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The Idea of God
From "A Guide to Understanding the Bible" by Harry Emerson Fosdick

(The following is the entire text of Chapter 1 of a book by Harry Emerson Fosdick, tracing the emergence of the idea of God from the pages of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Fosdick was one of the pre-eminent preachers and theologians of the twentieth century and perhaps the most popular representative of liberal or progressive Christianity. His ideas and his leadership were decisive in the conflict between fundamentalism and moderism in the first half of the century. Readers will note that Fosdick asserted that the concept of God found in the Bible is not static or absolute, but rather an evolving one that progresses over time from the primitive monotheism of the earliest patriarchs toward the more refined notions of the prophets and the New Testament.)

Nowhere do the early documents of the Bible more obviously carry us back to the ideas of primitive religion than in dealing with the concept of God. The first chapter of Genesis reveals a confident monotheism, but that represents centuries of developing life and thought from the time the Hebrews were introduced at Sinai to their god, Yahweh. At the beginning, the distinctive deity of the Hebrews was a tribal divinity to whom the clans of Joseph first gave their allegiance at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. That previously the Israelites had not known their god, Yahweh, by his name is explicitly stated in the Bible: "God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am Yahweh: and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as El Shaddai; but by my name Yahweh I was not known to them." (Exodus 6:2-3 [marginal reading]. The meaning of El Shaddai is dubious, and "God Almighty" a very questionable rendering.) This passage appears in the late Priestly Document and all the more because of that the probabilities favor its truth. Without a solid basis in historic fact, such a delayed beginning of Yahweh’s worship would not have been invented by succeeding generations. The natural tendency of loyal devotees would be to carry back the name of their god to their most ancient patriarchal legends and to confirm his worship with the sanctions of antiquity. So, one story in Genesis, referring to the days of Seth, son of Adam, says, "Then began men to call upon the name of Yahweh." (Genesis 4:26)

The statement in Exodus is more convincing than this contradictory account in Genesis, not only because of intrinsic probability but because the evidence available in the Bible clearly indicates that it was in connection with the Exodus from Egypt that Yahweh first became god of the tribes of Israel. Although, centuries afterward, the name Yahweh was commonly put upon the lips of ancestral heroes and patriarchs and was used even in the narrative of man’s creation in Eden, the bona fide historic fact was too firmly set to be eliminated -- at the Exodus, for the first time, Yahweh and Israel had met and sworn mutual allegiance. The Ephraimite Document of narratives, for example, carefully avoids the name Yahweh in all the early stories until the Exodus is reached and then warns the people to "put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River [Euphrates], and in Egypt; and serve ye Yahweh.’’ (Joshua 24:14.). Commonly also in the prophets, the beginning of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel is associated with the Exodus, as when Hosea twice represents the deity as saying, "I am Yahweh thy God from the land of Egypt," (Hosea 12:19; 13:4) or Jeremiah places Yahweh’s espousal of his people in the Mosaic period, (Jeremiah 2:1-2.) or Ezekiel represents God as calling Moses’ generation "the day when I chose Israel." (Ezekiel 20:5.)

According to the available evidence, Moses first came upon Yahweh at "the mountain of God," (Exodus 3:1 ff.) called both Sinai and Horeb. (Horeb and Sinai are presumably different names for the same mountain variously located. Horeb may be the more primitive. See W. J. Phythian-Adams: The Call of Israel, pp. 131-133.) Like Zeus upon Olympus and many another primitive deity, Yahweh, at the first, was a mountain god. Indeed, he was so confined to his habitat that, when the tribesmen under Moses left Sinai the problem of believing in Yahweh’s continuing presence with them was serious. According to the oldest traditions they did not suppose Yahweh himself would go with them -- he was attached to his mountain home. Three times it is explicitly stated that not he but his angel was to accompany them on the journey to Canaan. (Exodus 23:20-23; 32:34; 33:1-3.)

For centuries this special attachment of Yahweh to his wilderness mountain remained vivid in the imagination of his devotees. When Deborah won a victory far north in Palestine, she still pictured Yahweh as coming in thunderous power from Sinai to his people’s help. (Judges 5:4-5) When Elijah, dismayed by the apostasy of Israel, wished to stand in the very presence of his deity, he fled to "Horeb the mount of God." (I Kings 19:8.) Deuteronomy and Habakkuk, in the seventh century B.C., still kept in their symbolism the old picture of Yahweh coming from Sinai; (Deuteronomy 33:2; Habakkuk 3:3.) and a post-Exilic psalmist thought of God and Sinai together. (Psalm 68:7-8.)

As for the train of events which led to the momentous introduction of Israel to Yahweh at the "mountain of God," the probabilities are strong. Moses, fleeing from Egypt to the wilderness, joined himself to the Kenites, a Midianite tribe of nomads living in the desert about Sinai. Into this tribe Moses married. His father-in-law was its religious head, "the priest of Midian," (Exodus 3:1.) and Moses, associating himself with his wife’s clan, became a devotee of Yahweh, the Kenite god. In such an incident as is presented in Exodus 18:1-12, revealing the pride of Jethro, priest of Yahweh, in the conquests of his tribal deity, this "Kenite hypothesis" seems to fit the facts.

Far down the course of Hebrew history, the Kenites continued to appear as uncompromising devotees of Yahweh. They associated themselves with the tribes of Israel and, settling in southern Canaan, continued there on the edge of the wilderness a semi-nomadic life. (Judges 1:16.) Jael, a Kenite woman and a worshiper of Yahweh, smote Sisera; (Judges 5:24-27.) the son of Rechab, a Kenite, supported Jehu in the bloody revolt of Yahweh’s devotees against the apostasies of Ahab; (II Kings 10: 15-18[cf. I Chronicles 2: 55.]) and even in Jeremiah’s time, the Rechabites, driven from their ancient nomadic ways by guerilla warfare, could in Jerusalem be used to shame the Hebrews by their uncompromising devotion to the laws of their fathers. (Jeremiah, chapt. 35.)

This Kenite hypothesis may be modified in detail as new evidence becomes available, (see Theophile James Meek: Hebrew Origins, pp. 86 ff.) but its core of truth seems solid and dependable. Interpreted in terms of it, the scene at Sinai gains substance and clarity. Moses, himself a convert to the worship of Yahweh, led his fellow tribesmen from their bondage and at the "mountain of God" converted them to the same allegiance. There Yahweh and the tribes from Egypt were wedded with mutual exchange of vows. The tribal deity of the Kenites took a new people as his own and a confederation of clans that never before had served Yahweh swore fealty to him as their divinity.

To be sure, Yahweh was not a new god; at least the Kenites had been acquainted with him; the Judean Document, which scholars call "J," in its final form holds that the fathers had known him, and he may have been a deity of the tribe of Judah. (Exodus 3:16-18.) Even a more ancient and extensive history may have been his. "We find," says Lods, "in cuneiform documents of the pre-Mosaic age, a great number of personal names compounded with the syllables ya,yau, yami (or yawe), and even jahveh." (Adolphe Lods: Israel from its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century, translated by S. H. Hooke, p. 320.) Some, therefore, think that this god to whom Moses introduced the tribes from Egypt while new to them as their tribal deity, was not a stranger in the traditions of their race. This, however, does not affect the crucial fact, from which the subsequent development of Israel’s religion proceeds, that the distinctive faith of the Hebrews began with the covenant between them and a deity new to their allegiance. Moreover, this relationship was not determined by mere chance of locality in accordance with which a static people naturally served the god of their territory, but was an alliance voluntarily assumed by migrating tribes. Yahweh was conceived as graciously choosing a new people and the people were conceived as deliberately accepting a new god.

Thus to emphasize the fresh start initiated by the creative influence of Moses need not involve forgetfulness of the ancestral background. Religion among the Semites had had a rich history before Moses, and he and his people were the inheritors of a long and significant tradition. Doubt of Abraham’s personal existence, for example, once prevalent, is surrendering to an increasing confidence in the Biblical accounts of his migration from "Ur of the Chaldees." (See Stephen L, Caiger: Bible and Spade, pp. 30 ff.) New in name, therefore, Yahweh may have been old in meaning, and into Moses’ creative faith doubtless went long accumulating ideas and attitudes from his ancestral heritage. Substantial truth may lie in the Scripture’s verbal anachronism which represents Yahweh as saying: "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." (Exodus 3:6, 15, 16; 4:5.)


Some of the major characteristics of Yahweh, the mountain god of Sinai, stand out plainly in the narrative.

1. He was a storm god, associated with violent exhibitions of nature’s power. According to the written tradition, the first experiences that the liberated clans from Egypt had with him at Sinai were accompanied by thunderings and lightnings and the mountain’s smoking -- "the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly." (Exodus 19:18; 20:18.) This suggests a volcano, and Sinai may have been that or legend may have exaggerated such storms of thunder and lightning as still occur about the huge granite massif of the traditional Sinai, with mist pouring up like smoke from its flanks.

At any rate, as is true among all early peoples, from the beginning till far down the course of Hebrew thought, thunder and lightning were regarded as special exhibitions of superhuman power.

They that strive with Yahweh shall be broken to pieces
Against them will he thunder in heaven (I Samuel 2:10) --

so sang the devotees of Sinai’s god long after they were in Pales- tine, and in specific cases they attributed victory to the interposition of his thunderbolts -- "Yahweh thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them." (I Samuel 7:10.) When Yahweh came from Sinai to Deborah’s help, he was pictured riding the storm, (Judges 5:4.) and even a psalmist saw the help of the Lord when he "thundered in the heavens," hurled "hailstones and coals of fire" and, like arrows, sent out his "lightnings manifold." (Psalm 18:13-14)

It is impossible to tell when the idea that in thunder "the Most High uttered his voice" and in lightning shot his arrows (Ibid.) ceased being literal and became symbolic. The story of Elijah’s sacrifice on Carmel with Yahweh sending down his lightning to burn the altar and its offering (I Kings 18:38.) is literal enough. Certainly at the first, the deity of Sinai was a god of storm.

2. Even more significantly, he was a god of war, battling for his people and leading them to victory. The ascription in the so-called Song of Moses,

Yahweh is a man of war:
Yahweh is his name, (Exodus 15:3.)

is typical of the earliest traditions. Concerning the triumph of Joshua on the day when "the sun stood still," we read, "Yahweh fought for Israel"; (Joshua 10:13-14.) David defied Goliath, crying, "I come to thee in the name of Yahweh of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel"; (I Samuel 17:45.) and even a psalmist wrote,

He teacheth my hands to war;
So that mine arms do bend a bow of brass. (Psalm 18:34.)

Indeed, one compiler quotes from a book no longer extant, "the book of the Wars of Yahweh.’’ (Numbers 21:14.)

Any god, vitally believed in at any time, is conceived as the backer of man’s necessary enterprises. So the early Hebrews, whose most constant activity, next to sustaining life by labor, was war, needed a "Lord of hosts," a superhuman leader of armies, and Yahweh met that need. When camp was broken and the Ark was lifted, they cried, "Rise up, O Yahweh, and let thine enemies be scattered." (Numbers 10:35.) When the captured Ark was carried into the Philistine towns, the Israelite chronicler delighted to picture the Philistines’ fear as they cried: "God is come into the camp.... Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods?" (I Samuel 4:7-8.) This interpretation of Yahweh’s most sacred palladium, the Ark, was of one piece with the people’s interpretation of Yahweh’s most necessary function as their fighting chief. As another has put it, the Ark was "at one and the same time the primitive sanctuary and the battle standard." (H. Wheeler Robinson: The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament, p. 56.)

A storm god, dwelling on a mountain, whose major activity was war -- such was the beginning of the development of the Jewish-Christian idea of God.

3. Involved in such a beginning is the further fact that Yahweh was a tribal god. That he loved Israel and graciously entered into covenant with his chosen people, far from implying love and grace in other relationships, involved vehement hatred of Israel’s enemies.

An integral part of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel was his declaration, "I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries." (Exodus 23:22.) Indeed, Yahweh was represented as outdoing Israel in sustained and lethal hatred against non-Israelites, as, for example, the Canaanites -- "It was of Yahweh to harden their hearts, to come against Israel in battle, that he might utterly destroy them, that they might have no favor, but that he might destroy them." (Joshua 11:20.) This capacity in Yahweh for prolonged and violent hatred of Israel’s foes is set down in the record with unashamed emphasis, whether in the traditions of the wilderness, where "Yahweh will have war with Amalek from generation to generation," (Exodus 17:16) or in the early days of the kingdom in Palestine, when Yahweh commanded Saul to "go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’’ (I Samuel 15:33.)

