Monday, November 25, 2013

God's Story: Which God? [2]

I did some google searches a moment ago. I typed “who is god?” and got 1.25 Billion results in .25 seconds. I also searched “What does god want?” and got 1.35 Billion results in .39 seconds. I doubt there is enough time remaining in my life to read the results from just one of those searches – let alone both – even if I did nothing but read them. This reality can pose a variety of interesting questions. Yet I will focus on one; where would people have found the answer to those questions BG (before google)?

I realize there are many answers to the question. However, for our current purpose, we will stick with one source – the Bible. While this may seem like a “no-brainer” answer, it is surprising how many people have formed a view of God that is not based on the Bible – and this goes for both Christians and those who are not Christians. The outcome of this practice is not good.

So, last time I encouraged you to read Genesis 1:1-2:3 as “act one” and Genesis 2:4-3:24 as “act two.” Simply stated, “act one” shows us a god created; “act two” shows us which God created and what this God desires. This can also be stated as “act one” shows us creation in broad brushstrokes (like for a painting), while “act two” focuses in on certain aspects of those brushstrokes (like day six and events sometime after it). In other words, these are not competing creation accounts; they are complementary vantage points of the same creative act. 

In act one a generic word for god (or God as it is in the Bible) is used. This is why I said “a god” in the above paragraph. There were lots of gods in the ancient world…just as there are today (we just do not call them gods – but that is another issue). An assertion that a god created would not have been earth shattering in the ancient world. The real question would be which god(s) actually did it. And as you can guess, this would be answered by whose creation story you were reading. Yet there are still some striking elements to act one in Genesis that clue the reader (or hearer) in a bit that something is different.

In other words, the somewhat generic creation story in act one still makes some startling claims. An example is on day four. In the text, when the sun and the moon are created, they are called “the greater light” and the “lesser light” (Gen1:16). This is significant as both the sun and the moon were viewed as gods in many cultures – particularly in Egypt.[i] In other words, the Bible begins by telling of a god who created everything, even what others claim to be gods. Huh, that is interesting. 

Now, some may be bothered by my use of the lower case “g” in god. There is a reason for this, and it becomes clear as we swiftly move into “act two.” In act two, the account that looks at certain aspects of the broad brushstrokes of act one, there is a shift from god to the LORD God (YHWH God from here on in the blog; YHWH = The LORD). This shift is huge as YHWH was the personal, covenant name of the God of the Bible. In other words, while act one makes some startling claims, act two becomes even more alarming as the Hebrew people learn it is their covenant God – YHWH God – who made everything.

And now, for literary purposes, I will get a bit Jewish on you. In act one god is mentioned 35 times. This may sound insignificant, but numbers were very important to Jewish people (they are for us too – but in terms of $$$). Jewish people (and other ancient cultures) were often more interested in the “weight” of a number rather than the number’s “measure”. In other words, certain numbers were significant, because of their weight, and at times this was the focus rather than the actual numeric value we view as important (and let us not forget that numbers “weigh” for us too – e.g., 13, or 9/11).

The number seven was one of their numbers for completion; using god 35 times in act one is a complete number multiplied (7 * 5). There are other phrases and words in act one which have numeric weight to them, but alas, we will move on. The point here is what happens when we shift to act two. In act two, YHWH God is used 20 times (10 is another number of completion in Jewish thinking). Interestingly, the generic word for god appears in act two as well. However, it only occurs four times (yes, a number for completion…often attached to the earth; e.g., think of four directions)…but what is astounding is where these four occurrences are in act two.

If you do not remember from reading it, they all occur in Genes 3:1-5. These are the verses where the serpent comes to Eve (and Adam) and asks, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen3:1). Make no mistake about it, this is huge. The serpent, already introduced as crafty, does not give the God of the Bible His full due. The words of the narrative (story) shift in his mouth from YHWH God to god. In other words, from the personal, covenant God to a distant, non-caring god… 

Even more shocking, Eve reciprocates and does not correct the serpent. Eve says, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said…” Note, she did not say “‘YHWH God’ said.” This reality is not some minor bit of trivia…this is huge.

How huge it is we will look at a bit more next time. Yet you can be thinking of misrepresentations of the God of the Bible in the meantime. Until then (hopefully tomorrow), try reading out loud – or better yet have someone read to you – act two and see what you notice around the time the serpent enters the picture.

While there is major difficulty in act two…it is not all downhill from here. After all, this is God’s Story.

[i]  Christian tradition holds that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, which would place them sometime after the departure from Egypt (the exodus). This is a significant point as a) we should not read Genesis as a “reporting on the go” type of document like the news of our day...or like a scientific explanation of the world, and b) it points strongly to Genesis being a “polemic” (a verbal attack on something) on the worldview the Hebrew people had been living among for over 400 years. 

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