A BRIEF HISTORY OF GOD - What God Communicated in the Early Days
This page contains some of the detailed discussions of the things God has communicated to humankind since we started. I have tried to include here those things that are valid over all time and cultures. Different things were communicated in different epochs of human history, but even the earliest lessons are still valid today. This page discusses those things that God communicated to us during the early history of humanity, up to around 2000 BC.
The other times are: the time of the patriachs, the formation of the Hebrew people, the time of settled Hebrew society, the time of the prophets, the life of the Messiah, the time since Messiah returned, to the present day.
You can read this through, since often one taught point leads on to another than qualifies it. But for an overview, see the list of what God has taught and for the context in which he taught each thing, see the beginnings and the history. Click here for home page.
This section is what God communicated to humankind before the time of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc.)
"In the beginning God created ..." is the blunt statement with which the Bible starts. It is probably the only thing we learn that is not via human experience; none of us were around at the time, so we just have to be told it.
Most of us in the West are so used to the idea of God as creator now that we little realise how revolutionary that idea is. Nor do we appreciate the richness and wonder of what it means, we have such a narrow view of what God created.
"In the beginning God created heaven and earth" - and all that we experience in theme.
Almost every other belief of where everything came from that is not inspired by this revelation takes one of two views, that Roy Clouser calls pagan and eastern. The pagan view is that a (small) part of what we experience around us is 'divine', and all else depends on that. The eastern view is that all around us is just a tiny part of a much larger 'divine'. But to say that God, the 'divine', created what we experience around us is something completely different.
What is behind everything is more than just an argument about ancient pre-history; it underlies how we view things today, and where we attribute meaning. And that, in turn, dictates how we treat things around us, and how we make sense of all we experience. We are not usually aware of the deep impact it has on us; it is much to do with world views,
Weltanschauung - those 'spectacles of the mind' through which we mentally see everything. When wearing (real) spectacles we become so used to them that we do not realise how they distort what reaches our eyes. So our world view distorts what reaches our mind, but in a much more subtle and devastating way.
To see why the idea of Creation is so revolutionary, we need to understand a bit about the pagan view.
By 'pagan' here I do not mean 'heathen' or a worshipper of earth spirits. Nor do I imply any negative connotations. Rather, I take the meaning that Roy Clouser gave to it: the belief that part of Created Reality is Divine and self-dependent. We in the West are rooted in this kind of pagan view, and we tend to elevate that part of Reality that we consider self-dependent. For 'pagan' we might, with a reasonable approximation, substitute the word 'reductionist'. Here are some examples:
- Materialist pagans (reductionists) think that physics and its atomic and sub-atomic particles explains everything, including life, brain, mind, consciousness and even ethics. All these things are not really real; they are just 'emergent properties' of the complexity of lots of atoms doing their thing.
- Mathematical pagans hold that even physics is merely an emergent property of lots of mathematics doing its thing.
- Biological pagans explain everything in terms of evolution and DNA.
- Rationalistic pagans explain everything in terms of reason.
- Linguistic pagans explain everything in terms of 'language games'.
- Sociological pagans explain everything in terms of 'social construction of reality'.
- And so on.
But it goes beyond attempts to explain - which is the province of the academic. Paganism manifests itself in what we consider as all-important, and for which we sacrifice most other things of life, and where we first look for answers to the problems we encounter.
A much more subtle form is spiritual or religious paganism. There are (at least) two forms - Christian and New-Age. New-Age religious paganism makes a virtue of being pagan. It sees all reality as essentially spiritual, all problems as spiritual at root, thinks that 'spiritual' activities like prayer and meditation are the most important and the answer to all problems, and, in the extreme, sacrifices everything to spirituality. Christian religious paganism is similar, but uses different concepts and language. It sees all problems as religious at root - "The problem is that the nation has turned its back on God." It thinks that religious activities like prayer and fasting, worshipping, attendance at mass, and "not neglecting the assembling of yourselves together", and exercising 'spiritual gifts' are the most important things a human being can do and are the answer to all our real problems. In many cases, other things of life are sacrificed for this; many are the families that have been destroyed by unthinking elevation of religious activity.
