God's Omnipotence: Part 9, Living Next to a Nuclear Reactor

One of the interesting things that Katherine Sonderegger does in her discussions of divine omnipotence in her Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God is to turn to the book of Numbers.

This is interesting, because Numbers is a bit of a mess of a book. Numbers is a jumble of history, law and census data that doesn't seem to have a coherent plot. So it's interesting to see a theologian turn to this book, of all books in the Bible, when it comes to the issue of divine power.

Truth be told, I don't know if I understand or get everything Sonderegger is saying about Numbers. But it just so happened that I was reading through Numbers while writing this series, and I wanted to share my own reflection on Numbers in light of Sonderegger's suggestion to think of God's power as energy.

One of the things we witness in Numbers is Israel trying to live in close proximity to divine power. In Numbers God is right next door. And throughout the book we see how dangerous this is. Many people die in Numbers because God is their next door neighbor.

These deaths are troublesome to many readers of the Bible, progressive readers especially who want to keep God separated from all acts of violence. But pondering Numbers in light of this series another thought occurred to me. To be clear, this thought isn't The Answer to all of our questions, its just an illustration about how Sonderegger's work caused my mind to think about what's going on in Numbers in a different way.

Specifically, one of the problems we have with the deaths in Numbers is this notion that God is "zapping" people. In our imagination we think that God is like a grumpy Zeus who throws down thunderbolts at his wayward, disobedient subjects. But that's not what you see in Numbers, or anywhere in the Bible. The Hebrews were strange among the nations because the Holy of Holies was empty. The Ark of the Covenant might have been a sort of throne, but nothing was visibly sitting on the throne.

All that to say, you don't see in Numbers a grumpy god sitting on a mountain throwing thunderbolts down. The image you get, rather, is what it might be like to live right next to a nuclear reactor, like right next to the core. Your proximity to the nuclear core would be extremely dangerous and all sorts of protective measures would have to be fastidiously observed to keep you safe from exposure and death. Mess anything up and you are toast. And you'd have to be pretty OCD about it all.

Two other analogies. Think of a sub-freezing climate where exposing skin would cause frostbite in seconds. Or an astronaut doing a spacewalk.

In short, it's not that the nuclear reactor, the freezing temperatures, or the vacuum of space are fickle and grumpy and "zapping" the careless. What makes these situations potentially lethal isn't a "will," the snap decision of a god, but simply a product of the environment, an ecological hazard that has to be carefully managed.

(In a related way, if we imagine the Ark of the Covenant as "radioactive" material, when Uzzah touches the Ark in 2 Samuel 6 we don't have to imagine God "zapping" Uzzah. We can think of Uzzah grabbing a radioactive substance, and that contact "exposes" him to that radioactivity, leading to his death. The story is still sad, but our imagination has shifted away from God "choosing" to zap and kill Uzzah. Again, to be clear, this shift of imagination doesn't resolve all the theological difficulties in the story, but our imagination has moved away from the most problematic framing of what happened.)

I don't know if this helps you with the deaths in Numbers. The book does, in its anthropological description of God, especially in how Moses and Aaron often get God to stop a destructive action, seem to implicate God's choice and will in who and when people die. Again, what I'm suggesting isn't wholly without problems. Yet, when I pondered Numbers in light of thinking about God's power as energy--the tabernacle as a nuclear power reactor rather than as the abode of a grumpy Zeus--it did make me wonder about viewing the deaths in Numbers as acts of divine violence.

Specifically, if you took off your protective clothing and entered a nuclear reactor, or the sub-freezing air, or the vacuum of space, you'd most certainly die, but your death would look more like carelessness or suicide, a willful refusal to take basic safety precautions. You'd have killed yourself.

Again, this way of looking at things doesn't jibe with the dramatic narrative of Numbers, the many back and forths between God and Moses haggling over Israel's fate. I'm just sharing a line of thought that occurred to me to illustrate how Sonderegger's work nudged my mind down a different path as I read those troubling, puzzling texts in Numbers where God's power blazes forth in destructive ways.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply