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Four Perspectives On The God of Israel
(Human Condition: Religion/Ontology of God Series)
Copyright © 2004 Dorian Scott Cole
This series explores the human condition through the role of religion in our lives, by trying to understand the ontology of God (Relationship between God and humanity) through an ontological construct approach to theology.
This article looks at different perspectives from which ancient people have felt inspired to tell stories about God. Perspective determines expectations and the interpretive direction of the storyteller. Although there are various classifications of literature within the Bible, such as the "wisdom" literature, the voices that I describe are not strictly selected from these classifications.
There are many ideas about where scripture inspiration came from, varying from "Every word came directly from God," to "Every word is superstitious nonsense, most of which is intended for manipulation and control, and never actually happened." Religion often leaves the educated afraid of feeling foolish, and leaves the cynical wary of being duped. Yet those with faith in some creative power outside themselves commonly feel a powerful attraction to religious writing and ritual. It is often an uncomfortable fit, as the actions recorded about the historical god sometimes appear to be morally unacceptable, overly judgmental, tribal or state oriented, those of a doomsayer, with motives more like humans than a god, and even capricious.
What are we to think? Are we to judge God? Perhaps our understanding and questioning is a mark of growth. Perhaps at other times it is that we overlook the historical context, and don't realize that something like opposing other gods who demanded human and child sacrifice was a major step in a positive direction. And perhaps we sometimes don't consider the interpretive framework of the times.
Biblical literature is typically cast in the light that every act recorded that is not explicitly condemned must have been right. But the messages should make us think, not mimic. It helps to understand the perspective from which people saw God and wrote about him. This includes the nature of the times, the social environment, and the roles of the people involved.
I see strong parallels in the development of the major religions in the world. The attitudes about God, and the development of religion, were similar in Hinduism, Babylonian/Assyrian, Egyptian, and Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions, and these developed through similar eras. For example, the Jewish and Christian were marked by birth pains that placed high demands of loyalty and harsh punishments for those who didn't live up to very high standards.
If you look past the veneer of perspectives, you see beyond such things as tribal gods who supposedly supported local war efforts. You see the Goddess of Ma'at in Egypt, who is concerned with the noble ideas of justice and fair treatment (truth, law, and universal order). You see the tolerant God of justice, mercy, forgiveness, and love of the Israelites. You see the ideas of peace and an ordered society in the Muslim heritage. You see the strong emphasis on laws and social order that people can live by in Ancient Sumer and in Babylon prior to rule by the Hittites. And in the Ancient Greek world you see the willingness to explore spiritual issues through the many varieties of religious thought, in a search for wisdom and a perfect society.
Beyond the pantheons of gods, and rituals which make no sense or were even repugnant and destructive, and beyond the chest pounding voices of nationalism, we can see a single God pointing the way, and we can see people struggling with understanding God and often leaving a written record of their struggles. We can see many stories repeated in the history of all religions. These stories either got at the root of what people were trying to communicate about God, so they copied and repeated them, or similar events actually happened in many cultures. These stories told important messages that people were hungry to hear.
To the cynic, borrowing or creating stories destroys credibility. To the purist, borrowing or creating stories demands a strong defense of their religion, and suppression of the unwanted. The cynics and purists have too often ruled down through history, either destroying literature or weaving unintended meanings. To the rest of us, these actions leave us wondering if all religious authorities through history have acted in this way, hiding, destroying, and deceiving when uncomfortable literature presents itself. We are challenged to see beyond perspectives and actions to the message from the core God within.
Our own perspectives set us up for trouble
The perspective from which we view religious writings places us in uneasy relationships with them. For example, it is largely only the interpretation of scripture that brought the Bible into conflict with science. Remove interpretations from the Middle Ages to the late 19th. Century, and the Bible is very resilient. Similarly, if we view the stories as being absolutely concrete fact in which each word was written by God, at minimum we find ourselves looking at a text that openly contradicts itself.
