There is some very strange stuff going on, semantically, in the Tanakh – the Old Testament. Our English translations hide much of it, allowing us to blithely assume that unclear verses are either just poorly translated or, perhaps, intended to be purposefully obscure. But, what if their obscurity/ambiguity reveals some much deeper meaning than simply the literal texts in which they appear? And, if there is a deeper meaning, what could it be, and what is it likely to be? Let’s do a little survey.
There are a few very strange phrases appearing in both the Pentateuch and the Old Testament in general that we’ll look at. These are phrases that leave you scratching your head wondering: “What on earth is that talking about?” And, truth be told, it leaves Biblical scholars in the same condition. But, rather than admit their lack of understanding, being scholars and experts, they have to come up with a meaning. And that’s what they do. Is it the intended meaning of the text’s author? Nobody knows.
The strangenesses that we’ll look at are these:
- God as many; God as One
- God’s self-reference in second and third-person voices
- Prophets speaking in the first-person voice of God (the “intrusion of Divine Speech”)
- Some hidden figures (some female) in the Hebrew texts
There may also be some related weirdnesses that we’ll encounter in looking at these primary categories, so these will be noted when there.
How Many Gods?
The bedrock of the foundation of the three major Semitic religions is the singularity of their God made, perhaps, most famous in the Shema of the Jews, which literally reads (Deut 6:4):
“Hear Israel YHWH our God” (Elohenu – ‘our God’) “YHWH [is] one”.
The interesting thing about this proclamation is that surprisingly perhaps, “God” is plural (Elohenu or simply Elohiym). YHWH, of course, is singular. Most references in English translations of the Tanakh to “God” are translations of the underlying plural 430. אֱלׂהִים ‘elōhiym.
There are only two singular versions of this noun in the Tanakh (433. אֱלוֹהַּ ‘elôaḥ) other than in the Book of Job, and they are found in Ps 114:7 (“God of Jacob”) and Ne 9:17 (“But you are a God…”). (Its use in Job is thought to result from an author who was not Israelite.)
There are 2600 occurrences of this plural noun in the Tanakh, sometimes spoken by YHWH Himself of Himself (e.g. Gen 26:24, 31:13, Ex 3:6). And let’s not forget Gen 1:26 and 3:22 where God refers to Himself as “us”. What is up with a plural God?
What are the possibilities?
- Well, first we have to entertain the literal interpretation, that in some sense God is many. After all, that’s what the text says. Here we can just let our imaginations run wild. For example, God is a federation of interconnected agents that operate in concert to carry out His will (more on this theory in a radical interpretation, below).
The best way I can conceptualize this idea is that of a professional orchestra, whether led by a conductor or not. The job of the orchestra is to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Each member of the orchestra knows how, and is perfectly prepared to perform (as they’ve done hundreds of times). The will of the orchestra is to perform the symphony. And, they do so perfectly, as a single, music-producing entity that happens to be comprised of multiple members acting in perfect synchronicity with other members to achieve their common purpose.
- Or, God is a (singular) being with multiple effectivities: that is, His capacity to carry out the implementation of his will in a vast number of instances – to hyper-multitask, as it were — results in Him not only being perceived by us as multiple, but even He acknowledges it as His reality. He sees the work of His will in literally millions of instances daily as at least virtually the work of a huge number of actors (though they – the actors – are all of One super actor).
- We’re mistaken in identifying Elohim as literally plural. This is at least a possibility. Typically, the “im” suffix indicates plurality. But does it in the case of Elohim? Some have argued that it does not, by itself. Their argument, as I understand it, is that the singular form of the verb used (e.g. bara for “create” in Genesis 1 [excluding 1:26 where the verb is “make”; asah]) controls the plurality of the subject noun, rather than the noun’s sense in isolation. (Interestingly, bara’s subject is always God. He is always the One who “creates”.) So despite the subject’s spelling (elohim) carrying a plural suffix, the verb rules its plurality, and the verb is singular.
I’m not a Hebrew scholar. I assume this analysis is correct. Others argue that plural forms in Hebrew can be used simply to emphasize the importance of the noun. Examples include nouns that are always plural, e.g. face, life, water, heaven. It would be hard to find a noun of more importance than 433 Eloah.
But before we completely move on from plural references to God, we should spend a minute on Gen 1:26 (Interlinear). Here God (Elohim) famously says:
 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
There’s no way to lexically get around this one. Here God identifies Himself as plural – as many. The common Christian explanation for this phraseology is that God is referring to the Godhead – the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Another common interpretation is that these plurals are instances of what is referred to as the “majestic” or “royal” plural in which, even in today’s language, we often find prominent people referring to themselves as “we”. (For some reason I have always known this idiom by the phrase the “Papal we”.)
