Posts Tagged ‘God’

The Two (Thousand) Faced God

July 17, 2012 Leave a comment


I came across this image the other day while I was browsing r/atheism, and I thought to myself “… Huh.” I immediately launched into a write up, which was fraught with error, improperly formatted, and frankly just totally scatterbrained. Naturally, it got 120 points and a bunch of posts from people commending me, so that was cool. It made me feel better about myself. So here I am, lazy, and instead of writing entirely new material, I’m going to clean up what I wrote on r/atheism and call it its own thing.

So the argument in the image is that John and 1 John say nobody’s seen God’s face, and Jacob sees God face to face in Genesis? Seems straightforward enough, but let’s have a look at The Many Faces of God.

Unfff... Ungh... Errrrggh...

Okay, there’s a fairly complex bit of theology and narrative tradition here, but before we even get to the verses in question I think we’ll just jump right in at Genesis 16.7-13.

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the angel of the Lord said to her,

‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’

So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ (Genesis 16.7-13) 

In the story, an angel of the LORD appears to Sarai’s slave-girl, Hagar. The angel convinces Hagar to return home, and informs her that she will bear a son. Despite the benevolent character having been referred to as an angel, it is clearly identified as the LORD in 16.13, where she declares that she will call Him ‘El-roi,’ meaning “The God Who Sees,” or “The God of Seeing.” It is not just an angel, but the LORD Himself, and He’s making Himself visible in the form of an angel. This introduces the notion that God can make Himself known without appearing in his “true form,” as we’ll call it. A good reference point for this is Dragonball Z. Many people see Frieza, but you’ve gotta be a real bad-arse to witness his true form and survive. God works kind of the same way or something.

With that out of the way, I think we’re ready to take on Jacob seeing God face to face.

The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 

Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. (Genesis 33.22-32)

The first thing you might notice about this passage is that it’s really fucking weird. I think we’ll go a little deeper.

What might not be immediately obvious to someone reading the text in English is the complex wordplay at work in the story. For instance, Jacob’s name in Hebrew is Ya’aqob (יַעֲקֹב), the name of the river Jabbok is Yabboq (יַבֹּק), and the Hebrew word for “wrestled” is Wayye’abeq ( וַיֵּאָבֵק). While this looks like nothing to most of us, these words have highly similar pronunciations, and form an important—and intricate—pattern within the story. Through this combination of words, both the setting and the event are drawn around Jacob’s name, and so we can determine that the structure has been carefully chosen to fit with the theme of the story. Jacob’s wrestling match with the LORD leads to a conclusion wherein the LORD renames him Israel, or “The One Who Strives with God.” “God Strives” is another acceptable translation. This replaces the name Jacob, which is a play on words from his birth narrative, meaning “He Supplants,” something Jacob had a bad habit of doing (see Genesis 27).

The Hebrew people, as descendants of Jacob, are portrayed as strong and worthy, because Jacob was the man who wrestled with God. As they saw it, they were still wrestling, and so the narrative only helps to show that this struggle was ingrained directly within their lineage. It was something they had always done, and would always do.

Jacob names the place where he wrestled with the LORD Peniel, meaning “The Face of God,” standing as a reminder that he, who had previously been afraid to so much as face his brother Esau (v. 20) had now wrestled with a deity and survived, something that is tubular by its very nature. As is a common theme in the Bible, the LORD helps Jacob to uncover and utilize his inner strength. This is portrayed best by Jacob’s hip being put out of socket by the LORD, something which does not stop him, alluding to the fact that Jacob’s strength comes from within. Of course, he needs the LORD to unleash that inner potential, but potential it most assuredly is.

All of this meshes with 16.13 quite nicely. Jacob did not wrestle with God in His true form, but with a representation of the deity. The story is a representation of man’s every day struggles with God, and how God helps us to find our inner strengths. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the story is entirely metaphorical either. There’s no doubt it was meant to be taken as at least somewhat literal history. Take, for instance, the etiological conclusion that Jacob’s battle is the reason for the prohibition against eating the thigh muscle.  However, the legitimacy of the story is entirely secondary to the theological conclusion, which must involve only a representation of a deity. The veracity of the account lends to the authority of the theology, but the theology is the most important aspect of the narrative.