- The economic pagan looks only to the bottom line, and sacrifices family and friends for his business. All problems are economic in nature, and s/he solves problems by greater efficiency and by marketing.
- The emotional pagan goes by his or her feelings, and rejects logic. Logic and rationality is at the root of all problems, and therefore is to be fled.
- The rationalist pagan rejects all feelings, and demands 'reason' of all s/he deals with. What s/he labels 'superstition' is the root of all evil, and must be completely removed.
- The legal pagan sees all relationships in juridical terms, and is always in contact with their compensation lawyer to claim redress.
These two are akin. But they are the most subtle form of paganism - because there is some truth in theme. Our relationship with God is indeed the most important, as well shall see. But, under God, there are many other relationships that are important too and not to be seen as just emanations of our relationship with God.
==== bring in dualism
So, you see, we are all pagans to some extent, in that we see some aspect of what we do, experience or find around us as the most important. The idea that God created everything breaks through all this. It tells us first that what is around us is really real, and should be respected for that. It should not be relegated to something of lesser importance than, for example, serving God or relating to God or worshipping God. But nor should (any part of) it be elevated to be worshipped as divine or self-dependent. We experience a great diversity and yet coherence in what is around us, in God's Creation. No part of that diversity should be elevated above any other part (a common elevation is economics!). All should work together in harmony. The coherence amid all the diversity is perhaps part of what was meant when God pronounced his Creation 'Good'.
==== # helps us avoid dualism
Right from the start of the Genesis account (ch 1 v 1) we find God spoken of in terms most naturally used of a person. As the account progresses, the qualities of personhood become clearer and clearer. He acts, sees, reacts, is pleased, makes value judgements, gives commands, rests, communicates, and so on. And this continues right through the Scriptures, leaving us with no alternative than to see God as a person. God is a person, rather than merely a force, a sprite, a truth, an authority, an impersonal everythingness.
That God is a person is so obvious to those of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition that I had long forgotten to include it here. But to many religious traditions it is not at all obvious. To Star Wars, God is "The Force". To Hindus, God is impersonal everythingness, the ocean of which we are drops. To rationalists and many Western academics, God is a theological truth. To Aristotle, God was authority. To some pagan cultures, God is one of many sprites or spirits. So it is not obvious, and God has had to reveal himself as person. He might be other things as well, but he is person.
If we look at the Creation account in Genesis 1, we see some very interesting things. At each stage of his Creation God pronounced the whole 'Good', but after the last stage he pronounced everything 'Very Good', because it was all finished. That last stage was the creation of humankind, and we were created to bear the image of God and to live and work on his behalf. Being in God's image means that we are somehow like God in a way that the rest of Creation is not, but, as Paul Marshall tells us, this bearing of God's image is tied up with the purpose for which we were made: to steward the rest of Creation, and especially the animal kingdom, for God.
To discern what this means with precision we can examine Biblical texts in detail, and especially the meaning of the rarely used Hebrew word
radah, but that goes against the principles we are espousing here of taking the broad view. The interested reader can find a discussion of this in an essay on creation. But, if we are patient, we can eschew such detailed analysis and gain the broader picture, by looking at what God blesses and what he does not. That is, we just have to learn all the lessons outlined here - and also those that have been left out.
It seems that Christendom has propounded a rather distorted view of what this image and stewardship means, such that one early environmentalist, Lynn White, held that this idea was responsible for all the environmental damage. The distorted view that Christendom has put across goes something like this. Image of God: We human beings (especially our souls) are what is important; nothing else is. Creation is a mere backdrop for human activity, and provides resources for us. Dominion (the word used to translate
radah in the King James Bible): We are commanded to suppress Creation and tread it underfoot. We have a divine right to consume it to meet our ends, regardless of the results.
