God of Israel or God of the Universe?

Author: 
Bob Chodos

 

We Jews think of ourselves as monotheists, which means that we believe in only one God. This God created the universe and rules over it. Bereisheet bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz[1] says the first verse of the Hebrew Bible: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” or “When God began to create heaven and earth,” depending on which translation you favour. God is referred to as melech ha’olam, king or ruler of the universe, and as ribono shel olam, master of the universe.

And yet God is also, in some special sense, the God of the people Israel, representing a fraction of one per cent of the human population on one of the septillions of planets in the universe God created. God reached out and established a special relationship with our first ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. When their descendants had become a people, God made a covenant with them on Mount Sinai.

So who is our God, the God the Hebrew Bible calls yhwh[2]: the God of Israel or the God of the universe? Can yhwh be both? If yhwh is the God of Israel, does that mean other peoples have other Gods? If yhwh is the God of the universe, why don’t other peoples recognize yhwh in the way that Jews do? There are many different ways of resolving this tension, leading to different understandings of the relationship between the universal and the particular.

One avenue of exploration is the possibility that the particular God and the universal God are referred to by different names in the Bible. At the time of creation, God is referred to as Elohim, a generic term for “God,” while the God who appears to Moses at the burning bush to give him the task of freeing the Israelites from slavery is referred to as yhwh. In other words, Elohim could be the universal God and yhwh the particular one. Unfortunately, this usage is by no means consistent. For example, in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, which carry the story from the creation of man and woman to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God is referred to as yhwh Elohim. The use of different names of God is generally explained as resulting from the presence of works by different authors in the composite text we now have, not by any distinction between the universal and the particular God.

Another possibility is that yhwh will be recognized as the universal God in the longed-for but still distant messianic age. Thus, Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish New Testament scholar whose work has been instrumental in promoting understanding between Jews and Christians, writes, “Both church and synagogue ... claim to be children of Abraham, and both claim a future vision premised on the idea that the God of Israel is the God of the world.”[3] This vision appears frequently in the writings of the biblical prophets. “On that day,” says Zechariah, “yhwh will be one, and God’s name one.”[4] Isaiah proclaims a beautiful vision of this future time:

It will be in the end of days:

Established shall be the mountain of yhwh’s house

As the head of mountains

And it shall be raised above the hills
And all nations shall stream to it.

And many peoples shall go and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of yhwh,

To the house of the God of Jacob

And God will teach us of God’s ways

And we will walk in God’s paths.”

For out of Zion shall go forth Torah[5]

And the word of yhwh from Jerusalem

And God shall judge between the nations

And shall arbitrate for many peoples

And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares

And their spears into pruning-hooks.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation

And they shall not learn war any more.[6]

 

In this passage, yhwh appears as the God of all the world, ultimately to be recognized as such by all peoples, and eventuality that will lead to universal peace. Inspiring as this vision is, it has a shadow side: the implication that for universal peace to be realized, everyone has to come to our God. Jews deplore this kind of spiritual imperialism in other religions; we need to guard against its creeping into our own.

Other passages frame the relationship between yhwh, Israel and the other nations differently. Perhaps most striking is a line from the Song of the Sea in Exodus that is recited daily in Jewish liturgy: Mi chamocha ba’eilim yhwh.[7] Traditional commentators have been uncomfortable with the literal meaning of these words, and so have translated them as “Who is like you among the mighty, yhwh?” or “Who is like you among the Gods that are worshipped, yhwh?” But the literal translation is “Who is like you among the Gods, yhwh?” This line suggests that yhwh is superior to other Gods, but not that other Gods don’t exist.

The Song of the Sea, sung in triumph by the Israelites after they crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land and Pharaoh’s soldiers who were coming after them in hot pursuit were swallowed up by the waters, is one of the oldest passages in the Bible. Its reference to other Gods can be explained as coming from a time that preceded strict monotheism. But a similar implication can be drawn from passages that are not so old. Psalm 33 praises yhwh’s great deeds and suggests that all the earth should be in awe of yhwh. However, it does not say that all peoples should adopt yhwh as their God. Rather, it turns its attention to Israel and says,

Happy is the nation whose God is yhwh,

The people chosen as yhwh’s own inheritance.[8]

This line too, in slightly different form, is a staple of Jewish liturgy. If the “nation whose God is yhwh” — that is, Israel — is happy, that would imply that other nations are not so favoured. They have other Gods, or no God at all. Once again, there is no sense here that yhwh is the unique God of the universe. But there is also no sense of a transcendent reality beyond the Gods of particular peoples.

Yet another twist is provided by the prophetic book of Micah. Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah’s, and one of the curious features of his book is that it contains, almost word for word, the same vision of the end of days that we found in Isaiah — perhaps it was a common prophetic trope of the time. There are differences between the two passages, but they are trivial variations in wording that do not affect the meaning. Except for one.