When people box themselves in with an extreme and unyielding perspective, the smallest opposing "proof" can destroy their faith. For example, a recent book purports to offer proof through the discovery of contradictory ancient writings that Christ was not from God, but a man like any other, and the Roman Emperor Constantine elevated him for the political expediency of uniting the lands under one religion. Much of the evidence is simply rehashed supposition. This is just another in a long string of supposed discoveries, often centered on the supposed secret acts and literature of the Knights Templar. Ancient contradictory stories of the past abound, some of which are partially true, and if taken by themselves question the validity and veracity of religious writing. Faith is damaged, and perspective can put one in the trap of an indefensible position.
Was Christ crucified and "resurrected," as questioned by so many, and if so, resurrected in what form; or was he only a man? To me personally, the supposition that he wasn't is disproved simply by the experience of believers, and by what Christ pointed to. As a practical matter, questions like these in this or any other religion are of little importance to faith. However in the tradition of apologetics in a religion and mother religion anchored in history, many feel obligated to seek more concrete answers.
Mystery and hidden things are nothing new to Christianity. Mystery and hidden things are an integral part of what Christ preached. He intentionally hid things by speaking in riddles, a common practice among Middle Eastern religious speakers at that time. In fact, there were even many contenders in the last two centuries BC for the title of Messiah (Greek: Christos, English: Christ), who were also named Jesus, and who traveled and spoke much as Christ did. They considered themselves to be "saviors" and often fomented political revolt.
People were expecting a Messianic figure to come and free them from the Romans. There were also many sects, such as the Nazarenes, from which John the Baptist originated, and with which Christ was associated. These sects claimed to have "secret knowledge" as attested by the Dead Sea Scrolls. But there was only one who "turned the world upside down." As far as I know, there was only one person who spoke of a spiritual Kingdom in this world, but not of this world - a spiritual kingdom for individuals, not military rulers and political nations.
Is it any wonder, since people love a mystery, that people even today look for secret literature and relics, especially associated with secretive organizations like the Knights Templar? Even Hitler believed that there were ancient relics hidden that would give him power, and sent teams to search for items from Jewish history even as he was exterminating the Jews. Unfortunately the quest misses the entire point of religion - it is spiritual, not physical, and the power is a transforming power within, not a power over others.
The Bible is not a collection of all of the literature available from the era. In the flurry of letters between churches about Christ, collections of his sayings, and Christianity, there were many many documents that were repeats or were not of any significance, or not authoritative, or simply didn't well represent the faith (or were even considered to be in error). Some hotly debated issues, like Gnosticism, rightly or wrongly were kept out of the Bible, although we can still hear echoes in various passages of that type of thought. Gnosticism was clearly a divisive emphasis, and much of its practice seemed out of place in the rest of Christianity.
Not everyone was in full agreement on the literature to be included in the Bible, but the leaders did come to a consensus opinion about the literature that most closely represented Christianity. To my point: There are simply a lot of old manuscripts that still exist today that predate anything that the Church leaders under Constantine potentially could have rewritten, or are known to have existed in parallel in that era, and these support the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Additionally, there are other documents, some of which were recently found (19th. and 20th. Centuries), that are believed to not have been subjected to any revisions by Church leaders. For example, the Gospel of James, a book from the Nag Hammadi library archaeological find that was not included and was lost to history, speaks directly of the cross and resurrection, and of the "son of the Holy Spirit" (an unusual saying, possibly Gnostic in origin).
Also found at the Nag Hammadi library were the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and many other documents. Except for Thomas, these are considered to have been "corrupted" by having Gnostic additions, but they appear to have been written and preserved prior to any potential revision by Church leaders. These books, if available to the Church leaders, were either brief notations about Christ's sayings, or written in other forms, and so from the point of view of including them in the Bible, were of little value compared to the four synoptic gospels (the books of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John).
Another book that was not included in the Bible is worth mentioning. The first person to meet Christ, after he left the tomb, was Mary Magdala (Magdalene), according to the Bible. In The Gospel of Mary, Mary (a disciple or Apostle of Christ) and the other apostles are talking, and this is obviously after Christ has died. They speak of his appearing individually to Mary, and also collectively to them. It also speaks of his spirit being in them. (They also speak through their jealousy of Christ having given additional knowledge to Mary, and not to them - a writing touch that adds some credibility to the document. She then tells them the secrets that Christ had told her.) So the teachings that Christ was crucified, resurrected, is of the spirit of God, and his spirit is in them, is on firm ground.