But the Biblical view is different. The type of
radah that God endorses is when we manage something, not for our own sake and benefit, but for the sake and benefit of the thing we manage. Much later, in the time of the prophets, God likens
radah to shepherding, and explicitly condemned the type of
radah we have practised. We can see our role as being 'shepherds' of the Creation.
One important consequence of being in God's image and being God's stewards or shepherds of the Creation, is that God relates to us. We find this in the early account, when God 'comes down' to meet and talk with the first humans. And this has continued ever since, even though humanity turned away from God. Not only does God relate to humankind, but, as became clear later, he relates to individuals, so we can get to know him personally. God related individually with Noah, Abram, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Francis of Assisi, to name but a few. In fact, millions alive today find God relating individually to them, in one way or another. As Billy Graham is reputed to have said, when informed that "God is Dead" (a controversy of the 1950s, 1960s), "God dead? Well, I was speaking with him this morning."
- Never forget the dignity of human beings - especially other human beings. (A lot else flows from this - see all the other relevances.)
- Do not overplay the differences between men and woman: God made them both in his image, not just men.
But this relationship became broken as humanity turned away from God, and we could no longer understand it aright. Its full restoration must wait many thousands of years, until the coming and returning of the Messiah. Only then could its true nature became clear. Before this happened, we had to learn many other things first, perhaps as a prelude to learning about relating individually to God again.
The third chapter of Genesis tells us that the first human beings turned away from God by eating of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The name given to this event is The Fall. And it seems that the Bible relates all our real problems back to this one event. There has been much controversy over this text, and I don't wish to rehearse it here. Some say that the Fall means that all human beings are now in a state of enmity towards God. Others say that we are born right with God but that each of us falls away. Some, a few, maintain there is no real problem at all.
- At a basic level, it means that human beings (at least) can expect to have some connection with God - some knowledge of him, communication with him, and to experience his involvement.
- Don't rule God out. He might yet act in your life.
- Many theologians and rationalists today in the West talk only in terms of a concept of God rather than of God himself. Don't. Think in terms of God himself being an actor in the situation.
- (But don't go to the other extreme and presume we can totally understand, predict or circumscribe God's acting.)
If we take the broad view, then whatever theology we bring to bear on the matter, it is plain that humankind as a whole, and each person individually, is separated from God by what the Bible calls 'sin'. Sin is not just the individual acts of wrong (sins), but something deep-rooted in us that makes us do those acts. It seems to be a proud depending on ourselves rather than on God, and a tendency to place ourselves at the centre of things, rather than place God there. Being in the image of God, we have the ability to do this; we are not robots. But it leads to all kinds of problems.
Many think that the reference to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil means that God wanted to keep us in ignorance. (Some carelessly omit 'of Good and Evil' to come to this wrong view.) For years I wondered whether this could be true, fearing lest a state of ignorance is in fact better than knowledge. But someone - I cannot remember who, or I would credit them here - linked Knowledge of Good and Evil with self-dependence: on whom do we depend, ultimately, to tell us what is good and what, evil, what is to be sought and what, avoided? Do we depend on God, or do we choose to depend on human agencies, such as fiat, power, education, scientific research, experience, or whatever? If we do the latter, we'll be bound to get it wrong, owing to the diverse relationships in the Creation that we can never fully understand. Even if we intend good, there are likely to be evil repercussions that outweigh the little good we achieve. We can see something of the nature of this turning away; that is discussed in The Fall. It becomes much clearer later.
This has enormous relevance for our secular life as well as our relationship with God. This is especially true, now that human beings are so numerous that we are affecting the planet, and the effect of our activity is magnified by the technology we employ. For the first time in the planet's history, we are distorting the very planet: hole in ozone layer, global warming, desertification, and the like. Much of this has come about by the greed and affluence and ignorance in the North or West. But even when we have claimed that we are doing good, the results have been disastrous. The so-called green revolution' in farming in India has decimated biodiversity and the number of strains of rice available. Even in Western technology we have failed. As has been discovered, 90% of information systems fail to meet all their objectives; the reader is referred to Thomas Landauer's excellent book The Trouble With Computers for an excellent portrayal of this problem. For a shorter, lighter read, see my imaginary discussion between God and information technology professionals.
