THE GOD-IMAGE IN SACRED TEXTS
(NOTE: The following blog continues the series begun in October 2012, on the evolving topic: "Suffering, Consolation, and Dreams at Life's Extremities," to be completed and revised in late 2013.)
Given my present schedule, I at best can only sketch the sub-themes of my thesis. When I look back to re-read them, I often cringe at the roughness of the presentation and the way my thoughts move along before being able to round out the topic I am addressing. Later, I hope to attend to these editorial matters. Meanwhile, if you are reading along with me on this journey, you may see the vistas I am pointing out on this expedition through topics that are of immense importance to all human beings.
These topics may be summarized like this:
1. How are we to understand and cope with suffering, that of others as well as our own personal struggles, and the crises of all life on our planet?
2. How are we to understand the innate source of that universal experience of parents who comfort their distressed infant with the words, "It's alright," conveying a calming confidence that transcends our human frailties? What is "IT"?
3. What are we to make of Job, a very complex book in the Bible that attempts to offer assurance in the face of catastrophic suffering?
4. And because Job is considered to be a sacred text and has established a niche in the psyche of our western consciousness, we may wonder, especially because it is such a convoluted text, what does it mean to call a text "sacred"? How does it "become" sacred? How does that text operate within us and "on" us to shape our lives? Does it open us to deeper dimensions for understanding our humanity, our suffering, our questions of existence? Or does it lock us within a world-view of superstition, mis-information, and moralisms? And what new understanding comes to us when we approach the text with the tools of historical studies? Do we find more consolation or less?
5. Of course, for many people, even the idea of a sacred text is nonsense. The Bible pops up in public ceremonies and then ducks back out of sight until the next occasion. It may be rejected entirely. Obviously, the validity of any sacred text depends upon the public's acceptance, rejection, or skepticism toward the religion in which it is embedded.
6. And a central element in any text is the deity that the text reveals. Who is that deity and why does it matter to us?
Now, with this blog, I intend to describe in a very general way how I look at organized religion's portrayal of deities in their sacred texts. Because this topic is so vast and so emotional for believers and non-believers alike, I intend to make a few preliminary observations about ideas concerning "God." Then I will conclude with observations about how the word is misrepresented in translations of Job.
I write "God" with quotation marks to set it apart first of all as a word whose definition will frame the remainder of my discussion. Here is the definition of "God" in the American Heritage Dictionary:
1. God a. A being conceived as the perfect, omnipotent,
omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principal
object of faith and worship in monotheistic religions. b. The
force, effect, or a manifestation or aspect of this being. 2. A
being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and
worshipped by a people, especially a male deity thought to control
some part of nature or reality. 3. An image of a supernatural being;
an idol. 4. One that is worshipped, idealized or followed.
What follows in my discussion is the use of number 3 above: an image of a supernatural being. My reason for this is that I think it is the only honest way to refer to the deity. In other words, all we have is the image of a deity as it has been described by others or as experienced in one's mind. I am aware, however, that the first definition above is likely one that most people would choose to describe "God," although it is primarily a construction of philosophy, religious and/or non-religious, that has drifted down to everyday usage over the course of centuries.
As such, it evokes a lot of thoughts, debate, strong feelings positive and negative, and a point of reference people hold onto when they have to consider their personal experiences and the place of "God" in those experiences. I could not tell you the number of times people say to me, "How could "God" let me (a loved one and/or an acquaintance) suffer like this, believing as did Job and his "friends" that "God" surely should reward goodness with goodness and not suffering.
Other people angrily describe to me how they have stopped believing in any "God" because of their suffering or perception of evil in the world. Still others assert their atheism and a refusal to believe in anything regarded as superstitious or nonsensical that cannot fit within their world-view formed by what they consider to be rational and scientific evidence. This atheism may also be traced to a reaction against the public religiosity of ecclesiastical and political leaders. In any case, a survey taken by the Religion News Service in 2012, reports that one in twenty Americans call themselves atheists, an increase in five times the number since 2005. In that same time period, the number of Americans who consider themselves religious has dropped from 73 percent to 60 percent.
In these cases, it seems to me, most people are responding to an image of "God" that fits within the earlier definition I listed: " ... the perfect, omnipotent, omniscient originator and ruler of the universe, the principle object of faith and worship in monotheistic religion." But the truth is, no organized religion -- to my knowledge -- has so streamlined its image of "God" that it would fit within such a conforming cocoon. In other words, it is not a formally stated creed in any organized religion.
