Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The hope of God's sovereignty

One excellent book I've read during my time thus far at seminary, one which has proven to be particularly influential and insightful for understanding the bible, is Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Levenson helped me to understand that in the Old Testament, there is a dialectic about God's sovereignty: on the one hand, there is an unequivocal affirmation of God's rule over the universe, his ability to accomplish his will infallibly, the belief that he has done at various points in the past (e.g., the creation, the exodus); on the other hand, there is the equally unequivocal affirmation that there are realities of the present moment to which God is adamantly opposed, and yet about which he is apparently doing nothing. In other words, there is both an affirmation and a denial of God's sovereignty.

Consider what Habakkuk says:

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? (1.13)

On the one hand, there is an affirmation of God's absolute holiness and moral uprightness: he cannot tolerate the presence of the evil, even for an instant. But then there is a problem: God is all-knowing, he looks upon the earth and sees all that there is, and yet he doesn't instantly destroy the wicked. Thus he cannot look upon evil, and yet he looks upon the treacherous and does nothing! Here critical elements of Jewish theology are in conflict with aspects of their experience in the world.

Likewise: You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler (v. 14).

This is a fine denial of God's sovereignty over the universe if ever there were one. Habakkuk affirms that God has made the peoples of the earth as animals and insects without a ruler; and of course, if they are without a ruler, then not even God is their ruler. In other words, Habakkuk is complaining that Yhwh lacks mastery over the world: his will as king of the universe he created is not being accomplished, not being obeyed by his constituents.

Levenson notes that eschatology is motivated by the desire for a resolution of this tension. God created the world in sovereignty, and exercised his sovereignty on not a few occasions in the past. Therefore when we see things falling apart and chaos ruling in the world around us, as good Jews we call upon Yhwh to exercise mastery once more. But the hope is that there will be a time when this tension, this problem no longer arises. We hope for a time when God's will is going to be accomplished everywhere, voluntarily obeyed by free creatures over whom he does not have complete control. Until that moment -- so long as one wayward person refuses to obey Yhwh -- God is not yet God, he is not yet the master of the universe, he is not yet fulfilling his role as king of his creation.