Thursday, July 06, 2023

Of gods and men


TL:DR God consistently delivers us from evil

Today the Lectionary (a reading scheme that helps us to read through the Bible) presents us with the challenging account in which God appears to instruct Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). What kind of God demands such an evil thing, or plays such cruel psychological games? How we approach this text matters, because there are many people today who look at the state of the world and say, ‘Your God is either impotent or a monster.’

It needs to be noted that the Bible does not speak with one voice but offers a record of diverse communities encountering God. There is a (dominating) thread that emphases God’s greatness, to the point of making God the lone actor. This leads some to claim that God’s will is behind everything that happens, however monstrous it seems, and it seems monstrous because we do not fully understand the good God is bringing about through evil. There is another (subversive, counter) thread that sees gods (created beings also known as angels, demons) and humans as having been given agency, and needing to learn good from evil, where good is demonstrated and defined by God’s actions.

We should also note that ‘God’ is referred to by different names. The Lord God has a personal name, Yahweh. But there is also a generic term for God, or god, Elohim. Elohim is a plural word. Those who emphasise God’s greatness view that as a superlative term, akin to ‘the royal “We”’ (some see it as pointing towards a trinitarian view of God). But a plural ‘gods’ also makes sense as a collective description of the lesser—small g—gods.

So, tracing the different words for God, we read that Yahweh is grieved at the breakdown of human relationships; that in response the Elohim cause a devastating flood; and that Yahweh, rejecting this course of action, rescues Noah, his family, and life on earth. Likewise, we read that the Elohim demand that Abraham sacrifices his son, and Yahweh comes to his rescue. This is what Yahweh does, again and again. As the stories unfold, we will see stand offs between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt, of Canaan, of Babylon, of Greece, who are among many Elohim who are named or otherwise identified in the Bible. Dealing with evil matters, deeply, but Yahweh deals with it not by destruction but by rescue, by restorative justice—by love, in practical and at times costly action—and by patient instruction in wisdom, in a better way.

There is a recurring phrase in Genesis 22:1-19 that has to do with being seen. Abraham’s recurring response when addressed by the Elohim, by his son Isaac, and by the angel sent by Yahweh is ‘Behold me!’ When the angel sent by Yahweh intervenes to save Isaac, Abraham beholds a ram caught in a thicket, and sacrifices it to Yahweh instead of Isaac to the Elohim. Abraham proclaims that Yawheh is the God who beholds him (this is the root of the word ‘to provide,’ which is why translators tend to go with ‘Yahweh provides’ or ‘Yahweh, my Provider’).

There are ‘powers and principalities,’ set against the Lord God and determined to destroy God’s good creation, and most of all humanity, the crown of that good creation. They do not prevail, do not have the final say, do not determine the enduring reality. Nonetheless, their actions do cause real harm. We see this all around us. The gods of Money, of Nationalism, of Partisan Politics, the many gods who provoke us to destroy one another, including those we love. And again and again, the Lord God moves to rescue, most fully demonstrating intent and power in raising Jesus, put to death by the gods of Religiosity and Empire, from death to life, and peaceably toppling the might of Rome (wisdom later forsaken and regularly needing to be relearnt).

So, where do you experience the influence of the gods—which might be outright hostility, or simply rash lack of wisdom? Are you provoked by the god of Money, to sacrifice your family in pursuit of security for that family? Are you provoked by the god of Racism to sacrifice already deeply traumatised men, women, and children, for fear that you will lose whatever it is that you possess (or possesses you)? There is a God who sees you, who sees your fears, who sees the ‘you’ you simultaneously hide and long to be seen—and who, seeing you, moves to rescue you. To provide. The record testifies that this God is neither impotent nor a monster, but the Love you long for.