Who are you God? Biblical answers to a difficult question

Introduction:

If we were running a workshop on engineering, we could begin by looking at key information such as the structure of the metal we are going to use to make a bridge. What makes it strong? How does it respond under certain conditions? What is it made of and so on. The metal we are going to use in our work is an objective reality we can define, touch, feel and analyze. However, when we come to talk about God, we do not have that same luxury. God is not "something-out-there". We cannot dissect him under a microscope, prove his existence by mathematical formulae and test his nature through physics. Simply, God is like nothing else we have knowledge of. God can only be known by faith and even then, we only know about God from what he has revealed of himself. This is why any study of the nature of God must be based on the Bible and on biblical studies. Philosophy and the other arts are all helpful in working out deeper meanings and implications but they end up as little more than conjecture and can do nothing but help us better understand what it is God has already said and done. Hence, when we come to answer the question "Who are you God?", the starting point is the Bible.

God is first of all a saving God:

It can seem strange to begin a reflection on God and not talk about God as creator. Yet, that is precisely how the Bible introduces us to our experience of God. God did not create Israel in Genesis 1. He created human beings, men and women. Israel, a people chosen out of all of the peoples of the earth, came as a result of sin. The human race had been in existence for thousands, perhaps even millions of years before God chose the Hebrews to be his own. It is for this reason that when the earliest editors of the Bible began to put the Scriptures together, they began with God as the Saviour God.

God: the creator and saviour of all:

Having affirmed the key role salvation plays in our understanding of God, we also have to admit that in a chronological sense, creation came first. God created before he saved. But the Bible is not constructed in a chronological order of events. The first eleven chapters of Genesis were relatively late additions to the Biblical tradition, being formed and developed only after Israel had settled in the land of Canaan and had begun to think through her identity and history.

It is possible to speak of those chapters as being a theological commentary on their lives as men and women of faith. They only began to emerge as a collection of traditions during the time of David and Solomon (1004BC - 921BC). There were re-edited during the time of the Exile in Babylon (587 BC - 539 BC). Each revision of these traditions came about as the nation struggled to understand the ways of God in the circumstances in which they found themselves living. With David and Solomon, the times were good and the nation was going to grow to its most powerful under their reign. They needed to contemplate a God who would be the framework on which they hung their rule but in the present and into the future. During the exile, the message had to be one of hope to a people who had lost everything and for whom the end seemed to have arrived. The editors shaped their writings around the promise of a restoration and an expectation that God would establish his rule in human history, that there would be a future time when God's reign would once more be felt in creation.

We need to differentiate between salvation and creation.

If our religious life was based on God's creative actions alone, then we must say that:
  1. God normally acts alone, that he must have carried out his creative activities in solitary splendor.
  2. God achieves all that he wants in his creative acts.
  3. God creates nothing unworthy and works in a perfect environment.
  4. The details of God's creative activities can be scientifically measured.
  5. That God's first creative act is unique and cannot be repeated.

If, however, we believe that our religious lives are not set up when God first began his works of creation but that it emerges as a part of human history, then we have a very different focus from that of a focus on creation. In this Salvation model we have some very different expectations:

  1. God does not act alone but within a complicated network of human history, politics, economics and social customs.
  2. God does not impress us with his power as much as with his mercy and the patient way he deals with men and women in their stubbornness, weakness and even when they sin deliberately in defiance of him.
  3. The arena for the creative actions of God is not so much in an empty universe but in the chaos of human life.
  4. It is impossible to measure God and/or his works, for as we read in Ephesians 3:18... no one has the strength to measure the breadth and the length, the height and the depth.... of God and his ways and particularly of the love that drives him.

The way the Bible presents God is that he is a God who is eager and willing to deal with the complexities of human existence. Human life, however it is shaped by culture, circumstance and changing values, or human life as weakened and deformed by sin, is the arena for the actions of God. That is precisely where God reveals himself and his innermost nature.

What we call religion emerges out of these complicated human situations, where God draws on people's lifestyles and actions, purifies them, shapes them and directs them so that they lead men and women to him in worship and praise. It is only when they are in this situation that they are indeed, fully human and fully alive, for they are where God wants them to be and how God wants them to be living.

Isaiah 55:6-11 

6 Seek the LORD while he may be found; 
   call on him while he is near. 
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways 
   and the unrighteous their thoughts. 
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, 
   and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 

8 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, 
   neither are your ways my ways," 
declares the LORD. 
9 "As the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways 
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
10 As the rain and the snow 
   come down from heaven, 
and do not return to it 
   without watering the earth 
and making it bud and flourish, 
   so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
   It will not return to me empty, 
but will accomplish what I desire 
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 

One of the things that Isaiah shows here is that God interacts in creation through people's lifestyles. He takes them into himself, purifies them and then sends them off into a new direction - one that leads to life. In doing this, God forms a community of his own making. They, in response, follow the way of life to which they are invited by God. They worship him and find in him their hopes and their joys. This is what the prophesy from Isaiah is showing us. 

