The Three Pillars of the Godhead (Part 1)
James Scott Trimm
This blog will be in three parts. Part 1 will establish that the concept of the Three Pillars of the Godhead with the Middle Pillar being the Son of Yah and the Word, are Jewish ideas that can be found in the Zohar and other Rabbinic literature. Part two will demonstrate that these same ideas can be found in the writings of the first Century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, demonstrating that these ideas existed in Judaism in the Second Temple Era. Part three will then make the case that these same ideas existed among the Nazarenes and can be found in the Ketuvim Netzarim (the so-called “New Testament”).
There is an important reason for presenting the three parts in this manner. If one should say that these ideas are not “Jewish” then Part 1 establishes that they are very much Jewish. If one should then say that they are late ideas not found in Judaism in the time of the Nazarenes (the original followers of Yeshua) then Part 2 proves that these ideas existed in the writings of Philo of Alexandria in the first Century. If one should say “sure these ideas are in Philo, but they are Hellenistic” then Part one demonstrates they are in fact Jewish. Moreover Part three will demonstrate that these ideas fit the statements in the Ketuvim Netzarim too well to be ascribed to coincidence. The three parts together make a case that fits like a glove and cannot be written off as non-Jewish, late, Hellenistic or a coincidence.
The Three Pillars
Lets begin with the concept of Eyn Sof (sometimes spelled Ayn Sof).
Eyn Sof means “without border” and refers to Elohim as being the Infinite One who is beyond definition (definition being another word for border) is beyond human comprehension. Eyn Sof is therefore unknowable. In Judaism the unknowable Eyn Sof is contrasted with the Image of Elohim, which emanates from Eyn Sof and through which we can relate. Aryeh Kaplan writes concerning this distinction:
In general none of the names of God refer to … Ayn Sof, which means the Infinite Being, or simply, the Infinite. The names used in scripture and elsewhere merely refer to the various ways through which God manifests Himself in creation. The name Elohim, which is used throughout the first chapter of Genesis, refers to the manifestation of delineation and definition…. This is the significance to the Torah’s statement that God formed man “In the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Note that the word “God” here is Elohim. This is because man parallels the delineating forces that define creation.
(Sefer Yetzirah; p. 7-8)
The Zohar describes the difference between Eyn Sof and the Image of Elohim this way:
Before He gave any shape to the world, before He produced any form, He was alone, without form and without resemblance to anything else. Who then can comprehend how He was before the Creation? Hence it is forbidden to lend Him any form or similitude, or even to call Him by His sacred name, or to indicate Him by a single letter or a single point… But after He created the form of the Heavenly Man, He used him as a chariot wherein to descend, and He wishes to be called after His form, which is the sacred name “YHWH”
At times this can create some miscommunication, because terms like YHWH and Elohim can be used to refer either to Eyn Sof, or to the Image of Elohim.
Likewise we use the same type of language in our own lives. Two men may be standing in a room. One may point at a picture on the wall of George Washington and say “That is George Washington.” And he would be completely correct. On the other hand the man next to him may say “No, that is not George Washington, that is only the image of George Washington.”
In Jewish mysticism the ten Sefirot are ten emanations, or attributes, through which Eyn Sof (The Infinite One) manifests Himself in the universe:
“Ten Sefirot of nothingness, ten and not nine, ten and not eleven…” (Sefer Yetzirah 1:4a)
“Ten Sefirot of Nothingness. Their end is imbedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end, like a flame in a burning coal. For Adon is singular, He has no second. And before one, what do you count?” ( Sefer Yetzirah 1:7)
The Zohar teaches concerning YHWH and His Sefirot, which it calls “crowns”, that “He is they and they are He” “like the flame and the coal” referring back to this passage from the Sefer Yetzirah:
The Holy One, blessed be He, has produced ten holy crowns above wherewith He crowns and invests Himself, and He is they and they are He, being linked together like the flame and the coal.
Aryeh Kaplan explains this passage of the Sefer Yetzirah this way:
The Sepher Yetzirah likens this to a “flame bound to a burning coal”. A flame cannot exist without the coal, and the burning coal cannot exist without the flame. Although the coal is the cause of the flame, the flame is also the cause of the burning coal. Without the flame there would not be a burning coal. Since cause cannot exist without effect, effect is also the cause of cause.”
(Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation; Aryeh Kaplan, p. 57)
Gersom Scholem writes of this Zohar passage:
“Most of the early kabbalists were more inclined to accept the view that the Sefirot were actually identical with God’s substance or essence. This is stated in many documents from the 13th century, and stressed later in the school of R. Solomon b. Adret, and particularly in the Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, which was followed in the 16th century by David Messer Leon, Meir ibn Gabbai, and Joseph Caro. According to this view, the Sefirot do not constitute “intermediary beings” but are God Himself. “The Emanation is the Divinity,” while Ein-Sof cannot be subject to religious investigation, which can conceive of God only in His external aspect. The main part of the Zohar also tends largely toward this opinion, expressing it emphatically in the interchangeable identity of God with His Names or His Powers: “He is They, and They are He” (Zohar, 3, 11b, 70a).”
(Kabbalah; Gersom Scholem; p. 101)
The most important and well known scheme of depicting the sefirot arranges them as a tree with three columns. The right column represents the spiritual force of expansion. The left represents its opposite, restriction. The middle column is the balance and synthesis between these opposing tendencies.
Each of these ten sefirot fall into three columns or “pillars”. The Zohar describes these Three Pillars in a commentary on Genesis 1:4 which reads “Then Elohim said, “Let there be light; and there was light. And Elohim saw that the light was good…” (Gen. 1:4).
Why, it may be asked, was it necessary to repeat the word “light” in this verse? The answer is that the first “light” refers to the primordial light which is of the Right Hand, and it is destined for the “end of days”; while the second “light” refers to the Left Hand, which issues from the Right. The next words, “And God saw the light that it was good” (Gen. 1:4), refer to the pillar which, standing midway between them, unites both sides, and therefore when the unity of the three, right, left, and middle, was complete, “it was good”, since there could be no completion until the third had appeared to remove the strife between Right and Left, as it is written, “And God separated between the light and between the darkness.”
AND GOD SAW THE LIGHT THAT IT WAS GOOD. This is the Middle Pillar: Ki Tov (that it was good) threw light above and below and on all other sides, in virtue of YHWH, the name which embraces all sides.
These three pillars are depicted in the Sefer Yetzirah as follows:
Twenty-two foundation letters: three Mothers, seven Doubles, and twelve Elementals. The three Mothers, Alef Mem Shin, their foundation is the pan of merit, the pan of liability, and the tongue of decree deciding between them.
(Sefer Yetzirah 2:1)
The three Mothers, Alef Mem Shin, their foundation is the pan of merit, the pan of liability, and the tongue of decree deciding between them.
(Sefer Yetzirah 3:1)
Three Mothers, Alef Mem Shin, in the Universe are air, water, and fire. Heaven was created from fire, earth was created from water, and the air decides between the fire and the water.
(Sefer Yetzirah 3:4)
The Zohar sheds light on this, connecting these three with the Shema:
The [profession of] unity that every day is [a profession of] unity
is to be understood and to be perceived. We have said in many places
that this prayer is a profession of Unity that is proclaimed:
”Hear O Yisrael, YHWH“ first, [then] “Eloheynu” [and] “YHWH” they are all One and thus He is called “One”.
Behold, these are three names, how can they be one? Is it because we call them one? (literally: And also concerning the proclamation that we call them one?). How these are one can only through the vision of the Holy Sprit be known. And these are through the vision of the closed eye (or the hidden eye) To make known that these three are one. And this is the mystery of the voice that is heard. The voice is one. And is three GAUNIN: fire and air and water. And all these are one in the mystery of the voice.
And also here “YHWH, Eloheynu, YHWH” these are One. Three GAUNIN that are One. And this is the voice of the act of a son of man in [proclaiming] the Unity. And to which he sees by the Unity of the “All” from Eyn Sof (the Infinite One) to the end of the “All”. Because of the voice in which it is done, in these are three that are one.
And this is the [profession] of the daily profession of Unity that is revealed in the mystery of the Holy Spirit.
And there are many GAUNIN that are a Unity, and all of them are true, what the one does, that the other does, and what that one does, the other does.
(The Aramaic word GA’UN (sing.)/GAUNIN (plural) comes from the word for “color” and refers to an “aspect, element, substance, essence”. )
Thus the Zohar understands the Sh’ma to mean that YHWH, Elohim and YHWH are three GA’UNIN.
The Son of Yah
The two outer Pillars are known as the Father and Mother, while the Zohar identifies the Middle Pillar as the Son of Yah:
Better is a neighbor that is near, than a brother far off. This neighbor is the Middle Pillar in the godhead, which is the Son of Yah.
What is the significance of “be-mispar”?
The Holy One, blessed be He, has a son, whose glory
shines from one end of the world to another. He is a great
and mighty tree, whose head reaches heaven, and whose roots
are set in the holy ground, and his name is “Mispar” and his
place is in the uppermost heaven… as it is written, “The heavens
declare (me-SaPRim) the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1).
