God In History

The story of God in scripture is one of active and dynamic involvement in history. It is also one of continuous change and progression, both in the relationship between God and humanity and in our understanding of God.

One of the themes I’ve been paying attention to recently in my study of scripture is the way that the relationship between God and humanity changes over time. Both the way we understand God and the way we relate to God. I’m enough of a classical theist to think that there is an aspect to God, probably a very significant aspect, that is constant relative to time. And I say relative to time to admit the possibility, very likely in my view, that these unchanging aspects subsist beyond time, beyond our temporal frame. That being said it’s certainly the case that we experience time and that the relation between us and God and the way we understand God can be different at different times. This is something that the process theologian Charles Hartshorne called attention to in his book Divine Relativity and I also think it’s a comfortably Biblical concept.

There are a few things that motivate my interest in this recently. One is my readings of Hegel that I talked about in my previous episode. Another is my conversation with Alex in the “Conversations Across the Divide of Religious Belief and Unbelief” episode. We talked about progression, both personal and communal, particularly of a religious community. In the Latter-day Saint religion we have this expectation that knowledge progresses, it’s actually something that’s literally an article of faith. And there’s admittedly a tension there, a kind of paradox like those Terryl Givens in his book People of Paradox sees at the heart of Latter-day Saint religious and cultural life. Arguably a productive tension, hopefully much of the time. And it’s not just the Latter-day Saint religion where we see this but I think it’s a good example. We get used to the way things are and the way we understand things, even as we know, at least in principle, that we don’t have the fullness and that there will be change and growth.

I think it’s also important say first that the way we understand things at a later time shouldn’t be a position from which to look down on the ways things were understood at prior times. At least not with any form of malice or contempt, or condescension really. That’s a hard position to strike but I think it should be an aspiration anyway. One of the things that bothers me about theories of religious progress that we see in the nineteenth century in folks like Hegel and in higher criticism with Julius Wellhausen is some unfair treatment of Judaism. I’ve read that some of the higher criticism sort of cast Judaism as a more primitive and unpolished stage of religious development prior to Christianity and I don’t care for that take. And one rebuttal I’d make to that is that Judaism has evolved as well. Quite significantly. It’s not like Jewish thought has remained stagnant for the past two millennia while Christian thought has been evolving. Far from it. In fact I pull a lot of ideas from the great leap in creativity and imagination in Jewish thought from the nineteenth century onward, as in the Jewish Haskalah (השכלה), or Jewish Enlightenment. So when I refer to new perspectives on things that we get from the New Testament scriptures I don’t mean to subordinate Judaism, or the Hebrew Bible for that matter.

So I’ll just rattle off a few examples that I’ve noticed as I’ve been thumbing through the scriptures. One major example is with Moses. Moses is definitely one of these big transition points in scriptures where there is some major development. Certainly the giving of the Law is a major event in Biblical history. Clearly this is something that wasn’t there before and now this group of people is being given. God is establishing a covenant with the people of Israel with a level of detail that wasn’t there before. They are being expected to do things that weren’t expected before, or to not do things that weren’t prohibited before, at least not explicitly. One passage I really like the indicates nicely that Moses is someone special, someone privileged in a notable and new way is in Exodus 6:3 where God tells Moses that he is on what we could call a first-name basis with God in a way that prophets before him where not.

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נֹודַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

“And I appeared unto Abraham unto Isaac and unto Jacob by the name of God Almighty, in Hebrew El Shaddai (אֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י), but by my name YHWH was I not known to them.” So God did not reveal his actual name, YHWH, sometimes said as “Jehovah” in English, he did not reveal his actual to the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He used a more generic title “El Shaddai” or “God Almighty”, el just being the Hebrew word for a god, lower case g. And the name he reveals is arguably more transcendent and ultimate, the God, upper case G, beyond any particular tribal gods, lower case g. There’s some debate about the philology but I’m inclined to agree with Frank Moore Cross who argued in his book Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic that the name YHWH derives from a Canaanite-Proto-Hebrew verb “to be” in its causative imperfect form. So this name in my mind carries more of an association with existence, being itself, which the phrase I AM THAT I AM (ehyeh asher ehyeh, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה) can also be understood to evoke.