- Beware religious ideas and systems that proclaim that humankind is basically OK as it is ("All we need is a bit of education").
- Don't assume that, if only we get the chance, then we will seek for and find God.
- It also means that it is more healthy for us to admit our tendency to turn away, so that we might be healed.
So, in this early chapter we are introduced to the idea of the Fall that breaks the relationship we have with God. But, the full extent of this Fall and its importance are not immediately apparent. Thousands of years of experience must teach us this. For a taster, see Our apostate tendency: the long experience of a specially chosen people demonstrates conclusively that humankind has an innate tendency to turn away from God.
The problems we cause pervade everything, but we often feel we can live with them. Perhaps we can sometimes and in some cultures, but at other times and in other cultures the problems are not so innocuous. Left unchecked, great evil can arise, with gross injustice and much suffering, in which those with power become cruel, arrogant, unconcerned for those without, and eventually this leads to gross indecencies as a sign that all has gone rotten.
What is the answer when this happens? To wipe everyone out and start again? God showed us publicly that this does not work in the long term, because he did just this with the flood and Noah. Furthermore, God hangs on while there's a chance that some will be saved - because God is like that. We come to God's solution much later, but in the intervening millennia God interacts with us to demonstrate that various other solutions that we might think of will not work - such as choosing a special people, such as education, such as reward and punishment, and so on. Eventually, when the time was right, God revealed his own solution: Humankind needs a Saviour, and he himself would be that Saviour. ==== I think that para would be better somewhere else, and in fact it partly duplicates the one referenced.
Unlike most deities and other notions of the divine, the God revealed in Scriptures wants to solve the problems we make, and in particular the main root problem. God intervenes. We can see this in his bringing a flood onto the earth, a catastrophe designed to remove all the cause of the problem at a stroke, and begin again with better material (Noah and his family). Likewise, we see that when humanity wanted to build a tower up to heaven in arrogance (we see later that arrogance leads to huge evil and harm for all), God intervened and mixed up human language. On an individual level, he intervened with Cain, warning him to draw back from the dangerous path he has turned to.
- Expect problems and hassle - and downright evil.
- But don't be cynical about it ("What can you expect of such people!").
- Scientific thought almost totally leaves our relationship with God out of the picture it constructs. But perhaps here is another possible explanation for things that go wrong, things like information technology failure, mentioned above, and such things as environmental destruction? Start to seek the deeper causes of problems in our turning away from God, not just in the things that happen. (But, before you get upset with this suggestion, let me assure you it is not a fundamentalist one! You must read on to find that out.)
That God intervenes is clear right through Scripture - with Abram, many times with the people of Israel, by sending prophets, by coming as the Messiah, and right up to this day. This is very different from the type of god whose only interest is to be worshipped or receive sacrifices, and that takes no part in human affairs.
God's intervention could be revenge. It could be karmic retribution. It could be arbitrary, like the Olympian gods or various pagan deities. But the Scripture shows that when God intervenes it is often because of his mercy and love. We see this if we look at the interventions mentioned above. With Cain, he tried to warn Cain back to the right path. With Noah, he could have simply cleaned out the whole of humanity, but he hung on while there was a chance that some would be saved. With the Tower of Babel, God could have just sent Thor-like thunderbolts down on the building and the builders, destroying them all, but instead, the action he took was to solve at least part of the problem, namely humanity's propensity to club together into a cosy group and not spread out to bless the earth.
That the Living God was merciful was clear from the earliest of days, and the message burns bright right up to today. This leads to hope.
That God intervenes in mercy brings hope. Right at the start, after humanity turned away from God, God gave hope and communicated hope. "Your seed will crush the serpent's head" was the first such message. Later, to Abraham, "Through you all nations will be blessed." Later, to Moses, "Another prophet will arise." To the later prophets, "You will be redeemed; my Messiah will come to save you." Throughout church history, "I will be with you." Hope pervades all God's communications to us (even the statements that seemed like curses contain a grain of hope).
There is always a thread of hope through the whole of the record of God's action with us. Thin and almost invisible at first, but getting thicker and stronger as more and more is revealed. The whole tenor of what we see and experience about the living God is hope. Not destruction, but hope. Not condemnation, but hope.
Hope that has never disappointed those who rely on it. Hope that is the very root and foundation, not something superficial.
Yet such a hope is not always what it seems. Sometimes it seems harsh. Sometimes there is evil - yet because the real and sure hope is that evil will eventually be removed, it cannot be merely explained away, but must be brought out into clear view, show its true nature, and then be completely removed. These processes are long, slow, painful, but sure. That is the nature of the hope laid before us, right from the beginning. And so we can view all else in the light of this hope.
Such hope as is communicated via the Bible is not merely 'hoping', not merely wishing, not merely a dream of how we would like things to be. Some months ago I listened to a church service broadcast on the radio (U.K. BBC Radio 4, 08.00hrs, 10 May 1998) the theme of which was the imminent urging to the G8 Summit to cancel debts of the world's poorest nations. Most of the service was about world poverty and misery, and how debts should be cancelled. But then, at the end was a prayer read by a child about helping us to dream God's dreams that one day things would be as they should, followed by a celebration song. But these seemed 'stuck on' - merely a dream among all this poverty and misery. The wrongness of such injustice and the promise of a future hope might both be true, but where was the middle? Where was the linkage between the two? Where was the 'mechanism' that moves us from the first to the second? The celebration at the end was merely dream, an escape that we know is not true. There was nothing to bring it about, no power greater than the problem.
But the hope spoken of in God's revelation and involvement does have a linkage, does have something to bring it about, a power that is greater than the problem. This is what we find right at the start. But its outworking is slow, complex, and it can take thousands of years to arrive. We still await the final completion.
In preparation for it, God involves himself with us, because he has to do many things among us and to teach us many things. Only then will we be ready for the fulfilment of this hope.
What God teaches is relevant to all humanity, and for all situations. But what he teaches at any one time can be different from what he teaches at another, because in most situations, some parts are more directly relevant than others. For example, to the downtrodden and fearful, God emphasizes comfort, while to the arrogant and lazy he emphasizes judgement and responsibility. But in what follows here I have tried to discern and include all the things that come through as major messages in the Bible, irrespective of situation.
I set them out in the order in which they seem to have been first introduced to humanity. But most of them have carried on and developed since then. However, their relevance to us - to you and to me, to him and to her - might be in a different order. So, at the end, I also group the main messages by type, with pointer to the main sections here.
In the early days, before God chose specific people through whom to work out his purposes, he started making himself known. He did so in a way that suited the people of the time. In the main, his messages were without finesse: brutal and direct. He 'shouted', as it were, using disasters like the Flood, so that people would take at least some notice. But in doing this, he did at least show us that the real God is not distant, unknowable, unconcerned. He is the Living God, and concerned about life on earth.
- Don't despair.
- Don't despair if God seems far away; he can see you even if you cannot, in your blindness, see him.
- Don't, as I said above, get cynical.
(From: God Shouts)
- This revelation corrects the (theist? deist?) idea of a God who just sits away up there on his throne and never bothers with us.
- Expect God not only to get involved, but to speak. That is, to communicate with humankind in a meaningful way.
- Expect God to explain and reveal - even if to others than yourself.
- Don't use "Well, it's all mystery" as a lazy way out of thinking things through. God has ways of getting through to us even if we don't have infallible ways of our own of getting through to him.
Right from the start of his communication to humankind, a message has come through: God must be taken seriously. While this might be obvious to many who are from a Christianized culture, to many others it is far from obvious.
