Saturday, May 27, 2006

WRESTLING WITH GOD: The Restoration of Israel

Recently in an interdenominational study group, while discussing the topic of suffering and faith, the question was asked: “Have you ever demanded that God explain why suffering and evil exist?”

One gentleman immediately said, “We have no right to make any demands on God.” Others were quick to say that given human nature, it’s understandable that we would demand that God “tell us why.” Most maintained that a loving God understands human nature and forgives us for daring to make demands of Him, but everyone was in total agreement that when all is said and done, humans have no right to demand anything from God. As another gentleman explained: “We’re God’s creatures. He is the Creator. He has all power and knows everything--past, present and future. He owes us nothing. We’re the one’s indebted to Him--for everything. We have no right to make any demands on Him.”

The people in this group were all Christians, and so from the perspective the Christian Paradigm, what they said was correct: God, the creator and sustainer of all things, is so mighty that it’s ridiculous for mere humans to assume they can make demand anything from Him.

However, from the perspective of the Mormon Paradigm, the same thing could not be said.

The Mormon Paradigm rejects the doctrine of creationism altogether. As Joseph Smith taught, God may organize chaos into order, but He cannot create something out of nothing. God did not create humanity. Like God, the human mind is self-existing and eternal; human nature is co-equal with God. Humanity and God exist on the exact same principles; they are essentially the same type of being in different stages of progress.

Such doctrines are blasphemous according to the theologians of all monotheistic faiths. And yet, Joseph Smith‘s vision of God--as heretical as it may seem at first--is actually more in harmony with much of the Bible than is the traditional concept of God. As Harold Bloom has observed in several of his books, the God of the theologians is not the God of the Bible--in particular, the Lord God (YWHW) as presented in the oldest sections of the Old Testament. Bloom has praised Joseph Smith for somehow rediscovering the original God of ancient Israel and “archaic Judaism.”

This God is not as indifferent to human demands as traditional religions assume. Consider the story of the patriarch Jacob found in the book of Genesis.

The character of Jacob is troublesome to traditional concepts of what makes a proper Biblical hero--particularly from a Christian perspective. Some of the virtues that have been traditionally embraced by Christianity include humility, submissiveness before God, valuing the spiritual over the material, and a capacity for self-sacrifice.

Jacob personifies none of these supposed virtues.

As depicted in Genesis, Jacob is ambitious, bold, competitive, cunning and manipulative. He constantly out-smarts those who try to take advantage of him or try to stop him from getting what he wants. Eight years ago I visited a Sunday School class at a mainline Protestant Church where the lesson was centered on the story of Jacob. Not knowing what to make of Jacob from a Christian perspective, the class ended up making him into a vain, worldly, manipulative egotist in need of repentance.

And yet, nowhere in the Bible is Jacob presented as anything but a hero.

He succeeds in nearly all of his endeavors. Those who try to take advantage of him or harm him either fail or else they are won over by him. Whether Jacob in no way fits the modern Christian or Jewish ideal of what makes a godly person, it is obvious that the authors of the Bible did indeed admire of Jacob as heroic and godly. Nowhere in the text does God chastise and censor him. In fact, the case could be made that next to God Himself, Jacob is the central character in the Bible: His name is referred to more than frequently than that of any other character. In fact, as one progresses through the books of the Bible one discovers that God Himself is defined by His relationship to Jacob.

Which brings us back to the issue of humans making demands on God--which most people consider presumptuous, arrogant, even sinful.

Consider the following story--one of the most famous stories about this patriarch.
It is night time in the wilderness. Jacob, with his wives and children, is on his way back home after being away for years. Behind him is his crafty father-in-law who he outsmarted, eventually securing the man’s flocks, daughters and other riches. Waiting for Jacob in his homeland is his older brother Esau, whose gullibility he took advantage of in order to win their father’s blessing. Jacob assumes that Esau--who threatened to kill him years earlier--will try to make good on that threat when they meet the next morning.

“Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.

Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”

But he [Jacob] said, “I will not let You go unless you bless me!”

So He said to him, “What is your name?”

He said, “Jacob.”

And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but is Israel; for your have contended with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.”

And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Genesis 32:24-30, New King James Version)

This story has traditionally been referred to as the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. But notice that it is not an angel that Jacob wrestles, but God Himself.

Just as in earlier chapters of Genesis, God appears to Abraham as a Man (coming to Abraham’s camp and having lunch with him) so in this story God appears as a Man. (Notice that in English, upper case letters are used in all references to the Man character.) That God appears as a human with body, parts and passions contradicts the traditional concept of God in Christianity. It is completely in harmony with Joseph Smith’s declaration that “if you were to see God, you would see a man in form like yourself.”

Another point: Notice how Jacob (Israel) is completely unlike his grandfather Abraham. When the Man visited him, Abraham “bowed himself on the ground” before Him. Later when God told Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his son Isaac, Abraham went about the grim task willingly, with seemingly little personal turmoil. (Over the centuries theologians and believers have assumed that Abraham experienced great turmoil over God’s demand that he kill his own son, but if one reads the account in Genesis, there is no reference to any such turmoil.) Unlike Jacob, Abraham seems to represent the ideal Christian, Jew or Muslim who humbles himself before God and is obedient to whatever is required--even if it means killing his own child.

Jacob manifests none of this supposed virtues. One could hardly imagine Jacob being willing to sacrifice his own beloved son, Joseph, if God commanded it. When God comes to him, Jacob physically wrestles Him to the ground---and wins! Jacob actually overpowers God Himself, pinning Him to the ground. In an attempt to win the wrestling match, God uses divine powers to dislocate Jacob’s hip bone. Still Jacob keeps Him pinned to the ground. When God begs Jacob to let Him go, Jacob refuses, demanding that God give him a blessing.

God gives in to Jacob’s demand!

What happens next is a major turning point in the book of Genesis and the entire story line of the Bible (if one takes all of its books as whole.) God gives Jacob a new name--a name that will appear throughout the Bible more than any other. The name is Israel. The word literally means “to contend or wrestle with God.” From that point on, God would be known as the God of Israel (Jacob).

Then Jacob does what would be considered blasphemous in his day: he asks that God reveal His Name to him. In the culture that produced the book of Genesis, the names of Deities were kept secret from mortals. It was believed that to know the Name of a God was to have power over that God; if one knew a God’s Name, then one could call on that God whenever one wished and the God would be bound to answer. The Gods in ancient mythologies guarded their Names zealously, lest mortals learn Their Names and thus gain power over Them.

What does God do when Jacob asks for His Name? This was a blatant demand for more power. According to the mindset of that day and age, any self-respecting God would have cursed or destroyed Jacob for his request.

Instead, God blesses Jacob! While not revealing His Name, He nevertheless blesses Jacob for his presumptuousness! Two generations earlier, God covenanted to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham’s seed. And yet it isn’t the House of Abraham or the Children of Abraham who become central in the Biblical narratives. It is the House of Israel/Jacob and the Children of Israel/Jacob who dominate the Bible.

The covenant with Abraham is finalized through Jacob/Israel--who wrestled with men and with God, and who prevailed; who pinned God down and demanded a blessing; who had the nerve to ask God to reveal His Name.

What is a Christian to make of this story? I have no idea since it not only undermines all traditional concepts of Christian humility but also its concepts on the nature of God Himself.

However, as a Reform Mormon I find that this story resonates with the radical new doctrines of Mormonism. In fact, in light of this story, the “new” doctrines of Mormonism actually seem ancient.

Something in Joseph Smith’s later teachings resonates with character of Jacob and with the idea that blessings come because one is active instead of passive; because one make demands of God rather than blindly and meekly obeying commands from on high; because one seeks knowledge--even knowledge (symbolized in the concept of God having a secret name) that would give to humans powers previously reserved for Gods only.

“You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves….the same as all Gods have done before you…” (Joseph Smith)


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