The old saying tells us that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament contains thousands of words about God, but it seems to me that it also contains two ‘pictures’ that put all these thousands of words in their proper place, and warn us against understanding them in any crudely literal way.
The first picture is the so-called ‘holy of holies’ in God’s Temple in Jerusalem. It was the innermost room in a large complex with a succession of courts and diminishing rights of entry. The largest, outermost court was that of the gentiles which anyone could enter. Then there was the court for Jewish women and, after that, the court for Jewish men, followed by the court just for priests. Finally, only the high priest, once a year, could enter the central ‘holy of holies’ which was God’s pre-eminent dwelling place on earth. What did this small room contain ? Nothing ! It was completely empty.
The second picture is a word (words being pictures pointing to things other than themselves). That word in Hebrew is יהוה (yhwh), which is God’s name. It’s ‘empty’ of vowels, having consonants only, which is how Hebrew was originally written (and still is in modern Israel). It’s also ‘empty’ in that Jewish readers did not (and still don’t) pronounce it, since it was considered too ‘holy’ to be uttered. How it was originally pronounced, if ever, can’t be known, the best guess being Yahweh. It looks as if it’s derived from the root היה (hayah – to be, become, come to pass), but it’s not a regular verbal form. Being God’s reply to Moses’ request for his name, it could mean, “I am who I am”, as a polite way of saying, ‘mind your own business’!
This would be in keeping with the second of the ten commandments, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything”. The point being made is that there’s no “image”, carved, painted, or pictured in words, which could possibly do justice in any way whatsoever to whatever reality lies behind the word, name or idea of ‘God’. So, in the Old Testament, we have these thousands of words about God, and these two ‘pictures’ that ‘give the game away’.
In the same way, we have thousands of words about God in the New Testament, but once again, in my view, a ‘picture’ that gives the game away. We are told that “God is spirit”. That which is spiritual is the opposite of that which is material, and is thus intangible and invisible, and therefore indescribable. We’re entirely free to offer suggestions about it, or even to share our beliefs, but we can’t state any facts about it. How can the indescribable be described, the invisible be displayed, or the unknowable be known about? It can’t, is the short, simple and self-evident answer.
Given this, how should we respond? We should all understand and unreservedly acknowledge that anything we say about God is an opinion, or a belief, but cannot be claimed as a fact. Given that, we should drop any notion that while our opinions and beliefs are unquestionably true, all those that differ from ours are incontrovertibly false. Given that, we should stop financing, or otherwise supporting, organisations dedicated to ‘converting’ other people from their delusions to our saving truth. Instead, we should respect the right of others to see things differently; be neither afraid of, nor hostile towards, them; and feel no need to gun them down, blow them up, or otherwise wipe them out. Too bad that this is not how things generally are, but it’s how, in the case of you and I, they could begin to be.
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