Chapter 10: The Concern with the Word and the End of the Gods

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 10: The Concern with the Word and the End of the Gods

One of the universal characteristics of ancient mythology was its multiplicity of gods, goddesses and spirits. In sharp contrast with this polytheism, the Bible affirms that God is one. It was the lot of Israel to play the pioneering role which led to a convincing monotheism. There are only three great monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and their monotheism is to be traced directly to that of ancient Israel.

Monotheism, like the sense of history, is something we too readily take for granted today, just because we ourselves are the product of a culture which has been based on it for so long. When, in a Western setting, a Christian believer and an atheist enter into discussion about the existence of God, it is common for them both to assume the unity of God. In doing so, they are both indebted to Israel, for whom the oneness of God was a consistent and unique declaration. It received classic expression in Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD". These are the opening words of what the Jew refers to as the Shema, and even by the time of Jesus, the Shema had become the nearest equivalent to a formal creed that the Jew attained.

In her earliest period, Israel was not yet ready to deny the reality of gods which other nations worshipped, but for her there was one God only. Gradually this belief, that God is one, led her to abandon the remnants of mythology she had inherited from her cultural ancestors. So the Psalmists spoke of the gods of the nations as idols, and unambiguously proclaimed that the LORD their God was quite unlike the gods of other peoples. This means that He was to be sharply distinguished from the gods of ancient man.

In some respects Isaiah 40-55, chapters which are commonly attributed to an unknown Israelite prophet of the Babylonian Exile, may be regarded as the highest peak of Israelite thought about God. This prophet poked fun at the gods of the nations with fearless scorn, on the grounds that they were helpless and unsubstantial. In fact there was just nothing to them at all. In his chapters we find no reference to angels or any other supernatural power. On the contrary, this prophet was so intent on attributing all power to the LORD, that he put these words into His mouth:

I am the LORD, and there is no other.

I form light and create darkness,

I make weal and create woe,

I am the LORD, who do all these things.

But how did this faith in the one God arise? Was this divine LORD of Israel simply one of the ancient gods, who was now raised to such supremacy in the minds of the Israelites that all other rival gods gradually lost their effective reality? While there is some element of truth in this, it is only so because Israel herself necessarily reflected in her earliest period the traits of the mythological origins from which she emerged. The LORD was in the early stages described as if He were the storm-god, or even the war-god, but these are but the remnants of ancient mythology. It is important to discern the unique elements in Israel’s faith which came steadily to the fore.

The first sign of uniqueness is in the proper name by which the God of Israel was known. This holy name has been preserved only in its consonants, YHWH, but modern Old Testament scholars believe that it was originally pronounced Yahweh. (The name ‘Jehovah’ is an incorrect version of the same name. It was first used in the sixteenth century, and derives from a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text.) By the time of Jesus the word was no longer pronounced for fear of breaking the third commandment, and God was referred to as ‘the LORD’.

We do not know where this name YHWH originated. There are even two conflicting traditions in the Old Testament itself, one of which says that as far back as the time of Adam’s grandson "men began to call upon the name of YHWH". The other, and more dominant tradition, however, asserts that the name YHWH was known only from the Exodus, and that it was revealed to Moses by YHWH Himself. It is not possible to separate history from legend in the Exodus tradition, and so we cannot say just what actually happened.

But the important emphasis of the tradition is that YHWH was associated for Israel, not with mythology, as were the gods of ancient man, but with the events of her own history. The ancient gods derived their meaning and role from the phenomena of nature, but Israel explained their introduction to the name YHWH, and the import that this holy name had for them, in terms of the historical context in which she originated as a people. This is clearly seen in the introduction to the Decalogue, "I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage". For Israel, YHWH was the ‘out-of-Egypt bringing God’. When the Old Testament speaks about God, it is not referring to one of the many gods which derived from the imagination of ancient man, but to the one and only YHWH, who not only brought them into being, but also continued to be the Lord of history.

The Israelite affirmation that YHWH is the one and only God has important implications. Since YHWH is one, and since He is God, then everything in human experience and understanding stands in relationship to Him. He is not only the Lord of history, but also Creator of the universe. He is the source of truth, and for this Israel used a word which came from the Hebrew root Amen. This word describes that which gives firm support, that which is the pillar or ground of whatever has some degree of permanence. No wonder Israel called YHWH the God of Amen. This basic word supplies a whole family of words so essential for Israel’s faith, which we translate as ‘truth’, ‘faithfulness’, ‘faith’, ‘believe’, ‘trust’.

