A Gracious God

Judaism

A Gracious God
Monday, August 27, 2018

For most of human history God was not viewed as having a likeable, much less lovable, character. That’s why every “theophany” in the Bible (an event where God manifests in visible reality) begins with the same words. Whenever an angel or God breaks into human life, the first words are invariably, “Do not be afraid.” We need to be reassured, not only that God is loving, but that we too—made in the image and likeness of God—are good and relational beings.

Historically, archaic religion worldwide attempted to assure people that nothing new would happen. Most of us want our lives and history to be predictable and controllable, and the best way to do that is to try to control and even manipulate the gods. Most religions told humans what spiritual buttons to push to keep reality and God predictable. Humanity did not, by and large, expect love from God before the biblical revelation.

In many ancient religions, God was felt to be “controllable” through human sacrifice (archaeologists find evidence of this on most continents). In Abraham’s time and context, the sacrificial instinct was, sadly, transferred to goats, sheep, and bullocks when animals, rather than humans, were sacrificed to please this fearsome God.

The prophets of Israel were in touch with a more loving God. Here is how God described God’s self to Moses:

YHWH, YHWH, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and abounding in faithfulness. For the thousandth generation, YHWH maintains kindness, forgiving all your faults, transgressions, and sins. (Exodus 34:6-7)

In this marvelous early affirmation, we have, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “a formulation so studied that it may be reckoned to be something of a classic, normative statement to which Israel regularly returned, meriting the label ‘credo.’” [1] In it are found five generous and glorious adjectives that describe the heart and soul of Jewish belief. Somehow, against all odds and neighbors, the children of Israel were able to experience a God who was merciful (in Hebrew, rhm), compassionate/gracious (hnn), steadfast in love (hsd), tenaciously faithful (‘emeth) and forgiving (ns’). This is the dynamic center of their entire belief system, as it should be ours and, like all spiritual mystery, seems to be endlessly generative and fruitful, culminating in the full-blown—and literally unthinkable—concept of grace.

We first see the idea of grace in the Hebrew Scriptures through the concept of election or chosenness. This is eventually called “covenant love” because it finally becomes a mutual giving and receiving. This love is always initiated from YHWH’s side toward the people of Israel, and they gradually learn to trust it and respond in kind. The Bible shows a relentless movement toward intimacy and divine union between Creator and creatures. For this to happen, there needs to be some degree of compatibility, likeness, or even “sameness” between the two parties. In other words, there has to be a little bit of God in us that wants to find Itself.

References:
[1] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress: 1997), 216.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 8-10, 163-164, 168-169.

Image credit: Red and Orange Solar Flare (Rosette Nebula [detail])
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: God reveals the essence of divinity to Moses: ehyeh asher ehyeh, most often translated as I AM what I AM. A more accurate Hebrew translation would be “I will be whatever I will be.” In either case, the Hasidic understanding of the text is the same: God is all that is. God is all that is happening at every moment. God is I AM—not a being or even a supreme being, but Being itself. . . . [Each of us is] a keeper of the I AM; just as a wave is a “keeper of” the ocean in its particular place and time, so are you a keeper of God in your particular place and time. To realize this about yourself is to realize it about all beings. —Rabbi Rami Shapiro

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