The “Heavenly” and “Earthly” Yahweh:
A Trinitarian Interpretation of Genesis 19:24
Genesis 19:24 – “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven” (NASB)
Among the many passages of the Old Testament that provide support for the doctrine of the Trinity, passages that have been looked upon as significant in this regard by Christians from the earliest days of the Church, are such as the one above which, as will be argued in this paper, attributes the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah to the activities of more than one personal agent, each designated LORD or Yahweh.1 Just as surely as the Church has found repose in verses such as this, so those outside of the Church have attempted to put them in a different (i.e. non-Trinitarian) light. Some modern Christians have capitulated on this as well, not by denying that the doctrine of the Trinity is found in the Bible as a whole, but by denying that these passages in their Old Testament setting provide certain of the necessary indicia for Trinitarianism. Some have gone so far as to deny that these Old Testament texts speak to the issue at all, even when the full light of the doctrine as given in the New Testament is made to shine back upon them. Nevertheless, as will be demonstrated, the Old Testament does speak to this issue with sufficient clarity, leaving those who deny the Trinity in material breach of both Testaments.
Against all of these notions the following provides a case for the historic Trinitarian understanding of Genesis 19:24, first from the Old Testament, and then from the New Testament. The view defended in the present paper is the same as Leupold’s who saw this downgrade trend over fifty years ago.
“We believe the view the church held on this problem from days of old is still the simplest and the best: Pluit Deus filius a Deo patre = “God the Son brought down the rain from God the Father,” as the Council of Sirmium worded the statement. To devaluate the statement of the text to mean less necessitates a similar process of devaluation of a number of other texts like [Genesis] 1:26, and only by such a process can the claim be supported that there are no indications of the doctrine of the Trinity in Genesis. We believe the combined weight of these passages, including Gen 1:1, 2, makes the conclusion inevitable that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is in a measure revealed in the Old Testament, and especially in Genesis. Why would not so fundamental a doctrine be made manifest from the beginning? We may see more of this truth than did the Old Testament saints, but the Church has through the ages always held one and the same truth.”2
The Old Testament Case for a Trinitarian Interpretation
Genesis 19:24 and the Old Testament
1. A Prima Facie Distinction of Persons
a. Even a casual reading of Genesis 19:24 points up some kind of personal plurality or distinction within the Godhead, for it speaks of Yahweh doing something from Yahweh in heaven, and this would be, to say the least, a rather odd way of saying that only one person was in view. Indeed this would not only be odd, it would be patently ungrammatical, altogether confusing, and downright misleading. This means that as much as one may go on in an effort to explain it differently the prima facie reading of the text is Trinitarian.
“This passage is remarkable regardless of how you deal with it. It simply states that there are two divine Persons. One on the earth and One in the heavens. Each Person is called … [Yahweh]. The first … [Yahweh] who is on earth brings down brimstone and fire from the second … [Yahweh] who is in the heavens. It is easy to see why this passage has irritated anti-Trinitarians for centuries.”3
b. When we move beyond this simple, surface-level observation and look at the verse in light of the broader context, we see that this distinction is indeed underscored and made quite undeniable, all contrary efforts proving to be unsuccessful.
To begin with, in the preceding chapter which leads into the account of the destruction of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah being given full mention as the most prominent among them, we read of the Lord Yahweh’s appearance to Abraham along with two angels. After supping with Abraham the Lord announces His intention to judge the cities of the plain for the outcry that has reached heaven. In the process we have the first indication of a distinction of persons, both of whom are identified as Yahweh:
“The LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.’” (Genesis 18:17-19)
Second, whatever one makes of the otherwise curious alteration in 18:17-19 from the first person pronoun (“I”) to the third person noun (“LORD/Yahweh”) and pronoun (“He”), we are clearly told that the events that are about to unfold are “what I [Yahweh] am about to do (v. 17).”4 As it says plainly again in the verses that follow, Yahweh Himself is personally going to visit Sodom and Gomorrah and confirm the noxious report that has come up to heaven: “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know (Genesis 18:21).” At this time the Lord dispatches the angels who accompanied Him (Genesis 18:22), responds to Abraham’s plea to save the righteous (Genesis 18:23-32), and finally departs from Abraham (Genesis 18:33).
In keeping with these things, chapter nineteen speaks first of the arrival of the two angels (Genesis 19:1ff), and later of Yahweh’s own presence in the city (Genesis 19:21-22). The point: The Lord, Yahweh, is in Sodom, just as He previously announced to Abraham; consequently, when Genesis 19:24 says “the LORD rained fire on Sodom and Gomorrah from the LORD from the heavens”, the distinction drawn is between someone on earth called “Yahweh”, the same person who spoke to Abraham, and someone in heaven called “Yahweh”, the one who poured out the fire. To state it simply: Yahweh on earth called down the fire from Yahweh in heaven.
c. Not only is the prima facie reading supported by the broader context, but all of this is reinforced elsewhere in the Old Testament.
On this score one may especially observe that this manner of speaking is not an altogether unique phenomenon; neither is it something that is limited to the Spirit-inspired editorial comments of the Biblical writers; it can be found on the lips of the Lord God Himself. Although it is entirely possible to cite unrelated instances in the Bible of one person speaking of another person while yet both are identified as God (e.g. Hosea 1:7; Jeremiah 14:10), it is just as possible, and, therefore, all the more striking, to see that God perpetuates this manner of speaking in relation to the overthrow of these cities:
“Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them, who will not value silver or take pleasure in gold. And their bows will mow down the young men, they will not even have compassion on the fruit of the womb, nor will their eye pity children. And Babylon, the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the Chaldeans' pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.” (Isaiah 13:17-19)
“As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah with its neighbors,” declares the LORD, “No man will live there, nor will any son of man reside in it.” (Jeremiah 50:40)
“I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses, and I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils; yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. “I overthrew you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a firebrand snatched from a blaze; yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. (Amos 4:10-11)
These passages wonderfully complement Moses’ description of the agency of Sodom’s downfall, thereby providing inspired prophetic commentary on Genesis 19:24. Were someone tempted to say that the way Sodom’s destruction is described in Genesis 19:24 is an isolated phenomena, as if for that reason it could be dismissed, or were they to say that these are Moses’ words and not the Lord’s, as if this objection were any better, the passages just cited would be their undoing, for they provide repeated testimony from God Himself that a distinction is in view.
This complementary relationship works the other way as well. Since it is grammatically possible to refer to oneself in the third person, it has been suggested that this is all that is going on in the passages just cited from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos. But this objection is self-defeating as it only serves to underscore the distinction drawn in Genesis 19:24, for, unlike those passages, Genesis 19:24 is not an instance of Yahweh speaking, third person or otherwise, but an inspired description of Yahweh acting, and that “from” another.
In order for Moses to express what these people are looking for he would have had to say something like the following, “Yahweh rained down fire and brimstone from Himself,” or “Yahweh rained down fire from heaven.” Recognizing this, some in history have even had the temerity to (mis)translate or (mis)interpret Genesis 19:24 in like manner, and to these Luther’s response is fitting:
“Since the Jews are audacious, yes, even rash, they explain the particle as a pronoun, so that the sense is: ‘The Lord rained from Himself, the Lord.’ But who ordered them to have the audacity to do this in the case of God’s Book? For if one were at liberty to trifle in this way with Holy Scripture, no article of faith would remain intact. Hence it is characteristic of the unbelieving Jews and of the godless papists to be teachers of the Holy Spirit and to teach Him what or how to write. But let us be and remain pupils, and let us not change the Word of God; for we ourselves should be changed through the Word.”5
2. The Nature and Proper Divinity of These Two Persons
The surest proof that both of these persons are truly divine stems from the fact that the name Yahweh is applied to each. Contrary to some cultic,6 occultic,7 and otherwise sectarian groups of the past and present, Jews and Christians8 have always taken the Biblical view that the name Yahweh, here applied to two persons, is incommunicable; it does not properly apply to creatures.
This is easily inferred from: the answer God gave to Moses on their first encounter at the burning bush when Moses asked God for His name, i.e. His distinctive or personal name, in answer to which the Lord said, “‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, I AM has sent me to you.' God, furthermore, said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, The LORD [Yahweh], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations” (Exodus 3:14-15); and it can also be gleaned from that other famous passage where Moses asks the Lord for a greater revelation of His glory, a request that is fulfilled not only by seeing the receding glory of the Lord while covered in the cleft of a rock, but by another declaration of the Name: “The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth…” (Exodus 34:5-6).9 The following passages are also to the point:
“I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images...” (Isaiah 42:8)
“For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:11)
“Let them be ashamed and dismayed forever, and let them be humiliated and perish, that they may know that You alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.” (Psalm 83:18)
When confronted with the implications of this for the Trinity or the deity of Christ, many have been motivated to jettison the incommunicable nature of the divine name and have sought out many devices by which to get around it, but none of these can successfully withstand refutation. To take what is perhaps the most common objection to this, anti-Trinitarians have pointed to people like Elijah, whose name means “Yah is my God” (Heb. Eli = my God; Jah = Yahweh), and argue from this that creatures can and do bear The Name. The full reality of the matter is, unlike the persons of the Trinity, none of the names given to created persons, Elijah among them, ever contain the full Tetragrammaton (YHWH): Jah/Yah is a contraction of God’s name; the full name is reserved for God alone. The name Yahweh is never applied to false gods or pagan deities, which are everywhere treated as lies and vanity, and it is never given wholesale to any individual.
