For the past two weeks, I’ve been giving thought to some of the less savory images of God in the Bible. It started with NT Wright speaking on Paul’s letter to Philemon about a runaway slave. Numerous passages in the New Testament seem to support the idea of slavery and frequently compare God to a slave owner. Indeed, when I did a search of the NRSV, I found even more than I expected. [Supporting the existence and obedience of slaves: Mt 8:9; Lk 7; I Cor 7; Eph 6:5; Col 4:1; 1 Tim 6:1; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18 – Speaking of God as a slave holder or Christians as God’s slaves: Mt 6:24, 13, 18, 21, 22, 24, 25; Mk 12, 13; Lk 12, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20; Acts 16; Rom 6; Eph 6.] God is also repeatedly referred to as a military general. I was reminded of this this morning when the preacher referred to Dominus Deus Sabaoth, the Lord God of Hosts. Most Christians will be familiar with the Sanctus or “Holy, Holy, Holy” frequently sung in church. In English, it is often translated “Lord God Almighty” but it comes from the Hebrew (Isaiah 6:3), which invokes God’s proper name and gives God the title of tzebhaoth, commander of armies. It is a very common title for God in the Old Testament.
What are we to make of these images of God as king, master, and commander? I think it is clear to most Christians in the 21st century that they have been used by kings, masters, and commanders to justify and reinforce the power they had over others. They can and have been used as tools of oppression. For that reason alone, I think we need to be especially careful. Further, they deal with huge imbalances of power, so I want to begin with a caveat – this is dangerous ground. I do not think God ever asks of us to seize power over one another or to fail to respect the dignity or value of any human being. I think slavery, with the idea that a neighbor might be property, is anathema to the commandment to love one another. I think tyranny, particularly military dictatorship is not only inefficient but oppressive. It fails to recognize the image of God in every person and requires the leaders to value themselves over others. Finally, I believe in turning the other cheek. As a Christian passivist, I see no place for armies of the faithful, religious wars, or crusades.
With that said, I’d like to take a stab at what these passages can and should say to us in our context. I fear that in our current egalitarian, individualist context we can miss one of the most ubiquitous messages of the Bible, something wrapped up in these very passages.
Again and again, the Bible comments on the relationship between the poor and the wealthy, the sick and the healthy, the weak and the strong. The image of God as the ultimate power broker sends a message to the powerful and to the powerless. If God owns the slaveholder as the slaveholder owns other people, this should be a reason for caution. God will treat the master as the master treats their slaves. If God owns the slaveholder, then the slave has an advocate as far above the master as the master is above the slave. It should be a source of dread for every master and a source of comfort for every slave. As uncomfortable as we are with the concept in the US, there are still many humans bought and sold around the world. I don’t think that fear of God the master can ever go away so long as some remain in slavery. It is not that God punishes, but that we – by taking advantage of, or simply ignoring, those in bondage – fix a chasm between us and them. And we may find God has chosen to be with them.
In a similar way, I think we need to consider the relationship between God and military might. We are privileged in the US to have very strong constraints placed upon the police and military. They do not assault citizens and are only beginning to be serious about spying on us. In other places and other times, the threat of violence truly is ubiquitous. I remember clearly traveling to Israel in 2000 and feeling surrounded by automatic weapons. The image of God as commander of armies (and king of kings) reminds us that as strong as any dictator may be, God is even stronger. As helpless as you feel in the face of violence – be they school shootings, or terrorist attacks, or declared wars – know that you have an advocate in God, who holds all power and might. This is the threat and promise of omnipotence and the hosts of heaven – not that they are on the side of the righteous, but that are so far above generals and soldiers and civilians, that the difference in power between aggressor and victim is as nothing to them. More than this, the power of heaven is such that setting yourself at odds against your neighbor is setting yourself at odds with God – and none can win that confrontation. [Even God wins by avoiding aggression.]
In the modern world we are uncomfortable with power differences and tend to ignore them if at all possible. All men are created equal, are they not? With respect to dignity, yes. With respect to power, wealth, and influence, never. In an age filled with rhetoric of self-made riches and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, we need this reminder that some of us really are on top of the heap and some of us really are on the bottom. We cannot – we must not – use our relative weakness as an excuse to be mean. We cannot use God’s power as an excuse to abuse our own. We can, however, strive to be aware of every shred of power we possess and work to use it in such a way as to build bridges, so that when we find ourselves on the wrong side of a chasm, we can cross over.
Think of Barack Obama, the Commander in Chief of the most powerful army the world has ever known. As great as the difference in firepower between you and him, even greater is the difference between him and God. Think of Bill and Melinda Gates, valued at 67 billion dollars. As much richer as they are than you, God is richer than them. And yes, think of Desmond Tutu or Mother Theresa or Pope Frances. As much more righteous as they are then you, as much holier, so God is more righteous than them. If it’s a competition, you’ve already lost, no matter who you are. Envy and pride simply have no place in this economy, no matter how you measure it.
The downside of our egalitarian philosophy is that it, strangely, encourages us to compete with one another because we think we can. Sometimes you just can’t compete. Gloriously, faith is one of those times. For the entire kingdom, all the power, and all the glory are God’s, now and forever.