The Transcendence of God
Under the title of the transcendence of God may be included the following items, ordinarily handled separately by traditional systematic theologies: immutability, eternity, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, and sovereignty. In his book, God and the New Physics, Paul Davies has pointed out that:
A growing number of people believe that recent advances in fundamental science are more likely to reveal the deeper meaning of existence than appeal to traditional religion. In any case, religion cannot afford to ignore these advances.
In a course I taught on the book of Genesis I asked the question: "What are the theological implications of modern physics?" It is a question that none of my students were able to answer fully, even after two lectures discussing the matter. Yet, it is a question that begs of an answer, because the place where modern physics has the most light to shed on theology is in this area of the transcendence of God. Traditional systematic theology is very good at describing the "what" of God. Where it lacks most is in the "how". That is precisely where modern physics will be useful, as we will soon see.
God is Immutable
So, who is God, or perhaps, more accurately, what is God? God is immutable. This means that God does not change. The Bible indicates that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The classic verses demonstrating this point are Psalm 102:24-27 and Malachi 3:6. Bancroft, commenting on this attribute, writes:
Reason teaches us that no change is possible in God, whether of increase or decrease, progress or deterioration, contraction or development. All change must be to better or worse. But God is absolute perfection, and no change to better is possible. Change to worse would be equally inconsistent with perfection
This immutability must not be confused with immobility. God does act and move and react. He will promise to destroy a wicked person, but then will relent when that person repents. God has not changed, he is simply behaving consistently with his personality.
A sailing ship, moving against the wind, must tack back and forth, making progress only very slowly, while at the same time a second ship going the other direction makes easy, rapid progress along a straight line. It is not that the wind is behaving differently in the two instances; rather, the position of the ships is different. Likewise, as humans alter their perception and place before God, they may think God has moved or changed. The reality is actually that the person himself has moved or changed. As we will see with God's love, the same actions may be perceived very differently depending on the vantage point of the observer.
But of course, we must ask the question: is Bancrofts assumption and definition, that change must be from worse to better or better to worse, accurate? Does change, by definition, indicate some lack of perfection? If I change from the suit I wore at work into jeans and T-shirt so I can mow the lawn, have I changed from better to worse? Or worse to better? No, just that one sort of clothes are for one situation, and another for a different.
Is Bancroft's definition, and his concept of immutability consistent with the incarnation, or the change that occured in Jesus as he grew from infancy to adulthood?
If we actually examine the passages used in support of the traditional concept of immutability, we will discover that they merely describe God's consistency -- that is, that he is always loving, always just, always opposed to sin, and the like.
The Eternality of God
Genesis 21:33, Deuteronomy 32:40, Psalm 90:2, and Psalm 102:27 are the classic texts on the eternality of God (see also, Hebrews 1:10-12, Revelation 13:8, and 2 Peter 3:8). By this, I mean that God is without beginning or end; he is free from the succession of time. God is not in time: instead, he sees the past, present, and future equally clearly. He sees Adam eating the forbidden fruit, the birth of Christ, the explosion of the Challenger, and the last judgment all at once.
An interesting question to consider, both for the eternality of God, as well as for our everlasting state: why doesn't God get bored?
One could suggest that the indeterminancy of the universe (free-will) has something to do with it.
God is Omnipresent, Omniscient, and Omnipotent
It is very difficult to separate these three attributes of God, though traditional systematic theologies always try. The three are closely interconnected. A good passage for giving a complete picture of God's power in general - of his knowledge, strength and presence - is Isaiah 40:18-28:
To whom, then, will you compare God?
What image will you compare him to?
As for an idol, a craftsman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman
to set up an idol that will not topple.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the Earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of the world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
"To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?" asks the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from Yahweh;
my cause is disregarded by my God"?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Yahweh is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the Earth.
He will not grow weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
A picture of God's interaction with the world: the higher and lower brain functions. Our brains automatically keep our hearts pumping and lungs filling and hormones flowing and food digesting. How much conscious thought goes into keeping the stars burning or the wind blowing? God is intimately and immanently involved with everything in the universe; but some of that may be on the order of our lower brain functions.
When "omnipresence" is mentioned, traditionally the thought has been that God, "in the totality of His essence, without diffusion or expansion, multiplication or division, penetrates and fills the universe in all its parts." [Bancroft, p. 78].
This is, perhaps, overstating it a bit. The relevant Old Testament passages are Genesis 16:13, 1 Kings 8:27, Isaiah 66:1, Jeremiah 23:23-24, Psalm 139:7-10, Amos 9:2-3, and the book of Jonah. Perhaps a better way of describing God's omnipresence, one more in keeping with the biblical materials, is to say simply that "there is no place one can go to get away from God." Bancroft's definition creates unnecessary complications and potential contradictions: for instance, how can the Incarnation - or any theophany - or the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit - be reconciled with Bancroft's quotation? Consider the difficulties it would face with the behavior described in Genesis 3:8, 4:16, and 18:20- 21.
How does omnipresence work? If one were immortal and able to travel freely in time, one could devote a hundred percent attention on every detail of every individual's life that ever lived or would ever live and not even break a sweat.
One could learn everything: the future self, having been and searched everywhere, would be all knowing, and yet, at any given point, would be learning that information for the first time. Perhaps it explains what we see in Genesis 18, when God says he's going to see if things are as bad in Sodom and Gomorrah as he's been told. We just happen see him going to learn the information for the first time, from our perspective, though from the persepective of eternity, it is considerably different.
Rev. 13:8 indicates that Jesus has been crucified since the creation of the world, yet from our perspective, the crucifiction happened on one spring afternoon in the fourth decade of the common era.
Omniscience becomes more explicable in this -- God, free to travel in time, knows all because he went and looked at everything. And he's a detail person: we're told he knows how many hairs are on each of our heads.
Quantum mechanics: Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
We can know that given a block of uranium 238 , that in 4.5 billion years (4,500,000,000) half of it will decay to thorium 234 and finally to lead 206. However, we cannot ever say if a given atom will decay in that time.
