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Where Is God?"Man Shall Not See Me and Live" (Exodus 33:20)
By WILLIAM JANNEN
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 William Jannen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhere Is God?
Prophets, theologians, and religious writers have insisted for thousands of years that God is ineffable, unknowable, and utterly beyond anything we could imagine or experience. In short, when we talk about God, we do not know what we are talking about. People may have what they call "transcendent" or "spiritual" experiences and claim that such experiences are God, or at least put them in touch with God, but all major religions "agree that it is impossible to describe this transcendence in normal conceptual language." A Roman Catholic New Testament scholar warns, for example, that we "must remember that before the mystery of God, all language must eventually fall away, and worship must fall silent to be true." There is a lot to be said for silence with regard to religion. Silence would have saved us all a great deal of trouble.
But the debate goes on, and people rarely change their minds. Atheists do not become believers; believers do not become atheists. Faced with that impasse, the argument then turns not on whether there is a God or on the truth or untruth of any particular religious doctrine but on whether you personally experience a spiritual dimension that reveals God. God must come to you. It is not at all clear what it means to experience a spiritual dimension, but all religious people insist upon it; without it, you cannot find God. Those who do not experience that spiritual dimension are baffled by what religious believers try to profess.
The foregoing paragraphs seem to me to summarize the entire history of religious debate. The difficulty has always been that if the traditional tests of historical and scientific verification are abandoned—and everything turns on the individual's inward experience of the spiritual dimension—then there are no limits to what can be claimed as religious truth or revelation and no agreed-upon method of verifying those claims.
Perhaps we should consider that the entire God debate is beside the point. What matters, suggests an orthodox rabbi, is trying to make life bearable by offering "redemption from the inadequacies of finitude and, mainly, from the flux of temporality." Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun and now an author who focuses on religious topics, writes that she would have been spared a great deal of suffering if her early teachers had told her "that in an important sense God was a product of the imagination, like poetry and music." Elaine Pagels, a Protestant professor of religion at Princeton, wonders how being a Christian became belief in doctrine when what attracted her and, presumably, early believers was the comfort they received from a community that shared a spiritual need.
All of these writers reveal a deeply felt religious sensibility, but they cannot find God! The great monotheistic traditions have all come to regard and to adhere to a set of documents as "sacred scripture," and their followers spend enormous effort—literally mountains of paper—to demonstrate that their scripture and not some other is God's word. Why do we have all these bizarre and wildly unbelievable tales of how God formed the world and delivered the word to particular communities? If God is otherwise remote and unknowable, then figures have to be created who can reveal and speak for God—angels, spirits, prophets, and holy men—together with stories and miracles to establish that these figures speak for God. Without them, God disappears.
How have the major monotheistic traditions dealt with a God who is never there?
Chapter TwoThe First Monotheists
The ancient world was full of gods. They came and went freely. They could take human form, interact with people, enjoy sex with them, and impregnate the women. The gods were powerful and could protect people. They could be dangerous if they were angry. It was necessary to placate the gods with temples, sacrifices, and cultic practices to be safe. Many pagan religions told stories of their gods' mighty deeds and how they had made the world. Life was short, arbitrary, and inexplicable in any event. People needed the stories and the myths to make sense of it all.
Some four thousand years ago, Hebrew speaking tribes of the Near East began telling stories and legends about how their god had created the world and was the only god they could worship. The Hebrew Bible wastes no time in proclaiming that it contains the word of God. In Genesis, God talks to Abraham at length, establishing a covenant with the Israelites. After Abraham, there are no more face-to-face conversations with God. Moses hears God's voice from Mount Sinai, where God delivers the Pentateuch in blinding smoke and flame. Moses wants to see God, but God makes it clear that "man shall not see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). Thereafter, no one sees or talks with God. God speaks to humankind only through heavenly voices, angels, spirits, and, particularly, holy prophets. Every monotheistic religion since then has followed those rules and had to wrestle with the problem of whether it is really God's voice they are hearing or reading.
