there is a reference to the Lord YHVH. This usage is so frequent that there is no need to devote space to it.
2. A second personality is referred to as the Angel of YHVH. This individual is always considered distinct from all other angels and is unique. In almost every passage where He is found He is referred to as both the Angel of YHVH and YHVH Himself. For instance, in Genesis 16:7 He is referred to as the Angel of YHVH, but then in 16:13 as YHVH Himself. In Genesis 22:11 He is the Angel of YHVH, but God Himself in 22:12. Other examples could be given. A very interesting passage is Exodus 23:20-23 where this angel has the power to pardon sin because God's own name YHVH is in him, and, therefore, he is to be obeyed without question. This can hardly be said of any ordinary angel. But the very fact that God's own name is in this angel shows His divine status.
3. A third major personality that comes through is the Spirit of God, often referred to as simply the Ruach Ha-kodesh. There are a good number of references to the Spirit of God among which are Genesis 1:2, 6:3; Job 33:4; Psalm 51:11; Psalm 139:7; Isaiah 11:2, etc. The Holy Spirit cannot be a mere emanation because He contains all the characteristics of personality (intellect, emotion and will) and is considered divine.
So then, from various sections of the Hebrew Scriptures there is a
clear showing that three personalities are referred to as divine and
as being God: the Lord YHVH, the Angel of YHVH and the Spirit of God.
The Three Personalities in the Same Passage
Because of the significance of the first passage, it will be quoted:
"Listen to Me, O Jacob, and Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. Indeed My hand also has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has stretched out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand up together. All of you, assemble yourselves, and hear! Who among them has declared these things? The LORD has loved him; he shall do His pleasure on Babylon, and His arm shall be against the Chaldeans. I, even I, have spoken; yes, I have called him, I have brought him, and his way will prosper. Come near to Me, hear this: I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord GOD and His Spirit have sent me."
It should be noted that the speaker refers to himself as the one who is responsible for the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is clear that he cannot be speaking of anyone other than God. But then in verse 16, the speaker refers to himself using the pronouns of I and me and then distinguishes himself from two other personalities. He distinguishes himself from the Lord YHVH and then from the Spirit of God. Here is the Tri-unity as clearly defined as the Hebrew Scriptures make it.
In the second passage, there is a reflection back to the time of
the Exodus where all three personalities were present and active. The
Lord YHVH is referred to in verse 7, the Angel of YHVH in verse 9 and
the Spirit of God in verses 10, 11 and 14. While often throughout the
Hebrew Scriptures God refers to Himself as being the one solely
responsible for Israel's redemption from Egypt, in this passage three
personalities are given credit for it. Yet, no contradiction is seen
since all three comprise the unity of the one Godhead.
The teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures, then, is that there is a plurality of the Godhead. The first person is consistently called YHVH while the second person is given the names of YHVH, the Angel of YHVH and the Servant of YHVH. Consistently and without fail, the second person is sent by the first person. The third person is referred to as the Spirit of YHVH or the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit. He, too, is sent by the first person but is continually related to the ministry of the second person.
If the concept of the Tri-unity in the Godhead is not Jewish according to modern rabbis, then neither are the Hebrew Scriptures. Jewish Christians cannot be accused of having slipped into paganism when they hold to the fact that Jesus is the divine Son of God. He is the same one of whom Moses wrote when he said:
"Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him. But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off."
New Testament Light
In keeping with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament clearly recognizes that there are three persons in the Godhead, although it becomes quite a bit more specific. The first person is called the Father while the second person is called the Son. The New Testament answers the question of Proverbs 30:4: "…What is His name, and what is his Son's name, if you know?" His son's name is Y'shua (Jesus). In accordance with the Hebrew Scriptures, he is sent by God to be the Messiah, but this time as a man instead of as an angel. Furthermore, He is sent for a specific purpose: to die for our sins. In essence, what happened is that God became a man (not that man became God) in order to accomplish the work of atonement.