This god of war, with his relentless hatred of his people’s enemies, was even supposed to be pleased by the sacrifice of prisoners taken in battle. In the history of primitive religions this form of human sacrifice is familiar. "It was also the custom from very early times," says Lods, "to slay adults, especially prisoners of war and criminals, with rites more or less resembling those of sacrifice. Among the pagan Arabs, captives were slain under every form of sacrifice.... Long after the slaughter of prisoners had become a purely secular act in Arabia, the term hadij, sacrificed, still denoted the slain captive. Similarly, the Carthaginians, after the defeat of Agathocles in 307 B.C., slew the prisoners of rank ‘before the altar, in front of the sacred tent.’" (Adolph Lods: Israel From its Beginning to the Middle of the Eighth Century, translated by S. H. Hooke, p.287) The wonder is not that this practise obtained but that it is so seldom evident in the Hebrew records that it existed, however, is plain from an indubitable instance when Samuel, angry at the reservation of the Amalekite king from the general massacre, "hewed Agag in pieces before Yahweh in Gilgal." (I Samuel 15:33.)

In many passages, moreover, this same usage is indicated, when the meaning of the English Version’s words ‘utterly destroy’ is correctly given in the margin as ‘devote.’ That is, when "they smote the Canaanites that inhabited Zephath, and utterly destroyed it," (Judges 1: 17.) what they really did was to ‘devote’ it to Yahweh. So Mesha, King of Moab, completely wrecking a town and killing its male inhabitants, said, "I slew all the men of the city for a spectacle to Chemosh" (The Mesha Stone II, 11-12, See Lods: op. cit., p. 288.) -- the Moabite god. Under this innocent translation in our English Versions, therefore, where ‘utterly destroy’ is substituted for ‘devote,’ there lies an idea of deity rejoicing in the human sacrifice of his people’s foes. As the story in Numbers 21:1-3 reveals, one way to secure Yahweh’s help in battle, so Israel believed, was to promise him the complete ‘devotion, of all captured property and persons. So jealous was the god thought to be of this ‘devoted’loot that when, as at Jericho, tabooed property was secreted, his wrath was ruinous, (Joshua, chap. 7) or when, as late as the ninth century, Ahab spared the life of the captured king of Syria, Yahweh was pictured as saying, "Because thou hast let go out of thy hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life.’’ (I Kings 20:42.)

The long-drawn-out story of the Jewish-Christian endeavor to outgrow nationalism in theology as well as in practise began in this belligerent and ruthless tribalism of Israel’s primitive war god.

4. Involved in this early idea of Yahweh was, of course, anthropomorphism. At first he was pictured with frank physical realism. It is difficult to determine when the ascription to him of hands, feet, face, eyes, ears, and nose, passes over into symbolism, but such expressions have behind them, as the records show, a thoroughly anthropomorphic idea of deity. He walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day and talked familiarly with Adam; (Genesis chap. 3.) he ate and conversed with Abraham; (Genesis 18:1 ff.) he wrestled with Jacob so that the patriarch said, "I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." (Genesis 32: 24-30.)

The origins of the sacrificial system in Israel, as elsewhere, imply this physical realism in the thought of deity. Back of more sophisticated meanings, which later were seen in the temple sacrifices, and more rarefied interpretations of the effect of ritual offerings on Yahweh, was the idea of the communal meal where deity and people shared the same feast and the god of the tribe enjoyed with his devotees their sacrificial food. This is explicitly stated and indirectly implied in many passages of the Old Testament. The fat and blood of the sacrifices were reserved for Yahweh; they were his portion of the feast. At first they were rubbed upon the sacred stone or altar; later, when offerings of fat were made by fire, Yahweh partook of them only through the sense of smell -- "the priest shall burn them upon the altar: it is the food of the offering made by fire, for a sweet savor; all the fat is Yahweh’s.’’ (Leviticus 3:16.) The age-long persistence of outward forms of animal sacrifice along with profound changes in the interpretation of their meaning presents one of the commonest phenomena of religious history -- preservation of custom accompanied by alteration of theory. At the origin of food offerings to the god was the primitive idea that the god shared the enjoyment of them.

This physical participation of Yahweh in the sacrifices was plainly implied in the prophetic reaction against such anthropomorphism. No explanation of the specific points selected by the prophets for attack seems probable except that those points constituted a continuing danger to the spiritual idea of the divine nature. When, therefore, Isaiah’s Yahweh scorned "the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts,’’ (Isaiah 1:11.) or the psalmist’s Yahweh cried,

Will I eat the flesh of bulls,
Or drink the blood of goats? (Psalm 50:13.)

we have not only an emphatic insistence that God is not the kind of being who partakes of physical food, but also a clear indication that the popular view, against which this protest was being made, held the contrary.

Moreover, the sublimation of actual eating and drinking into smelling the offerings was probably an endeavor to rarefy the more gross conception of the god, and it revealed in the background the primitive ideas it sought to overpass. The Deluge Tablet of Babylonia says concerning the sacrifice after the Flood:

The gods smelled the odor,
The gods smelled the sweet odor.
The gods gathered like flies around the sacrificer. (As quoted by Morris Jastrow; Hebrew and Babylon Traditions, p. 332.)

The Hebrew rendition of the same story chastens the details but retains the anthropomorphism -- "Yahweh smelled the sweet savor." (Genesis 8:21.) From being food for Yahweh’s eating, sacrifice thus became what Deuteronomy called "incense in thy nostrils,"Deuteronomy and so literally was this conceived that against it also the prophets launched their protest. Isaiah’s Yahweh cried, "Incense is an abomination unto me," (Isaiah 1:13.) and Amos’ Yahweh declared, "I will not smell a savor in your solemn assemblies." (Amos 5:21 (marginal translation).

The early narratives concerning the Sinaitic deity to whom Moses introduced Israel are outspoken in their anthropomorphism. Apart from details which are probably symbolic, such as Yahweh’s writing the original tables of the law with his own finger, (Exodus 31:18 Cf. The Rosetta Stone, where hierglyphics are called "the writing of divine words, written by the god Thoth himself.")

we have a physical vision of Yahweh by Moses, which must have originated in a primitive story of a man seeing his god. "Yahweh said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon the rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand until I have passed by: and I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back; but my face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:21-23)

One of the notable achievements of later Judaism was the abolition of idolatry -- the complete suppression of all pictorial and plastic representations of Yahweh and all images of man or beast associated with his worship. This, however, was not the primitive beginning. Even the later rewriting of the records, pushing back the command against images into the law of Moses and denying in every way the allowance of idols, did not destroy the plain evidence of Yahweh’s physical representation in the early days. Micah, the Ephraimite, had an image of Yahweh; (Judges 17:3-4) Gideon made one out of captured gold; (Judges 8:24-27) the teraphim were household gods, human enough in appearance to supply David with a substitute when he fled from his foes; (I Samuel 19:12-16[cf. Genesis 31:17-35])and, indeed, so customary were "graven images" that while early protests were made, as in the law of Exodus, "Thou shalt make thee no molten gods," (Exodus 34:17.) and in the story of the golden calf, (Exodus 32:1 ff.) probably dating from the time of Jeroboam’s apostasy, the first prophet plainly to take his stand against them was Hosea, in the eighth century. (Hosea 11:2; 8:4-6. See Asolphe Lods: "Images and Idols, Hebrew and Canaanite," III, 2, in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by J. Hastings.)

The inevitable companion of anthropomorphism was anthropopathism, ascribing human emotions to the god. Hatred, jealousy, vindictiveness, disappointment at unforeseen events, regret for mistaken decisions -- the common characteristic attitudes of man at his worst, as well as at his best, were attributed to the god. At the beginning, therefore, the god of the Bible was a person, physically embodied although superhumanly powerful, who could conceivably be seen, who in the earliest strata of the Scripture walked, talked, wrestled, dined, and smelled, and who shared with man a wide gamut of good and bad emotions.


One of the most important occasions of change in Israel’s idea of Yahweh came when this primitive mountain god became the territorial deity of the land of Canaan. As time went on, Yahweh was detached in the imagination of his people from his exclusive residence on Sinai, and he became acclimated in Canaan as lord of the land. In this process, according to the finished tradition, the Ark -- a sacred coffer whose attendance with the wandering tribes was understood to involve either the real or deputed presence of Yahweh -- played a significant part. While, at the first, it was his angel rather than himself who went with the migrant clans, the shading between Yahweh and his angel in the early documents is so vague that in the same story both forms of representation may be used. (Genesis 16:7-14; 21:17-19.) So, as the Biblical records present the picture, Yahweh, whether in his proper person or by deputy in an angelic representative, traveled with his nomadic devotees, and of his abiding presence the Ark was the visible symbol and vehicle. Where the Ark was, he was; when the Ark was not carried into an important enterprise, his guidance and power were absent. (Numbers 14:41-45.)

This identification of the Ark with the special presence of Yahweh is repeatedly shown in the narratives, until, as the most sacred palladium of the nation, it was placed in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple. When David was bringing it up to his capital, he and the people played and danced "before Yahweh" (II Samuel 6:2-5, 12-15.) and when on the first stage of its journey a helpful man tried to steady the sacred fetish as it jounced over the rough road, he fell dead because, so they thought, "Yahweh had broken forth upon Uzzah." (II Samuel 6:6-8.) Whatever may have been the historic facts about the Ark in the wilderness, (See Louis Wallis: God and the Social Process, pp. 107-109; Elmer A. Leslie: Old Testament Religion in the light of its Canaanite Background, pp. 121ff.) the written tradition in the end pictured God as traveling with his people in this sacred chest, and while Sinai for centuries was thought of as his special home, the Ark, whether as history or legend, may well have been a bridge by which in popular imagination Yahweh passed over into Canaan. There, at any rate, he was acclimated and naturalized until Palestine became what Hosea called it, "Yahweh’s land." (Hosea 9:3)

This process carried with it at least two attendant results.

1. Becoming the god of Israel’s land, Yahweh was limited in his sovereignty to the territory of his people. At this stage, not only were tribal deities confined in their goodwill to their own clans but, as well, they were generally imagined as confined in their presence and power to their own lands. The Philistine cities were hardly twenty-five miles from Bethlehem but, when David by Saul’s jealousy was forced to take refuge there, he complained, "They have driven me out this day that I should not cleave unto the inheritance of Yahweh, saying, Go, serve other gods." (I Samuel 26:19.) This idea of Yahweh’s available presence as limited to his territory, so that only a few miles away one must worship other deities, constituted the background from which larger ideas of God emerged, and far down in Israel’s history its sway was felt. Even a late and nobly international tract, the Book of Jonah recalls it, picturing Jonah as taking ship to another country that he might flee "from the presence of Yahweh." (Jonah 1:3,10.) In many ways, direct and indirect, this limitation of the Hebrew god to his own geographical demesne is revealed in the early documents of the Bible, as, for example, when Naaman, the Syrian, healed by Elisha, carried "two mules’ burden of earth" from Israel’s land back to Damascus, that he might have, even in a foreign country, some of Yahweh’s soil on which, standing, he could worship the god of Israel. (II Kings 5:17.)

This attachment of a god to his territory obviously involved the recognition of other gods as real and powerful in their own lands. So Jephthah, claiming for Israel what Israel’s god had given her, granted to Moab the right to "possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee." (Judges 11:23-24.) The Hebrew records even attribute the retreat of an Israelitish army, which had been successfully invading Moab, to the "great wrath against Israel" that the Moabites aroused, presumably in their god Chemosh, by the human sacrifice of their own crown prince. (II Kings 3:26-27.)

When, therefore, by choice or necessity one was in other lands one would naturally worship other gods, as David in Philistia felt coerced to do. Even a post-Exilic book, Ruth, pictures its heroine as changing gods when she passed from Moab to Bethlehem, although the two were scarcely thirty miles apart and could be plainly seen, one from the other, across the Jordan gorge "Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God." (Ruth 1:16.) As late as Jeremiah’s time, exile from the Holy Land was popularly interpreted as forcing the worship of strange deities -- "Therefore will I cast you forth out of this land into the land that ye have not known, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night." (Jeremiah 16:13.)

As this necessity was laid on Israelites in foreign territories, so, in reverse, foreigners in Palestine fared ill if they failed to worship Yahweh. When the Northern Kingdom fell, in 72I B.C., and the Assyrian monarch settled strangers in Samaria, it was in vain that they brought their own gods with them. "Yahweh sent lions among them," and it was only when a Hebrew priest was furnished to "teach them the law of the god of the land. . . how they should fear Yahweh," that they felt safe. (II Kings 17:24-33.)

This extension of the idea of Yahweh, until, no longer merely or mainly a storm god dwelling on Sinai and furnishing leadership in war, he became the god of the land of Canaan, was one of the first long steps out into new conceptions of deity.

2. Yahweh, becoming the territorial god of Canaan, became of necessity an agricultural deity. This he never had been in the wilderness, where agriculture and its accompanying needs, habits, and ideas did not exist. To pass, as the Hebrews did, from nomadic wanderings to a settled residence, from the exclusive tending of herds to the culture of crops, from tents to villages and walled towns, involved a profound change in the life and thought of the people, and, not least of all, in their religion. This process, the military part of which has been artificially foreshortened in the Biblical story of the conquest of Canaan, was really long- drawn-out and gradual. For generations the Israelites clung, as it were, by their eyebrows to a small section of the hill country of Ephraim amid bitter enemies -- Ammonites and Moabites, to the east; the Philistines invading the seacoast lands to the west; the Amorites still possessing a score of strong towns and the farm lands around them.

At first the inveterate prejudice of the nomad against the agriculturist held its ground. Of this stage the legend of Cain and Abel is representative, in which Yahweh is pictured as welcoming the offerings of the herdsman, Abel, and refusing the offerings of the farmer, Cain. (Genesis 4:2-5.) But, after all, the Israelites and the Amorites were cousins; they came alike of Semitic stock; their traditions were rooted in a common soil; the commercial civilization of the Amorites was far more rich, varied, and advanced than that of the rough and virile adventurers under Joshua and his successors, so that, as generations passed, with the two peoples living side by side and the more robust and energetic Israelites gaining increased ascendency, an inevitable process of syncretism went on and the two cultures blended.

The Canaanitish baals were gods of agriculture. As the conquering clans of Israel had needed their god chiefly as the "Lord of hosts," so the Canaanites needed their gods to give rain and bestow fertility. Each locality had its baal or baals, and the

"high places," where these ancient deities were worshiped, still have their lineal descendants in Palestine, often doubtless identically situated, in the local shrines of Mohammedan and Christian saints. The Israelites did not so much choose between Yahweh and the baals as blend the worship of Yahweh with the customs of the high places until Yahweh himself became a baal. So, long afterward, Hosea in the name of Yahweh protested: "Thou . . . shalt call me no more Baali.’’ (Hosea 2:16.) This process of syncretism was doubtless greatly encouraged when David, in order to conquer the Philistines, substituted alliance with the Amorites for the traditional hostility against them and so built a kingdom which included Yahweh-worshipers and baal-worshipers together. Long before that, however, the baals, as historically established gods of the land, had exercised a profound influence on Hebrew ideas of Yahweh and on methods of worshiping him.

At first Yahweh and the baals were so different in function that coördinate loyalty to both was possible. The local baals were the sources of agricultural plenty -- so wide areas of the people still believed when in the eighth century Hosea thundered against the idea (Hosea 2:5-13.) -- while Yahweh was the god of nomadic life and the leader of his clans in battle. This distinction can be pressed too far but it was real. An Israelite, therefore, might retain genuine loyalty to his tribal god, turning to him when his needs were military, and still make sacrifices to the local baal when he wanted rain. This initial division of function, however, could not last; syncretism was inevitable; alike in idea and custom, Yahweh borrowed from the baals and the baals, presumably, from Yahweh. So, in the end, while the Ark may have been the special palladium of the people and the initial pledge of Yahweh’s presence, he was so far from being confined to it that he was available throughout his land in the high places where his people worshiped. Indeed, a justification of this was read back into tradition and put upon the lips of Yahweh in his conversation with Moses on Mount Sinai: "In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come unto thee and I will bless thee." (Exodus 20:24.) (marginal translation).

As soon as this idea of the approachability of Yahweh at the local shrines was well established, the blending of Yahweh and the baals was certain to proceed apace. The powerful hold of Yahweh on the grateful memory and devotion of Israel is, indeed, made evident by the fact that they did not surrender him to the Canaanitish gods of the land, but kept him, added to him the functions, powers, and ceremonies of the baals, until the prophets rose in a desperate and magnificent attempt to conserve the good and eradicate the evil of this perilous syncretism.

Such a process as this is a commonplace in the history of religion. When Christianity moved into northern Europe, the old shrines of the pre-Christian deities, instead of being abolished, were often taken over and absorbed. Where some heathen god had been adored, now the Virgin or a saint was worshiped, and as had happened in Rome itself when the Saturnalia was transformed into the Christmas festival, old customs were given new meanings. "In like manner," says Kautzsch, "among the Arabs, long after the victory of Islam, the local cult of the pre-Islamic gods persisted, partly in the popular usages (forbidden by Islam), partly in some usages incorporated with Islam itself.’’ (E. Kautzsch: "Religion of Israel," III, iii, 2, in Hastiness’ Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol., p. 645.) If this happened in the face of a victory as complete as Islam’s over Arabia, how much more would such syncretism take place when, as in Israel’s case in Palestine, the Canaanites could not be utterly conquered but, sustained and empowered, so current beliefs would suggest, by their native gods, lived on with the Israelites!

One effect of this syncretism was greatly to enlarge and diversify the functions of Yahweh until, to the faithful Israelite, he became the source of agricultural plenty. Thence arose the agricultural festivals, such as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Harvest, whose origin was read back into the Mosaic Law but whose existence could have had no meaning until the Israelites were in Canaan. In the end a prophet could ascribe to Yahweh the revelation of all man’s knowledge concerning the technique of farming. (Isaiah 28:23-29.)

Nevertheless, the cost of such syncretism was heavy. Yahweh had always been conceived as powerful and ruthless in war -- even brutal from the standpoint of later ideals -- but he had been virile, austere, and chaste. If he had the faults of a war god he also had the virtues -- he was hard and disciplined, an inflexible sponsor of rigorous self-control and of the social solidarity of the nomads. The gods of agriculture, however, have uniformly been licentious. There never failed to exist in Israel a protestant party, holding to the primitive austerity of Yahweh’s worship and resisting the encroachments of the new pollutions -- the Rechabites, for example, who would not even dwell in houses or touch wine. (Jeremiah 35:1-10) Moreover, the Israelites on the ridge of Ephraim evidently maintained in their kinship groups many basic nomadic ideas of social justice sponsored by Yahweh and were consciously and even violently at variance with the inequities of Amorite commercialism sponsored by the baals. Nevertheless, when two cultures live so closely together, mutual contagion across all barriers is inevitable and Israel was profoundly affected by ideas and customs associated with the baals.

The Hebrews, for example, took over the imitative magic in accordance with which the sexual act, performed at the shrine of the god, was supposed to encourage the soil’s fertility. So prostitution and sodomy crept into the worship of Yahweh and were found even in the central temple at Jerusalem as late as the reform of Josiah in the seventh century. (II Kings 23:7; Hosea 4:13-14.) Here, too, grew up the worship of Yahweh under the likeness of bulls, such as Jeroboam set up at Dan and Bethel. (I Kings 12:26-29.) The story of Aaron and the golden calf (Exodus 32:1 ff.) in all probability was written in this later age to help withstand the polluting identification of Yahweh’s worship with the adoration of bulls.

It is not possible to trace to their origins the many factors which made up Israel’s popular religion. The Yahweh tradition was only one strand in a tangled complex where old Semitic inheritances, animistic survivals, and syncretic appropriations were confusedly mingled. Israel’s religion was not an individualistic faith but a social culture which affected every hour of every day and penetrated conduct at every point. In it were included curious taboos, (E.g., Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 22:28.) primitive cults such as serpent worship, (II Kings 18:4.) the use of ordeal in judicial cases, (Numbers 5: 11-31.) the power of the curse, (Numbers 22:6.) the employment of magic in battle; (Exodus 17:8-13.) and as for sacred stones, trees, waters, caves, the early records are full of them. Such common factors in primitive religion doubtless came out of Israel’s background but Canaan supplied endless opportunity for their application. The Hebrews took over the sacred places, constructed patriarchal legends concerning them, absorbed their customary rituals, and wove them into the complex fabric of Yahweh’s faith and worship. And, as the prophets later saw, all this presented two focal points of peril to the best traditions that had come from the desert: it substituted for the old austerity the alluring licentiousness of baal worship, and it sanctioned the commercial inequalities and tyrannies, which the baals of sophisticated Canaan sponsored against the ancient ideas of social solidarity, equality, and justice for which Yahweh stood.


No historic imagination can adequately canvass the varied causes and occasions which led to the gradual enlargement and elevation of the Hebrew idea of deity, but some of the process is visible.

1. Yahweh became god of the sky. (E.g., Psalm 2:4; 11:4; 103:19 II Chronicles 6:18.) The very fact that he was a mountain god controlling thunder and lightning would associate him with the sky, and while we are dealing with legend in Jacob’s vision of the celestial ladder with Yahweh above it, (Genesis 28:12-13.) and in the story of the tower of Babel, where Yahweh jealously protects from men’s invasion his heavenly dwelling, (Genesis 11:1-9.) such representations reveal the extension of Yahweh’s sovereignty, far above solitary mountain or earthly territory, to the sky.

This idea, at the beginning, doubtless coexisted with earlier and more mundane conceptions; it was thought by a few before it was held by many; it was conceived by many before it became practically operative in their daily religion. At last, however, it occupied the minds and imaginations of the people and tended inevitably toward universalism. A god who, as the Eighteenth Psalm put it, "bowed the heavens" (Psalm 18:9.) was escaping from the limited ideas by which his earlier followers had conceived him.

Indeed, the word Elohim, the ordinary Hebrew name for God, belonging as it does to a large family of Semitic words which spring from the same stem, is thought by some to have denoted originally a sky god. So inevitably is universal dominion suggested by such a concept of deity that some even suspect a kind of primitive Semitic monotheism as a background against which the mass of lesser gods arose. (See Stephen Herbert Langdon: Semitic Mythology, p.93.) In the Bible itself, however, no evidence exists of such original monotheism, nor is any contribution made toward explaining the detailed data of Scripture by supposing it. Moreover, the word Elohim is of dubious origin and meaning; quite probably it denotes not the sky in particular but strength in general; variously translated in our English Versions, it is used in the Bible of household gods, (Judges 17:5; Genesis 31:19, 32.) of supernatural spirits, (I Samuel 28:13.) even of earthly judges, (Psalm 82:1.) and to build on its higher developments a doctrine of original monotheism is not convincing. Rather, the universality of the "God of heaven" was a long postponed conviction in Israel’s thinking. (On fallacy of pre-Mosaic monotheism see Adolphe Lods: Israel from its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eight Century, translated by S.H. Hooke, pp. 253-257; Theophile James Meek: Hebrew Origins, pp. 180 ff.)

2. Along with this elevation of the thought of Yahweh as god of the sky went the even more practical idea that, however geographically bounded he might be within his people’s land, he still could display his power outside it. On the basis of Israel’s own traditions, both historic and legendary, he long since had operated over all the known world. Had he not given an illustrious exhibition of his power in favor of his people in Egypt? As the written stories of the patriarchs stand in the "J" Document, had he not called Abraham in "Ur of the Chaldees" and dealt intimately with the patriarchs all the way from the Euphrates to the Nile? An earthly king may have his own limited territory and still be able to strike far beyond its boundaries to protect his subjects and assert his majesty. So Yahweh, while the god of the Holy Land, was conceived as possessing ever extended powers, and while this could be roughly harmonized with belief in many gods, it broke through the strictness of the earlier territorial ideas and opened the way to expectations of Yahweh’s effective action, anywhere, at any time, as he might please.

3. After kingship was established in Judah and Ephraim, such enlarged ideas were given visible form and practical effect by alliances between princely houses. One of the first results of international royal marriages is to be seen in statements like this: "Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh the abomina- tion of Moab, in the mount that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech the abomination of the children of Ammon. And so did he for all his foreign wives, who burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods.’’ (I Kings 11: 7-8.) The theological inference implied in such interterritorial worship is clear: gods can be served outside their own domains; they are more or less interlocking in their directorates; if Chemosh, who had been the fierce enemy of Yahweh and his people, can be worshiped on the Mount of Olives, presumably Yahweh can be worshiped in Moab. To be sure, such inferences were not generally drawn. The practise of inter-territorial worship, exhibited by Solomon in Judah or by the house of Omri in Ephraim, far from being used as a proposition from which to draw theological deductions, was abhorred by the vigorous devotees of Yahweh as sacrilege and apostasy. Nevertheless, the practise was there: gods were becoming intermingled across all boundaries; a change in lands did not, at least for royal folk, necessitate a change m deities.

Many more influences, doubtless, than the Biblical records reveal or our insight can recapture played thus on the enlarging conception of Yahweh. Obviously, however, as god of the sky, able to display his power across the known world and conceivably to be worshiped outside his own land, he was on the way toward universal sovereignty. Still he was far from it. At that stage a pious Hebrew was no monotheist. He might be a henotheist -- worshiping one god himself while not doubting the existence of others. Monolatry he might practise but monotheism he had not yet grasped.