But there were transition points and developments prior to Moses and the giving of the Law. Another major transition point was the Flood and the institution of what is sometimes called the Noachide Law, which in contrast to the Mosaic Law applies to all humanity rather than just the House of Israel. And this is found in Genesis 9:5-6. “And surely your blood of your lives will I require at the hand of every beast will I require it and at the hand of man at the hand of every man’s brother (ish achiv, אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו) will I require the life of man (nephesh ha-adam, נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם). Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God (be-tzelem elohim, בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים) made he man.” So this prohibition against murder is made explicit. Now, arguably it was already implicit. God was none too pleased when Cain killed Abel and seemed to expect that he not have done that. And we could say there was already a natural, unwritten law in effect even before it was codified as positive law. And one reason the Flood was brought in the first place was because of the violence (chamas, חָמָס) of the people. But now it’s really made explicit. No one can pull a George Costanza and say, “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?” It’s definitely verboten. No excuses.

As another very broad comment about development and progress in Genesis I really like an interpretation I heard from Christin Hayes in her Open Yale course on the Hebrew Bible. I’ll quote a section of her lecture from when she’s just finished talking about Jacob and his wrestle with God:

“With Jacob, who is now Israel, God seems perhaps to finally have found the working relationship with humans that he has been seeking since their creation. God learned immediately after creating this unique being, that he will exercise his free will against God. God saw that he had to limit the life span of humans, or risk creating an enemy that was nearly equal to him. So he casts the humans out of the Garden, blocks access to the tree of life. But humans continue their violent and evil ways, and in desperation, God wipes them out, and starts again. This second creation proves to be not much better. They forget God, they turn to idolatry. God has promised at this point, however, not to destroy all humankind again, so he experiments with a single individual of faith. Abraham’s faith withstands many a trial. He is obedient to God in a way that no one has been up to this point in the narrative, but perhaps ultimately the model of blind obedience is rejected, too. When Abraham prepares to slaughter his own son, perhaps God sees that blind faith can be as destructive and evil as disobedience, so God relinquishes his demand for blind obedience: he stops Abraham himself.”

“The only relationship that will work with humans is perhaps one in which there is a balance between unchecked independence and blind obedience, and God seems to find that relationship with Jacob. And the metaphor for that relationship is a metaphor of struggle, or wrestling. Remember Yisrael means ‘one who wrestles, who struggles with God.’ God and humans lock in an eternal struggle, neither prevailing, yet both forever changed by their encounter with one another.”

I think that’s just a lovely interpretation of the story of the Patriarchs in Genesis and there’s a lot there to ponder. It’s a good metaphor for this subject as a whole, of an evolving relationship between God and human-kind.

One more passage from the Hebrew Bible before moving to the New Testament. This one is from Jeremiah 31:31-33. “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant (berit chadashah, בְּרִ֥ית חֲדָשָֽׁה) with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not like the covenant which I made with their fathers… I will put My law (torah, תּוֹרָה) within them and on their heart (leb, לֵב) I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” And this is just one example of many such verses where God is making it clear that something new is coming. He is going to do things differently than he had in the past.

And this is definitely a theme that Christianity picks up on, quite understandably, right? And that verse from Jeremiah is quoted in the New Testament. Things definitely change with Jesus. That’s not at all to deny the continuity, of which there is also plenty. But something new is definitely happening here. So that narrative of change and God acting in history is going to play a role and it will also factor into how Christians understand the Hebrew Bible and the things that have changed from what it says.

In fact I’d say it’s precisely those passages that emphasize continuity that also introduce the ideas of change and progression. The Acts of the Apostles has a lot of this. Missionaries like Peter, Stephen, and Phillip are tying Jesus back to the prophecies and the sweeping narrative of Israel. Paul too, certainly. One of the most notable of these is Stephen’s long speech before the Council as he stands in judgment, just prior to his death. That’s in Acts 7. For about 50 verses he reviews the history of Israel with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph in Egypt. Moses leading the people out of Egypt. Then King Solomon and leading up to the time of Jesus. Phillip, when he runs, literally runs, into an Ethiopian man, what does he find? He finds him reading from Isaiah and he explains the scriptures to him and how they prophesy of Jesus.

