“Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.” (Deut.4:15)
Thus begins a rather long passage in which Moses reminds the people of essentials of their faith: The God they serve is not a man, or an image of a man, but is unseen and in fact, “No man can see me and live”(Ex.33:20).
What can be seen are His actions among His people, and the results of those actions. This is how God chose to make Himself known before both Israel and the nations. It was a large part of the point behind the miracles in Egypt before their deliverance from the hands of Pharaoh: Not just to free the people, but to make it clear Who was freeing them.
Interestingly, in one of the greatest and most-misunderstood aspects of God’s relationship with mankind, He does the delivering through a man, chosen specifically for this very purpose: Moses.
Thus, the pattern of redemption and relationship is established through a mediator; a man who goes before God on behalf of the people; a man who is sent by God.
In this parsha, is the great moral and theological center of Judaism:
שׁמע ישראל יהוה אלהינוּ יהוה אחד
“Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem is One” (Deut.6:4)
God is One. Period. He is not Three. He is not a multiple personality expressed in various forms. That is a pagan misappropriation of a Jewish understanding. It is typically promoted in both Christian and Messianic circles that Echad represents a “compound unity”, in order to justify the trinity concept. If this were true, however, the apostles would have said so. Yeshua would have said so. A “compound unity” of attributes, perhaps, but never in the mind of any Jew, particularly a devout Jew, would the idea of multiple and equal personalities emerge from the word Echad.
Elohim is a representation of God as righteous judge and His court of witnesses, not of any “three-in-one” perversion of the Hebrew. This is very clear, for instance, in Exodus 21, in the parsha Mishpatim, where we read:
“…If the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God (literally: Elohim, the judges)…” (Ex.21:5-6)
The ultimate and complete unity and otherness of HaShem is affirmed rather than disputed, when the Master is directly confronted with the opportunity, as recorded by Mark:
“One of the scribes…asked him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Yeshua answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God is One LORD’….The scribe said to him, “Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else beside Him…” (Mk.12:28-32)
I am not trying to belabor the point. I have written about this before, and this is not new ground. However, it’s important to revisit the issue today, because Moses, in Deuteronomy, is giving his last instructions to the fledgling nation before sending them into the wide and dangerous world which lay before them, void of his direction. How are they to proceed? What is most important for them to know?
Among the things deemed most important is the notion that God is not a form or image that they are to look to visually. The people must be carefully admonished on this point, because the last time Moses disappeared from their midst for an unexpectedly long period of time, the people formed for themselves a Golden Calf to take his place.
The Golden Calf, perhaps the most embarrassing moment in Israel’s history, was not an attempt to replace God, but was rather an attempt to form an image of him as a substitution for His chosen Agent, because their insecurity and lack of knowledge was such that they could not handle the concept of a God who must be apprehended by faith and not by sight.
This is critical to understand. The natural state of man is not atheism. It is paganism. Mankind, throughout its long sordid history, always creates objects of worship for itself. We are physical beings, living in the physical plane of existence, and we want an image which we can look to and gaze at; an image which reflects our perception of what and who we think God is.
God knew that this would never work. Mankind does not naturally have the spiritual sensitivity, in an uncultivated and Torah-less state, to properly relate to a transcendent God of the cosmos. Man will invariably screw the pooch, as it were, and misrepresent Him.
Therefore, God spoke in the fire and the thunder and through His actions, and gave His instructions to an Anointed man whom He raised up from among His people for that purpose.
Moses ascended and then descended with the words of God.
In like fashion, the Master, who all knew had his birth and origin in Bethlehem, through a human womb, like all men, said of himself:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven (the intersection between God and man at Sinai), but it is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes out of heaven, and gives life to the world….Therefore the Jews were grumbling about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” (Jn.6:32-41)
The Master is not declaring himself to be God, perish the thought, but is comparing his ministry to that of Moses, who also descended with the words of God, the “bread from heaven“.
