The Word of God

“Say to the servant that he might go ahead of us and pass on, but you remain standing now, that I may proclaim the word of God to you.” 1Sa. 9:27

“It came about the same night that the word of God came to Nathan.” 1Ch. 17:3

“I [Paul] became a servant of the Good News because God gave me this work to do for your benefit. The work is to make fully known the message [word] from [of] God, the secret hidden for generations, for ages, but now made clear to the people he has set apart for himself.” Col. 1:25-26

“…the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God.” 2 Pe. 3:5

“The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; For the LORD speaks, ‘Sons I have reared and brought up, But they have revolted against Me.’" Isa. 1:1-2

“Now it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was by the river Chebar among the exiles, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God…the word of the LORD came expressly to Ezekiel the priest… Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak with you!’As He spoke to me the Spirit entered me and set me on my feet; and I heard Him speaking to me.” Ezek. 1-2

“Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Alas, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, Because I am a youth.’ But the LORD said to me, ‘Do not say, 'I am a youth,' Because everywhere I send you, you shall go, And all that I command you, you shall speak.’” Jer. 1:4-7

Many Christians today refer to the Bible as “the word of God.” What exactly is God’s word? If this question was posed in most churches, would the answer be “the Bible”? Has it changed definition since its use in the Scriptures? How could “word of God” be synonymous with “the Bible” if the Bible did not exist when “word of God” was used in it? Have the waters perhaps been muddied as often done in Christian terminology? Are Christians confused about what the “word of God” actually is and represents? Did God speak all the words in the Bible or only a few, as seen in some of the passages exemplified above? Are the individuals found in the Bible historical figures with a real voice through whom God spoke, interacted and moved? Did they have freedom to express their experiences with the God of Israel in their own unique way, or were they merely puppets on a string contributing to God’s great Bible compilation schema?

What gives justifiable cause to assume every word in the Bible is God’s word(s)? Whence is this idea derived? A common response may be, “but God inspired the Bible, thus making it from him”. Should a distinction be recognized between words that God actually spoke to his prophets for delivery to his people and the record of what the men of God penned about their experiences, circumstances, feelings and interpretations of what God said?

A couple of years ago I posed these questions in a conversational setting to an individual of influence in the Christian community. At doing so, stern opposition and a verbal chastisement was the reply for even insinuating such blasphemous notions. While there was no evidence presented to refute the proposition, nonetheless there was a vigilant unwillingness to consider what was being stated. Instead of legitimate responses, personal attacks pertaining to lack of credentials and experience were hurled. The question and proposition was almost unfathomable. How has Christianity come to this, and why?

What is inspiration, and what does it mean to most Christians? Did “writers” of the biblical record sit in a hypnotic state and function as an ink jet printer while God dictated the words of the Bible? “Ok Jeremiah, take a seat and get ready, here’s what I want you to write, set, go!

“The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign….” 

This is an absurdity, yet not too far from how it is often conceived and portrayed, a nebulous of inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy with a hint of mystery thrown-in. Are these opening words of the book of Jeremiah the words of the author or God? They never claim to be God’s words, because they are not. God’s words are carefully emphasized by stating, the 

“word of the LORD came to me saying”….

and then God’s message to Jeremiah follows. Did God inspire Jeremiah to record his experience and message?

The apostle Paul had messages or “words” from/of God for people, but sometimes (by his own admission), it was not always directly a message “from the Lord," e.g. 1 Co. 7, 

“…I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her…I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think…I want…I mean…I would…I say…in my judgment…and I think that I too have the Spirit of God” 1Co. 7:12, 25, 28, 29, 32, 35, 40.

The Bible never once calls itself “the word of God.” Why not? Perhaps it is because “God’s word” cannot be limited to written words on a page. 

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” Heb. 4:12. 

God sends his word and it doesn’t return to him until it has accomplished its purpose (Isa. 55:10,11). The word of God spreads on earth (Acts 6:7). We are 

“born again...through the living and enduring word of God” 1 Pet. 1:23. 