Far more important than the influences which we have named in deepening the idea of Yahweh’s character was the social conflict involved when the nomadic ethics of Israel faced the commercial civilization of the Amorites. The baals were gods not simply of agriculture but of the economic and social relationships which had developed in the comparatively sophisticated, stratified, commercialized town life of the Amorites. The struggle on the crest of Ephraim’s hills, where the Israelites precariously held their ground, was not between two sets of religious ideas in the abstract, but between two economic and social cultures, one sponsored by the baals, the other by Yahweh. On the one side was a stratified society, with a few rich and many poor, with private property in land and water, with money, trade, and credit and the inequalities and tyrannies incident to a commercialized regime - - all this under the ægis of the baals. On the other side was a tribal brotherhood of nomads where, amid the penury of the wilderness, all must be for each and each for all, where land and water were never private but always communal, where none was very rich or very poor, where every one was known to all and the exigencies of desert life forced a rough but sturdy justice. So Doughty speaks of the nomad tribes as "commonwealths of brethren" and says that "in the opinion of the next governed countries, the Arabs of the wilderness are the justest of mortals.’’ (Charles M. Doughty: Travels in Arabia Deserta [3d ed., 1925], Vol. I, pp. 345,249.) Of this social solidarity and fraternal fair play among the Israelite tribes Yahweh was the divine patron. A great tradition lies behind the statement in the later law, `’Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am Yahweh." (Leviticus 19:18.) The crux of the struggle, therefore, between the Hebrew invaders and the Amorites was indeed between their gods, but between their gods as sanctifying two deeply antagonistic economic and social systems.

The translation of economic class struggle into terms of religious conflict is a familiar phenomenon in history. So Mr. George Henry Soule says of the Puritan revolution in the sixteenth century: "The conflict of religious ideas was indeed important, but it was important not so much because of the abstract significance of these ideas as because they represented the mechanism of attack and defense between economic and social classes who were struggling for power." (The Coming American Revolution, p. 23.) Similarly no one can understand the long conflict between the baals and Yahweh, with its story of attraction and repulsion, assimilation and revulsion, culminating in the prophetic determination, from Elijah on, to tear Yahweh’s worship free from baal entanglements, unless one sees, underneath, the fierce hostility between two economic and social cultures. The Amorite lords and nobles -- called baalim like their gods -- hated and feared the equalitarian ideas and practises of the nomads, and the Israelites with similar revulsion despised the city-dominated social order with its private ownership of land and water and its bitter inequalities of station.

This conflict, which existed from the first and which accounts for much of the unappeasable hostility, became explicit in the ninth century in a titanic figure, Elijah. (I Kings, chaps. 17-19.) Under the royal patronage of Queen Jezebel, Melkart, Baal of Tyre, rose to such prominence and power that the party of Yahweh were in despair and Elijah towered up in protest. The greatest prophetic figure between Moses and Amos, his significance lay in his intense devotion to Yahweh as the god of the old, fair folk-ways of Israel. He himself came from Gilead, east of Jordan, and therefore close to desert life. He found, so we are given to understand, seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal, (I Kings 19:18.) a strong party of Yahweh’s devotees, who had refused to be assimilated. They represented the old ideals; they were often, it may be, of semi-nomadic habits; they were reactionaries against the new customs and especially the new luxury and inequality represented by the nobles and the court. Their social protest took form and gained point when a foreign baal, Melkart, was introduced by Jezebel of Tyre. Here was a visible symbol of the social system which they hated.

By this time the local baals had been largely absorbed, their agricultural functions had been taken over into a syncretic blend, and Elijah raised no protest against the worship of Yahweh at the high places, such as Carmel. The conflict which he led broke out over a foreign baal, supported by royal authority and symbolizing the entire system of alien customs, selfish luxury, and iniquitous commercialism that threatened not alone Yahweh’s worship but Yahweh’s social justice.

The importance of the economic factor in this protest is apparent in Elijah’s sponsorship of Naboth against Ahab. (I Kings, chap. 21.) The motive power of Elijah lay in the indissoluble blend of his religion with social justice. He stood in vehement opposition to the modern customs, which presumably included the luxurious court, the collapse of old simplicities, the conscription of farmers and shepherds into military service, mounting taxation, the decay of old nomadic ideals of brotherhood. ‘Yahweh against baal’ was identical in his mind not so much with a theological discussion as with a social revolt. Yahweh stood for justice and brotherhood, against luxury for the few and want for the many, and especially against the iniquitous accretion of oppressive power by which a family heritage like Naboth’s could be seized by the king even at the cost of murder. Here we run upon the most significant of all factors in the development of Israel’s idea of God, and the ultimate outcome, long afterward, was not simply monotheism but ethical monotheism.

That this prophetic idea of Yahweh’s character and of his demand for personal and social righteousness was a development and was not to be found in full flower in the original Sinaitic deity as the later legends pictured him, is clear. Yahweh, the mountain storm god, was not ethical in any such sense as was Yahweh, ‘Lord’ of the prophets. To be sure, a deeply ethical element existed in the religion of Yahweh from the start, for it was based on the mutually exchanged vows of a voluntary covenant. Yahweh, at first, was, like Chemosh, a mountain god, but a significant fact distinguished them. Chemosh was a natural god to Moab -- the lord and owner of Moabite territory and therefore the inevitable god of any folk who lived there. Yahweh, however, by free selection had of his own grace chosen a people who were strangers to him and they in turn had chosen a god whom hitherto they had not known. It was a religion by marriage rather than by birth, by grace rather than by geography, and, in so far, it was from the beginning moral, involving duties voluntarily assumed.

To this basic covenantal relationship the prophets constantly appealed; into its mutual obligations they poured ever new meanings; and at the center of its tradition they had the solid virtues of nomadic life where human ties are close, interdependent and cooperative, where men exist as brothers on a fairly equalitarian level and with a strong democratic sense of personal right. Elijah, therefore, is notably important as a creative influence in the developing idea both of Yahweh’s sole supremacy over Israel and of his profoundly ethical character.


In theology Elijah represented monolatry -- believing other gods to be existent but recognizing Yahweh as the one and only god for Israel. Monolatry, however, to a vigorous and growing faith is monotheism in the bud, and the gradual flowering out of Israel’s idea of God was evident in the eighth-century prophets. Still to Hosea and Amos, Canaan was especially Yahweh’s land and other lands were ‘’unclean.’’ (Amos 7:17; Hosea 9:3.) Within Canaan Yahweh was to be worshiped at the high places; not until generations later was prophetic protest made against this custom and an idea of God developed that required one central and exclusive shrine. Still the ceremonial and ethical conflict was on between Yahweh and the baals -- a certain irreducible hostility along with an inevitable syncretism. So Hosea insisted on crediting to Yahweh the agricultural functions which once belonged to the baals, while at the same time he protested against the licentious worship that the baals had sponsored. (Hosea 2:8-9; 4:12-14.) Out from this old background, however, the first writing prophets can be seen moving, by a road familiar in the history of religion, toward monotheism.

The theistic question was asked then in a way far different from ours: it did not concern primarily the origin and maintenance of the universe. The Hebrews had scientific curiosity and, as the first chapter of Genesis reveals, ascribed to their God the creation of the world. Even Amos called Yahweh "him that maketh the Pleiades and Orion." (Amos 5:8.) In the earlier prophets, however, this emphasis was rare. The vivid and imperious question then was: Among the gods of the nations, which god is most real and powerful? Sennacherib’s message to the besieged people of Jerusalem touched their theology where it really was when he said: "Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, Yahweh will deliver us. Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim? and have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who are they among all the gods of these countries, that have delivered their country out of my hand, that Yahweh should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?" (Isaiah 36:18-20.) In answering this question about relative power among the deities, the early writing prophets moved out into practical monotheism, for they ascribed to Yahweh the successes and disasters even of their foes, and thought of him as in commanding control of all mankind.

So Isaiah’s Yahweh addressed the world’s most powerful king: "Ho Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, the staff in whose hand is mine indignation!’, (Isaiah 10:5.) and, according to Amos, Yahweh directed the migrations not only of Israel from Egypt, but of the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir. (Amos 9:7.) A god whose sovereignty thus includes all men and nations is a god whose rivals will soon cease to seem real.

Moreover, in the prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries, along with this emergence of practical monotheism went an even more astonishing development of moral ideas. Here we are faced with a contribution to human thought easier to admire than to explain. With all available theological and sociological factor in our hands, we still are thrown back in wonder upon the "abysmal depths of personality" in the great prophets. The lowest point in conceiving the moral character of Yahweh is probably to be found in a strange encysted bit of folklore in the Book of Exodus. There Yahweh is pictured as bloodthirstily wanting to kill Moses at a wayside lodging place, for no apparent reason at all, and is dissuaded by Zipporahts swift circumcision of Moses’ child, at the sight of which the god "let him alone.’’ (Exodus 4:24-26.) The difference between this primitive folklore and the moral dignity and quality of God in the greatest of the pre-Exilic prophets, from Hosea to Jeremiah, represents one of the most significant revelations in human history.

To be sure, the prophets lost their battle; they did not succeed m preserving the social Justice of the early nomadic brotherhood. As tyrannical kingship had taken the place of paternal chieftainship and a stratified society based on slave labor had crowded out earlier equality, so the social organization of Israel continued to take form from the patterns of the day. The very sophistications and inequities against which the partisans of Yahweh had vehemently contended became acclimated in Israel. "They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away: and they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage "(Micah 2:2.) so to the end of the story the prophets fought a losing battle.

Nevertheless they won a war. They successfully prevented the identification of Yahweh with the social and economic inequities of his people. Far from allowing the Hebrew god to become mere sponsor of the Hebrew status quo they associated him with an ethical standard which judged and condemned it. That they were able to do this because the nomadic traditions of their race had come into violent conflict with a more sophisticated civilization, so that, in the name of conservatism, they could appeal to old folk-ways against the new commercialism, does not detract from their credit. They never succeeded in making the old folk-ways regnant in the new civilization but they did succeed, as no other religious teachers of antiquity ever succeeded, in elevating their god above both the nationalistic policies and the economic customs of their people. Yahweh, in their thought, became not merely a nationalistic deity or a divine patron of an existent order, but a moral judge who would throw into the discard even his chosen people if they violated his ethical standards.

In this lies one of the main elements of uniqueness in the Old Testament’s developing idea of God. The temptation of all believers in any kind of god is to use him as the sanctifier of the status quo. Tribal and nationalistic deities in particular have commonly been associated with the dominant customs and the ruling class, have been regarded as committed to the support of national policies, have become often gods of the powerful rather than of the weak, of the rich rather than of the impoverished, of the existent system rather than of social reformation. Thus was Yahweh conceived in Israel by many a king and priest, by many a member of the land-owning, slave-owning, creditor class, and doubtless also by wide areas of popular opinion. He was thought of as unqualifiedly committed to Israel’s support, no matter what Israel might do, and as sanctioning the social system customary at the time. The prophets, however, won a victory of permanent consequence over that idea. Yahweh, as the Old Testament in the end presents him, is supernationalistic, the judge of nations, unqualifiedly committed to social righteousness and to those who practise it. He is for the weak against the oppressive strong, for the poor against the selfish rich. He is thus a standard of social change, not a sanctifier of existent circumstance. He is a disturbing moral judge of men and nations, not a comfortable divine sponsor of their customs. And he is of this quality because he comes to us not by way of king and priest, but through insurgent prophets identifying him with an unattained social ideal.

One of the noblest figures in this great succession was Hosea. He, too, like Amos before him, pronounced an austere judgment of doom on his apostate people, (Hosea 4:1ff.) but, in a way none before him had ever achieved, he went beyond the idea of God as judge to the idea of God as savior. Himself the victim of domestic tragedy, he loved his wife even in her faithlessness. His rage and shame at his wife’s betrayal of him, his grief and anguish, and his unconquerable love for her despite her sin, seemed to him an experience like that of God himself, dealing with faithless Israel. In undiscourageable compassion he loved his false wife, "even as Yahweh loveth the children of Israel, though they turn unto other gods." (Hosea 3:1.) Far from identifying God, therefore, with the dominant customs of contemporary Israel or stopping with the divine condemnation of them, Hosea saw God with passionate earnestness refusing to give up his people and determined to save them from their evil:

How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?
how shall I cast thee off, Israel?
How shall I make thee as Admah?
how shall I set thee as Zeboim?
My heart is turned within Me,
My compassions are kindled together.
I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger,
I will not return to destroy Ephraim:
For I am God, and not man,
the Holy One in thy midst, and not mortal. (Hosea 11: 8-9 as translated by Julius A. Bewer: The Literature of the Old Testament in its Historical Development, p. 96.)

Of such insurgent prophecy up to the Exile Jeremiah was the consummation. In him practical monotheism, supernationalistic and thoroughly ethical, was achieved. In his eyes nothing happened anywhere without Yahweh. He is even credited with writing: "Am I a God at hand, saith Yahweh, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places so that I shall not see him? saith Yahweh. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith Yahweh." (Jeremiah 23:23-24.) The prophetic movement, as expressed in Deuteronomy, lifted the idea of Israel’s god to such a point of solitary uniqueness that it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish the conception from theoretical monotheism. "Yahweh he is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath: there is none else" (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39.) -- this phrasing in Deuteronomy may mean simply that Yahweh is incomparable, but the difference between that and his sole existence is manifestly growing diaphanous. As for Jeremiah, he plainly universalized and spiritualized Yahweh and so identified him with righteousness that, in the prophet’s eyes, to be unrighteous was in itself to "serve other gods." (Jeremiah 11:10; 16:11-13; 25:6.)