My experience with Christianity and Judaism, is that less than thorough research by opponents usually leads to wild speculation. However, close examination of the scriptures, other documents of the time, and the archaeological record, usually indicate that the wild speculation is unjustified, if not totally contradicted.
I feel compelled to add that I take no position on who wrote scriptures, inspiration, or inerrancy. A book is not God. To me these are moot and unprovable questions that only create arguments, and that have no value when it comes to faith. While there is a long tradition of trying to screen the gospels for the true sayings of Jesus (such as the Jesus Seminar), my small experience with literary interpretation tells me that the effort is fraught with hidden traps. The voice that speaks through scripture to inspire faith and guide, can as easily speak to the heart and mind through a magazine article, a neighbor, experience, a leader, a fool... . But if the heart and mind are focused on ignoble interests, they can just as easily find justifications for misdeeds in any voice, including scriptures - just look at the history of the Church's followers and their infamous deeds. (Perhaps one of the major problems in the Church's history is that many were simply unable to read the scriptures.)
Difficult choices VS bias
Scriptural writings are written throughout history. The desire to collect them into a book and be selective about which ones best represent a religion is a human initiative, and beliefs vary about their guidance. Some very obvious choices were made regarding the Judaism canon (list of included books), and the Christian canon. Some historical periods were not included. Some writings were not included. Documents that seemed supportive of some divisive dispute were not included. Various scholars, theologians, and religious movements don't agree on these canons, and major groups publish Bibles with different books in them. For example, the Protestant Bible has many fewer books than the Catholic Bible, which has fewer Old Testament books than the Jewish Bible. The Samaritan Bible has many fewer books than the Jewish Bible, presenting only the Pentateuch (first five books of Moses) and there are variations in the text.
Beyond these things, none of the early writings in any religious tradition stand up to the literary, historical, and scientifically based standards of today, or even stand up to close inspection. Yet in spite of its perceived faults, the Bible passes on an effective message that inspires faith. It probably fares better than many histories written about our current time that are either self-serving in perspective, or revisionist. Today's histories have simply become the histories of interpretation, correctness, agendas, and convenience. Show me one in the public high school system that even mentions duals by a Vice President elect and his flight to an island off of Georgia (not that this is a terribly important issue, it is just an example).
The Bible even contradicts itself, and leaves much unexplained. Why? The Bible is not an account of history, nor is it a book of science. The Bible is a selective account of people's relationships with God, in a very limited historical environment. The writers' ideas of how to record things were undoubtedly very driven by the purpose at hand. To them, recording "just the facts" was not a purpose at all. What they wrote, sometimes centuries after the event, was an interpretation, so that readers would understand the importance of that event in their lives.
Some of them even played "fast and loose" with facts, writing in the spirit of some "tradition," that reflected the personality of some previous historical figure. This treatment of literature is true in the sense that it sees events in the same interpretive perspective as the original historical figure. Writing in this way is like the experience of a child who has heard her parents' advice so often that years after they have gone the adult child knows exactly what they would say and how they would say it. We wouldn't consider the style authoritative today, but it was widely accepted in ancient times. Additionally, the example of the Jewish Samaritan and Gnostic communities has clear evidence of rewriting existing texts to support their own points of view (or perhaps the Samaritan text was correct and the other is a revision). How widespread this practice was, and whether it affected literature in the Biblical canons, isn't clear.
As an example of the ancients' idea of history, we know from inscriptions on Egyptian walls that the stories placed there reflect the triumphs of the Kings or later Pharaohs. We lose half of the truth because they had no interest in recording their failures. Failure wasn't something to carve in stone in big letters - that really did little to engender confidence in the king and kingdom, or prepare one for an afterlife. Their idea of revision of anything that didn't suit them was to simply obscure the text in the stone.
