“Such is the richness of the grace which he has showered on us in all wisdom and insight. He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made in Christ from the beginning to act upon when the times had run their course to the end: that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth. And it is in him that we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning.”
—Ephesians 1:8-11 (Jerusalem Bible)
This post is an application of a previous post on how the scriptures may be studied and what may (and may not) be gained from this task. To make one point: the Bible may be seen in an evolutionary sense, in this case the transformation of the idea of a God of jealousy, anger, and retribution to a god of love. Many Christians struggle with how to bring an Old Testament theology into a New Testament reality, but it need not be so. Using the study tools of chain reference links and word search the spectrum of this transformation may be realized and appreciated. I am sure that all of us or most of us have feared at times that God could be angry at us. Certainly I can say that God has had the right to be angry at me. The only problem is that it is a contradiction to the nature of who God is. Yet throughout scripture and the writings and sayings of its interpreters the wrath of God is still mentioned and makes its appearance frequently, in both the Old and New Testaments. What I will attempt to do here is to trace the history of the idea of an angry God and to try to find a way to the grace of God, where all of us need to be.
It is not surprising how it all came about. The times of the Old Testament bring with them a cauldron seething with violence and retribution—the civilization of that time (not to mention our own time) was drenched in it. Why is it not surprising then that a culture of angry, violent people would create an angry, violent God?
To give an example, here is one such account: “To a cruel age, the Assyrians brought greater cruelties. They flayed enemies and mounted their skins on city walls; they led prisoners on leashes fastened to rings piercing the nose or mouth; they originated the poly of mass deportation brought to such tragic perfection in our own day….Visitors to the British Museum will see a relief excavated at Ninevah showing King Ashurbanipal feasting in a quiet arbor with his queen as musicians play softly on harp and drum. From a near-by tree dangles a trophy of his last campaign—a human head.” [G. Ernest Wright, Ph.D. “The Last Thousand Years Before Christ”. National Geographic, December, 1960, p. 827]
It should be no surprise that people in a culture of violence would project these qualities onto their image of God. The scriptures are literally full of examples, and not the Old Testament alone. Violence and anger find their way into the New Testament as well, either projected onto God (or Christ) and displayed in the actions and attitudes of those recorded there. To cite a few examples: in Exodus 20:5: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them [alien gods], nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”; Deuteronomy 9:8: “Also in Horeb ye provoked the Lord to wrath, so that the Lord was angry with you to have destroyed you.”; In the actions of believers: Exodus 22:18 (later to be famously employed in the colonial U.S.) “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”; Consider this account of what happened to one who did not observe the Sabbath, in Numbers 15:32-36, notable because this action was commanded by God: “And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.”; As a final example, the Passover, a major religious holiday, celebrates the deliverance of the Jews, occurred at the expense of the lives of the Egyptians who were slain by the angel of death.
A key component of New Testament theology was the blood sacrifice, inherited from the frequent animal sacrifices carried out in the course of religious obligations. This was transformed into the sacrifice of the Messiah, the Lamb of God, as atonement for the sins of the people in order to satisfy the wrath of an angry God. Upon further examination, this sacrifice has taken place on a deeper, spiritual, level. To more adequately explain it, we must go further back, to the Hindu scripture, the Rg Veda. Joseph Padinjarekara writes in Christ in Ancient Vedas, pp. 43-44: “In the Rg Veda, the famous chapter of the Purusasukta deals with the divine and human aspects of Prajapati [the Lord of creatures] and His sacrifice…Here Prajapati is called Purusa which means Man. This Man is not an ordinary human being and yet He is called Man. The greatness of Purusa is made clear in the Kathopanisad: ‘Purusa is superior to everything. Nothing is superior to Purusa. He is the end and the highest goal….And verily beyond the unmanifest is the supreme Purusa. One who knows Him becomes free and attains immortality.’ This Purusa is the perfect victim for the one great sacrifice, performed even before the creation of the world.” [The biblical parallel is found in 1P 1:18-23 (KJV): “ Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you [in the Jerusalem Bible: “who, though known since before the world was made, has been revealed only in our time, the end of the ages, for your sake.”] Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God. Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently: Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
It should be clear by now that, as the contents of scripture represent an evolution and that not all passages have equal weight, and often conflict with one another. This is not surprising. Back in confirmation class I learned about the composition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. It was important, we were told, to see them not as a uniform, unbroken series of writings but as a mixture of four separate narratives or sources, called J (Jahwist, or Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomistic), and P (Priestly).These form a kind of patchwork intertwined throughout each of the books to a greater or lesser degree. Knowing this gives us a greater understanding of passages which conflict with one another, as do the Gospels.