At the end of the passage in Micah is a verse that does not appear in Isaiah:

Ki chol ha’amim yelchu ish b’shem Elohav,

va’anachnu nelech b’shem yhwh Eloheinu l’olam va’ed.[9]

A straightforward translation of this verse is: “For every people shall walk in the name of its God, and we will walk in the name of yhwh our God for ever and ever.” This statement puzzled traditional commentators and translators, for it seemed to contradict what Micah had just said. Some tried to mitigate its disturbing implications by introducing an element of contrast between the two halves of the verse. The prefix va at the beginning of the second line is thus interpreted as “but” or “while.”[10] But this element of contrast is not inherent in va; it usually just means “and.” In any case, the heart of the puzzle remains. What does it mean for all nations to stream to the mountain of yhwh if those nations then walk in the name of their own Gods?

However, this final verse does not need to contradict what comes before. Rather, it could offer a way of interpreting the prophetic vision that frees it of its imperialist implications. Perhaps the nations are streaming to the mountain of yhwh not to worship our God but to learn how better to worship their own Gods. We know that even though only a tiny proportion of the world’s population is Jewish, Torah has indeed gone forth from Zion. Jewish teachings and stories are an essential component of Christianity and Islam, our siblings in the family of Abrahamic religions, and through them have indirectly influenced other religions such as the Baha’i and Sikh traditions. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in exile from his birthplace and spiritual home of Tibet, has written that “the image of Judaism as a religion that has helped a people to survive in exile for so long is deeply inspiring. When I first came in contact with Jewish leaders, I used to ask them, ‘Tell me your secret!’”[11]Modern Jewish thinkers such as Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Emmanuel Lévinas are read well beyond the Jewish world.

Of course it works the other way as well. I have known since I studied as a child at a Hebrew day school that social justice is a central component of the Jewish tradition, but I gained a much fuller appreciation of what it meant when I saw Jesuits I worked with put their lives on the line in places like El Salvador and Jamaica. In the weekly Jewish Sabbath service, the Torah scroll is treated like an ancient king, but I’ve still found I had much to learn about how to revere a sacred text from the attitudes and customs of my Muslim and Sikh friends surrounding the Qur’an and the Guru Granth Sahib. It is no secret that Jewish observances are linked to the rhythms of nature and the cycles of the sun and the moon, but becoming acquainted with Wiccan and Pagan practices has helped me understand just how deep that connection is.

It is sometimes difficult for monotheists to acknowledge that the God we worship is not, in itself, the transcendent and infinite God but rather what the medieval Muslim mystic and poet Ibn ‘Arabi called a “God of belief.” Ibn ‘Arabi warned against what he called “binding” — identifying the God of one’s belief with the total reality of God.[12] We have grasped, at best, one small part of the divine, while other peoples have grasped other parts.

The central Jewish statement of monotheism, repeated twice daily in our prayers, is compatible with this view: Shma Yisrael yhwh Eloheinu yhwh echad.[13] 

Once again, translations differ, but one possible interpretation of these words is “Hear, O Israel, yhwh is our God, yhwh alone.” Yhwh alone is our God, our particular way, as Jews, of approaching the divine. We do not say that this way is the true way of approaching the divine and others are false ways — only that this way is our way.

So perhaps the prophetic call to the nations to stream to the mountain of yhwh is a call not to conversion but to mutual learning and exchange. It is a call for us to live our tradition in a way that others can learn from us, as well as to be open to learning from others. And perhaps that is what will ultimately lead to nations beating their swords into plough shares and to people not learning war any more.

Bob Chodos is a lay leader at Temple Shalom, the Reform synagogue in Waterloo Region, Ontario, Canada, and a member of Interfaith Grand River, the region’s interfaith organization.

 [1] Genesis 1:1.

 

[2]Hebrew is written without vowels, and since the original vowelization of this name has been lost, we don’t know exactly how it was pronounced. Therefore Jews never pronounce it, and substitute Adonai (“the Lord”) or Hashem (“the Name”) whenever it appears. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia has suggested that the name was not meant to be pronounced but rather breathed (“yyyyyyhhhhhhwwwwwwhhhhhh”), and that it represents the interbreathing of all life in the universe. See Rabbi Arthur Waskow, “Do We Need to ReName God?”, December 28, 2015, retrieved from https://theshalomcenter.org/do-we-need-rename-god1] Genesis 1:1.

 

[3] Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006), pp. 212–13.

[4] Zechariah 14:9.

[5]  The word Torah means “teaching,” and is used both in the narrow sense of the first five books of the Bible, contained in the Torah scroll read in the synagogue on Sabbaths and festivals, and in the broader sense of the whole body of Jewish teaching. See, for example, Tzvi Freeman, “What Is Torah?: Beyond Wisdom,” Chabad.org, retrieved from http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1426382/jewish/Torah.htm

[6] Isaiah 2:2–4.

[7] Exodus 15:11.

[8] Psalm 33:12.

[9] Micah 4:5.

[10] See, for example, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, the New Jerusalem Bible and the New International Version. The classic King James Version, however, resists this interpretation and translates va as “and.”

[11] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010), p. 93.

[12] See Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 97–105.

[13] Deuteronomy 6:4.