The New Testament calls the third person of the Godhead the Holy Spirit. Throughout the New Testament he is related to the work of the second person, in keeping with the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures. We see, then, that there is a continuous body of teaching in both the Old and New Testaments relating to the Tri-unity of God.
Ancient sages struggled with several portions of the Hebrew Scriptures and their implications vis-?-vis God's plurality. Deuteronomy 6:4 (the Sh'ma) is but one such passage. Isaiah 6:8 is another: "Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" However, the first "proof" passage on God as more than one appears in the first chapter of the Hebrew Scriptures: "And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26).3
Rabbis who believed that each word of the Hebrew Scriptures, each letter, is God's revelation had to admit that God spoke to himself and referred to himself in the plural. How can that be, when we know there is only one God?
Much in Genesis 1:26 seems to confirm the idea that there is one God whose oneness is complex. The idea of God's nature being triune (three in one) is mind-boggling. Contemplation of the infinite is always confusing to finite beings. Nevertheless, certain illustrations can help people grapple with the issue of a complex unity.
More on the Angel of the Lord
The modern mind cannot conceive of angelic beings. This is due in part to medieval art and literature, which relegate belief in angels to the realm of superstition. Or perhaps we like to try to explain away that which makes us uncomfortable. Indeed, there are those who would even dismiss the belief in God as mere superstition.
Yet virtually every philosopher who has recognized the God of the Bible has also believed in angels—not the cute cherubs of Christmas cards, but mighty and powerful spiritual beings who are servants of the Most High God.
In Hebrew, the word for angel" is malakh. A malakh is a messenger, either human or angelic.Yet there is one malakh who stands out from all the rest. The Bible calls him simply, "the angel of the Lord."
Since the time of Abraham, our people have known about the angel of the Lord. In the Talmud he is given the name Metatron, which indicates a special relationship with God. One meaning of meta and thronos, two Greek words, gives the sense of "one who serves behind the throne"2 of God. He is also known as "the Prince of the Countenance" because of the close proximity between this angel and God Himself. The implication for the malakh of the Lord is that he is, above all, the messenger of God, the one sent by God, the one who represents God himself.
His name, then, refers not to his nature but to his function,
which is the Being who serves as the supreme messenger of the One
True God. This viewpoint can be readily supported from Scripture.
The Angel Takes Action
Throughout the Tenach, the angel of the Lord often appeared in human form. He served in three ways—guiding the people of Israel, effecting miracles and executing judgment on Israel's enemies.
He is first mentioned in Genesis 16. After Hagar fled into the wilderness to escape from Sarah, Abraham's wife, the angel of the Lord found her and admonished Hagar to return to her mistress. He then promised to greatly multiply her descendants and prophesied the birth of Ishmael, who as a result became the progenitor of the Arab nations.
In Genesis 22, read every Yom Kippur, it is the angel of the Lord who called from heaven to stay the hand of Abraham as he took the knife to slay his son Isaac. In Exodus 14, he was in the pillar of cloud guiding the Israelites through the wilderness after their flight from Egypt. In Numbers 22:22-35, the angel of the Lord appeared to Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet, and gave him orders to be followed.
He instructed Gideon in Judges 6, telling him to deliver Israel from Midian. He prophesied the birth of Samson (Judges 13), directed Elijah to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19) and commanded King David to build the altar in Jerusalem which later became the sight of the temple of Solomon (1 Chronicles 21:18).
The angel of the Lord is also presented to us as an avenger of
evil, a judge. When Assyria, which was one of the ancient super
powers, threatened to destroy Israel (700's B.C.E.), it was the angel
of the Lord who killed the 185,000 Assyrian soldiers besieging
Kings 19:35). Yet this angel, powerful in battle, was gentle
enough to succor a fleeing and frightened Hagar in the wilderness.
