Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Overt Christology in the Old Testament, part 1: the word of Yahweh

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6 minutes to read Let me show you Jesus, hiding in plain sight…

One of the most tragically neglected themes in modern theology is the unity between both Testaments on the nature of Jesus.

If you’d like an example of how invisible this unity is to modern Christians, pick up a commentary on John 1 and see what it has to say about the Word (Greek: logos) in verses 1-3.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things through him became, and without him became not one that has become. John 1:1-3, following the Greek a little more closely than usual

Commentaries and sermons rightly focus their discussion on what the logos is. But the tragedy is how they invariably surmise that John is using Heraclitus’ philosophical theory of the logos as a universal principle of order and rationality.

While that is one way to think about Jesus—and John may even have known about it—he simply was not a gentile philosopher, and he was not writing to gentiles.

He was a Jew writing to Jews.

His gospel is soaked in the Old Testament; it is highly theological and typological—not philosophical.

So when he writes that in the beginning was the Word, which itself is an obvious allusion back to Genesis 1:1-3, it doesn’t make sense to look to Greek philosophy to understand what he means by logos. We should look to Genesis, or the Old Testament more generally. But unfortunately, if you limit the allusion in John 1:1 to Genesis 1, you aren’t going to find enough there to flesh out the kind of logos that John is referring to. So you’ll tend to grope for whatever is available in the cultural milieu, and end up thinking John is talking about Greek philosophy.

Because while it goes without saying that God’s speech in Genesis 1:3 and onward must be metaphorical of his divine power rather than the activity of physical vocal cords, to then go on and say that his speech equates to an extra person called the Word is certainly to go beyond the text. The mere fact that God uses his speech, his power, doesn’t mean there was another person there with him who was his speech, his power. After all, we don’t infer that there is an outstretched hand in the Godhead when we read of how God took Israel out of Egypt.

So where does John get this idea from?

Well, let me answer a question with a question: why does John seem to expect that his readers will know what he’s talking about? Notice that he doesn’t explain himself; he takes for granted that the logos is something familiar enough to his audience that they will not only recognize it in Genesis 1, but recognize it as a personal agent. Greek philosophy doesn’t have the goods to furnish that kind of understanding even if John and his audience were Greek; and although God could reveal this directly to John, that special revelation is obviously not accessible to his readers.

So let me suggest that the reason John’s readers understood what the logos was is because it was already present in their Greek Old Testaments. There, the “word of Yahweh” or “word of the LORD” is repeatedly translated as the logos.

Our intuitive understanding of a “word” as something written or spoken blinds us to this—but when we open our eyes to read the Old Testament carefully, some remarkable statements about the “word” emerge. While we reflexively think that the word of God is either the Bible, or some statement delivered “into a prophet’s ear”, in fact this is not the case at all. What we actually find in the Old Testament is exactly what John describes in the first verses of his gospel.

The word of Yahweh in the Old Testament is a personal agent

Let me show you what I mean—and forgive me for omitting bits, but these bits often get in the way by pushing earlier parts of the passage into our hazy short-term memories, where we don’t notice what’s going on; so I’m going to splice the important statements together so they’re clearer:

1 After these things the word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Genesis 15:1, 5

Although we automatically conceive of the word of Yahweh coming like a voice in Abram’s ear, the passage explicitly says that it is in fact a vision. Moreover, the word of Yahweh takes Abram outside. This is obviously a personal, embodied encounter. We don’t learn exactly what form the word takes, but it is a visible form that can be interacted with much like a normal person.

It is kind of surprising and even shocking to see this as far back as Genesis, because we assume that proper Christology was not revealed until the New Testament. But it was—and it gets far more christological…

The word of Yahweh is the same person as Yahweh himself

1 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to Yahweh in the presence of Eli. And the word of Yahweh was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. 4 Then Yahweh called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 6 And Yahweh called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 8 And Yahweh called Samuel the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that Yahweh was calling the boy. 10 And Yahweh came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 21 And Yahweh appeared again at Shiloh, for Yahweh revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of Yahweh. 1 Samuel 3:1, 4, 6, 8, 10, 21

Notice that the passage is bracketed by the inclusio describing how God communicates with his prophets: by the word of Yahweh. This is a personal agent who, as with Abram, is experienced visually—not merely aurally. The inclusio sets the context for the appearance of Yahweh to Samuel—we know from the introduction and conclusion that what Samuel is witnessing is actually the word of Yahweh. Yet at the same time, it’s impossible to escape the fact that it is Yahweh himself who comes and stands and calls for Samuel.

The same situation occurs in Jeremiah’s first visions:

4 Now the word of Yahweh came to me… 6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” 9 Then Yahweh put out his hand and touched my mouth.11 And the word of Yahweh came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond branch.” 12 Then Yahweh said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.” 13 The word of Yahweh came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north.” 14 Then Yahweh said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. Jeremiah 1:4, 6, 9, 11-14

Again, not to labor the point, but there is obviously a personal agent here given a title distinct from Yahweh himself—why call him the word if no distinction is intended?—yet whom Jeremiah addresses as Yahweh. To echo the language of John, the word is God, and he is with God.

Is this just strangely idiosyncratic language?

You might wonder if this is just a kind of odd way of describing Yahweh’s appearances to prophets. Do we really have to take the word of Yahweh to be a separate person to Yahweh? Can’t a unitarian just say this is a particular manifestation of God?

It’s a reasonable question. And if these passages were all we had to go on, I think treating them as bona fide “binitarianism” would be overreaching. But they’re not all we have to go on. Not by a long shot…


Kent McDonald

I appreciate the step by step clarity with which you write. I am looking forward to the next post. Thanks for staying true to The Word.