The Israelites, with their emphasis on moral behavior, were more likely to record failure, but it was always through the interpretive lens of their beliefs. One belief, which possibly originated in Ancient Sumer where it was common, and was reflected in other nations as well, was that individuals, cities, and nations brought destruction on themselves by disobeying God. People have always felt compelled to appease the volcanoe, earth, sea, and storm gods to prevent their destruction... which they felt they must have deserved. But today, when we see some individual or group suffering, we are much less likely to attribute it to disobedience to God and divine retribution. For example, when an earthquake recently struck Bam, Iran, killing over 30,000 people, (or mudslides or flooding in California, China, Chile, etc.) instead of sitting around with a smug look and saying that once again God has struck them and their evil ways, instead the people of other nations rushed to help. Even the more fundamentalist leaning Southern Baptists sent aid workers to Iran.
The interpretive emphasis of ancient time, while we can't say it was false, certainly led to an overemphasis and painted a much darker picture than it was in reality. We can learn from this. We have a much fuller perspective on events, so we have to look beyond the interpretive structures that helped them make sense of their world, to the basic message under this that they were trying to communicate. If the ancients were guilty of anything, it is the same interpretive mistakes that we are all still guilty of today.
On the one hand, the Bible (Jewish Torah, chronicles, and prophets; Christian literature), are very impressive at how well they have held up to archaeological evidence, to other historical accounts, and to changes in scientific perspectives. The accounts may be very hard to prove through direct evidence, but despite considerable speculation, Biblical accounts have not been factually disproved.
On the other hand, the scriptures are subject to the limitations of human understanding at the time of the writing. People can only describe things in terminology that they know. For example, Isaiah's "wheel within a wheel," can be interpreted today as a flying saucer, or just about anything imaginable. We don't know what it was that he saw, and obviously there was no name in existence, or similar pattern, for what Isaiah saw. Theological descriptions are similar. Ideas may be presented, but there may be no verbal patterns in existence to draw on as an explanation, metaphor, or name. Lack of understanding yields incorrect interpretations. Yet somehow these ancient descriptions pass on important ideas to other people down through history.
We also need to keep in mind that the Biblical revelation of God is part of a continuing history that we ourselves experience. It is completed in us, not in the past. We understand much more today than the ancients ever could. Our judgments today are much more well informed, even though our individual experience may lag. Faith is in an interactive God, not in a stale book.
In understanding religious literature, what to me are important are the messages that the ancient people felt were important enough to record for future generations, and it is up to us to understand their relevance today.
Four perspectives on God in Ancient Israel
The God of creation
There are at least four perspectives present in the Jewish Bible (Christian Old Testament) that help shape the context in which the stories need to be understood. The first perspective is the God of creation. These are ancient stories that circulated in many ancient cultures, in oral form (or in writing in Ancient Sumer). Creation stories are found in ancient cultures all over the world, and give people an interpretive framework for understanding their disjointed and unpredictable lives. Why do the seasons change? Where did the animals come from? Why do I have to work so hard? Why is childbirth so hard? Why does disease kill so many people, and why do I have a disease. Why do we suffer? Why do my children die at such a young age? Why does my land flood and my crops fail, and people starve to death? How can I appease God so he will spare us? What happens to us when we die? Why do we know so little about our purpose? What is our purpose? Questions like these demand answers, and the human mind is stretched to examine experience and latch on to the one closest at hand.
Creation stories try to give some kind of explanation for these questions - questions that are just as valid today as eons ago. Each culture seems to either create a story, or expand on it with an interpretation from their unique perspective. Israel had a strong unique perspective, some of which probably was from the Semitic culture, and some from the other cultures with which they had contact, such as Ancient Sumer, Persia, and Egypt.
What is important is not so much the accurate historical account, which we can never prove or disprove in any culture or religion, but the message.
According to the Genesis story, God created an ideal world in which people lived an idyllic existence. People began to suffer only because they disobeyed God. While part of the idea is supportable in people's experience, Ancient Israel interpreted this simplistically to mean that people had to labor for a living, and women had painful childbirths - all suffering was because of Adam and Eve's disobedience. Additional stories in the book of Genesis serve to confirm that this is so. Mankind became so wicked that God destroyed the entire world (Noah story), or after the rainbow, only the wicked parts (Sodom and Gomorrah story). This interpretive framework for life was very simple: want a better life, then obey God. Know your purpose: help your husband, and bear children. The wicked get destroyed.
