Award-winning author Jack Miles, once a professor of English and religion at the University of California, Irvine, until his retirement, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 1995 entitled, God: A Biography. This fascinating book presupposes that the Hebrew Bible (which is what we call the Old Testament, but in a slightly different order) is a story written with God as the protagonist character. As with any great work of literature, character development is a key component to good story-telling, and it was his aim through the writing of God: A Biography to explore the development of God’s character through the story of the Hebrew Bible.
Now, this may strike some of us as odd, since we may tend to think of God as “unchanging, from everlasting to everlasting,” but as a literary critic, Miles does not make this theological assumption—instead, he must work under the assumption that if the story is indeed any good, the main character will develop throughout. He is by no means the first to notice that God’s character does, in fact, seem to “develop” as the Bible’s narrative unfolds, and other books on the subject, sometimes called “progressive revelation,” make for helpful and informative reading. As the book of Genesis moves from start to finish, Miles noticed that God (the character) seemingly learns about himself by observing his own actions and interactions concerning humans. He is infinitely powerful, creating human beings with merely the sound of his voice and making us in his image (which for Miles means that we share his ability to create—including creating more of ourselves). But God also becomes jealous of how successful we are at procreating, and so he first tries to kill humanity (a decision he later regrets), then makes human procreation a significant hardship (another decision that he later regrets), with the exception of Abraham’s descendants, with whom a covenant is formed.
So successful is Abraham’s family at procreating that they soon become an interior threat to Egypt, the country that has played host to them for several hundred years. In his angst, the Pharaoh decides to enslave Abraham’s descendants, and that is where we pick up this story of God this morning: a God who is both all-powerful, and jealous of human power. A God who is all-knowing, but, speaking literarily, doesn’t know anything about himself aside from what he he learns through self-observation.
And while no one knows much about God at this point in the story, one thing that can be said for God is that God keeps his promises. Having promised never again to destroy the world with a flood, he has not done so. Having promised to provide offspring to Abraham, he has provided them. Having promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit Palestine, God raised up Moses to lead the people there. This morning’s first scripture reading was Moses’ call. Moses went through the ordinary prophetic call-narrative reluctance, asking God, “When I tell the people I speak for the God of their fathers, what if they ask me your name? I don’t know it.”
God answers by saying ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. This is commonly translated “I am who I am.” It can also mean “I shall be what I shall be,” which to Moses would mean, “You’re gonna find out who I am, soon enough!” Jack Miles also suggests a third possibility. If you make just one tiny change to one little letter in this Hebrew sentence, the meaning changes dramatically. The difference between the letter that exists and the letter that he suggests is even smaller than crossing a lowercase “L” to turn it into a lowercase “T.” With one miniscule change to a single letter, God could be saying, “I am what I do.”
This hypothesis is important to Miles for two reasons. First, it helps Miles with his biography of God by suggesting that God is making a confession to Moses: God only knows himself by what he does—and that’s how the rest of the world will come to know him, too. His actions precede his intentions. Second, God really does give his name to Moses! By changing the word from ‘Ehyeh to ‘Ahweh, God essentially gives the name he is known by throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: Yahweh. In Jack Miles’ opinion, God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Act sent me.’” It’s worth remembering that Miles is neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian—his discipline is literary criticism. But sometimes it’s in engaging in such cross-disciplinary exercises that we hit upon something that gets us thinking.
I guess a literary critic such as Jack Miles would call the Hebrew Bible a “coming of age story,” where the main character figures out who he is. Saying, “I am what I do” or even “I am what I will be” is not the way to show anyone that you’ve already figured out who you are. As the story of the Bible continues to unfold, so does God’s character, if not to Godself (as suggested by Miles), then certainly to the humans who interact with God. And it doesn’t take reading the Bible as a literary critic to come to this conclusion; I have long experienced the Bible as the unfolding of God’s self-revelation to humanity. It seems rather clear to me that our understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to God and one another, has developed—and continues to develop—over time, and there is ample of evidence of this even within the Bible itself. Where Miles goes a step further—because he can, because he’s a literarian, not a theologian—is his suggestion that God’s character grows and changes over time. And as I already said, there are plenty of instances in the Bible that make this idea plausible, it’s just that I’d rather think it’s our understanding of God that grows, not God, Godself. But Miles’ literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible does not negate its message to us… it only enhances it by highlighting a fundamental truth about our God.