Were it not for this “Mispar” there would be neither hosts
nor offspring in any of the worlds.
This passage of Zohar was intended to recall a passage from the Bahir:
Why are they called Sephirot? Because it is written (Ps. 19:2),
“The heavens declare (me-SaPRim) the glory of God.”
The Image of Elohim
Now we read in the Torah:
26 And Elohim 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 fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.
27 And Elohim created man in His own image: in the image of Elohim created He him; male and female created He them.
(Gen. 1:26-27 HRV)
What does this mean? Let US make man in OUR image?
The Zohar gives a very interesting answer:
And Elohim said, Let us make man (Gen. 1:26). The secret (SOD) is to them who fear him (Ps. 25:14)…
That most reverend Elder opened an exposition of this verse by saying ‘Simeon Simeon, who is it that said: “Let us make man?” Who is this Elohim?’ With these words the most reverend Elder vanished before anyone saw him.
R. Simeon, hearing that he had called him plain “Simeon”, and not “Rabbi Simeon”, said to his colleagues: ‘Of a surety this is the Holy One, blessed be He, of whom it is written: “And the Ancient of days was seated” (Dan. VII, 9). Truly now is the time to expound this mystery, because certainly there is here a mystery which hitherto it was not permitted to divulge, but now we perceive that permission is given.’
He then proceeded: ‘A king had several buildings to be erected, and he had an architect in his service who did nothing save with his consent (Prov. 8:30). The king is the supernal Wisdom above, the Middle Pillar is the king below: Elohim is the architect above, being as such the supernal Mother, and Elohim is also the architect below, being as such the Divine Presence (Shekinah) below. Now a woman may not do anything without the consent of her husband. And all the buildings were created through his Emanation (aziluth), the Father said to the Mother by means of the Word (amirah), “let it be so and so”, and straightway it was so, as it is written, “And he said, Elohim, let there be light, and there was light”: i.e. one said to Elohim, let there be light: the master of the building gave the order, and the architect carried it out immediately; and so with all that was constructed in the way of emanation.
The Zohar understands “US” and “OUR” to be reflected in the “male and female” image of Elohim mentioned in verse 27 and these are here referred to as “the Father” and “the Mother” just as YHWH is expressed as a Father (Mal. 1:6; Is. 63:16; 64:7) and as a Mother (Is. 66:13) in the Tanak. (YHWH as a “Mother” is the “Comforter in Is. 66:13 which is the Holy Spirit in Jn. 14:16-17, 27; 15:26; 16:7).
The Male and Female image of Father and Mother are the Elohim which is the “Architect above” while the “architect below” is the “Elohim below” or the “king below” and identified as the “Middle Pillar”. Elsewhere the Zohar identifies the Middle Pillar as the “Son of Yah”.
In the introduction portion of the Zohar (Haqdamat Sefer Zohar) there is a very deep discussion of Isaiah 40:26. I wish I had time to fully explain this exposition to you. This is my second draft of this blog. In the first draft, I started to do just that, and then realized that I was having to explain so much background information to make it understandable, that the subject I really wanted to cover, was getting lost in the mix.
To summarize the setting, Rabbi El’azar is giving an exposition on the passage “Lift your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” Shimon bar Yochai interrupts him saying:
Rabbi Shim’on said, “El’azar, my son, cease your words, so that the concealed mystery on high, unknown to any human, may be revealed.”
Rabbi El’azar was silent.
Rabbi Shim’on wept and paused for a moment. Then he said, “El’azar, what is these? If you answer, ‘Stars and constellations,’ they are always visible there and were created by What, as it is said: By the Word (Davar) of YHWH the heavens were made (Psalms 33:6). As for things concealed, such would not be referred to as these, for that word indicates something revealed. This mystery was only revealed one day when I was at the seashore. Elijah came and asked me, ‘Rabbi, do you know the meaning of Who created these?’ I answered, ‘These are the heavens and their array, the work of the blesssed Holy One. Human beings should contemplate them and bless Him, as is written: When I beheld Your heavens, the work of [2a] Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place,… YHVW our Lord, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth! (Psalms 8:4, 10).
“Elijah said to me, ‘Rabbi, theWord (מִלָּה) was concealed with the blessed Holy One, and He revealed it in the Academy on High. Here it is:
‘When Concealed of all Concealed wished to be revealed, it produced at first, a single point, which ascended to become thought. Within, it drew all drawings, graved all engravings, carving within the concealed holy lamp a graving of one hidden design, holy of holies, a deep structure emerging from thought called מי (Mi), Who, origin of structure. Existent and non-existent, deep and hidden, called by no name but Who.
