Sermon given at Matins Sunday 10 January 2010

10 January 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

The God of the Bible

In this Matins series of addresses this month I am looking at that most fundamental of questions, what can we realistically believe about God? And it would be impossible to have a series on that question without looking at the God revealed in the Bible, which is what I want to examine this morning.

Now attitudes to the Bible have undoubtedly changed, at least in academic circles, over the last two hundred years. There was earlier a notion, still current in some places today, that saw the Bible as almost literally the Word of God, a revelation from God in which the human authors were somehow mysteriously inspired to write what they did. It was never quite as simple as that, earlier Christians were not quite as unsophisticated as that might sound and they used a variety of methods of interpretation, but the words of the Bible were given a particular authority. I do not think many teachers of Biblical Studies in respectable universities quite treat it like that today. For them it is essentially the product of human beings, various authors who undoubtedly had great insight in many cases to the things of God, but whose particular human characteristics were never totally obscured in writing what they did. Biblical scholars tend to look at each book in that light, examining the various strands that may have gone together to produce the book in the way that it now is. Many of the books are the product of an editorial process where different strands coming from different sources were brought together; that applies to the Book of Genesis where, for example, there are two versions of the creation story each of which uses a different name for God, and certainly it applies to some of the Gospels, it is quite clear that Matthew and Luke both had St Mark in front of them as they wrote, at times even reproducing some very odd grammatical constructions. That sort of critical approach to the biblical literature is here to stay, and we cannot ignore it.

But what is clear in the Bible is that at least three clear themes about God emerged.

The first theme is that there is one God. That is, however, a theme that emerges, it was not there throughout the whole of the Old Testament. In the earlier periods it seems that even the Jewish people may have acknowledged other Gods, not just Baal, who was worshipped at times by some in Israel, but a whole pantheon of other gods. I Kings 11 says that Solomon, no less, the builder of the Temple to Yahweh, the God of Israel, also built opposite the Temple on the mountain east of Jerusalem, presumably on what we now know as the Mount of Olives, High Places for Chemosh, the God of the Moabites and for Molech, the God of the Ammonites, and, it says, so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods. The author of 1 Kings certainly disapproved of this practice, but the fact is that the King of Israel did it, and so did other kings after him.  

What brought about the emergence of pure monotheism is a complex matter, and has to be seen against the background of Israel being a trading nation with its neighbours, and so the trading class had exposure to their practices, including their religious ones. It seems the Israelite elite wanted to mark out the distinctive Jewish values and culture, and decided that saying Israel’s Yahweh was in fact the only God of all the nations was a route to providing such distinctiveness. As the American author Robert Wright has pointed out in his very interesting book ‘The Evolution of God’ it was a mixture of that Foreign Policy to make Israel distinctive that combined with a Domestic Policy that wanted to centralise power in Jerusalem that provided the practical impetus towards the emergence of monotheism. Of course it took time for that process to be complete and it needed some key figures to advance it.

One was King Josiah, whose reforms certainly centralised power in Jerusalem as that was the only place where Yahweh was to be worshipped, and he brought that about by destroying the shrines that Solomon had established to other gods and with a policy that is probably more offensive to our ears than it was to his, by brutally murdering those priests in Israel who followed other gods. However Josiah was himself then killed in battle with the Egyptians and his reforms did not survive his death, and it was not until the emergence of the author of Isaiah chapters 40 – 55, known normally as Deutro-Isaiah who wrote for the Israelites in captivity in Babylon that we see some of the most clearly monotheistic verses in the Old Testament, such as the statement in Isaiah 45, verse 5 ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’.

Now together with the emergence of monotheism there was also the notion that God was a moral God who made claims on his people. The Hebrew conception of God certainly by the time of Jesus but in fact a long time before that, was not just of a tribal God who had to be placated in order to act for the benefit of his people, but he was a God who made demands on them. That was the essence of the covenant relationship that existed between God and his people, He would care for them, but they in their turn must obey his moral commands. Perhaps the best summary description of those demands can be found in those words of Micah: ‘What does the Lord God require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.’

The third theme about God that is there both in the Old Testament, but also even more clearly in the New Testament, is that God is a God of love. Forgiveness, generosity and love for his people are the characteristics of the God who is spoken of by Jesus, but also by many of the prophets before him.

That sort of ethical monotheism gradually won the day as the religion of Israel and was well established by the time of Jesus, but of course it was still a pre-scientific society. Natural events like thunder and lightening, or storms at sea, or victories in battles, or illness and healing were ascribed to the forces of God at work, and we still see such a pattern of explanation in the New Testament. God in the Bible is seen as being active in his world, at some times in the Old Testament in rather crudely anthropomorphic ways, with human beings apparently having conversations with God, or with God stopping the sun as in the story of Gibeon in the book of Joshua, but also by the time we get to the New Testament often through the miraculous action of God.

Now there are, of course, many today who claim to see God still at work in such ways, and they will point to all sorts of signs and wonders that they maintain reveal such actions by God. But as a matter of sheer fact there are many other Christians who are frankly sceptical about such ways of interpreting the world. We should not be surprised that the Biblical picture of God reflects the beliefs of the society in which the authors wrote, but whether that still works today is far more problematical. Certainly very few if any of us would now believe that God stops the sun in order that one side should win a military victory, or that a man can live inside a whale for some days and then be spewed out alive as in the story of Jonah. Legendary elements are clearly there in the Biblical stories which strain our credulity far more than they would those who were around when the stories were first written.

So while those who believe in God today will certainly support that move to ethical monotheism that emerged in Israel, our conception of God is nonetheless likely to be different at least in some respects. And what has brought that about has, among other things, been the emergence of scientific method, with its programme of careful observation, measurement and analysis. So the strange and at times complex relationship between science and notions of God will be the subject of my address next week. It is my intention that address, as with this one, will appear in due time on the Abbey’s web-site. And, come to think of it, that would have been an extraordinary notion for any Biblical writer to comprehend, so it shows at least in one area how far we have moved from their world.

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