Incarnation, a Jewish View

Usually on Fridays, I write a Sabbath meditation. In a way this is a good meditation for any day, including a Sabbath. Many do not think of theology as meditational, devotional, transformational, or practical. I disagree. I hope this theological musing can be one example of a meditative exploration of life-changing truth.

Incarnation. Through the Spanish language, which many of us are familiar with from Mexican cuisine and Hispanic neighbors, we can comprehend the meaning of this Latin word. Carne means flesh or meat. In-carn-ation is a description of an event, an event in which something becomes flesh, or someone. Incarnation is the event of in-flesh-ation.

It is widely held that Judaism rejects the entire concept of a divine incarnation. Yeshua of Nazareth cannot be God who became human while remaining divine. There are some in the fringes of the Messianic Jewish movement who refuse to accept the traditional Christian doctrine of incarnation. I know of one Messianic ministry that tries to get around this by using only biblical language and refusing to say something like, “Yeshua is God.” By the way, note that we are dealing with two separate issues: (1) is Yeshua deity and (2) did the deity become a man without ceasing to be divine?

Jews do not believe in God’s divine nature in any way becoming human, a standard line tells us. Incarnation and the deity of Yeshua is a Christian concept foreign to Judaism.

Is that so?

Well, first, let’s consider a well-meaning, often-used but biblically unsound approach to the question. Messianic prophecy foretells the incarnation, some would say. The Messiah is called divine in Isaiah. And since Messiah is also portrayed as a man in the prophets, then he must be both at once: God and man.

While good theology, the usual proof-text used for this assertion is invalid. It is Isaiah 9:6. In a clearly Messianic passage we are given a title for Messiah, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” There it is, plain to see. Messiah is called “Mighty God.” That should settle it, right?

No, Isaiah is not calling Messiah divine in this famous verse. Christian translators overlook a basic rule of Hebrew grammar and the basic conventions of these kinds of names in Hebrew. There are two things that you need to know to see why Isaiah 9:6 is not a prophecy of the divinity of Messiah:

1. The “is” in Hebrew is unwritten and understood.
2. These special kinds of names (theophoric names) make statements about God or about life rather than about the person.

In other words, Isaiah 9:6 should be translated, “A wonderful counselor IS the Mighty God and the Everlasting Father IS a prince of peace” (pele yo’etz el gibbor, avi ad sar shalom). There are plenty of other examples of such names in Isaiah and in Hebrew in general. One such example is the famous Maher-shalal-a-hash-baz of Isaiah 8:3 (”swift is the plunder and speedy is the prey”).

So, while the incarnation is true, it is not something ever revealed prior to the coming of Yeshua. There were concepts in Judaism of Messiah being an angelic figure, but not a divine one (1 Enoch has a part where he is called “the one before time”).

So, how can this theological musing be about a Jewish view of the incarnation? What is Jewish about this Christian doctrine? My answer is four-fold:

1. Jewish men and women grasped the concept from the life and teaching of Yeshua and passed it down to us in the New Testament.
2. The idea of God-becoming-human while remaining divine is within the boundaries of a Jewish view of God: he can do all things.
3. Incarnation is not a strange miracle in light of a Jewish concept: humans are made in God’s image.
4. The Torah has a tradition, interpreted in rabbinic literature, in which God is seen as the Primordial Man.

Regarding the first point, it may seem obvious that the apostles were Jewish, the New Testament is a Jewish book, and the incarnation taught in the New Testament is a Jewish idea. There was a time when the New Testament was suspect of being a late document (second and third century) heavily influenced by Greek thought and Roman mystery religions. Scholarship has largely rejected this idea and the New Testament is widely seen, even by critical scholars, as a Jewish document from the first century. If the divinity of Messiah and the incarnation are such anti-Jewish doctrines, why was there not a more heated debate about the idea in the New Testament?

Regarding the second point, some philosophers and theologians have made too great a deal of the separation of the divine and human, the perfect and the imperfect, the temporal and the eternal. Some have made it seem impossible for the eternal God to take in mortal, human flesh. This separation is too sharply drawn. The third point is an answer to this objection: God made us in his image, so human form must not be too foreign to God’s nature.

Regarding the third point, humans are made in God’s image. There are numerous explanations for what that means: intelligence, speech, ability to reign and rule, ability to create, capacity to love, the soul which elevates us above animals, and on and on. Rather that deciding which is these is correct, we should admit they all are. When a child is born in the image of the parents, there is not one trait that the child shares with the parents, but many. It seems then that human nature is not foreign to God but comes from God. Even our physical existence (we’re not just bodiless spirits) must have some counterpart in God’s nature. And that leads to the fourth point.

God is revealed in the Torah as a walking, talking person. He walked in the garden with Adam (Genesis 3:8). He walked and carried on a sort of court hearing with Abraham (Genesis 18:22-33). This led to a concept in the rabbinical literature of God as ADAM-HA-KADMON, the Primordial (or First) Man.

There are two extremes in Jewish interpretation of God’s nature. The Jewish philosophers, such as Maimonides, interpret God as utterly spirit and idea without substance and form. God is the unmoved mover, a principle and not in any sense tied to the physical. The other extreme is in rabbinic interpreters who took the anthropomorphisms of the Bible literally: God has a hand, feet, wings, etc., since the Bible talks about all these things.

So, if in the fulness of time, God saw fit to enter this world as a man, this was not foreign to his nature. It was not beyond his power. There is no Jewish reason to deny the possibility. Simply, we must decide if it is true. Did Yeshua claim to be and demonstrate that he was, in fact, God in human form? He certainly did not walk around saying it, “I am divine.” Yet he did more than hint at it. He demonstrated the power of a creator, the ability to command wind and waves and transform water into wine. Were these parlor tricks? Legends? Let the reader decide. But know that incarnation is not an anti-Jewish idea.

What does the incarnation mean to you and me? It means God has come down to our level and raised us up. He did not merely reach down from heaven. He came to us and lifted us up on his very real shoulders. It means God does understand our weakness. He lived it. In him, in the God-man, Yeshua, we have a real savior, human enough to understand and divine enough to affect salvation.

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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Messianic Jewish, Theology, Torah, Yeshua. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Incarnation, a Jewish View

  1. Travis says:

    Shabbat Shalom! You make some very good points about Yeshua’s incarnation. I was not aware of the lengths that people go to in order to get around this idea that they don’t understand or may not agree with rather than doing more research.

    As for scripture describing God as ‘walking and talking’, is it possible that because the writer had no words to perfectly describe what God was doing (being that God had no form at the time) he used somewhat of a simile?

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