Eventually, the Israelites developed the doctrine that theirs was the only God. Not only was it true that the people of Israel—as they called themselves—could worship no other God, but there was no other God to worship. This took a while. First, their God, Yahweh, had to show he was able to protect them. Since prehistoric times, only power, prosperity, and victory in war could establish a god's divinity.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the Israelite God, Yahweh, showed himself to be a powerful warrior God by leading the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt, getting them across the Red Sea by parting it to create a pathway, and destroying the pursuing Egyptian army by letting the water come flooding back. Having successfully freed the Jews, Yahweh demanded, through Moses on Mount Sinai, that the people of Israel worship no other gods before him. If they kept that promise, or covenant, they would be his special people and enjoy his special protection. But if they broke the covenant and turned to other gods, he would destroy them mercilessly. Eventually, Yahweh came to insist there were no other gods, he was the only god, and the Israelites were his chosen people. The worship of other gods was idolatry. That is the backbone myth of the Bible's Old Testament as it evolved over a period of some four thousand years.
The gods of all the ancient peoples were expected to protect them from their enemies. A god that could not defeat its people's enemies would find it difficult to command their loyalty against a stronger, victorious god. There was no particular penalty for following other gods in addition to the tribal or local favorite; you never knew where you might need help. Over the centuries, however, the Israelites came to believe in a different god. Their Yahweh insisted that they worship only him, in good times and bad, and whether their God defeated their enemies or not. That was asking a lot. Moreover, a catastrophe or defeat did not necessarily mean that Yahweh had been defeated by some stronger god; Yahweh might be punishing the Israelites because they had failed to live up to their promise to be loyal and not wander off to other gods in hard times.
The Jews could be punished terribly by Yahweh, and it was not always easy to distinguish defeat by a stronger god and punishment from Yahweh. Jews puzzled over their misfortunes. If they were God's chosen people, why were they oppressed by foreign nations? Why were their tribes scattered, their kingdoms defeated and destroyed, and their people exiled and condemned to slavery?
In the course of centuries, the tales, the laments, the laws, and the traditions were committed to writing and gradually assembled with other documents. The documents in the royal archives of Israel in the north disappeared when the kingdom of Israel was defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians in 724 BCE. A second group of documents was held in the southern kingdom of Judah. These were further divided when Babylon defeated Judah in 587 BCE. Some continued to be held by those who did not go into exile but stayed in Jerusalem. A third and far larger group of documents was taken by those sent to Babylon and were kept there during the so-called Babylonian captivity, which lasted from 587 to 538, when the exiles were permitted to return. The documentary basis of the Hebrew Bible then is a miscellaneous collection of documents from the royal archives of Judah, hastily assembled for transport to Babylon with the exiles, and returned to Jerusalem at the end of the exile. There, this collection was presumably put together with the documents that had remained in Jerusalem.
The various documents with their stories and narratives were slowly edited, put in order, and extensively rewritten after the return from exile in 538 BCE. This work was largely done by scribes who, in addition to being subject to Babylonian cultural influences, had numerous versions of traditional stories from which to work. We are not talking about a single book, as we have today, but a collection of scrolls, which might hold a book or two of the Hebrew scriptures and official royal papers. No single scroll would have been large enough to hold the entire Bible. Jack Miles, in trying to write a coherent story of the God of Israel from the books of the Hebrew Bible, concluded that "the most coherent way to imagine the Lord God of Israel is as the inclusion of the content of several ancient divine personalities in a single character." The literary result, since this God is a fusion of different gods from different times and cultures, is "a character with a multiple personality." One has only to read the Hebrew Bible as we have it in the Old Testament to see that Miles is right.
The early stories of the Hebrew Bible record, among other things, the creation of the world, the flood, the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, the exodus from Egypt, the forty years the Hebrews spent wandering in the desert looking for the Promised Land while being fed by manna from heaven, God's giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, and God's covenant with the Israelites, whom Moses had led to freedom. Moses dies at the borders of the Promised Land, and it is Joshua, following the instructions of "the Lord," who leads the Jews in a savage, genocidal city-by-city conquest of the promised land of Canaan where "they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 6:2–21). After the Israelite conquest of Jerusalem, the Hebrew Bible records the decline and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the lamentations and warnings of the Jewish prophets. All of that happened, if it happened at all, sometime in the thirteenth century BCE, and God's covenant with Abraham, if there was an Abraham, had to have been even earlier.