καὶ ἀρξάμενος ἀπὸ τῆς γραφῆς ταύτης εὐηγγελίσατο αὐτῷ τὸν Ἰησοῦν.

“And beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him.” (Acts 8:35)

One of my favorite examples, and probably the most sophisticated, of the use of the Hebrew scripture in a narrative of God’s evolving relationship with humanity is in the book of Hebrews. And the book of Hebrews could really have its own episode or several episodes. And, let’s be honest it probably will eventually. That something new and different has taken place and is taking place is stated right at the beginning: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past (pálai, πάλαι) unto the fathers by the prophets (en tois prophétais, ἐν τοῖς προφήταις), Hath in these last days (ep eschátou ton hemerón toúton, ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων) spoken unto us by his Son (en huio, ἐν Υἱῷ), whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” (Hebrew 1:1-4) So, this is how things were done in the times past, but this is how things are being done now, in these last days (ep eschátou ton hemerón toúton, ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων).

And the author of the Hebrews gets into some very deep analysis of the rituals conducted in the tabernacle as outlined in the Torah and emphasizes the way that it prefigures Christ’s sacrifice. So there’s both continuity and transition. For example in Hebrews 10:1, “For the law (nómos, νόμος) having a shadow (skiá, σκιά) of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered each year (kat eniautón, κατ’ ἐνιαυτὸν) continually make the comers thereunto perfect.” So there’s a connection there to the past because the law is a shadow (skiá, σκιά) of what is to come. But one of the big ideas in Hebrews is that the practices of the former covenant had to be done repeatedly, each year (kat eniautón, κατ’ ἐνιαυτὸν). And he argues that this need to repeat the practices is a sign of a certain imperfection in them. They weren’t perfect in a way that the new covenant is. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” (Hebrews 8:7). The way things were done formerly, with the high priest of the tabernacle, prefigures the crowning act of perfect sacrifice accomplished in Christ. But Christ, as the new high priest “needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, when he offered up himself.” (Hebrews 7:27) This perfect sacrifice didn’t need to be repeated as was needed in former times. “Every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:11-12) It’s “one and done”, not to describe it too casually, hopefully. The power of Christ’s sacrifice is thoroughly sufficient for all time. And this fulfills the old law, so that many of the things that were required formally don’t need to be done anymore. I think it’s interesting how Jesus also creates this synthesis of continuity and change in his statement that he doesn’t come to destroy (katalúo, καταλύω) the law but to fulfill it (pleróo, πληρόω). It’s a fascinating distinction. (Matthew 5:17).

Two more big examples are circumcision and dietary laws. Circumcision was the distinguishing mark of God’s covenant with his people. But the Christian church determined that it was not necessary for Gentile converts to be circumcised. This was something Paul had to try to persuade people of continually. And Peter has this remarkable vision in Acts 10 where a voice from Heaven actually bids him to eat unclean animals. And Peter impulsively wants to protest. This goes against everything he’s been taught. This seems foundational to his religious identity. “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common (koinós, κοινός) or unclean (akáthartos, ἀκάθαρτος).” (Acts 10:14) And the voice says to him, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common (koinós, κοινός).” (Acts 10:15). It’s indicated here that God has done something that has changed the situation on the ground. And because of God’s actions in history these basic aspects to Peter’s religious identity are going to shift. It’s a fascinating and radical portrayal of process and development.

So what do we make of all this? Well if I’m putting together all these data points and seeing a trend line rather than a flat line it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that change and process are part of reality and the way God works in history. It seems reasonable to expect that the way things are now in God’s relation to us and the way we understand God now are not necessarily going to be the way things are in the future. Change is likely. And it’s probably a good idea to expect that. Not that we can ever be ready for the unknown since it is, well unknown. But we can at least condition ourselves to be open to change and revelation.

Conversations Across the Divide of Religious Belief and Unbelief

Can religious people and people who have left a religion talk about it together? Alex and Todd sit down for a frank conversation about religion. Todd is a Christian and practicing Latter-day Saint. Alex has left the LDS (Mormon) church. We talk about the difficult and often uncomfortable challenges of bridging this divide.