You can read this through, since often one taught point leads on to another than qualifies it. But for an overview, see the list of what God has taught and for the context in which he taught each thing, see the beginnings and the history. Click here for home page.
Starting with God's promise to animals and humans made to Noah, we begin to see that this God is different. He makes a promise - and will keep it. We find the pattern repeated, especially during the age of the patriarchs: that God makes and keeps promises. He binds and limits himself with covenant to his creatures. And - though he has the authority to annul a covenant and replace it with something better (as we see later) - he keeps the covenant, even to his own inconvenience, grief and discomfort.
He made a covenant with Abraham that it would be through his descendants that the whole earth would be blessed. God has made a covenant with two peoples in particular - Jews and Chistians - and yet they give him a huge amount of grief and bring his name into disrepute. Yet God keeps covenant - because that is his nature.
Our (relatively) modern notions of constitutional monarchy come from this idea: that the one who has the highest authority is also one who keeps covenant.
We can learn a lot about people and how they really are by looking at what happened, what they did. The first person we are introduced to in any depth is Abraham. Unlike in many ancient religious books, Abraham comes across as a very real person, neither as a hero nor a villain. We gain intimate glimpses into parts of his life that seem highly relevant to our lives today. The same reality is seen in his various descendants.
But one thing comes across: every person has some good points yet every person is flawed. Also, every person has some responsibility and dignity, whatever their social standing.
====more to be written. e.g. Saul.
One of the most obvious messages that comes across as we read these early accounts is that it is important to God how we live our lives. God gives a law, a law that concerns more than religious rituals. He wants respect for parents, rest for the poor and even animals, faithfulness in marriage, preservation of fruit trees, careful eradication of mildew, isolation of infection, etc.
There is a utilitarian value to most of these laws, in that good results from living this way and harm from living in other ways, and that is almost certainly one reason why how we live is important to God. But how we live also figures in our relationship with him, with his creation and with each other. Living in God's way is a sign that we are in tune with him - though, as we shall see below, is not firm proof of it. We can thus see at least two reasons why it is important how we live:
There might be other reasons, but both these are important and both should be borne in mind. Both are important because, as we shall see later, God is love - he loves all his creation and therefore wants good for all of it, and he loves us and therefore is orientated toward us.
Living in a wrong way is called 'sin', and again we can discern at least two reasons why sin is important - or, rather dealing with it. It leads to harm and it shows an orientation of the heart against God. Sin matters; it is not just an unfortunate occurrence that can be overlooked. All sorts of sin were punished. God got angry at various times. And God gave an elaborate system of sacrifices to put right the sin that had happened. The remedy given for sin at the time was painful, inconvenient and elaborate.
The view coming across in the early biblical writings differs markedly from the prevailing pagan view, and even from much of today's views. Here are some of the differences (this repeats some stuff):
But, as we shall see, the pagan view is wrong, since it denies other aspects of God's character and wrongly sees the nature of things. How we live is indeed important, and the following sections look at some facets of it in more detail.
That this is so was demonstrated early on, during the time of Patriarchs. Abraham sired Ishmael as a small action to 'help' God fulfil his promise - and so started a chain of events that we feel today in the hostility between the Jews and the Arabs. Esau gave up his birthright for some bodily satisfaction, and God's main plan from then on proceeded via Jacob. Jacob was a poor parent, selfish and showing favouritism, leading to jealousy among the brothers and the eventual move to Egypt of his whole family. Joseph resisted the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife, which led him into the situation where he interpreted the king's dreams and saved Egypt and his own family. Skip centuries.
We can find examples during the settled period of Israel. Saul did not take the lead in fully destroying the Amalekites, which led to his rejection by God from the Kingship. During the life of David, we see several examples. David starts to become complacent or lazy as a king, leading to his adultery with Bathsheba, murder of Uriah, and thus to a diminishing of his reputation and influence among his family, and a decline in the expectations and standards in his family. Then followed a whole series of 'little' events that had long-term results. Amnon fell in love with Tamar, and let it dominate him. His friend Jonadab gave him mischievous advice, to deceive in order to get his way with Tamar, and Amnon ended up raping her, then hating her. David was furious, but did nothing about it, weak father that he had become. Absolom, Tamar's brother hated Amnon, and two years later killed him (David had refused his invitation to attend the 'party' at which this happened and thus perhaps that altered the course of events). Then Absolom fled and became an enemy of David, and much of the kingdom's resources were wasted in a useless civil war. David spent much time fleeing Absolom, and altogether lost the respect of many of his people. Absolom was eventually killed, but the legacy of bitterness and division remained, and from then on rebellions were the order of the day. Eventually, after Solomon's death, the kingdom of Israel was divided, owing to habits of injustice that Solomon had grown into.
It continues today. One example: In the UK in World War 2 food was scarce. Farmers were put under a lot of pressure to produce enough food. Rabbits were a nuisance, eating some of the crop. One farmer got fed up with them and introduced the rabbit disease Mixamatosis to kill them off. His solution was understandable - but devastating for decades afterwards. Even today, British rabbits suffer Mixamatosis, though it doesn't keep their population down. But, worse, because of the disease, the habit of catching rabbits for food has stopped. That used to be a useful means of controlling the rabbit population because it could involve almost the whole population with little cost to society (in that people caught the rabbits for food and did not need paying to do so). But now that mechanism of control is no longer available. Further, rabbits used to provide a useful source of meat protein to the poorer people, for free. No longer is there a free source of meat available to them, so the poor become, relatively, poorer. So the original (understandable) decision has been counterproductive in the longer term, and has also led to the relative impoverishment of many.
If everything is so interconnected such that the evil we do seems to spread and multiply, what hope is there? The answer to that question comes later.
Little things can lead to big consequences, often after our time has ended. The little decisions we make can have long-lasting repercussions; the ethical equivalent of the butterfly effect. Sometimes they are good decisions, which bring health, but too many times they are decisions to little evils that seem so harmless, and yet .... Sometimes God overrules and weaves these events into his plans, but usually he does not, and evil flows.
A gloomy picture; yet it seems that after our evils, if we repent then God might then bring good out of theme. Centuries later the apostle Paul said "All things work together for good with those who love God."
But we must never forget: we are interconnected, and little things can lead to big consequences. Interconnectedness means we have responsibilities. Sadly, too often, in business especially, and in the libertarian West, we forget this. This is one of the main differences between a Green and Liberal view of things: Liberal focuses on freeing the individual from constraints while Green recognises and focuses on our interconnectedness.
That it is little decisions, actions and events that can have large consequences is closely allied with the importance of attitude, since it is our deepest and most private attitudes that tip the balance of our decisions and actions; but this importance is not made fully clear until much later on.
The notion of God judging has two main parts: the individual in the here-and-now, and the eternal, final judgement. In the here and now, God rewards good and punishes bad. But that was to be learned later on, via the people of Israel. In the meantime, the notion of the cosmic judge seemed to be learned early.
The notion is that God is the eventual judge of all things. There will be a Final Reckoning, at which "all the books will be opened", and God will sit in judgement. All our deeds, words, thought, attitudes and orientations of heart will be judged.
But is God worthy to be judge? Abraham certainly had this idea: that God is (or should be) himself just. He had at least an intuitive and very natural notion that this was so. But, from out place 4000 years later we can distinguish several reasons why God is worthy to be judge.
C S Lewis (in Reflections on the Psalms) points out the difference between the "terrible theologians" who maintained that "A thing is right because God commands it", and the more biblical view that "God commands it because it is right". That is, God is not some despot who lays down arbitrary laws for his own pleasure or convenience. Rather, he is true to his own nature and the nature of his creation. But that leads us to the issue of what justice is, which was not made clear until God had chosen a people to be a society of his own.
While our view of what is just and unjust is somewhat distorted, my own belief is that on the Final Day, nobody will be able to disagree with the judgement of God. Many will dislike it, and be frustrated at all the opportunities they threw away, but all will agree, "Yes, you have judged rightly in this." At last, on that Day, all will see and understand the whole picture, which at present only God sees. It will be revealed to us, and on that Day we will agree with God that his judgements are right.
Meanwhile, whether or not we know what justice entails, let us be encouraged, rather than terrified, by this very basic notion of God being judge. This intuitive fact, that, as the writer to the Hebrews says, "God is not so unjust that he will overlook the good you did====." Do not give up doing good even when it seems useless; struggle on through; persevere. Not in the hope of reward, but in the hope that on that Day the true value of what you have done will be revealed.
