Posted on May 23, 2010 by Tom Gilson
Hardly anybody ever mentions it, but two of the most well-known verses in the Old Testament have significant apologetic implications, lending support to the Bible’s supernatural origins. One of them I’m sure will be a surprise to many readers here; the other might also.
I will preview the argument before telling you which verses they are. In brief form it goes like this.
The ancient Hebrews’ conception of God and his relation to his creation was vastly different from that of others in the Ancient Near East. From a philosophical perspective it has been exceedingly successful for millennia since then: it was, in that sense, very highly advanced philosophy. Such uniquely prescient and enduringly successful thinking is not explained by any prior tradition, for there is no indication of advanced thought leading up to it either among the Hebrews or in any neighboring culture. Did it come from nowhere at all? Or did it come by revelation from God?
The ancient Hebrews were astonishingly advanced metaphysical thinkers. They produced a monotheism that stood in complete contrast to all other systems of thought at the time, that still works philosophically, and that today remains coherent within its own framework. How did these Bronze Age nomads and farmers accomplish that?
I have often heard it asked, “why should we look to ancient Bronze Age or Iron Age nomads/sheepherders/farmers for wisdom? What could they possibly say to us who have the advantage of so much more knowledge and science?” Good question. How could they have known anything at all that would stand the test of centuries of inquiry? But our two “overlooked apologetics verses” have done that. They are, as I said, very familiar:
Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Exodus 3:13-14a “Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”
The creation account in Genesis is astonishingly different from all other creation stories. Quoting from page 32 and following of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration:
Genesis is quite unlike the Mesopotamian cosmogonies [accounts of the origin of the cosmos], for instance, which are intertwined with theogonies—accounts of the origins of the gods. In them, we are not told so much about how the universe came about—the origin of the worlds is really accidental or secondary in ANE [Ancient Near East] accounts—but how the gods emerged. And in addition to the fact that these Mesopotamian cosmogonies are really concerned with the ancestors of the gods and how they got themselves organized, they do not even identify these gods as creators. So when it comes to the elements of the universe (the waters/deep, darkness), a deity either controls one or is one….
Further, Yahweh simply speaks, thereby creating; in other ANE cosmogonies, deities struggle to divide the waters. Also in Genesis 1, the astral bodies are not gods (as in ANE accounts) but are creations.…
Gerhard von Rad makes the powerful point that Israel’s worldview, as reflected in Genesis, drew a sharp demarcating line between God and the world. The material world is purged of any quality of the divine or the demonic….
In Genesis, we read of something marvelously different than in [Ugaritic cosmogony], with its gods and hostile powers (darkness, the waters/the deep): “These cosmic monsters are no longer primordial forces opposed to the Israelite God at the beginning of creation. Instead, they are creatures like other creatures rendered in this story.” Genesis 1 depicts a “divine mastery” over these forces….
In contrast to ANE myths, there are no rivals to the Creator in Genesis [chapter] 1—let alone preexistent matter…. There is no cosmic dualism or struggle at all.
There is more but I think you can see the point: the Genesis view of God and creation is starkly different from all other views of cosmic origins and of deity. This point extends beyond ANE cosmogonies. I believe it is the case that no other independently developed creation account is even remotely similar to that in Genesis. In all other accounts, either the material world is pre-existent along with the gods (there is something like this even in Plato), it is an emanation of some god or gods, or it is illusion.
Genesis is significant simply for its utter uniqueness. There’s something there that begs for explanation. But the argument I’m presenting is not just that. There is more to be said. It will fit better, however, once we have look at our second “overlooked apologetics verse.”
We need to approach the Exodus passage through the route of a question. How are humans known? From where do we derive our identities? The answer is, through relationships. First of all we’re known by our families. “Who is your father?” was the question in the ANE; today we’re still identified through our family names and our family heritage. We’re identified by our relationship to maleness and femaleness. As we grow and develop, our personalities are formed in relation to our relatives, our friends, even our foes or (if your school experience was like many) tormentors. Our identity is tied also to the land, also a relational matter (“Where are you from? What nationality are you?”) and to our work (“What do you do for a living?”).
How are gods known in myth? In exactly the same way: by relationship to one another and to the created order, and by what they do. Their identities too are relational.