How far can we ever extrapolate deeper and more influential meanings from these simplistic stories? Each tiny element in these stories has been used to create major societal influences. The idea of "be fruitful and multiply" is sometimes used to justify large families and banning birth control. The idea of Adam's "sin" is used to declare that we all exist in original sin. This is a blanket condemnation of humanity. Sex has sometimes been identified with original sin, and it is sometimes used to condemn sexual activity even among married people. Saint Augustine, who knew a lot about sexual temptation, is largely responsible for this interpretation.
The question for today is, do we still use the same interpretive framework for understanding God's purpose toward us, and our relationship with God? Well, since we don't see destructive events today as being God's retribution on individuals or wicked societies, it is very questionable whether we use the same interpretive framework. Today we are more likely to see that dissatisfaction with life, and the resultant suffering, is often, but not always, a reflection of our personal estrangement from God because of mistreating others and ignoring God - an idea that is supported by the Adam and Eve story without taking the interpretation to extremes.
The God of the state
The second perspective on God is the "state" God, the God of the government. This perspective on God is probably an outgrowth of the tribal gods, and the influence of other nations. This is the God who is supported by, and promoted by, the government. This perspective includes the rules of conduct, rules concerning maintaining order, rules of establishing authority, rules for establishing the authority of state control, such as Kingship, building campaigns and other civic functions, wars, and controlling or coexisting with religion. The lineage of Kingship, which was inherited, was documented and enforced by the government. The lineage of the priests, which was an inherited office, was limited to the tribe of Levi.
In this perspective, authority is traced back to Abraham (father of the nation), and is documented through King David up to at least the time of Christ and even today. The priesthood is a succession from the tribe of Levi. The religious laws are traced to Moses (Ten Commandments), who is the authoritative source for the Pentateuch (the first five books known as the Torah).
Kingship did not come from Moses - it supposedly came from the people. Prior to Kingship, there were a number of judges in the land, tied to the 12 tribes. The judges were more like religious rulers who interpreted law and settled disputes, such as the Mullahs in Iran today. The concept of having a king was explained to the people and preserved in writing. The story was told that the people complained, "Why can't we have a king like other lands?" The reply from God was, you won't like having a king, but you asked for it. (King Solomon later confirmed that having a king was a better way to go for nations that grew crops.) So a king was anointed by the priests. The kingship style and ceremonies that were established are very similar in authority and succession to the Egyptian system. Thus, authority and the consent of the people was documented and authenticated, and given a validating context in the example of other countries.
It is this perspective that was used to support grand building projects, such as building the king's palace and the Temple (there was no house for God, earlier). From this perspective, records are kept of laws, history, and succession. Wars are justified, such as the traditional taking of the land, and the defending of the land.
While the state and priests controlled religion, religion was very much a tool of the state. Scores of so called "prophets," who were seers of the future, were maintained to advise the king. Other nations were courted, and with agreements and intermarriage, the gods and practices of those nations were accepted into the land. So, while the role of the state was to bring order, the state actually did what was politically expedient, using the state religion or abusing it.
As a result of kingship and political expediency, we see in the history provided to us by these writers, lessons in relations between man and God. The first king, Saul, selected and anointed by the priests, was afraid for his throne and schemed to kill his competitors. He was killed in one of the battles. The second king, David, lusted after a friends wife, and had his friend killed in battle. David's sons competed to succeed him as king, like in any other country. The kings allowed the religion to be displaced or corrupted whenever it suited them.
In future years, Israel's armies became less and less effective at defending the nation. One day, in a fit of bravado, thinking that God was on their side and they were unstoppable, the Israeli army marched to encounter the Egyptian army. The Egyptians, who were on their way to battle another army, marched over the Israeli army like they weren't even there.
Later, one half of the kingdom was captured, and then there followed a long period during which the capital and leaders were taken captive and other countries dominated them. While the seers saw victory, these events were consistently interpreted by the prophets as punishment on the nation of Israel for failure to obey God. We see the tragic results of interpreting events from the perspective of the state: political expediency, abuse of power, military adventurism, and unjust wars.
