One of the questions that struck me yesterday as I was listening to the readings (hearing someone else read them aloud often brings new insights) was the status of “the god’s” in Paul’s discussion of eating food offered to idols. Here’s that text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.
Paul isn’t exactly clear on the status of other gods: “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God…” On the one hand, it seems he denies the reality of those gods, but here, he admits to the existence of “so-called gods.” One explanation for this lies in the hierarchical understanding the universe in hellenistic thought, an understanding Paul shares. There are principalities, and powers, spirits, divine beings, that inhabit the various realms that exist between earth and heaven. They may not be precisely gods, but they have powers that vastly surpass human power.
In this week’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture, we read from Isaiah 40. This passage comes from what scholars call Second Isaiah. This section (40-56, more or less) derives from the period of exile in Babylon in the sixth century. It is evidence for the remarkable transformation that is taking place in theology among the exilic community (most scholars conclude that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, was compiled in this period). Second Isaiah is reaching toward a monotheistic theology that would come to characterize Judaism. We see some of that here.
Earlier in chapter 40, the prophet has proclaimed God’s power and wisdom. He compared Yahweh to the image of a deity:
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
An idol? —A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
Those are verses 18-19. In our passage, the prophet praises God as creator of the universe and as the one who establishes and unseats the world’s rulers. 40:26 is particularly interesting, both in the Babylonian context and in light of Genesis 1. The prophet asks,
“Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;”
Two points. First, the reference is to the stars and asserts God’s power over them. In addition, the use of the verb created–the only other instance of the use of this word is in the creation accounts of Genesis, describing God’s creative activity (this from Steed Davidson at workingpreacher.org). In Genesis 1, the creation of the stars makes explicit the limits of their power: “let them be for signs and seasons and days and years” and “let them rule over day and night.” Specifically, the stars, sun and moon do not have power over human lives or fates.
We tend to assume that our understanding of God, is static, has always been the understanding of Christians, if not of Jews (there’s that whole trinitarian thing, after all). In their own ways, both Second Isaiah and Paul are grappling with the relationship of their monotheistic beliefs (that God is one) and their belief in a universe that is filled with other divine beings.
Our problem in the twenty-first century isn’t quite the same–we worry more about whether we can say that other religions might be true, whatever we think of their deities. Still, I wonder about the resonances of both of these passages for the contemporary life of faith.