This is so important for us, for the same reason it was so important for the generation which entered the Promised Land to be reminded that their God performed these miracles for them, and gave them His word, without ever showing themselves His form. Rather, He sent them His servant, Moses, who taught them His will, both in written form and orally, beginning the long and rich tradition of the Oral Law.
For it is the Word of God, and His instructions for man, that we are to embrace and live out. It is the mitzvot of commandments which are the bricks and mortar of God’s building project on earth, and our hands and feet are to be about our Father’s business of building and healing the world.
When we substitute this idea for a form of idolatry, by creating an object of our worship (such as trinity), we become like the Israelites at Sinai, who built for themselves a Golden Calf to fill the void of Moses’s absence.
Today, Christianity is built squarely upon the presumption that Jesus is God. If this concept is removed from the religion, the entire structure collapses upon itself. This notion replaces Torah, mitzvot, Tikkun and substitutes these ideas for a Golden Calf that we dance around and sing to in a sort of macabre vaudeville performance. Once a person sees this reality, it sickens them to the very core of their being and makes them recoil from the scene and literally throw up in their mouth. I imagine this is exactly how Moses felt when he came down to see for himself what God told him was happening at the base of the mountain.
We seek emotional satiation of our insecurity in the form of romantic songs and fanciful ideas about Jesus, rather than busying ourselves with the work and devotion, the avodah, of true worship and service to the kingdom.
The Master addressed this very issue in the gospels:
“You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (Jn.4:22-23)
Notice carefully the gentle rebuke of the ignorant Samaritan about false worship. It’s gentle, because she wants to know the truth. She is willing to be taught the truth. Are you? Am I? In this statement, the Master is quite clear that only the Father is to be worshiped. We are not to pray to or worship anyone else.
This is not a negotiable element of the kingdom of God. To err on this point is to miss the entire message. I will share the words of a great elder statesman of Israel and Judaism:
“Let us now turn to the Shema…we are declaring that our God is the God not only of the Israelites – if that were the case, then the Bible would have opened with Abraham and not with Adam – but rather of the entire world. The prophet Zechariah speaks of the time when the entire world will unite in peace and fealty to the God of freedom and justice, the “perfection of the world with the Kingship of God” (tikkun olam…)…Our prophets never demanded universal conversion to Judaism. Indeed, the prophet Micah describes the “end of times” as a period when, “Nation will not lift up sword against nation…for all the peoples will go forth, each person in the name of his God, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever”(Mic.4:3-5). What the Torah does demand of us is to influence humanity to convert to the seven Noahide commands…The prohibition against idolatry…is a moral statement against the wicked, despotic, and heinous actions performed by the idolaters. And so King Solomon, when he dedicates the Holy Temple, asks the Almighty to accept the offerings of the gentile (1 Ki.8:41-43), and this is accepted Talmudic law (Menachot 73b, Chullin 13b, Zevachim 45a). And (the Rambam) insists that we must even coerce all the people of the world to accept the seven Noahide laws of morality (Laws of Kings 8:10) – but we may not coerce them to accept Judaism.” (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Torah Lights: Devarim, Koren Publishers, pg.61)
Riskin goes on to suggest that the plurality present in the word Elohim, related to the Shema, reflects the ability of the nations, in their own distinctions, to express the unity of God with a plurality of distinction, all centering upon the One True God and His transcendent righteousness.
Righteousness has expressions in the nations that are not distinctly Jewish, or necessarily related to Judaism, but they are related to Torah and to the worship of the One God.
To resort to building the Golden Calf, in practice or in doctrine, does not bring us near to this prophetic goal.
Think on this the next time you are tempted to believe that it’s not the central and most pressing issue facing the people of God today. We can teach Torah Judaism all day, but the nations are not called to be Jews. They are called to repent of paganism.
If our Torah teaching includes dancing and singing around a Golden Calf, are we to commend ourselves? Surely not.
However, like the Samaritan woman, who had part of the truth, but not the full revelation, and was eager to learn more, we must emulate the tone and approach of the Master; patiently expressing the truth in a loving and gentle way, not picking her up bodily and throwing her into the well and away from our presence.