HOW MANY GODS ARE THERE?
Rabbi David L. Kline, Sermon at Northminster Church, Monroe, LA, 9/19/2004
One of the truly important actions of Temple B’nai Israel was sharing its building for a time with Northminster Church. When I was interviewing to come here 15 years ago I thought it good economics and good use of space and resources. Then I got to know and like the people and learn from them. I began thinking of them as “my” Baptists. Cathy Nixon told me that at a conference discussion on some Bible topic, she told her colleagues she would return home and consult “her” rabbi. What a natural association. Why shouldn’t we feel this family relationship? Both our traditions were enriched. We stimulated one another. Cathy even went so far as to have Barbara be the one to bless her as she entered the ministry. Wow! I recall only one problem: every Wednesday evening, when the church choir rehearsed, I found myself breaking the tenth commandment. I admit, however, that listening to that music comforted me for the guilt of coveting.Talks with Don and Cathy, DH Clark, and a list of others in the church, got me started thinking about theology. What is significant about the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. Actually, in my younger years, while I was still, say middle aged, I hardly ever thought, let alone spoke on the subject. I’ve always focused on the action side of Torah, and when I spoke about God, it was about moments of spiritual experience. Discussing Christianity and Judaism led to curiosity about other religions and the thought arose: if there is only one God, what difference does it make to God what we believe? And the corollary: How justify the claim to knowledge by one religion over another? Faith certainly has its function, but I am talking theology now, that is I am talking about God, hoping to make philosophical sense.
Bible, particularly Hebrew Scriptures, has been my brush with scholarship over the years. In ancient writings of my ancestors the B’nei Israel we find some good writings on monotheism and its implications, but contrary to what rabbis, myself included, like to teach, the text shows the earlier biblical writers to have allowed for the existence of any number of deities. Whoever it was in later times who redacted the stories in Judges and Kings, left a heavy editorial spin about how awful idolatry was, and how it was the cause of all Israel’s troubles, but there seems to have been little or no awareness of any problem before the time of Hosea. In the mid 8th century BCE, the prophet Hosea taught that Israelites should worship only Yah, their God, because Yah felt like a cuckolded husband when Israel went chasing after other gods like a whoring wife. A husband gets jealous of other men. How could God be jealous of other gods if there is only one God?We all know about great King Solomon and his reputation for wisdom. He built the Bet Hamikdash, the Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem till destroyed by the Babylonians. The Book of Kings goes on to tell of his building temples for every other god. His many wives came from all over and he was broad minded enough to honor their beliefs as well as his own. Why not? Apparently neither he nor his priests or advisors had heard of the second commandment. In fact, for centuries to follow, our ancestors blithely carried on all sorts of practices not listed in Exodus or Leviticus. Now, if as children are taught, Abraham discovered monotheism and Moses passed on the Ten Commandments, then all those generations were big time transgressors of the idolatry and polytheism laws. But suppose Bible scholars since Wellhausen 125 or so years ago, are correct in understanding that Torah, that is Pentateuch, was written after, not before, the prophets, that the prophets introduced the ideas about God and justice and later writers systematized the stories and teachings, presenting the material as the work of an ancient lawgiver, Moses. I am long persuaded that this is the correct way to read Hebrew Scriptures. I appreciate what the redactors and all the later teachers were getting at, acceptance of the received writings together with creative explanations. The aim is piety and a world of moral teaching. I have done my share of homilizing over the years. It’s comfortable to think of King David as having the same beliefs about God as we do, but for purposes of theology, homiletics gets in the way.
Let two well known verses illustrate the point for now. The second commandment reads Lo yihyeh l’cha elohim acherim al panai, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me (or: besides) Me.” What other gods has the author in mind? How many gods are there? In Deuteronomy we find Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai echad. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” We like to think of that as the statement of oneness of God, period. But wait a minute, what is our doing here? Turns out that in the context of Deuteronomy (sixth centurh BCE), the idea was that Israel was to worship the one and only Yah – that’s a shortened form of the name we used for our God. By implication other nations were free to worship their gods, whoever they were. The Deuteronomist taught that were Israel to worship Yah exclusively and faithfully, Yah would grant them victory over their enemies. Yah beats all others. We rabbis and other preachers have for millennia taken these unprotected lines out of context and used them for our own purposes, good purposes, of teaching monotheism, but with all the virtue of our sermons, therein lies a problem: our theology is weakened, our monotheism is less than perfect.Lets take a look at what Deutero Isaiah had to say. Ani rishon, va’ani acharon umibal’adai ayn Elohim, “I am first and I am last and besides me there are no Gods.” Bear in mind that these lines were spoken/written in Babylonia, following Nebuchadnetsar’s destruction of the nation of Judah with its temple in Jerusalem. The listeners were the exiles, feeling lost from their land and their national religion, their protector God, Yah, having been defeated by the Babylonian God, Marduk. Deutero Isaiah was a theologically inclined homiletist. He preached that God was one , Who alone determined the comings and going of all nations. But the preacher also wanted his listeners, the Jews, to keep their faith, which for them meant a feeling of special relationship to God. So Deutero Isaiah called them servants of God, and in particular: Atem Edai, “You are My witnesses” that there is God besides me.
We can only imagine how easy this sermon was to listen to but how difficult to grasp. Deutero Isaiah was a great poet. In magnificent images he drove home his point about one God, creator of the world, in control of all, with a great plan for redemption. But monotheism was a radically new idea. It challenged ages of teachings. It raised new questions: Who was God? Where did God come from? Whom does God favor and why? What does it take to please God? What is God’s will?
The toughest, most living question is: how do we escape the triumphalism, a whiff of which Deutero Isaiah left in the mix: the notion that the God of Israel was God and all other peoples were mistaken. We miss the point of monotheism when we insist that my religion is the right, the true, the ultimate approach to God: all would be well if only everybody converted to my religion. If there is one God, then all religious experiences, all contacts with God, all speculation and contemplation, all is humanly true, equally. Each religion is a cultural expression, with its own history and sociology, and its specific, idiosyncratic inputs. If there is to be comparing of religions, let them compete in doing good. I learned that from Muhamad, in the Koran.The corollary of monotheism, is monohumanity. Scientists since Einstein have spoken of “unified field theory,” a single principle that ties all material existence together. Monotheism is the spiritual statement of unified field theory. One God means one standard for all. One justice, one fairness, one value of human life, one standard of health care. Do you remember Abraham Lincoln’s great answer to the question of whether God was on the side of the Union? He said, “My great concern is to be on God's side.” Lincoln understood monotheism.
Let two well known lines from our own culture illustrate missing the point: “One nation under God.” I was there when this political use of piety was introduced, added to our alliegence. We were to believe that we were the better for claiming to be under God. We were to ignore the contradiction to monotheism in suggesting that other nations were not under God. We saw virtue in belief and evil in disbelief. It was as if we thought God was of such small ego that God would be pleased by our statement. The second statement: “God bless America.” You and I, B’nai Israel and Northminster Church came together to pray at the end of that awful day, September 11, 2001. The most fervent of our thoughts was God bless America, under attack, suffering a bloody wound to the nation, beaten down. But for years and years we have mostly spoken and sung the line to set our nation apart and above other nations. Monotheists should be singing “God bless the world.”Christians and Jews and Moslems and more as well like to describe ourselves as monotheists. But war proves we fall short. World hunger shows we are uttering empty words. Injustice abroad or at home reminds us that we have a ways to go before we understand oneness. I say lets have more resource sharing between religious groups.