September 20, 2017

“A Developing Understanding of the Divine Will and Nature”?

The Bible, through a Scientist’s Eyes, part two

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible
by John Polkinghorne

• • •

“Development,” chapter two of John Polkinghorne’s small book on the Bible, is likely to be one of the more controversial sections in Testing Scripture. Whether you and I end up agreeing with him or not, you must admire his courage in dealing with some of the toughest questions honest Bible readers face.

We all know the story of how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” and we delight in what it teaches us about how God gives victory to his people. However, if we have any human sensitivity, we shudder in horror when we read Joshua 6:21: “Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” This and other texts that attribute massacres and genocide to the express command of God himself are difficult for modern readers to swallow. Even more challenging is reconciling this portrayal of God with what Scripture tells us of Jesus, who said, “Love your enemies.”

How do you deal with these seemingly incompatible views of God’s nature and ways?

Here is how John Polkinghorne handles the conundrum:

I believe that response to this dilemma demands the recognition that the record of revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete, and quite primitive in its earliest stages. Only slowly and falteringly could progress be made in Israel towards gaining a fuller comprehension of the reality of God.

The Victory of Joshua over the Amorites, Poussin

This solution will not be acceptable to those who hold more conservative views about the nature of the Bible.

There may be development of doctrine in Scripture, they would say, but even the earliest and most so-called “primitive” depictions of God were inspired by him and are accurate. If the Bible records that God commanded the destruction of their enemies, it is not just telling us that this is how the Hebrews, with a less developed view of God, interpreted their mission. Rather, that is what God actually commanded his people, and the divinely inspired account accurately records his perspective, not theirs. If the Bible says that God told them to do something, that’s what happened.

However, John Polkinghorne sees this development as part of the human side of Scripture. “We can recognize within it an unfolding process of insight and understanding as God’s nature was progressively revealed,” he says. Thus, the earlier depictions reflect an incomplete and inaccurate knowledge of God and their own time-bound interpretations of the events they were experiencing. “A primitive society could conceive no better insight than the use of force against unbelievers as the expression of its faithful following of Yahweh, the God of Israel.”

This is Polkinghorne’s first example of development in Scripture. In earlier parts of the Bible, Israel held henotheistic beliefs — they owed Yahweh exclusive allegiance but the gods of the other peoples around them were also real and a threat that must be faced. However, by the time of Second Isaiah, “henotheism has uncompromisingly become monotheism. There is no divine reality at all other than Yahweh” (Isa 42:8, 43:10).

Likewise, the concept of individual responsibility only arose later in Israel’s history, whereas in early narratives we read about people like Achan, whose entire family suffered for his personal sin.

Polkinghorne also suggests that this “multilayered” understanding of Scripture may help us come to grips with some of the so-called “contradictions” in Scripture. “Often passages in the canonical text, presented as if they were a unity, have in fact been formed by intermingling material drawn from a variety of sources, composed at different times and, therefore, reflecting different stages of development.” As those who worked with the sacred texts read and edited them into their final form, they let stand inconsistencies that perplex readers to this day.

Thus it is clear that before the Hebrew Bible reached its final canonical form there was a long developmental process, involving reworking of much that had been inherited from the past in the light of the understanding and experience of the present. Yet the editors who assembled the final text apparently did not find it necessary to smooth out the differences present in the sources that they used. Instead, the deposit of many generations was often allowed to stand together in the formation of Scripture. The long process of development was not obliterated in order to produce the appearance of a single consistent text. The explorations of the past were not to be totally obscured from view.

This provocative chapter on “development” concludes with a brief look at the New Testament and beyond, suggesting that the process of theological development in Christianity did not end with the closing of the canon. “Those who believe in the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) will not find this surprising,” he writes. Further Trinitarian and Christological developments, etc., in the Fathers and Church councils shows that God continues to lead his people into deeper understanding of his character and works.

John Polkinghorne is no theological “liberal” but he clearly accepts a greater degree of humanity in Scripture than evangelicals are willing to accept. While I think he makes a good case for his perspective, I am not willing to go as far as he does in this regard. Furthermore, in his emphasis on the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the Church (which I affirm), I think he underplays the uniqueness of the Biblical witness and the limits of the canon.

Whether or not you agree with his answers, he certainly is not afraid to ask the hard questions.

