Friday, March 02, 2007

The "God in a Box" Fallacy

As a follow-up to yesterday, highlighting the utter fallacy of humanity to even think we can contain God, consider the insights of John Alan Turner:

The people of 1 Samuel 4 thought they had God in a box. They had, after all, the Ark of the Covenant — a visible reminder of God’s abiding presence with his people. As long as they could see the Ark, they knew that God was there with them.

They figured that if they took the Ark into battle with them, God would have to fight for them. God would defeat their enemies. God would deliver them.

He just had to.

But he didn’t. And the unthinkable happened. Not only was the army of Israel humiliated, they had to retreat in disgrace, they suffered heavy casualties, the two sons of Israel’s elder statesman (Eli) were killed and — this is the worst of all — the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines.

Imagine the shock and horror of this. A rough, uncouth, callous, pagan people have our God in a box. It’s one thing for us to try and cage him up — after all, we’re going to use him for noble purposes. But for them to have him…that’s unthinkable. It’s like nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.

Only worse.

The Philistines had knowledge of the sea and weapons of iron. Now they’ve taken our God away, parading him through the streets, hurling insults at him, mocking him. “He said he could save his people; he can’t even same himself!”

Word gets back to the people of Israel, and panic erupts. Eli falls over dead. Eli’s daughter-in-law, now a widow, goes into premature labor. As the midwife is trying to encourage her and assist in the birth of her baby, she says, “Don’t be afraid! You’re giving birth to a son! There’s hope in the midst of all this despair!”

The new mother, with her dying breath, musters the strength to utter a curse: “Name the boy Ichabod, because the glory is gone.”

The Ark’s presence meant the presence of God. It meant the presence of chabod — everything weighty, everything majestic, everything glorious, the promise of justice in an otherwise cruel world. It meant hope.

But with the Ark captured, there is none of that. No majesty, no glory, no justice, no hope. Name the boy Ichabod so that no one will pretend life is better than it is. Let us put away childish stories about a God who makes great promises and fails to come through on them.

Here’s how Walter Brueggemann describes the event:

"One can picture the ark with its invisible occupant, perhaps in a caged wagon, the God of the Exodus looking wearily between the bars as the procession moves toward Ashdod; or not on a wagon, but staggering in despair in the long, humiliating walk to Dagon’s shrine [the god of the Philistines]. The daughter-in-law dies; her death in bodily ways matches the fate of Israel and the condition of Israel’s God…humiliated, shamed, powerless, void of conventional claims, absent of the marks of splendor to which Israel had become accustomed in its God."

It’s a wonder this story is even in the Bible. It makes you wonder what kind of God would allow this to happen. What kind of God allows himself to be captured by the enemies of his people and paraded through the streets in humiliation, leaving his people confused and afraid?

Perhaps it is the same God who willingly put himself in a box of flesh, lived among us for 30-plus years, was captured by a different pagan people, paraded through their streets, mocked and humiliated and strung up like a common criminal.

Perhaps it is that same God who, suspended between heaven and earth, cried out, “Father, why? Where are you? Why is my name Ichabod?”

Perhaps it is the same God who says, “I would rather they do this to me than to my people.”

But be careful. Remember that they took his body down from that cross on Friday evening and put him in a box, even going so far as to post a guard to make sure there would be no funny business.

But this God, we keep forgetting, refuses to stay in his box. He refuses to do as he’s told. He is wildly unpredictable, and that’s frustrating for us. But that’s the only kind of God I would ever want — a God who refuses to be reduced to something and demands to be dealt with as someone.