Is it God, or is it Your Idea of God?
Part 7 in "WTF? (Why the Flood)": We often read the OT as though it's an actual and true reflection of who God is. But is that the best way to think about it?
I think we can safely say that as humanity has evolved and transformed, and as our human consciousness has grown, so has our understanding and insight into matters such as the character and the machinations of the Divine.
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” — 1 Corinthians 13:11
There is a literal truth to those words from St Paul (humans develop in all manner of ways from infant to toddler to adolescent to teenager and so on), and there are also deeper, spiritual truths that are metaphorically illuminated by such a description of growth and transformation.
For me, this is often how I think of my Journey as it relates to religion and religious ideas. When I was a child (aka, an ardent evangelical) I spoke as a child (insert all manner of cliche and trite sayings that cause us to gag nowadays), I understood as a child (my ideas about God and the universe and what it means to be human were small, limited, contained), and I thought as a child (I assumed that my way of thinking was the only truth there was).
But when I “became a man,” or when I started to grow up and expand my heart and mind on spiritual matters, I put away childish things.
A PROGRESSIVE UNDERSTANDING
In my book, The SHIFT, I point out that babies can’t eat bacon. They don’t have the teeth to chew, or the digestive system to handle the salty, fatty goodness. And while this is tragic (because bacon is amazing) no one faults the baby or criticizes the baby or looks down upon the baby for their lack of bacon eating. No, we recognize that some things in life can only be enjoyed once we’ve grown, developed, changed, evolved, and so on.
Being a vulnerable, needy baby does not make a person less valuable. It simply means their capacity to understand, comprehend, and act is limited by all sorts of factors.
In a similar way, I suggest that human beings throughout history have undergone similar kinds of growth, development, and evolution as it pertains to our understanding of God, the universe, and our part in all of it. Furthermore, I believe that the Bible preserves a record of one people group’s unfolding awareness of these kinds of spiritual truths.
To say that differently, the narrative arc of the Bible demonstrates a progressive understanding of the nature and character of God as seen from ancient Israelites.
SEEING GOD AS A CHARACTER IN THE STORY
Think of it like this.
Stories such as those found (especially) in early Genesis (including but not limited to Noah and the Ark) do not perfectly and entirely represent what is fully and actually true about the real Creator of the Cosmos, but instead they represent the ways that ancient Hebrew people came to comprehend things such as God, the universe, the meaning of life, and so on.
Thinking of the Bible in this way is admittedly a departure from some forms of Christianity (ie, conservative evangelical) wherein the predominant belief is that every word in the Bible is perfectly true and reflective of what is Real.
For example, consider the following text:
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”-1 Samuel 15:2-3
If your belief is that when the Bible says, “This is what the Lord says,” then we should understand that the words that come next were literally once spoken by God, then according to the above passage from 1 Samual 15 we’re left with the impression that God is vindictive (“I will punish”), biased (“for what they did to Israel”), violent (“Go attack”), ruthless (“do not spare them”), and cruel (“totally destroy everything”).
However, what if approaching the Bible in this way (where every word is literally true and actually happened) is an anachronistic error of modern, post-enlightenment thinking? What if this kind modern version of Christianity developed its hermeneutic (aka, the interpretive lenses that guide our reading and understanding of the text) inspired not by the intentions of how ancient writers wrote their histories, records, poems, and correspondences, but rather by the sterile pursuit of the cold hard facts as evidenced by devices such as the scientific method?
Okay, I don’t want to go too far astray on this post. The point hopefully is quite simple. We expect certain things when we read history books (historical accuracy, for example). We look for certain things when we read important documents (such as absolute truth). And these were not necessarily the driving concerns of our ancient ancestors.
What I’m trying to say is this: if our hope is to try and wrap our minds around ancient stories (like that of the Flood in Genesis) then I feel like we’re better served if we try and think about “God” as more like one of the characters in the story, and less like “these are absolute statements and stories about exactly who God is and what God is like.” I suggest the portrayal of God, found in many places in the Old Testament, is more like a painting than a photograph. Which is to say that, in a painting, you learn almost as much about the artist as you do the painting or the subject of the painting. And unlike a photograph the painting isn’t meant to be an exact replication of the subject.
(Fun fact: speaking of “exact replication,” I’m reminded of the how the author of Hebrews described Jesus as the” exact representation” of God. The “express image.” (Hebrews 1:3) If nothing else, then, may we trust that Jesus shows us more about who/what God is than 3000 year old stories about floods and giant fish and talking donkeys.)
I love how Brian McLaren describes a similar point in his book New Kind of Christianity, arguing for an approach to the Bible that appreciates how the Bible shows an ongoing and evolving understanding of the Divine:
“I am not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God’s actual character, as if God used to be rather adolescent but has taken a turn for the better and is growing up nicely over the last few centuries. I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God.”
All this to say, as we continue our way through the story of Noah, let’s keep in mind that this story reflects some of ancient Israel’s best (at the time) understanding of God thousands of years ago.
More specifically, it was part of their attempts to explain why the world was the way it was,
what their God (Yahweh) was like, and
how their conceptions of the world could explain something like a massive flood that (for them) happened a very long time ago yet still lived on through the imaginations of many culture’s storytellers.
For me, when I read the story of Noah, I don’t take it as a literal world-wide flood sent by the hand of God to destroy all of humanity. I don’t believe that thousands of years ago God surveyed the condition of humanity and decided to actually start over by killing 99.99% of the population.
So how do I take this story?
Why might it have been written and preserved as part of the theological history of the Hebrew people?
Well, to help answer that next week we’re going to dive in to the Nephilim. You know, the “sons of God” that roamed the earth a long time ago and had babies with mortal women. 🙌🏽 🙌🏽
CATCH UP ON THE SERIES
PART 1: The Myth of the Great Flood
PART 6: When the Storm Hits, Just Stay
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