For example, Hinduism has many deities: Brahma, Durga, Ganesha, Hanuman, Kali, Krishna, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Shiva, and Vishnu, etc. Buddhism's images of deities is even more complicated and includes a pantheon of beings, considered by most Buddhist teachers to be "empty" in themselves, while the deities yet represent the embodiment of qualities to be realized within the human aspirant. These deities behave in many ways, as you might expect in polytheistic religions.
However, the image of "God" even in the so-called monotheistic religions is not that simple. Which brings me back to consider the translation of the word "God" in Job.
For example, in Job, the words often translated into English from Hebrew include the following Hebrew words for "God": "Yahweh," "El," "Eloah," "Elohim," and "Shaddai." If we look at verse six, we see the complications that arise for the translators. Compare these versions:
One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves
before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. (New
Revised Standard Version)
One day the angels came to present themselves before the
Lord, and Satan also came with them. (New International
One day when the sons of God came to attend on Yahweh,
among them came Satan. (New Jerusalem Bible)
Now there was a day when the sons of Elohim came to
present themselves before Yahweh, and the adversary
came in the midst of them also. (Hebrew Interlinear Bible
The text raises several questions for translators and interpreters of the text's meaning as a whole: Who is Yahweh? Who is Elohim? What kind of meeting, or divine assembly, is being convened? And is Satan a member of the assembly or just a visitor dropping by? The definitive answers to these questions have prompted volumes of mythological, historical, theological, and linguistic studies.
Does it matter? Of course! Each of the names of the Hebrew deity carries a special connotation and feeling tone:
Yahweh: The name of the tribal, warrior god of the highlands who became
the national god of Israel, later assimilating the qualities of El and
the nature deities. Yahweh was associated with the northern
kingdom of Israel when the monarchy split in the tenth century BCE
between the north (Israel) and south (Judah). Yahweh is also the
name of the Hebrew deity associated with the second account of
creation in Genesis 2:4-25. Sometimes written as "Lord," "Jehovah,"
El: The major deity of the Canaanites, presides over the pantheon of gods,
associated with the symbol of the Bull, creator of created things,
benevolent toward humanity, closely identified with the deity of the
southern kingdom of Judah, but often assimilated into the image of
Elohim: The plural of El, but often used in the singular to refer to god or gods
in a generic sense. Thus it may refer to the pantheon or assembly of
gods, or to god as the one deity of Judah and Canaan. Elohim, in the
singular sense, is associated with the creator in the first account of
creation found in Genesis 1: 1ff.
Eloah: The singular of Elohim, it may also suggest an object of fear and
Elyon: This is translated as "Supreme," "Most High," or "God Most High."
El Shaddai: This title for god is not certain. It often is taken to mean "God
Almighty," but it could well be translated as the "All-Sufficient
The question of the deity's nature in Job is further complicated by the changing nature of Yahweh in the four different parts of the text. In the first part, the prologue, Yahweh appears as a weak ineffectual caricature of El. He presides over the pantheon of gods but seems to be remote and vulnerable to Satan's manipulations. In part two, the dialogues, Yahweh is not mentioned except one time. Other names are used for "God": "Elohim," "Eloah," and "El Shaddai." Then, in part three, Yahweh appears suddenly and explosively as a storm god, speaking majestically -- but without compassion -- to Job. Finally, in the epilogue, Yahweh appears as a judgmental, moralistic deity who rewards Job for his "faithfulness," but condemns Job's "friends" who ironically had advocated in behalf of the stern, judgmental god.
So much for the God-images in Job. They are voiced and colored by the traditions and backgrounds out of which the parts of the story arose. This is the case, in general, for all the sacred texts. Not surprisingly, the deities appear with the psychological, emotional, mental, and moral coloration of the people and religions out of which the sacred texts arose. Those deities then continued, in turn, to give further shape to the religion and the societies in which they became embedded.
In Christianity, of course, a description for "God" came to be stated in the perplexing formula of "the Trinity." In that doctrine, "God" is "one in three and three in one," invoking the presence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- these three. However, because the Hebrew Bible serves also as the Old Testament of the Christians, the great diversity of God-images floods the psyche of even the most devout person who professes belief in one "God." Nor does this touch upon the matter of the differing Christ-images found in the various Gospels.
No matter how much one may wish to find the one, true deity, or even to rid oneself of "God" altogether, it is impossible to do so! When someone says, therefore, that they believe in "God," or that they do not believe in "God," the question is: Which "God" do you believe, or not believe, in? There is something in the psyche of each human being that cannot escape the haunting pursuit of the gods; and there is something in the gods that drives our human interest, fascination, and desire for encounter. This most mysterious of relationships is where I turn next.
Friedman, R.F. (1987). Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Smith, M.S. (2002). The Early History of God (Second Edition). Dearborn, Michigan:
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