Comments

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’m anxious to see how we who post will respond. For me personally, I can say that my understanding of God has developed over time, from an immature, in your face, verbal, base kind of faith, to a more personal, hands-on, deeply held and felt phenomenon…Is it a stretch to believe that our ideas and understanding of God could have developed and matured over generations in much the same way? I would agree with the statement, “Further Trinitarian and Christological developments, etc., in the Fathers and Church councils shows that God continues to lead his people into deeper understanding of his character and works.” And for those of us who reject Church fathers and councils in favor of “scripture as the final authority”, we must remember that without the Church fathers, the canon would not exist in its present form.

    Thanks for the cud, CM. I’m sure we’ll all enjoy chewing on this one.

    • Yes the development of doctrine in the New Covenant over the past two thousand years was also expounded upon by John Henry Newman.

      I’ve reconciled the Old Covenant cases where God commands that all enemy people be killed by the fact that, unlike today, the Israelites couldn’t just “coexist” next to these other tribes, who often had evil rituals and such. It was either them or us, as that’s where humanity was at during that time.

      • It’s just God’s righteous judgment on sinners. If one accepts that Christ will judge “the living and the dead”, with some kind of punishment or destruction for those who reject the Gospel, then why is it so hard to accept God’s judgment on these tribes who refused to accept God’s chosen people? If one is going to make excuses for God in the OT, then why not in the NT and for Christ as judge? It ultimately requires re-writing much of what Christ taught.

        It is of course true that “revelation contained in Scripture is one of a developing understanding of the divine will and nature, continuously growing over time but never complete,”and the OT shows “progress in Israel towards gaining a fuller comprehension of the reality of God,” but the reality of God is not that he will no longer punish or destroy unbelievers, but that he will send Christ to reconcile the wolrd to him, and send the Holy Spirit to give faith. The OT starts with broad promises and prophecy that get narrower and more revealing as Christ gets closer. The progress is towards Christ, not “enlightenment.”

        This sounds like just another attempt to justify universalism, which of course, requires adding to Christ’s teaching. There is no way to test whether new teaching is from God or the devil other than to test against scripture, and there is nothing in Scripture to suggest the Holy Spirit adds to Christ’s teaching or support the claims made here.

        • boaz,

          Consider reading Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine (freely available online or via Kindle).

          The problem with what you say in the first part is that the babies of the Israelites’ enemies didn’t reject God–they were babies. So you have to come up with a way to reconcile the fact that God commanded His people to slaughter them. Read Psalm 137 for another example of this, happy is the person who seizes the infants of Babylon and dashes their heads against the rocks.

          “There is no way to test whether new teaching is from God or the devil other than to test against scripture, and there is nothing in Scripture to suggest the Holy Spirit adds to Christ’s teaching or support the claims made here.”

          The first thing to note in your statement is that what it really means is “…or the devil other than to test against [someone’s interpretation of] scripture…”

          The second thing to note is that, from the sola Scriptura perspective, there is no other way to test something. But Catholics and Orthodox also have the Apostolic Tradition to rely upon.

          Finally, the Spirit doesn’t “add” to Christ’s teachings but He does remind the Church of everything Christ taught and also leads them into _all_ truth. And so, He has guided the Church in her discernment of the canon (which Christ did not specify but which nonetheless is not an addition to Christ’s teachings), the Trinity, Christ’s two natures, two wills, the consubstantiality between the three divine Persons of the Trinity, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Mary as mother of God, etc. etc. These are developments of doctrine, implicit in one way or another in the Scriptures and Tradition, but not always explicit.

          • “The second thing to note is that, from the sola Scriptura perspective, there is no other way to test something. But Catholics and Orthodox also have the Apostolic Tradition to rely upon.”

            The fact that the Catholics and Orthodox do not interpret the Apostolic Tradition the same way makes me less than convinced that binding my interpretation to a man or group of men in authority somehow removes the interpretive issue.

          • Daniel,

            I can see that. But I’d argue that both Catholics and Orthodox claim their Church is the true Church and that God protects their teachings from error. Both cannot be right (though both could be wrong, which is what you believe at this time). One could be right, however.

            That said, Catholics and Orthodox agree on 99% of the Faith, from the seven sacraments to Apostolic Succession, most Marian doctrines (even if expressed slightly differently), etc.

          • Even Catholics don’t teach that tradition can contradict scripture, and that tradition has to have some grounding in teaching of Christ or the apostles. Abandoning the idea of Christ as judge and damnation for unbelievers contradicts all sorts of scripture and traditions.

