Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Pre-Incarnate Incarnation

Yesterday I noted that, in Genesis 18, Abraham sees three men come to him. I claimed that one of those was God Himself, incarnate. We all know that God took form even before He did so as a baby in a manger, but was this the first time?

The Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings dating from 200-500 AD, recorded exactly what I claimed yesterday: “[Abraham] saw the Holy One, blessed be He, standing at the door of his tent.”

Let us read again the relevant passage:

“And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. …They said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘She is in the tent.’ The Lord said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.” (Gen 18:1-2,9-10)..

Surprisingly, very few Christians notice this simple and clear fact. The word “Lord” here is not a discussion of earthly royalty, either, but is actually the word YHWH in Hebrew. Yahweh Himself appeared before Abraham, in the flesh, accompanied by two angels.

It becomes even more clear later. Abraham and the three men set out toward Sodom (18:16). As they walk, the Lord tells Abraham His plans about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and the purpose of their trip (18:20-21). Eventually the other two men—whom we learn in the next chapter are angels (19:1)—go on ahead toward Sodom, while Abraham stays to talk with the Lord (18:22). Clearly the implication is that the third ‘man’ walking with the angels was the Lord—that is, it is not YHWH talking to Abraham spiritually while these other three men are hanging out with him, but rather it is YHWH plus two angels, appearing as three men.

I find it fascinating that many Christians believe Melchizedek was Jesus (which is completely without foundation in Scripture), but so few realize that Abraham stood face-to-face with God. Nor is this the only time God was incarnate in the Old Testament. He walks with Adam in the Garden (Gen 3:8); He meets Moses in the tent (Exo 33:11); He appears to Abraham (Gen 18:1-32); He wrestles with Jacob (Gen 32:22-32); seventy-four people see Him after the Sinai incident (Exo 24:9-11); and Moses saw the form of God (Num 12:8).

For some reason, many Christians want to wrongly divide the Bible into “Jewish times” and “Jesus times.” They think of Jewish times as being God the Father staying in heaven and speaking only through the prophets on occasion, while only in the Incarnation of Christ did He come down to meet with us face-to-face.

Far from it! Our God has been intimately involved since the beginning of time. He routinely interacts with His creation. As the Jewish midrash commentary says, “The entire world cannot contain My glory, yet when I wish, I can concentrate My entire essence into one small spot.” Furthermore, God’s presence takes physical form frequently in the Old Testament as the shekhinah glory, which is described by Jewish Theological Seminary by saying, “God is the same as the shekhinah, but the shekhinah does not exhaust God.”

Separating the Bible into “Jewish vs. Jesus” times does a horrible disservice to us, both theologically (in that we misunderstand God’s true nature and thus, ours) and evangelically (in that we improperly witness to others, especially the Jews). The fact is that this concept of a Trinity is not at all foreign to ancient Judaism in the Old Testament.

As Dr. Michael Brown argues in The Real Kosher Jesus*, it is actually quite easy to show Jews how God is a Trinity and yet maintain the monotheism central to Judaism (“the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” Deut 6:4). For the Old Testament in fact shows us that God can in fact remain Father while still having an active Spirit and yet again still appearing as human form.

In fact, the ancient rabbis had a word (memra’) in Aramaic which meant that the word of God went out and accomplished something in earthly form, then returned to Him. Perhaps then we need not be surprised when we read in the first chapter of John that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is a reference to the concept of memra’, that God can focus Himself in a physical location while at the same time maintaining His role as king of the universe in heaven. In John 1:14, we find that He "made His dwelling among men"--literally, He 'pitched a tent' among us, just as He did when there was an Old Testament tabernacle. (If you want to know how to picture a way in which He might accomplish such a thing...buy my book and read chapter one!)

God's longest continuous period of incarnation--and the central turning point of all of history--was when God became flesh as a babe in a manger, growing up for thirty-plus years, teaching and converting, and eventually suffering a shameful death. Through this He broke the barrier between us and joined us to Him eternally. But it was not the first time He came down among us. He's actually done it quite a few times, in fact.

* Postscript - My wife is awesome. How awesome? I had never even heard of this book, yet she knows me well enough to know that it was right up my alley...even though it is definitely not up hers. So this was my Valentine's Day present in 2013, and I had the entire thing read within 4 days. It is now heavily bookmarked and I highly recommend it. Brown is a Jew with a Ph.D. in Semitic Languages who is also a Christian. He writes fasincatingly about the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul. I have said before, and will say again, that to underestimate the Jewishness of Jesus and Paul is a big mistake for us, for in so doing we misunderstand much of their teaching for our lives.

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