We can question whether religion should ever be a tool of government. We saw abuse of religiously influenced political power in the middle ages by the Catholic Church in the Crusades and in the Inquisition. Many thousands were tortured and killed at the hands of the crusaders and the inquisition. People were falsely accused and tortured until they confessed. Accusation equaled guilt. If they failed to confess, they were tortured during their execution. The crusaders killed men, women, and children in entire provinces, exterminating everyone without consideration - thousands of them (Cathars in France). Few things in history have been as heinous, ungodly, barbaric, and inhumane as the crimes against the people by the Church in the Middle Ages.
We saw abuse in the early 1900s in Zionism, which is a religiously influenced political movement among Jews to reestablish the State of Israel. Zionism even used terrorism in its past, and it often supported extremist positions. The various parties that gain power in Israel typically have religious orientations, and the Arabs (Palestinians) suffer from loss of land, homes, jobs, and relationships.
In turn, there was abuse by Muslims in this tit-for-tat hatred that has gone on for over a millennium. The Jews hated anyone in their land, beginning from the return from the Diaspora (538 BC) to rebuild their Temple (which was later again destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD). After 700 AD, the land has often been under Muslim rule. The hate was reciprocated by the Muslims to the point of abuse, sometimes delegating the Jews to second-class citizen and servitude roles, and negating them of the full protection of the law that any Muslim would have had. Through the centuries and continuing today, Arab literature and lore has cast the Jews in a very negative light. This position is promoted in the Middle East by the Muslim religion and the religiously influenced governments. The position toward the Jews that was written by Mohammed, is ignored. Neither side has the moral high ground - elements of both seek the low ground.
We see abuse in politics in various religiously influenced political movements among various groups in Palestine, such as Hamas, many of whom support or use terrorism to achieve their aims (typically the aim is the total destruction of the Jews, and nothing indicates that this has changed except words that have no credibility (on either side)).
We see abuse by religiously influenced politics in Iran, where the Mullahs are (1/13/2004) disqualifying thousands from running for Parliament, including many incumbents who were democratically elected by the people. It seems the conservatives lost majority power to reformers in the last election, and the conservative Mullahs intend to thwart reform by simply rigging the election... brazenly. Election rigging and religious motivation are nothing out of the ordinary - it also happens in the US, but in the US it doesn't have government sanction and sooner or later it gets stopped.
We see abuse by religiously influenced politics in political terrorist movements such as the Taliban and Al Quaida, which point to supposed religious justification for their actions, even though there isn't any except by wild interpretation of the Koran - their actions are motivated by the lust for power of corrupt leaders. Abuse of power gets justified in God's name. Those who believe that they are the most right before God... do the worst crimes against humanity. As history has proven over and over, and historian Lord Acton stated, "...absolute power corrupts absolutely..."
The God of the prophets
The third perspective is that of the prophets of Israel, the "spokesmen" for God. The prophets had their finger on the pulse of what was happening in the land. They spoke out against the state, against the people, and even against the priests, when injustice and ungodly practices were happening. The prophets were the moral compasses of the land, raising the alarm when things were getting out of control. They pointed people back to moral and just behavior, partly by decrying bad behavior and predicting dire consequences for those who continued to do wrong.
The legacy of the prophetic perspective is to strengthen the idea that destruction befalls civilization because of bad behavior, and the extreme of this is the apocalyptic literature that foretells the end of the earth because of rampant bad behavior. This emphasis promotes a greater emphasis on following God, especially regarding religious law and justice.
Today we question this line of thinking that national events and human calamity are consequences of bad behavior. We know that great (powerful, widespread, and sometimes advanced) civilizations rose and fell. We have repeatedly seen powerful but corrupt leaders smash the citizens of other countries, throughout history. Powerful leaders built powerful nations, assembled powerful armies, and then conquered others to continue building their empires. Empire building was the game of the day in the surrounding nations for all of Israel's ancient history. The nation of Israel was simply an unwitting pawn in these power struggles. The idea that their problems with independence had something to do with God really doesn't fit the scenario.
The effect of the prophets interpretive perspective was to strongly motivate those who returned to the land, to place religious law (The Law of Moses - first five books of the Bible) above all else. The religious rituals and emphasis wasted a great deal of time, and isolated many of the people, causing them to overlook important things like being friendly to their neighbors. It caused many of them to continuously fight the political powers that dominated their countries, and brought endless grief to them. Since it was sanctioned by their leaders, I have called it, "bureaucracy run amuck." Yet, given the overall emphasis of the religion of the Israelites, this was a correct interpretation and justified by the events of their time. But in retrospect it was an over-interpretation.
