God is a verb

Ola Wikander, the author of ” Gud är ett verb”.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all developed after the Old Testament was written, but the first half of the Bible is nonetheless the foundation for these three religions. Who wrote these texts, and how have they influenced our history and the current age?

The collection of texts that we call the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament form the background to three world religions – Judaism, Christianity and (indirectly) Islam, and various other religious traditions are inspired by the ideas. Few other collections of texts have had such a strong influence on the history of ideas. However, it is important to be aware that they started out as something quite different from the ‘book’ that they are often regarded as today.

The texts that make up the Old Testament were written over a long period – probably close to a millennium. This means that the pages of the Old Testament are not one text or a single collection of ideas, but rather a medley of different ideas and views covering philosophy, history, theology and narrative. It is like gathering texts from Västgötalagen (the oldest Swedish text, written in the 13th century) to today, putting them into a book and calling it ‘the Swedish collection’.

It is also important to remember that the Old Testament was written by people who lived long before our modern religions took their present shape. They were written by people trying to understand the time they lived in and make it meaningful, often in very concrete situations – not least political ones. Their ‘contribution to the contemporary debate’ can often be given very different meanings from when they were first written when they are reinterpreted by later generations. This is also a large part of the fascination that can be felt in studying texts that have gained such religious importance from a scholarly and historical perspective: it demonstrates in a very telling manner how religious practice and theological reflection continually transform and reinterpret texts in new contexts.

One thing that must be remembered when reading the Old Testament is that many of these texts represent what can be termed “literature of defeat”. By this I mean that many of the texts were written or compiled in situations in which the people of Israel – in many ways the central figures of the Old Testament – had been oppressed and were trying to understand how such an adverse fate had befallen them.

In 587 BC Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Babylonian armies, and large parts of the Old Testament texts are dedicated to trying to make sense of this catastrophe, this major historical trauma, in different ways. They use various ways to attempt to answer the question: if our people are protected by Yahweh, the God of Israel, how could he allow our holy city to be destroyed? A solution that many of the authors of the historical books choose is to ‘review’ the old Israeli rulers: “did they really follow the theological ideals that we (sometimes retroactively) establish, did they obey only Yahweh, did they worship Him only in Jerusalem and nowhere else?” Often they discover that the kings did not live up to these ideals, and so this is the explanation for the catastrophe – it was a punishment from Yahweh. This does not show that Yahweh is weak, rather the opposite: He and no one else is the Lord of history.

It is often easy to think that Biblical texts always represent ‘power’ in some abstract sense, but in fact large parts of the Old Testament are exactly the opposite: they represent the striving of an oppressed people to make sense of a painful historical situation.

Yahweh is a difficult name to pronounce, and you also find it difficult to interpret. You maintain that God is a verb. How did you reach this conclusion and what does it mean for our relationship to God?

The name of the God of Israel is Yahweh. The name was actually written without vowels, as was all classical Hebrew originally, i.e. YHWH. During Antiquity, this name became too holy to be spoken, so it was replaced in speech with other words that meant “the Lord” and suchlike, but for various reasons modern research usually agrees that Yahweh is quite close to the original pronunciation. This word could be the origin of a form of a Hebrew verb that means “He is”. This is how Exodus 3:14 is interpreted, when Yahweh calls Himself by the name “I Am”, which is clearly intended as an interpretation of the meaning of the name. I have called my book about the history of ideas in the Old Testament “God is a verb” (Gud är ett verb), which expresses both of the aspects we have seen here: that the God of the Old Testament is presented as a God of action who works in history, and that His name could even be a verb – meaning “He is”.

Text: Ola Wikander and Bodil Malmström

Published: 2014

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