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This is the third article in a series on the question of hermeneutics. You may find the previous articles on this website under “all articles” (, if you click on the category “Hermeneutics” under the heading “Articles”.


The Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, because personal relations within the Jewish people were corroded by baseless hatred. The temple in Jerusalem had been intended as a visible indication of the relationship between the people of Israel and the God of Israel. The relationships among themselves, however, had made this relationship with God impossible. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Yoma 9b) maintains this judgment, even though the Second Temple period is said to have been characterized by Torah study, the fulfilment of God’s commandments and charity.

Contentiousness is worse than fornication and murder

Very quietly, the living God withdraws when His children argue. What remains is the empty shell of a religion. According to the sages of Judaism, even Bible study, obedience to the word of God and a willingness to give cannot not overcome this. Baseless brotherly hatred is worse than idolatry, illegitimate sexual relations and bloodshed put together.

It is no coincidence that immediately before the fall of the Herodian temple Jesus placed such great emphasis on unity in the most detailed prayer recorded in the New Testament (John 17). Followers of Jesus are to reflect the relationship between Jesus and His Father into a hostile world (verses 11, 21, 22, 23 and 26).

The last wish of our Lord…

Jesus explicitly asks not only for the disciples who were sitting around Him at that moment and listening with curiosity or amazement, but “also for those who would believe in me through their word” (verse 20). In plain language: Jesus prays for the entire community of believers in Christ, for His entire Church at all times, in all places, in all cultures and under all circumstances, “that they may be one!

Every dispute between brothers, every church split, every new denomination therefore screams out to the world that there are Christians who consider their own spiritual insights to be more important than the unmistakable instruction of their Lord.

Immediately before His Passion and before His death, as a kind of last request and legacy, Jesus did not ask His Father that His disciples would have the right understanding; that they would hold the right doctrine; that they would be able to see through to the goals of society, religion, economics, and politics around them. In view of the greatest and most painful sacrifice that He was going to offer, and which cost Him everything, it was important to Him that we be one and have love for one another. Therefore, there is no other conclusion than that every church split ultimately reveals a contempt for the heart’s desire of our Lord.

… and my theological convictions

No, I am not going to go along with everything that the majority of people around me do. Sanctification – that is, living in a way that honors our Father in heaven in every practical way – will remain my way of life. But I will keep peace with everyone, as far as I am concerned.[1] If followers of Jesus resort to legal means to enforce their rights, fighting with each other in court to save their honor or even just to defend their existence, they make their Lord contemptible.

Yes, that may mean that I have to lay my theology on the altar. No human theory about the nature of God, no doctrine of justification, no theology of baptism or holy communion, and certainly no opinion on peace, environmental, security or health policy can be more important than the last wish of the One who gave His life for me out of love.

No, I will not therefore consider everything that others believe to be right. No, I am not going to say yes to the idea that every opinion or insight is “equally valid”. As far as I am concerned, I will never bend my knees to the dictates of tolerance or an aggressively intolerant demand for political correctness. However, I don’t have to share my insights if I know for a fact that it will only lead to an argument. Belligerent dogmatism is worse than sexual aberration and murder.

According to the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 9b), the reason for the destruction of Solomon’s temple in 586 BC was idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. Our sexual behavior, as well as the question of whether we must shed blood to achieve our goals, are ultimately symptoms of who is ‘god’ in our lives. So, if we leave aside immorality and murder as symptoms, we are left with idolatry as the cause of the destruction of the First Temple. And this brings us to another crucial and highly topical question regarding our hermeneutics.

Who or what is ‘god’?

Firstly, it should be noted that ‘god’ in the Bible is not a name or a generic term for a specific being, in contrast to plants, animals or humans, for example. If something or someone is omnipresent, omniscient, sovereign, just, independent, eternal, or invisible and also omnipotent, this something or someone does not necessarily have to be ‘god’.

The original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible use a language – especially when a misunderstanding is possible – that our translations generally completely ignore, even though it conveys important theological content. In both Hebrew and Greek, the article is sometimes added to the term ‘god’, especially when the question arises as to which ‘god’ is involved. The article expresses that the term ‘god’ does not refer to some higher being; not just any ‘god’ with whom all paths ultimately converge, and yet whom everyone somehow worships equally.

‘THE God’[2]

If the Greek New Testament uses the term ‘the God’ (ὁ θεός/ho theos), it refers to the one, only true,[3] living God[4], who made the cosmos and all that is in it[5]; the supreme, eternal, imperishable, invisible God who holds the universe incontestably in His hands[6]; who not only makes things grow, but brings the dead to life and calls into existence that which is not[7]. He revealed Himself to the fathers of the people of Israel as ‘יהוה/Y-H-W-H’[8], which is why He was known as the God of the fathers or the God of the people of Israel.[9]

This is the God whose very nature is to be merciful[10]; to comfort the humiliated[11]; to justify the condemned (Romans 3:30); who – as Paul writes – reconciles us to Himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18) and is therefore the Savior par excellence (1 Timothy 2:3).

