February 09, 2005

How many God?

John Ray has been exploring the concept of the trinity lately. I'm not going to go near that subject. The Jewish position is clear: There is one God, indivisible (with liberty and justice for all - couldn't resist). However, in the course of his discussions he raises some questions, about a couple of verses from the Bible. Let's take a look at them.

The first question is about the following passage:

 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ

Vayomer elohim na`ase adam b'salmenu kidmutenu

And God said, let us make Man (Adam) in our image as our likeness

Genesis 1:26

What do you mean 'us' kemosabe?

John points out that the usual word for God in Hebrew, which is used here, has a plural form, so this could account for the plural. It cannot: Though the word has a plural form, it is grammatically singular - that is, it takes singular verbs and adjectives. We see that here: "elohim" looks plural (it ends with -im) but its verb (vayomer) is singular (the plural of vayomer is vayomru). John also raises the possibility that we might be seeing here a "royal" or "polite we". Hebrew doesn't have either. But I have a rule for anyone learning a foreign language: expect the unexpected! The traditional pronunciation of the tetragrammaton (the name of God) means "My Lords" not "My Lord". Why? I don't know, however, this too is grammatically singular (i.e. it takes singular verbs and adjectives). So, a grammatical explanation doesn't work.

Rashi, of course, addresses the question:

נעשה אדם
אע"פ שלא סייעוהו ביצירתו ויש מקום למינים לרדות
לא נמנע הכתוב מללמד דרך ארץ ומדת ענוה
 שיהא הגדול נמלך ונוטל רשות מן הקטן
 ואם כתב אעשה אדם לא למדנו שהיה מדבר עם בית דינו
 אלא עם עצמו
ותשובתו כתובה בצדו ויברא את האדם ולא כתיב ויבראו

Na`ase adam
Af `al pi shelo' siy`uhu bisirato v'yesh maqom l'minim lirdot
Lo' nimna` hakatuv mil'lamed derekh eres umidat `anava
Shey'he hagadol nimlakh v'notel r'shut min haqatan
V'im katav a`ase adam lo' lamadnu shehaya m'daber `im beyt dino
Ela' `im `asmo
Utshuvato k'tuva b'sido vayivra' et ha'adam v'lo' k'tiv vayivr'u

"Let us make Man (Adam)"
Even though they didn't help Him and it gives an opportunity for heretics to win arguments
The text does not refrain from teaching good manners and the attribute of humility
That the greater one is ruled and derives his authority from the lesser one
And if it had been written: "I will make Man" we would not have learned that one should talk with his court
But with himself
And the answer [to the heretics] is written next to it: "And He created the man (the Adam)" - and it is not written: "they created"

It is a continual theme within Judaism that we should strive to be Godly, therefore it is not a stretch to believe that God shows by his actions how mankind should behave. In fact, God often does things in the Bible that would seem to deny His omnipotence (see Genesis 18:23). And it is certainly curious, to one who might claim that there are many gods, that the very next verse returns, as Rashi points out, to the singular. In case you are wondering, here it is:

 וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם

Vayivra' elohim et ha'adam b'salmo b'selem elohim bara' oto zakhar unqeva bara' otam

And God created the man (the Adam) in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them

Genesis 1:27

John's second question concerns this verse (see here for my conventions on writing the name of God):

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל  ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

Sh'ma` yisra'el H' eloheynu H' ehad

Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one

Deuteronomy 6:4

Rashi doesn't address John's question: whether ehad should be translated as "one" or "only" - probably because it didn't occur to him that it would be a question. Ehad means "one" under normal circumstances, it seems a stretch to translate it as "only". In fact, the only reason I can think that you would want to translate it as "only" is if you thought to yourself: "Of course God is one! Therefore the verse must be saying something else..."

UPDATE: Amritas comments. He has an explanation for Genesis 1:26 that I hadn't thought of (which incidentally supports John's thesis):

The unexpected is often what I call diachronic* detritus: a remnant of something that had been expected in an earlier state of the language but seems inexplicable in later stages. In this particular case, I suspect that prehistoric Hebrew might have had a exalted plural that was later reinterpreted as a singular before Genesis (or any other extant text) was written.

The English word data is currently undergoing plural to singular reinterpretation: some say data are but others say data is.

The Bible was an oral tradition before it was written down, so something like this may well have happened. For those who are disturbed by the theological implications of this, if true, there is an halakhic expression: hatora lo' bashamayim hi (התורה לא בשמים היא) - the Tora is not in heaven. I'll try to explain more in a later post, but I'll give away the answer here: Judaism is a traditional religion, i.e. a religion that sanctifies tradition. You cannot overthrow the accepted tradition by appeals to a supposedly more authentic past: The fact that world Jewry has accepted a particular interpretation of halakha (Jewish Law) is viewed as its sanctification by God. But don't think this is a license to reinterpret halakha! Tradition is stable only because each generation endeavors to preserve it.

UPDATE: Maimonides (1135-1204), arguably the greatest post-Talmudic Rabbi, has this to say about Deuteronomy 6:4:

The Second Foundation [of the 13 principles of faith (י"ג עיקרים) - DB] is the unity of HaShem [God], Blessed be His Name. In other words, to believe that this being, which is the cause of all, is one. This does not mean one as in one of a pair nor one like a species (which encompasses many individuals) nor one as in one object that is made up of many elements nor as a single simple object which is infinitely divisible. Rather, He, HaShem Blessed be His Name, is a unity unlike any other possible unity.

This second foundation is referred to when [the Torah] says, "Hear Israel! HaShem is our God, HaShem is one". (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 6:4)

UPDATE: John Ray responds.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at February 9, 2005 11:46 PM
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I have always thought of the plural as being a tool for reminding everyone of our equality, we are no less nor better than others.

Posted by: Jack at February 10, 2005 08:50 AM Permalink

I just figured the "let us make" was God talking to the Earth. This fit in with Adam being made from dirt: God was tell the Earth that they should work together to make man.

Mind you, this is the interpretation I came up with back in elementary school, so it's not exactly a great profundity. But I still like my reading of it!

Posted by: Daniel at February 10, 2005 10:43 AM Permalink

This is a side point, but I'd like to point out Christianity too is a traditional religion. I took a quick look at Steve Ray's site, and although he himself is an atheist, he appears to be making the very Protestant assumption that Scripture is the only source of Christian truth. Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy take Sacred Tradition as a main source of religious truth and guidance for the interpretation of Scripture.

I am really interested in hearing what it means that the Torah is not in heaven!

Posted by: Atlantic at February 10, 2005 09:19 PM Permalink

Ray seems to be strawmanning the doctrine of the Trinity, too. Trinitarians agree that God is one (homoousia), so most of the verses he advances to "refute" Trinitarianism are irrelevent.

"The Torah is not in heaven" reminds me of something I used to hear when church politics were getting rough (as they're prone to do): "The church is a carnal institution." Or maybe I'm guessing about "the Torah is not in heaven" wrongly; I'll have to wait and see. :-D

Posted by: Daniel at February 10, 2005 09:34 PM Permalink

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