            Further, babies are sinners and they do reject God. See Romans 3, Psalm 51:5, Ephesians 2. There’s nothing in scripture to suggest unbaptized babies of pagans have any hope of salvation, other than perhaps hearing the Gospel preached by Christ in Hades. (1 peter 4:6, 3:19).

            It’s a hard teaching, for sure.

          • Devin,

            I’m not trying to be argumentative, since I respect you and always appreciate your intelligent comments.

            I do think, however, that 99% agreement might be a bit optimistic on your part, since, as you note, one of the things they expressly disagree on is which one is the true church (and therefore has authority to interpret).

        • I don’t read it as adding to Christ’s teaching or scripture, but instead, as an increased understanding of God, made manifest in Christ, as though thought of God entered through a broad funnel, and the end result was Christ. I didn’t get a universalist feel from the post at all.

          I often encounter evangelicals who are quick to say “the Spirit led me to (perform a certain act, say a certain thing, build a certain building for the church, etc)”, without any foundational basis of scripture. If we read the Church fathers, we find that their teachings are much more grounded in scripture that much of what we see in the evangelical world today. In fact, it’s difficult to read through a paragraph of John Chrysostom without him citing a specific scripture…

          • We should attribute everything good we do to the Spirit leading us to good works, so in that sense, it’s fine, but when folks talk like they have a special message from the Spirit, they head into dangerous waters.

            I get the universalist bent from re-interpreting the OT to excuse God for his punishment of sinners, combined with attributing post NT developments to “God continuing to lead his people into deeper understanding of his character and works.” If we can re-interpret God in in the OT to say he really didn’t want Joshua to murder babies, why can’t we say God “leads his people into deeper understanding” by re-interpreting Christ in the NT to say he really won’t damn anybody.

            If he means only that post NT theological development is led by the Spirit, through deeper contemplation and consideration of Christ’s teaching (the Word) and re-reading the OT through that lense, then I think that’s exactly right.

        • “The OT starts with broad promises and prophecy that get narrower and more revealing as Christ gets closer. The progress is towards Christ, not “enlightenment.”

          Good word. Thanks.

  2. John Polkinghorne and I view things the same way. I especially appreciate the first quotation you have from him. It is true that “Only slowly and falteringly could progress be made in Israel towards gaining a fuller comprehension of the reality of God.” I think of the story of the guy in one of the Old Testament books (sorry…I can’t remember which one) who promised God if something happened the way he hoped it would happen, he would kill the first person who came through his house door. His daughter came through the door so he killed her since he had promised God he would do that. That is a clear example to me of a guy who did not understand God’s will, God’s love. Perhaps there are people who use this man as a GOOD example of someone who keeps his promises to God, but I say here is an example of what NOT to do. Don’t make stupid promises to God AND not everything that happens is the way that God would want it to happen. God does not WANT innocent children to suffer. God does not WANT anyone to be raped or murdered.

    • cermak_rd says:

      Jephtha was the one that sacrificed his daughter. And really, the story doesn’t make any sense. Judges 11:29-40.

      He said to his deityy:

      “If thou wilt deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord.”

      Just who was he expecting to come out to greet him? It definitely sounds like he had a human sacrifice in mind. Of course, some people state that he didn’t mean sacrifice as in burnt offering, but to consecrate to a religious life, but the terminology doesn’t seem consistent. And it’s odd because by this time the Jewish people knew that they weren’t supposed to sacrifice their children, above all else, they should have known that!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Just who was he expecting to come out to greet him? It definitely sounds like he had a human sacrifice in mind.

        if true, nifty way of sneaking one in under the radar, plausible deniability and all.

        Remember in a lot of the ANE, human sacrifice was as normal as breathing. Though not as widespread as say the Aztecs or Moche, it was a fundamental law of nature that the sure way to get a god’s attention for persuasion was to offer the god a human life, whether by knife or flame.

      • Isaac / Obed says:

        One of the traditional Rabbinic teachings on this text is that it is a cautionary tale regarding vows and oaths. I.e according to Torah, this sort of thing was forbidden, and the proper course of action would have been to consult the priests who would have instructed him to make a monetary sacrifice, valued at 10 shekels of silver per Leviticus 27 (assuming his daughter was under 20 years old).

  3. Wow, this is going to take some serious thought, as I am one of “those who hold more conservative views about the Bible.” Must ponder long and hard about this.