It is certainly possible that the author/copyist of this verse thought it reasonable to maintain the plural subject throughout the verse in consonance with the plural Elohim that announces it. Had the verse started with “Then the LORD (YHWH) God (Elohim) said”, the author/copyist would have had the license to complete it in the singular as “I will make man in My image, after My likeness”. But he didn’t have the freedom to make that edit.
- The original authors/copyists mistranscribed the word as plural when it was not originally. Ordinarily, this would be a possibility to consider. But with 2600 instances in the Tanakh, statistically, this is not a realistic possibility.
A Theory of Divine Instances
I recently was exposed to the work of Moses Guibbory, a Jewish student of the Bible who lived and worked in Israel from the 1920s until his death in 1985, by my friend James Tabor. Guibbory never received formal training in Hebrew biblical studies or any other subject. But, he dedicated his life to unraveling its mysteries which, to his way of thinking, was necessary so that they could be revealed to the world, ushering in the New Heavens and New Earth (in which he saw himself playing a key role).
His work, in conjunction with David Horowitz and others, resulted in the publishing in 1943 of The Bible in the Hands of Its Creators (euphemistically called the “Blue Book” in recognition of its binding). What Guibbory and Horowitz sought for this book was that it would serve as the final revelation of God in which all answers to all remaining questions with respect to the Tanakh were answered, thereby ushering in their perceived eschatological completion (based on an Elijah-inspired last days restoration) – the regathering of the dispersed Jews, the recognition by all men that the God of Israel had fulfilled what they believed to be His ancient promises to Israel, and Jews would, at last, be revered on the New Earth. “…for they shall all know me” (Jer 31:34).
The book did not have the desired effect, nor did Guibbory achieve the recognition he thought he would receive as the final “Prophet like Moses” – literally a Masiyah.
Nonetheless, the book is a tour de force of scriptural exegesis and detailed Hebrew analysis. And, it represents a meticulousness and level of detail not found in popular commentaries. So one must respect the analysis and exegesis even if you don’t agree with its conclusions[i].
One of its key conclusions is what the author referred to as the “Interchanging”. By this, he meant a process by which YHWH manifested Himself within a continuous series of humans starting from at least Abraham and his Visitor (Genesis 18:1-15). One manifestation of YHWH would live, then pass on his “manifestationess” to an heir at his death.
This excerpt from a review of Guibbory and Horowitz’s book (and Horowitz’s retrospective on his time with Guibbory, Thirty Three Candles) from Dr. James D. Tabor captures the essence of this phenomenon adduced by Guibbory:
The Interchanging (Hitchalfut)
“This idea of the plurality of Yehovah is related to the most important concept in Guibbory’s research—what he called the Interchanging from the verb chalaf (“to change” or “transform”). David Horowitz has often explained it to me along the following lines. Throughout history, down through each generation, there is an unbroken chain of key figures, men as well as women, who are microscopic units of Yehovah God Himself. In other words, they, the many, are flesh and blood manifestations of Yehovah—actually and literally—human beings, each and every one “born of a woman” and subject to death. According to this view, the Biblical writers were well aware of this, indeed, many of these writers were “units” of Yehovah themselves. This is the reason for their peculiar coded style and it explains why we can speak of many Yehovahs, who are essentially One. The Interchanging refers to the way in which this Divine manifestation passes from one to the other, in each successive generation, or as Guibbory puts it, how Yehovah God “takes on a form and casts off a form since the very days of ‘Genesis’” (p. 1133). A long section in the Blue Book (Book Three, pp. 1133ff) traces the generations from the time of Abraham through Malachi, seeking to follow the process of “interchanging” as hinted at in the Biblical text.
The literal, corporal, “flesh and blood” nature of Yehovah God on earth seems to be a given based on the literal reading of the Hebrew text. Genesis 18 is perhaps the clearest text in the Torah. There Abraham entertains three guests with a lavish meal, they sit and eat before him, and one of them is clearly designated as Yehovah. Of course there are numerous other passages in which Yehovah literally appears, walks, talks, and eats among humankind. The Rabbis, especially Maimonides, have declared that all such passages are metaphorical and symbolic and to take them literally, i.e., that Yehovah has a corporeal “flesh and blood” nature, is rank heresy. However, for those who are convinced that a more literal reading reflects a profound truth about the Heavenly and Earthly Yehovahs (upper and lower “units”), an important question remains. Do these encounters refer to a single abiding figure (“Ancient of Days”), who is without father or mother and represents the continuing earthly, “flesh and blood” unit of Yehovah through the ages? Or, as Guibbory held, are all such references to Yehovah pointing to a continuing succession of men and women, who are born and die, and thus pass on their “position” to the next in line. Thus Guibbory, for example, held that the “Yehovah” who ate with Abraham in Genesis 18 was in fact his predecessor, Terach, who then “interchanged” with Abraham, who then took up his “position” as the next earthy unit of Yehovah (see The Bible in the Hands of Its Creators, pp. 650ff). In the days of Moses the “Yehovah” before him was none other than Jethro, his predecessor, the one from whom Moses then took over as the next “unit” and so forth down the line, including most all of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible.