Encyclopedia Britannica (vol. 5, p. 502, 1984):
It is impossible to predict the instant when any given radioactive atom will disintegrate. But, when enough radioactive atoms are placed together, observation shows that the number of disintegrations per unit time is proportional to the number of radioactive atoms present. The situation is analogous to the death rate among the human poplulation insured by an insurance company. Although it is impossible to prdict when a given policy holder will die, the company can count on paying off a certain fraction of beneficiaries every month.
Statistical certainty is sitting on top of individual indeterminism. But though God might not be able to predict the outcome for each individual atom, he could check and find out and watch to see which ones change and which ones don't, and then make any corrections or adjustments that he saw fit in order to preclude or cause a certain outcome: for instance, a man chancing past the block gets struck by an irradiated electron, which causes damage to certain DNA strands in a particular sperm cell with which he will impregnate his wife, resulting in an offspring with certain mutations (good or bad).
Depending on what God wanted, knowing that a given atom would decay would be useful, and he could manipulate the situation to either prevent or cause the mutation.
Yet, the God at the end of time, also free to move anywhere, already knows, sees and has done everything. Yet the how of that achievement was by moving in endless loops through his creation. Omnipresence is preserved and explained -- that is we can see, at least to some extent, the how of it -- the mechanism. And it explains the confusing and troubling passages where we see God asking for information, or traveling to check something out. It may even explain the places where God "repents", or seemingly changes his mind.
Does this sort of eternal looping have anything to say about how we comprehend the Trinity? One can picture a single deity, thanks to time loops, in more than one place at the same moment of time, and even interacting with the various versions of himself. Yet, quite obviously, there is still only one God.
Omniscience, generally and classically, is defined as God's perfect knowledge of all things. In other words, there is nothing that God does not know. The standard Old Testament texts would be Job 28:20-28, Psalm 139:2-4, 17-18, and Jeremiah 17:10. Potential problems that arise in reconciling Genesis 18:21, 22:12, Deuteronomy 8:2, and Deuteronomy 13:3 are easily explained by noting that in all instances God is explaining things for the benefit of his human audience. The heuristic purpose of his questions should not be ignored: God asks the questions for the purpose of eliciting certain responses from his human audience, not because he is unaware of the answers.
Finally, God is said to be omnipotent and sovereign. A few relevant passages may be listed: Genesis 1:1, Genesis 50:20, Jeremiah 24:5, 32:27, Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 46:8-13 and Job 2:10. The problems of God's sovereignty verses human free will, sin, and responsibility have already been thoroughly discussed in the section on ethics.
God and Time
What are the theological implications of modern physics? Augustine (AD 354 - 430), in speaking of the creation of the universe wrote:
The world and time had both one beginning. The world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time.
His words of more than a thousand years past, express well the basic thrust of relativistic physics. Augustine ridiculed the idea of picturing God waiting an infinite time and then deciding at some propitious moment to create a universe - because without the universe, time doesn't exist. God is outside time, unbound by it. Psalm 90:4 records:
For a thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Notice also 2 Peter 3:8. Paul Davies, in God and the New Physics discusses the implications of the theory of relativity for time. He writes that the revolution in our ideas of time can be summarized by stating that, whereas time was once viewed as "absolute, fixed, and universal - independent of material bodies or observers..." it is now recognized as being dynamic: it can "stretch and shrink, warp and even stop altogether at a singularity." Today, the movement of clocks are recognized as not absolute; instead, such movements are relative to the state of motion or the gravitational situation of the observer. This has forced physicists to abandon some long held assumptions. For example, there is no longer a universal agreement on the choice of "now".
An experiment has been proposed. If one were to get a set of twins and then place one in a spaceship moving at very close to the speed of light, and then leave the other on Earth, an interesting phenomenon would occur. If the destination of the twin in the spaceship were a star twenty light years away, upon his return, he would have aged at most a few months. His twin on Earth, however, would be many years older. This is known as the time dilation effect, and has been described fictionally in Time For the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein and The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman - among others. To give a sense of the weirdness this effect entails, let me quote a short passage from The Forever War:
We wound up spending a lot of time in the tanks, just to keep from looking at the same faces all day long in the crowded ship. The added periods of acceleration got us back to Stargate in ten months, subjective. Of course, it was 340 years (minus seven months) to the hypothetical objective observer.
Time dilation is not a fictional concept. Arthur C. Clarke writing in The Promise of Space discussed what would happen to a spaceship approaching the speed of light:
When the ship had reached 87 per cent of the speed of light (580 million mph), everything inside it would seem to be taking twice as long as it should from the point of view of the outside observer; two hours of ship time would be only one hour of Earth time. At 98 per cent of the speed of light the time rate would be slowed fivefold, at 99.5 per cent tenfold, at 99.99 percent a hundredfold. Thus the effect increases very rapidly as one nears the velocity of light; but once again it must be emphasized that to the crew of the ship, not only does everything appear normal - everything IS normal. They are not responsible for the peculiar behavior of the rest of the universe; their clocks and tape measures are just as good as anybody else's.
Only when they had slowed down, turned around, and come home again would they discover any discrepancy, and then they would be confronted with the most famous paradox of the Theory of Relativity. For centuries might have passed on Earth, while they had aged only a few years aboard their speeding ship....
As a final example of the time-dilation effect, which also gives some idea of the energy requirements, it would be rather difficult to surpass a calculation made some years ago by the late Dr. Eugene Sanger. He considered a spaceship circumnavigating the cosmos - assuming that this represents a distance of ten billion light-years. If the ship could achieve 99.999,999,999,999,999,996 per cent of the velocity of light, the crew would imagine that the journey had lasted thirty-three years - yet ten billion years would have elapsed before they returned to Earth (if it still existed and they could find it). Since this feat would require the complete conversion into energy of a mass approaching that of the Moon, Sanger decided that this far surpassed the limits of the technically feasible. Of course, he may be right. But because now we know that there are energy sources in the universe which appear to be turning Moon-sized masses into radiation every ten seconds,it might be best to reserve judgment even on this point.
While such a concept as time dilation may seem like something that can't possibly be real, it has been demonstrated empirically in an experiment involving aircraft circling the Earth. More convincing yet, time dilation slows down the decay rates of unstable muons (traveling at near light speed), permitting them to reach sea level following their creation in the upper atmosphere.
Quantitative tests of time dilation have been performed numerous times at particle accelerators. A classic experiment was performed in 1966 at the accelerator at the European high-energy laboratory in Geneva, called CERN. Muons produced by collisions at one of the targets in the accelerator were deflected by magnets so that they would move on circular paths, and so could be stored for a decent interval (such "storage rings" have become an integral part of most high-energy accelerators). Their speeds were 99.7 percent of the velocity of light, and the observed twelve-fold increase in their lifetimes agreed with the prediction with 2 percent accuracy. Modern-day atomic clocks keep time so accurately that in order to compare time kept on Earth at such installations as the U.S. Naval Observatory or the Bureau International de l'Heure in Paris with time kept on atomic clocks in orbiting satellites, the time dilation must be accounted for, or discrepancies will arise between the various observatories.
Davies points out that the demonstration of the Theory of Relativity has some rather serious implications:
One inevitable victim of the fact that there is no universal present moment is the tidy division of time into past, present, and future. These terms may have meaning in one's immediate locality, but they can't apply everywhere.
This abandoning of a distinct past, present, and future is a profound step; as people, we are tempted to assume that only the present really exists. It is, as Davies says,
...usually presumed, withouth thinking, that the future is as yet unformed and perhaps undetermined; the past has gone, remembered but relinquished. Past and future, one wishes to believe, do not exist. We like to believe that only one instant of reality occurs at a time. The Theory of Relativity makes nonsense of such notions. Past, present, and future must be equally real, for one person's past is another's present and another's future.
The physicist's attitude to time is strongly conditioned by his experiences with the effects of relativity and can appear quite alien to the layman, although the physicist himself rarely thinks twice about it. He does not regard time as a sequence of events which HAPPEN. Instead all of past and future are simply THERE, and time extends in either direction from any given moment in much the same way as space stretches away from any particular place. In fact, the comparison is more than an analogy, for space and time become inextricably interwoven in the theory of relativity, united into what physicists call SPACETIME.
When God created the three dimensions of which we are accustomed, he also created the fourth dimension. Our universe is not three dimensional, but four (or perhaps more. One theory suggests there may be ten). When God created the universe, it was ALL created. To separate time from God's creation is as impossible as separating his attributes from him or from one another.
We don't even have time to discuss some of the wilder possibilities presented by quantum mechanics, what effect those theories have on such questions as causation, free-will verses determinism, and the possibility of an infinite number of alternate universes. As someone once said, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
Humility in the face of God is only reasonable.
God is love, the Bible tells us (1 John 4:7-8). The story is told about the theologian Karl Barth, that when asked about what was the most profound thought he'd ever had, responded: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
I will argue that the theme, the grand unified field theoryof the Bible is love (Consider Matthew 22:36-40, Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14).
I. Introduction to Love
Love is a universal human emotion. Some would go so far as to say it is one of the things that distinguishes us from the animals. Unfortunately, such a thought is utterly divorced from reality, because recent studies indicate that animals, too, experience love. The differences between humans and animals becomes ever less as we learn more about them. Some studies even show that they not only have emotions such as love and fear, they also seem to think, to plot, to cheat, and even to lie to one another.
Koko is a 230 pound female gorilla who converses in American Sign Language (Amerslan). Her vocabulary includes 500 signs that she uses on a regular basis and an additional 500 which she recognizes. For more than twelve years, she has been the focus of study by the Gorilla Foundation of California. On occasion the study has received support from the National Geographic Society.
One day, Koko told her trainer, Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson, that she wanted a cat. So Dr. Patterson gave her a toy cat. Koko was not satisfied. In June 1984 a litter of three kittens was taken to the rural compound near San Francisco that Koko calls home. The kittens had been abandoned at birth and were wet-nursed by a dog for four and a half weeks. Koko signed "Love that" to the kittens, and after carefully examining them all chose a tailless male and named him "All Ball"-though she generally refers to him now as simply "Ball". National Geographic, in January 1985 reported that:
For Koko's July birthday, Penny drew a cat - as requested - on her cake. "What did I draw?" she asked. "Ball," replied Koko. "Koko love visit Ball."
The article in National Geographic went on to report:
Koko sniffs the kitten, treating him much as she would a baby gorilla. She carries Ball tucked into her thigh and attempts to have him nurse. Like a child with a pet, she dresses Ball in linen napkins and hats. And she signs to Ball that they should tickle each other - one of her favorite games.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing things is Koko's reaction to the kitten when it bites her. Sometimes she laughs, but usually she simply signs "obnoxious". Dr. Patterson says that:
"It's encouraging that Ball can hurt Koko and Koko won't hurt him. She seems to like his feisty nature." Or, as Koko has said of Ball: "Soft good cat cat."
B. Adulterous Baboon
Jake Page, writing in the Los Angeles Times reported the following:
Deliberate deceit has been found nowhere in the animal kingdom so much as among primates. In one flagrant case, a female hamadryad baboon engaged in a clandestine affair with a younger male. Typically in such troops, a dominant male sees to it that the harem remains faithful to him.
In this instance, the illicit pair hid from the old boy behind a rock. After each coupling, the female would look up innocently over the rock and, in one instance, went over to the leader and presented herself to him, reassuring him that all was well before heading back for more trysting behind the rock.
The differences between the animals and us are not so great. We share a huge array of physiological, biochemical, and behavioral similarities. Carolyn Ristau of New York's Rockefeller University said:
We and most existent animal life have nervous systems that are remarkably similar, and most neurons are connected by synapses that also seem quite similar. If we wish to assume other species are not conscious, what is it that is so distinctly different about our nervous system that precludes consciousness in other species?
C. Science and Love
In 1958 Harry Harlow, in a presidential address to the American Psychological Association said:
Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and reassuring. Because of its intimate and personal nature it is regarded by some as an improper topic for experimental research. But, whatever our personal feelings may be, our assigned mission as psychologists is to analyze all facets of human and animal behavior into their component variables. So far as love or affection is concerned, psychologists have failed in their mission. The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists.
Advances in the study of love have been made since Harlow's address in 1958. Harlow himself investigated mother-infant attachments in monkeys, which he labeled as "love". He assumed, though, that there is a big difference between the love found in monkeys, and the love found in adult human beings. However, I don't know that this difference has actually been demonstrated; it remains simply a tacit assumption.