The word of God abides in us (1 John 2:14). All things were made through God’s word (John 1:1-3). Even Jesus’ is given the title “word of God” (Rev. 19:13) as a correlation to Deut. 18. The word of God, God’s revealed and proclaimed truth is not a book, even though the book reveals things about God and words he did indeed speak, but the two are not synonymous. The most obvious reason is that a “complete” Bible (as is known today) did not exist until much later. The books and letters contained within the framework of “the Bible” know nothing of this later “canonized” development.

The fact of the matter is, it is the prophets[1] through whom the words of God are delivered. The writer of Hebrews is also of this opinion: 

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, in these last days, he spoke to us through a son…” Heb 1:1-2. 

This has been known early on when God made the declarative promise to and through the authority figure Moses: 

“I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you [Moses], and I [Yahweh, the LORD] will put my [Yahweh] words in his [prophet’s] mouth, and he [prophet] shall speak to them [the people, as a prophet is supposed to do] all that I [Yahweh] command him [prophet]. 'It shall come about that whoever will not listen to My [Yahweh] words which he [prophet] shall speak in My [Yahweh] name, I Myself [Yahweh] will require it of him [whoever doesn’t listen].” Deut. 18:18-19.

In 2 Tim. 3:15 the writer calls the Tanakh, (Old Testament)[2] “scripture” (literally “writings”).[3] It is given by God, for the community of God. God has inspired, motivated, gifted, commissioned men for this purpose. An inspired or “sacred canon” is not synonymous to “the words of God.” These scriptures or “writings” of this library are considered “holy” or set apart from others. The reason for this is the community.

Isaiah was recognized as a prophet of God, and God spoke through him to the people. His words were verified (cf. Deut. 18:20-22). He had words of God for the community of Israel. It is not the books of Isaiah that carried authority, those came later. The only reason they carried any authority was because they had as their fountainhead the eponymous prophet Isaiah. It was God’s authority in Isaiah, which in turn made the record of his experiences, interactions, feelings, even interpretations regarded as authoritative by the community. Second Temple era Judaism had their set of “writings”.[4] As time went on, the movement that became known as Christianity procured trustworthy books recognized by the church as “inspired” and normative. This developed into the New Testament, which more accurately stated is a commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures. It seeks to shows why this “Jesus of Nazareth” is God’s chosen one, Messiah, and what that means for not only Israel, but also the rest of the world. It contains interpretations of the Hebrew text aimed at aiding outsiders and gentiles in their comprehension of concepts Hebraic in nature, as taught in the Tanakh and therefore hard to grasp for a Hellenistic and western, philosophically trained worldview.

Simply put, the “word of God” is that which God spoke and/or speaks. For example, 

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” Gen. 1:1-3. 

Is it to be assumed that all the words above are God’s words or just those described as such? If not, then what’s the point of making a distinction?

Does a clarification of the “word of God” really matter or is this a pointless and perhaps pedantic exercise? While referring to the Bible as “God’s Word” or the “Word of God” may seem to heighten its divine inspiration and authoritative content, it also homogenizes the distinctive portions where God is said to “speak”. Basically, it minimizes Yahweh’s actual words he commanded the prophets to speak. When reading the testimonies of the prophets sometime, pay close attention to those specific words spoken by God. Observe the interaction and realize that the God whom they served is the same God who works in the present day and age, with the same communicative power. There have been times, such as what is found in the days of Eli when, 

“the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” 1Sa 3:1. 

At that time, God raised-up a prophet through whom he spoke. And in the narrative, a message was delivered to Eli by young Samuel that had already been delivered to him. It was the “second witness”, by the mouth of a child.[5]

What about the much quoted (as though it speaks of “the Bible) 

“Your word I have treasured [hidden] in my heart, That I may not sin against You” 

or 

"Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” Psa. 119:11, 105.

 This is a good example how a verse can be taken out of its proper contextual understanding. Exegetical guidelines need to be followed: what did the words mean to the original hearers/readers? What is the cultural meaning of the language (idioms, terminology, cultural colloquial phrases etc.)? What was original communicator’s intent? At the time this passage was composed, there was neither a Christian nor Hebrew “canon”. There were God’s “words” to Moses, the Torah (instruction, statutes, teachings).