====say something about other religions etc. that do not fully realise this. ==== then say why it is good that God is judge.
Later on we get a clearer idea of what God values in people in terms of how we live.
====rewrite this lot; it's weak. contrast with pagan ideas. explain transcendence, authority and power of God. TGS.
How can we relate to God? - and both he desires and we need such a relationship. We are finite, physical, limited beings, so how does he relate to us?
From God's side of the relationship, there is covenant. He is a covenant-keeping God. And we have seen some of his other characteristics above.
There are several aspects to our relationship with God, that were made plain during the trek and afterwards:
There are two way sin which God is totally other - he is transcendent and he is holy.
A popular view of God as 'wholly other' is to think of God as 'infinite' in various aspects that we experience. We can be good: God is infinitely good; we have knowledge: God is infinitely knowing; we have a little power: God in infinitely powerful (after all, he created all there is); we can be in one place: God can be everywhere; we live a short time: God lives forever; and so on. But, though those ideas might be useful as a starting point, they don't get us very far, because they only make God more of the kind of thing that we are. But, the Bible gives a picture of a God who is beyond anything we can think of or imagine; on a different plane, as it were, rather than just a magnified version of what we can imagine. God is beyond all our aspects, categories. What this means is that whenever we speak of God we must be humble, and realise that our words and even our wordless concepts cannot fully encompass what he is. It also means that knowledge of God is not so much in the head, as in our experience.
There is another meaning to God being 'transcendent', and it is that God is separate from his creation; he transcends his creation. As Roy Clouser has pointed out, there are three views about the relationship between God and the cosmos (which in this case means more than just stars and galaxies, but also everything we experience including abstract things like logic, symphonies and kindness):
In the first two, God is not transcendent. The significance of this difference might not be immediately apparent, but it is vast. The first two views lead, in practice, to a dualistic approach to things, in which one half of what we experience is rejected as 'lesser'. In the third, all is 'good', and integrated. In the first two views, you can either have a personal God, or a powerful God, but not both. Only in the third view can God be both personal and powerful. There are other implications, but we stop at those two.
Now, we would never be able to find out which of the views were correct solely by our own efforts; God himself must reveal it. In his interactions with us through history the picture grows that God is transcendent; that is, the third view is the real one.
If God is transcendent, then we cannot hope to understand him, cannot reach him, on our own terms or from our own framework. Rather, he must find us, and he must communicate himself to us. As Dirk Vollenhoven has said, the boundary between God and the cosmos may be a boundary for us, but it is no boundary to God. He can cross it, and has done so - in interaction with us, and in a much more intense way that became clear later on. At the very least, he has so created the cosmos that it shows his character and properties, even if not fully nor perfectly (as the writer, Paul of Tarsus, explained when he wrote to the Roman church).
Holiness of God is:
In short, the holiness of God makes living worthwhile. No wonder that when human beings experience something of it they cannot help but respond in utter worship.
It is a pity that so few of us experience it.
Abram had to wait many years for God to fulfil his promise of a son, and was tempted to 'help God along' by having sexual intercourse with his wife's slave so that the fruit of that union would be a son. The result was Ishmael. But God's plan was for Abram to have a son through Sarai - and Isaac was eventually born.
But God's ways must have been even more perplexing to Joseph, three generations later. He was generally good-natured, innocent and rather naive, and possibly rather self-centred. He was spoilt by his father and, naturally, hated by his brothers, captured by them, sold into slavery in Egypt. There he was loyal to his master, even refusing the sexual advances of his master's wife. This got him thrown into prison on a false charge. Apart from memories of his early life, life had been completely unfair to him. Yet he did not descend into self-pity or hatred but used his abilities (interpreting dreams) to help others. He asked one of those to put in a good word for him, but that was not done. Until many tedious years later, when he came to a position of power. But even here he knew he did not fit and longed for his old family. Who would have seen God's hand in all this? Eventually his brothers came seeking food during the famine he had predicted, bowed before him, and he revealed himself to theme. They were terrified he would take his revenge on them for the act that led him into all his subsequent trouble. But instead, he comforted them with the words "You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good, so that many people would be saved."
There are quite a number of incidents recorded in Scripture in which God's people are put through trouble, persecution, pain and unfair treatment, which is totally perplexing at the time, and yet turns out in the end to be part of one of God's plans. And those very people find that instead of feeling resentful towards God, they are delighted to have been part of his plan. It more than makes up for the trouble they went through.
We still find this today. It is a lesson that is still relevant 4000 years later. Gladys Aylward, for example, found this true several times. Working among prisoners in China in the 1930s, she felt God wanted her to speak to a Mr. Shan, a vicious murderer who had previously treated her cruelly and even spat in her face. She continues her story:
Very clearly a Voice said to me, "Speak to that man." ... [she argued with God, but he repeated the command] ... What was I to do? A cold sweat broke over me. He was almost up to me. I was so agitated that I leaned forward and let my hand fall on his shoulder while I burst out, "Oh, Mr. Shan, aren't you miserable?" 'Of all the stupid remarks!' I thought immediately. With a horrible curse he threw off my hand. ... Mr. Shan passed on, and I realised the awful thing that I had done. One of China's greatest unwritten laws is that no woman touches a man in public. I left that prison depressed and ashamed. Before those men I had defiled myself with such a man as Mr. Shan!
Many of us have been through such torture because of something we have done that seemed right at the time and yet led to shame. However, this was part of God's plan. Gladys Aylward's story continues to show how this action deeply upset Mr. Shan, who recognised her touch had been one of love, God's love, and this had broken his hardness. She continued:
Mr. Shan was converted, not because of a great sermon, but because years ago in London God had taken a girl and asked her to give him her hands, her feet, her whole body for His use, and that day God had touched Mr. Shan through that poor human instrument. Mr. Shan's conversion began the real revival in that prison. ...
Same lesson: sometimes we go through trouble and even torture (inner or outer) that we don't deserve and don't understand, and yet it proves to be a glorious part of one of God's wonderful plans. Do we shy away? Or do we go through with it, and leave the results to God?
So much for God's wise plans involving us. Later on, we will find the perplexing and hidden nature of God's activity and plans coming up again in regard to his timescales. And these both are linked to what we learn later, that God's ways are beyond our understanding. ==== maybe merge those??
Yuch! I want to wipe that guy out of history! Yet God not only blesses him, with a large healthy family, which is not decimated by disease and short lives, but gives him a new status of 'prince with God' and a name to go along with it, Israel. And, perhaps worst of all, God employs Jacob in his purposes in a key way. What's going on, God? Why are you so unfair?
(By 'employ' I mean that God gives a person the honour and joy of being linked into his purposes, so that the life of that person is supremely meaningful. Because we are created for links with God, this gives a human being real joy, perhaps the deepest joy there can be. That is why it seems so unfair to us when God employs a deficient person in this way.)
Although I have come round to it reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that it demonstrates that when God employs a person in his purposes, it is not on account of any human niceness. Rather it is only on account of God's own wisdom and choices and, especially, his grace. Though, in the main, God employs those who are more holy or upright or righteous than others, God often employs horrible, nasty, deficient people too.
Though Jacob is perhaps the prime example of this in the whole history of God as recorded in the Bible, there are others. Samson, for example, was not the kind of person that we would have expected to be 'used of God'. David had great weaknesses, though at first he seemed good. Elijah is prone to depression, lack of faith and tantrums (I Kings 19), yet he has the privilege of being used of God to root out much of the Baal worship and he has a name as the prime prophet. In more recent years, we can think of criminals whom God has used and blessed. And, in my own church, some of the leaders are morally deficient people.
This story of Jacob, Samson, David, Elijah and the others, provides both a challenge and an encouragement, and both the challenge and the encouragement stem from the fact that God's grace is real, and is not just 'milk of human kindness' but something much deeper and tougher.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2000. Comments and queries are very welcome.
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Last updated: 16 July 2000 correct sp of patriarchs; corrected some links. 10 August 2000 rabbits; little things. 13 November 2000 started adding Relevance to Us, down to little.things. 10 December 2000 new contacts pointer. 18 February 2001 Tidied up God using unworthy. 7 April 2001 a correction to ending.