Between Heaven and Earth

Who is God (of the Old Testament)?

Michael: Today will be the first part of a two-part discussion on the character of God in the Old Testament. I will be heavily relying on and quoting from the book The Suffering of God by Terence Fretheim. 

We often get hung up on the question: Do you believe in God? And forget about the other, perhaps more important question, what kind of God do you believe in?

Because this question is not often asked, we fail to realize that our understanding of who God is is very different from each other. I’m confident that two people sitting in the same pew of the same church understand and relate to God in completely different ways. It could be so different that they may be in fact worshipping two different Gods. 

From The Suffering of God:

All too often the sole focus of the ministry of the church has been on whether one believes in God. Insufficient attention has been given to the kind of God one believes, often with disastrous results. To realize the importance of this, witness any number of atrocities, from the Inquisition to Jonestown, committed in the name of God by those who believe in God. Moreover, to define God solely or primarily in terms of activity can get one into comparable difficulties. The God of Jonestown was a creator and redeemer God who had a clear plan and purpose, moving the people toward a specific goal. The question of the kind of God in whom one believes is not only important, it is crucial. It is a question of images. Metaphors matter.

Have you ever considered this question? Who is the God that you believe in? Where do the images that have formed your belief come from? Could your image of God be wrong? How can you verify the true images of God from idolatrous ones?

As Christians, the bible serves as the source for us to know God. But the bible is a large book that is open to various interpretations. Most of us, including nonbelievers, know who God is through the commonly held and widely accepted understanding of God that the church/theologians has put forth.  But are we really sure that this is the correct identity of God? The God I would take pride in my faith for? Is this the type of God that fulfills my spiritual life? Is this the God of Grace?

Consider this description from Fretheim:

“The preaching and teaching of the church have commonly been so focused on a certain portrait of Jesus that many of the biblical images for God have been neglected, and stereotypical images have been allowed to stand unchallenged. It is almost as if faith in Jesus were thought to take care of the picture of God automatically; thus, one need pay no special heed to it. But this assumption has commonly created inner tensions for the faithful, perhaps even intolerable tensions; for the picture of Jesus presented often stands at odds with the commonly accepted picture of God. Attributes such as love, compassion, and mercy, accompanied by acts of healing, forgiving, and redeeming, tend to become narrowly associated with Jesus, while the less palatable attributes and actions of holiness, wrath, power, and justice are ascribed only to God. What tends to fill the mind is God as Giver of the Law and Judge of all the earth. If God is not the cause of all the ills in the world, God is still seen as the one who is to blame for not really doing anything about them. It is the goodness of God that is ignored, not the goodness of Jesus. One can almost hear someone say: “if only Jesus were here, he would do something about all our troubles!”. People often seem to have a view which suggests that Jesus is a friend and God is an enemy. An understanding of the atonement gets so twisted that Jesus is seen as the one who came to save us from God.” 

Does this sound a bit horrific to you? Perhaps this is because that is how you were taught to view God and Jesus and the relationship between them. Of course, it was never laid out in this direct way or expressed in these terms, but the conclusion of many of the church’s teachings usually lead to this. What many believers don’t realize is that even atheists tend to hold the same images of God-perhaps part of the reason they are atheists. I certainly have struggled with this and to me, just being aware of this contradiction between how we think of Jesus and God is a helpful starting point to correct the image of God in the OT.

In the OT, God says:

“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6 ESV)

In the NT, Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “I and the Father are one” (10:30); “The word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me” (14:24); “All that the Father has is mine” (16:15); and “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). 

Do we take these statements by God and Jesus seriously enough? If we do, if Jesus and God are truly one and the same, then we have to come to a conclusion that one of the images of God or Jesus is false. But which one is it? Is the image of God of the OT is the correct one, or is it the one we have in Jesus in the NT? 

If you ask someone what the attributes of God are, they will likely answer that God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful). These are, to my understanding, philosophical attributes to God based on our own limited knowledge and power. When we combine those with the animated descriptions of God in the OT along with metaphors such as the court of law, we arrive at a picture of a God that primarily functions as a judge presiding over all creation. 

When we carry this image of God with us, it shapes our religious attitudes and sensitivities adversely and cuts us off from experiencing God in a different way. It is not that this understanding of God is wrong, but it is limited and there is so much more to be added to it. 

The rich language of the OT describes a God that is living, personal, but also intimately involved in the world.  Many participants in this class have described that we need to cultivate a relationship with God. “What if the word “relationship” were taken with complete seriousness? What does it take for a relationship to be real? What does it mean for a relationship to have integrity? What does it mean for God to be faithful in a relationship which is real? Once having entered into a relationship, is God bound to it, no longer free to become unrelated?

As in any relationship of integrity, God will have to give up some things for the sake of the relationship. So, God will have to give up some freedom. Any commitment or promise within a relationship entails a limitation of freedom…God has exercised divine freedom in the making of such promises, but after that, God’s freedom is truly limited by those promises. God will do what God says God will do; God will be faithful to God’s promises, and that is a limitation of freedom. God’s freedom is now most supremely a freedom FOR the world, not a freedom FROM the world. 

Moreover, any relationship of integrity will entail a sharing of power. Each party to the relationship must give up any monopoly on power for the sake of the relationship. Neither party to the relationship can be overwhelmed for the relationship to be a true one. God gives up the exercise of some power because total control of the other is not a relationship of integrity. So, for God to be in a genuine relationship with us, he has to give up some power and freedom, otherwise, it won’t be a genuine relationship.”

Fretheim argues from OT passages that the God of Israel was more intimately involved in the world than we imagine now. That God choose his dwelling place, heaven, to be more spatially located within the confines of this world, rather in a world that is wholly other. Furthermore, from passages describing time, planning and remembering, Fretheim suggests that God has bound himself temporally within this world. 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

“This common language of planning assumes that temporal sequence is important for God-past, present, and future are meaningful categories. Just as God anticipates and plans for the future, so God also recalls the past. God has memories as well as hopes. For such passages that describe God remembering and forgetting and planning, to makes sense, God cannot be said to remember and forget simultaneously; such divine actions must thus be viewed in terms of a temporal flow of events. God has therefore limited his freedom to the same structures of time as ours.”

Perhaps this can help us understand the passages that describe God’s anger better. God is said to be slow to anger, elsewhere God is said (not) to restrain his anger, and to hold his peace.

They have stirred me to jealousy…they have provoked me with their idols (ps78:58; 106:29; Isa 65:3; Jer. 8:19).

Elsewhere, we are assured: 

He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.(Ps.103:9; Isa.57:16)

His anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. (Ps30:5; . Ezra 9:8)

For a brief moment I forsook you,…in overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you. (Isa.54:7-8; Isa26:20; Exod. 33:5). 

These references to God’s wrath are coherent only if placed along a timeline , so that one can speak of a time of provocation, a time of momentary execution, and a time when such wrath comes to an end. “I will be calm and will be no more angry “(Ezek.16:42). God’s anger is thus expressly described as historical anger. God is not always angry: “The divine anger has its time, and a time when it is not” (Jer.18:23). 

The God of the OT is therefore not thought of in terms of timelessness. God is not above the flow of time and history, as if looking down from a mountaintop on all the streams of people through the valley of the ages. Yet, God’s life within the flow of events is qualitatively supreme; God is the eternal, uncreated member of this community. However, by dwelling among us and within our confines of time, God is under a SELF-limitation to the world he created. 

What we need to realize is that to insist that God is not self-limited is to limit God in other ways. If God is just acting upon things that he has predetermined before the beginning of time, God would not be able to make free, spontaneous decisions, in the light of the spontaneities of human action. God would also be deprived of the experience of novelty or of the joy of discovery. God’s activity in the world would become a kind of production, a mere bringing forth of what God has always determined. God would thereby become an already programmed computer. The truly personal dimension of the divine life would be sharply diminished. 

