The Overlooked Apologetic Significance of Two Very Bible Familiar Verses (Original Thinking Series)

There’s a powerful message hiding inside two very familiar verses in the Old Testament. That message is, These ancient Hebrews did some advanced thinking, centuries ahead of their time. Either that or they had help: God’s revelation.

The first verse is really familiar:

Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

The second one comes close:

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 Little-Known Uniqueness of Genesis 1:1

Now, where is there a message hiding in Genesis 1:1? You wouldn’t see it just looking at it; you have to compare it with other religions’ and other peoples’ creation stores. The account in Genesis is astonishingly different.

Paraphrasing and quoting from page 32 and following of Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration() by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig:

Genesis is quite unlike other Mesopotamian accounts of the origin of the cosmos. The others are intertwined with accounts of the origins of the gods, their ancestry, and so on. They don’t identify these gods as creators. The deity may control some element of the universe, or may “be” that thing. But it’s not the creator.

There’s nothing like that in Genesis! Quoting now from the same source:

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….

There’s no hint of a struggle in Genesis 1. Continuing:

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….

This is unlike all other creation myths. Genesis is significant simply for its utter uniqueness. There’s something there that begs for explanation: What led them to such an utterly unique view of reality?

There is even more to be said, but it will fit better once we’ve looked at our second “overlooked apologetics verse.”

The Advanced Thinking of “I AM WHO I AM”

Moses asked God for his name, his identity. God answered, “I AM WHO I AM.”

Consider how unique this is. We know humans through our relationships.

  • We’re known by our families. “Who is your father?” was the question in the ancient near east. 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 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?”).

Now, 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. He is a relational God, after all.

But in Exodus, Moses was apparently asking for something more: God’s actual name, which would reveal his full identity, his full relatedness. When God consented to answer, 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).

Advanced Thinking Indeed

This is more remarkable than it might seem at first sight. 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, as the philosophers and theologians put it. God is he who “is,” to whom the verb “to be” applies uniquely. It literally couldn’t be said any better than, “I AM WHO I AM.”

I won’t go into the advanced philosophical discussion on this. Instead I’ll simply point out that a Bronze Age sheepherder’s name for God is as accurate a name as could possibly be advanced for a monotheistic God. It’s perfect. It couldn’t be improved.

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.

How’d They Do That?!

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.

In other words, these two verses fit perfectly. I don’t mean they fit nicely. I mean perfectly.

So what’s the apologetic point, then?

  1. The idea of monotheism, whether it’s a true idea or not, entails certain metaphysical and theological implications.
  2. Centuries of refinement of thought have brought us to a point where it’s fair to say that the art of thinking on monotheism has reached an advanced stage — again, whether monotheism is true or not.
  3. These centuries of work have never contradicted, but only confirmed, the insights of the author of Genesis and Exodus regarding the nature of a monotheistic God.
  4. No other source has matched this achievement. Genesis and Exodus are completely unique in their statements on these matters.

So the author of these books, came up with ideas of God that no one ever matched in his day, and no one has improved upon in the centuries since then.

I’d say Moses did pretty well for a Bronze Age farmer. Either that, or as I said at the top of this essay, he had help. I think the “help” answer is the more likely one by far.

 

Adapted, updated, simplified, clarified and improved from a post published January 23, 2010.

Comments

  1. Benjamin Cain

    Exodus 3:14 is indeed interesting for supplying God with a self-referential name. The same mystical and even cosmicist perspective is apparent in the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes. This philosophically sophisticated view of God is not unique, however. The ideal you’re looking for is the God of the philosophers found in the likes of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle says the First Cause thinks only about himself and doesn’t sully himself by intervening in the less perfect world. Instead, lesser things are affected indirectly by being attracted to the more perfect thing. Thus, says Aristotle, philosophers who are able to sustain themselves by contemplating abstract matters are the most godlike. But only a perfect being, a god, could be fully self-sufficient.

    So this idea of a largely impersonal, self-sufficient cause of the universe isn’t unique to Judaism. And notice how it implies deism, not theism, as is clear from the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato calls his deity the Good, not God. Jews came close to the subversive philosophical insight in texts like Genesis, Job, and Ecclesiastes, but they obviously backed away from the atheistic and cosmicist implications of saying that a higher being would clearly treat us the way we treat ants. But to go on and on about how God loves us as a father loves his children, in the evangelical Christian manner, is to backtrack much further even than Judaism, falling far short of the philosophical, mystical understanding, and anthropomorphizing ultimate matters in a way that was well-satirized as far back as Xenophanes.

    And if we’re talking about sophisticated views of God, Judaism falls far short of the Eastern religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism. (It goes without saying that Christianity doesn’t hold a candle even to Judaism on this question of theological sophistication.) Original Buddhism, for example, ignores metaphysics in general and gets right to the central ethical question: How to avoid suffering in life?

    Hindus tell all sorts of mythical stories about all sorts of gods, but they also have a philosophical system which puts those myths into perspective. They’re meant to appeal to people who haven’t reached a level of maturity to appreciate the more profound truth that Atman equals Brahman (as in the monist Advaita Vedanta). Hindus were sophisticated enough to realize that “one size fits all” might not be a wise rule when it comes to religion.

    And Daoism is very similar to Aristotelianism. The Way of nature is more like the impersonal Force of Star Wars than the sort of tribal anthropomorphic deity we find throughout most of Jewish scripture, let alone Christianity’s version of pagan apotheosis. (Typically in the ancient world, it was only kings and emperors who were considered literally divine, but thanks to the synthesis of Judaism and the pagan tradition, early Christians could think of the ethically supreme person who lacked any secular power as a god.)

    As for the account of Creation in Genesis, I don’t think its sophistication is miraculous. The relatively austere picture of God in Jewish scripture flows from the antisocial aspect of monotheism. Jews declined to respect foreign religions and they likewise declined to respect their own naïve theological questions. That’s why Yahweh mocks Job for demanding answers to the problem of evil (even though the text has it both ways in a rather ironic, postmodern manner, by supplying the reader with the answer that Yahweh made a bet with Satan). Jewish monotheism is misanthropic in this respect: any attempt to substitute an idol for the holy, ultimate cause of everything is deemed blasphemous and foolish. For Jews, that goes for gentiles and Jews alike. So there’s little cosmological detail in Genesis, in terms of God’s assigning different tasks to different angels or sub-deities, and so forth.

    Again, Jews didn’t take the even more sophisticated route of realizing that this rejection of the more naïve myths leads to atheism or to something like Buddhism or Daoism. (As in Zen Buddhism’s proverb, “if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him,” or in Daoism: “The Dao which can be named is not the ultimate Dao.”) And Jews had it both ways even in their own terms, since their apocryphal Book of Enoch indulges in all sorts of theological speculation.

    The point is that Jews didn’t invent mysticism. Hindus did. And Christianity is arguably the least sophisticated, mystical, or philosophical of the major religions. What distinguishes Christianity is the politics of welding a version of Judaism to various secular empires from Rome’s to America’s.

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