Friday, January 7, 2011

Evolution of the Understanding of God in the Old Testament

The Old Testament (OT) is humanity's early record of its relationship with God. As such, it traces humanity's changing understanding of the nature of God as revealed in God's actions and revelations to the Jewish people. In dealing with it, modern Christians need to keep in mind several truths.

First, God holds to His purpose. From the very beginning, God has intended to have a relationship with humanity. God created the universe in order to give human beings a place to live so that we could have that relationship with God. God made the universe in a way that would not only permit, but encourage our developing a relationship. But God did not, and does not, force this relationship; it is voluntary on the part of men and women. We can freely choose God, who has already chosen us. As the OT picture of God and God's nature evolves, we must keep firmly in mind that it is not God who is changing.

Therefore, it is humanity, and more especially the writers of the OT, who are changing. It is a reality that, as human beings experience more, their intellect becomes capable of more. In our own lifetimes, we have seen it. Before cell phones and texting were invented, we could not imagine being in constant contact with others. Now we stand in the aisle of a supermarket and text to our spouse, “What was that brand of crackers we liked so much at the party last week?” and think nothing of a phenomenon that our ancestors would have regarded as miraculous. It has gone from impossible, to remarkable, to ordinary in less than a generation.

So with the writers of the OT. To understand their conception of God, we must remember they were working in a far more limited world that we do. They were intelligent, capable, and worldly wise in terms of their own world. But their world was far more limited than ours. It was more limited than the world of the New Testament. The earlier writers of the Pentateuch lived in a more limited world than the later prophets. In the earliest writers' world, a god presided over a small area, or a small group of people. Gods were demanding, irrational, and vengeful. Our modern view of the pantheons of ancient civilizations is based on looking at them from the vantage of later analysis. The appearance of an organized, systematic Egyptian theology, for instance, is an artifact of later scholarship. At the time of the Israelite captivity, the Amun of Thebes, for instance, was a very limited deity whose primacy (when combined with Rā) in the Egyptian pantheon only arose after the time of the Exodus. Amun was the chief god of Thebes, Ptah of Memphis, Bastet of Bubastis, and so on. The importance of each god rose or fell with the importance of its city. Similarly, in Palestine, there was not a Baal, but many baals, each protecting a particular locality.

From the beginning, then, God spoke to humans, and they interpreted what was said in terms of their own worldview. So when JHWH told Abraham, “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 12: 3b) the early Israelites interpreted it in terms of their own worldly situation: they would rule over other people and gods in a political hegemony. Only later, when it was clear that Israel would not be a great world power, did such writers as Third Isaiah come to see that the commitment of God was to humanity, not just to the people of Israel, who was to be the exemplar, not the conqueror: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60: 3)

So the OT is a gradual revelation of the comprehensiveness of God's plan for humanity as its writers slowly, generation by generation, came to perceive and understand the plan. As the writers learn to think in wider and more comprehensive terms, God continues to reassure them that they are not forgotten, that all previous commitments on God's part are still in force: “Remember these things, O Jacob,/and Israel, for you are my servant:/I formed you, you are my servant;/O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.” (Isaiah 44: 21) From a purely tribal deity, the Israelites begin to grasp God's universality. Ezekiel's vision of God' awe-inspiring chariot-throne, capable of moving irresistibly in every direction (Ezekiel 1) reveals a conception of God that would probably not be comprehensible to the people of the time of Judges. In all of this it is important to remember that it is not God who has changed, it is the understanding of the people writing about God that has changed.

Second, God is active. He is not an unmoved mover, or a cosmic watchmaker who once wound the world up and has stepped back to let it run down. As pointed out in Crossley, the God revealed in the OT is distinguished by action: “. . . God creates, makes and keeps promises, rescues, commands, and leads.” (Ronald C. Crossley. The Christian Bible, Part One: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testamant, (Unpublished Manuscript, 2010) 211) This analysis captures one of the chief differences between the Judeo-Christian view of God and the views of the Platonists, a group of theological and philosophical thinkers active at approximately the same period of history. The Platonist Theory of Forms posits a series of archetypes, arising from the most important and basic of the forms, the Form of Good. An essential feature of these forms was that they were permanent and unchanging. They do not act, they are. This does not assume that the ancient authors of the OT were aware of the Platonists, or of the Eleatic or Milesian philosophers that preceded them. It only contrast contemporaneous ideas.

Third, God suffers. God does not take pleasure in the problems of the Jewish people. Although God keeps His promises even when they bring suffering, He takes no delight in it. The words may seem angry as he reveals the inevitable result of the choices the Jewish people and rulers made, there is a continuing tone of regret: “O my people, what have I done to you?/In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (Micah 6: 3) Though punishment follows disobedience and failure to keep the Covenant, God continues to look for the best. Over and over again, God holds back the full evil effects of disobedience. He rescues and restores. He heals and repairs. So despite the turmoil of the times in which they lived, the Jews, a small and not very numerous people were preserved, when many larger and more powerful nations totally disappeared. God does not do these things without cost to Himself. The pain of disobedience and its consequences are eternally before God. He knows, as the Judean kings tried to play power politics in an arena where they were vastly outmatched, what will come of their efforts, and He does not want those evils to come about. Like a parent watching a beloved child waste opportunities and suffer the consequences of stupid choices, God watches Israel constantly trying to do things without Him. He sees their suffering, and suffers with them. Eventually, He steps into the human arena as a human being, suffers as a human being from the injustice and cruelty of human institutions, dies a human death, and provides, through His resurrection, a path by which other human beings may find salvation.

Fourth, God cares about individuals. As Crossley says, “God opposes human oppression even when nations employ legal means.” (220) Even the Chosen People are not free to oppress others; not other Jews, not non-Jews, not animals, not even the land. In all His provisions, God demands justice and compassion:
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
. . .
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1: 14, 16-17)

So God makes clear that it is not the abstract nation He cares about, but the real and suffering people of that nation.

Finally, God is sovereign. God has made the universe to fulfill His design. The laws of the universe are God's laws. As Jeremiah says in 18: 1-4, God is like a potter, in that He molds the clay in accordance to His will. The clay will conform to the will of the potter, or it will be reworked until it does. From the beginning, God has demonstrated a willingness to step into the universe and make it come out the way He has determined it will come out. His last stepping in, foreshadowed in the OT, was the appearance of Jesus; it is the most complete appearance of God on the stage of the world. It made it possible for all humanity to reach the goal God had intended and foreseen from the first. In accepting the limitations of humanity, and the humiliation of execution and death, God most decisively demonstrates His sovereignty, for only the truly sovereign can lay down their power and pick it up again as they choose.

As Crossley points out, the OT does not present systematic theology (CB 211). In part, this results from its incompleteness. But to say that the presentation of God in the OT is not systematic is not to say that it has no system. Only when the OT witness to the nature of God is completed by the NT can a more nearly complete picture of God's nature be found. The history, poetry, literature, and prophecy of the OT is not a random collection of ancient scraps. By the providential will of God, these things have been preserved and handed down to us. It's picture of YHWH is not simple, at least in part because God is not simple, any more than the twenty-third Psalm is a simple description of pastoral life. It is up to each of us to look for the God that is always looking at us, to take the hand that is always being held out for us, and to really listen to the voice that is always speaking to us.

All Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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About Me

Jacksonville, N.C., United States
Retired teacher, motorcyclist, member of the Patriot Guard Riders, the Christian Motorcyclists Association, and the Moto Guzzi National Owners Club.