To take God seriously means not just to assent to his greatness (and then to smirk behind his back, as it were) but to buy into his purpose for us. To take God seriously means to do what he clearly tells us to do. To take God seriously means to orientate our believing towards him and what he reveals, rather than away from him to other things.
Two of the earliest lessons in taking God seriously came from his 'shouts' at us, which were major catastrophes that he instigated and which we could not turn deaf ears to. One was the flood, and another was the dispersal of languages at the tower of Babel. In the former, he showed his power and hatred of evil and injustice and cruelty. In the latter he showed we must take seriously his original purpose for us of spreading throughout the entire world. (The people had tried to collect together in defiance of his express original command of Genesis 1.)
This communication from God might seem obvious to us, but we don't learn it very easily. In fact, as Scripture records, it took God's special people about 1500 years and the disaster of utter destruction of their nationhood, to learn this. So what hope have the rest of us?
Here are some ways we Christians and people in Christianized cultures don't take God seriously:
Sometimes we narrow taking God seriously down to the idea of authority and obedience. Recognising God's authority and obeying him is an important part of taking God seriously; how can we take him seriously as God if we do not obey him! It seems that the early people had learned this. Abram seemed to be voicing accepted notions when he challenged God as "Judge of all the Earth".
- "I'll think about God when I'm older."
- "Isn't it enough to try my best?"
- Treating worship as boring, a waste of time.
- Treating worship as entertainment, a good time - and ignoring his demand that we act justly.
- Treating worship as the main thing God wants from us - and ignoring his demand that we act justly towards all.
- Shutting God up in church on Sundays; ignoring his relevance to the rest of the week.
- Taking our favourite parts of the Bible seriously, and overlooking others.
Pagan thinkers have accepted this. The most developed idea of God's authority is that of Aristotle, and called Monarchianism. God, he suggested, was the top of an hierarchy of authority which had, under God, the various powerful heavenly beings, then men, then women, then animals, etc. Human beings can discover God's authority just by looking at Creation. As was later written (Romans 1:20):
"Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made."
But authority is not the only importance facet of God; indeed, it might not be the most important. But it seems that some of these other facets are not what we would expect (e.g. that God is humble and love). So God had to reveal them to us himself, and this was part of his long process of revelation.
Unfortunately, much of our (Christians') idea of God's authority comes not from Scripture but from Aristotle, with disastrous consequences since the Middle Ages in Europe.
Nevertheless, ultimate authority does rest in God. He had, and has, the authority to destroy the world. He did so in the time of Noah when he saw that humankind had become so desperately wicked that (most of) it should be wiped out.
The pagan view of authority - and especially that which led to Nazism - would allow God to play tricks on us, just as cat plays with a mouse, or we ourselves play tricks on the cat. We would be always in fear lest God would show us good things and then, just as we reach out for them, whisk them away from us, leaving us helpless and without provision.
- Obey God.
- Don't elevate your own ideas and systems of morals too high; God's systems have priority over yours.
- "One with God is a majority."
- It's dangerous to rail against God's authority (though, as we see later, he does welcome genuine questioning).
But, right from the early days, God showed he is not like that. He is 'Jehovah Jireh' - 'The Lord with Provide'. God made a promise to all human beings and also all animals: never again would God destroy the world by a flood, and seasons would continue to the end of time: "Seedtime and harvest will never fail". God wants his creatures provided for.
This is part of the A Brief History of God website.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2000.
Comments and queries are very welcome.
Number of visitors to these pages since Feb 2000 is .
2 July 2000 tgs. 16 July 2000 corrected links. 5 November 2000 link to pers.rel. 12-13 November 2000 started adding 'Relevance to Us'. 10 December 2000 new contacts pointer. 12 February 2001 why flood is not a solution. 7 April 2001 corrected contact. 1 August 2002 belatedly added 'God is Person'. 3 August 2002 two more sections: God intervenes, and God intervenes with mercy. 25 July 2010 mended link to creation.html.