What we should notice is the way Isaiah composes this poem: 
  1. Even though men and women are sinners, they can still call upon the name of the Lord while he is near us... 
  2. We are called upon to make a decision: Call upon him...let the wicked forsake their ways... We are called upon to act quickly, firmly and trustingly - even when we cannot be sure just how circumstances will unfold. 
  3. We are urged to believe that God has a plan. It is a plan in which we have a central role. It is not about understanding everything in advance, as the ways of God are not our ways as the heavens are higher than the earth. 
  4. Throughout all of this, God is not locked away "up there" in heaven. His ideas are not wafting around in the ether like clouds on a windy day. On the contrary, the words of God fall gently as the rain and the snow comes down. It gently soaks the earth, filling it slowly and gradually until it shall...return to me says God. It comes back, not empty, but in the earthly form of bushes, flowers, trees and plants. 

This is a powerful theological picture of God, creation and our place in his plans. We find God reaching out into human existence and human activity. No matter how terrible those human activities may be; no matter how sinful and decadent a society may have become; no matter how far we have emerged ourselves into embarrassing behaviours, God is raining down his love and mercy onto creation. But he is doing this "from within", from right here alongside his beloved creatures. The whole of creation is groaning with a desire to reach to heaven, to return to the creator the fruit of his love for us. Throughout all of these ways of living, both good and evil, the Word of God within us pushes us towards heaven, back to the God from whom we came.

According to Isaiah 55:6-11, for all eternity God has had a pre-existing plan for creation. This plan remained unknown until God sends down his Word like the snow and the rain and his plan is revealed in our day to day activities - in human history. This means that until we come to love and to accept the human situation, with all of its shortcomings, we can never truly know God, for it is in his creatures that he reveals himself. He reveals from within creation. However, we need to keep the sequence as outlined above in the summary of the text of Isaiah.

THE PROPHETS BRING GOD ALIVE 

The prophets were, effectively, the agents used by God to transform the way that the people understood themselves and their relationship to him. This ministry was a key part of the way that the Hebrew people were brought - often kicking and screaming - to a right relationship with Yahweh their God. They were punished and then they were restored so that the appropriate glory could be seen living within them (Ezek 43:1-5). 

The prophets were the voice of God among the people: 

The lion has roared; who will not fear? 

The Lord has spoken; who can but prophesy? 

Amos 3:8 

The prophets not only spoke in the name of God, they were also spokesmen for the poor of the land, particularly those whose rights had been abused. 

21 See how the faithful city 
   has become a prostitute! 
She once was full of justice; 
   righteousness used to dwell in her - 
   but now murderers! 
22 Your silver has become dross, 
   your choice wine is diluted with water. 
23 Your rulers are rebels, 
   partners with thieves; 
they all love bribes 
   and chase after gifts. 
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;  
the widow's case does not come before them. Isa 1:21-23 

Here we see the prophets speaking for a God who is ..the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious... (Ex 34:6). God looks on his people as he looked on those Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt. He was eager to have them freed from all forms of slavery. This is why the prophets were those who spoke a message of liberation for the oppressed and preached a God who was filled with compassion and faithfulness. 

From where did Israel come? 

The prophets delighted in reminding the people that their origins were less than they would like to have believed. They were originally a mixture of people, a loose collection of refugees, resident aliens, people who had been disposed from their lands by war, famine and political strife. 

The patriarchs were called sojourners, newcomers to the land. They had no security and can and often did, simply pack up and move on. For the prophets, this was not something of which they should be ashamed. Rather it was a significant part of the nature of the people. 

The Hebrew word for these people was ger and the prophets used the word when talking about people who were defenceless, who were at the mercy of others. 

You who are the hope of Israel, 
   its Saviour in times of distress, 
why are you like a stranger (ger) in the land, 
   like a traveller who stays only a night? Jer 14:8 

Even God, in this passage from Jeremiah is spoken of as ger. In this context, the presence of God among his people is uncertain, he is like the ger who go unnoticed (or are persecuted). 

While they were down in Egypt, the people who were to become the Israelites, were known as the 'apiru. These were the gangsters of the time. They were outlaws and refugees who had been displaced and who now survived by forming bands of raiders who would rob and steal the caravans and outlying communities. They were also known as the shosu - the marauding bands of robbers who came in from the deserts of Edom. When we read through some of the early passages of the scriptures, we see them being referred to as a mixed multitude (Ex 12:38) the riffraff (Numb 11:4). 

Even when they came into the land of Canaan, the term "Israelite" referred to a loose collection of diverse peoples who were once slaves in Egypt and who had been led to freedom under Moses. They were at best peasant farmers who were once the slaves of Canaanite kings and other ger in the land. It was only during the time of David and Solomon that this ragtag collection became a people and formed the twelve tribes of Israel. 

7 "Are not you Israelites 
   the same to me as the Cushites]?" 
declares the LORD. 
"Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, 
   the Philistines from Caphtor 
   and the Arameans from Kir? Amos 9:7 

The problem that is being attacked here by Amos is the "holier than thou" attitude taken by the people. They thought that because they were God's people, they were somehow special and entitled to all kinds of benefits. Amos is reminding them of their origins and how they too were just one part of a very mixed batch of refugees in the land. They had nothing to be arrogant about. 

Later political developments were given divine approval (although somewhat reluctantly). Nathan anointed David as King over Israel and to him was given the promise of a dynasty (2 Sam 7). Jerusalem became the city of God, Yahweh's holy mountain...the city of the great King where God has shown himself a sure defence. (Ps 48). What is interesting is that the prophets could look at the great city of Jerusalem and see in it the fate of Shiloh. They declared that it too could be destroyed and pulled down (Jer 26:6)... 6 then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city a curse among all the nations of the earth.'" Jerusalem, like Shiloh will be seen as a city under God's curse and will used as a curse on others. The dynasty of David will be reduced to a stump or to roots that lie hidden beneath the earth (Isa 11:1.. the promise was a shoot springs from the stock of Jesse, a scion thrusts from his roots. 

The example of the early days: 

The early charismatic leaders of Israel were the Levites or Nazirites. The Levites had no land and they symbolized the days the people wandered through the wilderness with nothing they could call their own (Num 18:20). Nazirites continued the strict disciplines of the nomadic life. They would not drink alcohol, allowed their hair to grow long and would not mourn the dead (Num 6:1-21). When the prophets attacked contemporary Israel for its corrupt and sensuous ways, they called to mind the former times: 

11 "I also raised up prophets from among your children 
   and Nazirites from among your youths. 
Is this not true, people of Israel?" 
declares the LORD. 
12 "But you made the Nazirites drink wine 
   and commanded the prophets not to prophesy... Amos 2:11-12 

The prophets often used those early days as a kind of threat. Other times they used them as models of the idyllic times when peace and love defined the character of the nation. 

"This is what the LORD says: 

"'I remember the devotion of your youth, 
   how as a bride you loved me 
and followed me through the wilderness, 
   through a land not sown. 
3 Israel was holy to the LORD, 
   the firstfruits of his harvest; 
all who devoured her were held guilty, 
   and disaster overtook them,'"
declares the LORD. Jer 2:1-3 

The God that made most sense for Israel and that "worked" best for Israel, was the God of the Exodus. That was Yahweh, the God who called them, just as they were; poor, needy, under threat and willing to faithfully obey the demands of covenant.

God Chooses Israel out of all of the other nations: 

When God gave the land of Canaan to the Hebrew people, it necessarily meant that the original inhabitants were removed as owners. This is always difficult to align with our understanding of God but it was doing no more than reflect the understanding of her own neighbours. In Egypt, for example, beginning with the Middle Kingdom (21st to 18th centuries BC) when the king was chosen for a special purpose, it was said that the gods loved him more than anyone else. The titles used for the king were ones along the lines of: chosen by the gods. In Mesopotamia too we see this same process of being chosen for a purpose and being chosen out of a range of possible options. The king here is referred to as the one chosen by the faithful heart of God. He is also the one to whom the eyes of the gods have been directed. The king was the one who was selected in order to be shepherd of the land and in order to preserve righteousness and justice. 

When we look at why the gods chose these nations, we can see that it generally has to do with their historical origins, with the nation as it was founded in the beginning, the establishment of the Temple or the city and the beginnings of the dynasty. These nations were elected/chosen so that the could be assured of their riches, their lands and their power. Nations were chosen at the high point of their power and might and these things were seen as signs that they had been chosen by the gods. 

With Israel, election was very different. God did not call Israel when their empire was at its greatest, most powerful and when it was boasting of its riches and wealth. Nor did the selection take place when they were in Canaan and were landowners. God in fact chose Israel at her lowest point. They were chosen when they were nothing more than a rabble, a loosely united band of robbers, refugees and the victims of wars and the clash of nations. Israel was on its way out of Egypt. They were a mob moving between waterholes cool places in the remote southern wilderness. This was the people chosen by God to be his own. 

The problem of the land:

When God gave the land of Canaan to Israel, it was seen as the fulfilment of the promises that had been made to Abraham and the patriarchs. But it was also a source of threat for them. While they were nomads in the desert, the fertile fields of Canaan were attractive but they were forced to continue to pull up stakes and move on. Once they had settled in the land, changes were required. God did not call them to remain in the desert. Their destiny lay in Canaan but the land was their only as long as they remained faithful to the terms of the covenant. While living in Canaan, they had to live as though they were still living in the desert. A desert morality and spirituality in a town setting. Their ongoing possession of the land was dependant on this. 

Israel understood that the greatness of the nation had to be understood in terms of the greatness of her God as is reflected in Deut 7:7-8... 

7 The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Election in Biblical terms:

Israel is the smallest of the peoples of the time and her God was not the God of some great national power. God did not choose her because she had such a large population. What Deut 7:7 speaks of is the amazing love that God has for his people. This is what is crucial in the choice of the Hebrews. They were chosen because they were loved. This is one of the things that makes Israel stand out from the other nations. They represent a people who were poor and powerless and yet for some reason, loved by Yahweh. 
  • a choice by a personal God
  • in favour of a helpless people
  • with promises of gifts to be held as loaned
  • and borrowed but never possessed.
  • These were signs of love
  • rather than indicators of power
  • as goods to be shared
  • rather than riches to be hoarded and defended. 

The Hebrew word for choosing (bahar) has two important possible meanings: (1) separation and (2) mission 

A careful choice that is brought about by need. There is a very real choice to be made from a number of possible options and the reasons for making the choice are discernible. 

There is a special mission attached to the choice. When a person is chosen out of a group (or a group out of a larger group, the one discharges a function with regard to the rest of the group.

In time the word came to be used as a technical term for a special act of God, singling out one person, place or people (king, sacred mountain, the people of Israel) for his purposes. The choices were made on the basis of human needs and then according to the hopes, goals and expectations of God. 

Second Isaiah (chapters 40-45) - the election of Israel for a world mission: 

When Isaiah began his writing, he was concerned about proclaiming a new Exodus - the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. He had a vision of God enthroned in power in heaven and he heard the message from God: Comfort, comfort my people! It was in answer to a question that the prophet was given his significant mission:

3 A voice of one calling:
 "In the wilderness prepare 
   the way for the LORD; 
make straight in the desert 
   a highway for our God. 
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
   every mountain and hill made low; 
the rough ground shall become level, 
   the rugged places a plain. 
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, 
   and all people will see it together. 
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 

What the prophet proclaims is an international "exodus". This time it will not be the group of abiru that were led by Moses (see above for the meaning of this name). What is fascinating is that whereas the call of Moses and the escape of the Hebrews left Egypt intact. In Second Isaiah, Babylon will come to an end. This will be brought about by Cyrus king of Persia, a man to whom Isaiah gives the title "anointed" (messiah/Christ). God calls Cyrus "by name" and given a special mission - for the sake of Jacob my servant and Israel my chosen (45:1,4). What is in view here is a very different world, one in which the demarcation between the chosen people and "the rest" has become blurred.

 Furthermore, Isaiah also speaks of the "glory of God" as living in what would once have been referred to as unclean lands. Normally the glory of the Lord was resident in the temple in Jerusalem. When a Jew moved out of the lands given to them by God, they were considered to be unclean and they needed to be purified before they could take part in worship. The prophet declares that all flesh (all humankind, even human beings in sin and weakness) shall see the glory of God together

Surprisingly, Isaiah also decentralized the importance of the covenant God had made with David. He includes as well the covenant with Noah and the one with Abraham. What he has effectively done is return the divine privileges and obligations to all peoples. He speaks of a return to Eden like paradise where men and women live in peace together and at peace with God. There will be a universal Covenant of Peace that shall abide forever. What God was doing for Israel had implications for all men and women.

"But now listen, Jacob, my servant,
   Israel, whom I have chosen.
2 This is what the LORD says -
    he who made you, who formed you in the womb, 
   and who will help you: 
Do not be afraid, Jacob, my servant, 
   Jeshurun (literally "the upright one" - Israel) whom I have chosen. 
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, 
   and streams on the dry ground; 
I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, 
   and my blessing on your descendants. 
4 They will spring up like grass in a meadow, 
   like poplar trees by flowing streams. 
5 Some will say, 'I belong to the LORD'; 
   others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; 
still others will write on their hand, 'The LORD's,' 
   and will take the name Israel. 

In the Hebrew text there is only one word that is considered to be a completed form. That is the verb I have chosen. All of the others are in various incomplete or ongoing forms. In turn, these depend on the completed act of God by which Israel was chosen. It is because Israel was chosen by God that a new paradise is about to be re-created. The whole of human existence will be touched by my Spirit and a transformation will take place. The love of God will not only run through human life like a river through a desert wilderness but will reach down into the depth of the earth and form people. 

Such divine love anticipates and shapes the life of each chosen person even before his or her birth. Such people have no prior claims upon God; he freely chooses and freely creates. If choice or election is not merited, then it can be bestowed freely by God upon anyone, including upon apostates and foreigners.