All truth, all sound learning, all reliable knowledge stem ultimately from God. Everything that happens in the world of nature, everything to be observed in human experience finds in Him its unity. If God is one, and is not at cross-purposes with Himself, then the inconsistencies in life are only apparent and are due to man’s limited understanding. Forces and phenomena which appear to be quite unrelated are in fact related, for they emanate from God in whom there is neither division nor conflict.

These implications of the unity of God were destined eventually to supply the seedbed for modem science. It is being acknowledged more and more these days by historians, scientists and theologians that modern science not only in fact did take its rise within Christian culture, but could not have developed without the presuppositions which it supplied. C. F. von Weizsäcker (1912- ), an eminent physicist and philosopher, said in his Gifford Lectures; "the concept of exact mathematical laws of nature which was only dimly present in Greek thought gained far greater convincing power by means of the Christian concept of creation. Thus I think it is a gift of Christianity to the modern mind." It is out of the vigorous affirmation of the unity of God the Creator that men were led to postulate and seek basic laws to which all natural phenomena conform.

A further implication of the unity of God is seen in the absoluteness of moral values. In a polytheistic setting it is possible to play one divine spirit off against another, and thus escape the demands made by moral issues. In the medieval Christian mythology, for example, the saints, the Virgin Mary, and even Christ were appealed to by the believer as a way of escaping the demands of justice associated with God. But when the oneness of God is paramount this is impossible, for it is God alone with whom one has to deal. Before the one God there can be no evasion of our human responsibility. His Word is absolute and final.

Moreover, the faith that YHWH was the Lord of history meant that in contrast with the mythological cultures, where the gods were little interested in human affairs, the spotlight of divine concern was pointed directly to the human scene. Nowhere else in the ancient world were moral demands brought so vigorously to the fore as in Israel. The prophets were the mouthpiece of YHWH in the concern for social justice and humanitarianism, and pioneered the way for all subsequent social reform. This all flowed from their concern with YHWH the one God and Lord of history.

But now we must ask in what ways Israel conceived of YHWH, if on the one hand He was acclaimed as their God and, on the other hand, He was clearly distinguished from all the mythological beings who had been referred to as gods hitherto. When we put the Old Testament material in its chronological order and make a comparative study of the way in which YHWH was understood and talked about, we get a fairly clear impression that Israel was steadily shedding the mythological elements from her thinking. In the earliest material God was pictured in human form, and described as if he made personal appearances in the human scene from time to time. The material from the next stage avoided these theophanies, as we now call them, and spoke of an angel or messenger (the one Hebrew word has both meanings) as the means by which YHWH communicated with men. Later again, even angel-talk was avoided, and it was thought sufficient for YHWH to speak His word, and man heard it through the voice of a prophet, or in his own inner ear.

Israel became increasingly reluctant to offer any descriptions of YHWH, except in such elusive terms as the ‘glory’, ‘light’ and ‘brightness’ of His presence. Nowhere is this clearer than in the second commandment, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." The reason for this is that whatever these forms portrayed, it would not be a likeness of YHWH, and any adoration of it would therefore be idolatry. The implication is that there is nothing known in the whole universe, not even in the spiritual realm of heaven above, which can be taken to be a true likeness of YHWH.

The implications of Israel’s understanding of YHWH, as expressed in the first two commandments, are completely at variance with the way ancient man thought of the gods, and explain the iconoclasm which has been prominent from time to time in both Judaism and Christianity. Indeed both Jews and Christians have, on occasions, been labeled atheists, since they rejected all other gods and refrained from portraying their own God YHWH in any of the forms that ancient man associated with the gods.

It is but a logical step further to conclude that if the God of Israel cannot be likened to anything that is known or seen by man, then neither can He be adequately portrayed in the forms of language. Neither a mental image, nor a verbal image are any more successful in portraying the God of Israel than a graven image or painted picture. This means that the God of the Israelite heritage defies definition. Israel and her Jewish successors refrained from allowing any form of words about God Himself to harden into an absolute doctrine. They were concerned with that action which was obedience to YHWH, rather than with right understanding of the being of YHWH. They were ready to recognize that the God whose word they heard in their history, must forever remain beyond man’s comprehension. He is the God of faith and not the God of knowledge.

This is a most important difference. When ancient man expressed his gods in visible form and gave them names, he was taking the first steps towards gaining the mastery of them. The possession of expert knowledge of the gods meant that the human worshipper knew just how to approach them in supplication and ritual and win their favor in order to achieve his own ends. Knowledge of the gods meant that man had the gods just where he wanted them. Man is always seeking this kind of absolute control over his world. But Israel recognized that YHWH can never be known in this way, for He does not come within the scope of those certainties which man can master with his mind and so manipulate for his own ends.