    • sounds like a good idea. as I am someone with what is probably a less conservative view of the bible, I will need to consider these idea’s carefully before forming an opinion

  4. I actually find that “developing” perspective that the Bible has, and the various contradicting views it presents on God’s nature, to be one of the best arguments _for_ the hand of God being at work in creating and preserving the Biblical text. If the Bible had been purely a human creation, at some point human beings would have, as Polkinghorne says, made an effort to “smooth out the differences” – to turn the Bible into what we want it to be, an infallible book of answers.

    Instead we’re left with a book that raises more questions that it answers, and that invites us into a dialogue that spans centuries. When in a single book of the Bible we find, for example, statements that God sponsors genocide _and_ the statement that the very fact that David had shed blood made him unfit to build a temple for God, it forces us to wrestle with those viewpoints and to take sides.

    If the Bible had been a human construction designed only to tell us what to believe, it could easily become a substitute for God. Instead, it is structured perfectly to force us to grapple with what it relates and in doing so, to engage with God and wrestle with God as well. The diverse and unashamedly self-contradictory nature of the text _forces_ us to look beyond the text to God in a way that a “book of answers” never could. That, to me, is what makes Scripture so valuable.

    And, it’s entirely consistent with the character of God who chose to intervene in the world through the true Word of God, Jesus, who walked among us, fragile and limited and misunderstood, and yet brought us salvation and union with God in a way that the written Word never could.

  5. Good Lord, that was a fantastic answer.

  6. Richard Hershberger says:

    “John Polkinghorne is no theological “liberal” but he clearly accepts a greater degree of humanity in Scripture than evangelicals are willing to accept.”

    This calls for some clarification. “Liberal theology” is the attempt to remove the supernatural miraculous bits from religion, restricting it to merely a program for moral behavior. (The word “liberal” here is an older usage only indirectly related to modern American politics.) I don’t know Polkinghorne’s work, so I have no independent knowledge of where he stand on this. Nothing you have quoted suggests he adheres to liberal theology.

    What he is describing in these passages is Biblical criticism, and what we should infer from it. (The word “criticism” should be understood as analysis, not as “You suck!”) Biblical criticism “asks when and where a particular text originated; how, why, by whom, for whom, and in what circumstances it was produced; what influences were at work in its production; what sources were used in its composition and the message it was intended to convey” (to quote from Wikipedia, the source of all human knowledge).

    Liberal theology was heavily influenced by Biblical criticism, but it is not a necessary outgrowth of it. Biblical criticism is unremarkable in mainline Protestantism, while liberal theology is a rare extreme view. My personal opinion is that any reading of scripture that does not take Biblical criticism into account is simply unserious. The henotheism Polkinghorne cites is an excellent example. It is there whether you like it or not. To deny it, especially while claiming to read scripture “literally”, is simply to put your hands over your ears and loudly chant “I’m not listening!”

    • Agreed. Just because Biblical criticism and non-literal approaches to the Bible have been used to try to deny the Gospel, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone who uses those approaches is denying the basic truths of Christianity. It’s notable that all the ancient creeds focus on what we believe to be true about the nature of God and the salvific work of Christ, _not_ on dictating a certain view on the inspiration of Scripture.

      My approach to Scripture is the opposite of most evangelicals. My _starting_ point is a deep certainty that Jesus became incarnate, shared our human life, died in our place, rose from the dead, ascended back into the dance of the Trinity, and will return to make all things new. That certainty is partly based on Scripture, partly on the witness of the Church, and partly on personal experience of God, but is ultimately a gift of God through the Holy Spirit as mediated through those three sources of authority. It’s _out_ of that faith in Jesus that I then turn to Scripture, which I consider, as Paul says, “useful” (2 Tim 3:16) for gaining knowledge of God and being formed into the image of Christ.

      I know a lot of folks try to do things in the other direction – starting with faith in the Bible and trying to reach out from that foundation to attain faith in Christ – but honestly that feels really backwards to me.

      • Jack Heron says:

        Well put, Michael. That’s pretty much how I go about it, too. “I reckon this Jesus bloke is God – let’s see how best we can find out about Him” as opposed to “The Bible says it and I believe the Bible”.

      • I like the points that you make, Michael Z.

  7. Clay Knick says:

    I’m with you on this, Mike. I read that chapter yesterday and had the same questions.

  8. Mike

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I have always appreciated Polkinghorne, but find I must disagree with his analysis here, for the following reasons.