If God is limited to our confines of time, then that also affects God’s knowledge of the future. 

In the OT, there is a variety of material that suggests a divine limitation with respect to God’s knowledge of the future:

  1. By saying “Perhaps”: Thus says the lord: stand in the court of the Lord’s house and speak. ..It may be perhaps they will listen, and everyone turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the evil (Jer 26:2-3; ).
  2. By consulting with the prophets: Having made a decision or devised a plan, God consults with the prophetic leadership regarding possible insight they might have regarding the situation before God proceeds to carry that decision forth into action. For these conversations with the prophets to have integrity, we have to agree that God’s knowledge of the future is limited as it is predicated upon the outcome of such conversations. Thus, we can say generally that even if God knows every causal factor involved in shaping the future, God still recognizes all this knowledge as insufficient basis for predicting the future in detail. For the future is not entirely shaped by such causes, there is room for spontaneity especially arising from the human response and behavior. 
  3. By God asking questions: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I Do with you, O Judah?” (Hos 6:4, cf. 11:8a); How can I pardon you? …Shall I not punish them for these things? (Jer5:7, 9; v.29; 9:7,9)

These questions are similar to when a parent asks a rebellious child: “What am I going to do with you? “ They open up the answers for discussion between God and the people. But what kind of God does this? The fact that God shares these questions reveals that God opens himself up to risk; God becomes vulnerable. For the more one shares of oneself, the greater the possibility of being hurt. This portrait of God, a suffering God, is what hopefully will prompt repentance from the people. 

So, when we call God omniscient, we have to recognize that it is a limited one when we discuss the future. It is limited in such a way as to include a genuine divine openness to the future. An openness which is constantly informed by the divine will to save. 

Divine self-limitations with respect to power are also there, implicit in the promises which God has made. Whenever God makes a promise, he limits the options available for action on any related matters. God cannot use power in such a way as to violate a promise he has made; that would mean unfaithfulness. For example, the promise God makes at the end of the flood story in genesis; God promises that he will never respond to evil in flood-like ways again (9:11). This is a self-limitation with respect to divine freedom and power. God’s use of power in dealing with evil in the world is eternally self-limited. 

The OT reveals a fundamental continuity between God and world. God is graciously present in, with, and under all the particulars of creation, with which God is in a relationship of reciprocity. The immanent and transcendent God of Israel is immersed in the space and time of this world; this God is available to all, is effective along with everyone at every occasion, and moves with us into an uncertain future. Such a perspective reveals a divine vulnerability, as God takes all the risks that authentic relationships entail. Because of what happens to that relationship with those whom God loves, God suffers.”

I find that this understanding of God is more in line with how we relate with Jesus. It is out of love that God would limit his own omniscience and omnipotence in order to first be in an authentic relationship with us and second to provide salvation for us no matter what happens or what we do. As we will discuss in the next class, God suffers as a result of this. I think that this quality of suffering attributed to God the father can help us understand much more about the suffering of his son on the cross. 

Is your understanding of God conscious or unconscious? Are you willing to change this mainstream picture of God for yourself? How do you view your relationship with God once you realized what God had to give up for the relationship to be authentic?  

Donald: I think there are some aspects of the Divine that we probably don’t want to consider. And probably Michael spoke of one when he mentioned the image of two people sitting next to each other in church, thinking their gods are quite different. I don’t know if it’s that their gods are different, or their understanding of God is different. Maybe that’s just language. I went back and looked at the images I showed when I taught that Sabbath school class about our image of God. They certainly paralleled what Michael presented this morning.

It seems to me that before we can really start the conversation or understand the conversation we have relating to God, we have to understand that we talk as if they’re different things. But then we do all that talking, and yet we come back to saying all are one and the same: God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, yet we also talk about them almost like three different entities.

