Friday, 21 August 2009

What is God like, really?

In my reading through the Bible I am now in the middle of Exodus. In chapter 19 the Israelites are at the foot of Mount Sinai. The LORD tells Moses to go down and warn the people not to come near the mountain, not to "break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish". Then again "the LORD" says "do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them". It seems "the LORD" is talking about himself in the third person, and warning people that he is dangerous!

There are many passages like this in the Old Tstament. There is, for instance, the strange little story of how the LORD, having sent Moses into Egypt to tell Pharaoh to set the people free, meets him on the road and tries to kill him, and how apparently his wife saves his life by cutting off his son's foreskin and touching his feet with it (Exodus 4:24-26). What kind of a god is this who keeps trying to destroy people for no apparent reason?

We today like to dismiss things like this as ancient mythology based on a false view of God. But just think for a minute. Perhaps the ancient writers were simply being logical. If there is one God who controls everything, and bad things happen sometimes unexpectedly and without reason, then it must be God doing them - who else could it be? We, on the other hand, believe in a God who is all loving. But we are still stuck with the fact that bad things happen - not only bad things, but quite cruel, arbitrary and senseless things. Is the Old Testament picture of God just a way of recognising that God is beyond our understanding and can never be tamed into what we would like him to be? Were those writers perhaps more honest and realistic than we are?

If we believe in God as the Father of Jesus Christ, an all-loving God, we do so in the face of loads of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps these ancient images of an unpredictable, impersonal, dangerous God are a sobering reminder of this. Like the Bible writers, we struggle to believe that God is on our side, and sometimes it is really difficult.