In the context of Stanley Schachter's labeling theory of emotion, love could be seen as simply a label humans have learned to place on their own physiological arousal. However, as can easily be demonstrated, love does not always - or perhaps even usually - involve intense physical symptoms. Instead, love can be understood as a particular sort of attitude that one person has toward another.
In 1970, on the basis of studies he made at the University of Michigan, Zick Rubin developed an attitude measure that he called a love scale; according to Rubin, this scale consists of three components:
In the textbook, The Psychology of Being Human, Zick Rubin writes:
Attachment refers to a person's need for the physical presence and emotional support of the other person. It corresponds to the sort of love studied by Harlow in infant monkeys and to the emotional attachment discussed by Weiss.
Caring refers to a person's feelings of concern and responsibility for another person. Caring corresponds to Erich Fromm's (1956) definition of love as "the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love."
Intimacy refers to a person's desire for close and confidential communication with another person. When we love someone, we want to share certain of our thoughts and feelings with that person more fully than with anyone else.
At this point, certain questions should have arisen in the reader's mind. What is love? Is love simply a biological reaction, tied completely to glandular excretions? Or is love a rational, unselfish action? Or is it a combination of mental and biological elements? And then, if love is operative even in animals, what is the difference between humans and animals? What in the world does it mean when Christians and Jews say that human beings are created in the image of God?
II. What is the Image of God?
It is unfortunate that too often Christians study neither the Bible nor the world around them when they attempt to answer the question of what it means that human beings were created in God's image.
Genesis 1:26-27 records the bare statement that Adam and Eve were made in His likeness:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the Earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
What does all that mean? The significance of humans existing in the image of God is that they therefore are very valuable and important. In Genesis 9, following the flood, God stresses the image of God as the fundamental difference between humans and animals. Animals were for food - but not people.
Perhaps the significance of the image of God is all that we need to understand. However, Christians have long wondered exactly what God might have meant when he said we were created in "His image". The traditional answer given by most Christians runs as follows:
1. Men and women possess attributes of personality
g. The ability to commune with God
The above list is all well and good, but it raises two valid questions. The first, is how does this list significantly differentiate us from the animals? Certainly there is a difference of degree between humans and animals, but the Bible strongly suggests that there is a significant difference of KIND, which the above list doesn't clarify. The second question that needs answering is likewise devastating: where in the Bible is the "image of God" defined as it is in the list above?
To summarize the objections, we might say that both natural revelation and special revelation invalidate the traditional view.
Is there an answer then?
Certainly, and it is surprisingly simple. Look at Genesis 5:1-3:
This is the written account of Adam's descendants: When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female; at the time they were created, he blessed them and called them "man".
When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.
If the reader searches a concordance, he or she will find that every occurrence of the Hebrew words "image" and "likeness" refer to a physical resemblance. In fact, "image" is often used to describe an idol. It is most logical, therefore, to conclude that the image of God in human beings is exactly what a natural understanding of the words imply: human beings were made to look like God. Moses contrasted what was normal in his society with a different reality: where in the ancient Near East it was universally the case that people made images of gods, God now taught that instead, He made people as images of himself.
The objection that orthodox tradition might raise at this point is tied to its failure to recognize what "spirit" means. God, the Bible says over and over, is a spirit and invisible; he is decidedly not physical. However, from these biblical statements, an unwarranted assumption is made: non-physical means formless.
Where does the idea of a formless God come from? Certainly not from the Bible, which speaks commonly of the hand, arm, eye and so on of God. Instead, the concept of a formless God is Greek in its origins. The words of Empedocles are illustrative:
We cannot bring God near so as to reach him with our eyes and lay hold of him with our hands...For he has not human head attached to bodily members, nor do two branching arms dangle from his shoulders; he has neither feet nor knees nor any hairy parts. No; he is only mind, sacred and ineffable mind, flashing through the whole universe with swift thoughts.
What Empedocles wrote dominated the thinking of later Greek philosophers like Plato, whose understanding then entered Christian thought in the Middle Ages; such thinking has dominated Christian theology ever since. Unfortunately, such a perspective does not match the Bible. It is clear that human beings are of a different substance than God: God is a spirit, while human beings are physical. However, this does not mean that God is formless. Angels, for instance are spirits, but they indeed have a form, usually rather strange by human standards (cf. Ezekiel 1:4-14 for a description of Cherubim).
It is generally assumed by commentators that references in the text of scripture to the finger, hand, eye, arm, face, or back of God are "anthropomorphisms" - that is, descriptions of God in human terms for the sake of human understanding: the indescribable is described. However, there are no scriptural warrants for understanding the descriptions of God in anything other than an ordinary way. The idea of anthropomorphism as an explanation seems to occur first in the writings of Aristobulus, a Jew of the second century BC. Aristobulus, and later Jews made use of the allegorical method of interpretation, finding it a convenient means of explaining away those features of the Old Testament which were troublesome in some way. Thus Aristobulus saw deeper meaning in the anthropomorphic expressions. He announced, for example, that those texts which described God standing, symbolized the steadfastness of the Earth created by God. The desire in Judaism to explain away the anthropomorphic expressions in the Old Testament becomes particularly apparent in the Targums - Aramaic translations of the Old Testament - where any mention of any human characteristic connected to God is carefully eliminated.
Part of the responsibility for the belief that the descriptions of God with feet, hands, face, and so on are not to be accepted literally, rests with Thomas Aquinas. He taught that it was impossible to describe the heavenly reality in anything but symbolic language. He argued in his Methods of Hermeneutics, that the Bible has a symbolic meaning, because heavenly things cannot be explained in earthly terms without some degree of symbolism.
Yet, the Old Testament unequivocally states that God has a form.
Numbers 12:8 records:
With him I speak face to face, clearly, and not in riddles; he sees the form of Yahweh...
Or Psalm 17:15:
And I - in righteousness I will see your face;
When I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your form.
