Is Christmas A Birthday for the 'Son of God'?

By Rabbi Emeritus Allen S. Maller
Temple Akiba, Culver City, CA

Christmas celebrates the birthday of a young rabbi/teacher named Jesus: who was accused by the Roman rulers of being 'The King of the Jews' (Mark 15:2 & 18, Matthew 27:11, Luke 23:3 and John 18:33&19:21) and proclaimed by the Roman Church to be 'The Son of God'.

Jews and Muslims are frequently asked by Christians why they do not believe that Jesus was The Son of God.

As a Rabbi who is a student of both the Torah and the Qur'an I sometimes begin by pointing out that according to the Gospels themselves, Jesus almost always referred to himself not as the 'Son of God' but as 'The Son of Man'.

The expression "the Son of man" occurs 81 times in the Greek text of the four gospels and only very rarely do even the Gospels claim Jesus directly called himself the 'Son of God'.

The gospel writers and many of the people in the New Testament, including one possessed by evil spirits (Mark 5:2-7), did call Jesus the 'Son of God'; but Jesus himself strongly preferred the term 'Son of Man', although he often did refer metaphorically to God as his father.

The Qur'an states: “Allah is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son. All that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth is His. Allah is sufficient as a Defender.” (Quran 4:171)

Both Jews and Muslims agree that the One God is sufficient to provide suitable religious guidance to each and every people on earth without help from anyone else; including a son.

The Qur'an also states: “It is not suitable for Allah, Glory be to Him, that He should take unto Himself a son. When He decrees a thing, He only says to it: Be! and it is.” (Quran 19:35) When Allah created Adam, Adam did not become the 'Son of God'.

God says: “Lo! the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then He said to him: Be! and he is.” (3:59) No one thinks Adam is the Son of God' because he had no human father.

However, it is true that Jesus often did refer metaphorically to God as his father. He did this in accord with the metaphorical style the Torah uses when referring to God. Jesus never expected that any Jew who heard him speak about God as his father would take his words literally. This was a bad mistake that Jesus did not foresee.

The Torah does refer both to the whole People of Israel metaphorically as God's first born son. (Exodus 4:22) and also refers to all those who are duty bound to act, even when mourning, as God commands us; as sons/children of God: “You (Plural) are Children of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 14:1)

Does this mean that Jews either as individuals or as a people are Divine? Of course not. No Rabbi from the most Orthodox to the most Reform has ever taken these verses of the Torah literally. The term son/child of God should never be taken literally. It is a metaphor. It must be interpreted just as we explain all the other verses in the Bible.

To say that every verse of Sacred Scripture must be interpreted; is not being disrespectful. To the contrary. It means that we have to give some thought and study to each verse in a Divine text. We cannot read Torah the way we read an ordinary book.

Jews dialogue with Torah. She challenges, inspires and questions us, and we examine and embrace her. The Jewish mystics asserted that each verse in the Torah is capable of being interpreted in seventy different ways.

Throughout the generations Rabbis have offered different meanings and views of Torah verses but according to the Talmud God said, “Both these (views) and those (views) are the words of the living God.”

God lives because of the ongoing interaction between the Divine revelation and its adherents. Without this dialogue the text would be a dead letter text and we would lack spiritual vitality and growth.

Divine revelation should always be taken seriously. Divine revelation should never be taken literally, in a simplistic way that contradicts reason, morality or other sacred texts.

Some verses were meant for special historical circumstances or conditions. Some verses have to be understood in the light of other verses. And all verses have to be interpreted with the guidance and insight of the many generations of commentators who have preceded us, as well as the best understandings of our own age.

Here are some examples of Midrash (the interpretive process at work) for “sons of God”.

Sons in Hebrew means children. Women are as close to God as men.

Children indicates a very close loving relationship unlike that of King and subject. Millions of people can love a King but a King can’t love millions of people. God can.

First-born son indicates that God will send prophets to other nations in later generations.

First-born refers to the historical fact that Israel's Torah is the oldest of the living holy books that have come down to us. The older Epic of Gilgamesh text that mentions the man in the ark (Noah) has been dead for more than 15 centuries. The younger Gospels and Qur'an are still alive.

The Torah says Israel is God’s first-born son. The Torah does not say God’s only son.. Just as parents love all their children; so too does God love all nations and religions.

Just as parents can have many children who look different one from the other, so too does God’s revelation appear in different forms in different religions, and within each religion there are different interpretations of God’s revelation.

The first born is unique but that entails extra responsibilities; not extra privileges. “For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world, therefore I will castigate you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2)

Israel can not have any other Father except the One God of Israel; but God can and does redeem other nations. “Are not Israelites like Ethiopians to me? Says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Crete and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)

In the Messianic Age, the one and only God, who should not be represented by any image or incarnation; will be invoked by all humanity, even while each people still retains its own religion and its own name or term for God.

“In days to come…All peoples will walk, each in the name of their God, and we (Jews) will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:5)

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