"To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?" asks the Holy One.
Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out one after another, calling each by its name. And he counts them to see that none are lost or have strayed away.
O Israel, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? How can you say God refuses to hear your case? Have you never heard or understood? Don't you know that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth? -- Isaiah 40:25-28
I have been spending a lot of time lately reading Genesis, and reading about the Old Testament. And I am struck anew by all the very human stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph. The Jewish Scriptures are primarily about people very much like us. They are not about super-humans, or perfect people. They are about plain folk, their troubles and triumphs.
As far as ancient writings go, this is absolutely amazing. Just think about it. We have heard of, or read, the ancient stories of other cultures: Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the Odyssey, Iliad, etc. What do they depict but stories of many gods or demi-gods, and various monsters. In contrast, the ancient Israelites were most interested in telling stories about quite average people: how they interacted with each other, and with their very personal God, YHWH. Just people, not heros, not cyclops, not mermaids. Just people, like you and me. Isn't that remarkable?
The God of Israel is also described very differently from the gods of other cultures. Again, in contrast to those surrounding them, near and far, the Israelites did not believe in a Sun-God, a Moon-God, a Sea-God. The stars were not gods, and God was not an animal. The heavens were not filled with various gods vying with one another for power. The God of Israel is One Being, who created all the things that the other cultures worshiped. The God of Israel is far above and beyond what other people were able to comprehend.
But what makes this concept even more remarkable, is that the God of Israel, the Great Creator of the World and everything in it, is also mindful of each and every thing he created. He is both transcendent and immanent. Both above us and with us. As Isaiah writes, God named each star as it was created. Or, as Jesus said, God has counted each hair on our head. The stories in Scripture are all about God's care for us.
Huston Smith writes, "The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods' characters. First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent. The Jews reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these accounts. ... God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works. ... Are we surprised, then, to find the Jews exclaiming with exaltation of frontier discovery: 'Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?", "What great nation has a God like the Lord?" (The World's Religions, pg 275-6) The ancient Jews knew their God was unique, to say the least.
Why? I wonder. Why was their insight so much different from anyone around them?
Well, clearly, one reason is that this is how they personally experienced God. This is certainly how many of us experience God.
But, I think they must have also been influenced in an odd way by the cultures surrounding them. For our beliefs are solidified in large part by their opposites. We often do not even know where we stand on an issue until we hear someone make a statement that runs contrary to our own experience. For example, when I was a mathematics teacher, I heard someone say, "Girls can't do math." I knew this wasn't true, and said so. But I would never have said, "Girls are just as good at math as boys," if I had not first heard the opposite statement expressed. It had never crossed my mind before. And, the more often I heard people downgrade girls' mathematical abilities, the more adamant I became in my opinion. This is often how beliefs are formed.
So, I think the ancient Israelites, being surrounded by depictions of God, or gods, that ran contrary to their experience, quite possibly, wrote down some of the foundational stories we find in Genesis specifically to counter the opinions of the surrounding culture.
And thank God they did. For these stories continue to speak to us today, about ourselves and about our God, in ways that those other stories never could. And, I think, we gain an even greater appreciation for these ancient Jews, and these stories, when we realize just how unique they were in their day.
Dear and Glorious God, thank you for showing me once again how great thou art. And for showing me what a wonderful, remarkable gift we have been given in these ancient stories of the Hebrew people. Love always, Pam