It is not possible to speak or even to think about God without trembling, not only because God is God, but also because of what we are, limited and distorted creatures. Our assumptions about Him will always be wrong or insufficient. God will always stand beyond our minds and our theological analysis. When Moses came to God and asked Him to tell him who He was, not without some irony, God answered, “I will be what I will be,” the literal translation of the Hebrew phrase “Ehye asher Ehye.”
In other words, “who I am” said God “is not of your concern,” and ultimately the encounter will surprise you. You cannot lock me into your definitions and your theological analysis. It would be vain to try to prove my existence. Indeed God is not a truth or an idea to be demonstrated following a logical sequence of arguments. His existence is never questioned. Only the fool would venture to say “in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14:1). God’s existence imposes itself before us before anything: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90:2).
The Bible starts with this clear and unquestionable presumption that God exists: “In the beginning God created” (Genesis 1:1). In the Bible the most frequent phrase describing the reality of God is the affirmation that He is alive. That is what characterizes Him in comparison to the idols of wood or clay who have eyes and don’t see, and have ears and do not hear (Psalm 115:5-6).
The God of Israel is “Hay,” “alive” (Joshua 3:10; Judges 8:19; 1 Samuel 14:39; Psalm 84:3, English verse 2). “Life” is therefore the best place where God makes Himself known. God reveals Himself in the life and the beauty of nature, His creation (Psalm 19:1), and more importantly in the events of history. The God of Israel is the God who delivered the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt (Exodus 20:2), and took them out of the Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 29:10). But He is also the personal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6), the God who answers prayers and takes care of our human sorrows (Daniel 6:22).
The God of the Bible is not an abstract principle or an ethereal power. He is described as a physical being with hands (Genesis 49:24; Psalm 75:8-10), a nose (Isaiah 65:5), and a mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3). God is as real and personal as a human is. He walks (Deuteronomy 20:4; Genesis 3:8), speaks (Genesis 17:22; Isaiah 65:12), fights (Genesis 32:22-32; Exodus 14:14, 25) and even touches physically (Genesis 2:7; Genesis 32:25; Psalm 23:5).
To be sure, we should not take this description of God to the letter. The main lesson of this language is to teach us that God is real, even as real as we are, an idea that is already explained in the reciprocal resemblance between God and the human creature (Genesis 1:27). Thus, the Bible presents a very disturbing and somehow contrary picture of God. On one hand God is depicted as the God beyond human perception. No one can see Him (Exodus 33:10). Any picture or form of Him would therefore be inappropriate (Exodus 20:4). God is infinitely distant, He is unreachable, and no one can control or apprehend Him. He dwells in heaven (Deuteronomy 26:15; Psalm 113:5; Isaiah 14:13-14).
On the other hand, God is present everywhere: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall fall on me,’ Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You; But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to you” (Psalm 139:7-12). In fact, the Bible begins with an acute awareness of this tension. The first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) presents a God who is far, transcendent, God of the Universe, and the second creation story (Genesis 2:4b-25) presents a God who is near to mankind and is directly involved in human affairs. Interestingly the name of God which appears in those texts corresponds to their respective contexts. In the first creation, the name of God is “Elohim,” from the root “alah,” which conveys the idea of strength and preeminence; the name is also used in the plural form to express the idea of God’s majesty and of a superlative: this God is the God of Gods, He contains in Himself all the divine powers. In the second creation story the name of God is YHWH (the tetragrammaton) from the semitic root “hwh” which means “to be” or “to speak” and expresses the idea of God’s closeness to humans. The ancient rabbis understood this linguistic and theological distinction: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to those, You want to know my name? I am called according to my actions. When I judge the creatures I am Elohim, and when I have mercy with My world, I am named YHWH” (Ex R. 3:6).
The proximity of God was in the men and the women of the Bible, a daily and continuous experience. Adam, the first man, was created as a result of a personal and physical contact with God who “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), then God spoke to Adam and Eve, to Cain, to Noah, to Sarah; and people responded to God. The Bible records these conversations between God and humans. One of the most poignant of these divine-human dialogues involves Abraham, our father. The biblical text describes Abraham bowing before three individuals on he calls with the usual name of God “Adonay” (Genesis 18:2), and addresses Him with the second person masculine singular pronoun “be’eyneyka” “in thy eyes” (Genesis 18:3). Furthermore the biblical text clearly suggests that two of the three “men” went to Sodom (Genesis 19:1) and Abraham “still stayed before the Lord” (Genesis 18:22). The story is puzzling and somewhat disturbing because it places God in space and in time, in the limitations of our flesh. But Abraham does not seem to be shocked; he even debates with the Lord as one would do in a Middle Eastern marketplace.
Jacob experiences a close physical contact with the divine. He wrestles with God and takes his name Israel from this violent encounter (Genesis 32:28). Moses is remembered in biblical tradition as the only one “whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). And indeed no one came so close to God and discovered who He was through His 13 attributes “And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Later the presence of God was sensed in the midst of Israel as a people. Through the visible sign of the cloud, God dwelled (shakan) among them (Exodus 40:34-38). In the memory of Israel this experience of God’s nearness was preserved, and the word Shekinah, derived from the verb “shakan,” came to express the nearness of God and even God Himself (Ab 3:2; Nb Rabbah 13:6).
It is also interesting that the prophet Isaiah, referring to this experience of the Israelites in the wilderness, preferred to interpret it in relation to the Holy Spirit (Ruah ha-qodesh). Through the “Ruah,” this powerful and invisible “Wind” of God, the divine power is being manifested within them (Isaiah 63:11). The Shekinah among them here is here associated with the Holy Spirit within them—God’s proximity at its best.
Another similar strange case of God concerns the case of the “angel of the Lord,” “Malakh YHWH” who is often identified with the Lord YHWH Himself. Hagar met with the angel of the Lord (Genesis 16:7-11), but it is said that it is “the Lord who spoke to her” (Genesis 16:13). Likewise the angel of the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), but later in the rest of the story Moses speaks with the Lord. Also Gideon speaks alternatively sometimes with the Lord, sometimes with the angel of the Lord (Judges 6:11-24). Along the same lines, the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos (Genesis 16:13) identifies the angel of the Lord with the Shekinah, the concrete manifestation of the presence of God.
Even the services of the Temple and the sacrifices were occasions given to the people of Israel to draw them near to God. The offering on the altar would be a place where God promises “I will meet you to speak with you” (Exodus 29:42). The Hebrew word itself for sacrifice “haqrib” means to bring near, and reflects there by the promise of God’s proximity.
This movement of God who responds to mankind and even comes down and dwells in the midst of His people constitutes perhaps one of the most particular features of the God of Israel. In the Ancient Near East all peoples believed in the existence of God who lived out there in heaven. But only the God of Israel left His heavenly palace to hear men and women and revealed Himself to them. This is the essential difference Daniel notes between the gods of the pagan Chaldeans and the true God: “But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days.” (Daniel 2:28).
This is the main reason, perhaps the only one, why we believe in God—because He makes Himself known to us, because humans experience His word, His love, His power, His person and His influence in the flesh of their existence, and in the flow of history.
Even the powerful condition of suffering and the sense of the silence of God was interpreted by the prophets as an identification of His presence in spite of the impression of His absence. Paradoxically, the prophet Isaiah finds in the very fact that God is not visible and hides Himself the best reason why He is the true God, the only reason why we can believe and hope in God: “I will wait in the Lord, who hides His face, . . . And I will hope in Him” (Isaiah 8:17). For the true faith in God implies an experience which challenges this faith. In spite of His absence, the powerful experience of His distance, there is not another God. Even if God does not bless, and our work is not successful, even if He seems not to answer our prayers, His existence is never questioned; we believe in spite of all this. Just like the Jews who were hidden in this cave of Cologne and inscribed on the wall, “I believe in the sun even if it does not shine, I believe in love even if I do not feel it, I believe in God even if He hides Himself.”
Only those who have run this risk of God’s absence have been able to experience His presence. Because as long as we believe in a God-slot machine who responds mechanically, as long as our God is the God who never surprises, He is simply an idea about God, a theology; but is not yet God; we have never met Him. Job’s story shows to us to that prerequisite. It’s only after the turmoil of his pain, and the violence of his questions and his shouts at God, that finally he confesses to God, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You” (Job 42:5). The whole book of Job is full of profound theological statements about God. All the theologians are here gathered around the table. They all dig hard in their library and yet, only Job can speak the truth about God, simply because he is the only one who ever met Him. This is the ultimate and paradoxical lesson that Elie Wiesel has learned from the memory of the gas chambers, “After Auschwitz, I do not believe that we can speak about God; we can only . . . speak to God.”1
1Elie Wiesel, “Eine Quelle für die Hoffnung finden. Gespräch mit R. Boschert,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, October 28/29, 1989.
Image: Portion of column 19 of the Psalms Scroll (Tehilim) from Qumran Cave 11. Public Domain