    First, it substitutes a subjective and time-based interpretation for a text-based interpretation. When the meaning of the text changes, not based on better research or textual analysis, but on the “spirit of the age”, then the text has no final meaning. The real problem with this, of course, is what happens when, either now or in the future, the idea of blood sacrifice, and its fulfillment on the cross, are also ascribed to the ash-heap of outworn religious ideas from a people in a less advanced stage of God-understanding. On what basis, if we follow Polkinghorne’s lead, can we arbitrate which God-understandings are correct, and which are not? And how can we have any certainty that our present God-understanding will not also be merely a stage or religious development, soon to be discarded for a later (but also soon-to-be-discarded) understanding? As someone has said, the church that weds itself to the spirit of the age will find itself a widow in the next age.

    Secondly, it deprives the text of the conquest of any theological meaning. We are left only with the idea that “this is what the Hebrews thought God wanted them to do”. But the conquest was not the result of God’s caprice, or the delusions of His people. The Hebrews were apparently content to stay in Egypt, and, even after the exodus, were reluctant to undertake the conquest of the land. But the “land” is a symbolic microcosm of the earth itself, and the conquest finds its ultimate meaning in God’s overall plan. It was God Himself (symbolized especially in the ark circling Jericho) who was bringing judgment on human sin. It was God invading creation to establish His kingdom. And what he did in a limited way in Canaan He will do in a complete way at the end of all things (or rather, the end that creates the beginning). That is why the plagues of Revelation are patterned after the plagues of the exodus and miracles of the initial conquest, and why the saints are pictured as an army (the 144,000 kept apart from women). Of course, in Revelation it is Christ Himself (not his people, who apparently only accompany Him) who fights and triumphs. Also, of course, Revelation is highly symbolic, but unless the conquest is God’s idea (and not the delusions of the Hebrews) the symbols lose their meaning and the story loses its narrative (that all the earth is the Lord’s, that He has entrusted all judgment to His Son, that the Son will bring judgment and justice, and through that, create a new kingdom on a purified earth that He will rule with His people).

    A century ago Albert Schweitzer concluded his survey of 19th century liberal Protestantism’s attempt to find “the historical Jesus” with this telling metaphor: each theologian went to the well of history, gazed down to see the real Jesus, and found his own reflection. It would be a pity if we repeated that same mistake about the Bible as a whole.

    • Some of the same concerns I have. Well expressed.

    • Very clarifying, Daniel. Thanks!

    • Hmmm…I see what you are saying. You raise some very good points. I think though, as Peter Enns said I believe, we should judge all Scripture by the ultimate revelation we receive from Jesus Christ. I often feel that these sort of issues we grapple with only make true sense in a Jewish or Rabbinic context. As Christians, we already have someone to whom we can “arbitrate” Scripture by.

      I feel that your criticisms are some ways another form of the usual worries people have when things become less black and white and more open ended. As I grow older and spend more time with the Word, I realize there is no sharp and clear guideline we can follow when reading Scripture. The only thing that is sure and cannot be denied is that Christ had died and that he has risen.

      • Hi Huol

        I agree that all scripture must be interpreted by Christ. But it also seems to me that the meaning of Jesus’ life and death can only be understood by interpreting it by the scriptures itself, including the Hebrew Bible. Polkinghorne’s analysis, imo, detracts from the meaning of Christ (see my second point above) rather than adding to it.

        Regarding your second paragraph: Whether my arguments are based on my “worries” does not validate or invalidate them.

      • Huol,

        I can’t help but sense a circularity…. I understand the sense that Christ is the ultimate revelation, but how do we find out that this Christ IS the ultimate revelation? Where do we find out who he is and what he is like, and why he is important to us personaly? Those are questions the Bible answers… The Christ I seek a relatonship with is the Christ I read about in the Bible….. If you mean that scripture is to be understood in terms of Christ’s centrality in those scriptures, then how is that different then saying “scripture interprets scripture”? Maybe I am misunderstanding what you are saying, but I’m not sure how meaningful it is to say, “As Christians, we already have someone to whom we can “arbitrate” Scripture by.”

        Peace…

    • Good points.

  9. “If the Bible records that God commanded the destruction of their enemies, it is not just telling us that this is how the Hebrews, with a less developed view of God, interpreted their mission. Rather, that is what God actually commanded his people, and the divinely inspired account accurately records his perspective, not theirs. If the Bible says that God told them to do something, that’s what happened.”