The God of retribution, anger, and punishment contrasts with the God of grace. Nowhere is this epitomized better than in the concluding verse in the Old Testament and the New. Compare the two: Malachi 3:23-24 “Know that I am going to send Elijah the prophet before my day comes, that great and terrible day. He shall turn the hearts of fathers toward their children and the hearts of children toward their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.” Then we have Revelation 22:21 “May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen.”
It is not accurate to say that the Old Testament is full of anger and retribution and the New is full of grace. Like the intertwined schools of thought in the Pentateuch, they are present in varying degrees in both. It is also important to note that the notion of grace does not lie with Christian religion alone. After a survey of nine or ten major religions in his book The Christian Doctrine of Grace, H.D. Gray exultantly proclaims, “Grace is everywhere!”
People throughout the ages have wrestled with the problem of grace. If grace were not freely abundant and unlimited, it would not be grace, yet there are those who insist that it must be earned. Who is right? The most probing analysis of the problem I have found is Harold Dittmanson’s 1977 work Grace in Experience and Theology. After its publication it was criticized for its “radical” assertion that God’s grace may be equally accessed by all. His thesis was that God’s grace was exactly that, free of limitations, with a universal availability to all regardless of their station in life, the level of their civilization, or their level of spiritual development—all that was necessary was that it be called upon. Yes, this is a radical proposition, but one that I believe is the only adequate explanation. Grace is radical, probably the most radical idea in the universe. It breaks the spell of karma and sin and tells us that, in the end, all that is really good comes from God. This, of course, was bound to fly in the face of those who could not accept grace apart from their own doctrinal concerns. Dittmanson’s book was so influential that it actually precipitated the split between two synods of the Lutheran church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Missouri Synod. On a personal note, I recall that after reading this book for the first time I was energized with its notion of a vast underlying support of the universe for all beings in their spiritual development: an ally, a firm foundation, a constant presence. Many books can be said to offer life-changing experiences, and this was one of them.
Where did this grace come from? I would also like to suggest that it is intimately tied up with monotheism and the concept of a universal God. Like the notion of grace, this was not limited to the Judeo-Christian tradition alone. Before Abraham there was Akhnaten, the “Rebel Pharaoh.” (For further information, see my post “Start with the Sun”.) Akhnaten declared that, although the tongues of people are diverse, as are their forms and their skins, all are welcome in Aten’s temple. The rays of Aten (at once the physical sun and its spiritual counterpart) shine on all, including the just and the unjust, full of graciousness to all life. So what better representation can we have of the all-inclusive, radiant love of the Divine than the symbol of the sun disk?
What are we to make of the fact that the idea of a gracious, loving God was originally an Egyptian idea, not a Hebrew one? It leads us to ask the question, was there a connection? This is where the story gets interesting, because there is a theory on how the God of anger and retribution arose in opposition to the God of grace. Sigmund Freud in his book Moses and Monotheism makes the amazing assertion that there were actually two Moseses, an Egyptian one and a Hebrew one. He cited biblical research by Ernst Sellin in 1922 using the book of Hosea that uncovered a tradition that the Egyptian Moses was killed by the Jews, and the religion he instituted was replaced by Jahve (the Jahwist, or Yahwist, narrative being one of the four running through the Pentateuch). The exact reference is not given, but here is the Jerusalem Bible passage in Hosea 6:9: “Like so many robbers in Israel, a band of priests commits murder on the road to Shechem. Appalling behavior, indeed!” Is this the reference? The notes to this passage state that the event referred to is unclear, so this at least leaves open the possibility.
Who is this Jahve? Jahve is a volcano god of the Midianites, common to all tribes in the area, which the Hebrews adopted during the exodus. Freud, quoting historian Eduard Meyer writes: “Jahve was certainly a volcano-god. As we know, however, Egypt has no volcanoes and mountains of the Sinai peninsula have never been volcanic. On the other hand, volcanoes which may have been active up to a late period are found along the western border of Arabia. One of these mountains must have been the Sinai-Horeb [where the Hebrews camped] which was believed to be Jahve’s abode….He is an uncanny, bloodthirsty demon who walks by night and shuns the light of day.” This is accompanied by abundant volcano imagery in the Old Testament. And so the mediator of the new religion was called Moses, but this Moses was the son-in-law of the Midianite priest Jethro.
