What is God?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“Upon finishing speaking with him on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the treaty, stone tablets written with the finger of God”  (Exod. 31:18). 

Onkelos translates “finger of God” literally. That’s simply astonishing.

Maimonides agrees:

[Onkelos held] the [finger] was an instrument created by God, which, by His will, engraved the writing on the tables. I cannot see why Onkelos preferred this explanation. It would have been more reasonable to say, “written by the word of the Lord,” in imitation of the verse, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” Or was the creation of the writing on the tables more difficult than the creation of the stars in the spheres [that only this feat required an instrument]? (Maimonides: “Guide for the Perplexed,” book I chap lxvi)

God has no physicality; He has no fingers. Therefore, Onkelos’ literal translation requires an explanation. Maimonides understands Onkelos’ literal translation of “finger of God” as referring to “instrument,” meaning that God created the writing on tablets through an instrument. But even that, Maimonides finds difficult, for why should this miracle of the tablets’ writing be any more difficult than other miracles, thereby requiring an instrument, as opposed to God simply “willing” it to be, just as He willed the universe to be? “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” indicates God can will anything to occur, without requiring an instrument! However, Onkelos does not say “instrument” but uses the word “finger.” So we don't have to resort to Maimonides’ explanation.

Onkelos might have retained Torah’s “finger of God” literally for another meaning. Perhaps he means that these tablets are unique among all other physical phenomena: they embody an optimal degree of design, where nature literally formed words, the 10 commands. “Fingers” are man’s best tools for precision activity, specifically writing. Natural law cannot produce such fine-tuned phenomenon like a stone bearing sentences or clouds forming words, or even letters. Natural design includes a level of chaos: rising smoke does not follow a fixed path, no two trees have the exact same branch structure, height or width, ink splashed on a wall has no design nor forms any image. Therefore, legible script naturally formed within sapphire tablets is as astonishing as cutting open a tree, and instead of seeing rings inside the trunk, text is found. 

The tablets’ high degree of precision natural law not found elsewhere throughout the universe, earns a term “the finger of God.” Thus, Onkelos is not saying that God needed an instrument. Onkelos means that God’s use of “finger of God” euphemistically conveys this miracle’s unparalleled nature, deserving that phrase. This explanation resolves Maimonides’ question on Onkelos. And those tablets must have been astonishing. Imagine pouring water on the ground and the puddle forms a sentence. The tablets’ writing made the same impression.

But the obvious question is this: What demanded this aberration in nature, namely, naturally-formed text? What is God's underlying message?

Rabbi Israel Chait taught that the first tablets with this amazing script allowed man to study God as “God of creation.” God naturally formed both tablets, and their writing. The second set of tablets Moses hewed artificially from the quarry, and only subsequently, God engraved the commands on them. The second set did not offer a study of God as “God of creation,” but as “God the giver of Torah.” How do the first tablets teach “God of creation,” and the second tablets teach “God as the giver of Torah?”  

The reason why only the first tablets enabled man to view God as creator was precisely due to the amazing script appearing internally in the sapphire bricks: “Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the treaty, tablets written on both their sides: from this side and that side they were written” (Exod. 32:15).  From any angle, the viewer could see the insides of the translucent sapphire bricks bearing the commands. He would immediately grasp that the creator of sapphire—and the entire physical universe—has a will for man: these commands. That is “knowing God as creator”: knowing His role as creator of Earth is integrally tied to His will for man. Knowing who the creator is demands knowledge of His will for man. If one is ignorant of God's will for man, one’s idea of God is wrong. Thus, to “know the creator” means to know the creator and His will. What is His will?

The first tablets teach the most fundamental principle: creation was made by the will of the first Being…His “will” is undeniably expressed through His commands inside the sapphire. The universe is not merely a “shadow” or an accidental result of God's existence. No, the universe is God’s planned will for man. More than all else in the universe, natural formed commands share this lesson in such a clear and unambiguous manner. So vital is this to our understanding of who God is, that Talmud teaches when God created Adam, He gave him a command. This means that creation included the message that Earth’s purpose—a planet for man—exists for man to perceive God and subjugate himself to Him. Our definition of God must be that not only is He the creator, but that He created in order that His wisdom embedded in the creation be appreciated. He did not create a simplified world, but a world full of intricate science and marvels at every corner. Merely knowing that God is solely responsible for all creation is not a sufficient understanding of God: we must also know His will. And His will is expressed in the first tablets. Those first tablets embody creation, and human directives, thereby teaching they are inseparable, as is our understanding of God. When asked what God is, our response must be, “God is the sole creator Who intends intelligent beings to recognize Him.” (The second tablets merely had commands etched up on them, which does not teach this lesson.)

In conclusion, as the case of Adam conveys, there was never a stage of human existence bereft of God’s commands. And Earth’s purpose is for man to study God.  Torah commences with creation and Sabbath, which the rabbis teach was the goal of creation: physical creation presents man with God's wisdom in every corner of the universe. The goal of Sabbath is man’s withdrawal from physical activity redirected towards contemplation on the Creator. That means physical creation has a goal of intellectual activity…acceptance of God.

Again, God is not simply the creator: “I am your God who took you out of Egypt…in order to be your God” stated throughout Torah. God created so that intelligent beings recognize Him. 

“For I am God, I have not changed; and you are the children of Jacob—you have not ceased to be” (Malachi 3:6). Here, God says His permanent nature is associated with the descendants of monotheists. 

What is God? “God is the sole creator Who intends intelligent beings to recognize Him.”