Most biblical scholars regard the Old Testament stories as pious fictions. First, the Torah, or "the Law" or "the Pentateuch" or "the Five Books of Moses"—all varying labels for the same scripture—could not have been delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai as a single document engraved on two tables of stone (Exodus 31:18). The Torah reflects individual sources by several authors covering centuries of tradition both before and after the Babylonian exile of 587 BCE. They were clearly edited together or "redacted" at some point.
As for the conquest of the promised land of Canaan described in Joshua, decades of archeological excavation have failed to uncover any signs of an Israelite invasion of that land. If the story of the Israelite conquest of Canaan were true, one would expect to find evidence of the destruction of the major Canaanite cities datable to the time of the period described. Marc Zvi Brettler and most scholars have concluded that the claim to the complete conquest of Canaan by Israel "is false." The truth is simpler: "Many Israelites originated as Canaanites." The archeological record for an extended presence of Israelites in Egypt is equally barren.
It is worth remembering, with regard to any biblical account of events, that the authors writing thousands of years ago were primarily interested in the message, not the accurate depiction of the past. From a modern historical perspective, "it is improper to speak of Abraham, Jacob, or Rachel as real figures, or as early Israelites or Jews." The Old Testament can be fundamentally misunderstood "if it is uncritically viewed as a primary source." It is a historically conditioned collection of traditional tales, laws, political arguments, religious arguments, diplomatic papers, etc., that were gradually accumulated and revised over millennia. "It was not created in order to provide doctrinal tenets for the dogmatists." It is revered because it has come to preserve the traditional stories of Israel and of its relationship with its God.
The collapse of Israel and Judah and the Babylonian Exile of 597–538 BCE were catastrophic defeats by pagan empires and their gods. In large part, the books of the Hebrew Bible are aimed at explaining and rectifying these catastrophes so that the Israelites would not abandon Yahweh. According to Christoph Levin, "the fiction developed" that Judaism had been constituted in prehistoric times, on Mount Sinai, when God delivered the law to Moses. The catastrophes suffered by Israel and Judah did not constitute the defeat of Yahweh by pagan gods, but was Yahweh's punishment of the Jews for being disobedient to his law and following other gods. That is the central message of the Hebrew Bible and is endlessly reiterated by the biblical prophets. "In the Old Testament a religious community has 'recalled' its past in the form of divine history in order to win back its future."
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Hebrew Bible is as much a political tract as it is a theological document. Its purpose was to preserve a tradition that the Israelites were people of the one God who had created the world for a purpose and who would care for it and intervene in it until that purpose was achieved. For many Jews, this meant that God would deliver them from their oppression and bring them to the Promised Land, so long as they remained loyal to their belief in Yahweh and obeyed his law. The stories of the Hebrew Bible were never intended to be "history" or "science" in the modern sense. The oral tradition of Jewish enslavement in Egypt, the exodus led by Moses, and the covenant with God made through Moses on Mount Sinai may date from the thirteenth century BCE, but the biblical accounts of these events were not written down until about the eighth century BCE. The core traditions were probably brought together in the Torah sometime during the Babylonian exile of 597–538 BCE and later.
What we have in "scripture" are tales of men who claim to have heard God's word and reported what he said, like Moses and the prophets; tales of men who said that they had heard God and did what he told them, like Noah and Abraham; and tales of God acting just like the pagan gods and playing games with mortals, like Job or Abraham and his beloved son. It has been known for over a century that the Hebrew Bible stories were mythical tales that the Israelites and their forebears told themselves to try to explain their place in the world. To insist that the Bible is—literally, in every word—the inerrant word of God is to ignore over three hundred years of biblical scholarship and most of modern science.
If the Bible story is going to be treated as a sacred historical record because it is the inspired word of God, then we have to face the fact that we do not have the original text of any book in the Bible. Not a single original Bible text exists today—not even early copies of the original texts. Since we are dealing with the evolution of an oral culture, there probably never was an "authentic" original text, but a series of stories from which to draw. There were centuries of controversy over what was and what was not "scripture"; even in the early centuries CE, rabbinical scholars and Christian divines were battling over which documents should be regarded as authoritative within their religious traditions. The battle continues today.
Excerpted from Where Is God? by WILLIAM JANNEN Copyright © 2011 by William Jannen. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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