The Bible can help solve this very old debate.
by Jews for Jesus | April 27 2018
It is an all-too-common assumption that the concept of the Trinity is a purely Christian idea. But the idea of a God being a three-in-one unity actually has its roots in foundational Judaism and in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even the concept of the Holy Spirit, the Ruach Ha-kodesh, originates in the Hebrew Scriptures—as early as Genesis 1.
Yet, modern Judaism has reached an overwhelming consensus that one cannot believe in the Trinity and be Jewish. Rabbi Stanley Greenberg argues that “Hebrew Scriptures are clear and unequivocal on the oneness of God.… Monotheism, an uncompromising belief in one God, is the hallmark of the Hebrew Bible, the unwavering affirmation of Judaism and the unshakable faith of the Jew.” He continues, “Under no circumstances can a concept of a plurality of the Godhead or a trinity of the Godhead ever be based upon the Hebrew Bible.” Even if what Christians believe is monotheistic, it does not seem to be monotheistic enough to qualify as true Jewishness.
But if we are to examine this line of thinking, it is best to begin with the very source of Jewish theology and the only means of testing it—the Hebrew Scriptures. We should be open to exploring and understanding the nuances of the Jewish roots of the Trinity because many Jewish people do believe in the Trinity! If we go back to the Scriptures, the case is clear, and this article will walk you through that case. Our understanding hinges on the Hebrew language, so to the Hebrew first we shall turn.
It is generally agreed that Elohim is a plural noun having the masculine plural ending “im.” Elohim is used to describe God in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It 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].” Elohim is the word that is used of the one true God as well as for the many false gods. 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.
Most Hebrew scholars recognize that the word Elohim, as it stands by itself, is a plural noun. But they deny that it allows for any plurality in the Godhead whatsoever, arguing that when “Elohim” is used of the true God, it is followed by a singular verb; when it is used of false gods, it is followed by a plural verb:
But, in fact, the verb used in the opening verse of Genesis is “bara” which means “he created”—singular. One need not be too profound a student of Hebrew to understand that the opening verse of Genesis clearly speaks of a singular God. (Greenberg)
The point made, of course, is true because the Bible does teach that God is only one God, and therefore, the general pattern is to have the plural noun followed by the singular verb when it speaks of the one true God. However, there are places where the word is used of the true God and yet is followed by a plural verb:
Genesis 20:13: “And when God [Elohim] caused me to wander [literally: “They” caused me to wander] from my father’s house.
Genesis 35:7: “There God [Elohim] had revealed himself to him.” [Literally: “They” appeared unto him.]
2 Samuel 7:23: “God [Elohim] went.”” [Literally: “They” went.]
Psalm 58:11: “Surely there is a God [Elohim] who judges.” [Literally: “They” judge.]
What does this mean for our understanding of the oneness of God?
If the plural form Elohim was the only form available for a reference to God, then conceivably the argument might be 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 false gods. However, the singular form for Elohim (Eloah) appears elsewhere (e.g., 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 use of the plural form again turns the argument in favor of plurality in the Godhead.
When God speaks of Himself, He uses the plural pronoun. In Genesis 1:26: “Then God [Elohim] said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ He could hardly have made reference to angels since man was created in the image of God and not of angels. The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis recognizes the weight of this passage:
Rabbi Samuel Bar Hanman in the name of Rabbi Jonathan said, that at the time when Moses wrote the Torah, writing a portion of it daily, when he came to this verse which says, “And Elohim said, let us make man in our image after our likeness,” Moses said, “Master of the universe, why do you give herewith an excuse to the sectarians (who believe in the Tri-unity of God)?” God answered Moses, “You write and whoever wants to err, let him err.”1
The Midrash Rabbah tries to avoid the problem and fails to adequately answer why God refers to Himself in the plural. The use of the plural pronoun appears frequently, and avoiding it or explaining it away is insufficient:
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: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” This would appear contradictory with the singular “I” and the plural “us” except as viewed as a plurality (us) in a unity (I).
God seems to refer to Himself in the plural, so where does that leave us as we try to understand Him? The authors of Scripture have attempted to deal with His plurality, and their exploration is useful for our understanding.
God not only speaks of Himself in the plural, but many authors of Scripture also refer to God’s plurality. Out of the Hebrew, we find that nouns and adjectives describing God are in the plural form:
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.]
While Jewish tradition has commonly rejected the idea of the Trinity, there is no doubt that Judaism portrays a plurality of God’s existence. All the evidence so far rests firmly on the Hebrew language of the Scriptures. If we are to base our theology on Scriptures alone, we have to say that they affirm God’s unity, while at the same time they tend towards the concept of a compound unity. There is room for plurality in the Godhead.