God keeps God’s promises. Whether you like Miles’ characterization of God—whether you like his notion of God’s character “developing”—or not, one attribute of God is, indeed, unchanging in God’s character (even as Miles tells it) and it is the simple yet utterly foundational fact that God keeps God’s promises. God may strike us as mysterious, or unfair, or even capricious in turns; but one thing God always is, is trustworthy.
So trustworthy, in fact, that he sent Jesus Christ—the Word of God incarnate—not only to tell us his will, but to show us how it’s done. Just as he told his disciples, he entered Jerusalem not to overthrow the governing authorities, but to willingly lay down his life. While Peter and the other disciples espoused a traditional belief that the Messiah would necessarily avoid suffering, rejection, and death as he threw off the shackles of Israel’s oppressors, Jesus knew that there were bigger fish to fry.
In my studies, I discovered something I’d not previously known, and that no one could know by reading the gospel in English. As discussed last week, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” And we read this as a stinging rebuke. I mean, Jesus is calling one of his closest friends “Satan.” Surely we ought not to take that lightly, and surely Peter didn’t. Calling someone Satan strikes us as one of the worst things Jesus could ever say to anyone! But in the very next paragraph—still a part of this same scene—Jesus goes on to say, “If any would come after me, they must deny themselves….” The word for “behind” in “get behind me” and the word for “after” in “if any would come after me” is, in Greek, the same word!
It makes sense when you think about it, right? I mean, if you’re following after someone, you’re obviously behind them. Jesus was neither merely rebuking Peter for having a devil of an idea, nor commanding that Satan get out of his sight (which was always the way I read it). Rather, calling Peter “Satan” is an apt metaphor, because Peter is, in fact, thinking like Satan was believed to think. The old legend about Satan was that he was once one of God’s most favored angels, but was cast out of heaven after pridefully refusing to submit to God’s authority. Now, in the Gospel of Matthew, we see Peter refusing to submit to Jesus’ declared intention: to journey to Jerusalem, there to submit to the authorities. Peter couldn’t countenance such a plan. But, as Jesus rightly pointed out, it wasn’t up to Peter. Jesus was the teacher; Peter was the student. “Like Satan, you’ve forgotten your place!” Jesus was saying. “Fall in line! I’m the one making the rules, here! If anyone wants to follow in the direction I’m leading, they’d better get used to the ideas of self-denial and sacrifice, because that’s where this is headed.”
This is the second time in this scene that our narrator, Matthew, has used word pairs to make a point. Last week, called Peter both a rock worth building upon and a stone to trip Jesus up. And now, Jesus has ordered Peter to “get behind” him, because that’s the only position from which one can “follow” another. The questions laid before Peter and the other disciples are the same questions laid before us: will we support Jesus, or will we be obstacles to his ministry? Will we be part of the problem, or part of the solution?
The Lord said to Moses, “I AM who I am. I WILL BE who I will be. You’ll come to know me by my actions.” God made good on his promises—proved his trustworthiness and the pure light of the content of his character—by taking his judgment upon himself, by being faithful to the unfaithful, by loving the unloveable.
By God’s acts of grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, we have come to know the true character of God; all that we thought we knew previously pales in comparison. And as we answer Christ’s call to join him at his own table, to feast together in thanksgiving as a reflection of the one common humanity for which God created us all, and to be fed with spiritual food in order to continue working with Christ to reconcile the world, we are invited to answer for ourselves the question posed by God—both at the burning bush and in Jesus Christ’s instruction to Peter:
I AM. Are you?