Deuteronomy is the common Christian title of the last book of the Torah (Pentateuch). However, the Hebrews know it by another name, d’varim, which is Hebrew for “words”. This title comes from the first few words of the book itself, 

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel…” Deut. 1:1. 

This was very important for the Hebrews and even more so for a King of Israel, for in the book of “words” was this “word”: 

“If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people...When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching [Torah] written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching [Torah] as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel” Deut. 17:14-20

Within the same book of d’varim (words, Deuteronomy) these words are also found: 

“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart”[6] 6:6; 

“You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul” 11:18; 

“But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” 30:14; 

“Take to your heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully, even all the words of this law. For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life. And by this word you will prolong your days…” 32:46-47 

So then, the words of the Psalmist are not about the “Bible” as is viewed today, but a confirmation of the composer’s intention to take seriously the “words” spoken by God through his servant Moses, words to be lived, breathed and treasured. Jesus famously quoted these “words” as well, 

“man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” Deut. 8:3

This is not to suggest that the “Bible” is in any way insufficient or lacking in its revelation of God. But God does continue to speak to his people and direct them, outside of a “book”. This is his word. It is better to recognize the Bible for what it is, a library and collection of writings by men and women commissioned (inspired) by God to act and speak in his name rather than a monolithic unit emailed from heaven. When the Bible becomes an object of worship, serious questions must be asked about the worldview that created it as such. God has given his words. But there are also the others words of others about him, providing the necessary context as to why his words have validity, thus showing them to truly be his authoritative “words”.

_____________________________
End Notes:
[1] In the ANE (Ancient Near East) cultures, oral communication and transmission was the norm. It wasn’t until later times that developments brought civilization to the textual dominance with which the world is accustomed to today. “Writing was associated primarily with preservation (archives and libraies) and only secondarily with dissemination (written copy so that others could read it aloud; see 2 Chron 17:9).” John Walton, The Lost World of Scripture (IVP Academic, 2013), 28.
[2] Tanakh is an acronym. In Hebrew vowels are not written. It takes the T from Torah, which is the first five books, the N from Nevi'im, which is the books of the prophets, the K from Ketuvim, which is all the writings such as Ezra Nehemiah, Chronicles, Poetic books such as the Psalms and Proverbs, adds a couple vowel sounds to make TaNaKh. Using the phrase “Old Testament” is very offensive to the Hebrew people, because in doing so, we are stating whether we know it or not, that the New Testament is the new and improved version and they have the old one.
[3] Cf. Mt. 21:42; 22:29; 26:54, 56; Mk. 12:10, 24; 14:49; 15:28; Lk. 4:21; 24:27, 32, 45; John 2:22; 5:39; 7:38, 42; 10:35; 13:18; 17:12; 19:24, 28, 36, 37; 20:9; Act 1:16; 8:32, 35; 17:2, 11; 18:24, 28; Rom. 1:2; 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4; 16:26; Gal. 3:8, 22; 4:30; 1 Co. 15:3, 4; 1 Ti. 4:13; 5:18; 2 Ti. 3:16; Jam. 2:8, 23; 4:5; 1 Pe. 2:6; 3:16; 2 Pe. 1:20.
[4] Not all were in agreement. The ruling, priestly Sadducees did not accept the progressive revelation of God through the prophets as authoritative and therefore rejected them, accepting only the Torah. The Pharisees however, were fully acceptant of not only the writings that make up our Old Testament, but also other writings (apocryphal, pseudepigraphal).
[5] The instruction given the people of Israel was that a single accusation was insufficient; it needed to be verified by a second. Deut. 19:15 In 1 Samuel 2:27-36 an unknown “man of God” delivers a message that was almost identical to what the young Samuel relayed to Eli “from the Lord”. This (among other things) was confirmation that Samuel was “established” as a prophet, a voice for the God of Israel.
[6] Cf. Job 22:22
[7] Cf. Matt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4

No comments: