Chapter three of Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion explores the Old Testament view of God and the way this view differed from other ancient Near Eastern views and indeed other views past and present around the world. This is a foundation on which our understanding of Christian faith rests, expanded by an understanding of Jesus as God’s Messiah … but that comes later.
The ancient Near Eastern culture saw a pantheon or board of Gods, not unlike humans who used the world as something of a sporting field as they fought among themselves, subject to normal vices of greed, power, and sex. There are chaotic battling deities with mankind in the middle. Provan points out how the biblical view, the view held by the biblical authors, is very different. He makes several major points.
God is One. There are no other gods in the heavens, no other gods on earth, no other gods under the earth. The creation story in Genesis 1 does not regard creation as sharing in divinity. The world is entirely attributed to God as creator. The same view is echoed throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms and in the Prophets. Psalm 139:7-8 “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
Biblical faith leaves polytheism behind. God is One and not many … There is something of a divine assembly still apparent in some Old Testament texts … The divine assembly is not made up of gods, however, and its members are not given any real authority or jurisdiction in the cosmos. They are merely God’s advisors, referred to elsewhere in the tradition as “angels,” who can be sent from time to time on errands on God’s behalf. (p. 53)
God has no point of origin within the cosmos. God does not arise from a pre-existing thing. In most if not all of the origins stories of the ancient Near East and other areas of the world the original deity emerges out of the cosmos.
Throughout the ancient Near East, deity was thoroughly integrated into the cosmos. All the gods had origins within the cosmos, and the primeval waters were an important (sometimes the ultimate) point of divine origin. The Egyptian text Ritual of Amun illustrates this well. Here, the first god arises out of the waters, separates himself from them, and then further divides internally into the “many.” (p. 53)
This is an important point, and one I hadn’t fully appreciated before reading this chapter by Provan. It fits with the set of origin stories I have read, including the Mesopotamian epics.
God is sovereign over creation. Again when we turn to the ancient Near Eastern culture, their gods were not really sovereign over the cosmos. They operated in specific spheres, within the constraints imposed by the nature of the cosmos as the ancient audience understood it. The biblical God is not a manager, but the creator of all.
God is incomparable. The biblical authors did not see God as continuous with the other gods of the region. He was not merely their tribal god, but the one and only sovereign God. Isaiah 40 gives a taste. I can’t quote the full chapter but this gives a taste (18-20; 25-26):
With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.
“To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
The God of the bible is not like the gods of the neighboring peoples and not like humans either. The gods of the surrounding cultures were actually very human.
Like human beings, they had daily routines. They also possessed human-like inclinations, desires, and needs, and a human-like psyche and anatomy, which included the physical equipment for sex and childbearing. They experienced the whole range of human emotions, and they suffered their own particular limitations. They were certainly not morally superior to human beings. The gods were thus conceived as very much “like us,” albeit on a grander scale—much as a king must have appeared to his subjects in the ancient world. (p. 57)
The God of the Old Testament is not human. He neither sleeps nor slumbers, he knows no shame or fear. He is, in fact, morally superior to humans.
God Blesses Creation. God blesses creation, calling it good in Genesis 1. The blessing is ongoing and encompasses all of creation including humans. The blessing of Aaron in Numbers 6:24-26, a passage I grew up hearing often, expresses this idea of blessing.
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace.
God is a God of love, faithfulness and deliverance. God is a characterized by steadfast love given by the word khesed … this is a devoted and loyal love. Faithfulness and deliverance go along love and blessing. God delivered Israel from captivity in Egypt and continues to deliver his people. God is also for us, his people.
God is a holy God. Within the Bible, “the holiness of God is God’s pure goodness casting light into the dark places of human life.” (p. 66) God is not only holy, his holiness is generally associated with the idea of salvation and atonement. He comes to his people with means of overcoming the guilt and sin. This is the sacrificial system or the live coal of Isaiah 6:6. “God’s holiness is not characteristically dangerous, because of God’s love and compassion for all of his creatures.” (p. 67)
God is an angry God. This is an interesting section. God is angry for reasons, and these reasons ensure that ultimately justice will win. The guilty will not go unpunished. God’s anger is slow and he relents, operating in a pursuit of both justice and mercy. This is a theme that runs through the prophets from end to end. He is a jealous God – that is, he is intolerant of rivals. Idolatry and unfaithfulness run through the story of Israel. This is not something to be brushed under the rug or taken lightly. God cannot take idolatry lightly.
Provan digs into the Joshua narrative a bit in this section, not in a way I find satisfactory. The conquest of Canaan reflects a delayed punishment for the sins of the Canaanites.
The Joshua narratives concern, precisely, the long-overdue judgment of a patient and merciful God on “jubilant” but corrupt human culture. … They are driven out of the land (to the extent that they are driven out) because they are wicked—just as the Israelites themselves are later driven out of the same land, for the same reason. The Joshua narratives are, in the end, one kind of answer to the question of Psalm 94 (“how long?”)—a persistent, biblical question. How long will injustice be allowed to stalk the earth; how long will the cries of the oppressed go unheard? (p. 71)
I don’t think that the anger, holiness, and justice of God actually explain the conquest of Canaan or a total obliteration of populations. I don’t have an answer – just an observation that this doesn’t really seem to be the answer. God is a jealous God, deeply concerned with justice. But we need to look elsewhere to come to grips with Joshua and the warfare of the Old Testament.
God is merciful. He forgives and redeems.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this post is with a quote from the last section of the chapter. The Old Testament portrays the creator God as distinctly different from the goods of the surrounding cultures. This different is of profound importance.
The biblical authors themselves think of God as utterly unlike the gods of their ancient world. Goodness and holiness define this person; consistency of character marks him. He is not fickle, and he does not hide his will. It is possible to know what he expects, because he tells us; what he expects, it turns out, is that we should be like him. The cosmos itself was constructed with human beings centrally in mind. God did not create in order to meet his own needs. God’s purpose in creating the cosmos was, in fact, to bless his creatures, to show them love and faithfulness, to rescue them from danger and distress, and to forgive and restore them when they falter. Being sovereign over the whole cosmos, God is able to deliver such things, just as he is able to deliver justice. This is the biblical God. (p. 75)
God is a transcendent, merciful and jealous God of steadfast (khesed) love who cares for his creation. This is ultimately the message of scripture.
Who is God?
What is the message of the Old Testament concerning the character of God?
Some secular writers are quick to describe the nature of God as something less than good, perhaps not as pointedly as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. (quoted on p. 58)
How would you answer Dawkins or others who embrace a similar view of the God of the Old Testament?
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