The Subversion of the Creator God

One of the distinctive aspects of Israel's monotheism as it developed over time was the fact that Israel began to consider YHWH, the deity they worshiped, as not just another tribal god, one god among other gods, and not just the High god above lesser gods, but the one and only God, the God who was the Creator God, the One who created all things in heaven and on earth.

What struck me the other day about this observation is how worship of the Creator affected the theological imagination of Israel and how worship of the Creator God led to various theological innovations in the Old and New Testaments, some quite radical. In fact, I'd argue that the most radical innovation in the worship of the Creator God was offered by Jesus.

Specifically, what I'd like to show is how the worship of the Creator destabilized and undermined various theological arrangements and settlements. That is, once Israel began to see YHWH not just as a tribal god but as the Creator she introduced into her theological imagination a notion that would begin to work subversively against her religious attempts to own, capture and tame God.

At the start, the worship of YHWH as the Creator allowed Israel to disparage and demean her polytheistic neighbors. Because YHWH was the only God and the Creator God Israel's neighbors were in the grip of an illusion. In the eyes of Israel when the surrounding Canaanite nations bowed down to idols there was no god behind that figure of wood or stone. Because there was only one God idols were nothing.
Habakkuk 2.18-20
“Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.

Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.
So at the start worship of the Creator allowed Israel to be pretty smug. Look at those stupid, blinkered idol worshipers bowing down to wood and stone!  

But Israel was in for a surprise. Because when you start worshipping the Creator you start thinking about that theologically. And the places those reflections take you can be pretty surprising and awkward.

How so?

Well, consider how worship of the Creator began to undermine Israel's own religious observance, calling into question the Temple and the entire sacrificial system. Consider, as an example, Psalm 50:
Psalm 50.7-15
“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
I will testify against you, Israel:
I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
Suddenly, the smugness is gone. Here in Psalm 50 worship of the Creator isn't being used against Israel's neighbors and their idols but against Israel herself, against the very heart of Israelite religious observance. Does the Creator drink the blood of goats? Does the Creator need sacrifices when the Creator owns the cattle on a thousand hills?

Notice here how worship of the Creator has become a subversive theological resource. This wasn't, I'm guessing, what Israel was expecting. Worship of the Creator was exciting when it allowed you to make fun of foolish idol worshipers. But things didn't end there. The notion that you are worshiping the Creator has implications, not all of which, I'm guessing, were known or worked out in the minds of Israel when they make that radical move.

What I'm suggesting is that the worship of the Creator introduced into the religion of Israel a subversive element that began to slowly unwind the smug, insular, exclusive and violent imagination of Israel. Yes, worship of the Creator began to untangle Israel from idolatry, but it also began to untangle them, much to their surprise I'm guessing, from sacrifice.

And Jesus would take the idea even further.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pushes the worship of the Creator to it's most radical extreme. Jesus says:
Matthew 5.43-
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is the distinctive heart of Jesus's teaching, the teaching that makes him unique in world history. Love your enemies.

And what is fascinating here is how Jesus grounds this teaching in the worship of the Creator God. Why love friends and enemies alike? Why love freely and indiscriminately? Why love without prejudice or bias?

Because that is how the Creator loves. Without bias or prejudice.

I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

So that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

For He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.

He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus pondered the sun and the rain. And he discerned something about the Creator God in how the rain and sun fell upon the world, upon the good and the wicked.

The Children of God, Jesus concluded, should love like the sun and the rain. This--being sun and rain, loving indiscriminately--would make us children of the Creator. This would make us perfect.

And this, I would argue, is the subversive notion at the heart of the worship of the Creator God. Loving like sun and rain. I don't think Israel knew this teaching was coming when she turned from idols to the worship of YHWH. I don't think Israel knew the Creator would be used by the writer of Psalm 50 to attack the heart of the sacrificial system they had created, a system of religious gate-keeping, blood and exclusion.

Even less did they see the radical implication discerned by Jesus.

You can't be a gate-keeper of the Creator's love. No sacrifice is needed. God loves freely, generously and indiscriminately.

Like sun and rain.

And the Children of God do the same.

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11 thoughts on “The Subversion of the Creator God”

  1. Speaking for myself, it was when God became ALL in ALL, God in all things and all things in God, and no longer a God that recognized and blessed first and foremost the American Southern culture in which I grew up, that compassion ceased being a weak sentimentality and became the intrepid binding element of being.

  2. This seems relatively close to the argument of H. Richard Niebuhr in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

  3. Leon Kass makes some fascinating observations regarding sacrifice (especially surrounding the Noahide Law) in his book, The Beginning of Wisdom. Treating the book of Genesis with an unforgiving and uncompromising exegesis taught me more about God and violence than any other single source.

  4. Please help me understand what you're claiming here, sir. I don't understand your chronology. Doesn't Habakkuk come well after Psalms? What authorship dates are you using?

  5. The argument is speculative, but it not based on a chronology of the books cited but upon the chronology of the ideas, ideas which don't developmentally flow into each other but persist and coexist alongside each other. Specifically, I'm taking the disdain for idolary displayed in Habakkuk as illustrative of a disdain that existed from the very beginning of Israel's monotheism, a disdain that didn't go away. By contrast, the use of the Creator to critique temple sacrifice is, I'm arguing, a theologically innovation that emerge later on but was latent in the worship of the Creator. That innovation never "won the day" so to speak, temple sacrifice continued, but a subversive theological seed had been sown.

  6. As one has recently (about a year ago) discovered and found great meaning in the work of René Girard, this post resonates very strongly with me. God has no need of sacrifice, and the Gospel lifts the veil on and, in the end, completely undoes sacrificial religion!

  7. Richard, this isn't push back, it's push on. 1st: It's not possible to feel good about loving your enemies, if that means supporting them in what you oppose. What's up with that? And 2nd: In context the "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." seems to mean "Be indiscriminate in your love, therefore, as..." But that would mean becoming exceedingly foolish, unless there were an underlying view to hold the command together. So, what is that view, and should it be related to "belief" as a core Christian concept?

  8. The Bible does refer to God as unchanging in at least some respects. A quick search on the topic leads to a few verses, mostly about God not going back on his word:

    Wiki also has a summary of this teaching, with some more references:

    That said, God certainly does different things at different times and did not reveal everything at once. The Bible was written over about 1500ish years. Jesus is something new, God becoming human, and apparently not what a lot of people expected. So, I believe that God's attributes (things like love, justice, compassion, all-knowing) remain constant, but manifest in different ways as the situation calls for.

  9. That is probably where I end up with this too. More along the lines that He honors his promises because that is who he is, but He also mitigates judgements because compassion is who He is.

    But from our point of view it always seems to surprise people that God doesn't do what they expected, maybe because we focus more on the judgements then the promises.

  10. We human beings frequently overlook the fact that our minds are small and are limited only to our understanding of the dimensions in which we exist. We can’t comprehend completely the infinite because we’re not. It seems
    to me that when God instructs something humans assume that it is within our finite understanding of what it means, therefore it is absolute. However, as our human understanding of our universe and ourselves grows, this experience often redefines the original interpretation. A very wise woman once told me in a Sunday school class that she taught and I attended, “God decrees the victory, then we humans go out and fight the battle.” The battle
    continues and we do the best that we can.

  11. That makes sense to me. The Bible is also incredibly vague when it comes to things like duration, situation, and to whom the message applies so I can see how we would run into problems with our own assumptions of God's intentions.

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