Nevertheless, a long and tragic road lay ahead of the Hebrews before ethical monotheism became the common property of their people. The very difficulties confronting the prophetic party in teaching monotheism reveal the background of thought and imagination whose history we have been tracing. For example, they could not persuade their people that Yahweh was one God while he was being worshiped at many local shrines. Granted that Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah conceived Yahweh as managing the movements of world empires, still the ordinary Hebrew was far from having one god. Deity was dispersed in many sanctuaries -- the Yahweh of this place and the Yahweh of that. If one starts with clear belief in the divine unity and omnipresence, one may safely worship in many places, as we do, without losing the sense of God’s oneness; but when the presuppositions of thought and imagination are polytheistic, as with the early Hebrews, many shrines keep alive and vivid the tradition of many gods.

The prophetic movement represented in Deuteronomy, therefore, wishing to make real to the people the doctrine, "Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one Yahweh,’’ (Deuteronomy 6:4.) adopted as its program the suppression of the local shrines and the establishment of an exclusive, centralized worship in the temple at Jerusalem. This program was brought into practical effect in the Josian reform, (II Kings 23:1-25.) and the theological position which that reform attacked was stated by Jeremiah, whose ministry was then beginning: "According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah." (Jeremiah 2:28.)

This centralization of worship in one exclusive temple, which looked at from our standpoint might seem reactionary, was in fact a necessary step toward unifying the idea of Yahweh. The Hebrews never had one god in the full sense of that term until they had one central place of worship. Here the prophets were surprisingly effective in their approach to a difficult theological problem; they rightly estimated the importance of imagination to religion.

Whereas Elijah, therefore, had been in despair because the local altars of Yahweh were being cast down, the prophetic party some two centuries later were in despair because they were not cast down. So Deuteronomy, proclaiming the doctrine of Yahweh’s unity, proclaimed as an indispensable accompaniment the law of one sanctuary. (Deuteronomy 12:1-18; 16:5-6, etc.)

Despite lapses from the idea and infidelities to its practise, the more or less successful centralizing of Yahweh’s worship in Jerusalem was a forward step. With Yahweh adored in an exclusive temple while his sovereignty extended over all the earth, many in Judah doubtless felt, to a degree not true before, the divine unity. The danger, however, involved in this method of unifying the idea of deity came on apace in the speedy and Complete destruction of the temple by the Babylonians and the exile of the Jews in Mesopotamia. The question raised by that disaster was not only practical but acutely theological: What, now, had become of their god ? With the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 72I B.C., Yahweh’s holy land had been restricted to Judah; with the exclusive unification of Yahweh’s worship in Jerusalem the oneness of their god had been clearly symbolized. Now, however, this trellis on which the imagination of his unity had twined was utterly abolished. The Forty-second Psalm is a first-hand document filled with the poignant anguish not only of practical misery but of religious despair occasioned by the Exile:

As with a sword in my bones, mine adversaries reproach me,
While they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? (Psalm 42:10.)

In history there are few instances of the transmutation of tragedy into gain so impressive as the achievement of the later prophets, using the disaster of Zion’s ruin and the temple’s destruction to spiritualize and universalize the idea of God. To this end Jeremiah already had blazed the trail. This prince of prophets? combining in himself the sensitiveness of a poet, the clear vision of a statesman, and the stuff of which martyrs are made, had foreseen, long before it happened, Zion’s downfall and the people’s exile. He had, therefore, faced in advance the problem of his religion minus land and temple, altar and cultus, and had adjusted himself to that revolutionary situation. He had achieved for himself and vicariously for his people an idea of God and a faith in him so profoundly personal that it could operate wherever persons were, and so spiritual that, when deprived of land, temple, and altar, it could rise to new heights and possess itself of new horizons. When, therefore, in Babylonia the Jews were dismayed by the question, "Where is now thy God?" Jeremiah wrote them a letter, one of the most notable documents in our religious tradition, in which he declared the universal availability of Yahweh, to be sought and found in personal prayer, anywhere, at any time. With city and temple, altar and sacrifice gone, still Jeremiah wrote in the name of Yahweh: "Ye shall call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:12-13.)

The full flower of the monotheistic development in the Old Testament, therefore, came from the Exile and from the influences which that disastrous experience released. Strangely symbolic though Ezekiel’s pictures of deity are, one perceives in them an awed endeavor to express an ineffable vision of the unity, transcendence, spirituality, and universal availability of the one God, and in more intimate and sympathetic moods he represented Yahweh as saying: "Whereas I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them a sanctuary for a little while in the countries where they are come.’’ (Ezekiel 11:16.) It is, however, to the Great Isaiah of the Exile that we must look for the most explicit statements of thoroughgoing monotheism. "Deutero-Isaiah," says H. W. Robinson, "drops the keystone of the monotheistic arch into its place." (H. Wheeler Robinson: The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament, p.60.)

One pictures him in Babylonia, facing a crucial situation in the religion of his people. On the one side was the utter ruin of the old, sustaining sacred places and customs with which their faith in God had been identified, and on the other side was the competition of the brilliant gods of Babylon, who, according to ancient theory, had proved their reality and power by the ascendency of their people. In this situation the prophet’s strategy was not defensive but offensive. He asserted the absolute sovereignty of Yahweh, his sole existence and the nothingness of all other deities, with an explicit, sustained, uncompromising monotheism never hitherto found among the Hebrews. Yahweh, as the Great Isaiah understood him, could say, "Before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me"; (Isaiah 43:10.) "I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God"; (Isaiah 44:6.) "My hand hath laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spread out the heavens: when I call unto them, they stand up together"; (Isaiah 48:13.) and, as for other gods, they are "of nothing" and their "work is of nought." (Isaiah 41:24.) Whether in his positive assertion of the one universal God, as in the fortieth chapter, or in his scorn of all competitors, whom he placed in the category of worthless idols, as in the forty fourth chapter, he "held his monotheism with all his mind," as Sir George Adam Smith said, and treated the gods of the nations

"as things, in whose existence no reasonable person can possibly believe." (The Book of Isaiah, Vol. II, p.40.)

The full significance of this is clear only as we visualize the prophet proclaiming the unity, eternity, and omnipotence, not of the deity of an ascendent and victorious people, but of a humiliated, decimated, and exiled nation, "despised, and rejected of men." Out of the depths of abysmal national ruin rose this full-orbed confidence in the sole existence and absolute power of the nation’s God. It is this fact, among others, which gave to Jewish monotheism a character of its own. Monotheism was not new in the world. The Hebrews were not the first to reach it. By way of the cult of the sun god, for example, Egyptians long antedated Hebrews in ascribing to one deity sovereignty over the whole world. Even the Egyptian sun god at first was territorial; the sun hymn of the Pyramid Texts represents him as standing guard on Egypt’s frontiers; but in the sixteenth century B.C. Thutmose III conquered the known world and became "the first character of universal aspects in human history." The theological consequence was immense, for the sun god also became universal. Said Thutmose, "He seeth the whole earth hourly." In a word, as Dr. James H. Breasted puts it, "Monotheism was but imperialism in religion" (See James H. Breasted: The Dawn of Conscience, chap. 15.) -- a fact reflected two centuries after Thutmose in an ascription to the sun, "Sole lord, taking captive all lands every day." This Egyptian monotheism long antedated the monotheism of the Hebrew prophets, and it is incredible that with Palestine often under Egyptian suzerainty it should not have affected the theological thinking of the Hebrews. (Ibid., chap. 17.) The quality of the Hebrew result, however, was very different from the Egyptian, and the reason, in part, lies in the fact that the full-orbed monotheism of the Hebrews was not "imperialism in religion" but the very reverse; it was the upthrust of a heartbroken and defeated people, defying plausibilities and, in the face of the seemingly triumphant idols of imperialistic Babylon, claiming sole existence, absolute sovereignty, and righteous character for their God. Monotheism as religious imperialism is a familiar and easily understandable phenomenon, but, so far as I know, the monotheism of the Old Testament, the defiant faith of a humiliated and crushed people in the sole reality and sovereign omnipotence of their God, is alike in its quality and consequence unique.

Such monotheism, astonishing though it is, sprang logically from the insurgent stand of the pre-Exilic prophets. They had identified their God with righteousness. Righteousness, however in its principles and demands, is not local but universal. It is no respecter of persons or nations. It lays its obligations impartially on all alike. By way of the universality of righteousness, therefore, the prophets had come to the universality of God, until against all competitors they believed in the sole existence of the one Deity, who stood for justice and would protect no nation that violated justice. When, therefore, the tragedy of the Exile came, insurgent prophecy faced not its refutation but its vindication. The prophetic school, at its best, went on proclaiming the supreme devotion of Yahweh to righteousness, above even his devotion to his chosen people. In the eyes of this prophetic school, the Exile was not an evidence of Yahweh’s defeat but an expression of his just indignation against Israel’s sin. As Dr. George Foot Moore puts it: "It was not the Babylonians in the might of their gods who had triumphed over Judah and its impotent god; it was Jehovah himself who had launched Nebuchadnezzar and his hosts against the doomed city to execute his judgment on religious treason.’’ (Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. I, p. 222.) So the Exile produced new dimensions in the Hebrew conception of God.


Among the Hebrews the achievement of faith in one God was thus supremely a moral victory. The alternative to it was not theoretical atheism but belief in the reality and power of the gods of victorious Babylon. The dominant motive which led to it was neither curiosity about the creation of the world nor philosophic interest, as in Greece, about the divine immateriality and interior unity, but faith that the social justice for which Yahweh stood would conquer. The chief obstacle to it was not doubt springing from "science" but doubt springing from the inveterate association of nationalistic hatreds with tribal gods. The major result of it was not so much a unifying philosophy of the physical cosmos as a new, revolutionary, international outlook on human life.

This is most clearly revealed in the great passages on the Servant of Yahweh now incorporated in the Book of Isaiah. (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13; 53:12.) Whoever wrote these passages won an amazing victory, not simply for the idea of one God against many, although absolute monotheism is unmistakably proclaimed; nor simply for the idea that the one God is Israel’s Yahweh, although under the circumstances of the Exile that is astonishing; but, even more, for the idea that this one God cares for all mankind and mercifully purposes the salvation of the whole world. This is monotheism taken morally in earnest, and it is the glory of the Old Testament at its best. Of the Servant of Yahweh it is written, "He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles" (Isaiah 42:1.) and "He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law"; (Isaiah 42:4.) and Yahweh himself says, "It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6.) This is universalism in the thought of God allied with universalism in the thought of man. It is a new outreach of mind achieved only by an extraordinary expansion of moral vision and sympathy.

It would be too much to expect, however, that so great an adventure of mind and conscience as was involved in such an outlook would be shared by the nation as a whole. The practical exigencies which faced the Jews, first in Babylon and then during the wretched years when the restored community in Jerusalem struggled precariously for its existence, militated against any such lofty universalism. Looking at events in retrospect, we can see that the temple’s destruction and the Exile were, humanly speaking, necessary for the spiritualizing and universalizing of Israel’s faith in God. So Sir George Adam Smith says:

It was well that this temple should enjoy its singular rights for only thirty years and then be destroyed. For a monotheism, however lofty, which depended upon the existence of any shrine . . . was not a purely spiritual faith. . . . The city and temple, therefore, went up in flames that Israel might learn that God is a Spirit, and dwelleth not in a house made with hands. (The Book of Isaiah [revised ed., 1927] Vol.II, pp. 44,45.)

The exiled Hebrews, however, desired nothing quite so much as the rebuilding of that destroyed city and temple; their persistent ambition centered in the restoration of the very shrine whose ruin had done so much to refine and elevate their faith.

Ezekiel’s ideal, as from the Exile he dreamed the future, was a church state on Zion, centered in the temple, governed by the priests of Yahweh, and distinguished by carefully defined ceremonial peculiarities. The same Exile, which released Israel’s faith from old dependences and helped to universalize it, also forced upon the Jews, in self-defense, the stressing of particularisms that would prevent their assimilation into Babylon’s life. It was in the Exile that the "Holiness Code" of Leviticus (Leviticus, chaps. 17-26.) was written, emphasizing purity from the contamination of surrounding paganism. It was in the Exile that the story of creation was brought to its climax in the admonition to keep the Sabbath, made sacred from the world’s foundation. (Genesis 2:1-3.) It was in the Exile that the laws were rewritten and codified stressing Jewish differentials. The returning Jews, therefore, came back to Zion in no spirit of universalism. They had been compelled to magnify their particularisms if Babylon was not to absorb them, and they had done this with such notable success that then, as now, they maintained their unconquerable distinctness. Moreover, the new community on Zion was able to maintain itself only by vehement exclusiveness, so that in the end the survival of Israel would hardly have been possible without fierce nationalism, uncompromising racial prejudice, and bigoted devotion to religious peculiarities. If before the Exile the temple was holy, it was thrice holy and exclusive afterward, and all the national, racial, and religious differences that law and ritual could create and enforce were, more than ever before in Hebrew history, meticulously respected.

At the Old Testament’s end, therefore, we face contradictions, everywhere to be found in living religions, between the great insights of the prophets and the common faith and practise of the people. Even the Isaiah of the Exile, despite his vision of a worldwide salvation, was a vehement nationalist when he thought of that salvation’s medium; even he had proclaimed to his people that the world’s kings and queens should "bow down to thee with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of thy feet." (Isaiah 49:23.) Post-Exilic Judaism, therefore, far from being unanimous, presents in its theology a profound variance -- monotheism, taken morally in earnest, mingled with old ideas involved in tribal deities, racial prejudices, religious bigotries, and national hatreds.

In the Old Testament this variance is clearly reflected. On the one side is the Book of Esther, revealing "the fiery heart of Jewish nationalism in the third century B.c.," and on the other the Books of Ruth and Jonah with their appeals against racial prejudice and international hostility. On the one side is a god before whom men cry:

O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed,
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
As thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
Against the rock, (Psalm 137:8-9.)

and on the other side is God, saying, "In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; for that Yahweh of hosts hath blessed them, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance." (Isaiah 19:24-25.) On the one side is Yahweh the lawgiver, requiring indiscriminately both moral conduct and ritual correctness, and accepting sacrifice only at one temple, and on the other side is the Yahweh to whom a psalmist sings,

Thou delightest not in sacrifice; else would I give it:
Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering. (Psalm 51:16.)

In a word, history had brought Judaism face to face with an unavoidable antinomy -- a God at once national and universal, deity of a special people and yet God of the universe, lord of a particular temple and yet everywhere accessible to prayer, pledged to the ultimate victory of his purged and redeemed people and yet the savior of all mankind. This antinomy the Old Testament never satisfactorily resolved, save in the "poems of the Servant of Yahweh," and that solution was not accepted. Rather, Zechariah’s attitude is typical. "Yahweh shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall Yahweh be one, and his name one" (Zechariah 14:9.) such is the universal outlook of his monotheism. But all this will come about with Jerusalem for its center, and with no prerogative of Judaism surrendered, when

"many nations shall join themselves to Yahweh." (Zechariah 2:10-13.) Indeed, "whoso of all the families of the earth goeth not up unto Jerusalem to worship the King, Yahweh of hosts, upon them shall there be no rain." (Zechariah 14:17.) A just appraisal of the Old Testament, however, must put its emphasis on the great insights of the prophets. The future belonged and still belongs to them. The lesser ideas were the old, inherited jungle of primitive religion; the great prophets were the road-builders laying down a highway through the jungle and out of it. From a local, tribal god they found their way through to the sovereign Creator of the universe, in whose hands were the reins of all history, and from whose control no star and no nation could escape. From being a hard hater, their God became, in their imagination and belief, a merciful lover of his people, the depth of whose sacrificial compassions it strained their language to fathom: "In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.’’ (Isaiah 63:9; cf. Hosea 11:8-9.) A mountain god of war and storm they left behind, to believe at last in a universal Spirit, everywhere available to the seeking soul, the one God of all mankind, who asks for his service only justice, mercy, and humility, and from whose presence there is no escape:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10.)


It is not easy for a Christian to be objective and just in describing the difference between the ideas of God in the Old Testament and those in the New. The Christian reader feels a contrast but to locate its source and describe its nature is so difficult that many popular attempts have been and are demonstrably unfair. Yet injustice to the Old Testament at this point is also ingratitude. The great prophetic tradition had gone so far in the apprehension of God before Christianity began that the first prerequisite for a true estimate of the New Testament is grateful appreciation of the Old.

The fact, for example, that the idea of God in the Old Testament never entirely escaped the bondage of nationalism can easily be overstressed and misunderstood. God was always so exclusively Israel’s deity, it has been said, that while Israel was to be his missionary and martyr nation to save the world, still Israel was always the chosen people not only in point of service but in point of privilege and prestige. The universalism of the Old Testament, it is claimed, did not go beyond the prayer of a nation, regarding itself as the divine favorite:

God be merciful unto us, and bless us,
And cause his face to shine upon us;
That thy way may be known upon earth,
Thy salvation among all nations. (Psalm 67:1-2.)

Not only is this true but from the standpoint of history it was unavoidable, and so far as comparison with the New Testament is concerned it is, at its best, similar to the attitude of Christians with reference to the church. Israel did regard herself as the peculiar trustee of a unique faith and conceived the protection of that faith from contamination and the propagation of it to the world as her duty, and so, thinking of her religion as a greenhouse in which to grow priceless things for later transplanting to the larger field of the world, she endured indescribable suffering on behalf of her heritage. That this attitude often involved constricting prejudices and bigotries is clear, but in its highest forms it is comparable with the loyalty of New Testament Christians, at their best, to the church as the object of God’s special care and the chosen agency for the world’s redemption.

It has also been commonly said that God, in the Old Testament, is primarily interested in the nation as a whole and not in persons one by one, so that he is a racial and national deity and not the God of personal religion. So far as the earlier portions of the Old Testament are concerned, this is true, but the much more considerable truth is that, starting with tribal religion, as all early peoples did, the Jews through their prophetic souls made one of the greatest contributions ever made in the spiritual history of man, by blazing the trail out from religion as merely a national cult to religion as also a profound, inward, personal experience. In great appeals such as the one beginning, "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters," (Isaiah 55:1.) or in revealing statements of the divine abode as being "with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit," (Isaiah 57:15.) there is no mistaking the personal nature of the experience intended. As for Jeremiah, this is his unique distinction, making him, as Wellhausen said,

"the father of true prayer," (J. Wellhausen: Israelitische und Jüdische Geschichte [3rd ed.], p. 144.) and elevating him to be the supreme exemplar of personal faith before the coming of Jesus. When he pictures God as saying, "I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it,’’ (Jeremiah 31:33.) he is obviously thinking of transformed individuals as the basis of a transformed nation.

Even more commonly it has been said that God in the Old Testament is a king while in the New Testament he is a father, or, in other language, that justice is his attribute in the one and love in the other. This, however, is to fly in the face of the evidence and to set up a false antithesis. Montefiore says truly: "‘Our Father and King’ remains for all Jews a most familiar invocation of God." (C. G. Montefiore: Some Elements of the Religious Teaching of Jesus According to the Synoptic Gospels, p. 91.) To be sure, in the Old Testament the divine fatherhood is almost always used with reference to the nation rather than to the individual, (Deuteronomy 32:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Hosea 11:1-3; Jeremiah 3:4, 19.) but this is not exclusively so.

A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows,
Is God in his holy habitation (Psalm 68:5.)

is personal.

Like as a father pitieth his children,
So Yahweh pitieth them that fear him (Psalm 103:13.)

is personal. As for Jewish thought between the Testaments, this intimate, individual, fatherly love of God is so clear and so beautifully expressed that the idea involved is indistinguishable from similar passages in the New Testament. So in Ecclesiasticus stands the prayer’ "O Lord, Father and Master of my life…" (Ecclesiasticus 23:1.) and the Book of Jubilees, written in Palestine in the second century B.c., says: "Their souls will cleave to Me and to all My commandments, and they will fulfil My commandments, and I shall be their Father and they will be My children. And they will all be called children of the living God, and every angel and every spirit will know, yea, they will know that these are My children, and that I am their Father in uprightness and righteousness, and that I love them." (The Book of Jubilees, or The Little Genesis, 1:24-25, translated by R.H. Charles, p. 7.)


Nevertheless, when one passes from the Old Testament into the New, one does move into the presence of fresh ideas about God and experiences with him. A major factor in producing this change in spiritual climate and scenery was the expulsion of the Christian movement from the synagogue. Just as Wesleyanism started as a phase of Anglicanism and remained so until it was coerced into separatism by the Church of England itself, so the first Christians were simply Jews who had found the Messiah and who intended remaining as the true Judaism within the larger matrix of the national faith. When they were driven out from synagogue and temple, they faced a disruption in their religious thought and practise comparable with the shock of the Exile to the Jews over six centuries before. That is, they lost the old trellis on which their faith had twined. The temple was no longer theirs; they were denied the sacrifices; they were outlawed from both cult and legal system; they were expelled from the synagogue and regarded as aliens by the Jewish community. The theological effect of all this was immense. What had happened partially when the physical temple had been destroyed and the nation exiled in Babylon now happened thoroughly. Yahweh lost his coercive entanglements with national loyalty and racial cult, and in a new liberation, unimaginable had not the expulsion of Christianity from Judaism taken place, he became a universal God, with no local temple or chosen people to limit him, and with worshipers of all tongues and nations on equal terms -- neither Jew nor Greek, neither Scythian, barbarian, bond nor free, but one man in Christ.

The New Testament as a whole comes to us out of this completed separation of church from synagogue, with Christianity rapidly becoming more Gentile than Jewish. Paul had done his work and the church was an inter-racial, international brotherhood. The God of the New Testament, therefore, is universal, not only in the sense of being cosmic, but in the deeper and more difficult sense of being God of all mankind alike and "no respecter of persons.’’ (Acts 10:34.)

The direct effect of this in freeing monotheism from the Old Testament’s constricting particularisms was great, but perhaps even more important was its indirect effect: it opened the idea of God in Christian minds to the influence of all the theologies of the Greco-Roman world. Long before Christ, the Jews in Alexandria had felt the nobility of Plato’s theistic philosophy and had labored to blend their religious traditions with the best thought of Greece. To men like Philo, a contemporary of Jesus Platonic philosophy was at one with Old Testament doctrine, and this difficult syncretism was achieved by so allegorizing even the "Books of Moses" as to find Platonic ideas there. Such acceptance of Hellenistic thought, however, while typical of Alexandrian Judaism, had little, if any, influence in Palestine and, although mildly evident in the Apocrypha, it did not affect the Hebrew Old Testament. Only after the Old Testament canon was complete and in 70 A.D. the temple was destroyed by the Romans, was Jewish thought, as a whole, finally cast out of its local matrix, and even then the legal system, with its particularistic minutiæ, was the more insisted on because the sacrificial cult was gone.

The thought of the New Testament, however, had no such protection against the influential philosophies of the Greco-Roman world. To be sure, the Old Testament was at first the only Christian Bible, and Christian doctrine was validated by appeal to the sacred Book. Alexandrian Judaism, however, long since had shown that the Old Testament could be interpreted by allegory so as to abstract from it any philosophy one pleased. In the Christian thinking of the first century, therefore, the liberation of church from synagogue inaugurated a new era; the apologetic necessity of being persuasive to Gentiles overbore the tendency to be content with Hebraisms; and even in the New Testament, predominantly Jewish though it is in its backgrounds, one sees the beginning of that larger mental hospitality which led at last to the overwhelming influence of Greek thought on Christian theology.

In the opening verses of the Fourth Gospel, for example, we are in the presence of the Logos -- the outgoing of eternal God in the creation of his world and the salvation of his people. Stoics and Neo-Platonists alike had their doctrine of the Logos -- the creative effluence of the transcendent God, forever going forth into his world and, above all, lighting "every man.’’ (John 1:19.)The essential doctrine of the first few verses of the Fourth Gospel would not have been unfamiliar to educated people in Ephesus; only at the identification of the Logos with Jesus would difficulty have arisen.

When it is said, therefore, as it commonly is said, that the New Testament simply takes over the Old Testament’s theocratic idea of God, wide areas of fact are forgotten. The God of the New Testament is the eternal Spirit, God of no special nation and of no chosen race, accessible everywhere to every soul without requirement of special ritual or legalistic act, who, being spirit, can be worshiped only in spirit, who, being love, dwells wherever love dwells, and who supremely has shined in the face of Jesus Christ.


In achieving this result, while the separation of church and synagogue furnished the necessary setting, the personality of Jesus was the major creative force. It was he who mainly made the difference between the ideas of God in the two Testaments. Strangely enough, he did this without saying anything new about God or even trying to. He used no new words concerning deity. He was in the lineal succession of the great prophets -- Hosea, Jeremiah, the Isaiah of the Exile. What they had tried to do in their times and fashions he tried to do in his -- take monotheism morally in earnest. Where they stopped he began, taking over from them the most expanded and ethically cogent ideas of God to which they had attained and so identifying himself with the great tradition of his people. As with the prophets, so with him, the major motive in all thinking about God was not cosmic curiosity but moral seriousness.

