Monday, November 28, 2005

God's Dazzling Darkness

Our Sunday morning adult Bible study was coming to the end of the book of Ruth, when we read the people's blessing, those who had witnessed Boaz' redemption of Ruth by the city gate: "May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah" (4:12). I asked if anyone knew who Perez and Tamar were. One hand went up. So off we went to Genesis 38, and the story of poor Tamar, whose marital fortunes were, let us say, tragic. Her first husband Er was wicked, so the Lord "killed him," then Er's brother Onan was supposed to step in to provide Er an heir, but he pulled out at the last minute (literally), so the Lord "killed him also." I discerned uncomfortable shifting in some Sunday school seats. As a young man, Albert Einstein lost his faith in traditional Judaism upon reading a similar passage in Exodus 4:24, "And it came to pass on the way, at the encampment, that the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him." What do we make of such passages? They are certainly unsettling, and provide an existential urgency to the proverb, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Pr 9:10). My usual response to the anxious queries of parishioners is that these are Hebrew idioms which attribute the death or illness of a person to God's judgment for wickedness. I try to move them away from the image of God as Zeus, capriciously throwing thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus. I remind them of Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." But there is no denying a terrifying element to God's power. "Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me" (Psalm 88:16). "Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Corinthians 5:11).

For liberal Christians, such texts produce no anxiety. They are merely remnants of a primitive superstititious view of God, which is an embarrassment at best, and an offense at worst. Such passages are often excised from the public reading of Scripture, especially in the Common Lectionary. For those who take the Bible as an authoritative text, however, the relationship between God and violent language must be sorted out. So it was interesting to me over the weekend to read not one, but two reviews of Harold Bloom's newest book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. I am a fan of Bloom, ever since I read his introductory essay on the poet Geoffrey Hill, in Hill's collection, Somewhere is Such a Kingdom. In Bloom's latest book, he writes that both Judaism and Christianity misunderstand and try and cover up the true Yahweh, the God of Israel. To quote Jonathan Rosen's review in The New York Times, Bloom's Yahweh is "the 'Man God' who appears to Joshua with a drawn sword, the jealous, zealous, hungry, hands-on deity who makes Adam out of a mud pie, picnics with the elders on Mount Sinai, chooses Moses and then, with irrational outrage, tries to kill him as he travels back to Egypt." Interestingly, Bloom finds Jesus, when stripped of his churchly garments, to be very much in touch with this version of Yahweh, especially in the Gospel of Mark.

Frank Kermode, in the most recent New York Review of Books, notes that Bloom, a Jew, is voicing a lament on behalf of the entire Jewish people for God's destruction of his covenant people. In Bloom's reading of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), Yahweh is troublesome, moody, alarming, and unreliable; someone who bears no resemblence to the Christian Father. This early tribal image of God is superceded first by later redactors (Priestly and Deuteronomic writers), and then by the Christian and Moslem appropriation of the "Old Testament." Bloom is waiting for God to do something again, but hopes it is not a command to rebuild the temple, which would ignite a Palestinian conflagration. The value of Bloom's reading is not that it reflects good biblical scholarship (Bloom is a literary critic), but that he is unafraid to confront the verses which disturb our modern sensibilities. He "un-domesticates" Yahweh, and makes him a lurking, moral presence in our immoral world.

Soon hordes of children and their parents will flood movie theaters to see an adaptation of the first of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. I remember one particular line from the book which resonates with this discussion of God's darker nature. The children are warned that Aslan the lion (an allegorical Christ) is no tame lion, so they should be careful. The Triune God we are currently dealing with is also no tame lion, and it would serve us well to be mindful of God's unpredictable sovereignty. Ananias and Saphira come to mind here (Acts 5). The great 17th century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughn captures this in his poem "The Night (John 2:3)."

There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear;

O for that night! where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.

Something to ponder as we make our way through the thickets of Advent.


Blogger Miss Eagle said...

I'll have to chase up that book, Ars. Re what God might have planned, I wonder if it will be the third exile - to make a hat trick. There's a lot of nasty stuff gone on in Israel since 1948. Re Tamar: have you read Karen Armstrong's book on Genesis. She contrasts Joseph with Judah. His admission that he was wrong in his treatment of Tamar demonstrates, according to Armstrong and - as a female I have to concur - proved that he was the only one of the lot who proved to be self-reflective. And how fitting I think since my Lord was of the House of Judah.

10:50 PM  
Blogger texasbunch said...

Many is the times that we as mere mortals try to put our own spin onto the characteristics of Almighty God! Who is man that he dares to question Gods' judgments? Can we see into the heart of a man or know what is going to happen 2,000 years down the line?
We (all of us) are guilty of attempting to place God into a mold of our making.As it is written, "His ways are not our ways!" To attempt to compare him to a pagan god like Zeus, is folly on our part.
The reason that Anias and sophirah Died was because they tried to deceive God! And God will not be deceived! Had they been truthful, and said that they had with held some of the money they got for selling their property, they would not have died!

11:33 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I agree we must wrestle with the text, taking it as God's Word.

Bloom is fascinating, but I must demur from your description of his description of Yahweh. If he "un-domesticates Yahweh," as you describe, He would not be "a lurking, moral presence," but rather an immoral one. A God who irrationally kills is not a God to trust in.

Theologically, it appears Moses hadn't circumcised his son, which disobedience deserved death, since he hadn't identified with God's covenant.

Literarily (a word?), Moses was threatened while heading for Egypt, just as Abraham and Joseph were before, and Jesus was later.

Doesn't answer all the questions, but God's threat isn't irrational, I don't think...

2:19 PM  
Blogger Scribe said...

I certainly don't believe God is irrational, ala Bloom, but I like the way Bloom unsettles our perspective. It's healthy. C.S. Lewis brought the same literary eye to the Bible, and what a wonderful blessing that was.

3:03 PM  

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