Moses himself is perhaps the best example of these select ones since we have such an extensive record of his words and activities, making up the bulk of the Torah. According to Guibbory, Moses spoke and acted as Yehovah God, and indeed, on a flesh and blood level, was nothing less than Yehovah himself. It is important to understand here that Guibbory did not mean that these figures simply represented Yehovah, in some delegated sense, but that they truly were, in their essential being, nothing less than Yehovah God in corporeal form. Guibbory carefully worked through the Tanakh, attempting to show how this mystery is subtly conveyed to the careful reader. For example, notice carefully the following passage, spoken by Moses in the first person to the Israelites:
And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, you have seen all that Yehovah did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders: but Yehovah has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day. And I have led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes are not waxed old upon you, and your shoe is not waxed old upon your foot, you have not eaten bread, neither have you drunk wine or strong drink; that you may know that I am Yehovah your God (Deuteronomy 29:2-6).
This is quite a surprising passage. It does indeed appear that Moses here refers to himself directly as Yehovah their God, the one who led them in the wilderness! Guibbory points to other passages, such as Exodus 19:25ff: “And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them. And Elohim spoke all these words, saying…” which Guibbory took to imply that Moses actually spoke the Ten Words at Sinai. Further, in Exodus 17:6 we know that Moses struck the Rock in the wilderness to obtain water, yet in Psalm 78:20 we read that it was Yehovah who smote the Rock. The two do not seem to be distinguished.
Guibbory found a similar phenomenon in the words of the Prophets, who seem at times to speak as if they are indeed Yehovah God himself. One of the clearest examples is in Zechariah. One must properly ask here—who is speaking, the Prophet, Yehovah himself, or is there no distinction? Who is the “I” and who is the “me” in the following passage?
For, behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall be a spoil to those that served them; and you shall know that Yehovah of hosts has sent me. Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of you, says Yehovah. And many nations shall join themselves to Yehovah in that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in the midst of you, and you shalt know that Yehovah of hosts has sent me unto you (Zech 2:9-10).
This is indeed a remarkable passage. Somehow it seems to go beyond the mere idea of the Prophet representing Yehovah. Guibbory finds this style in many places in the Hebrew Prophets. They not only appear to speak for God, but also to somehow take on His identity and activity.
Often Guibbory’s exegesis depends upon the most meticulous and literal translation of the Hebrew text. For example, Isaiah frequently records Yehovah as speaking of His absolute unity: “I am Yehovah, the First and the Last, Beside Me there is no other” (see Isaiah 44:6). But notice carefully the following affirmation in Hebrew, with the English translated literally:
Who has accomplished and done [it],
calling the generations from the beginning?
I, Yehovah, [am] the first,
and with the last ones, I am he (Isa 41:4).
The phrase I have emphasized is plural, yet no standard English translation brings this out. Guibbory argued that this, and many related passages, supported his notion of the Interchanging “Units” of Yehovah, with first and last ones in a long chain stretching back to Eden. Another key passage from Isaiah is the following, literally translated:
Come you near unto me, hear you Zoth!
from the beginning I have not spoken in secret;
from the time that she was, there am I:
and now the Lord Yehovah has sent me,
and his Spirit (Isa 48:16).
Here the Prophet appears to say that he was somehow present in the beginning, in close identification with “Zoth,” which Guibbory took to be the feminine aspect of Divinity, and now is being sent on his historical mission. Further on in this passage the Prophet says that Yehovah called him from birth (Isa 49:1). Guibbory, of course, understood this to be the Spirit of Yehovah Himself, speaking in His corporeal state through Isaiah.
Still another passage that Guibbory translated quite differently than is customary, is Job’s affirmation of faith in Yehovah’s ultimate vindication. Here is the standard English translation:
But as for me I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at last He will stand up upon the earth:
And after my skin, (even) this (body), is destroyed,
Then without my flesh shall I see God (Job 19:25-26 ASV)
It is obvious that the translators are having problems with the passage. Here is Guibbory’s literal translation:
And I know that my Redeemer/Go’el lives
and [the] Last One will rise upon the dust,
and after my awakening,
Zoth shall be united,
and from my flesh shall I see Eloah [singular of Elohim].
