The paradigms through which we engage the world shape the questions we are able to ask, and limit the truths we are able to see. Mostly our paradigmatic frameworks are invisible to us, and so we accept as normal and real the worlds with which we are presented. If you are a 21st Century Protestant or Evangelical Christian, the chances are that you have come to accept God as a purely spiritual (although bizarrely still masculine) being. This notion of God as spirit is not entirely true to the Scriptures, however. That is a much later development. The early Israelites conceived of God in very physical terms: Moses sees God’s back, Adam hears God in walking in Eden, God is witnessed in various visions on the heavenly throne, and there is even some concern that God, wandering around the Israelite army camp in the dead of night, might inadvertently step in poop that careless soldiers had neglected to cover up (Deuteronomy 23:13). Which, by the way, puts a whole new … complexion… on the texts that describe God using Jerusalem as his footstool.
Not only did the ancient Israelite God possess an undeniable physicality (and what we today would call a toxic masculinity – but that is a topic for another day), but he was also not single. Our modern concept of a splendidly self-sufficient God finds no equivalent in ancient Israelite belief. Behind every successful male god, after all….
In later years the priesthood of Yahweh went to extraordinary lengths to discredit and erase Mrs God from Israelite’s history (see 2 Kings 23, for example) , but for many centuries, Asherah was worshiped alongside Yahweh in his temples. She wasn’t always Yahweh’s partner, though. In the original Canaanite pantheon, Asherah was El’s better half. As El was the father of Yahweh, Asherah was effectively his mother. There is debate in the scholarship around how El’s position as head of the pantheon came to be usurped by Yahweh, losing not only his title but also his identity to Yahweh. But whatever the reasons for this conflation, the merge had some uncomfortable ramifications: awkwardly, Yahweh’s replacing El as the head of the pantheon effectively meant that at some point Asherah functioned as both Yahweh’s mother and his wife. That’s very bad PR for a god whose laws prohibit incest. So I can appreciate that by the time the post-exilic scribes attempt to reforge a national identity by telling the ancient stories of their (by now One) God, Asherah (and Yahweh’s brother Baal, for that matter) needs to be vigorously expunged from the story.
The modern Evangelical reader, though, approaches the Biblical texts through a monotheist lens and with the presupposition that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. As a result, the tendency will be to read the denunciation of Asherah worship as an attempt by the faithful to eradicate a troublesome deviance from an established worship practice. But that is not what is happening in the Biblical texts. What we see in the Bible, through texts that are written over many centuries, is the evolution of a faith as it moves from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism, and how – at each step of the way – the faithful understand, rationalise and exercise change.
I maintain that one of the biggest stumbling blocks Christians face in understanding the significance of Jesus’ ministry is the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. It imposes an interpretive framework that makes it more or less impossible to see what is actually there.
Let me explain. If you approach the Biblical texts with the base assumption that they comprise one cohesive, self-revelatory narrative from God, it means that every depiction of God there-in must be true (how could a good God provide a false revelation of self?). If God does not change, then the reader needs to find a way of reading the Biblical texts in a way that makes every depiction of God align with very other depiction of God, to form a cohesive picture.
The physicality of God in much of what we call the Old Testament, though, raises some very uncomfortable questions: why couldn’t an omniscient God spot the poop? How does a spirit even step in poop? What else might God have missed? If God struggles to avoid inadvertently soiling his sandals with excrement, can we entrust him with more important matters, like – say – saving humanity? The writers of these texts thought of God as a physical being. Were they wrong? What else could they be wrong about? If they were right, we must accept that physical beings have limits; what are God’s limitations (aside from an inability to locate faeces in the dark)? How did this understanding of God as a physical being transition to an understanding of God as spirit? Does this man the Scriptures reveal a changing understanding of God or a changeable God? What makes this God any different from the made-up gods of the Norse or Greek or Roman or Egyptian or Babylonian or Sumerian or Chinese etc pantheons? Is this god even real? If there is a real god depicted in all of this, and there are evident flaws in the testimony, is it the revelation that is flawed or the god, or both? Can we – with any degree of intellectual or ethical integrity – devote our lives to this deeply flawed God? ,
To me, anyway, something is clear: if we want to move closer to finding who God is, we need to begin by ditching the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.
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