God in the New World by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, St. Paulís House, Warwick Lane, London. Copyright, 1968 by Lloyd Geering. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 14: The Concern with Freedom and the End of Bondage
The Christian heritage has been commonly known as the Gospel, or Good News. It announces to men who are suffering under some form of bondage that the door to freedom has been opened up to them. Central as this is to the Judeo-Christian heritage, the particular form in which the Good News has been understood and experienced has varied considerably from one age to another. It is too often overlooked that it was the joyful message of deliverance from bondage which originated the Old Testament as it did the New Testament.
There is a clear dominant note running through Israelís written witness, whether in narrative, prophecy or psalms, and that is that Israel owed her very origin and her continued existence to a dramatic event in history, in which she was led out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of a new land flowing with milk and honey. We have seen that YHWH, whom she called her God, was simply to be defined as the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.
Since our knowledge of this event is gained only from traditions which had been much embellished in the telling before being recorded in writing, we possess none of the historical details of the Hebrew slavery in Egypt. Its general historicity is confirmed mainly by the permanent mark it made on the national memory. Significant in the tradition are the simple words, "And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage and cried out for help". To whom did they cry? They did not know. When pressed to the limits of human endurance, one does not need to know before one cries out. Whether under the lash of an ancient Egyptian, or in the cotton fields of America, or in the concentration camps of Germany, it is often all one can do, simply to cry out, not knowing if the cry will ever be heard.
Their cry was heard. That is the triumphant and joyful proclamation of Israel. The Exodus saga tells how the angry young Moses made an unsuccessful attempt to help his fellow-Hebrews and then had to flee for his life. It was years later that he found himself confronted with an unexpected experience while pasturing his flock. From a desert bush, enveloped yet not consumed by fire, Moses heard a voice announcing that the cry of the Hebrews had been heard, and that he, Moses, was the one destined to lead them out of slavery to freedom. The voice was that of YHWH, and Israelís concern with the Word of YHWH dates from that time.
As the tradition is now enveloped in legend, there is no way of discovering the historical circumstances of the call of Moses, but we can be reasonably confident that there was such a man, who led a band of Hebrews in a dramatic escape from Egyptian slavery, and one of the oldest elements in the tradition is a song which celebrates the defeat of the Pharaohís army in the waters of the Sea of Reeds.
I will sing to YHWH, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The deliverance from slavery not only gave the Hebrews freedom and a new lease of life. From this point onwards they became a new people, the people of Israel, whom the Exodus tradition actually refers to as the son of YHWH. There is good reason to believe that the Hebrews Moses led out of Egypt were only one portion of the people who later constituted the kingdom of Israel under David. But so full of vitality and promise was the faith engendered in them during the leadership of Moses that it soon penetrated the traditions and religion of all the people who lived in Canaan.
We have been accustomed to viewing Israelís early traditions through the narrow spectacles of the post-exilic Jews for whom religion had become a nationally exclusive affair. But in the kingdom of David there was quite a mixture of races. First of all there were the descendants of the various incoming Hebrew tribes, only some of whom had been involved in the Exodus from Egypt. Then there were the descendants of the Canaanites, and finally there were sprinklings of Hittites, Arameans, Philistines and possibly Ethiopians. We are even learning today that the very term Ďhebrewí did not originate as an ethnic term, but as a term of reproach, like Ďbarbarianí, which was given to various adventurous groups that had no settled abode. The kingdom of David, then, had a certain cosmopolitan character, and perhaps the ethnic diversity of the United States of America is the nearest parallel in the contemporary world.
Within this cosmopolitan Israel the sense of freedom, sparked off by the deliverance from Egypt and consummated in the kingdom of David, gave rise to a new kind of faith, which as we have seen, was destined to diverge more and more from the mythological religion of ancient man. This faith, even then, had a certain universal or catholic interest, a characteristic which was to blossom much more fully after the advent of Jesus. The Yahwist expressed the conviction that all the families of the earth would eventually be blessed by the faith which was beginning to flower in Israel and which he symbolized in the person of Abraham. Another example of Israelís wider interests was her concern for the resident alien within the community. "You shall not pervert the justice due to the resident alien . . . but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and YHWH your God redeemed you from there."
It cannot be over-emphasized that the faith of Israel originated from a concern for freedom which arose out of a particular historical situation. This helps us to understand, even though it does not by itself explain, why the faith of Israel became concerned with history, the word of YHWH, the earth and the human situation, and why it progressively abandoned mythology, the gods, the unseen world and religion. But this concern for freedom in the scene of history did not remain limited to one particular event, which receded even further into the past. Israel relived the Exodus experience in her annual festivals, which became slowly transformed from the celebration of the changing seasons to historical commemorations of the events of her origin.
In the light of the Exodus tradition and its annual commemoration, Israelís thinkers were led to reinterpret the earlier tribal traditions and myths in such a way as to show how freedom from bondage is a basic human concern. The early Genesis stories clearly depict man as his own worst enemy because of the latent powers of self-destruction residing in him. The disobedience of Adam and Eve leads to Cainís murder of Abel, and this in turn to Lamechís vengeful inhumanity. The human race has within it the dreadful power to bring about its own self-destruction, and this is dramatically brought home by means of the legend of the great flood, where man was all but annihilated, because he had filled the earth with his violence and corruption.
The YHWH who led Israel from Egyptian slavery was identified with the one who had kept the door of hope open for humanity through Noah and his family. But no sooner had Noah become established again on dry land than he got himself drunk and the whole story of manís inability to control his self-destructiveness began all over again. The legend of the tower of Babel is effectively used to show that whereas language may be manís most distinctive characteristic, his own self-centered designs to make a god of himself result in a complete breakdown in that verbal communication upon which all human culture and healthy society depend. Words become a meaningless babble. Men become isolated from one another and are scattered in their loneliness.
In these few chapters which formed the preface for Israelís testimony to what YHWH had done in her history, Israel strikingly portrayed the spiritual poverty and bankruptcy of the human race. Man is in bondage to himself. He feels he has the potential for something which turns out to be beyond his reach. He becomes enmeshed in the chains of his own making. This is Israelís way of saying what Paul later so aptly expressed for every man. "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
Consequently, though Israel had been led from bondage to freedom, she found that freedom is a goal, rather than a possession which is finally won and possessed thereafter. Each generation, in the circumstances of its own time, seeks a deliverance from bondage, and is led to freedom only by obedience to the Word of YHWH. Without that obedience even such freedom as may still be a present possession, is lost in a reversion to slavery and destruction.
In the seventh century BC., when first the Assyrian and then the Babylonian Empires threatened Israelís possession of their land of freedom, some men of Israel, whom we call the Deuteronomists, because their work has survived in the book of that name, saw that the crisis could be met only by returning to the Mosaic foundations of the faith. As they saw it, Israelís immediate destiny depended on a choice in which obedience would lead to freedom and disobedience to slavery, and this choice they set in the mouth of Moses. "See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of YHWH your God . . , then you shall live and multiply. . . But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear . . . I declare to you this day, that you shall perish. . . I have set before your life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live . . . that you may dwell in the land which YHWH swore to your fathers . . . to give them". The freedom to which YHWH leads his people may also be lost. That is the Word of judgment that YHWH speaks in history.
So the Jews were transported into Babylonian exile, and never again since that time have all the Jewish people lived in the land of Canaan. Once again they cried out for help, but this time there was a difference. The unknown prophet we have already mentioned, saw much more deeply into the real meaning of salvation from bondage. This prophet looked for the release of his people from forced exile and he hailed the Persian conqueror Cyrus, who actually made this possible, as YHWHís anointed king. But he also fastened on to the positive and redemptive meaning of suffering. In passages commonly known as the Servant Songs, he described the role of the true servant of YHWH. Whether as a people or as an individual he Is one who accepts and bears suffering. Freedom is something much deeper than the deliverance from outward oppression, for man must be freed from the chains forged by his self-centeredness and willful disobedience. Deliverance of this kind is achieved only through suffering, and it is not for his own deliverance but for that of others that the servant of YHWH is voluntarily prepared to suffer.
In Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms, men of Israel wrestled with the problems of human existence. The traditional answers, as set forth for example by Jobís three comforters, no longer brought satisfaction. There did not seem to be any clear purpose in life, particularly when it was marked by apparently undeserved suffering. In the three or four centuries before Christ there gradually developed a cultural maelstrom, and the Jews found themselves caught up in a clash of cultures, religions and imperialistic ambitions. Men became subject to a new and even worse form of bondage. They were enslaved to a meaningless existence. Even Judaism, which had itself descended from the Israelite faith which originated in a sense of joyful freedom, had for many Jews crystallized into a legalistic religion which constituted a new form of bondage.
Into the cultural maelstrom there stepped that enigmatic man Jesus, and out of the complex of events surrounding his advent there burst into the world a fresh, vigorous and joyful proclamation of good news. The unknown prophetís concern for vicarious suffering became a central historical event in the Crucifixion of Jesus. The cry for deliverance from a meaningless and doomed age had been answered by the very YHWH who had delivered Israel from slavery. The Gospel of Jesus Christ when proclaimed, brought to more and more men a sense of deliverance, a release from their burdens. It is by no means certain, and indeed not even likely, that all men who embraced the Christian faith were actually attracted to the Gospel for the same reason. Some Jews, for example, may have been attracted to Jesus in the first instance, because they saw in him the way in which the Davidic kingdom would be restored. There were others involved in particular personal problems for whom the preaching of the Gospel brought new vision and hope, and so it freed them from their burdens.