    I’m not sure these are mutually exclusive positions. If the human race in general, and the Hebrews in particular, were only able to understand/behave in a certain way, then it makes sense for God to meet them at their level. It could be true that the Hebrews interpreted their mission a certain way and that God commanded that mission as a concession to working with imperfect humans. Of course, such a synthesis ignores the ethical issue – God commanding destruction. However, it is interesting that the Torah offers several significant theological defenses of the destruction of Canaan. So, the issue of morality and destruction was known to the crafters of the Torah.

  10. Though it undermines my own faith in scripture, part of me sometimes wonders if the ancient Jewish writers wrote in God’s endorsement of their wartime activities as way to put a religious spin and justification for atrocities in their own history — sort of like American historians once did with some of the things we did in the name of Manifest Destiny.
    Then again, another part of me wonders if current moral philosophies in western culture have conditioned my mind to downplay the seriousness of sin and to view God’s righteous wrath as unnecessarily harsh and brutal.
    And then I think of the brutality of the cross and how that brutal symbol stands at the center of human history and creation itself and serves as the greatest evidence of God’s mercy and love.
    Even though part of me is morally shocked by many parts of scripture, somehow it all (even the brutal parts) seems to fit correctly into a larger picture — though I can’t really explain how or even begin to wrap my brain around that paradox.
    Besides, I’m just not qualified to judge my Creator, and I really have no business trying.

    • That is how I approach many of the “histories” of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were written by the priests (by and large) who had, as all do, an agenda and their own biases. Also, they were sometimes giving a different story than the one we are reading today.

      I see no reason why I cannot judge putative divine beings. Humanity, as imperfect and squabbling as they can get, got together and pretty much unanimously agreed that genocide is a crime against humanity–note that means it’s not just a crime against the people who are slaughtered, it’s a crime against the rest of the human fabric, which now has a hole where that people should have been. If imperfect humanity can do that how much more would one expect from a divine being?

      Obviously this is one area where I’m going to differ with Christianity and probably a very good reason why I am no longer one as I do not believe in the efficacy of blood offerings. Nor do I, obvioulsy, read the Hebrew Scriptures through a Christian prism.

    • Whenever I read the genocidal episodes and so on I always remember the story from The Once and Future King.

      “Sometimes, life does seem to be unfair. Do you know the story of Elijah and the Rabbi Jachanan? This Rabbi went on a journey with the prophet Elijah. They walked all day, and at nightfall they came to the humble cottage of a poor man, whose only treasure was a cow. The poor man ran out of his cottage and his wife ran too, to welcome the strangers for the night and to offer them all the simple hospitality which they were able to give in strained circumstances. Elijah and the Rabbi were entertained with plenty of the cow’s milk, sustained by home-made bread and butter, and they were put to sleep in the best bed while their kindly hosts lay down before the kitchen fire. But in the morning, the poor man’s cow was dead.

      “They walked all the next day, and came that evening to the house of a very wealthy merchant, whose hospitality they craved. The merchant was cold and proud and rich, and all that he would do for the prophet and his companion was to lodge them in a cowshed and feed them on bread and water. In the morning, however, Elijah thanked him very much for what he had done, and sent for a mason to repair one of his walls, which happened to be falling down, as a return for his kindess.

      “The Rabbi Jachanan, unable to keep silence any longer, begged the holy man to explain the meaning of his dealings with human beings. ’In regard to the poor man who received us so hospitably,’ replied the prophet, ‘it was decreed that his wife was to die that night, but in reward for his goodness God took the cow instead of the wife. I repaired the wall of the rich miser because a chest of gold was concealed near the place, and if the miser had repaired the wall himself he would have discovered the treasure. Say not therefore to the Lord: ‘What doest thou?’ But say in thy heart: ‘Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?’”

      Like you said, “Besides, I’m just not qualified to judge my Creator, and I really have no business trying.”

  11. There is a correlation between human relationship development (from infant to adult) and the relationship changes shown in scripture between God and His people. When we are young we respect and obey our parents out of fear. They are bigger than we are, they have all the power, so we obey. As we grow, we eventually come to obey our parents out of love. We don’t fear them as much as we fear disappointing them or hurting them. Our motivation in relationship has changed from fear to love. Could it be that God reveals himself in scripture along a very similar developmental progression? The Israelites’ primary relationship with God starts in fear as He brings plagues on Egypt. Eventually, God’s law is written on man’s hearts, instead of stone, and we obey out of love.