The Hebrew word for "form", in case you wonder, as used in these two passages, means exactly what the English word "form" means (see its use in the following passages: Deut. 4:12, 16, 23, 25; 5:8; and Job 4:16, for example). Consider also Exodus 24:9-11:
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
There is no reason to make such a puzzle out of "the image of God" in man. As many of the early church fathers wrote, it must include the physical and bodily characteristics - not just the immaterial.
One final note. Only human beings are explicitly said to be created in the image of God. Therefore, those places which speak of animal-like qualities for God, i.e. "his wings" (Psalm 17:8; 91:4; and Ruth 2:12) should be recognized as the metaphors that they are.
On the other hand, we must take into consideration the fact of other "pictures" of God in the Bible -- as for instance in Genesis 15, where he shows up as a smoking fire pot, or in the books of Moses, where he appears as a pillar of fire at night, and a pillar of cloud by day -- or in Exodus, where he appears to Moses as a flaming bush.
One must ask the question, whether appearances are symbollic in the same sense language -- words -- are symbols of the underlying reality, but are not that reality themselves. The black lines on the page spelling out "water" do not quench my thirst or wash my body; they merely symbolize the sound which symbolizes the substance that I could fill my swimming pool with.
So, when we see God appearing, is his appearance part of the symbolism that allows clear communication in other respects, such as his choice of language and vocabulary, and general adjustment to the cultural background of those he contacted? God, after all, wished to be perfectly clear to those to whom he talked. So, when we see God appearing as a biped in Genesis 18, is that appearance the one that corresponds to ultimate reality, or is it his appearance in Genesis 15 as a smoking fire pot?
If we argue that physical appearance is what constitutes the image of God, then what of human beings who are deformed, whether by birth or through some tragic accident? Do such people then lack the imago dei?
On the other hand, if the more traditional formulation of "image of God" is accurate, then what of the retarded, the autistic, the insane, or even the foetus? Is their lack of -- or severely damaged -- reason, volition, emotions and the like indicative of their no longer having -- or perhaps never having -- the image of God in them? The eugenic Nazi would thus argue, and we must be careful in our definition that we don't give him that amunition.
If the thought of excluding some human beings from the image, whether for physical or sentient reasons is distasteful and repugnant, what will we do with non-human sentience, whether extraterrestrial or electronically based?
Obviously, this question is far more complex than it may at first appear.
III. Definitions of Love
Again, I'd like to focus on the Old Testament. In the last chapter,
I gave evidence that its theme is love - the love of God for people
(particularly Israel), and the love required of people (especially
Israel) for God and for each other. It is therefore important
that the reader of the Old Testament have a proper understanding
of this concept called love.
In popular usage, "love" is a word filled with emotion; it is a very positive, warm fuzzies sort of feeling. And there is this aspect to its use in the Bible. However, that warm sort of love is only one side of what is contained in the biblical concept of love. In the Old Testament, love is two-sided (sort of like the Force in Star Wars). There is:
1) The affirming side of love.
2) The inhibiting side of love.
Everyone knows, or rather thinks he or she knows, what the affirming side of love is all about, though even with that, most really have no clear concept at all. And the inhibiting side of love? Most know it under a different name: wrath. How this works out will become clear as we move along.
The main words used in Hebrew to express the idea of love in the Old Testament are ahab, raham, and hesed. It is the word hesed that most clearly displays the two halves - affirmative and inhibitive - of love. Ahab and raham are most often used for only the affirmative aspects of love. These three words need to be examined in some detail.
The Hebrew root ahab and its derivatives are found not only in the Old Testament and Hebrew texts of later times, but also in some related Semitic dialects - although it doesn't occur very often outside of Hebrew. For instance, in the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine, ahab appears only as part of a proper name.
In the Old Testament it occurs in all genres and in all time periods. That the Old Testament frequently uses the root, while related languages use it but rarely, indicates the use of ahab in Biblical Hebrew developed independently from these other languages, perhaps because of the significant theological differences between Hebrew culture and the other cultures of the Ancient Near East.
In 1748 Schultens made the suggestion that the Hebrew ahab was related to the Arabic word habba, which means "to breathe passionately, to be stimulated." Proverbs 30:15, Psalm 55:22, and Hosea 8:13 are sometimes quoted to lend support to Schultens' suggestion; however, it is very questionable that "breathing passionately" is an appropriate translation in any of the three passages mentioned.
Frankly, the etymology of the word ahab cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy.
2. Usage In any case, it is not the etymology which determines the meaning of a word, but rather its actual usage. The emotional feeling expressed by the word ahab is often contrasted with the word sana, "hate" (see Deuteronomy 5:9, 10; 21:15; Judges 14:16; 2 Samuel 19:6; Isaiah 61:8; Amos 5:15; Micah 3:2; Malachi 1:2; Psalm 45:7; 109:5; Proverbs 9:8; 10:12; 12:1; 13:24; 14:20; 15:17). In Proverbs 15:9 it is contrasted with toebah, "to detest". Psalm 109:4 denounces the ingratitude of one who rewards ahab with satan, "enmity".
Hebrew parallelism can be helpful in determining the various shades of meaning:
1. The one who loves someone "cleaves" to him (Heb. dabaq: see Deut. 11:22; 30:20; Prov. 18:24; and 1 Kings 11:2).
2. The one who loves someone "runs" after him (Heb. radaph: see Psalm 23:6 and Is. 1:23).
3. The one who loves someone "goes after him" (Heb. halak ahare: see Jer. 2:25).
4. The one who loves someone "seeks" (Heb. biqqesh: see Psalm 4:2; 40:16; 70:4).
5. The one who loves someone shows "devotion" to him (Heb. hesed: see for instance Jer. 31:3 and Hosea 11:4).
6. The one who loves someone has his soul knit to the soul of another (see 1 Sam. 18:1).
7. The one who loves someone is occupied with "affectionate desire" (Heb. haphes: see Psalm 34:12).
8. The one who loves someone chooses the one he loves (Deut. 7:7-8; 10:15; Isaiah 41:8; Psalm 78:68).
9. The one who loves someone thinks the one chosen is lovely (2 Sam. 1:23).
10. The chosen one is precious (Isaiah 43:4).
11. The chosen one is honored (Isaiah 43:4; Psalm 87:2-3)
We may therefore conclude, that ahab is the passionate desire to be intimately united with another person both inwardly and outwardly, toward whom we feel great affection (cf. Gen. 2:23-24).
