“And the LORD [YHWH] appeared to him by the Oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men [nasim] stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord [Adonai], if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant” Gen 18:1–3.
In this very early representation, the “three men” are YHWH Gen 18:1 and two of his angels [malakhim] Gen 19:1. A nasi is a leader which in this case referred to angels but can also be translated as men. Abraham saw three figures but worshiped only one.
In the time of Moses, we see that God’s signature prayer for his people Israel, the Shma, was already Trinitarian at its roots. Its first verse contains three mentions of God, plural Hebrew words in each mention, and a Hebrew compound unity, not an absolute unity, for “one” God. And the Torah contains three statements of the Shma. “Three” is in some way deeply embedded in God’s self-revelation for that time.
The Shma is the most powerful proclamation in all the Torah. In the first Mishna tractate it is the first subject mentioned. The Hebrew word shma means “hear.” Shma Israel is “Hear, O Israel.” It is the central prayer of the Jewish faith. If God were to send a Mashiakh to tell us that God is a Holy Trinity, Israel would accept him only if they could find signs of his coming in their sacred scriptures, especially in a very prominent prayer. Deut 6:4.
The Shma, in the original Hebrew, anticipates a future revelation of God as Trinitarian. The ancient rabbis correctly read these texts as emphasizing one God of Israel, in contrast to the pagan religions that had many gods. But reading the Shma in Hebrew suggests that the one God of Israel would someday be revealed as triune.
Three lines of evidence support this proposition. God is always subtle. Not two or four lines of evidence, but three, corresponding to the three mentions of God in the Shma. Each supports the other two. Any one of them alone might be overcome by a plausible denial. But all three together constitute the kind of exegesis that rabbis often use when interpreting the Torah. The three lines of evidence are: three mentions, plural words, and compound unity. Can God Really Be Both One and Many? 1:56
One God, Three Mentions
Rabbinic tradition connects the three mentions of God in the Shma with God’s self-description in the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy Ex 34:6–7. In Hebrew, YHWH, YHWH, Elohim, literally “He is, He is, Gods.” The connection in colloquial English, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious …” Ex 34:6–7, again points to one Holy Trinity. Rabbinic tradition also connects the three mentions of God in the Shma with the “thrice-holy” in Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim, In Hebrew, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, YHWH tzvaot.” Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” Is 6:3.
One God, Plural Words
Let’s look more closely. The Shma says: Adonai [my Lords] Eloheinu [our Gods] Adonai [my Lords] ekhad [one]. The singular, “My Lord, our God, my Lord,” would have been, Adoni [my Lord], Eli [our God], Adoni [my Lord]. El is God. Elohei, [my Gods] followed by nu [our] becomes Eloheinu, [our Gods]. Adon [Lord], Adoni [my Lord], Adonai [my Lords], Adoneinu [our Lords].
God’s words to Moses from the burning bush were literally, “I am the Gods [Elohei] of your father, the Gods [Elohei] of Abraham, the Gods [Elohei] of Isaac, and the Gods [Elohei] of Jacob” Ex 3:6. God even commanded Moses to tell Israel that His threefold name was no poetic invention of men but his eternal name: “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord [YHWH], the Gods [Elohei] of your fathers, the Gods [Elohei] of Abraham, the Gods [Elohei] of Isaac, and the Gods [Elohei] of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” Ex 3:15. God could easily have used the Hebrew singular Eli, but he chose a plural form.
Jews reply that Adonai [my Lords], is a substitute for YHWH, (HE IS, when spoken by man), which is singular. So the prayer as written in the Torah is singular. But in the prayer by which every observant Jew proclaims his faith three times a day, his first words and his last, he says Adonai [my Lords]. Everywhere in the Torah, when a Jew sees YHWH, he says Adonai. Everywhere in the Torah, the rabbis say Adonai.
One God, Compound Unity
And God said ekhad.
The word ekhad, “one,” stands as an interpretation of the plural forms of the three mentions of God, foreshadowing to us truth to be revealed in Rabbi Yeshua about the Holy Trinity: The three divine persons are one God.
The Torah frequently uses ekhad to describe a compound unity. “And there was evening and there was morning, one [ekhad] day” Gen 1:5. The day had two parts, evening and morning. “Therefore a man … cleaves to his wife, and they become one [ekhad] flesh” Gen 2:24. The one flesh has two parts, man and wife. “We will dwell with you and become one [ekhad] people” Gen 34:16. The one people is composed of many persons. The Torah contains many uses of ekhad as a compound unity. In the Shma, the most prominent proclamation in all the Torah, God wrote ekhad.
When we teach the Word of God we ordinarily use God‘s own words from inspired Scripture to be sure we are accurate. Maimonides, in his Thirteen Principles, did not use ekhad, God’s description of himself in the Shma. Maimonides instead kept the root but changed the vowels to substitute yakhid, the Hebrew word for an absolute unity.
God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” Gen 1:26. Rashi commented in Genesis Rabbah 8:3, “God’s extraordinary use of the first person plural evokes the image of God surrounded by His angelic host,” thereby setting up the traditional Jewish understanding. However, God alone creates. When God says na’aseh adam, “Let us make man …,” it can refer only to persons who create. Jews also point out that the Hebrew elohim sometimes describes an angel as malakh elohim, a messenger of God. However, God is still the only one who creates. His use of “Let us make man” can refer only to divine persons.