The resounding and profound words throughout all generations: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This has always been Israel’s great confession. This verse is used more than any other to affirm the fact that God is one and to deny the possibility of plurality in the Godhead.
On the 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 unity and not an absolute unity.
There is a Hebrew word that does mean an absolute unity and that is the word yachid, which is found in many Scripture passages,2 with the emphasis being on the meaning of “only.” If Moses intended to teach God’s absolute oneness instead of as a compound unity, yachid would have been a far more appropriate word. In fact, Maimonides noted the strength of “yachid” and chose to use that word in his “Thirteen Articles of Faith” in place of echad. However, Deuteronomy 6:4 (the Shema) does not use “yachid” in reference to God.
There is sufficient evidence for the plurality of God. But can we come to a concrete understanding of the Jewish view of the Trinity?
The case for God’s plurality becomes stronger when we encounter the term Elohim applied to two personalities in the same verse, such as in Psalm 45:6–7:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
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.
And Hosea 1:7:
I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by 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: “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (Genesis 19:24). YHVH number one is on earth raining sulfur and fire from a second YHVH who is in heaven.
Furthermore, Zechariah 2:8–9:
For thus says the LORD of Hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: “Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me.”
So, again, we have one YHVH sending another YHVH to perform a specific task.
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 Tetragrammaton3 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.4
The evidence for at least a dual God in the Hebrew Scriptures is clear, but what is Judaism’s response to a triune God?
If the Hebrew Scriptures point to plurality, then how many personalities exist in the Godhead? As we saw above, the names of God are applied to at least two different personalities. Yet, a deeper examination of the Hebrew Scriptures shows three distinct personalities that are considered divine.
First, there are numerous references to the LORD YHVH. Second, there is a personality referred to as the Angel of YHVH who is considered distinct from the other angels. In passages 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. Exodus 23:20–23 presents an angel who has the power to pardon sin because God’s own name YHVH is in him. 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.
A third major personality that comes through is the Spirit of God, often referred to as the Ruach Ha-kodesh. There are a good number of references to the Spirit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.5 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 clear evidence 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 Scriptures do present all three personalities of the Godhead together in some passages. Isaiah 48:12–16 reveals a speaker who refers to himself as the one who is responsible for the creation of the heavens and the earth:
Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together. “Assemble, all of you, and listen! Who among them has declared these things? The LORD loves him; he shall perform his purpose on Babylon, and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans. I, even I, have spoken and called him; I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way. Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.” And now the Lord GOD has sent me, and his Spirit.
It is clear that the speaker is God Himself. But then in verse 16, the speaker refers to himself using the pronouns of I and me and distinguishes himself from the LORD YHVH and from the Spirit of God. The Tri-unity is presented in the Hebrew Scriptures with striking clarity.
In Isaiah 63:7–14, there is a reflection back to the time of the Exodus, clearly demonstrating all three personalities as 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 God refers to Himself as the one responsible for Israel’s redemption from Egypt, in this passage three personalities are given credit. Yet, no contradiction is seen since all three comprise the unity of the one Godhead.
The Hebrew Scriptures show a plural 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 guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out. (Exodus 23:20–23)
In keeping with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament recognizes that there are three persons in the Godhead. The first person is the Father, the second person is the Son, and the third person is the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament answers the question of Proverbs 30:4: “What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!” His son’s name is Yeshua (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. He is related to the work of the second person—consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures. Evidently, there is a consistent body of teaching in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament related to the Tri-unity of God. The New Testament presents a truthful and consistent picture of who God is, making it a reliable Jewish source for understanding the plurality of the Godhead.
1. Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 1:26 (New York: NOP Press).
2. Genesis 22:2,12; Judges 11:34; Psalm 22:21, 25:16; Proverbs 4:3; Jeremiah 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zechariah 12:10.
3. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica, “Personal Name of God of Israel,” written in the Hebrew Bible with the four consonants YHWH. Pronunciation of name has been avoided since at least the third century BC; the initial substitute was “Adonai” (“the Lord”), itself later replaced by “ha-Shem” (“the Name”). The name Jehovah is a hybrid misreading of the original Hebrew letters with the vowels of “Adonai,” 593.
4. Zohar, vol. III:288, vol. II:43, Hebrew editions. See also Soncino Press edition, vol. III:134.
5. See Genesis 1:2, 6:3; Job 33:4; Psalm 51:11; Psalm 139:7; Isaiah 11:2.
This article was adapted from an earlier Jews for Jesus article by Arnold Fructenbaum.