3. The Personal Identity of These Two Persons
At this point the relevant question becomes whether or not we can further identify these two persons. Toward this end, it is helpful to observe not only the equal divinity of the two as betokened by the use of the name Yahweh, but the different roles that these persons assume. Whereas in the first instance Yahweh condescends to enter into the world, appears in the form of a man, and holds converse with sinful men, in the second instance Yahweh remains exalted in the heavens, apparently holds converse only with Yahweh on earth, and is not seen directly at any time. Furthermore, though the former, the “earthly” Yahweh, is undoubtedly Lord and sets about to determine the propriety of the judgment, He does not exercise His divine prerogative to do so apart from the will of Yahweh in heaven, for He rains down the fire not of or by Himself but from the Lord out of heaven.
The above evidence strongly suggests that Yahweh who appeared in Genesis 18-19, and, therefore, the one who rained fire and brimstone from Yahweh out of heaven in 19:24, was the divine messenger, the Mal'ak Yahweh, who is frequently met with in other places in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament.10 This Divine Messenger, commonly called "The Angel of the LORD", but more literally "The Messenger of Yahweh", is clearly a divine theophany, a voluntary and temporary but nonetheless real condescension of God to appear in a palpable way to His people. Not only does the Angel of the Lord identify Himself as God and not eschew such an identification from others, but He even calls Himself Yahweh just as others also call Him Yahweh.
When the Angel of the LORD (in contradistinction from angels in general, who are created heavenly messengers) appears in the Old Testament, although He is clearly distinguished from another person called Yahweh, on whose behalf he comes and by whom He is sent, He is nonetheless spoken of as very God. He is ascribed divine titles, possesses divine attributes, exercises divine prerogatives, performs divine works, and receives the worship that is due to God alone.
Although Genesis 18-19 does not explicitly refer to the Yahweh who appeared on earth to Abraham and subsequently overturned Sodom and Gomorrah as the Angel of Yahweh, several things point in this direction:
First, the distinct possibility that Yahweh who “rained down fire and brimstone from Yahweh out of heaven” is the Angel of the Lord arises from the fact that He frequently appears on earth and is called Yahweh in other places in Scripture while yet being distinguished from Yahweh at the same time, which perfectly comports with the distinction between the “earthly” and “heavenly” Yahweh of Genesis 19:24.
Second, some passages that originally refer to an appearance of God in an unspecified way, i.e. they do not further specify that Yahweh who appeared on earth was the Divine Messenger, are explained elsewhere in Scripture in just this way. For example, Genesis 28:10-22 says Yahweh appeared to Jacob in a dream, and later in Genesis 31:11-13 we are told that the one who appeared to him in his dream was "the Angel of God"; Genesis 32:24-30 tells us that God appeared to Jacob in the form of a man, and speaking of this event sometime later the prophet Hosea, in chapter 12:4-5 of his prophecy, tells us it was "the Angel". This creates a precedent for viewing other instances of Yahweh appearing, such as Genesis 19:24, along the same lines.
Third, the role that the “earthly” Yahweh assumes in Genesis 18-19 and the relation that He bears to Yahweh in heaven which is brought out in 19:24 points to the soundness of this identification.
Three persons in human form appeared to Abraham. Two of them passed on to Sodom on a mission of righteous judgment; and they are called angels. The third had remained with Abraham; and He repeatedly receives and assumes the name Jehovah. Though He is not expressly denominated the Angel, yet the attendant circumstances are such as agree with other manifestations in which that appellation is used. Upon this passage, the Jerusalem Targum says; "the Word of Jehovah appeared to him in the valley of vision." Other Jewish writings have the following explications: "The Shekinah was associated with them, and detained Abraham until the angels departed. - He said not who He was: but, in all these [appearances], it was the Angel of the covenant."11
For more on the Angel of the LORD, see the following articles:
- The Malak Yahweh: Jesus, the Divine Messenger of the Old Testament [1, 2, 3, 4]
- The Angel of the Lord: A Study of Theophanies in the Scriptures
- The Lord Jesus Christ - The Glorious Messenger of God
- Is the Angel of the Lord God?
- The Lord Jesus Christ - The Divine Angel of Glory
Continue with Part II.