Botterweck and Ringgren make an interesting point in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament:
It is interesting that the root - Richam, "to love with compassion," which often appears in proper names as an indication of God's love to the person wearing the name (or giving the name), never appears as a parallel to ahabh, while the root-dodh, significantly, occurs with ahabh only in Cant. 1:3f. If we have not overestimated the implications of these facts, they seem to show that the root ahabh in the OT has a basic meaning which is to be sharply distinguished from that of racham, and perhaps also from that of dodh, which prevents it from being used in connection with a divine name or from functioning as divine appellative in proper names. Consequently, the Hebrew of the OT has filled the concept of ahabh(ah) with an entirely independent meaning.
Interestingly enough, the Septuagint uses the verb agapao as a translation for ahab in an overwhelming majority of cases. In earlier Greek the differences in meaning between erao, phileo, and agapao is very indistinct. According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, agapao means simply "to be content with something". However, since the translators of the Septuagint chose to render Hebrew words built from the root ahab by forms of agapao, it developed its later New Testament meaning. This also indicates that the Hebrew root ahab could not be easily expressed by the Greek words phileo or erao because its fundamental meaning did not correspond to either of these two words.
Agapao may be considered the Greek equivalent to ahab, even though agapao is sometimes used for the Hebrew words ratsah,"desire", richam, "compassion", and haphes, "desire".
The scope of the word ahab as it is used in the Old Testament is wide. It is used of:
1. Parent to child (Gen. 22:2; 25:28; 37:3; 44:20; Prov. 13:24; 2 Sam. 13:21)
2. Opposite sex for one another (Gen. 24:67; 29:18, 30; 29:32; 34:3; Judges 14:16; 16:4, 15; 1 Sam. 1:5; 18:20; 2 Sam. 13:1, 4)
3. Mother-in-law to daughter-in-law (Ruth 4:15)
4. Between neighbors (Lev. 19:18, 34)
5. Friends (1 Sam. 16:21; Job 17:1; 2 Sam. 19:7)
6. Servant and master (Ex. 21:5; Deut. 15:16)
7. People and military leader (1 Sam. 18:16, 22)
8. Teacher and student (Prov. 9:8)
9. Strangers (Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:18, 19)
10. Yahweh and Israel (Deut. 10:12; 11:13, 22; 19:9; 30:6; Josh. 22:5; 23:11; Jer. 2:2)
The attitude of human love for God is also apparent in the Israelites' love for Jerusalem, Yahweh's sanctuary, and Zion (Isaiah 66:10; Lam. 1:2; Psalm 122:6). But all of this is founded on God's love for Israel, which motivates Him to both punish and save them (Hos. 11:4; 9:15; Jer. 31:3; Isaiah 43:4; 63:9; ZEphesians 3:17; Mal. 1:2; Deut. 7:8, 13; 10:15; 23:5; 2 Chron. 2:11; 9:8).
Ahab and its derivatives in the Old Testament have a very pragmatic character. Ahab presupposes an inner disposition which is strengthened by experiences and events, and it includes a conscious act on behalf of the person who is loved or the thing that is preferred. According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, perhaps the most impressive statement of the pragmatic character of ahab is found in 1 Sam. 18:1-4:
Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul, and Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his girdle.
A covenant was formed between David and Jonathan because Jonathan had ahab for David. There were certain concrete items given by Jonathan to confirm the reality of the covenant - to confirm his ahab for David.
The attitude of ahab is illustrated well by Genesis 29:18-20:
Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, "I'll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel."
Laban said, "It's better to give her to you than to some other man. Stay here and serve me."
So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
The practical consequence of love is expressed by Proverbs 10:12:
Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers over all offenses.
It is this attitude of ahab which is responsible for God'swillingness to forgive sin, and his reluctance to punish:
Say to them, "As surely as I live," declares Yahweh, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11)
Ahab must be expressed by action. The Israel that loves God follows him in obedience:
I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. (Jer. 2:2)
In the same way, what Yahweh did on behalf of his people is explained by his love for them:
Yahweh appeared to us in the past, saying:
"I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with devotion." [Jer. 31:3]
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them. [Hos. 11:4]
Because of God's ahab for Israel, he formed a covenant and gave Israel hesed. It was because of love and compassion alone that Yahweh saved them, lifted them up, and sustained them. In Deuteronomy 7:8 Moses writes:
But it was because Yahweh loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers 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.
And in Deuteronomy 10:15 he writes:
Yet Yahweh set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today.
The covenant that God forms with people unites them, resulting in hesed - "devotion" - between them.
Hosea uses the concept of love between a husband and wife to express this relationship between God and his people. Marriage is understood as a covenant (Mal. 2:14). Hosea may speak apologetically against Canaanite practices, because he is committed to the concept of marital fidelity, and strongly opposes the mere gratification of sexual lust. It is clear that in Hosea devotion is expressed in a loving attitude toward the person loved. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute, and to love her even when she has gone after another man. Loving this harlot is a picture of Yahweh's love for His unfaithful people. The reason discord existed in Hosea's marriage is because Gomer did not remain faithful to him. She did not act in a manner consistent with love, but went after others. At Peor, Israel had already shown her infidelity (Hosea 9:10). After the settlement in the land of Canaan she looked on the gifts of the soil, not as gifts from Yahweh, but rather as gifts from Baal (Hosea 2:8). Thus, Israel's failure to reciprocate in love is an expression of her inner alienation from God (Hosea 8:9). Israel lowered herself to the level of a prostitute, provoking God's wrath - the inhibiting aspect of the covenant.
The book of Deuteronomy is the bedrock of the covenant relation between God and Israel. One of the intentions of the book was to teach Israel her duty to reciprocate God's love, not just as an emotion, but as genuine obedience and pure devotion (cf. Jer. 2:2). The only possible way for Israel to live was in love and fidelity to Yahweh. Moses writes in Deuteronomy 6:5:
You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
People often ask, "How can love be commanded?" If we recognize that love is not just emotion and warm fuzzies, but rather involves behavior and obedience, then it becomes possible to understand how God can command people to love. Yahweh calls on his people to keep his commandments because of their love (Deut. 5:10; 7:9; Psalm 119:47, 48, 97, 113, 119, 127, 140, 159, 163, 165, and 167), to serve him (Deut. 10:12; 11:13), to obey his voice (Deut. 30:20), to walk in his ways, and to adhere closely to him (Deut. 11:22; 19:9).
