Monday, November 15, 2004

Fightin' Mad Monotheism

This is gonna be a three post night…

The pastor of my church had a very interesting lesson tonight about the Shema and Christian faith. Although I don’t think I can agree with some of his assumptions (that we need to find a way to bring OT faith into the NT—I usually affirm a strong continuity between the covenants), much of what he said was fruitful and insightful. These three blogs are in dialogue with what he said, so if you would like to know what he said, please get a CD at the link above.

The first thing is what the Shema is all about. Is it a declaration of the ‘unity’ of God? Or is it something else? That it isn’t about the ‘unity’ of God should be self-evident, but centuries of fighting about the unity/triunity have significantly colored (and anachronized) the text. Nowhere in the Bible do we find (no, not even in the NT) a numerical analysis of the inner being of God—that is a early, pious attempt to try and understand how Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit fit together (i.e. the ecumenical creeds). This analysis arose out of trying to directly transpose the Hebrew thought and categories of the NT into Greek philosophical language without first ‘translating’ it to the new context. N.T. Wright has said, in The New Testament and the People of God, that first century Jews (and presumably generations before them) weren’t interested in a numerical analysis of God’s inner being—they were interested in how a transcendent God worked in a created world (for example, see how Ezekiel describes God in his chariot-vision in chapter 1—note the levels of separating he uses: “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of YHWH” to both separate God from creation but also to keep Him working in it).

The argument I made in Rereading John 1 fits into this Hebrew scheme. God relates to His world through His Word, which was made flesh in Jesus, so God now reveals Himself to the world in/as Jesus of Nazareth. But I digress from where I wanted to go…

If the Shema isn’t about the unity of God, then what is it about? In American Christianity we don’t have a lot of concerted opposition or persecution. The way we have traditionally conceived of our God has enabled us to be at peace with all of our various empires and still have confidence that we will spend eternity playing harps in heaven at peace. Unfortunately for us, both the Bible and history are not on our side here. If we think back to what the nation of Israel went through historically, it will shed light on the interpretation of the Shema. At the time of the Shema’s composition, the Israelites are on the plains of Moab, about to enter the Promised Land. They have literally been through hell to get here. They have always been oppressed or seduced to idolatry. Now we have Moses telling them “Shema Yisrael, YHWH elohenu, YHWH echad!” What on earth could that mean? Israel could only find national significance, pride, and protection in God alone. That YHWH, the one revealed to Moses, Abraham, and Jacob, would be their God was the great covenant promise. That YHWH was supposed to be their only God was seen in the incident of Ba’al Peor. Here Moses is saying, “Hear Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH alone!” This is the rallying cry of a beleaguered people who believe themselves to be chosen and loved by YHWH, the one who created the world.

In fact, most of Scripture is an extended anti-idolatry polemic. There are no historical vacuum texts. Genesis 1, for instance, looks like a straightforward creation story—a modernist dream! However, when compared with Egyptian and Babylonian creation myths, some striking similarities and dissimilarities come to the fore. Genesis 1 wasn’t written in a vacuum. It was written to subvert both those conquering nations stories and exalt YHWH as the only Creator God. It is interesting, if compared to those stories in the original languages, how this polemic comes out. In Babylonia, the sea god was known as Tiamat—akin to the Hebrew word t’hom. In the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk has to defeat the chaos monster Tiamat to start creation. He kills her, divides her body in half, and creates the heavens with one side and the earth with the other. In the Biblical story, at the beginning God’s Spirit is “hovering over the t’hom” while “the earth was formless and void”, but instead of the “formless and void” being chaotic Tiamat, God’s Spirit hovers over the t’hom peacefully. Tiamat is effectively demythologized. Later, God divides the t’hom in half, much like Marduk. Whereas Marduk does it as an act of violence to show dominance, God only has to speak the division of a non-god entity. Once again, Tiamat and Marduk are stripped of creation power and significance and, in a very important sense, their deity. The exegesis could go on almost indefinitely, but others have tackled it elsewhere.

By the time we get to Deuteronomy, the people of Israel have had to fight (or succumb to) many ‘gods’. The Shema was a way of affirming that YHWH only was their God and therefore they must only serve Him with the totality of their being. An alternative translation to the usual (misleading) “YHWH our God, YHWH is one” is “YHWH is our God, YHWH alone (or only)”. How the Septuagint fits in with this is another blog altogether…

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