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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Hebrew God

Have you ever wondered: Why the God of the Hebrews? Why did the God of a small group of Middle Eastern people become the God of Western Civilization and much of the rest of the world? How did the Hebrew God replace all of the other traditions within the Western World to become the near universal conception of the Divine? Likewise, how and why did a book of Hebrew writings come to be regarded as the sacred text of so much of the Gentile World?

Think about it. Not only did we inherit the Hebrew God, we also inherited their conception of that God (through the writings we now refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible). This realization should be an absolutely astounding phenomenon to us, but most of us have never even considered this or given it any thought at all! For most of us, this realization confirms the truth of the old proverb: "You can't see the forest for the trees." We have been so busy with the particulars of our perspectives on God, Scripture and religion that most of us have failed to take note of their origins.

I'll say it again: We have adopted the perspectives of a relatively small and obscure group of people relative to God and "His" characteristics! Take a moment to let that sink in and marinate. Is there anything else in the history of humankind on this planet that compares to this phenomenon?

Admittedly, we have inherited many linguistic, legal, architectural and other cultural attributes from the civilizations of the Greeks and Romans. Likewise, we can still trace the influences of Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian cultures on the Western World. We can even point to specific things that we have inherited from the Eastern World - the great civilizations of China, Japan and India. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the religious views of most of the Western World derive from a small tribe of people who anciently inhabited a small strip of land in the Levant.

Having awakened to this realization regarding the source of our religious beliefs, we then have to ask ourselves: WHY? What persuaded peoples from many different religious traditions to abandon those traditions and adopt the religious traditions of this tribe of people? Was it something about the people themselves? Was it something about the nature of their writings? Was their literature somehow superior to the writings of other peoples? Was it something about their God? Was the notion of their God persuasive and seductive to other cultures? In short, what is/are the factor(s) that contributed to the near universal acceptance of the Hebrew God throughout so much of our world.

In beginning to answer these questions, it seems self-evident to me that one of the major factors contributing to this phenomenon was the uniqueness of the Hebrew perspective on the Divine. Many of the religions of the ancient world were polytheistic in nature. Many of those cultures believed in a pantheon of gods - there were gods for war, love, agriculture, hunting, sex, seas and a host of other things. Even where there was some concept of a supreme god, this entity was most often seen as presiding over many lesser gods. Even in the instance of the experiment in monotheism by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, the deity was tied to a visible force of nature - the sun. In contrast to all of this, the Hebrew God was one, supreme, universal and invisible entity.

The Hebrew God claimed to be the Creator of everything else - the only True God. Unlike the gods of all those other peoples, the Hebrew God claimed to be beyond the capacity of humans to conceptualize, imagine or contain. Indeed, the Hebrew names for God indicate an entity that is so far above and removed from human understanding and contact as to be beyond description or quantification.

The first name given in the Hebrew scriptures for God is "Elohiym." (Genesis 1:1) As has been noted by many linguistic scholars, this word is unique to Hebrew. It is the plural of "El" or "Elowahh," and it literally indicates the God of gods or the Supreme God. In other words, the Hebrews were claiming that their God was superior to and above all of the gods that were worshiped by the peoples surrounding them. Moreover, the Hebrew author(s) of the book of Genesis went on to assert that this Elohiym was the Creator of everything else - the source of all else. Now that was a claim that almost demanded the attention of the rest of the world.

Later, in the account of Moses' encounter with this God, Elohiym tells him that "I am who I am." (Exodus 3:14) This passage is based on the Hebrew verb "hayah." It means "to be" or "to exist." Hence, this Hebrew God was literally telling Moses that "He" existed because "He" existed. In other words, this entity was self-existent and didn't require any other thing or force to sustain himself. Thus, it is strongly implied that everything else depends on the Hebrew God for its existence.

Continuing in this same passage from the third chapter of Exodus, we read that this God also revealed to Moses that his name was "YHVH" (the Hebrew scribes left out the vowels because they felt that this name was too holy to pronounce). It is interesting to note that this name harkens back to the verb referenced above and literally means the "One Who Exists." In addition to a name, this God identified himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Exodus 3:15) In other words, this Hebrew God was an eternal God who had existed in times past and would continue to exist into the future.

Another unique feature of the Hebrew God was the fact that "his people" claimed that "He" spoke to them and inspired them to record his laws, stories and prophecies. Although the Hebrews did not have an actual nation-state for most of their history as a people, their religion served to provide them with a distinctive identity among the peoples of the earth. A major part of that identity was contained in the writings that we now refer to as the Old Testament of the Bible.

As Dr. Jacob L. Wright (Associate Professor of the Hebrew Bible at Emory University) has asserted, the Hebrew Scriptures were distinctive from the literary traditions of the other peoples of the Ancient World. Instead of glorifying the nation-state and heroic death on behalf of that entity, the Hebrew Bible praised procreation and survival of the family and tribe in the midst of a hostile world. When compared to the Babylonian, Greek and Roman funeral orations of heroic soldiers and citizens who died in the service of their country, the approach of the authors of the Hebrew Bible stands out as very unique and different. In short, the Hebrew God wasn't concerned with the same things that other gods appeared to be interested in - like serving the interests of the state. On the contrary, the Hebrew God claimed to transcend the state.

Hence, although YHVH was the God of a small tribe of people living in a narrow slice of the Levant, "He" transcended many of the popular notions of the Divine extant in the Ancient Western World. In other words, the Hebrew God had universal appeal. The notion of a Supreme, somewhat remote and invisible God made sense to people's internal expectations of what the real God would be like. Moreover, the fact that people could experience the Hebrew God internally and individually made him eminently superior to the alternatives that their respective traditions and cultures had produced.

Finally, the most important factor in the widespread acceptance of the Hebrew God was the appearance on this earth of a young Jew known to us as Jesus Christ. In the tradition of the ancient Hebrew authors of Scripture, this Jesus claimed to have a kingdom that was not of this world - one that was even superior to the Roman Empire. He also claimed to be the embodiment and fulfillment of all of the laws and prophecies of those ancient Hebrew authors of Scripture. And most importantly of all, this Jesus offered to sacrifice himself for the sins of all of humankind - thus enabling humankind to share in the self-existent, eternal life of the Hebrew God. So Jesus Christ was the "tipping point." As his followers spread the story of his life around the world, many of the people who heard that story came to believe that the Hebrew God was the genuine article.

In looking back on this remarkable phenomenon, we have to admit what an unlikely and yet somehow inevitable story this turned out to be. Also, we are forced to pause and reflect on the judgment of so many of our forefathers. And we have to ask ourselves: Does their collective judgment mean anything to us? Was their adoption of the Hebrew God (or "His" adoption of them, depending on your perspective) happenstance? OR was this all meant to be? Those are questions that each of us will ultimately have to answer for ourselves. Nevertheless, for this author, the historical fact of this phenomenon (the widespread acceptance of the Hebrew God) indicates to me that the Hebrew God is the genuine article!

*** Hebrew words from The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible

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