The prophetic interpretations caused the people to be much more isolated and more rejecting of other people, which is partly the cause of problems that continue today (as mentioned above under The God of the state. What we can learn from the prophetic perspective, is to be more discerning about the reason for events in our lives, and more discerning of the voices that automatically assign a divine motivation to our circumstances.
When we vary from the interpretation that "life happens and God helps us deal with it," we need to be on very firm ground in our assessment. The logical extensions of overemphasizing God as the author of every large and small event that happens in our lives is to assign to God every good thing, and blame God for every bad thing that happens, and then cede responsibility for our future and the consequences of our own behavior since these all seem to be predetermined anyway. Justification for these things can be found in the Scriptures - depending on interpretation. Our interpretive frameworks that help us make sense of our lives, needs to be much less narrow and inflexible.
The God of the people
The fourth perspective on God that we are provided is from the people's point of view. These are the stories like the ones of Ruth and Esther, the "non-kingly" personal observations of King Solomon, and the "non-prophetic" personal stories of prophets like Jonah. We don't know who wrote these stories, but undoubtedly they were written for a purpose. These are personal stories that challenge conventional thinking.
The book of Ruth is a story about acceptance of foreigners. It stands in contrast to the decrees of the governors Ezra and Nehemiah about keeping the nation pure by not marrying foreigners. There was always tension in the land between the voices who emphasized the people being the elect of God and being separate, and the other voices who emphasized that foreigners should be treated well. As mentioned, the people returning to rebuild the Temple insisted on strict separation.
There are no commands from God in the book of Ruth, and no prophetic voices about what one should and shouldn't do, or the consequences. This story is simply the story of a foreign woman who had married an Israelite, and then the man died. She briefly returned to her original land, but then went back to Israel. Would the nation of Israel turn their back to her since she was a foreigner? No. She was treated well, like any other person who had been born in the land.
Ruth's kinsman by marriage fulfilled his responsibility and took her as wife so that she could bear children and be provided for. As usual, the iron stances of the policy-making hard-liners was counterbalanced by the more compassionate approach of actually dealing with people. It is a thought-provoking message to today's world about religious dictates as opposed to how we should actually treat other people. I think that the core God's voice who speaks through the scriptures comes down more on the side of the people, not the loud voice that pronounces edicts.
The book of Esther is about a woman who was among those who were deported to another land after their land was invaded. The people in those circumstances often became slaves, but sometimes were simply transplanted and became citizens of their new land. Esther was chosen as one of the wives of the King, but she didn't forget her roots. She persuaded the king to give better treatment to the Israelites, and spared them from death at the hands of one of the King's unscrupulous leaders. This and other stories speak of godly women and their courage in the face of difficult circumstances. These raise questions about the subservient or religiously powerless position in which women are typically depicted (although it is a role of being protected).
The writings of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, are not the chronicles of a king, but instead his personal reflections about life. Solomon, the son of King David, followed David as King of Israel. Unlike the warrior legacy of his father (which prevented David from building a religious temple), Solomon's legacy was to be known for his wisdom. Solomon, as King, did a number of things that were politically expedient. But Solomon as a person looked at real life and evaluated it.
Solomon heard what the priests had to say, such as the advice about leading a life that honored God so that God would bless your land, defend you, and make you prosperous. Solomon looked around him and said, wait just a minute here. I've seen evil people live long lives, and I've seen righteous people poor, oppressed, and dead at a young age. What gives?
Solomon, probably because of the facts that he was king, he built the Temple, and he was considered wise, probably had to try to understand what things meant in his life. It wasn't an easy journey. He mused, you know, everything that you do in this life turns to dust in the wind. You can't create anything that continues to say you were here, or make people remember you. (And it has been very hard for archaeologists to find any trace of Solomon's Temple, although they may have found supportable evidence in the 1990s.) There may be an earthly reward, maybe not. You can make yourself crazy trying to figure it all out. What do all of peoples' efforts mean?