Most of us probably find ourselves wanting to picture God in the image of Christ, because Christ is forgiving, compassionate, and long-suffering, whereas God is angry. We never talk about Christ being angry except for that one time, and because it’s an exception, we tend to focus on it, but it’s certainly not the pattern we have of the image of Christ. It’s more of an exception where God—the exception might be a smiling God—the pattern is more of an angry God, which is unfortunate.

What was presented this morning is quite interesting regarding the gods being all-knowing in that somebody gives up power to be in a relationship. Is He really giving it up? Or is it just putting it in a box and putting it aside? I don’t know.

Our understanding and image of God is radically different from Christ. And then there’s the Holy Spirit. What we know, the three-in-one. That could be another series of Sabbath schools, it would seem to me.

Michael: I agree the language is a bit challenging. I was mostly copying from the book and tried to simplify that. It covers a lot of concepts. I basically summarized half the book, so it is very condensed. But I am looking forward to the second half. I think that’s why I’m doing this, so it will make a bit more sense then.

Carolyn: I have always believed that when He forgives our sins, our sins go to the bottom of the sea. I mean, they’re gone. But then our sins are brought up again. To me, this is what the role of God has always been in the judgment seat, which is in the future. Unless we believe that right now when I ask forgiveness of sin, my sins are all taken care of, and they’re gone forever.

David: In terms of our discussion of the image of God, I think Carolyn’s question hits the nail on the head. The inconsistency that Carolyn mentioned and others that Michael covered in his talk are in the Bible, which suggests that the Bible writers had different images of God which in turn explains why Christians too end up with different images of God. 

God’s omnipotence and omniscience is a salient characteristic of our image of God, but it seems to me that omniscience and omnipotence, while valued by humans, must be irrelevant to God. It seems to me (I cannot know, of course) that only one attribute has any value to God and certainly to Jesus, and that is simply goodness. That’s the one and only attribute that matters. 

I’ve no idea how to project an image of goodness. Because Jesus is goodness personified, the images we have of him tend to show a man who looks like he’s a good, kind, loving, merciful man. But we all know that appearances can deceive, so going on looks seems to me a pretty dangerous way to think of God. 

I believe we cannot possibly imagine God. I think there’s evidence enough within and around us to support our belief in God, but there is no way to understanding God, let alone producing an image of that entity.

If understanding God is beyond us, how can we possibly have a relationship with Him?

David: If we define God as goodness, then you can have a relationship with goodness, or with evil. We all tend to hedge our bets and fall somewhere between these extremes. 

I want to add that two frequently mentioned divine attributes—omniscience and omnipotence—are significant only if possessed by an external agent. If these attributes are confined within oneself (so that you are all-knowing and fully in control internally regarding yourself) then you lack external influence. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent being must be external. However, omniscience and omnipotence cannot have any value to the Holy Spirit—a strictly internal manifestation of God. 

To me, the only divine attribute that matters is goodness, which I associate with the Holy Spirit—God within us.

Reinhard:I often reflect on the contrast between God in the Old Testament and the New Testament. These contrasting views were shaped, of course, by historical contexts. Originally, when God created humans, our vast intellectual capacity was evident. He designed us perfectly to foster a profound relationship, channeling His love, demonstrating that He is a God of love. 

When He introduced the Law of Moses 3,500 years ago, it was intended for us to live morally and ethically sound lives. However, despite the commandments—like the Ten Commandments—our ancestors, including Adam, struggled with adherence, failing to abolish idolatry until Jesus arrived. This shows that God’s plan to correct human behavior and enforce recognition of Him as the Supreme Being has been effective over time.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Israelites had developed a submissive relationship to God, acknowledging His sovereignty. This was part of God’s timeline. Jesus’ arrival as a human altered our approach to understanding God’s nature, demonstrating His characteristics through human actions. In essence, Jesus, equally powerful as God the Father, chose to lower Himself to elevate humanity, bridging the gap between divine expectations and human capabilities.