This verse, literally translated, encapsulates Guibbory’s entire understanding of the Interchanging/Hitchalfut. Here Job anticipates the resurrection from the dead in a time to come, when “God Yehovah the Last,” the final one of the Interchanging Units, would appear on the earth to consummate all things, finally creating a New Heavens and a New Earth. In that day Elohim (plural) would become Eloah (singular), paralleling Zechariah 14:9.
Guibbory also stressed that these Interchanging “Units” of Yehovah are not properly called messiahs, nor is this “Last” one to come the awaited Messiah of Christian and Jewish tradition. Rather, they are rightly called Go’el, or Redeemer, as in this passage, and rather than being anointed it is they who anoint others—as Moses anointed Aaron and Samuel anointed David. David Horowitz often makes the point that both Christians and Jews will be surprised when He comes, for He will not be what they expect. He remains convinced that Yehovah will appear as Redeemer/Go’el in flesh and blood, human form, i.e., as Moses the Last. What I find most important in Guibbory’s research is the way in which he meticulously and carefully attended to the original Hebrew text. I have learned much from him, and will continue to do so. I have yet to exhaust the Blue Book and would not expect to do so in many years to come.”
Takeaways From “The Bible in the Hands of Its Creators”
It seems to me this book and its analysis points out two critical, and deeply interrelated, issues in the interpretation of ambiguous passages of the Tanakh. First is the issue of (seemingly) plural references to God (as well as passages in which YWHW appears to talk to and of Himself in third person, e.g. Zech 2:9).
The second is the phenomenon of human spokesmen for YHWH speaking in the first person as if YHWH – seemingly taking on His identity – particularly Moses.
Multiple Divine “Units”
Based on the above-cited passages, and many others, Guibbory formulated his theory of multiple Divine manifestations – what he referred to (and Tabor points out, above) as “Interchanging”, from one to his successor. The crux of the idea is that YHWH manifests Himself within selected people to serve YHWH’s purposes – prophecy; miracles; political or spiritual leadership. As Tabor points out, these were real people. They are not visions, or dream characters, or hoped-for human redeemers that never seem to show up. These are real people, bearing God’s essence alive and active within them.
The Intrusion of Divine Speech
Often in the Bible, particularly from the prophets, we find the prophet speaking in his voice but suddenly switching to the first person voice of God (see the discussion of Zech 2:9-10, above), a phenomenon that commanded much of Guibbory’s attention and reflection. In these instances, God’s divine voice intrudes into the message being recited by the (apparently fully human) speaker.
Moses provides some of the best examples of this phenomenon (though he is not their only source). For example, have a look at this example from Deuteronomy 7:
 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
In verse 4, Moses’ voice suddenly changes to the divine voice. He isn’t saying that those that intermarry would cease to follow Moses. Moses is counseling Israel on how to live once they’re in their land. No, it’s as if YHWH jumps into Moses’ mouth to emphasize the disobedience of Israel to YHWH.
Another example, Deuteronomy 17:
 “If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant,  and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden,  and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel,  then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones.
Moses shifts to first person in v3 saying “I” have forbidden it. No, YHWH had forbidden it. But suddenly, Moses is YHWH’s voice, literally.
One more; Isaiah 34:
 All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall fall,
as leaves fall from the vine,
like leaves falling from the fig tree.
 For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens;
behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom,
upon the people I have devoted to destruction.
Through Isaiah 34:4 the prophet is speaking. However, suddenly in v5, God is speaking, unannounced (and unquoted by translators, who apparently didn’t know what to make of it either.)
The question is: why do these prophets sometimes lapse into the first-person voice of the LORD? Guibbory’s thesis was that they were divine “units” of YHWH who, occasionally, would abandon their human personae voice and lapse into their divine voice, as YHWH. And, according to Guibbory, there was a continuous sequence of these divine units extending back to Eden, as Tabor notes:
The line of such figures runs without a break from Eden, through Noah, Abraham, Moses, and most of the Hebrew Prophets, down to our own time, culminating in “God Yehovah the Last,” whom Guibbory himself claimed to be.
Other theories attribute this phenomenon to the speaker simply being overcome by the Spirit of God in professing their message, or to the hand of later editors who simply endeavored to emphasize the fact that God Himself was the author/source of the statement.
How Should the Christian Think About These Things?
Clearly, Moses Guibbory was a troubled, yet insightful man. No, he wasn’t the last “prophet like Moses”. But, he knew, perhaps better than most of his day, what the Hebrew scriptures said. And he concluded from what they said, and how they said it, that YHWH manifested Himself in a series of humans to promote His purposes among His people.
