Among its goals, my straight-through reading of the Bible sought to trace a clearer understanding of the evolving definition of the deity itself. We have many ideas about what we expect God to be, many of them contradictory or paradoxical, but just where do these originate in our common thinking? How many can we see as coming down from the Holy One’s own instruction and how many arise in enlightened individuals’ spiritual experiences? How do these teachings shape our own often vaguely shaped expectations of divinity?
For Christians, this can extend through the New Testament when we examine what Jesus says about himself and his relationship to the Father, as well as what his disciples and Paul, especially, say about Jesus and/or Christ. (There are differences.)
Surprisingly little of the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha address this matter of definition directly. Far more is focused on matters of living within this faith, from instructions on sacrificial rites to finding favor in combat to ethics of living honestly and justly. And that’s before we get to the books where the Holy One is not even mentioned. As for the histories? I was amazed how political these Scriptures are — how many bumper stickers you could glean for use today.
Sometimes this Holy One is revealed by what it does. Creating the cosmos and walking in the Garden of Eden are two examples.
Sometimes, by what it says directly. Again, in the Garden to Adam and Eve and the Serpent, as well as at Mount Sinai to the people gathered at the foot or to Moses above or later to Job or the prophets.
More often our definitions come through others, with a range of human understanding and misunderstanding.
As I’ll argue, there are reasons we often perceive this Holy One as a bearded male, no matter the counter arguments.
Early on we have the contrast between a deity known intimately, even face to face, as we have with Adam in the garden, Moses on the mountain, or Noah. Other times, one so vast its very name is forbidden, giving us the alternative YAHWEH.
There are hints of many, a council of them? And then the efforts to banish them all from Hebrew soil and households. (One reading could attempt to tally the pagan gods that are named; one source counts 8,747 of them!)
Among the definitions of the Holy One of the Bible, then, let me suggest:
- I AM THAT AM (Exodus 3:14). Or, in the puzzling vein, “I am who I am” or even “I am what I am becoming” or, for a more revolutionary turn, “I am becoming who I am.” Not for us humans, then, to know.
- (Yahweh … tetragramaton … indignant at the attempts of definition … Eden, Job …)
- The one who comes down to walk with individuals.
- The one dwelling above, overhead.
- The supreme God, akin to an alpha male.
- Jealous, angry, vindictive, vengeful. Here we most encounter a Trickster element: you need him but don’t get too close. He can be dangerous when crossed.
- War-god. Yahweh Sabaoth, “Lord of Hosts,” starting in 1 Samuel 1:10, or “Lord of Armies,” though the role begins much earlier.
- Judge of human action.
- Male fertility figure.
- The father of fathers.
- The faith of our fathers or ancestors and their covenant(s).
- A patient, loving god all the same.
- Daddy or Abba, for Jesus.
- Perfect, good, love itself, as is emphasized in the New Testament.
This leads, too, to agencies by which we may buffer our personal encounters from the cosmic Holy One directly — we deal instead with angels, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Virgin Mary or saints, or perhaps even, to encompass the negative possibilities, the emerging Satan or Devil.
We can look to crucial ways monotheism differs from polytheism. Is ours a world of chaos, with its gods in competition, or of universal order befitting one ruler? Here, in effect, one can be more than many.
We can look to God’s good versus personal gain, which I sense is a major criticism of the pagan worship in Biblical times. We can contrast the limited abilities of the inhabitants of the Acropolis or in Wagner’s Ring Cycle to the implicitly scientific order emerging from the Creator/Lawgiver perspectives of monotheism. But we also seem to lack playful aspects seen in the Hindu panoply. As for Trinity?
I am troubled by the unrelenting male focus of the imagery and voice emerging in the Biblical trajectory.
And then, when we look to our expectations of the Holy One, individually and congregationally, it’s fair to ask: How do we pray?