Biblical Monotheism: The Exalted Servant Part 4May 9, 2017
This is the fourth of a six-part study on the deity of Yeshua, specifically through the lens of the Apostles’ reading of the book of Isaiah. In the last part of this study we looked at Isaiah 53 and how it was understood by first-century Judaism as a prophecy about Messiah. In this part, we are going to take a rabbit trail on the topic of Biblical Monotheism, and see how themes from the book of Deuteronomy were used in Second Isaiah.
We have seen that Servant Songs in Isaiah gave ample material for shaping the Apostles’ understanding of Messiah. They clearly utilized these passages in the Gospels and epistles. It is significant, however, that the Apostles do not constrict their usage of Second Isaiah to the Servant Songs. They do not place all their emphasis on the passages that to us seem patently messianic. On the contrary, the message of Second Isaiah as a whole was understood together and applied to their own times.
In that vein, there is a different theme of Second Isaiah that shines clearly, and this has an indirect, though profound impact on the topic of Messiah’s divinity. That theme is what we will refer to as “Biblical Monotheism.”
Many argue that the concept of a Divine Messiah is incompatible with monotheism. Some suggest that the Church, in its formative years, had to break with Jewish monotheism before it could ascribe full deity to Yeshua. Many scholars are forced to construct a gradual process whereby the early Yeshua-followers drifted away from Judaism proportionate to their growing attribution of divinity to Yeshua. This, however, betrays a lack of understanding of Biblical monotheism, and subsequent Second-Temple Jewish monotheism.
Before diving further into Second Isaiah, we need to examine briefly a passage from Deuteronomy that is considered the ultimate expression of monotheism found in all of Scripture. Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema (based on the first Hebrew word), has been the most well-known anthem of Judaism down through the centuries. Notoriously difficult to render in English due to the lack of present-tense verbs or punctuation, an attempted word-for-word translation is as follows: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord, our God, the Lord is one.”
This verse encapsulates Biblical monotheism succinctly. It denies the polytheism that was ubiquitous in ancient times, and presents the propositional truth of one God who created everything. This earth-shattering proclamation had historical ramifications that continue to reverberate today.
As modern readers, however, we are prone to misunderstand the primary thrust of this verse. This is due to the difference between our Western way of thinking and an ancient Hebrew mindset. Specifically, we have the tendency to interpret the Shema ontologically.
Avoiding an Ontological Interpretation
Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that focuses on essence or nature of being. It is a fundamental area of concern in Western philosophy. Many aspects of ontology, however, are foreign to an ancient Hebrew mentality.
An ontological understanding of the Shema would be to take it as describing God’s essential nature, or what God is. The focus would be on defining the word echad (“one”). One might argue whether echad refers to a singular oneness as defining God’s essence, or possibly a “unity” that has the capacity to include a plurality within the Godhead.Cf. Tim Hegg, The Messiah: An Introduction to Christology (TorahResource, 2006), pp. 8-9. But both sides of this argument are ontology-focused.
These ontological expressions, however, fall short of what Deuteronomy 6:4 is actually trying to convey. Rather than trying to express what God is (the nature or essence of deity), the Shema is telling us who God is (His identity). Echad (“One”) is God’s identity, not His essence of being. In other words, the Shema is telling us that God is unique. God is the One. He is the One and Only. He is separate and above all created beings. Biblical monotheism is about the identity of the one God, not about His ontology. As Bauckham notes,
The value of the concept of divine identity appears if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy, already in the [Second-Temple] period we are discussing and in a way that was to influence the Christian theological tradition significantly in the period after the New Testament, typically defined divine nature by means of a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on.Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 7.
In other words, we have to guard ourselves against the tendency to see in the Shema an abstract description of the Godhead. Rather than a description of His nature, it is a declaration of His identity. Deuteronomy is not concerned with explaining to us whether the Godhead is a pluralistic or a singular oneness. That is not the topic here. “God is One” means that He is the only God. There is no other. And that profound proposition carries with it the implication that we should love Him and submit our lives to Him (Deut 6:5ff.).
