Echad, Yachid, and the Oneness of God
God is one. On this much, Trinitarians and Oneness adherents agree. We differ on how we understand God’s oneness. Is God one in substance only (Trinitarianism), or one in both substance and person (Oneness theology)? Trinitarians routinely argue that the way we understand God’s oneness should be informed, in part, by the Hebrew words echad and yachid. Yachid is only used to refer to a strict numerical oneness, whereas echad has a wider range of usage that includes composite unities as well. If God is unipersonal in nature, they argue, we would expect for Him to describe His oneness using yachid. Instead, God described His oneness as echad (e.g. Dt 6:4). The fact that He chose to describe His oneness using echad indicates that He did not intend for us to understand His oneness in terms of a numerical oneness, but rather as a composite unity of persons (even if He would wait to reveal His tri-personal nature until New Testament times).
This is not a good argument for understanding God as a triad of persons subsisting in a single divine essence. Echad is used nearly 1000 times in the OT, and almost always refers to a single numerical entity. There are times when it is used of a composite entity (Genesis 2:24). It functions just like the English word “one,” which can be used of single or composite entities, although it most often refers to a single, solitary thing. Only the context can determine how echad is being used. Given the rarity with which echad is used to refer to a composite entity, we should understand echad as referring to a single entity unless there are good contextual clues that warrant the uncommon meaning. So given the lexical data alone, the best one could argue is that the semantical domain of echad allows for a Trinitarian understanding of “one,” but by no means does it prove it, and by no means does it rule out the understanding of God’s oneness as an absolute unity.
The question, then, comes down to context. Is there anything in the context of Deuteronomy 6:4 – or any other passage of Scripture in which God is described as being echad – that requires the meaning of composite unity? Meaning is not determined by a words semantical domain, but by the context. To demonstrate that echad means a composite entity with reference to God, the context must make it clear that this is the meaning intended by the author. For example, in Genesis 2:24 man and woman are described as being “echad flesh.” It is physically impossible for man and woman to be considered a single physical entity, so the author must mean “one” in the sense of a composite entity. Are there similar contextual clues that make it clear that echad is being used in this way in Deuteronomy 6:4? No. Indeed, given how God’s oneness is described in passages like Isaiah 42:8 and 44:24, we have very good grounds for understanding the nature of God’s oneness to be that of a numerically single entity.
The Jews read passages such as Deuteronomy 6:4 for 1500 years and always understood them to mean YHWH was a single entity. They never understood YHWH's oneness in a composite sense because there was no contextual warrant for doing so. It is only with the advent of the Messiah and the NT revelation that anyone had reason for reconsidering the meaning of echad. In their attempt to understand the Father-Son relationship, Christians began to interpret God's oneness in a new way. It is only the doctrine of the Trinity that requires us to interpret echad as a composite unity. If the only justification for interpreting echad as a composite unity is the fact that one has already concluded that God is a Trinity, then echad cannot be used as evidence for God’s triune nature. Understanding echad to refer to a composite unity is merely a means of harmonizing the doctrine of the Trinity with the OT data that describes God as being one. At best this means it’s possible to understand echad in a manner that is consistent with Trinitarian theology, but by no means is it evidence for the Trinity. Claiming otherwise is a clear example of the tail wagging the dog. 2`
As for yachid, I dispute the claim that it only refers to a strict numerical identity, and that if God is one in both substance and person that He would have inspired Moses to describe Himself using yachid rather than echad. Yachid is only used 12 times in the OT.1 An examination of the contexts in which it is used reveals two things: (1) It does not refer only to a single entity; (2) It would not be appropriate to describe God using this term.
Yachid is usually used to refer to an only child (Gen 22:2, 12, 16; Judges 11:34; Prov 4:3; Jer 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech 12:10). In Genesis 22:2 when the English reads "your only son, Isaac,” there is no word for Son. The word is simply yachid. Yachid is also used to describe the emotion of feeling alone (Ps 25:16) or being alone (Ps 68:6), and even the uniqueness or precious nature of something (Ps 22:21; 35:17). The word is never used as a general term for “one.” Its meaning is more akin to “unique” or “only.” Indeed, Isaac is described as Abraham’s yachid even though Isaac was not his only son (Ishmael was born earlier). While God could have been described using yachid, it would not necessarily tell us how many gods there are, but rather what kind of God YHWH is: a unique God. If we want to know how many gods there are, the most appropriate word is echad.
1. Gen 22:2, 12, 16; Judges 11:34; Ps 22:21; 25:16; 35:17; 68:6; Prov 4:3; Jer 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech 12:10.
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