Part 3: Do Ancient Near-Eastern studies cause a crisis for Biblical faith?

Now that we’ve covered how the biblical text can interact with the cultures that surround it in Part 1 and the Crisis of faith that can Cause in Part 2, I would like to explore how Elijah responds to this encultured self-revelation of God

Reconciling a worldly text to a transcendent God                                  

What do we do when the biblical text begins to look a little banal, non-unique and worldly? As the Elijah narrative shows, we have a number of options available to us when we come to a crisis of confidence in our faith caused by the enculturation of God’s self-revelation:

We can respond like Elijah

We can run for the hills, return to our roots, get back to the fundamentals. We can put distance between ourselves and the supposed enculturation of the text. We can ignore the ancient near-eastern cultural information that we are learning more of day in and day out. We can escape to a theological cave somewhere in the Sinai and talk to ourselves about who God is, how he is not this, and not that, how his self-revelation must be wholly transcendent, how his self-revelation came in the form of ancient near-eastern autopen machines which we call the biblical writers, and how we never met this word-in-the-flesh guy named Jesus.

We can respond like Jezebel

The biblical text and its God are no different than the other gods described in other ancient near eastern texts.  The biblical text is just one, among many methods by which the cosmos was reasoned out in the ancient near-east. When confronted with ancient near-eastern cultural information that make god’s self-revelation look a lot like the ways other cultures described their gods, we should discard the god of the biblical text in the same way we have discarded the mythologies of nearly every other culture. This reaction is attractive because It has the air of Ockham’s razor that our culture so appreciates. God’s self-revelation is non-unique and non-transcendent so the god it describes must not be transcendent or unique.  But the simplest explanation isn’t always the right explanation.

Both responses are guilty of the same fault. They equate God’s chosen method of self-revelation with God himself. In the former response we assume that if God is transcendent, then his self-revelation cannot appear worldly. And in the latter response we assume that if the way in which God is described is worldly then there is no evidence for a god who is transcendent. As the conclusion of the Elijah narrative points out, nothing is further from the truth.

Experiencing the qol demama daqqa

Most of the time, in the Hebrew bible, we don’t get arguments against other near eastern gods based in theology. Instead, we normally see the simple juxtaposition of a powerful Yahweh against an impotent god. The gods of Pharoah are impotent against Yahweh’s plagues. The gods of the philistines fall prostrate before the ark. Ba’al fails to light the fire on Mt Carmel.  The readers or first witnesses were left to draw their own theological conclusions. In Sinai, God shows up and makes a startling revelation about himself to Elijah. With his prophet cowering near the entrance of the cave,

“the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.  And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

In the first appearance of God on Mt Carmel, God is tied to earthly phenomenon. God like Ba’al appears in the storm.  In this second appearance, God is not in the storm, or in an earthquake, or a fire or lightning, or any other earthly phenomenon.  God, unlike Ba’al, can appear untethered to any phenomenon at all – as the qol demama daqqa.

Rendered in the King James as the familiar “still, small voice,” the English Standard Version’s “low whisper” doesn’t translate the phrase well either given the greater context of the contest on Carmel. Where the qol ba’al, known from Ugaritic texts, is thunderous, God can show up in the “thinnest of silences,” to borrow Frank Moore Cross’s translation.  In other words, God appeared to Elijah outside that which can be perceived by our own senses.

Put another way, this second appearance of God is outside the terms of the initial conflict with the prophets of Baal. Here, at Sinai, God shows Elijah that he is not Ba’al. Though he has power over the storm, he is not like the Gods of Mesopotamia or Egypt who were limited to their worldly manifestation. God need not manifest himself in any perceivable way in order to be present, to be powerful and to be revelatory. While God’s self revelation can at times be earthly and worldly, God himself is transcendent.

It is only after Elijah experiences the qol demama daqqa – God ‘s non-phenomenal presence – that his confidence in Yahweh is restored and he begins fulfilling his full duties as prophet, anointing Hazael to be the king of Aram Damascus, Jehu to be the future king of Israel, and Elisha to be the future prophet of Isreal.

Regaining the confidence of faith in the face of encultured revelation

God is in the business of taking things, people, places and twisting and transforming them, making something new and better for his own purposes and glory. He is in the business of condescending himself down to terms we can understand, in order to call us to a new and better place. He did this with the Israelites. He took the cultural forms, like the Canaanite imaginings of the storm god Ba’al, to show the Israelites that he, not Ba’al was in control of the universe. But then he took it one step further, turning that self-revelation on its head to reveal himself as outside that universe of perception.

We don’t have to respond to God’s self-revelation like either Jezebel or Elijah. God’s self-revelation can be utterly and completely enculturated, non-unique, in terms that only make sense to a particular people at a particular place at a particular time. And yet, God himself can be transcendent. It was this realization that allowed Elijah to successfully fulfill his ministry. In the face of an either/or proposition about God and his self-revelation we can respond with a resounding “Yup!”

“Yup!” gives us the freedom to allow scripture to speak for itself. We don’t have to force it into categories we have made for it because, ultimately, the revealed God of scripture is the object of our worship not the method by which he choose to reveal himself. “Yup!” gives us the freedom to say that, just as Jesus can be fully human and divine, so too the word both transcends yet remains firmly rooted in the cultures it was first communicated to and for. “Yup!” gives us the freedom to sidestep the theological debate and fulfill our mission.

When we respond in this way, when we allow God’s chosen method of self-revelation to speak for itself, we begin to appreciate the glory of his condescension. Let me point out three ways God’s glory is manifest in his encultured self-revelation.

  • For ancient, first-hearers of his word, his glory is manifest in his condescension. God is greater because of his mercy to make himself known to real people in the ancient world in ways they would have comprehended.
  • For our parents and our children, his glory is manifest in the preservation of a record of that condescension in the biblical text.
  • For us, his glory is manifest in the release of reason and education necessary to more fully study and comprehend the text and personhood of a triune God

When we appreciate the glory of his condescension, first in word and then in flesh, when we recognize that revelation’s rootedness to time, people and place is also glorious. When we appreciate the glory of his condescension then the shape of Noah’s boat won’t bother us.

More than that, when we learn more and more about the ancient near-east, we learn more and more about the extent to which God sought to communicate with us. When we say “Yup!,” all we will see is God attempting meet us where we are at, to connect with us again and again, forever drawing us into relationship with what is truly transcendent – himself.

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