    • cjones,

      Yes, I have heard this idea, and it has its appeal. Thank you for sharing this metaphor.

      Unfortunately, without appealing to scripture itself, it may be difficult to know whether this metaphor should be chosen, or a different one instead. For example, the Greeks argued the metaphor backwards, that we are a less evolved stage of humanity (with less wisdom) than the first humans.

      The other problem I see is, following your metaphor, how would we know we are at the adult stage, and not, say, pre-adolescence? And therefore, perhaps a more “adult” doctrine about Jesus will arise after the New Testament (which is what the Muslims and Mormons believe, though in different ways).

    • “Eventually, God’s law is written on man’s hearts, instead of stone, and we obey out of love.”

      Yes, cjones. I wish that day was today for all of us.

  12. Here is my in-process/developing take on the OT manner which God/Yahweh dealt with specific peoples thru harsh ways…

    It seems to me that the revelation of God to man was progressive, ultimately reaching its apex with the appearing of Immanuel. So, at the very beginning, Adam & Eve’s understanding of God was limited to the Thou Shalt Not proscription with its very dire sounding consequences…

    This was God’s choice to be more of a proctor, supervising the results of a divine directive which I believe was meant to impart character, godly character, by keeping it. BTW: it could be the ‘reward’ of eventually getting to eat of the Tree of Life the manner which godly character was finally imparted & another way of eventually transporting those that passed the test into glory. Just my own idea still fermenting at this time…

    By circumventing the original blueprint for mankind, Adam & Eve stunted the process & left their progeny without godly character. Or to put it another way, incapable of resisting sin in all its ugly expressions. Instead of a race of people wholeheartedly devoted to their Creator, there was a glitch in the way people viewed God & how they related/interacted with Him. God continued to be a tutorial God; one that continued the process of ‘testing’ as the so-called Just Judge some have described Him to be. It was not His original intent, but He was working within the messy human choice & consequence constraint that He deemed worth it.

    As such, I can see how God dealt with the ugliness of sin by dealing with it thru divine destruction. So the flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, & the conquering of Canaan reveal a God that is attempting to control or limit or address the issue of sin. And just as the Law was insufficient to give life, so being a wrathful God dealing with sin’s corruption of mankind just as futile. Carried to the eventual nth degree, all mankind would eventually be judged unworthy & incapable of achieving the Creator’s original intent for it.

    I think the OT is the story of how much humankind was in need of a Savior. It was a collection of stories that were meant to leave the reader crying out to God for ultimate release of sin’s stain. And God was neither content, nor even wanting to be, the wrathful God of continuing judgment. He decided to become the offering for the sin of the world, upon a new tree of life, the cross. And instead of condemning the whole world by His appearing, Jesus became the Last Adam fulfilling all the original requirements of Eden. And it had to be a fully human representative to do so. The minor technicality that it was only God that could also complete such a task the mystery of the incarnation & the amazing manner which He showed His love for us…

    These are ideas still fermenting as a way of understanding how God dealt with humankind in the OT vs. how mercy & grace came to us in Jesus under a New (better) Covenant…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I think the OT is the story of how much humankind was in need of a Savior. It was a collection of stories that were meant to leave the reader crying out to God for ultimate release of sin’s stain.

      Type Example: R Crumb’s Illustrated Book of Genesis, where Crumb “illustrates as-written” and does not pull any punches. Those were savage and terrible times, “Dark times, Harry.”

      • i believe Adam & Eve were not ‘perfect’ as in the perfected sense…

        yes, they were sinless, but naive & wild…

        yes…wild. like the entire earth outside the Garden of Eden. wild, unpredictable, savage…

        could be the Garden was God’s ‘safe’ zone. one that He wanted replicated thru the cooperation of His caretakers…

        God wanted cooperation, or what some insist on categorizing as obedience. He wanted ‘us’, His crowning work of creation, to actually become like Him (the very same understanding of the serpent) thru wanting it the way God had proscribed, not thru their ultimate choice to circumvent His directive…

        the Tree of Life was always God’s intent for us to become like Him. as such, it was that very tree that salvation was ultimately purchased for all mankind incapable of escaping the effects of sin…

        Jesus brings all those that trust in Him to the cross to receive the very thing Adam & Eve did not provide for their progeny…