Christians, for the most part, continued the Israelite ban on the portrayal of God in visible form, though it did become one of the differences which finally caused the Eastern and Western churches to break from each other in 1054. But because the early church inherited from Hellenistic culture the love of penetrating into the truth by intellectual enquiry, the Christian thinkers of the West have too commonly concluded that they could define and delineate the being of God in the forms of human language with some confidence. Both Catholic and Protestant have often attributed to formal doctrines about God a finality they cannot bear.

For Christians, admittedly, the question was made more difficult by the claim that God had chosen to reveal Himself in Jesus Christ. But it must be remembered that the Christ of faith is no more visible to the Christian believer than God is. The New Testament writings can in no sense capture or limit the Christ, who is the risen Head of the Church, for He can be apprehended by faith alone.

John, the New Testament writer who most clearly claims that when one sees Jesus one sees the Father, is also the one who twice declares that ‘no man has ever seen God’. This reflects the penetrating Old Testament story in which Moses asked to see the glory of God. He was placed in a cleft in the rock, and the hand of God covered the eyes of Moses so that he saw only the back of God. In other words, Israel recognized that one can see only where God has been; no man can see the face of God and live.

In the new world, much of what orthodox Christianity has assumed to be the sure knowledge of God seems to have dissolved away leaving the Christian with a certain sense of loss. He need not be bewildered. There are good biblical reasons why this should have happened. The YHWH of Israel, who was also the God and Father of Jesus Christ, does not belong to the ancient order of supernatural beings who can be neatly described by man’s carefully chosen words. It is a mistake to think that Israel was slowly groping after the true God, who then finally answered them by coming down and showing Himself. This is the very kind of mythology from which Israel was being delivered by the word of YHWH. Israel testifies that YHWH is completely other than such gods. He defies description and definition, and is known only through His actions in human history. In Israel’s experience He became more and more hidden from the human eye rather than less. It is at the peak of Old Testament thought that the prophet declares, "Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior."

But while Israel increasingly acknowledged that their God YHWH could be neither seen, described, nor intellectually mastered by men, she was on the other hand adamant in affirming that God was not silent. YHWH was known through His word. God spoke through the prophets, making them His human mouthpiece, so that the oracles they uttered were in the first person, as if God had taken temporary possession of their mind and body. God spoke to Moses from a burning bush and called him to lead Israel out of slavery. God spoke to Abraham and said, "Go from your country . . ." God spoke to the first man and said to him in his hiding-place, "Where are you ?" Indeed, it was by the Word of God that the world was created, for God had only to say, "Let there be light!" and there was light. Such was the unmistakable testimony of Israel.

The theme continued in the New Testament, where an unknown writer says, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son". John, in his Gospel, takes up the theme, interpreting the whole testimony of Israel concerning God in terms of the Word, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". And then he strikingly interprets the significance of Jesus of Nazareth by saying, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth".

In turning men away from the mythological concepts of the gods, to the YHWH who was known through His Word, Israel seized upon the most important phenomenon in the human scene to become the metaphor for faith. The evolution of man and the development of language went hand in hand. Our very humanness is dependent upon the language by which we communicate and grow to some degree of human maturity. With the development of each individual, language is drawn out of him by his elders who speak to him. So the very deepest insights about human existence that came to her, Israel described as the Word of YHWH. It was addressed to her from without, even though it was heard from within. As Israel learned, in obedience to the Word of YHWH, to shed one by one the mythological concepts of the ancient gods, it was the Word that remained. There was much she could not understand and never would be able to understand, but of one thing she was sure. She had heard the Word of YHWH, speaking now in promise, and now in judgment, but always summoning to decision and action, and she had no choice but to obey.

The fact that Christian thought has sometimes been tempted to revert to a doctrine of God more mythological in character than that of Israel, should not hide from us the direction in which the testimony of Israel was heading. YHWH was Israel’s name for the one reality with whom all men have to do, and this one reality can never be mastered by man like the gods of the nations. In fact YHWH spells the end of all the gods and mental images which men Create to bring themselves comfort and security. YHWH the God of Israel is always beyond man’s grasp, and can be contained neither in temples, nor in pictures, nor in words. He can be spoken of, referred to and obeyed, only because in the events of daily life and history men have found themselves addressed by Him. It was the greatest prophet of Israel who wrote, "the word of our God will stand for ever".