As we approach the time of the year when Christianity remembers the birth of the Messiah, it is worth taking the time to consider the fact that this subject constitutes a major divide between Christianity and Judaism. The incarnation of God in the Messiah is understood as God taking upon Himself human form and dwelling in His fullness within a physical body. The Gospel of John says of Jesus that He “…became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.”
In a broad sense, it is accepted that Judaism believes that God can never be represented in human form, and this remains a major obstacle for Jewish people accepting Jesus as being who He claims to be. Judaism recognizes that human beings are created in the image of God, and that God is present in the world and the nation of Israel. However, Christianity’s claim that Jesus is God is simply not within the realm of Jewish thought. Yet the concept is not foreign to mainstream and historic Judaism. Judaism believes that the Torah was created before the world, thus historic Judaism came to accept that the Word (The Torah) can be legitimately viewed as a form of incarnation. Some Jewish scholars will argue that even the nation of Israel is an incarnational process, and that Ezekiel 37 speaking of the “dry bones” addresses this.
Judaism, in contrast with Christianity, does not have a dogma or creed, but is based on rabbinical interpretations of theological truths. Therefore, there is not a unified belief on incarnation— other than stating that Jesus cannot be God incarnate. Yet, we are not ready to accept as a fact that Judaism rejects the concept of incarnation. Let me briefly mention some facts clearly taught in Scripture and, to some extent, accepted by Judaism.
It is obvious that the Apostles were Jewish and the New Testament is basically a Jewish book. Therefore it is logical to ask, if the divinity of the Messiah and the incarnation is such an anti-Jewish doctrine, why was it not questioned or more hotly debated by the Jewish New Testament writers?
It is also a fact that God created man in His image, and this does not mean that humans just have intelligence, speech, and the ability to create and love. Therefore it is clearly understood that the God revealed in the Torah also had some characteristics that are not purely spiritual–thus we read in the Bible that God walked in the Garden and talked and had some form of human understanding with Abraham. In Exodus 33:22-23 Moses is allowed to see some physical form of the Glory of God, to the point that He says to Moses “…I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by, then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” It was not God’s spirit that Moses was allowed to see in part, but a physical representation of God incarnate.
In Genesis 18 we read that Abraham interacts with three visitors, and both Jewish rabbis and Christian interpreters agree that these visitors, as acknowledged by Abraham, were a representation of God Himself. Yet, we read that Abraham physically saw them, they spoke to him, and he prepared for them a meal which they ate. All of these are not spiritual characteristics but very human functions. Although we agree that many times the Bible uses human language to express divine actions, there are specific instances where God uses physical forms to express Himself. The argument that God is spirit and therefore, as some forms of Judaism would argue, cannot have any physical form is actually denying God the ability to do what He wills. If God is an all-powerful God, there is certainly nothing that He cannot do! The denying of incarnation would imply denying God the ability and right to exercise His power.
In the development of rabbinic Judaism throughout the centuries from the biblical to the present time, we can see that there are two camps within rabbinical teachings regarding incarnation, which are defined in a broad sense as God taking physical form. We find two extremes in Jewish teaching regarding incarnation. On one side we find Jewish philosophers and theologians, best represented by the Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204), who totally denied the possibility of God taking any human form. Maimonides said that God is utterly spirit and idea without substance or form. For him, God is the unmoved mover, a principle that can never be tied to the physical. The other extreme held by many Jewish philosophers is that since the Torah and the Jewish Bible speak of God revealing Himself in human form, then it must be true that God has hands, feet, a voice, wings, and in the above mentioned experience of Moses, a back and a face as well.
As we approach the season when Christianity remembers that God took upon Himself the form of a man, was born as a human, and lived among men in a complete human body, we must not focus on the fact that some forms of Judaism deny the possibility of incarnation, but rather think of the fact that God became man, and as such died for our sins, and on the third day He was resurrected thus giving us the assurance of eternal life.