He's More Than An Ordinary Angel
This angel was perceived in a unique and remarkable way by those with whom he came in contact. In ancient times it was common knowledge that if one saw God it meant death for the individual. God stated this directly to Moses on Mt. Sinai: "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). After Hagar saw the angel of the Lord, it is recorded that she called him Lord and marveled that she was still alive after having seen him (Genesis 16:13). Jacob reacted in similar fashion when he wrestled with a "man" during the night. The man blessed Jacob and changed the patriarch's name to Israel. Jacob responded by calling the place of this encounter Peniel, "saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared"' (Genesis 32:30). Jacob identified the "man" as God. Later in life, when Jacob blessed his son Joseph and his children, he said, "The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my Shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm…" (Genesis 48:15, 16). The parents of Samson, likewise, recognized the angel of the Lord to be God, "We are doomed to die! …We have seen God!" (Judges 13:22).
The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2) but then in verse 4 "God called to him from within the bush…" When the Lord delivered the children of Israel from Egypt, the Bible says, "By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light…" (Exodus 13:21). But we read again in chapter 14, verse 19, that the "angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel's army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel" (Exodus 14:19,20). And then in verse 24 we are told that the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and cloud, and fought against Egypt! Who is involved in this pillar—the angel of the Lord or God Himself?
In Judges 6, the angel of the Lord appeared to a timid Gideon and sat down under an oak tree to initiate a conversation with him (vss. 11,12). In verse 13, we see Gideon responding, but in verse 14 something strange happens: all of a sudden it is the Lord who is seen talking to Gideon! In verse 16, the conversation with the Lord continues, but in verse 20, it is the angel of God who is in conversation. The next verse relates a miracle performed by the angel.
Then Gideon responds: "'Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the
angel of the LORD face to face!' But the LORD said to him, 'Peace! Do
not be afraid. You are not going to die"' (Judges
Are there two or three characters in this passage? One of course, is
Gideon. In verses 11 and 12 we have the angel of the Lord, then the
Lord in verses 14 and 16, then the angel of God in verse 20 and again
the angel of the Lord in verse 21. This writer maintains that the
angel of the Lord must be the Lord God. Yet in some sense, the angel
of the Lord, even though he himself is deity, must be distinguished
from the totality of the Godhead, for in Zechariah
1:12, the angel of the Lord is seen interceding on behalf of
Israel, calling out to the Lord of Hosts! The Holy Scriptures have
given us a paradox: The angel of the Lord is distinct from
God, yet is himself very God!!!
God Steps Forth
This paradox is consistent with God's very nature. God, who is involved with His creation and interested in our welfare (Psalm 139:3,13), is also high above (Isaiah 55:8,9). God is a vengeful God to those who flaunt his revealed will (Deuteronomy 32:35), and yet He is merciful (Exodus 33:19). God is all-knowing (Psalm 139), and yet He willingly "forgets" (Jeremiah 31:34, Isaiah 64:9). God is an advocate, a defender of His people (Psalm 59:1, Job 16:19), but He is also a prosecutor and judge (Psalm 50:6, Ecclesiastes 3:17). When we study the nature of God, we find paradoxes.
The angel of the Lord, God Himself, revealed Himself in a visible, personal way—taking the form of a human being. This writer maintains that not only could the angel of the Lord assume human form, but that, in time, he took on true humanity by being born into the human race!
"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (Philippians 2:6.7).
This writer also maintains that the Old and New Testaments are
intrinsically connected and make up God's revelation to man. The
claims in the New Testament portion concerning Jesus correspond to
those claims in the Old Testament portion which refer to the angel of
the Lord. Jesus claimed to be the supreme malakh of
God: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John
14:9). The angel of the Lord did miraculous acts; so did Jesus.
15:32, etc.) The angel of the Lord taught and instructed people;
Jesus was called "rabbi" (John
20:16). The angel of the Lord is a judge of mankind; in John
5:22 we see "The Father judges no one, but had entrusted all
judgement to the Son." Are Jesus of Nazareth and the angel that
wrestled with Jacob one and the same? Carefully study the Scriptures
for God's answer.
In summary of the mystery of the triune God, C. S. Lewis, a talented philologist, writer and debater put it this way: We must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square. (Flatlanders, attempting to imagine a cube, would either imagine the six squares coinciding, and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about the Trinity are of much the same kind.)