To the many who lived in dread of the imminent cosmic holocaust to which they saw the world heading, the Gospel brought the sense of being delivered to participate in the new age. For Paul certainly, and no doubt for other Jews, it brought deliverance from bondage to legalism, accompanied by a great sense of freedom. Such examples should be sufficient to show that the good news of deliverance from bondage, the theme which runs through the whole of the Bible, must not be interpreted in any one narrow sense. Whether the Christian Gospel was good news because it brought forgiveness of sins, deliverance from evil habits, or banishment of despair, depended on the particular circumstances in which it was being proclaimed. The Christian faith can be good news in all the variety of human situations, but to be so it will find many modes of expression. But fundamentally we may say that it is good news in all human situations because in one way or another it delivers man from some form of bondage and frees him for the fullest possible life.
Now it is one of the lessons of history that freedom is something each generation must seek afresh for itself. The freedom won by an earlier age so readily becomes transformed into a new form of bondage. The heritage of freedom handed down by ancient Israel became in Jewish legalism a new form of bondage. The glorious freedom in which the early church rejoiced had by the Middle Ages been transformed into a new form of bondage, actually the resurgence of an ancient form of bondage, that in which man was enslaved to his own mythological world. For medieval man the Christian Gospel meant the deliverance from the fires and pains of a future hell on the other side of death, and the assurance of a blissful eternity in heaven. (Those Christians who still hold such a view, have first to preach the fear of Hell into their hearers before they can then in turn preach the Gospel of salvation.)
The medieval Christian, in spite of his Gospel, found himself enslaved to an ecclesiastical system in which his future salvation depended on an intricate set of cultic practices. The very faith that promised deliverance had made him its prisoner. The Reformation was the first sign that this form of ecclesiastical bondage was destined to crack and give way to the emergence of a new world with a whole new concern for freedom. It is not surprising that it was through a study of Paul that Martin Luther, who had plagued his body in order to be sure of eternal salvation by the statutory methods of medieval religion, found a great burden fall from his shoulders, when he rediscovered the role of faith in bringing freedom to men.
But the Reformation of the church was only the beginning. In the last four centuries mans s cry for freedom has been raised with Increasing intensity and from diverse human situations. In successive political revolutions man has won civil freedom, throwing off the yoke of barons, kings, the gentry and now the wealthy. In the abolition of slavery man has sought freedom from the most ancient form of human bondage. In the emancipation of women, freedom is being won from subjection to the male. In the overthrow of imperialism each society seeks the freedom for independent self-rule. In the present racial clash man seeks to be free from the penalties imposed upon him because of the color of his skin. In the new world technology is bringing freedom from drudgery, education offers freedom from ignorance, medical science is freeing men from disease, malnutrition and untimely death.
The concern with freedom which has come to the fore in the new world is that which originally brought forth the Word of YHWH, to which the Bible witnesses. The concern for freedom is basic to the Christian heritage, and insofar as the new world has brought to man a greater measure of freedom, it is to be recognized as the answer of the God of the Christian faith to the perennial cry of man. Wherever the new world has brought to man freedom from human domination, freedom from famine, freedom from physical or mental handicap, freedom for the fullest possible human life, the Christian finds grounds for great rejoicing. Where the signs of bondage remain, the Christian sees a task which the Word of God is calling him to share. For the world is still waiting to be freed from the fear of war and of a suicidal nuclear holocaust.
There is one thing yet more basic. With all the freedoms that the new world has brought and is still bringing, there has been developing another form of bondage. It is the bondage of the human spirit. The old cultural frameworks which gave scope to the human spirit are gradually being destroyed by the new secular world itself. That which is beginning to worry our age more than anything else is the fear that human life after all is a meaningless affair. It is clearly reflected today in art, literature and music. There is the fear that there is no purpose in history after all, and that the world is an impersonal cosmic machine in which the individual lives and dies, and vanishes into oblivion, so that it makes no difference at all that he has ever lived. For this reason even the freedoms that have been won may turn stale and tasteless in the hands that have received them. Man cries out in deeper anguish than ever to be delivered from the crushing burden of the sheer meaningless of human existence. The answer to this cry comes from Him who brought the new world into being, the YHWH of Israel and the God and Father of Jesus Christ. In the Christian heritage He still sets before men the choice of life or death. From those who respond in faith and obedience to His Word of life there still comes forth the joyful shout, "Hallelujah! For YHWH our God the all-powerful has come to reign".