Thursday, December 14, 2017

Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Exodus 15:11 "He is not, in his characteristic way, by himself. He is for others."

In that video I recently posted of someone reading from David Bentley Hart, he discussed the absolute uniqueness of the one God of monotheism, the Creator of the Universe and how God (capital G, God) is totally unlike the many pagan gods who, even in the theogonies and pantheons of paganism are more like angels or demi-gods who are created and who have their ends and who are of the Universe and not the eternal Creator of the universe.  He noted that even many, officially polytheistic religions, including some forms of Hinduism, there is a similar figure who is above all of the local and minor figures of deity.   It's something I heard a priest and scholar of Vodun say about that much misunderstood religion, that there is the Bondye who he said is identical to the Jewish-Christian-Islamic God.  So all the snarky cracks about Christians being atheists in regard to Zeus are pretty clueless.

This impromptu Advent series I'm doing of excerpts from The Bible Makes Sense could easily lead to me just typing the whole thing onto my blog because, as I've been typing the book out, all of it is so interesting and provocative.  I'm sorely tempted to go on with what I posted about food and its centrality to the entire tradition,  posting the entire chapter.  But I will encourage you to read the book and to do the exercises in contemplating passages listed for consideration, reading Brueggemann's notes on those an asking yourself the questions he poses for thought, some of which I have had a very hard time doing.  If you use the book as a curriculum for study, it is a lot more challenging than you might at first suspect, but, then, he said at the start of it that the Bible isn't an easy book to approach or to use because it asks us to step outside of our day-to-day pragmatic, self-centered thinking all the way to questions of ultimate meaning.

In Chapter Four, which I'll concentrate on for the next few days, he gets to the heart of those questions.

4   The Center of the Odd Perspective of the Bible – God

There are many peculiar characteristics of the Bible which do not fit our conventional notions about religion.  Sometimes these peculiar features are an embarrassment to us,  but they are also precious to us  The most important peculiarity – hardest to understand, most precious to us – is not about literature or culture or history.  It is not about the strange customs of people or the strange turns of political history  Rather it is about God

The God of the Bible is the strangest thing about the whole Bible.  He* is the only one of his kind.  In all the history of religion, there is no other like him.  And that is hard to understand.  So the people who dealt with him in the Bible always wanted to relate to him as though he were like all other notions of God.  And in every time, even ours, we are tempted to force him into other categories as though he belongs to a species of similar agents.

But he is not like any other.  And his strangeness is in this  He is with his people  He is for his people   His goodness is not in his great transcendental power nor in his majestic remoteness nor in his demanding toughness but in his readiness to be with and for his people.  And his being with and for is not a matter of bribery or deception or intimidation.  He simply wills it so.  He is not, in his characteristic way,  by himself.  He is for others.  

As we suggested earlier,  a central theme of the Bible is covenant,  the notion of making commitments and keeping them,  of making promises and fulfilling them.  This theme emerges as central in the Bible because God revealed himself as a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God+.  That is who he is.  That is how he meets Israel and relates to the Church.  That is how he relates to his creation as a faithful covenant-keeper.  That is how he defines our world for us as a process of covenant-making and covenant-keeping.  And that is the good news of the gospel,  that he is faithful to his covenanting. 

In the Old Testament we may observe four dimensions of God as the covenant-maker who gives his people the strength and joy of life in covenant.

+  In the Hebrew Bible,  the Name by which God describes himself to Moses on Mt. Sainai is written YHWH..  The Jerome Biblical Commentary sums up a long discussion of the meaning and use of this Name by saying that it is “the Israelite name for God by which the association of Yahweh and Israel is mutually accepted and proclaimed” (p 738).  The more than twenty-five hundred year-old reverential custom of substituting the word “Lord” for the sacred Name YHWH is followed in this book  

The practice of modern Biblical scholars to add credibility to passages from the Gospels for judging their authenticity of giving unexpected, even embarrassingly counter-cultural content strikes me as probably a good idea.  If someone has to include something even if they know they'll get heat from it because they believe it, perhaps even contrary to what they'd be expected to like,  it's probably not included for personal edification.  The very strangeness of the Hebrew conception of God, the often contrary acts attributed to that God - such as when they haul the Arc of the Covenant into battle to claim God is on their side and he lets them not only lose the battle but lets the Philistines take the sacred Arc in their loss - tends to be convincing to me.  But no where near as convincing as the commandments to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, to visit the prisoner, etc.

More tomorrow.

* One thing to note in this, at least for me, is that the book was written 40 years ago, before the inclusive language movement had taken much.   Of course God is not a man, or a male (or a straight-white, man, to fit in with my theme of the day) and it is the lack of unsexed nouns and pronoun in languages that deprives us of something we can use that is better than "he".  There was a proposal by the always interesting Claude Piron for Esperanto to adopt a God specific pronoun  that would have fixed that.  My translation.

Ne estas facile klarigi tion, ĉar Dio estas trans ĉio, al kio taugas homaj vortoj kaj konceptoj. Jam la kutimaj pronomoj ne taugas, pro tio, ke Dio estas nek "Li", nek "li", nek "ŝi", nek "ĝi". Tial mi uzos la pronomon "di", neologismon, kiu laŭ mi estas la sola akceptebla. Kio sekvos, tio montras, ne tion, kio Dio estas, sed kion (kiun) mi perceptis, renkontis, ekkonis.

It isn't easy to clarify this, because God (Dio) is beyond everything, to what fits into human words and concepts.  So the usual pronouns don't work, from that, that God isn't “He” (Li) nor “he” (li) nor she (ŝi) nor it (ĝi).   For that reason I use the pronoun “di” a neologism, for me that is the only acceptable alternative  That follows that show, not that, what God is, but what I perceive, recall and realize. 

 Having something like that in English would make typing these passages out easier to our 40 years progression towards equality.  The God of Moses if not that of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah as well as their children, is certainly best referred to by pronouns and words specific to God. not human beings and not with reference to biological gender.  We just don't have those in English, yet.

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