Freud goes on to describe the transformation: “Since the Moses people attached such great importance to their experience of the Exodus from Egypt, the deed of freeing them had to be ascribed to Jahve; it had to be adorned with features that proved the terrific grandeur of this volcano-god, such as, for example, the pillar of smoke which changed to one of fire by night, or the storm that parted the waters so that the pursuers were drowned by the returning floods of water. The Exodus and the founding of the new religion were thus brought close together in time, the long interval between them being denied. The bestowal of the Ten Commandments too was said to have taken place at the food of the holy mountain amid the signs of a volcanic eruption. This description, however, did a serious wrong to the memory of the man Moses; it was he, and not the volcano-god, who had freed his people from Egypt. Some compensation was therefore due to him, and it was given by transposing [the first] Moses to Qades or to the mount Sinai-Horeb and putting him in place of the Midianite Priest….This is how he became one with the person who later established a religion, the son-in-law of the Midianite Jethro, the man to whom he lent the name Moses….I think we are justified in separating the two persons from each other and in assuming that the Egyptian Moses never was in Qades and had never heard the name of Jahve, where as the Midianite Moses never set foot in Egypt and knew nothing of Aton [Freud’s spelling].”
Pretty amazing if you ask me, but essential if we are to understand the two currents which ran through the religion into which Jesus was born. The benevolent, gracious God was still there, like the rays of the summer sun which warm the land, but there too is the volcano god in all his wrath and fury. And in passing through the texts of scripture we can feel very clearly at time the opposition of these opposing forces, pulling at each other and confusing the reader in the process. This is why it is important to know where this angry god came from and to find some of the clues as to why he arose. We can also see that this angry god can have no participation in the life of grace or in the person of Jesus.”
Harold Dittmanson writes: “Jesus is never said to have used the word ‘grace’, but is quite clear that he was in himself the source of the conception. It is seen in his initiative in seeking the lost, welcoming and forgiving sinners, and in his teaching in such parables as the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, and the Laborers in the Vineyard. In his teaching about grace, Jesus emphasized that that God’s love is not drawn forth by anything in his creatures, but given spontaneously and utterly without regard to merit….So there is no distinction between saying that Jesus brings grace and saying that he is God’s grace….Jesus asks his disciples to show the same God-like initiative in generosity, in the overcoming of evil with good, in the love of the hostile and undeserving, in the conferring of benefits on those who cannot return them, and in unlimited forgiveness.
How can it be that Jesus is God’s grace? The reason that Jesus is the Savior is that he himself takes on our negative tendencies, and this is a real and an active process, not just some doctrinal formulation. It is difficult to understand how this takes place, but it is a living process which can be duplicated, as Jesus said it would when in John 14:12 he stated, “I tell you most solemnly whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself. He will perform even greater works.” We have a glimpse of the healing process of grace in the writings of one that many consider to be a modern-day avatar, the late Adi Da Samraj, who dealt with his devotees much in the way that Jesus may have dealt which his, or now deals with us.
Here is his description: “For years, I would sit down in meditation, and all my own forms would appear, my own mind, my desires, my experience, my suffering….But at some point, it all come to an end. There was no thing, nothing there anymore, none of that distracted or interested me. Meditation was perfect, continuous. There I began to meet those friends who first became involved in this work. And when I would sit down for meditation, there would be more of these things again, all these thoughts, feelings, this suffering, this dis-ease, disharmony…craziness, this pain…, all of this, again. But they weren’t mine. They were the internal and life qualities of my friends. So I would sit down to meditate, and do the meditation of my friends. When I would feel it all release, their meditation was done….And I fund that this meditation went on with people whom I hadn’t even met….The same problems were involved, the same subtleties, but the content of the meditation was not mine.” [Adi Da Samraj, The Method of the Siddhas, pp. 269-70]
And so it is that in saying farewell to our negative tendencies that we also say farewell to this angry God. And it is more than a product of meditation alone, for as Albert Schweitzer said, “Mysticism is not the friend of ethics but the foe. Nor is thought ethical when it has no tendency toward deeds.” The Buddhists get it right by making “right action”, a life of no harm to all sentient beings, a living meditation. A meditation which ends only in self-absorption is an empty practice which bears no fruit. Walter Rauschenbusch, in his book The Social Principles of Jesus, writes, “None ever felt the unity of our race more deeply than Jesus. To him it was sacred and divine. Hence his emphasis on love and forgiveness. He put his personality behind the natural instinct of social attraction and encouraged it. He swung the great force of religion around to bear on it and drive it home.”
But the devotees of the old volcano god still walk among us, and they are not confined to one religion alone. I can still recall, in the days following the 9/11 attack, the statements of both Rev. Falwell and Osama Bin Laden that the tragedy was God’s judgment on America. Only when we can let go of this foolish and dangerous idea that the lives of people must be sacrificed to meet some divine end will we live the life of grace and peace that is our birthright, and the birthright of all humanity. And, in so doing, we need not ask if God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s.