We can then use Exodus 33.11a as further indication that “face to face” does not literally mean seeing God, but rather talking with Him personally, rather than within dreams or visions.

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33.11a)

Moses is said to talk with God face to face despite the fact that in 33.20-23 God tells Moses that he cannot see the actual face of God. Thus, the LORD shows Moses his backside.

But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’ (Exodus 33.20-23)

The common assumption of the period was that the LORD spoke to people through dreams and visions, and anyone who was on a physical speaking basis with the LORD was seriously blessed, and probably awesome. To even hear the voice of the LORD would be to speak with Him face to face.

So let’s finally get into the New Testament, where our Johannine friend makes claims about who has seen God.

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1.18)

"Guess I'd better crank this shit out."

Oh, it’s fucking nobody. Nobody has seen God.

The writer here claims that “No one has ever seen God,” not actually mentioning His face. This claim is repeated in 1 John 4.12, which states that No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  On a physical level, the Johannine philosophy is that God resides within, and that the many manifestations of God that we see (the poor, the sick, the needy, Jesus Christ) are forms of God, but again, not His truest physical state. They are merely aspects of His being. However, I’d be doing a total disservice to both of these passages if I just left it at that.

The word we translate here as seen is actually ἑώρακεν, which is literally rendered as “seen,” but  more accurately means “to understand.” Seeing is understanding. In that case, we can do a very quick switch up, which leaves us with the closer translation: “No one has ever understood God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” That makes more sense. Okay, good. Phew. It’s all explained.

Oh wait, no it’s not. Just to fart out a few more, 1 Timothy 6.16 states that It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.” Again, the word here for seen is ἰδεῖν, which totally means “know” as well as “see.” John 6.46 states “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.”  The word is ἰδεῖν once more, just as it was seen in 1 Timothy. There are multiple occasions in the Tanakh where the LORD appears to people as well, and I won’t go through every one of them, but suffice to say, one should not jump to the conclusion that “the LORD appearing” literally means He appeared and was just chilling with Abraham and Isaac, especially given that the LORD often appeared as a booming voice, and not as a physical presence. Similarly, we should be careful not to assume that the metaphors of the Psalms, or the visions of Isaiah, are referencing the actual physical appearance of the LORD. I suppose those verses could very well be the subject of another essay entirely, but I’ll leave it there for now, cause I am tired.

By looking at the texts critically, we come to a better understanding of what they’re actually trying to tell us. Genesis and John were written by very, very different authors (or sets of authors) who had different vocabularies, different theologies, and different languages. The conventions they used to name concepts were different, and so when two words converge in the English language, they don’t necessarily carry the same meaning. We end here with the two texts agreeing that no one has ever literally seen the face of God, but on a deeper level, they could hardly be talking about two more different subjects.

To cap off, I think that people often forget that we don’t really know what God wants, even if we think we do. We can grapple with it and come to personal conclusions, or we can take all our answers out of a book (bad idea) but there’s no way for us to, in actuality, know what’s up. Too often I see people—myself included—speaking for God. God hates fags, God wants needs my money, and God demands marriage. God loves some people, God loves all people, and God hates black people. The Johannine school was onto something really cool with what they wrote in 1 John. If we love one another, God’s love is perfected within us. Fuck obscure passages, fuck trying to figure out what each and every prohibition means. What is the God in front of you saying? He’s saying love me, feed me, clothe me, help me. He’s saying “Do what’s right,” and He’s not telling us every detail of what that entails. For all the complex theology, the wordplay, the moral lessons and the do’s and do not’s, what’s most important is not to be a selfish dick.

Prayer Palass

And that’s why I still hate the Prayer Palace. The end.