11/19/2011 03:16 am ET | Updated Jan 18, 2012

Biblical Views of God

The claims are familiar: humanity could not control nature, did not understand conception or birth, and feared death, and so we invented a God that brought order to chaos, purpose to life and comfort in death. Next, we developed religion to placate the God we invented to assuage our fears of what we could not understand or control. Then, we wrote the Bible to sanction the religion that placated the God that we invented. Next came clergy, to interpret the Bible. And today, we have academics to challenge the clergy who interpret the Bible that explains the religion that placates the God that we invented.

Such debates over the existence of God are not only tedious, they are also pointless. Those who believe, believe; those who don't, don't. Belief is like love: it cannot be compelled; it does not function on logical parameters. As some religions would put it, faith is a matter of "grace." For these traditions, we do not summon faith; it summons us.

Equally tiresome, perhaps especially to those of us who have invested our lives in seeking to understand what the Bible meant to its original audiences and how it has been received over time, is the frequent claim: "Don't take a biblical studies course; it will destroy your faith." For the most part, if one lecture undermines a religious view, then that view requires deeper interrogation.

The simplistic assertion, "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it," does a disservice to both the Bible and to the God the text proclaims. Whether a Creator endowed us with the capacity to think, or whether we are lucky enough to be the heirs of millions of years of evolution -- the two points are not mutually exclusive -- it would be a sin not to use the brains we have.

And it would be a waste not to take advantage of what academic study of the Bible reveals about life, about the world and about God. For the Bible, the existence of the divine is not a question. But the Bible does pose questions about this existence: If God is all-powerful and benevolent, why is there evil in the world? If God is just, why do the wicked prosper? What is the relationship between divine omniscience and free will? Where is God in the presence of suffering? These are not questions designed to challenge belief in God; rather, they challenge whatever our beliefs might be. The very fact that the Bible raises these questions is an invitation to those who read the text to do the same.

The Bible also refuses a singular picture of the Deity, which means that no individual rabbi or priest or pastor can claim complete theological knowledge. The biblical text is an anthology, with different perspectives given of the Deity and with different names, each having different nuances: YHWH, Elohim, El Shaddai, El Elyon, El Roi, El Berit, El Olam and so on. In the Book of Exodus, God speaks from a burning bush that is not consumed (already a mystery) to Moses, a murderer who has fled Egypt (already a surprising choice), and announces the divine name as ehyeh asher ehyeh, usually translated "I will be what I will be." The name is a first-person singular irregular verb, open to the future.

That the biblical God is unconstrained also means that this God is beyond gender. Hebrew is a gendered language -- with masculine and feminine nouns, and the verbs predicated of the deity are in the masculine. However, the biblical God is no more a "man" than other masculine Hebrew nouns, such as "breast" or "heart." Moses' vision of God is sexually indeterminate: "you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen" (Exodus 33:23). Ezekiel sees "downward from what looked like the loins ... something that looked like fire..." (1:26-27). Genesis insists that both "male" and "female" are in the divine image and likeness (1:27).

Finally, the Hebrew text allows its readers to demand that this Deity respond with compassion and righteousness. Thus it provides guidance on how to approach the divine: with honesty, emotion and demand. Abraham challenges God to spare Sodom should 10 righteous people be found within its walls; Job is only patient for two chapters, and then cries out against his unjust suffering. At the end, God sanctions Job and condemns his friends for their simplistic theologies.

Rather than repeat either the tired positivistic arguments for atheism or the equally tired apologetic pronouncements that study is dangerous to faith, perhaps we'd all do well to have another look at what the Bible actually says and so allow ourselves once again both to pose the right questions and recognize our answers will always be open to more question.