“Behold, the man has become like one of us” Gen 3:22. In Hebrew, k’akhad [like one] mimenu [of us]. “Man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” Deut 8:3. K’akhad [like one] is a form of ekhad, which we have already seen is a compound unity. This word mimenu [of us], which like the others came from God himself through Moses, is also plural. It absolutely confirms that we are speaking of a compound unity, the Holy Trinity.
“Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” Gen 11:7. The two crucial Hebrew words, neredah [let us go down] and navlah [let us confuse] are distinctively plural. Navlah means wither. God withered their language as flowers wither and die. If God had been yakhid, an absolute unity, he would have used ered, let me go down,” and anbil, let me confuse (wither).
God’s use of this unique Hebrew word, navlah, from the Hebrew stem bet-lamid-lamid, confuses the Hebrew word levenah, brick, by reversing its first three consonants. This word shows that any human enterprise in opposition to God’s will must inevitably fail in the end. Here we do not have God’s heavenly host as a witness, showing again that God’s plural self-description does not depend on it.
Further, if God were simply using the “royal we” as a yakhid, an absolute unity always accompanied by an angelic host, we would not see him also using the singular in early Genesis: “I will make for him [eh’eseh-lo] Gen 2:18.” “I will put [ashit]” Gen 3:15. “I will increase [arbeh]” Gen 3:16.
Let us now look at a different usage for comparison: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” Is 1:18. The crucial Hebrew word here is lekhu na, literally, “You-all come.” With this usage God is speaking to the multitude of sinners, using the Hebrew word nivakhaka, “Let us reason together,” including himself among them to foreshadow, “For our sake [Rabbi Yeshua] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” 2 Cor 5:21.
One Shma, Three Statements
There is one additional line of evidence, different from the others because it is the other two statements of the Shma. It corresponds to God’s use of ekhad as a compound unity because the three statements together suggest that the Shma itself is a compound unity. This is very much the kind of exegesis the rabbis do when they read the Torah to discern God‘s will for His people Israel. Cumulatively, it constitutes strong evidence that God was preparing his people for a national revelation that he is triune.
These three statements also remind us of the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity. § 253 “The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the consubstantial Trinity. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God. In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), ‘Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.’”
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” Deut 6:4–9.
“And if you will obey my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be full. Take heed lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, and the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and he shut up the heavens, so that there be no rain, and the land yield no fruit, and you perish quickly off the good land which the LORD gives you. You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.” Deut 11:13–21.
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God” Num 15:37–41.
JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy
Hebrew YHVH ʾeloheinu YHVH ʾaḥad, literally, “YHVH our God YHVH one.” For all of its familiarity, the precise meaning of the Shema is uncertain and it permits several possible renderings. The present translation indicates that the verse is a description of the proper relationship between YHVH and Israel: He alone is Israel’s God. This is not a declaration of monotheism, meaning that there is only one God. That point was made in 4:35 and 39, which state that “YHVH alone is God.” The present verse, by adding the word “our,” focuses on the way Israel is to apply that truth: though other peoples worship various beings and things they consider divine (see Comment to 3:24), Israel is to recognize YHVH alone.
This understanding of the Shema as describing a relationship with God, rather than His nature, has the support of Zechariah 14:9. According to Zechariah, what is now true of Israel will, in the future, be true of all humanity: “the LORD will be king over all the earth; on that day the LORD shall be one and His name one,” meaning that for all of humanity, YHVH and His name will stand alone, unrivaled; as Zechariah says earlier, “I will erase the very names of the idols from the land; they shall not be uttered any more” (13:2). YHVH will be recognized exclusively and His name alone will be invoked in prayer and oaths. In other words, Deuteronomy and Zechariah both use “one” in the sense of “alone,” “exclusively.”
Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 76.
These three appearances of the most central and powerful command in all the Torah are more than the usual grammatical repetition for emphasis. God is more subtle than we realize at any particular time. Any of these “threes” alone might be explainable in grammatical terms, but when we look at them all in context we can only conclude that, yes, God is absolutely one, but there is definitely something “three-ish” about him.
The ancient rabbis correctly read these texts as emphasizing one God, in contrast to the pagan religions that had many gods. These “threes” are a classic example of the one-way prophecies of Rabbi Yeshua. On the day before the Annunciation, the wisest tzadik reading all the prophecies of Rabbi Yeshua could not have put them together to anticipate that God would send his promised Mashiakh as a divine person with a human nature. But once we have seen Rabbi Yeshua, we can go back and recognize him in the prophecies.
God of Israel, who is pure truth, wrote the Torah to reveal himself to us. He knew that Rabbi Yeshua would become incarnate with his teaching that Almighty God is triune. If he had willed that his people Israel turn away from Rabbi Yeshua his Torah would have referred to himself in singular Hebrew words. But his Torah resolved the triunity question in favor of the many Jews who followed Rabbi Yeshua by using plural and compound-unity words a thousand years before Rabbi Yeshua’s incarnation.
He is one God, all the same spiritual substance. Each Sunday morning, Catholics affirm in the Nicene Creed that Rabbi Yeshua is “consubstantial with the Father.” But God revealed that he is a family of three divine persons. “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” Mt 3:16–17. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” Mt 28:19.