Bible blog 2215

I’m going to continue to examine texts from the Christian bible which provide examples of human beings “inventing God.” Of course the Old Testament especially takes issue with those who “invent” Gods of wood and stone as opposed to Yahweh who made the heavens and the earth. But who invented the God who made the heavens and the earth? The bible answer is that this God revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, but in such revelations it’s clear that God is not seen by everybody but only by those with the imagination of faith. Such people build on what they have received, by adding their distinctive contributions.

Another level of complexity is the fact that we only have access to these characters through the imagination of storytellers and editors, who have their own purposes within the Jewish community of faith. We have no access at all to the “historical” Abraham or Moses but see them through the eyes of storytellers who lived hundreds of years after them and editors who lived perhaps a thousand years after them. These will have had theological or political purposes of their own which, however, did not override their appreciation of imaginative detail in the tradition. They received the traditions from the past as holy material, but never ceased to use their own imaginations in handling it.

My next example is from the New Testament, from The Revelation chapter 1:

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in persecution, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the island that is called Patmos, for preaching the word of God, and for witnessing toJesus Christ. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, 11 saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What you see, write in a book, and send it to the seven churches in Asia; to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. 1And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; 1and in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like a Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the chest with a golden girdle. 14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; 15 and his feet like fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. 16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his face was as the sun shines in his strength. 17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last and the. Living One. I was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19 Write the things which you have seen, the things which are, and the things which shall be afterwards. As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which you saw are the seven churches.

This is of course a great imaginative vision of Jesus as King and judge of the churches which bear his name, and the empire that persecutes them. Attempts by artists to reproduce the vision have found the sword coming from the figure’s mouth difficult to manage. But as a picture in words of the risen Christ, the description is harmonious and vivid. The reader imagines an awe-inspiring figure.

Yet almost all the details are from the prophetic tradition in the bible, especially from the book of Daniel, chapters 7 and l0. Chapter 7 describes a vision of the bestial empires which have ruled to middle east, each with its symbolic animal. But then follows the image of a son of man, that is, a human being, representing the humane rule of God.

The long robe symbolising priesthood comes from Ezekiel 28; the white hair comes from the image of God in Daniel 7 as the ancient of days; the bronze feet from Daniel 10 symbolising stability; the voice like the sound of waters from Ezekiel 1 symbolising power; the face shining like the sun from the angel in Daniel 10; the two edged sword of his mouth is shared with Isaiah 11 and Hebrews. The Daniel 7 passage sets out the universal power of God’s human agent; Daniel 10 records a great angel’s prophecy of the last days; the other links more generally emphasise the divine glory of the figure, who is then identified as the risen Christ. It’s clear that details applying to God in Daniel are used of Jesus in this vision.

We can say that this vision is less strange than that of Ezekiel 1, and perhaps, less imaginative because less original. But that judgement ignores the fact that the Revelation author is imagining Jesus Messiah, a human being. By his use of biblical imagery he allows the believer to imagine Jesus as the divine/ human Messiah, the Judge.

We should remember the imagery of Roman Empire which was used consciously to accustom the subjects of the pax Romana to imperial rule, to glorify its emperors with quasi divine splendour, in statuary accompanied by explanatory plaques, by coinage, and by public ceremonies. Many cities erected shrines to Diva Roma at their own expense, because their leading citizens wanted to share the wealth and power of Rome. The sheer visibility of Roman power made an impression on the consciousness of the conquered peoples of the empire. The prophet John, exiled on Patmos for his demonstration of Christian faith, wanted to provide an intimate challenge to Rome, by providing a Christian imagery and narrative which would remain in his readers minds.

The seven cities mentioned are in a continuous line on a Roman road, allowing for the prophet’s  visions to be passed easily from one to the next. The author recognises that imagination is at the heart of hegemony, whether of Rome or of Jesus Messiah. People whose consciousness is saturated with imperial propaganda will live by it unless a message of equivalent power releases them from its grip. That is why the risen Jesus is depicted as walking amidst the lamp-stands, the menorahs which are the symbol of the assemblies of Jesus, who remember Jesus’ words, “No one lights and lamp and puts it under a bucket but on the lamp-stand so that it may give light to all the house.” And, “the lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is clear your whole body will be filled with light, but if your eye is diseased your body will be filled with darkness.” Jesus walks amidst the lamp-stands so that their light may shine, not only for others, but for the assembly members themselves, to clear their eyes from imperial disease.

The tradition supplies images, and the message about Jesus supplies the story of God, but the prophet’s imagination merges the two in a new revelation of Jesus which lightens the darkness of the Roman mindset, and inspires people to live as light-givers.

(more tomorrow)



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