Could there be a better description of the Church of Jesus Christ and its doctrine of the indwelling of the Spirit of God within the faithful? Isn’t this precisely the mechanism that Christ enabled; that His Spirit would be manifest in those who believed Him and trusted God for their lives?
Was YHWH manifested as “many” before Christ? There’s no reason I can think of to not accept that as a real possibility. Was He at work in Moses? It surely seems so. How about David? Or Nathan? Or Solomon? Or Ruth? Or Esther? Or Hezekiah or Nehemiah or Zerubbabel? Or John the Baptist? How about Saul of Tarsus?
I believe the way the Christian should approach this argument is not with a dismissive disdain, but with an open-minded realization that, in fact, this is precisely the formula of the New Covenant ushered in by The Christ:
“And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Eze 36:37)
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63)
If the Spirit of God “in” individual humans is the solution to the redemption of mankind and, indeed, all creation, then why, pray tell, should His Spirit inhabiting His messengers (His mal ‘ak) throughout history be controversial?
I have written previously of the phenomenon of divine messengers, here. Some of these were non-human in the sense that we’re not told that they were born or died. Yet in every other respect, they assumed the characteristics of humanity – eating, sleeping, walking and talking with and among regular people.
We should also not lose sight of the fact that the entire Biblical narrative is ultimately about the redemption of Creation back into God’s presence and will — the intersection of heaven and earth, if you will. Given this narrative and its initial instantiation in the form of the Kingdom of God on this earth (not the New Earth) that Jesus proclaimed, it should not surprise us that God’s agency freely interacts with us to bring about His purposes, whether by men or by circumstances He has animated and orchestrated. The more we are exposed to God’s immanence in these interactions, the more we get comfortable with the fact of their reality, and the recognition that our everyday, mundane, earthly reality is but a shadow of the real.
There are indeed some passages and phrases in the Tanakh that challenge our understanding of what, and who is being communicated. Some of the challenges, if we’re honest we have to admit, are borne of our prejudices – our preconceived idea of Who God is, how He is immanent among His people, and that there is a sharp dividing line demarking “how He was then” from “how He is now”, marked by Christ.
Of course, Christ is not just another “divine unit”. But here we’re not debating the meaning or role of Christ. We’re talking about how God has chosen, over time, to interact with and influence His people[ii].
Today, it is by His Spirit, as a result of the work of Christ. It would not be, therefore, uncharacteristic for His influence on His people before Christ to have been similarly through the indwelling of His Spirit within His chosen mal ‘aks (messengers). If more could see this, perhaps there would be a more effective reconciliation of the old and the new. And acceptance that YHWH has provided the answer for us – through Christ.
Although Guibbory held that the process of “Interchanging” has gone on since Eden, he begins with Terach, father of Abraham, recognizing that the Biblical record provides a more detailed narrative of the lineage from that point on.
Guibbory argues that here and many other places in the Hebrew Bible,that Zoth is the personal name for the Feminine aspect of God, rather than merely a demonstrative pronoun. In his reconstruction of events, she plays an important part in what happened in Eden.
 In his own time (1932) Guibbory formally anointed David Horowitz as his messiah of Judah and Chacham Baruch, a rabbi of the Kurdish community in Jerusalem, as priestly messiah.
[i] Guibbory is perhaps an easy target of derision, thinking himself to be the last “prophet like Moses”, likely the Davidic Messiah here to usher in the redemption and restoration of Israel. We need to be mindful, however, of the situation in the world at the time he was forming his worldview. Clearly, pre-war “Christian” Europe was exceeded in its hostility toward Jews only by wartime Europe. Before the war there was no Israel; there was only Jewish oppression and derision. Guibbory must have sensed an overwhelming, oppressive heaviness and darkness surrounding his European Jewish brethren that no doubt led not just to prayers for their redemption, but a to-him plausible hypothesis related to just how that redemption would be inaugurated.
Guibbory clearly saw the centuries-long persecution of Jews by Christians as evidence that the Christian Church represented the “new Babylon”, led by its prince, Jesus of Nazareth. So while Guibbory concluded that Jesus was, in fact, the one prophesied in Daniel 7 and Isaiah 52-53’s fourth “servant song”, he concluded that he was an anti-messiah, presiding over the persecution and destruction of Israelites. This belief was completely in concert with many derogatory teachings on Jesus in the Talmud.
[ii] I realize that to some this argument may smack of one for Hinduism and its multiple “gods”. It is not. It is, simply, an argument for how One God interacts with His creation.