Yahweh's love is the prototype for love in general. He gives out of his own initiative, but he desires that his people unite themselves to him alone. When the people have agreed to his conditions and accept his covenant, then they are bound to God in hesed - "covenant loyalty and devotion".
This love of just and obedient behavior constrains people even more when they are convinced that God himself loves justice and righteousness (cf. also Psalm 33:5; 37:28). Thus the Israelites are forced to make a decision:
See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you this day, by loving Yahweh your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. (Deut. 30:15-16).
God's love for his people is connected to their responsibility, like the responsibility of a vassal to his lord. A failure to love and obey Yahweh would bring a curse on Israel - God's wrath, the inhibiting side of God's love.
The commandments and laws are not burdens to Israel, but are kept for the sake of love; and if this is the case, Yahweh will give the affirming side of his love. Yahweh is not a somber lawgiver, but a loving Father who wants to take care of his people; as a result, He expects fidelity and devotion (hesed) in their whole manner of life. In fact, the other nations must be able to see their love and acknowledge it. According to Judges 5:31, "the friends [of Yahweh] must be like the sun as he rose in his might." Nehemiah applies this doctrine to Israel's history: Yahweh "keeps covenant and steadfast love (hesed) with those who love him and keep his commandments." In their interest, Yahweh is against the enemies of his people, but also very severe to those of his people who break His commands. It is against this background that the affirming side of love is contrasted with the inhibiting side, the wrath of God, and the fear of God.
Hesed is perhaps the single most difficult word to translate from Hebrew to English. It has the sense of goodness, kindness, affection, loving kindness, and perhaps most importantly, loyalty and devotion. The sense of the knowledge of God and the fear of God are also part of the word hesed, at least when it is used to express the relationship between God and the Israelites.
Nelson Glueck has written the definitive work on the word hesed;
entitled Hesed in the Bible, it was first published in
1927. He explains that the word hesed always indicated
some kind of relationship: host to guest, allies to one another,
friends to friends, rulers to other rulers, and most significantly,
God to his people.
Hesed implies relationship and indicates a deep and lasting affection. And it implies at the very least an agreement or vital relationship between individuals or peoples, even if a formal covenant is not in view. Leon Morris, in Testament of Love, writes:
Most scholars agree with Glueck that the term makes a more general reference to relationship, whether the tie be a covenant bond or some other kind. Walther Zimmerli, for example, thinks that "the nature of hesedh is conduct in relation, and demonstration of this relation. It is grace shown, or ready to show itself, in relation." It is too much to say that the word originates in the usages of covenant. We can say however, that it is the right word to designate the attitude that the partners of a covenant ought to have toward one another.
...Hesed is not some kind of arbitrary assistance, but rather that which members of the covenant are obligated to practice reciprocally. This meaning of hesed as the faithful, mutual assistance among people who are bound together by a covenantal relationship mirrors, perhaps, the original meaning of the word. Groups were formed so that through reciprocal assistance common dangers could be combated and overall security established. This distinct kind of aid, as well as the whole relationship in accord with the rights and obligations of this community, was called hesed.
The best way of determining the meaning of a given biblical concept is to examine its usage in context. A detailed and comprehensive examination may be found in Appendix 2 at the end of this book. The understanding gained there is assumed for what follows.
Hesed has its fullest exposition in the relationship that existed between God and Israel. Hesed, to the Israelites, is the love and loyalty, the devotion, the truth, the trust, the faithfulness guaranteed by God to the nation of Israel as the result of the covenant, or contract, he made with them as a result of the love (ahab) he had for them. Look at Deuteronomy 7:7-9:
Yahweh 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. But it was because Yahweh loved (ahab) you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers 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.
God promised to give benefits to the Israelites if they kept their half of the bargain; this is the positive, or affirmative side of hesed. However, there is an inhibitive side to God's love: if the Israelites did not obey, if they did not worship Yahweh alone, if they did not treat their neighbors with love, then the covenant promised God's wrath as a consequence. The covenant, formed because God had love (ahab) for Israel, placed demands on God and Israel both. Israel must obey. God must bless. But if Israel disobeys, God must curse. Within hesed is included both blessing and cursing. This created a certain tension, most clearly displayed in Hosea 11:7-11:
My people are hung up on turning from me;
they call him "High God", who will never raise them up.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
Will I deliver you up, Israel?
How can I give you up as Admah?
Will I put you down as Zeboiim?
My mind is turning over inside me.
My emotions are jumbled together.
Will I not carry out my burning anger?
Will I not return to devastate Ephraim?
Since I am God,and not man -
the Holy One in your midst -
will I not come in wrath? (my translation)
Because God loves Israel - because he has ahab for her, he would rather not harm her. Look at Ezekiel 33:11:
Say to them, "As surely as I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?"
However, because he has established a covenant, because of the hesed of that covenant, God is required to bring the inhibiting side of his love - the negative side of the covenant. A human being might not be able to actually execute the promised punishment against a dearly loved individual. However, he is God, not man - and despite his inner turmoil - he will do as he promised. God always keeps his word, even when it is painful to him.
RAHAM, RHAHAMIM, RAHUM, RAHAMANI
This root, which occurs 133 times in the Old Testament, refers to the deep love, usually of a superior for an inferior, that is based on some natural bond. There is an emphasis on the graciousness with which it is extended.
The verbal root raham is related to the noun rehem - womb; in Jeremiah 21:7 it is used of a mother's love for her nursing baby. It is used of a father's love at least once, in Psalm 103:13.
Raham seems to connote the feeling of mercy which people have for each other simply because they are human beings (Jeremiah 50:42). It is a feeling most easily prompted by small babies (Isaiah 13:18) or other helpless people; it is the natural mercy for the helpless that Israel's enemies lack because of cruelty (Isaiah 13:18; Jeremiah 6:23) - although God may occasionally give Israel's enemies such compassion (1 Kings 8:50; Jeremiah 42:12).
