Thursday, July 28, 2011

Exodus 3: Can We Say that God Is Good?

As part of a book project, I've been picking through David Blumenthal's deeply challenging post-Holocaust theology, Facing the Abusing God.  Perhaps I'll get to his argument in a later post, but I've been meditating on Blumenthal's reminder that Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and theologian, contends that God is without attributes.  More simply, God is so thoroughly beyond comprehension that we may not simply stick adjectives to his name.  We may not say that God is "mighty," or that God is "present," or that God is "powerful," because these modifiers constrain a deity whose being is beyond human expression. 

In making such a statement, Maimonides takes part in what comes to be known as "negative theology."  Simply put--and perhaps too simply put--negative theology starts with the premise that God is so beyond our wildest imagination that we can only say what He is not.  As a consequence, the most effective theologies may deal in negation, paradox, contradiction, and perhaps even in skillfully deployed silence.

It occurred to me, however, that Maimonides's argument is prefigured by a very early Biblical text, Exodus 3,  in which God "introduces" himself to his first prophet, Moses.  Here are the relevant lines:

"But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am'. He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you."’"

The Divine Name as rendered here is "I am who I am"--an evasive nomenclature if ever there was one--and we likely do not envy Moses his task.  At worst, God's name feels redundant, repetitive, and frankly, dismissive.  Here, I always picture God as the tired executive, lounging back in his desk chair, knees crossed, waving his hand in a slow circle.  He might be talking a little bit like the Godfather, too. 

However, this gnomic utterance--"I am who I am"--is not the only available translation of the Hebrew original, ehyeh asher ehyeh.  In the King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 3:14 names God as "I am that I am."  This rendering has allowed generations of English-speaking scholars to suggest that in this passage, God is defining himself as Being--pure essence. 

But when I teach this text, I always say what my Bible professors taught me: Biblical Hebrew does not make a clear-cut distinction between the present tense and the future tense.  Thus, one may acceptably translate this name of God as "I will be what I will be," a version that gets us back to Maimonides and negative theology.  With this third naming, we learn that we cannot name God; only God can name God.

We cannot say what God is, or what God "will be."  Only He can.

Such heady statements may lead to some downright frightening conclusions.  Because for the purest of negative theologians, God is not "loving," or "compassionate," or "rational," or--most disturbing of all--"good."  God is only "what he will be."  And we are not privy to what this "what" is.

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