As a person, Solomon's message to us invites us to look at our lives and ask what they mean. Will a legacy tied to a building, eventually be torn down and forgotten? Or perhaps have we had an impact in people's lives that will continue to affect their progeny down through history? He advises, when you are prosperous, or when you have adversity, give your situation serious consideration, but don't drive yourself nuts by trying to figure out God's motives or by being overly religious. Enjoy your work, eat, drink, and enjoy these. Or more succinctly, keep on keeping on and be happy. Solomon, the admired King, the man of power, the wise person, advises us to enjoy life, but consider what is really important.
Jonah was a prophet, in the book named after himself. Jonah looked at his role as spokesman for God and said as a person, you know what? Being a prophet stinks. I go tell people that God is going to destroy them if they don't change. They change, so God doesn't destroy them, and it makes look like a liar - I'm completely invalidated. Who needs this? I want to call down fire and brimstone - scorched earth. So in a very human move, Jonah ran in the other direction, got on a ship, and fled the country. Eventually he realized he had to continue his work. Jonah sends us an important message. Yes, the work of people who follow God can be complex, difficult, and unrewarding (as illustrated in the Joan Of Arcadia television series. Excellent series, by the way.) Jonah invites us to look closely at God's real purpose in delivering his message, and then to look less at ourselves and our own hardships, and look more at the real impact we can have in others' lives.
We don't know that any of these stories were actually written by the individuals whom they portray. For example, King Solomon may have recorded some of his musings, and then others added to it "in the tradition of Solomon." All of the preceding stories were likely recorded for a purpose. But they are more from the peoples' perspective than other stories. Without the influence of Ruth on the foreign king, the Israelites in his land would have been killed by one of his trusted men. We learn that God is a real power for influence and change in peoples' lives, whether they are a foreign king or the person next door, and he works through other people who follow God. Be good to all other people - don't isolate yourselves - it generates hatred. Don't strain over the incongruities of religion, but enjoy life and try to understand what is really important.
The God of Christ
What, then, does the Christian Bible (Old Testament plus New Testament) emphasize? Christ refused to acknowledge any role of religion in government, and he hardly recognized any religious authority. Christ crossed the boundaries that divide people from each other, talking to women (men were not supposed to talk with women), he went to the hated Samaritans who were not considered Jews, to the hated tax collectors who were considered to be thieves, to the despised Romans who governed their land, to the sick who were considered being punished for their sins, and even to those who were considered to be living lives that offended God and man. Mercy and forgiveness traveled in the footsteps of Christ - his was a healing and reconciling ministry.
Christ changed our view of The Law. He didn't negate it, but fulfilled it, giving us a new perspective on it. Love mediates The Law. For example, Christ asked us to look at the meaning for the Sabbath, not at the rules surrounding it. He asked us to look at the purpose of sacrifice and worship, not at the money that came from it. He set people free. Christ asked us to look deeply at religion and understand. He asked us to look at others without bias, regardless of who they are and what they have done, and include them.
Some look cynically at the messages from the past, and declare them worthless. In a telling way illustrating that most of the world has not understood what must be "secret" messages, only in the last century has a significant amount of the world changed their thinking that it is acceptable for one nation to go to war with another to take their land, killing everyone in sight - especially if they are of different religions. The Emperor Constantine and Roman Catholicism repeated many of the mistakes of Ancient Israel, before Roman Catholicism abandoned these attitudes and roles. Today, some people would still make an authoritative God of state, and a ruling priesthood. Some would make tribal gods that make war on other people and promise prosperity. Some would make prophets that use the hammer of doom.
It is up to us to try these messages in the fire of experience and consistency with the overall message of scripture, and understand the clear message from all of these perspectives on God's relationship with people.
In this short treatise expanding on what God is about (ontology, core), we can see that there are various perspectives from which to view God. The experience of each view leaves a message. For example, if you ask if God is a God of warfare, you see the counterpoint in Israel's history that Israel's first king, King David, was a man of battle, and he was not allowed to build a temple that represented God. What does this say about Israel's past? David's son, Solomon, a wise man of peace was allowed to build the Temple. The symbol has a clear message. Christ, coming as a representative of God, did not come as a military person of war or as someone influential with the government and priests, but came as a man of peace with a message of hope for all people. These things speak to what God is about.
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