Biblical Monotheism in Second Isaiah
This gives us insight into the monotheistic expressions we encounter in Second Isaiah. “Those chapters of Isaiah were, outside the Torah, the most important sources of Second Temple Jewish monotheism. Again and again Deutero-Isaiah’s expressions of God’s uniqueness are echoed in later Jewish literature.”Ibid, p. 9. God’s unique identity is expressed marvellously in passages such as Isaiah 45:
For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the Lord, and there is no other… There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance. (Isa 45:18, 21-23)
Isaiah incorporates the monotheistic themes of Deuteronomy. The phrase ein od (“there is no other”) is taken from Deuteronomy, and is essentially a paraphrase of the Shema. This phrase is found seven times in Second Isaiah.Deut 4:35, 39; Isa 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22; 46:9.
What is remarkable, however, is that Second Isaiah expands the message of monotheism to the widest possible scope. Monotheism, God’s uniqueness, is not just something for Israel to acknowledge; rather, His uniqueness is to be displayed to all mankind. This acknowledgement of the God of Israel as the one true God by all nations is not only appropriate, it is inevitable. Isaiah’s monotheism is an eschatological monotheism. It anticipates the ultimate sovereignty of God over all things at the consummation of the ages. The call of Biblical monotheism is a relentlessly exclusive one. God’s sovereignty will be blatant, inexcusable, and universal, just as it says in Zechariah 14:9: “And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one.”
The Implications of Biblical Monotheism
Using the category of identity rather than ontology is helpful in unpacking the message of these passages. Rather than defining God by means of metaphysical attributes, Scripture defines the unique identity of the God of Israel primary in terms of three aspects, all of which are exhibited in chapter 45 of Isaiah:
- God is the sole Creator
- God is the ultimate sole Sovereign, and
- God is the Redeemer, specifically defined in His redeeming acts towards Israel.This list is derived from Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 8. His treatment of the third aspect, however, is less extensive.
These themes resound throughout Scripture, and clearly differentiate God from all other reality. They mark a clear line of distinction between Creator and created. No one, except for God alone, can lay claim to these three.
Each of these three propositions carries with it an implication for us:
- Everything comes from God, meaning that nothing created should ever be placed ahead of the Creator;
- God is the only sovereign and He is in control, meaning that our lives should be in submission to His will (to do otherwise is to go against everything we were created for); and
- He is a God who desires to have a covenant relationship with us.
This sums up the message of renouncing idolatry, submitting to God and to His will for our lives, and living as His people in communion with Him. This is the message of Biblical monotheism, the message of Second Isaiah, and in fact the message of Yeshua and the Apostles. As we will see, the Apostles integrated this monotheism into their understanding of Yeshua and His divinity.
The ultimate response of mankind to God’s uniqueness is worship.
It is God’s unique identity which requires worship of Him alone. Worship of other beings is inappropriate because they do not share in His unique identity. Worshipping God along with withholding worship from any other being is recognition of the absolute distinction between God and all other reality.Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 12.
Worship is the ultimate acknowledgement of God’s oneness. The distinction between God and everything else is firm and impermeable. God is God, and there is no other. The question, then, is whether Scripture portrays Messiah to be within or outside of that unique Divine identity. In the next two segments of this study, I hope to demonstrate that both the Tanakh and the Apostolic Scriptures deliberately identify Messiah within the unique identity of the God of Israel.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Cf. Tim Hegg, The Messiah: An Introduction to Christology (TorahResource, 2006), pp. 8-9.|
|2.||↑||Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 7.|
|3.||↑||Ibid, p. 9.|
|4.||↑||Deut 4:35, 39; Isa 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22; 46:9.|
|5.||↑||This list is derived from Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 8. His treatment of the third aspect, however, is less extensive.|
|6.||↑||Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 12.|