Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yahweh and the Satan

I am continuing to teach on the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, and this week in class we were looking at the fascinating book of Job. The titular character is a righteous man — that is, he is habitually committed to acting justly — who suffers great loss. He has some amazing friends, who come and weep and sit in silence with him for seven days and seven nights, before together they try to make sense of his experience. But their perspective is limited. The one listening to the story, however, is aware of noises off stage, in the wings. We are introduced to Yahweh and a host of heavenly beings, including the Satan, or Accuser. Whereas Yahweh is presented as taking delight in his creation — from Job, to the ostrich flapping its wings though it will never fly — the Satan is presented as a vindictive trouble-maker. Why on earth does Yahweh even draw Satan’s attention back to Job, a man Satan appears to have considered untouchable until now? Perhaps it speaks of Yahweh’s love for both; a holding-out to the hope that even this rebellious son might repent, with the help of a trustworthy role-model [1].

In chapter 3, Job gives voice to raw anguish, even suicidal thoughts [2]. In the following chapter, his friend Eliphaz responds. In the manner in which he responds, we get insight into his own fear of what might befall without (the semblance of) order. Eliphaz falls for the temptation to both blame the victim for their misfortune and to attempt to problem-solve for his friend. The former takes a negative stance, and the latter a positive stance; but both are misplaced. As he continues, Eliphaz recounts a night-time visitation, from a spirit who calls into question the goodness of both mortals and their Maker (Job 4:12-21). Eliphaz believes that he has seen, and heard, and given voice to Yahweh; but these accusative words insinuated into his sleep surely belong to the Satan?

In chapter 7, Job speaks again. He uses words David will also use, in Psalm 8 (and others in Psalm 139), but to opposite effect. David is amazed and comforted that Yahweh should be so interested in human beings; whereas Job is deeply discomforted by that same attention. What accounts for the difference? Certainly, circumstance might. But one member of the class brought this insight: if Eliphaz wrongly attributes the voice of Satan to Yahweh in chapter 4, has Job not also wrongly attributed the attentions of the Satan to Yahweh here — in contrast to David rightly attributing good attention to Yahweh?

Throughout the Old Testament, good and evil are attributed to God. Certainly, good and evil exist in the world. In Genesis chapter 2, God prohibits the humans from eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but in chapter 3, the serpent claims that this is because God does not want them to be like him, experientially both good and evil. That is to say, God recognises both good and evil in creation, but it is from the mouth of the serpent that the idea originates that God is both good and evil. And in this belief, the humans are deceived. Nonetheless, very consistently in the record of Old Testament scripture, both good and evil are presented as coming from the hand of God. There is, as yet, no clear distinction between Yahweh, from whose hand comes good, and a rebellious element in creation from whose hand comes evil. Therefore, it is no surprise that Eliphaz and Job alike should struggle to differentiate Yahweh from Satan, even though as a story as a whole the book of Job presents us with the Old Testament’s clearest differentiation, between a violent Satan and a Yahweh who opposes him — but refuses to play by the same rules, to overpower with a display of force.

But this changes with Jesus, and his followers. First, Jesus makes a very clear differentiation between himself, as the Son of the Father, who comes in order that humanity might experience life — and, indeed, will lay down his own life, if need be, for this to happen — and the Satan, who comes only and always to steal, kill, and destroy. Second, Jesus moves from resisting the temptations of the Satan to actively driving the unclean or demonic spirits back. They are forced to obey his exercising of Yahweh’s sovereignty, which always operates to bring life and freedom. That is to say, in the New Testament there is both fuller revelation that God is not the One from whom evil comes, and fuller revelation that God is actively opposed to evil in all of its manifestations.

This also ties in with how we understand ‘the fear of the Lord’. Jesus tells his disciples that, rather than fearing those people who can kill them, they should fear him, or the one, who, having killed them, can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5). The one of whom he speaks is routinely assumed to be God. But Jesus does not say, ‘Fear God, who, having killed you, can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ He says, ‘fear the one who…’ Who kills and destroys? Not God, but the Satan. We are not to fear God, but to fear with God, to fear that which God fears — evil and death, and the carnage they create in God’s good creation — and to respond as God responds.

This has significant implications for how we read the Bible. Where destruction is attributed to God, we need to ask, in the light of Jesus, whether in fact this is wrongly attributed? Asking such questions may be deeply unsettling for some; but to do so is not to reject Scripture, or to leave us without any confidence: rather, it is to recognise that we cannot simply read Scripture at face-value. Jesus himself told his contemporaries that they studied Scripture diligently, confident that by so doing they would be saved, yet failed to recognise him and the God whom he represented. Moreover, within minutes Jesus tells Peter that he has had a genuine revelation from the Father and has embraced and given voice to the opposing kingdom of the ruler of this world — and has not realised. If that is true of Peter, why not of others, such as the psalmists who praise God and curse their neighbour with the very next breath?

Over the past days, I have been wrestling with the concept of fearing God. Certainly, we are presented with this idea in Scripture. Psalm 103, for example, repeatedly states that God show mercy to those who fear him (103:11, 13, 17). Mary, told by the angel sent by God ‘Do not be afraid’, even takes up this theme in her own song (Luke 1:50). The root of this holding-on to Yahweh’s mercy is his own self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. God makes no condition here of our needing to fear him. However, such fear accrues itself to God where we are shaped by centuries of not being to differentiate between the voice of God and the Satan; thus needing to be met, repeatedly, with the promise of mercy.

When Yahweh finally does speak (Job 38-42), having listened to Job and his friends talk at great length, listening to understand their pain and ‘where they are coming from’, it is not to answer their questions but to meet the longing of the heart to know God more fully than before. Yahweh confesses to love and care deeply for creation, to be captivated by it, to love even rebellious creatures in the hope that they might come to know peace and return that love. For perfect love drives out fear. And God is love. Little children, do not be afraid of our loving Father.

[1] Certainly, from a Christian perspective, Job is an archetype for Jesus, the innocent man whom God allows to experience suffering, but then vindicates.

[2] This resonates deeply with our own context, and how we respond matters greatly. For some, the problem of pain may be a factor in keeping them from engaging with the church, but, I would contend that how we respond to suffering is a far greater factor in people who have been actively involved in our congregations leaving church. I am training ordinands, who, as clergy, will be the public face of the church, and Readers, who will share responsibility for how local congregations engage with the Bible. This is why I am passionate about these texts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The fear of the Lord

With September comes the start of a new academic year. This term, I am again teaching on the ‘Wisdom Literature’ of the Old Testament, as an investment in women and men who have, among other things, been called to help local communities grow together in wisdom.

There is a recurring phrase in the Bible — focused on, but not restricted to, the Wisdom Literature — that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is almost always understood as meaning that piety, reverent respect for God, is the prerequisite starting-point if we want to be wise. But that does not make sense, grammatically, or theologically.

It does not make sense grammatically, because the fear of the Lord is a construct pair of nouns, and these follow a rule that the ‘construct’ (in this case, ‘the fear’) belongs to (‘of’) the ‘absolute’ (in this case, ‘the Lord’). In other words, the fear is the Lord’s, not ours, not our piety or disposition towards the Lord.

Moreover, the traditional interpretation does not make sense theologically, because it makes human beings the origin or source of wisdom; which makes perfect sense from the perspective of humanism, but not from a Christian perspective.

There are many other construct pairs we have no difficulty reading, rightly, as belonging to the Lord: the name of the Lord; the arm of the Lord; the eyes of the Lord; the word of the Lord [1]; the spirit of the Lord; the angel of the Lord; the mountain of the Lord…but we baulk at the fear of the Lord, because it stretches us too far.

There is debate as to how best to understand the Hebrew word translated ‘fear’. We slip and slide around it, not least depending on the context in which we find it. Some argue for reverence or awe while others argue for gut-wrenching fear in the ‘plain’ sense of being afraid. Neither seem appropriate for God: of whom would the King of the Universe stand in awe? Of whom or what would he be afraid? Yet I would suggest that both make sense.

There is a school of thought in biblical interpretation that says that, where a word might be understood in two ways, we ought to hold both in creative tension. If we go with awe, we might understand the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom as telling us that the source of all wisdom is the reverence with which the Creator holds creation; the awe God experiences in watching how everything unfolds in response to the divine command ‘Let there be…’ or, to paraphrase, ‘Go, explore!’ This would fit well with the Lord’s extended speech on the theme of creation, from divine and human perspectives, in response to Job. It would also fit with the spontaneous speech of Lady Wisdom on creation in Proverbs 8. In this sense, we grow in wisdom when we enter-into what God has already initiated, flowing not from human posture but divine posture. In this sense, we might work back from creation to Creator, and discover that awe for God is not the beginning for human wisdom, but the end, the goal.

But there is another school of thought in biblical interpretation that says that, where a word might be understood in two ways, we should go with the harder saying, the one that stretches us more. And if the idea that God has awe for creation is stretching enough, the idea that God might experience fear is even stretchier. We don’t like the idea that God might experience fear. After all, if God is afraid, how can God rescue us when we are afraid? On the other hand, in what sense is a God who cannot identify with the human experience of being afraid good news?

As we look at the references to the fear of the Lord in context, we discover that the Lord experiences fear in relation to two things in particular: evil (expressed in a variety of ways, including injustice), and death. Why would the Lord fear evil and death? Because of the carnage they cause in the world, and to the people to whom God is a parent, both father and mother [2]. What is striking is the Lord’s response to experiencing fear: not cringing or cowering or trying to secure a compromise agreement, but wisdom — that is, concrete instruction in concrete justice. Not lashing out but reaching out; calling people into partnership in standing against evil. This is seen in the torah and the prophets, in the interpretation of the Wisdom Literature, and, ultimately — for Christians — it is embodied in the person of Jesus. And any Christian who thinks that God cannot be afraid of evil and death needs to square what it means to believe that God is fully revealed in the man Jesus who cried out in the garden of betrayal and from the cross of execution (and who taught his disciples to pray that they be delivered from evil). God knows fear first hand: and, at the right time, moves towards that of which he is afraid [3], trusting that it will not have the final word. This is, as the New Testament describes it, the wisdom of God, foolishness from a worldly perspective.

Perhaps it is time to meet, and learn from, God who knows both awe and fear?

[1] Right about here, you see the penny drop, and the lights go on behind students’ eyes. It is a moment that teachers live for.

[2] Indeed, this entirely reasonable parental fear of what could happen to their daughter or son is, in my pastoral experience, a recurring motivation in parents bringing their children to be christened. If we can embrace the idea that God experiences fear, we can say to such parents, God shares your fears of what can happen, and so God has given wisdom and calls us to choose life: this ritual is not a magic talisman to ward off evil, but a commitment — between God, the church community, the parents and god-parents — to shaping the world for the good, for justice.

[3] Not every time is the right time to move towards evil and death. There are times Jesus moves away, evades them, just as some of the records of the fear of the Lord in the Old Testament speak of avoiding evil while others speak of extending justice.