Jesus’ mission was to correct misconceptions and arrogance among religious leaders and to reaffirm God’s character. By relinquishing certain divine powers—essentially the power of choice—He leveled the playing field, enabling us as humans to engage with God on equal footing. This opportunity to live in accordance with God’s will, as Jesus demonstrated, is central to our relationship with God. Throughout history, and as we continue, the essence of our creation embodies the ability to choose, and through our choices and submission, we truly acknowledge and embrace God as the ultimate authority.

Carolyn: Who do you think walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and had a relationship with them before sin entered?

David: If I maintain my position, I would have to say that they walked with goodness in the Garden—that was the relationship. In that sense they “saw” God. But the statement in John 1 where Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” raises a challenging point: How many people ever actually saw Jesus? The answer is only a fraction of a percent of all humans through history. Does this mean that the rest of us, who have never seen Jesus, have therefore never seen God? Why should a few be so privileged, and not the rest of us? 

The statement must mean something deeper than skin-deep. It surely cannot refer merely to seeing His face; it has to be about understanding his essence, his divine character. The danger lies in how casually this statement can be interpreted, leading people to believe that seeing a representation of Jesus’ face in a church icon equates to seeing God, which is a serious misunderstanding.

Don: There’s something very troubling about limiting God’s power and knowledge, yet we have no problem accepting the limitations imposed on Jesus in His mortal form, celebrated as part of the Incarnation. We find it easy to accept Jesus’ limitations, but are reluctant to impose any limitations on God the Father. This seems inconsistent. We don’t actually limit God with our imaginations; rather, God limits Himself. This aligns with what Michael suggested. We are prone to creating God in our own image, which is precisely what God warned against in the Ten Commandments, prohibiting the creation of physical images and idols. Yet, we do the same in our thoughts and imaginations. 

Perhaps another way to consider this is that God knows everything that can be known, but there are certain creative acts, such as decisions we make, which are not predetermined and thus cannot be known until they occur..

Anonymous: God is not limited in any way, shape, or form. He does not have to give up freedom or power for a relationship to work; rather, He chooses to share His power and freedom with us. 

Another point to consider is the concept of God’s suffering. When people talk about God’s suffering, they’re using human terms—God doesn’t suffer as we understand suffering.

Moreover, I attribute the confusion surrounding the understanding of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to the translators of the Bible and to the general interpretation by the church. Often, their interpretations are imposed on us, not forcefully, but in a manner that influences our beliefs. This, I believe, is a source of confusion. In my view, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are not three different entities or persons; they are interchangeable. This notion that each is a distinct person contributes to the confusion, especially for those trying to embrace Christianity.

It’s misleading to describe them as three separate entities. The relationship is more akin to you and your thoughts; without you, your thoughts have no separate identity. This concept becomes particularly perplexing when explaining the mystery of the Trinity—three persons in one—to newcomers. For me, it’s clear: when I refer to God, I mean Jesus, and vice versa. The Old Testament God and the New Testament Jesus are not distinct—they are the creator. I use singular terms because they are unified in their act of creation.

As for the notion of time, you mentioned that God has to limit Himself to our temporal constraints. I don’t see any limitation on God concerning time. The language of the Bible uses human concepts to make the divine comprehensible, representing God as encompassing the past, present, and future simultaneously. Thus, any confusion does not stem from God but from our interpretations and the limitations of human language used in the scriptures.

God shares with us His power, freedom, love, and mystery. Through faith, as the Bible indicates, the Holy Spirit reveals things to come. In essence, it’s one work, one God. Any confusion arises from disbelief, not from the divine nature itself.

Michael: This is a fundamental issue for both Christians and non-Christians, and it relates to Carolyn’s question. If the images of God and Jesus were not perceived as so different, we wouldn’t face all these problems regarding their differences. It’s wonderful that you see them as the same, and that’s what I was aiming for. Unfortunately, even within the church, there seem to be two different gods.

David: I almost agree, especially as a process theologian who believes in a God who exists and a God who is coming into existence (“becoming”). To me, the only way God can exist in time is as God Becoming, because outside of time—in eternity—time does not exist. But overseeing eternity is God the Being, the eternal. Only here on Earth, under the framework of process theology, can we explore the notion of God Becoming.

Was Jesus divine? Consider how he exhibited power. If he was divine in the popular conception of the word (omniscient and omnipotent, with the power to do anything at all) then why did He generally disavow the use of his divine power? He refused to summon angels for support in the Garden of Gethsemane and he rejected the devil’s temptations to show off his power in the desert. The real power of Jesus was not in the popular exercise of divine power but in his teachings. 

His words—“Turn the other cheek,” “Go to the back of the line,” “Put yourself last”—illustrate the real divine power. These phrases have resonated through the ages, not because they defeat evil through force, but because they represent moral victory. Turning the other cheek might not prevent one from suffering at the hands of another, but it ultimately upholds goodness, which is what truly matters.

Reinhard: The concept of the Trinity—three in one—is indeed a mystery that perhaps we as humans cannot fully grasp at this moment. When God said, “Let us create man,” as recounted in Genesis and echoed in Paul’s epistles, it clearly involved God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To me, they are three but in very close agreement, almost in unison in every decision, yet thinking they are one is not quite accurate. 

When Jesus came to Earth, the significance of “Turn the other cheek” became profound. Jesus not only demonstrated how to live from God’s perspective, lowering Himself to experience human pain and emotions, but also set an example of how to live rightly under God’s commandment. His sacrifice was part of God’s plan for salvation, formulated after the fall of Adam. Interestingly, Jesus’ claim to be God was one of the main reasons the Jewish authorities condemned Him to death, viewing it as blasphemy, while the Roman Empire feared His potential to incite rebellion. 

However, as Christians, we recognize that Jesus died to save us, linking together the teachings we’ve discussed here. Furthermore, although God can see the future, we still retain the power of choice, to either accept Him or oppose Him. This, I believe, is crucial. God’s omnipotence means He sees from the beginning to the end, affirming His all-powerful nature.

Don: Some provocative observations have been made suggesting that the translators of the Bible lacked the modern words and knowledge we possess today. This makes me wonder if our view of God in contemporary times is different from the view of people in ancient times, or will be different again in the future? Should factors like the World Wide Web, artificial intelligence, and computing power influence a reevaluation of Old Testament theology?

David: That is a fascinating question. I think that although our understanding of God might evolve with new experiences and technologies, it remains based fundamentally on human interpretation. This means that religious views and our understanding of God may shift, but God Himself remains unchanged. 

There will likely be much debate and speculation about this in the future, just as there has been over the past 2000 years. However, despite our evolving perspectives, to me, two truths remain constant: (1) God exists and (2) God is good. This was known 2000 years ago, it is acknowledged today, and it will still be recognized 2000 years from now.

Michael: Carolyn’s asked about sins. If God declares, “I will remember your sins no more,” it would contradict His word to bring them (sins) up again at the end. To do so after stating they are forgiven would not only be unfaithful to His promises but also to the relationship itself. It wouldn’t constitute a genuine relationship. 

Therefore, I would challenge the interpretations or the images suggesting that sins resurface at life’s end or the world’s end. I believe that when my sins are forgiven, they are truly erased and will not reappear at the end.

Don: This discussion ties directly into our extensive conversations about grace. Thank you, Michael, for your thought-provoking essay and for facilitating this engaging discussion. Thank you also to all friends who joined us and shared their insights. We will continue exploring these themes next week.

* * *

Leave a Reply