Light from the Sidra

Vayeira (‘And he appeared’). 31st October 2015. 18th Cheshvan 5776.

Torah: Genesis 18:1–22:24. 2 Kings 4:1-37

Is anything beyond Hashem?!

As this Shabbat ends, the ancient pagan festival of Halloween will begin. Although adopted and adapted from paganism by ‘the Church’, Halloween is an event just about all Bible-believing Christians and, I would think, pious Jews, eschew. But in spite of the fact that pious Jews and Bible-observant Christians have an aversion to paganism, many Jewish people think Christianity is pagan, not least because, for most Jewish people, the idea of one God in three Persons God is as far removed from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as it’s possible to be. But is it?

A year ago, I spent an evening with an Israeli who had just read the four Gospels and was fascinated by Jesus. In fact, he was almost literally lost for words as he tried to describe how he felt about him. So what kept him from confessing Jesus as Lord and Messiah?

My friend was impressed by Jesus and by the humility and love he saw in his followers but he was reluctant to commit himself to Jesus because the New Testament says Jesus is God and the Ten Commandments forbid the worship of other gods.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s say HASHEM the Creator of the Universe became a man. If we bowed down to him would we be worshipping a false god? The question is absurd. How could it be idolatry to worship HASHEM in whatever form he chose to appear? If HASHEM could take the form of three men when he appeared to Abraham in Genesis 18 and if he could take the form of a burning bush to make himself known to Moses, why could he not become human if he chose to? If we declare categorically that the King of the Universe can’t enter his own creation, are we not repeating the sin of Psalm 78:41 and setting ‘limits to the Holy One of Israel’?

So, for the sake of the argument, if Jesus truly was HASHEM in human form, to worship him cannot be ‘avodah zerah.’ Followers of Jesus can put their hands on their hearts and declare with pious Jews that ‘HASHEM our God, HASHEM is one.’ But for those who claim that HASHEM’s ‘oneness’ is an absolute unity, this week’s Parasha presents a very serious problem.

In Genesis 18, HASHEM appears to Abraham as he sits in his tent door in the heat of the day. The Midrash Rabbah says that God’s Shekinah appeared to Abraham but when the patriarch looked up he saw three men. Jewish legend identifies the three ‘men’ as the angels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael but the text of Genesis refers to Abraham’s visitors as HASHEM!

Abraham bows down to the men and invites them to eat but in the narrative that follows it becomes clear that the visitors are no ordinary men; they speak as HASHEM and they act as HASHEM. They know Abraham has a wife, that her name is Sarah, that she is in her tent and declare, in verse 10, that the following year Sarah, who is past child-bearing age, will have a son. In verse 13, HASHEM even knows that Sarah has laughed at his promise, even though she is in her tent. In the next verse he asks, ‘Is anything beyond HASHEM?!’ and repeats the promise, ‘At the appointed time I will return to you at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.’

HASHEM, who knows all things, then tells Abraham he is going down to the cities of the plain and if the sin of the people is as grave as the ‘outcry’ against them, he will destroy the cities. HASHEM will personally visit Sodom. But when chapter 19 opens, ‘two angels’ arrive there and Lot, not knowing who they are, provides them with shelter for the night under his own roof. But where is HASHEM who told Abraham he was going to ‘descend’ to Sodom?

Abraham saw HASHEM in the form of three men but in Sodom he appears as two men. When the men of the town – not to put too fine a point on it – attempt to gang rape the Creator of the universe, who has appeared in the form of the two men, the angels strike them blind and announce that they are going to destroy the place with more or less immediate effect. Lot dithers and the angels virtually drag him and his family out of town and order them to head for the hills. We sense the tension mounting as, in verse 22, the angels order Lot to escape to Zoar, ‘for I cannot do a thing until you arrive there.’

It’s very puzzling isn’t it? The angels who rescue Lot and his family have been sent by HASHEM but they speak and act as though they are HASHEM. When they destroy Sodom, it is HASHEM who does it. Everything comes together in verse 24 when ‘HASHEM had caused sulphur and fire to rain on Sodom and Gomorrah from HASHEM, out of heaven.’ HASHEM told Abraham he was going to ‘descend’ and here he is – on earth and in heaven – destroying the twin cities of depravity.

The implication of verse 24 was not lost of the authors of the Jerusalem and the Palestinian Targums, the Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures. Often when the Targums interpret passages where two or more ‘HASHEMs’ appear – as in Genesis 19 – they substitute Memra (‘The Word’ of HASHEM) for one of the ‘HASHEMs.’ So, in Genesis 19:4, where the Hebrew grammar indicates that one HASHEM rains fire from another HASHEM, the Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel reads: ‘And the Word of the Lord caused to descend upon the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah, brimstone and fire from the Lord in heaven.’

The authors of other Targums tried to make sense of the three HASHEMs by rendering the verse: ‘And the Word of the Lord… sent down upon them sulphur and fire from before the Word of the Lord from heaven.’

There are indications throughout the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings that although God is one, he is, paradoxically, more than one. This is a conundrum for students of the Tanakh but when HASHEM became one of us for the purpose of redeeming Israel, his mysterious multi-personal nature became crystal clear.

Jewish people today regard the Christian view on HASHEM’s unity and plurality as a heresy but the fact is that the ancient Jewish scholars wrestled with the biblical evidence for God’s plurality in unity. Those of us who believe that ‘for us men, and for our salvation, [HASHEM] came down and was incarnate and was made man’ are confident of salvation because we trust in HASHEM alone for salvation and in no one else, not even ourselves. Only HASHEM can save us. That is why no amount of prayer, repentance or any other human action can atone for sin. No one who believes in salvation through human merit can ever be certain they have done enough to atone for their sins. ‘It is better to take refuge in HASHEM than to rely in nobles,’ says Psalm 118:9. Whatever else you might think about those of us who follow Jesus as Messiah, we are taking refuge in HASHEM alone. And how can that be bad?

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