The common statement, therefore, that Jesus took over unchanged the Jewish idea of God needs at least an initial qualification. Which Jewish idea of God did he take over? His ministry was a concentrate protest against ideas and practises that had sprung from the lower levels of Hebrew tradition. His God was the God of the supreme prophetic passages -- spiritual and universal, caring for all mankind across all boundaries of race and nation, near at hand to the humble and the contrite, a God of grace and forgiveness as well as of justice and retribution, redemptively merciful to sinners, demanding not ritualistic conformity but moral genuineness within and brotherly conduct without. Here, as everywhere in dealing with his people’s heritage, Jesus practised selective attention. He picked the diamonds from the slag. Far from being negligible, such selective attention has often been one of the most creative processes in human thinking. It can so alter the entire composition of a religion or a philosophy, can so reorient and redistribute man’s thinking, as to achieve, without the contribution of a single brand-new element, a startlingly new result.

To say, therefore, that Jesus took the Jewish idea of God at its best but had no new idea of his own presents a false antithesis. The truth is that by taking the Jewish idea of God at its best and by treating this idea with thoroughgoing moral seriousness, sloughing off hostile adhesions and limitations, Jesus achieved a consequence so new as to be revolutionary.

In this achievement two factors are prominent. The first is Jesus’ insight into the moral meanings of monotheism. His struggle was not to sustain faith in one God against either polytheism or atheism, but to persuade people who already believed in God to think and live as though they did. It was because of his morally majestic idea of God that the trivial legalisms of the Pharisees seemed intolerable. It was because he took the universal sovereignty of God in moral earnest that racial exclusiveness directed, for example, against Samaritans, seemed to him inde- fensible. He even conceived God as judging men only by tests of philanthropy, (Matthew 25:34-36.) and thus universalized God’s requirements so that, regardless of race or nation, they could be met by a good life anywhere. The full extent of the revolution involved in this ethical monotheism of Jesus was not at first evident even to his most ardent disciples. On the basis of certain passages, notably the one concerning the Syrophœnician woman, (Mark 7:24-30. See, e.g., Charles Guignebert:Jesus, translated by S.H. Hooker, p. 317.) some have judged that it may not have been fully evident to Jesus himself. His enemies, however, sensed in his emphasis the potential ruin of their racial and religious particularisms. They were right about that. The New Testament’s later development of an international and inter-racial faith was the logical conclusion of Jesus’ way of thinking about God, and so notable was this contribution that he has been credited with being the first one in history to take monotheism with thoroughgoing moral earnestness.

The second factor prominent in this achievement was the intense reality of God in the personal experience of Jesus. Words about God are, after all, only verbal counters, and in themselves alone are inadequate as tests of the religious experience they are used to reveal. Two persons calling God Father may express by that name widely divergent meanings. It is beside the point, therefore, simply to catalogue the words of Jesus about God or to count the times he used a special name. To be sure, he did not discover de novo the fatherhood of God. Only in Matthew’s Gospel is the word Father, as applied to God, his distinctive and constant usage, and he is never represented as speaking of ‘love’ as a divine attribute. This verbal test, however, does not reach bottom. The effect which Jesus produced upon his disciples reveals a personality to whom God was overpoweringly real in spiritual experience. Austere as well as paternal, authoritative and kingly as well as merciful and gracious, terrific in judgment against selfishness, cruelty, and sham as well as forgiving to outcasts and prodigals, Jesus’ God was revealed not so much in the words he used about him as in the life he lived with him. This life was of such a quality that those who knew Jesus best sought from him the secrets of prayer, (Luke 11:1.) and those who came after him called God by a new name, "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Colossians 1:3.)

So Dr. Buckham states the case:

It is not the priority of Jesus’ teaching of Fatherhood that makes it so significant, but its intense realism. Priority counts for little in such a matter as this, compared to a living and confident realization and the power to convey this realization to others. It was in this that Jesus was creatively original. Upon his lips Abba meant more than any name for God ever meant before. So purely and ardently did it issue from the depths of his own experience as to communicate itself to his disciples and through them to others in such vivid reality as to make a new and transforming epoch in the life of the human spirit. This is originality. By this token Divine Fatherhood may be rightly regarded as a discovery, and Jesus as the discoverer. (John Wright Buckham: The Humanity of God; An Interpretation of the Divine Fatherhood, p. 45.)


It is difficult to be accurately certain of Jesus’ private ideas, as distinguished from the impressions of them reported by his disciples, just as it is difficult to be accurately certain of Socrates’ own thoughts, disentangled from their rendition by Plato and Xenophon. Despite many questions in detail, however, such contributions as we have ascribed to him -- selective attention in dealing with his religious heritage, profound insight into the moral meanings of monotheism, and contagious reality in his experience of God as a towering and penetrating fact -- seem assured. The newness of the Christian idea of God, however, went deeper still.

On this point the early Christians have a peculiar right to be heard. In the first instance they themselves were Jews, devoutly familiar with the Old Testament’s ideas of God. So reverently did they regard their ancestral faith that, the Jewish Scripture being at first their only Bible, their new experiences and hopes were seen as the fulfilment of its prophecies. "Whatsoever things were written aforetime," said Paul, "were written for our learning." (Romans 15:4.) Nevertheless, the newness of their faith, as followers of Christ, seemed to them unmistakable. They recorded the first impression of Jesus’ preaching in terms of astonished exclamation -- "What is this? a new teaching!" (Mark 1:27.) From recollections of Jesus’ own words describing his gospel as new wine, not to be put into old bottles, and new cloth, not to be sewed as a patch on old garments, (Matthew 9:16-17.) the conviction runs through the New Testament that, in the faith which it records, a fresh, original creative invasion of the world by the living God had taken place. The gospel is a new covenant; (I Corinthians 11:25; II Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:13; 9:15; 12:24.)one who accepts it becomes a new man; (Ephesians 2:15; 4:24; Colossians 3:10.) the Christian’s access to God is a new and living way, (Hebrews 10:20.) related to the old order as reality is to dim foreshadowing; newness of life (Romans 6:4.) comes to those who are united with Christ, and, indeed, "if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new." (II Corinthians 5:17.)

It stands to reason that this consciousness of creative originality in their faith could not have belonged to the early Christians apart from a fresh conception of God and experience of him. Nor does the New Testament leave in doubt the nature of this innovation in the Christian thought of deity -- "It is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (II Corinthians 4:6.) That is to say, the God of the early Christians was not so much the deity Jesus taught as the deity they believed him to be. He came from the divine realm, belonged to it, in his own person revealed it, and so brought to man a fresh and saving manifestation of God’s nature and purpose. Paul preached "the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’’; (II Corinthians 4:4.) John presented the Christ who could say, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." (John 14:9.)

To be sure, this association of Jesus with the divine realm exists in the New Testament in various gradations and is set not in one pattern of thought, but in diverse categories familiar in the ancient world. Nowhere in dealing with the faith of New Testament believers is the modernizing of early Christian thought more false and dangerous. They were thinking of Jesus not in our categories but in theirs. In the belief of the first Jewish Christians, Jesus was the Messiah -- that is, the Christ -- divinely anointed for his supreme and saving mission. This Jewish category of Messiahship was not primarily metaphysical; it did not so much concern the essential nature of the divine missioner as his vocation; it could be applied on different levels -- to one conceived as a "son of David" specially anointed to fulfil the divine purpose, or to one conceived as a preexistent being, come at last to earth to achieve God’s will. By means of this category, Jesus, at the first, was associated with the divine realm.

When, however, the gospel was carried from the Jewish to the Gentile world, the idea of Messiahship lost its cogency. The Gentiles did not traditionally know its meaning. ‘Christ,’ as a descriptive title, containing in itself a confession of faith in the divine mission of Jesus, was not easily intelligible to Greek and Roman Christians. So it came to be no longer a title and a creed combined, but only a proper name, and ‘Jesus, the Christ’ became ‘Jesus Christ.’ In Paul’s Epistles especially, another name for Jesus tends to supplant ‘Messiah.’ He is ‘the Lord.’ This title, too, associated him with the divine realm but it came from other backgrounds and suggested other connotations than ‘Christ.’ ‘Lord’ was habitually used in the Greek sacramental cults as the title of the god, the cult’s supernatural head, with whom the devotees were joined through their initiatory rites. Writes Professor Lake:

A ‘Lord’ had a supernatural nature, which may or may not be described as divinity in proportion as Greek or Jewish forms of thought are being observed. To the Jew ‘God’ means the Creator, an omnipotent being beside whom there is no other. To the Greek ‘God’ is a generic title of a whole class of supernatural beings who are neither creators of the world, nor omnipotent, nor omniscient.... In this sense, the lords of the various cults were all gods and it would be natural enough for the Greeks to interpret thus the statement that Jesus was the Lord. (Kirsopp Sake and Silva Lake: An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 238.)

To be sure, when the Jewish name of God, Yahweh, was rendered into Greek, the same word, ‘Lord,’ was used. So a fruitful source of confusion existed in the nomenclature of the early church, and probably there is no solution of the controversial problem as to the precise meaning in Paul’s mind when he called Jesus ‘Lord.’ That he himself felt the problem, as he carried out into the world of Greek cults this presentation of Jesus, seems plainly indicated in his saying, "For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth; as there are gods many, and lords many; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him." (Corinthians 8:5-6.) At any rate, it is clear that in categories of understanding familiar to the non-Jewish mind ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ was preached to the Gentiles as belonging to the superhuman world.

This development reached its climax in the interpretation of Jesus as the Logos, the eternal Word of God. The use of this term in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel is familiar, but the basic idea behind the term is present elsewhere in the New Testament where the term itself is not used. Indeed, the idea had already passed over from Gentile to Jewish thought in works such as the Book of Wisdom, called in our Apocrypha "The Wisdom of Solomon," where Wisdom is presented as the vice-gerent of God -- "She pervadeth and penetrateth all things," "a breath of the power of God," "a clear effluence of the glory of the Almighty," "an effulgence from everlasting light," "an unspotted mirror of the working of God," and "an image of his goodness." (The Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30.) Here was a prevalent medium of thought ready for Christian use in the interpretation of Jesus and by means of it he was identified with the divine realm. He was preached as "the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation," (Colossians 1:15.) as "the effulgence of his [God’s] glory, and the very image of his substance," (Hebrews 1:3.) as the Logos who in the beginning was with God and was God. (John 1:1.)

Unquestionably something new had happened to the idea of God, not only absent from the Old Testament but contrary to some of its strongest predispositions.


In this process by which Jesus was progressively reinterpreted in new patterns of thought, it is customary to see the gradual elevation of a man to the divine realm. In the simplest presentation of Jesus in apostolic preaching, he was called "a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know .... who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.’’ (Acts 2:22; 10:38.) Before the New Testament writers were through interpreting him, however, the most august categories of the ancient world had been employed, and he was the Messiah, the Lord, the Logos. He had been deified. That this led Christian thinking far beyond the original historical facts concerning his life, teaching, and ministry is commonly emphasized. It is more important for our purpose, however, to observe the effect which the deifying of Jesus had, not on the Christian conception of him, but on the Christian conception of God. When Jesus, in the interpretation of his followers, became the divine Lord and Logos, not only was their thought of Jesus elevated but their thought of God was changed. Christ became the dominant factor in it. It was now in his face that they saw the light of the knowledge of God’s glory. As New Testament thinking developed, not only did Christ become more and more identified with the divine world but the divine world became more and more identified with Christ. His character became central in the idea of God and the concept of God was thereby Christianized. So profound were the changes involved in this, that, from the point of view of the New Testament believer, Paul was justified in writing to his converts, whatever their previous religious allegiance might have been, "Now that ye have come to know God, or rather to be known by God." (Galatians 4:9.)

To put the matter simply, in Christian thinking God became Christlike. The divinity of Jesus became not only an assertion about Jesus but about divinity. Still the Most High was the majestic sovereign of the universe, "who created all things," (Ephesians 3:9.) and whose invisible might is revealed "through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity.’’ (Romans 1:20.) Into this inherited framework, however, Jesus was introduced as the essential portrait of the divine nature, the very "image of God." (II Corinthians 4:4.) When the early Christians thought of the divine, therefore, they thought of Jesus, so that while their theological reinterpretations of him, often in contravention of historical accuracy, changed their ideas of his earthly life and ministry, (E.g., on the way John’s Gospel changes the picture of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners from that presented in the Synoptics, see Ernest Cadman Colwell: John Defends the Gospel, chap. 4.) his earthly life and ministry still exercised a profound influence on their theology.

The effects of this were so pervasive that to define them is like describing a change of climate. Nevertheless, some of the fruits of the change can be identified.

The individual extension of God’s care to people one by one was clearly emphasized as it had never been in the Old Testament scriptures. Intimate care for individuals was characteristic of Jesus and if he was the "image of God," such must be the nature of the divine interest.

God’s saving grace and mercy gained new positiveness and new dimensions, becoming more actively seeking and sacrificial than it had ever before been pictured as being. Jesus’ life was love in motion, outgoing determination to save, free grace expended without regard to merit, and on the terms of the New Testament’s thought of Christ, God so loved the world. (Cf., e.g., Pauline passages on the grace of God: Romans 3:23-25; 5:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-7; 2:4-8.)

