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August 6, 2011

Yahweh—the God who changed his ways

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You wouldn’t think it possible that a God could change his ways; Gods, after all, are supposed to be consistent and reliable. But it did happen, and here is the story. Yahweh, the God of Hebrew faith, is known as a covenant-making God—that means he liked to make agreements. Yahweh chose a particular people in the ancient world, and made an agreement with them to be their God (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 17:1-14; 1 Chron 16:14-18). He told Abraham, that this agreement was to be everlasting (Gen 17:7-8)—in other words, he would always be the God of Abraham’s progeny. To Abraham’s descendants he gave the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Gen 48:4). He established a sanctuary in Canaan in the midst of his people where he would dwell forever (Ezek 37:26-37). In his sanctuary incense would burn perpetually (Exod 30:8). He established the seventh day (the Sabbath) as a perpetual day of worship for the people (Exod 31:16). And he appointed a special priesthood (Num 25:12-13) to attend the sacrifices perpetually in his sanctuary.

     Yahweh established a kingship to rule his people, and promised that the line of David, his ideal king, would rule over Israel forever (Ps 89:34-37). He promised as an everlasting statute that the high priest would annually enter the holy of holies of his sanctuary to make atonement for the people’s sins (Lev 16:34)—Yahweh had a number of these everlasting statutes for his sanctuary (for example, Lev 23:14, 31, 41; 24:2, 3-4, 8, 9), some of them seem a little odd (for example, Lev 3:17, 10:9, 16:29, 17:7). Yahweh promised never to alter his agreements (Ps 89:34)—even if the people broke the agreements, God would always keep them (Ezek 16:59-63).

     But something happened! The literature of the Jewish people never clarifies exactly what happened, but a change in God’s attitude is unmistakable in Jer 31:31: Yahweh intends to establish a new covenant that would effectively undermine the old covenants (Jer 31:32). By the second century of the Common Era the God of Hebrew faith had found a new people—and adopted new ways. God’s new people regarded the old agreements as obsolete—no longer in force (Heb 8:13). One second-century writer described the moment when this change occurred. In 2 Esdras Yahweh categorically rejects his former people, something he said that he would never do, and officially adopts a new people (2 Esdras 1:24-25, 35-37)—Second Esdras is a writing that was not a part of the ancient Septuagint and is also not a part of Athanasius’ canon in the 4th century (Esther was also not included).

     The apostle Paul was uncomfortable with the idea that God’s choice of a new people meant rejecting the Jewish people and tried to reconcile the God of the old ways with the God of the new ways—the old people of God with his new people (Rom 9-11). Basically, Paul’s solution was that the Jewish people should “see the light,” as the God of the old ways had seen the light—and convert to Christianity (Rom 10:1-4; 11:25-32).

     The new ways adopted by the God of the New Agreement is a complete abandonment of the everlasting agreements he had previously made with Abraham and his progeny. For the new people of God there is no longer an everlasting sanctuary with perpetual statutes, and hence no perpetual priesthood (Heb 9:11-14); the Sabbath has been turned over to humankind to do with as they will (Mark 2:27), and the new people of God worship on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2); there is no longer a Davidic throne; and in the minds of the new people of God the ancient everlasting agreements are things of the forgotten past.

     Modern Jewish theologians reject out of hand the Christian claims that God has abandoned his agreements with Abraham’s progeny. Christian theologians, on the other hand, are equally convinced that those “old agreements” are completely obsolete (Heb 8:8-13), and obviously, from their perspective, Yahweh has indeed adopted new ways. They explain their situation this way: it was always the intention of God to change his old ways and become Christian—although how they could possibly know God’s intentions is far from clear.

     And we are still left with the nagging problem of the supposedly everlasting agreements Yahweh broke when he adopted his new ways. Perhaps one could think about his behavior like this: adopting Christian ways must work for Divine converts just like it does for human converts—everything must change, or as Paul put it: “The past is finished and gone, everything has become fresh and new” (2 Cor 5:17, Phillips). Perhaps so, but such an answer does not address Yahweh’s behavior in breaking his earlier agreements; and it certainly calls into question the future prospects of the new agreement—especially since the old agreements were so easily dismissed. Clearly, the ways of God are completely inscrutable (Rom 11:33)—go figure!

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 9:44am