And so it is with identity in every case. It is always relational. This is what makes Yahweh’s answer in Exodus so remarkable. In biblical culture much more than today’s, a person’s name and identity were wrapped up together with each other. God was known to the Hebrews by many titles, most of which had to do with his role or way of relating to creation: The Almighty, the Lord of Hosts (Armies), The Provider, and so on. But in Exodus Moses was apparently asking for something more: God’s actual name, which would reveal his full identity, his full relatedness. God consented to answer. And to what relationship did he point? “I AM WHO I AM.” He pointed to himself. No other relationship could be adequate to identify him. He was (and is) just who he was (and is).
Down the centuries since then much has been said about monotheism. Much philosophical and theological work has been plowed into exploring what it must mean that there is one God. Now for apologetical purposes we cannot assume that monotheism is true; that would be begging the question most illegitimately. But we can examine its implications: what if it is true? This kind of examination has been done for centuries. One of its most solid conclusions is that God is “self-existent.” He is what he is, without reference to any other being whatever. He is being itself. Blogger niwrad put it this way:
What theology calls “God,” metaphysics refers to as “Being.” And what we call the “universe” or the “cosmos” is simply the “universal existence” or “manifestation” of Being. The universal existence is everything that exists….
In metaphysics it is important to conceptually distinguish between the verbs “to be” and “to exist,” although in everyday language this difference doesn’t matter very much. The verb “to exist” (from the Latin “ex-sistere“) etymologically means “to stay outside.” Thus a thing exists when its principle or “sufficient reason” or cause stands outside itself. This is precisely the situation for all the things in the universe. On the other hand, the ontological verb “to be” has a nobler and more powerful meaning than the verb “to exist,” and for this reason it should be applied to the principle or cause of all that exists, i.e. Being, the First Cause.
The auxiliary verb “to be” is, logically and linguistically, the more important verb, as a consequence of its ontological supremacy. Every other verb, as well as any word or logical term whatsoever, presupposes the verb “to be,” and is, as it were, its consequence or effect.
That’s a very clear introduction to a very technical discussion, ending in the conclusion, God is he who is, to whom the verb to be applies uniquely. “I AM WHO I AM.” It couldn’t be said any better than that.
Whether a technical discussion like niwrad’s is clear to you is not as important for our purposes as this: advanced philosophical reflection concludes that a Bronze Age sheepherder’s name for God is as accurate a name as could possibly be advanced for a monotheistic God. The name of God Moses delivered was God being self-identified in terms of himself, for nothing but God himself is adequate for him by which to identify himself. God IS (from his first-person perspective, “I AM”). The verb to be there is the only one that suffices to describe the pure Being of God.
It would have been easy for Moses to tell the Israelites, “I was sent to you by God, and his name is ___. (Fill in the blank with any name of your choosing, or with a title like The Lord.) He didn’t do that. He said, “I AM has sent me.”
God’s name, his revealed identity, I AM WHO I AM, has never failed from within the context of monotheistic thought. It has stood many centuries’ test of philosophical and theological coherence.
This ties back to Genesis 1:1: God created the heavens and the earth from nothing. Besides himself, nothing was. There was God as pure Being, the totality of all reality. Creation had to be ex nihilo—from nothing (no preexisting matter, no material cause)—if there was to be any creation at all.
There is much I must leave unsaid about these philosophical and theological reflections upon God, and I do not suppose that what I’ve written in these prior paragraphs will be adequate or even understandable in this bare form. Suffice it to say that a very large body of literature has tested conceptions of what God must be like in his being, if there is one God; and although this literature exceeds the Old Testament in technical depth and complexity, and though we learn further aspects of God’s holy character from other biblical revelation, with respect to the being of God, the whole of all these years of reflection amounts to nothing more than footnotes to “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and “I AM WHO I AM.”
I will recap the argument here.
1. The idea of monotheism entails certain metaphysical and theological implications.
2. These implications have taken centuries to sort out and to refine, so that we can legitimately take it today that the art of thinking on monotheism has reached an advanced stage.
3. These centuries of work have confirmed the insights of the author of Genesis and Exodus on God’s self-existent eternal nature.
4. Genesis and Exodus are unique in their statements on these matters. No other ancient cosmogony or theology has had a view remotely similar to that of the books of Moses.
5. The question then is, from where did they derive an insight that would so successfully anticipate such advanced thinking, and endure for more than three thousand years?
Or in short: they did pretty well for simple Bronze Age farmers, coming up with metaphysical insight that would stand for more than three millennia. I think they had help.