The Bible, at times, makes it quote clear that its intention is not to give us straightforward answers to questions that we think are important – like on God, for instance. Looking to the Bible to find out what God is like would seem the most obvious thing that it should give us on a silver platter. But this isn’t the case and readers have to work with the Bible to find answers. How so?
The God of scripture sometimes knows everything while at other times he appears stumped and trying to figure things out. He’s either set in his ways and in full control of the situation or he changes his mind when pressed. Sometimes God overflows with compassion and at other times he has a quick temper. One would think that the Bible wouldn’t make the God question harder than it should be. If God is really behind the Bible then why can’t he just get this all down via a five-point summary? If the Bible isn’t clear even about big issues like God; what’s it good for?
What I think the issue is is that readers are expecting from the Bible something that it wasn’t set up and inspired to do. Perhaps the Bible is not a manual for us that answers all of our questions about God. The Bible is, after all, a story of God’s people on a long, tumultuous, spiritual journey conveyed by different authors, under certain circumstances, for variety of reasons reasons, spanning more than a thousand years. It was written during times of peace and war, in safety and exile, in Israel’s youth and adulthood. Its writers were priests, scribes, and kings, separated by time and geography. A book that formed in such a way isn’t going to be a consistent one-size-fits-all instructional manual that tells us, in all our varied circumstances, how to grow into a life of faith. A book like that shows us what a life of faith looks like.
Stories are powerful (hence why God revealed himself via diverse stories) and as all good stories do, the Bible shapes us by drawing us into its world and inviting us to connect on many different levels, wherever we are on our journey, and to see ourselves better by its light by stirring our spiritual imagination to walk closer with God.
This is how the Bible acts as a guide for the faithful, by being a story and not a book that is intent on giving us us a list of directions disguised as a story. So, when Christians try to flatten the Bible’s diverse voices into one voice we are no longer reading the Bible we have, instead, we are distorting it. The Bible shows us how normal and expected it is for all people of faith to be a part of the same process, the same spiritual journey, of living, reflecting, changing, growing in our understanding of God, ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Christian scholar Peter Enns explains:
“If there’s a sense in which the Bible “tells us what to do,” I think that’s it: as a model of the diverse and unscripted spiritual life, not as our step-by-step instructional guide” (1).
It is also true that portions of the Bible sketch a similar portrait of God, for example, as a distant sovereign being seated on his inaccessible throne. In Genesis 1, for example, God is high above his creation, looks down at it, and is in control of it. We see God making the heavens and the Earth in a series of commands (“Let there be light,” etc.) and puts everything in place (the sun, moon, and stars) with minimal effort. Other parts of the Bible presents God in similar ways.
Another common portrait of God in the Bible is God being “one of us.” God involves himself in human stories where he figures things out, changes his mind, regrets his own actions, reacts to what others do, and has to be calmed down. When we compare these portraits we begin to see two very different portraits of God in the Bible. This more “human” God forms Adam out of dust, much like a potter would form jars. Here God isn’t distant but involved. Again we see that after God forms Adam, God sees that he is alone and so, as if thinking on his feet, he tries to remedy the situation. God then displays the animals in front of Adam to see if one of them will do as a suitable companion but none of them do. It’s as if God seems to be making it up as he goes along. God then makes a plan to form a woman from a rib in his side. God’s showing of the animals to ease Adam’s loneliness didn’t work but forming a being like him did. Again, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they hide because they are ashamed of their nakedness. God, who is said to be “walking” in the Garden of Eden at the time notices that they are missing but doesn’t know where they are, hence why he asks “Where are you?” God then punishes Adam and Eve and banishes them from the garden. It’s as if things are not going according to God’s plan and he appears to be caught off guard. Clearly God in the Adam and Eve story doesn’t act like God in the first chapter in Genesis who appears to be totally transcendent over his creation.
We see this elsewhere too, as in the story of Abraham, Israel’s first ancestor. God gives Abraham a son, Isaac. God then tells Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice which is essentially to ask him to slit his throat. Why would God command Abraham to kill his son? The story is clear that God is testing Abraham to find out whether he “fears” him. So Abraham obeys God’s instruction and takes Isaac up to Mount Moriah and ties him to an altar. Just as he is about to kill Isaac God intervenes via an angel that instructs Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God…” Now I know is the clue here. In this story God appears to discover something that he did not know before.
So, why does God need to be calmed down in the first place (as in Sodom and Gomorrah)? What kind of God regrets what he’s done (as in Noah’s flood)? What kind of God needs to test his creatures so that he can be sure of their loyalty (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac)? Why is this the case?
I think that this “ungodlike” God of the Bible gets at the heart of both Jewish and Christian beliefs about God. This God is unique; he doesn’t keep his distance but embraces human experience and even becomes part of the human story. In the Christian story God steps even further down as he becomes one of us, God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. God certainly is a multidimensional character in the Bible. Sometimes he is up there, out of the way, and transcendent whereas often he is a God that is personal, involved and a being that you can actually have a relationship with. Honest reflection shows that both these portraits are in the Bible and neither cancels the other out.
1. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So. p. 165 (Scribd Ebook Format).