The root raham is frequently used of God, where it expresses several concepts:
1) It denotes the strong tie God has with those whom he has called as his children (Psalm 103:13). God looks on his people as a father looks at his children, and has pity on them (Micah 7:17).
2) It clarifies the sovereign choice of God. God is gracious and merciful [raham] to whomever he chooses (Exodus 33:19).
3) It describes his mercy and forgiveness toward his people in the face of deserved judgment and upon the condition of their repentance (Deut. 13:17).
4) It is God's mercy and grace in preserving his unrepentant people from judgment (2 Kings 13:23; Ezekiel 33:11).
5) The attribute becomes the basis, partially at least, of an eschatological hope (Isaiah 14:1; 49:13; 54:7; Jeremiah 12:15; 33:26; Ezekiel 34:25; Micah 7:19; Zechariah 1:16). Deuteronomy 30:3 prophesies that the exile results from Israel's sin, but stipulates that repentance will meet with God's compassion [raham]. During the exile Israel's leaders encouraged the people with God's electing love and mercy (Lamentations 3:32), and led them to humble themselves in repentance, calling on God to reinstate his father-like compassion (Zechariah 1:12). The restitution of the father-son relationship and the return from exile bear witness to God's loving care (Hosea 2:23).
The Inhibitive Side of Love
The wrath of God is not a popular topic, yet it is common throughout the Bible and we must, therefore, examine and understand it with some thoroughness. It is very enjoyable and easy to study the warm, bright side of God's love, examining in detail only the blessings promised under the covenant. In ancient Israel, in fact, the people concentrated their attention wholly on this side of God's love, failing to recognize that the blessings were dependent on obedience. Look at Hosea 6:1-3:
Come, let us return to Yahweh.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge Yahweh;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.
As L.C. Allen said so well in commenting on this passage:
The people speak with spurious words of repentance representing God in terms of Canaanite fertility religion - just a metaphysical machine under human control which automatically delivers the goods when the money is delivered and the button is pressed.
The people of Israel failed to understand who God is, or what he expects.
To concentrate on just the blessings of God's love, on only the things considered wonderful and pleasant, would leave the reader with a one-sided, warped view of God. First, we must understand that it is certainly clear from scripture that God does not behave toward his people with wicked intentions. Look at Proverbs 3:11-12:
My son, do not despise Yahweh's discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because Yahweh disciplines those he loves [ahab],
as a father the son he delights in.
See also Hebrews 12:10-11:
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
As these two passages make clear, the love of God does not prevent necessary punishment. In fact, God's love insures that punishment will in fact occur. It is only if God failed to have love for a person that he would fail to discipline him. Look at Hebrews again (12:8):
If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.
That God's wrath should be closely related to God's love may seem puzzling - even contradictory - at first. Yet it really should not surprise anyone. This same God - of whom John wrote, He "is love" (1 John 4:8b) - is also the God of wrath:
You alone are to be feared.
Who can stand before you when you are angry?
From heaven you pronounced judgment,
and the land feared and was quiet -
when you, O God, rose up to judge,
to save all the afflicted of the land. Selah.
Surely your wrath against men brings you praise,
and the survivors of your wrath are restrained. (Psalm 76:7-10)
God is a righteous judge,
a God who expresses his wrath every day. (Psalm 7:10)
"Wrath, judgment and anger as aspects of God's love? Weird! Surely it must be necessary to distort the scriptures to conclude that!" So might some initially react to the concept. But look at Psalm 136:
Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good.
(His love (hesed) endures forever)
Give thanks to the God of gods.
(His love endures forever)
Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
(His love endures forever)
to him who alone does great wonders,
(His love endures forever)
who by his understanding made the heavens,
(His love endures forever)
who made the great lights -
(His love endures forever)
the sun to govern the day,
(His love endures forever)
the moon and stars to govern the night;
(His love endures forever)
to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
(His love endures forever)
and brought Israel out from among them
(His love endures forever)
to him who divided the Sea of Reeds asunder
(His love endures forever)
and brought Israel through the midst of it,
(His love endures forever)
but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds;
(His love endures forever)
to him who led his people through the desert,
(His love endures forever)
who struck down great kings,
(His love endures forever)
and killed mighty kings -
(His love endures forever)
Sihon king of the Amorites
(His love endures forever)
and Og king of Bashan -
(His love endures forever)
and gave their land as an inheritance,
(His love endures forever)
an inheritance to his servant Israel;
(His love endures forever)
to the One who remembered us in our low estate
(His love endures forever)
and freed us from our enemies,
(His love endures forever)
and who gives food to every creature.
(His love endures forever)
Give thanks to the God of heaven.
(His love endures forever).
A reading through this psalm reveals that the judgment of God on his enemies - and the enemies of his people - is an expression of his love - his hesed. To ask "how can this be?" is a legitimate question only if we accept first the reality that God's wrath is an expression of his love, thereby making our question actually, "please explain how this can be," rather than "please prove it is so", since the proof is inescapable.
It is clear from Psalm 136 that a single action by God can be seen by the righteous as affirming, and at the same time, by the wicked as inhibitive. This means that divine actions which a human being might describe as either love or wrath are indeed both love and wrath; but which of the two words he will use to describe God's deeds remains dependent on that viewer's perspective. As human beings, when we are looking at God's activities, we generally have less than complete data. Our attempts at understanding are often akin to the difficulties faced by the group of blind people attempting to arrive at a consistent description of an elephant.
Look at Romans 12:17-21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary,
If your enemy is hungry,feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Our enemies may interpret our love for them as a negative thing. Look at Matthew 5:43-48:
You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The sun shown over Gibeon in the days of Joshua, and delayed going down about a day. For the Israelites, it was a great benefit; for the Amorites it meant death (Joshua 10:1-15). In the days of Noah the rain came down, destroying the wicked, but in the Ark, Noah was safe (Genesis 6-8). The sun can be either a blessing or a curse; rain can be either a blessing or a curse. The context makes all the difference, and so it is with God's actions toward the human race. For the righteous, his acts are perceived as blessing; for the wicked, they are described as wrath.
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