When God Still Had Street Cred

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

David Dessin ·

More than a few people will, when asked about the origin of their morality, answer with “God”. When asked who this god is, they will usually describe a fatherly god, kind and gentle, who was very necessary and present at some point in history, but now only plays the role of a transcendent and inaccessible guarantee of human morality. Perhaps he even is an aesthetic x-factor of nature, but most importantly someone who speaks only to the heart: in other words the almost crossed-out God of modern metaphysics, the no longer necessary hypothesis. This is the modern image of God. The worst thing about it is that most people don’t realize that there are alternatives.

Almost impossible as it may be today, being God still means being the only god, with a power that is absolute. But in the first era of monotheism, it was very different. God was still one of the many gods and his supremacy was not evident at all.

Imagine yourself in God’s place. You are just starting out, as a young god, without followers, no one knows you, and you have no reputation, no street credibility, or self-confidence. What do you do? Easy. Like many childless people in antiquity, you go to the slave market (called Egypt) and you pick out a girl. Not a greedy princess, but someone you can easily influence, someone needy, a pretty woman. Israel is perfect. You had dealings with her before, and even though that didn’t go too well, you are confident that this is the perfect challenge for the both of you.

But of course, buying a slave is not very divine. Much better to “liberate” her from the clutches of the former owner! So, he tells Moses, “see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Ex. 4:21)

What a very different God this is than the one we are used to. Not at all that absent, rigid, obsolete father-figure Nietzsche and Freud couldn’t stop railing against. Yochanan Muffs calls this God “the young hero”. The whole cat-and-mouse game between God and Pharao, with Moses running back and forth all the time, basically serves no other purpose than to show off, so that God’s fame “shall resound throughout the world”. (Ex. 9:16)

But then, when He has “liberated” her, our young hero also has to take care of Israel, provide for her and lead her through the desert. Obviously, this is not the perfect honeymoon. Their relationship changes, and the street cred God had created for himself shifts from a mere nationalist fame to something deeper. God doesn’t just want to own Israel, he wants her love to reflect his glory. The hero becomes a provider, a God who provides and saves. There lies the origin of what we today call “providence”. Like everything else in the Bible, it is presented not as a theological abstraction but in a series of “concrete situations figuratively conceived”. (Muffs) In reading about this, one even gets the impression our young God almost “needs” to be needed. All the way, trough the desert, He craves situations that demand his sustaining care. His concern to provide food for his young bride is sometimes truly amazing.

When Moses sarcastically remarks: “Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?” (Numbers 11:22) He becomes outraged! Also, mark Gods incense over the people’s questioning his ability to provide food in the desert. The answer is well known, in a rain – almost a storm - God gives his people the food they want. As if the young – frustrated – husband says: “Food you want? Food you’ll get!”

In fact, there are passages when God actually begs Israel to test his goodness. Muffs puts it this way: “If only they would try me! You think that the nature gods of the nations can provide an abundance? Just test me and I will outdo them at their own game.” One of the major functions of the pagan gods was to provide rain. According to Jeremiah, God can outrain the rainmakers: “Do the heavens (of themselves) provide rains?” (14:22). There is a lot of jealousy in these first moments of the relation, a lot of show as well, with all kinds of hocus-pocus. As Muffs says: this God is “pulling rabbits out of his hat in order to convince an incredulous people that he really has the power to carry out his own prophecies.”

Clearly, he does not only want Israel’s obedience, but also her faith, affirmation, love and enthusiasm. He is always afraid that even when he fulfills his word, Israel will consider it a coincidence rather than a product of his divine will.

Instead of being angry at their quasi-philosophical demand for empiric proof, he actually provides it in the form of an authenticating omen that they themselves can actually choose. “One is almost tempted to say that God delights in their doubt because it provides him with another opportunity to empirically / experimentally / scientifically authenticate His being. Instead of being outraged by human doubt, He actually encourages it.” (see: Isa. 7).

No “God is dead” here, although the marriage often comes very close to being disbanded. The crisis between man and God we observe all over the Biblical texts seems to be an essential part of the Scripture. In fact, most of their relation seems to consist of these crises. As demonstrated, the prophets played a very important role in this, not so much as enforcers of obedience and piety but as mediators in a difficult and ongoing marriage. Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel further developed this relation by adding various images and additional content. They saw Israel’s history as the story of a woman who was married and then betrayed her spouse, while God’s role in this story is that of a betrayed husband who is torn between the feelings of shame and disgrace, brought upon him by his faithless wife. This causes a fierce desire for revenge, but at the same time the husband also retains a strong love for his wife, impelling him to search for any means to bring her back to him. For Israel, loyalty is based on pay. In literary terms, the Israelites relate to God as a supplier of material goods, and when he seems to have disappointed them they turn to other gods.

The modern believer, often even more an avant-garde modernist than his contemporary non-believers, will no doubt protest. He will say: “Isn’t anthropomorphism something very problematic?” Assuming that God has even one face is already a huge theological obstacle, but an endless amount of faces? To us, rational people, this is supposed to be unthinkable unless it comes in the guise of myth or entertainment, but we can’t be expected to take it serious, can we? The historically sophisticated exegete of today will even caricature it as something that belonged to the primitive societies. No no no! Monotheism did away with all of that nonsense! Or didn’t it?

It is the difference between modern and other understandings of religion. The modern mind thinks in term of functions, a classical mind thinks in terms of agency. Everything has a responsible agent, a god or a metaphysical principle to justify its existence.

Everyone who sees God or the gods describes a different face, different attributes of the divine person or persons. Obviously everyone sees and describes that set of traits most congenial to his own spirit. This is not to say that he creates his own image of God; rather, each prophet sees what he can of the infinite spectrum of the divine self. The divine young hero serves to the prophets of an ever wandering people as an essential meaning-endowing figure that shapes the way both God and humans relate to each other, the way God relates to other gods, and the way we relate to other people.

If there is one conclusion we can make, it is that there is a tension at work in the heart of both our and God’s humanness. Although both of the main characters in this historical narrative resemble each other more than they would admit, there is also an irresolvable disproportionality between their respective roles. The tension between these two characters can lead to some serious drama, that can absorb a great deal of the world we inhabit, if not all. This interpersonal drama modern people are so eager to ignore in favor of their image of a rigid father-figure, may just be the source of the creative dynamism of both Biblical monotheism and our own humanness.