‘Seeking to be revealed, to be named, it garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment and created אלה (elleh), these. אלה (Elleh) attained the name: these letters joined with those, culminating in the name אלהים (Elohim). Until it created אלה (elleh), it did not attain the name אלהים (Elohim). Based on this mystery, those who sinned with the Golden Calf said “אלה (Elleh), These are your gods, O Israel!” (Exodus 32:8). Just as מי (Mi) is combined with אלה (elleh), so the name אלהים (Elohim) remained for all time. And upon this mystery the world is built.”
Then Elijah flew off; I did not see him. From him I discovered the Word (מִלָּה), whose mysterious secret I have demonstrated.”
R. Eleazar and all the companions came and prostrated themselves before him, weeping for joy and saying, ‘If we had come into the world only to hear this we should have been content.’
In this section of Zohar Elijah appears and reveals the Mystery of the Word which was taught in the “academy on high”, that when the “Concealed of concealed” (the Infinite One, Eyn Sof) wished to be revealed, Eyn Sof garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment (generally identified by commentators as the Ten Sefirot). Here the Zohar identifies that splendid, radiant garment as the Davar/Millah (Word).
The concept of the “Word” (Greek: Logos; Targum Aramaic: Memra; Zohar Aramaic: Millah; Syriac Aramaic: Milta Hebrew: Davar) already had a very special and unique meaning in the Second Temple Era.
The Targums were Aramaic paraphrases of the books of the Tanak. Throughout the Targums we read of this entity called the “Word” (Aramaic: MEMRA). On many occasions the Targums paraphrase YHWH with the phase “Word of YHWH” and on some occasions the Word (MEMRA) is mentioned in the paraphrase where YHWH is not mentioned. The term is applied to YHWH in Targum Onkelos 179 times, the Jerusalem Targum 99 times and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan 321 times.
The eminent Kabbalah Scholar Gershom Scholem writes of the Memra:
…the memra– the paraphrase used in the Targumim, the Aramaic Bible translations, to refer to God’s word. The memra is not merely a linguistic device for overcoming the problem of biblical anthropomorphisms; it has theological significance in its own right. The memra….is, as Abelson correctly puts it. “a world-permeating force, a reality in the world of matter or mind, the immanent aspect of Elohim, holding all things under its omnipresent sway.”
(On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem pg 181-182)
He here refers to the monumental work by J. Abelcon in which he writes:
“…the Memra has, to the minds of the Targumic authors, some real theological connotation…. it connotes the manifestation on earth and among men of several aspects of -Divine power, goodness, wisdom and justice. The “Word” is a world-permeating force, a reality in the world of matter or mind, the immanent aspect of God holding all things under its omnipresent sway.”
(The Immanence of God in Rabbinic Literature by J. Abelson; p. 159; 1912)
In Gen. 19:4 the Tanak has:
Then YHWH caused to rain upon S’dom and upon Amora,
brimstone and fire from YHWH, out of heaven.
The Hebrew grammar here indicates that one YHWH rains fire from another YHWH) But Targum Jonathan substitutes “The Word of YHWH/the LORD” for the first of the two YHWHs as follows:
And the Word of the YHWH caused to descend
upon the peoples of Sodom and Gommorah,
brimstone and fire from the YHWH in heaven.
In another example the Torah has:
Ex. 24:1a (YHWH is the speaker, see Ex. 20:1-2)
Now He [YHWH] said to Moses, “come up to YHWH…”
But Targum Jonathan paraphrases the speaker in Ex. 20:1 with the substitution “the Word [Memra] of YHWH” in place of “YHWH.”
And the Word of the Lord spoke all these glorious words…
So it would seem that one of these entities called “YHWH” in these Torah passages was actually understood by the Targumists as being the “Word of YHWH.” It was, according to Targum Onkelos, this Word of YHWH that Abraham trusted in:
And Abraham trusted in the Word [Memra] of YHWH,
and He counted it to him for righteousness.
(Targum Onkelos Gen. 15:6)
Moreover Abraham prayed in the name of the Word of YHWH:
And Abraham worshiped and prayed
in the name of the Word [Memra] of YHWH,
and said, “You are YHWH who does see, but You cannot be seen.”
(Jerusalem Targum Gen. 22:14)
Note that here Abraham prays “in the name of the Word of YHWH” to the YHWH who “cannot be seen.” Here two YHWHs are very apparent. Abraham is praying in the name of the Word of YHWH but is praying to the YHWH who cannot be seen. This idea is reinforced elsewhere as follows:
And Hagar praised and prayed
in the name of the Word [Memra] Of YHWH
who had revealed Himself to her…
(Jerusalem Targum Gen. 16:3)
It was this Word of YHWH that Jacob also trusted in:
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying,
“If the Word [Memra] of YHWH will be my support,
and will keep me in the way that I go,
and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
so that I come again to my father’s house in peace;
then shall the Word [Memra]of YHWH be my God.