That is why, as the Father of Israel, He is not only “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”[12], but also “our God and Father”[13]. Paul refers to Him as “my God” or “our God”[14], “whom I belong to and whom I serve”[15]. The apostles knew Him as the one “who knows the hearts” (Acts 15:8), the God of all grace, the God of patience, comfort, hope, love, and peace[16], simply as ‘THE God’.

This careful and deliberate use of the article goes back to the use of language in the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Old Testament. The term הָאֱלֹהִים/HaElohim appears there for the first time in Genesis 5:22, where it is emphasized that Enoch conducted his life with ‘the God’ – i.e. not with some higher being, an unavoidable primal impulse or a compellingly logical moral authority that could also be understood as ‘god’.

Rabbi Benno Jacob recognizes that this expression is used both as a form of address and as a proper name and reaches to the conclusion: “The particular reason for the setting of each ha-Elohim must therefore be investigated.”[17]

Two examples: 1) Paul in Romans…

Paul thus attests to the Jewish people that they have god’s zeal (ζῆλον θεοῦ/zelon theou) (Romans 10:2). The wording leaves open the question of whether the god to whom this zeal applies or corresponds is the God of Israel or a religious object that they had made up for themselves within the framework of their philosophy and way of life. Paul’s prayer for them, on the other hand, is addressed “to the God” (πρὸς τὸν θεὸν/pros ton theon) (verse 1).

When the apostle then contrasts different ‘righteousnesses’ in the following remarks, he attests to the people of Israel that they are establishing their own righteousness, but thereby “denying the righteousness of the [one, true, living] God” and rebelling against it (verse 3).

… and 2) Abraham and Abimelech

Another example of this important linguistic nuance, which is perhaps easier to remember, can be found in Genesis 20. This chapter describes an encounter between Abraham and Abimelech. The progenitor of the chosen people comes off far less well in this chapter of the Bible than in many Jewish and Christian interpretations.

The chapter begins with Abraham trying to master the challenges of his time and environment with human cunning. The fact that he had already tried the same trick once before without success (Genesis 12:11-19) makes the story seem rather embarrassing for Father Abraham. At the beginning of the chapter, Abraham does not include the living God in his considerations at all.

It is the Philistine king Abimelech, who is obviously having a conversation with God. He addresses Him as ‘Lord’ (אֲדֹנָי/Adonai) (verse 4), to which ‘the God’ (הָאֱלֹהִים/HaElohim) answers unmistakably in a dream (verse 6). So, these are by no means pious hallucinations that the pagan ruler would have confused with the words of his Creator.

When Abimelech publicly confronts Abraham the next morning, he fabricates an excuse: He did not know that there was a fear of any gods (יִרְאַת אֱלֹהִים/Yirat Elohim) in the area, especially since some higher being (אֱלֹהִים/Elohim) had enticed him (sic! הִתְעוּ אֹתִי) to leave his father’s house and stray in the world (verses 12-13).

Only after Abraham is rebuked by the Philistine king and reminded of the actual meaning of his election does the biblical text state: Then Abraham prayed “to the God” (אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים/El-HaElohim) (verse 17). This makes it clear that it was ‘the Lord’ (יהוה/Y-H-W-H) who had been active in the extended family of Abimelech in order to save the marriage of Abraham and Sarah (verse 18).

Description of a relationship

The psalm singer (Psalm 96) calls on his listeners and fellow worshippers to sing a new song to the Lord, to praise His name, to proclaim His salvation, to tell of His glory and His wonders to all people (verses 1-3): “For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised, more to be feared than all gods” (verse 4).

With this statement, the author of this psalm makes it unmistakably clear: There are other ‘gods’ (אֱלֹהִים/Elohim).[18] Denying their existence is simply an escape from reality. However, “all the gods of the nations (אֱלֹהֵי הָעַמִּים/Elohei HaAmim) are idols (אֱלִילִים/Elilim)”[19] – whereas “the Lord (יהוה/Y-H-W-H) has made heavens” (verse 5b).

Centuries earlier, the living God had explained to a doubting and rebellious Moses: “Look, I have made you a god to Pharaoh and your brother Aaron is your prophet.”[20] From this incident it becomes clear that ‘god’ in biblical thought is neither a name nor a designation of essence, but simply a title that describes a position in a relationship. ‘God’ is whoever is in charge – in the life of Pharaoh, in the life of the people of Israel, in the life of Moses.