The special care of God for sinners was made central and emphatic. That the righteous were to be loved and the iniquitous hated by both God and good men was the natural attitude of the early Old Testament, and no development of thought was more difficult of achievement than the extension of merciful, forgiving, saving love to sinners. In Jesus, however, this became one of religion’s specialties, exhibited with tireless patience in his ministry and commended by him as the evidence of godlikeness. (Matthew 5:43-48; cf. Romans 5:8.)

The purpose of God was conceived as represented in and carried out by Christ. Still the "Majesty in the heavens" (Hebrews 8:1.) exercised sovereignty over the course of history, and with prevenient ordination, as well as grace, the potter had "a right over the clay," (Romans 9:20-21.) but this directive control of the Most High was now conceived as "the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Ephesians 3:11.)

The dominant attribute of God, the criterion of judgment with reference to which other aspects of the divine nature were estimated, became the kind of love the New Testament writers found in Christ. The paucity of Pauline references to the earthly ministry of Jesus is commonly emphasized, but when one takes the full measure of them, and adds all the intimations of Paul’s insight into Jesus’ quality and character, one may reasonably decide that the apostle understood his Master very well. He besought his readers "by the meekness and gentleness of Christ"; (II Corinthians 10:1.) he based his admonition concerning the duties of the strong toward the weak on the example of Christ, who "pleased not himself" ; (Romans 15:1-3.) he urged generosity on the Corinthians after the manner of Christ -- "Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich"; (II Corinthians 8:9.) he pleaded for the virtues of humility, harmony, magnanimity, saying, "Treat one another with the same spirit as you experience in Christ Jesus"; (Philippians 2:1-5 [Moffatt translation]) he saw the bearing of one another’s burdens as the fulfilment of the "law of Christ"; (Galatians 6:2.) he urged on his readers forgiveness, "even as the Lord forgave you," (Colossians 3:13.) and considerate love, "even as Christ also loved you." (Ephesians 5:2.) This centrality of love in Paul’s thought of Christ was carried up into Paul’s thought of God, and as Christ’s love "passeth knowledge’, (Ephesians 3:18-19.) so, too, God’s love is to Paul tireless, potent, holding believers in a bond so strong that nothing in the universe can separate them from it. (Romans 8: 38-39.) As for John, who certainly tried to understand his Master’s earthly ministry, the consequence of Christ’s influence is plain: "God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him." (I John 4:16.)

Obviously something new had entered into the idea and experience of God. This creative factor was not so much a concept as a personality. Old frameworks of thought were carried over from Jewish tradition and new ones were added from the Hellenistic world, but for Christians the portrait in all of them was "the face of Jesus Christ."


Even this, however, does not carry our thought far enough. The center of the New Testament’s interest is not so much an idea as a deed. In Christ God had performed a supremely important act for the world, so climactic that prophecy found there its culmination and so determinative that all man’s future was conditioned on it -- such is the Christian Scripture’s dominant conviction. Like the Old Testament, the New does not move in realms of calm, philosophic discourse; all its writings have some practical intention, such as the upbuilding of the church, the defensive presentation of truth, the overthrow of gainsayers, and the winning of converts. Both Gospels and Epistles are engaged not mainly in the careful balancing of ideas but in the militant presentation of a crucial deed, the very hinge of history, on which swings the world’s fate and each man’s destiny. The characteristic attributes of the early Christian idea of God, therefore, cannot be fully understood apart from this consummate and creative act which he had wrought in Christ

In this regard a deep difference separated the Hebrew and the Hellenistic world views. As Professor Edwyn R. Bevan puts it, (for the following antithesis see "Hellenistic Judaism," in The Legacy of Israel, edited by Edwyn R. Bevan and Charles Singer, p. 50.) the Hebraic view of the world was based on "an apprehension of God as righteous Will, Some One who does definite ‘mighty acts’ in the world-process"; it conceived history as "a Divine plan beginning in God’s mighty act of creation and leading up to a great consummation in the future"; it associated "the Divine plan with a Divine community, a ‘people of God’ chosen to be the vehicle of God’s purpose." In the Hellenistic world view, however, God "tended to become immovable Being, to which men might indeed strive to attain, but which did not do particular acts in the world-process"; the course of history itself "was a vain eternal recurrence, a circular movement, leading nowhere"; "deliverance was attained by the individual when he detached himself in soul from the world." (Ibid.) As between these two ways of regarding the cosmos, the New Testament is predominantly Hebraic. Many influences of Hellenism are discernible in the Christian scriptures, some of them potent in their effect, but as for the underlying idea of God and the world, the Jewish view maintained its hold. God is righteous and loving Will, a doer of mighty deeds; history is a process, under his sovereign control, in which he performs decisive acts; the church is the chosen vehicle of his purpose -- such is the New Testament’s world view.

As in the Old Testament, therefore, the idea of God had been progressively formulated, not so much in the light of philosophic disquisition as in the light of his mighty acts for Israel, from the deliverance out of Egypt to the least and latest sign of his effective control over human affairs, so in the New Testament the idea of God was centered not in a concept but in a deed. God had sent his Son into the world; (John 3:16-17.) what the prophets had desired to see and hear had now come to pass; (Matthew 13:17.) of the most hopeful foresights of ancient seers it could be said, "To day hath this scripture been fulfilled;" (Luke 4:17-21.) believers had "passed out of death into life," (John 5:24.) and had been "delivered . . . out of the power of darkness, and translated . . . into the kingdom of the Son of his love." (Colossians 1:13.) A supreme and saving deed had been done, an unprecedented act of God for man’s salvation, and in the light of that the ideas of God’s nature, character, and purpose grew to new amplitude and bore new fruit.

It is the more important to emphasize this because of the prevalent stress in our time upon the apocalyptic hopes of early Christians as altogether centered and absorbed in a future event -- the triumphant return of Christ from heaven. Granted the dominance of this hope in the New Testament! The early disciples did live with a glowing expectation of a divine climactic act that would usher in a "new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness." (II Peter 3:13.) Nevertheless, this ardent hope cannot be adequately understood save as an integral result of a supreme event which had occurred already. God’s greatest deed was not to be done; it had been done. What was to come by way of culmination was corollary and consequence. The transcendent act had already been performed: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." (John 1:18.)

The idea of God in the New Testament stems out from this deed. "God commendeth his own love toward us," writes Paul -- not in a philosophy but in an act -- "in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8.) The early Christians, therefore, lived not simply in expectation of the future but in glad appropriation of a deed already done. They were convinced that the kingdom of God had come upon them; (Matthew 12:28.) that "the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shineth"; (I John 2:8.) that here and now they had entered into "eternal life"; (John 3:36.) that already they had been "begotten again," (I Peter 1:23.) saved "through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit," (Titus 3:5.) and given "the right to become children of God." (John 1:12.) No deed comparable with this, they were sure, had ever been done before, and to them God was primarily the kind of being who could and would do it. As the early Hebrews thought of Yahweh first of all as the one who had delivered them out of Egypt, so the early Christians thought of God as the one who had rescued them out of the power of darkness and translated them into the kingdom of his Son.

Particularly pertinent to our present theme is the fact that by this saving deed believers conceived themselves as ushered into a new experience of sonship to God. The fatherhood of God in the New Testament is most explicitly manifest, not in what is said about God, but in what is said about the Christian experience of sonship. God desires sons -- in that idea his fatherhood is most emphatically made plain. Paul says, "The earnest expectation of creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God." (Romans 8:19.) The act of God wrought in Christ had this for its aim: "When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son . . . that we might receive the adoption of sons." (Galatians 4:4,5.) In the eyes of the New Testament this deed has now been done. The right has been given "to become children of God’’; (John 1:12.) "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God’’; (Romans 8:14.) no longer slaves, they have become sons and heirs, and their address to God is, "Abba, Father.’’ (Galatians 4:6-7; Romans 8:15.) From Jesus’ remembered admonition, "that ye may be sons of your Father", (Matthew 5:45.) to the Epistles rejoicing in the Christians, "adoption as sons through Jesus Christ,’’ (Ephesians 1:5.) this idea runs. They were using an old phrase but it seemed to them packed with new meaning. Far from being wholly a postponed expectation of Christ’s return, as extreme eschatologists affirm, the glory of the early Christians lay in their appropriation and exploration of the experiences already opened to them by the great deed of God in Christ --- "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ." (Ephesians 1:3.)


Indeed the richness and variety involved in the developing experience and idea of God in the New Testament began to overflow the customary forms of historic theism. There was one God, but there was also one Lord, belonging to the divine world, who supremely revealed him; and, as well, there was one Spirit --"his Spirit that dwelleth in you." (Romans 8:11.) Jewish monotheism stood for the sole existence and sovereignty of the one God; Christianity was soon trying to secure new dimensions in its theism by thinking of the Father as revealed in the Son and made immediately available to every believer by the indwelling Spirit. This enrichment of the idea of God Paul expressed in a benediction, now a familiar formula, but which, at first, voiced the amazed and grateful experience of discoverers who saw theism unfolding into new dimensions -- "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." (II Corinthians 13:14.) The life and ministry of Christ had been divine; their own interior experience of spiritual renewal and sustentation was divine; their God was no longer a cosmic creator, father, and king only, but, as well, a revelatory character, "full of grace and truth," and an indwelling spiritual presence. All this was not yet trinitarian dogma. It was rather an expansion and enrichment of theism, an overflowing of the idea of divinity into new forms of thought. The unilinear nature of the old monotheism seemed to the new experience inadequate. The early Christians could not say about God all they wished to say in the mental patterns and terminology of traditional monotheism. Their experience had too many facets, was too rich and copious. Quite without intending to start a development that would issue in the classic creeds, they saw themselves, as a matter of fact, dealing with the Divine in three major ways as the cosmic Creator and Father, as the incarnate Savior and Character, as the interior Spirit of Power.

Far from being, as it later became, a too precise surveying of the divine nature, this trinitarian experience involved, at first, a humble and grateful acknowledgment of unfathomable mystery in the Eternal. The Bible’s greatest passages concerning God, in Old and New Testaments alike, are suffused with this sense of mystery. The Book is not a good forest to cut timber in for theistic dogmatism. Not only are its ideas of God in constant process of change, but it is everywhere conscious of depth beyond depth in the divine nature, uncomprehended and incomprehensible. The questions of Zophar in the drama of Job are true to the spirit of Scripture:

Canst thou by searching find out God?
Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
It is high as heaven; what canst thou do?
Deeper than Sheol; what canst thou know? (Job 11:7-8.)

Indeed, as we might expect, it is the most confident believers who acknowledge most humbly their limited insight into what Paul called "the deep things of God," (I Corinthians 2:10.) and say with the Great Isaiah, "There is no searching of his understanding." (Isaiah 40:28.) In the New Testament this sense of God’s unfathomable profundity, "dwelling in light unapproachable," (I Timothy 6:16.) is nowhere more plainly indicated than in the idea that while God is one, as contrasted with polytheistic ideas, this unity is diversified and copious, and not confined, as a bare monotheism implies. When Paul talked about God he used ampler language than monotheism had ever before been equipped with -- "filled unto all the fulness of God"; (Ephesians 3:19.) "Christ in you, the hope of glory"; (Colossians 1:27.) "The Lord is the Spirit." (II Corinthians 3:17.) In all this he was not metaphysically analyzing the divine nature but was indicating the manifoldness of the divine approach to man, and was endeavoring, in the spirit of his own words, to express the ineffable -- "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!" (Romans 11:33.)

Incredibly difficult it would have been to imagine such an outcome from the early beginnings of the theistic idea in Israel. Indeed, in retrospect, the road traveled by the idea of God through the Bible as a whole presents a fascinating spectacle.

Beginning with a storm god on a desert mountain, it ends with men saying, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24.)

Beginning with a tribal war god, leading his devotees to bloody triumph over their foes, it ends with men seeing that "God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him." (I John 4:16.)

Beginning with a territorial deity who loved his clansmen and hated the remainder of mankind, it ends with a great multitude out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9.) worshiping one universal Father.

Beginning with a god who walked in a garden in the cool of the day or who showed his back to Moses as a special favor, it ends with the God whom "no man hath seen . . . at any time" (John 1:18.) and in whom "we live, and move, and have our being." (Acts 17:28.)

Beginning with a god who commanded the slaughter of infants and sucklings without mercy, it ends with the God whose will it is that not "one of these little ones should perish." (Matthew 18:14.)

Beginning with a god from whom at Sinai the people shrank in fear, saying, "Let not God speak with us, lest we die," (Exodus 20:19; cf. Deuteronomy 5:25.) it ends with the God to whom one prays in the solitary place and whose indwelling Spirit is our unseen friend.

Beginning with a god whose highest social vision was a tribal victory, it ends with the God whose worshipers pray for a worldwide kingdom of righteousness and peace.

Published by Harper & Brothers.in many editions in the 1930s.  Published by Harper & Brothers.in many editions in the 1930s.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.