(Targum Onkelos on Gen. 28:20-21)
King David also urged Israel to trust in the Word of Yah as the Targum of Psalm 62 reads:
Trust in the Word of Yah at all times,
O people of the house of Israel!
Pour out before Him the sighings of your heart;
Say, God is our trust forever.
(Targum on Psalm 62:9)
This “Word of YHWH” was, according to Targum Jonathan, the Creator:
And the Word [Memra] of YHWH
created man in his likeness,
in the likeness of YHWH, YHWH created,
male and female created He them.
(Targ. Jonathan Gen. 1:27)
This idea is also put forward in the Jerusalem Targum:
And the Word [Memra] of YHWH said to Moses:
“I am He who said unto the world ‘Be!’ and it was:
and who in the future shall say to it ‘Be!’ and it shall be.”
And He said: “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel:
‘I Am’ has sent me to you.”
(Jerusalem Targum Ex. 3:14)
The Fragmentary Targum of the Torah also expresses that the Word of YHWH was the Creator:
The first night, when the “Word of YHWH”
was revealed to the world in order to create it,
the world was desolate and void,
and darkness spread over the face of the abyss
and the “Word of the Lord” was bright and illuminating
and He called it the first night.
(Fragmentary Targum Ex. 12:42)
That the Word of YHWH was the Creator can also be seen in the Tanak itself:
By the Word of YHWH were the heavens made,
And all the hosts of them by the Spirit of His mouth.
The Word was also the covenant maker. For example the Noachdic covenant was between the Word and all mankind:
And YHWH said to Noah,
“This is the token of the covenant
which I have established between My Word [Memra]
and between all flesh that is upon the earth.
(Targum Onkelos Gen. 9:17)
The Word also made the Abrahamic covenant as Targum Onkelos also paraphrases:
And I will establish my covenant
between My Word [Memra] and between you…
(Targum Onkelos Gen. 17:7)
The Word of YHWH was also the giver of the Mosaic Covenant and the Torah as the Jerusalem Targum (as quoted above) makes the Torah giver “the Word of YHWH” in Ex. 20:1. It was to the Word that Jacob turned to for salvation:
Our father Jacob said: “My soul does not wait for salvation
such as that wrought by Gideon, the son of Joash,
for that was but temporal; neither for a salvation
like that of Samson, which was only transitory;
but for that salvation which You have promised to come,
through Your Word unto Your people, the children of Israel;
for your salvation my soul hopes.”
(Targum Jonathan Gen. 49:18)
That the Word of YHWH is the savior is expressed elsewhere:
But Israel shall be saved by the Word of YHWH
with an everlasting salvation…
By the Word of YHWH shall all the seed of Israel be justified…
(Targum Jonathan Is. 45:17, 25)
But I will have mercy upon the house of Judah,
and I will save them by the Word of YHWH, their God.
(Targum Jonathan Hosea 1:7)
The Word is the Messiah
We read in the Targum to Isaiah:
1 Behold, my servant, the Messiah, whom I bring,
my chosen in whom one delights:
as for my Word [MEMRA], I will put my Holy Spirit upon Him;
He shall reveal my judgment unto the nations.
2 He shall not cry aloud, nor raise a clamor,
and He shall not lift up His voice in the street.
3 The meek who are like a bruised reed He shall not break,
and the poor who are as a glimmering wick with Him, He will not quench:
He shall bring forth judgment unto truth.
4 He shall not faint nor be weary,
till He have established judgment in the earth;
and the isles shall wait for His Torah.
(Targum Jonathan to Isaiah 42:1-4)
Notice that were the Masoretic Text says:
Behold My servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen, in whom My soul delights;
I have put My spirit upon him,
he shall make the right to go forth to the nations.
The Targum reads:
1 Behold, my servant, the Messiah, whom I bring,
my chosen in whom one delights:
as for my Word [MEMRA], I will put my Holy Spirit upon Him;
He shall reveal my judgment unto the nations.
(Targum Jonathan to Isaiah 42:1)
It is clear in Isaiah 42:1 that the chosen one in whom YHWH has delight in this verse is the same as the one whom has YHWH’s Spirit upon Him. In the Targum it is the Messiah who is identified as this chosen one in whom YHWH delights, and it is the MEMRA (“Word”) who has YHWH’s Spirit upon Him. Therefore the Targum identifies the Messiah as one and the same with the MEMRA
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