Consequently, the people of Israel had declared under the impression of the events on Mount Carmel: “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!” (1 Kings 18:39). Overwhelmed by the realization that the power of death has been broken, the disciple Thomas his eyes fixed on the Risen One confessed similarly: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

In both cases, therefore, no statements were made about the nature of ‘God’, but it was recognized who had the final word. Both on Mount Carmel and on the mountains of Israel in Jerusalem, a commitment to a relationship was made at that very moment.

Incidentally, in biblical thought the word ‘to believe’ is not the result of intellectual ability and effort, nor the expression of orthodoxy, but quite simply the description of a relationship.

Who is in charge?

So, if I know how to explain the Trinity theologically completely correctly and may sign the statement ‘Jesus is God’ without any second thought – but Jesus then tells me to go to Africa – whereupon the objection is decisive: “But I don’t have the money for that!” – then the money is my ‘god’, and any theological statement made beforehand is simply a lie in God’s eyes. After all, ‘god’ is not the being that best fits my philosophical-theological attempts to explain a ‘god’, but the One who has the final say in my decisions.

In our approach to the Holy Scriptures, the question of God is the all-important question. Whenever we open the Bible, we make a decision – consciously or unconsciously – about who is ‘God’.

My concern is that we make this decision consciously and give a reflective account to ourselves. Are our intellect, our tiredness, our monetary abilities, our theological understanding in charge – or is it the Bible to which my intellectual capacity, my physical condition, my economic possibilities and my religious beliefs have to answer? Must my thoughts, feelings, words, and actions be guided by what the Bible says, even if that means struggle in my life? Or does the Word of God have to meet my standards in order to be considered correct theology?



[1] Compare Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14.

[2] As a non-native-English-speaker I realized that there is a difference in English, whether the term ‘god’ is written with a capital ‘G’ or with a lower-case ‘g’. Firstly, forgive my mistakes – and let me know how it should be correctly. Secondly, neither in Hebrew, nor in ancient Greek do we have the distinction between capital and lower-case letters. Even in German, which is very closely related to English, the distinction between the capital ‘God’ and the lower-case ‘god’ cannot be imitated. Anyway, each person will honor his or her own ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’, whereas it is always the ‘gods’ of the others that deserve the somewhat derogatory lower-case ‘g’.

[3] John 17:3; 1 John 5:20; Galatians 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 1:9.

[4] Acts 14:15; likewise Romans 9:26/Hoshea 2:1; 2 Corinthians 3:3; 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:10; compare Hebrews 3:13; 9:14; 12:22 and Matthew 16:16; 26:63.

[5] Acts 17:24; compare Acts 14:15; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Revelation 19:15.

[6] Acts 16:17 with reference to Genesis 14:18-20; Romans 1:23; 9:5; 16:26; 1 Timothy 1:17.

[7] Romans 4:17; 1 Corinthians 3:7; 2 Corinthians 1:9; 1 Timothy 6:13.

[8] See Galatians 3:6, which renders the tetragram ‘יהוה/Y-H-W-H’ from Genesis 15:6 as ‘ὁ θεός/ho theos’.

[9] Acts 22:14; 24:14 and Acts 13:17. Exceptions – such as in Acts 19:27,37, 2 Corinthians 4:4 or Philippians 3:19 – are clearly and unmistakably recognizable as such from the context.

[10] Romans 9:16; compare 2 Corinthians 1:3.

[11] 2 Corinthians 7:6; compare Romans 15:5 and 2 Corinthians 1:3.

[12] Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 11:31.

[13] Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 1:2, 3; Philippians 4:20; 2 John 3.

[14] Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 6:11; Philippians 1:3; 4:19; Philemon 4; 2 Peter 1:1.

[15] Acts 27:23; Romans 1:9; compare 2 Corinthians 3:6.

[16] Romans 15:5, 13, 33; 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; 1 Peter 5:10.

[17] Benno Jacob, Das Buch Genesis, herausgegeben in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Leo Baeck Institut (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 2000. Nachdruck des im Jahre 1934 im Schocken Verlag, Berlin erschienen Werkes: Das erste Buch der Tora. Genesis. Übersetzt und erklärt von Benno Jacob), 165.

[18] This is just one example. Compare Psalm 82:1 or Psalm 97:7+9, where the gods are even asked to worship the Lord.

[19] Verse 5a. The ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, translates the Hebrew word for ‘meaningless idols’ (אֱלִילִים/elilim) as ‘δαιμόνια/daimonia’ (demons).

[20] See Exodus 7:1 and further compare Exodus 4:16 in context. The fact that the term אלהים/Elohim (= god) does not in itself refer to the living God, but merely to a higher authority, had already been observed by the medieval rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (“Rashi”), who refers to these two passages in his interpretation of Genesis 6:2.

The Author

By Published On: April 23, 202412.9 min read


  1. Barbara April 25, 2024 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    Many excellent points to consider. Thank you so much for all that you do!

  2. Randy April 23, 2024 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much for this reading. God bless you Johannes Gerloff †

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